FIRST THOUGHT : CONVERSATIONS WITH ALLEN GINSBERG
Edited by Michael Schumacher
Reviewed by Jim Burns
I’m not sure how many interviews Allen Ginsberg gave over the years. Some of them probably never made it into print, or may have appeared in ephemeral publications that no-one now remembers. Michael Schumacher says that: “Ginsberg considered interviews to be a vital part of his work, as one might surmise from the titles of two previously published anthologies of interviews: Composed on the Tongue, a relatively slender collection edited by Don Allen and issued by Grey Fox Press in 1980, and Spontaneous Mind, a hefty volume edited by David Carter and published by HarperCollins three years after Ginsberg’s death in 1997”.
That Ginsberg was a good interviewee, both happily responsive to
questions and informative, I can testify to myself. I interviewed
him for Beat Scene
magazine in 1990 when he was in
Michael Schumacher’s selection of interviews uses material that wasn’t in either of the collections referred to earlier. And the first one in his book is particularly interesting. The journalist, Al Aranowitz, had written a series of articles about Beat Generation writers for The New York Post, and expanded one of them into the longer “Portrait of a Beat” that was published in 1960 in Nugget, one of the slick “men’s magazines” then cashing in on the interest in the Beats. Aranowitz, to give him his due, was generally sympathetic towards what Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, and others, were doing, and generally managed to balance journalistic needs to appeal to a broad readership with some intelligent comments about Beat aims and achievements in their writings.
It’s a personal reminiscence that, in order to find copies of
Nugget and other similar
magazines (Swank, for
example, which around 1960 published several sections of
Beat-related writing), I had to prowl around various sleazy,
back-street bookshops which stocked them. Respectable shops didn’t
sell publications like those in early-1960s
It was in his conversation with Aranowitz that Ginsberg claimed that the Beats were “prophets howling in the wilderness against a crazy civilisation”. It was a typical Ginsberg statement, and very much in line with his need to propagate a cause and indulge in generous promotions of his fellow writers, such as Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs, and Gregory Corso. And it makes one realise that, had it not been for Ginsberg, there may well never have been a Beat Generation, or at least not in a way that, for a time at least, attracted a great deal of attention from journalists, intellectuals, and some parts of the general public. He was the man who, in a sense, sold the idea to other people. Had it not been for him some writers may never have been published, and those that were may have been just passing fancies on the bohemian fringes of the literary scene.
Ginsberg combined the enthusiasms of an old-style radical organiser
with those of a talented and skilled poet. He would never have got
away with being simply a publicist for the others had he not created
some striking poetry himself. Long Poems such as “Howl”, “Kaddish”,
and relatively shorter ones like “
Music was something that Ginsberg liked to evoke as influential on his work, and in the interview that is headed, “Words, and Music, Music, Music”, he talks about the various forms of music that he heard and found interesting. I have to admit to a personal prejudice in favour of his comments on the jazz of the 1940s, and his introduction to bebop through Jack Kerouac and Seymour Wyse. Ginsberg often said that he was influenced by tenor-saxophonist Lester Young’s playing, and in the interview he also mentions another tenorman, Illinois Jacquet, and claims him as an additional influence.
I’m always intrigued by Ginsberg’s capacity to name people – musicians, writers, philosophers, etc. – as influences, almost at the drop of a hat, and I can’t help wondering whether or not there wasn’t an element of myth-making in what he was doing, and that he was, in a sense, laying the ground for future scholars to carry out research into those he named. And their possible presence in his poems. And, in this case, to pursue the supposed connection between words and music.
As Ginsberg moved on he involved himself more and more with pop music, associating with Bob Dylan, the Beatles, and others. I’ve always been curious about the motives for his activities in that line. Did he genuinely believe that it was a way to draw attention to poetry (not necessarily just his own), and take it to a younger audience, or was there a degree of opportunism in the way he seemed to enjoy mixing with celebrities? I’m probably risking incurring the wrath of those to whom Ginsberg was something of a guru by asking such a question, but if I dare suggest that his poetry mostly declined in quality after his productive days in the 1950s and early 1960s, it may be that he needed to find ways to stay in the limelight.
That Ginsberg liked to ramble around matters that he was concerned
about, such as censorship, legalisation of drugs, sexual repression,
anti-Vietnam protests, etc., is obvious from this assembly of
interviews. And the usefulness of the material may depend very much
on what a reader’s interests happen to be. From my own point of
view, it’s handy to read him reminiscing about
I find that valuable, more so than Ginsberg pontificating about drugs, and it helps towards an understanding of what was taking place on the West Coast in the 1950s. But I suppose it will be argued that Ginsberg wasn’t just a poet, he was a poet with a wider social and political purpose, hence his need to give numerous interviews and have opinions on just about everything.
To be fair, there is much of interest to be found in the interviews.
He talks about his experiences when he was expelled from both
There was something about Allen Ginsberg which, whatever one thought of his poetry, was quite appealing. He seemed generous in his appraisals of other poets’ work, and he had the gift of loyalty to his old friends of the Beat Generation. When asked about the “philosophies” of the Beat, he replied: “We didn’t have what you could call a philosophy. I would say that there was an ethos, that there were ideas, and there were themes, and there were preoccupations”. It was a good way of summing up what the Beats were about.
First Thought is a fascinating book in many ways. As I said earlier, what Ginsberg talks about may be of interest according to one’s inclinations towards various subjects. I certainly got a great deal out of it.