Ginsberg on Kerouac:
An Interview with Allen Ginsberg

by Eric Baizer, Reywas Divad, and Richard Peabody

Allen Ginsberg was born on June 3, 1926, in Paterson, New Jersey and attended Columbia University. His long poem "Howl" was published in 1956, and seized by U.S. customs making him an overnight success. He is one of America's most famous living poets and has spent the past decade examining U.S. government aggression and laws on obscenity, drugs and sexual behavior. His most recent book is Mind Breaths (City Lights, 1978).


Interviewers: When going over the media of the time it appears to me that Jack Kerouac was one of the most slandered and libeled writers of recent times.

Ginsberg: It's very interesting that you say that, I read an essay on that last night. There are two large books on Kerouac coming out, a biography by Dennis McNally of Random House, a considerable biography; and a big book, from St. Martin's Press in New York. archived (by Barry Gifford) documents and interviews with everybody who knew Kerouac. The thing that the McNally biography is great at is accounting and itemization of all the reviews that Kerouac got for all the different books, and it's one of the most vicious things I've ever seen what they did to him.

Interviewers: It really was.

Ginsberg: And some of it, incidentally, by CIA-funded literary magazines like Encounter, by the way. Not that the CIA had a plug in Kerouac. They had that kind of mentality that would take Kerouac's open wit, Whitmanic beauty and honesty of person and find that creepy and subjective and egotistical or irresponsible. It's a conservative, stupid party line.

Interviewers: Though countless people have read and like his work, it seems that to this day he is still regarded as a second class writer. The word "Literature" is rarely applied to Big Sur or Desolation Angels or Scripture of the Golden Eternity. You have consistently defended him over the years. Looking back at it now, what kind of place will Kerouac take in literature? Is he still treated unfairly by critics? What should his reputation be?

Ginsberg: There's a guy, Anatole Broyard, of the N. Y. Times Book Review, who's still chasing Kerouac's corpse with a stiletto. Even posthumously denouncing Visions of Cody, which I think was Kerouac's great prose creation. Full of beautiful cadenzas and exquisite sketches of cafeterias and subways and els (elevated lines). I still would say that Kerouac was one of the most beautiful composers of vowels and consonants, one of the most mindfully conscious writers dealing with sounds. As Warren Tallman the essayist pointed out in his great essay in the late fifties, "Kerouac's Sound," Kerouac had a fantastic ear and a tremendous appreciation of modern black music and black tongue and Okie tongue and provincial speech, and his rhythms and sentences are organized after the models of excited conversation, probably rhapsody. . . exclamatory delight, you find that built into his prose. He was an athletic prose writer and he was tremendously honest. He gave himself to his art and I think he was one of the great prose writers in America. Perhaps in America, itself, the single greatest in the twentieth century. His breakthrough to a realization of spontaneous mind and the enormous inventive perceptive capacity of raw mind--"first thought is best thought-is something so noble that only a few great Buddhist poets have achieved that. Chogyarn Trungpa, who's my meditation teacher, a Tibetan lama, thinks that Kerouac's Mexico City Blues book of poems is "a great exposition of mind," spontaeous mind, and good Buddhism, too, as Gary Snyder, the trained Buddhist, thinks.

All of my poetic practice is founded on Kerouac's notion of non-revising, "spit forth intelligence at the moment." It's in the tradition of twentieth century thought, actually, Western thought. From Heisenberg who said if you stop to observe a wave you impede its function: Einstein who said if you want to know the shape of the Universe, you had to examine the measuring instrument. So what Kerouac was doing was examining his own mind. The thoughts of the mind as they proceeded, rising "unborn" in the mind. He was able to notate on the page and it created a great extraordinary poetic panoply of what comes up from the naked mind, what the naked mind is capable of when it's not trying to sneak over an arty, academic, shamed, revised version of reality.

What does the mind really think? What is the poetry of pure mind? And he was the first person to have that great breakthrough of consciousness in art. Well, not the first, it is a tradition. Gertrude Stein was into that. It actually was a main tradition in American letters from Whitman on. When Whitman said, "We don't have to pay the immensely overpaid accounts on the Battle of Troy anymore. The muse is here in America. She's here installed amidst the kitchenware, that's "ordinary mind."

Williams relied on ordinary speech in his practice of imagism. Gertrude Stein explored the ordinary mind moment by moment in her vast experiment with The Making of Americans in writing creation and composition. Stein is, in a sense, the innovator.

But Kerouac applied that ordinary mind rhapsody--that is to say, the unimpeded flow of intelligence--in prose, to telling a narrative story, and there was something monumental about that. I would say he created a monumental "artwork," despite the hostility of academia, despite sneering journalistic jealousy. Despite the smog of the secret police which scared him, too, and made him withdraw from public front. Despite my own incomprehension and the incomprehension of his friends who sometimes didn't understand how far he was goin,. 'cause my first reaction to Visions of Cody was of shock--Where was this? Where was this coming from? It wasn't like a novel I'd ever heard of. Despite his publisher's money-grubbing boorishness in not publishing his novels when they were written, in not publishing them in the right order and leaving many to be published posthumously. Despite repression from his family. Despite an attack in the media that was so vast it looks like organized psychosis when you look back on it--friends like Kenneth Rexroth saying that he couldn't write poetry; Norman Podhoretz attacking him as a juvenile delinquent, instead of seeing him as an artist. Despite all that, one single, lonely tearful guy created this masterpiece against everything. He had to follow his heart, and that's pure art. His intelligence was extraordinary that way. 'Cause he read, he was very learned. He had read Shakespeare, a lot of Sir Thomas Browne, read all through Rabelais and Celine, listened to Bach's B-Minor Mass night after night, and St. Matthew's Passion. The amazing thing is that even in his illness in the sixties when he was drinking too much, he created a body of work at a time when he was supposed to be in "decline," a phase that people still insult, this fantastic record of his own breakdown and degeneration from alcohol in Big Sur in 1961. He went on to complete the second part of Desolation Angels, which was a great retrospective of his situation with fame and with "the San Francisco Renaissance" with all the poets (Whalen, Snyder, McClure, Lamantia, Duncan, etc.)

Interviewers: Those books are both out of print here in the U.S.

Ginsberg: They'll be in print now soon. Actually, almost everything's now in print, or will be soon. That's coming out actually, Desolation Angels and Vanity of Dulouz. Desolation Angels filled in the story in the late fifties as well as The Dharma Bums, that is, the story proceeding from the forties up to the late fifties. Then the capstone of all that, the great arch, is Big Sur, where he tells of his own breakdown. Then after Big Sur he wrote Desolation Angels Part II, finished that book. Then he did a retrospective view of his own romantic idealistic illusory follies, sort of outside the great Dulouz legend, outside the great panorama. He looked back as in old age, in a book which is so loose and free and funny in its prose, The Vanity of Dulouz, (The Vanity of Kerouac), that it's actually a revelation on his early style, and a change, in enormous growth, and new depth. Literarily it's curious because the tone developed from Herman Melville's poems John Marr and Other Sailors, in which Melville in his old age writing poetry is taking on the persona of John Marr, an old retired sailor sitting with his pipe of bohee tobacco talking to his wife saying "Well Wifey, let me tell you about Bridegroom Dick when we were back there, Bridegroom Dick the Sailor he'll not come by no more . . ." and they're beautiful poems, retrospective, love poems to all the old sailor friends he sailed around the south seas with.

So people don't recognize that cultivation. They think it's just sloppy Kerouac talking to his wife or something, not realizing he finally came down to home nitty-gritty as Melville did; and he read Melville's "John Marr," we used to talk about it all the time. So then after that he united both his youths: he had written a short book called Pic. Then he did Satori in Paris, which was a completely funny, drunken comedy on himself, a brief vignette of going to Paris to find his ancestors' names and backgrounds. Then he did the last chapter of Pic which was about a little picaninny, a little black boy coming from the south which he'd written before, and he put on a last chapter which was "hitch-hiking north," whom does he run into on the road but Neal Cassady (Dean Moriarty)! But his mother didn't like it, or his wife didn't like it, so he put on another little ending and it was published with that other ending, but there is in his manuscripts a very funny little thing where he reunites his early springtime youthful Pic book with a retrospective view of the young kid meeting the Heroes in his youth. In addition, McNally in his biography says he wrote all the time so he's got innumerable notebooks, poems, God knows what, that nobody knows about.

Interviewers: Aren't legal battles with his heirs holding up publication of some of his manuscripts?

Ginsberg: No not quite. I'll explain that. What is really interesting is that on the day he died, 10:30 in the morning, he was looking at television with a notebook open on his lap still writing and he got up, laid the notebook aside, his wife wanted to fix him some tuna fish or some lunch, he said no. He opened a can of tuna fish, ate it, went into the bathroom, started vomiting, called "I'm hemorrhaging, I'm hemorrhaging, help!" His wife came in and took him to the hospital and he died. So he was writing on the very moment of his death. Kerouac has always been pointed to as " degenerating, " " he failed, "
he "didn't do anything," he "wasted his last years." But he produced a body of work in the sixties that rivals anybody's. He wrote more than I did. And also work that was seasoned, disillusioned and interesting; you know like his retrospective, puncturing all the balloons and follies of youth. So there is still a terrific study to come. And all of the dream books and notebooks and haikus and poems and journals that he kept, all through the sixties and fifties and forties are still unpublished. We still don't know the extent of his art.

The legal problem is: his wife, Stella, has a lot of manuscripts left or in the bank, or up in Lowell with the family. She won't let anybody see them. What's known of them is Some of the Dharma, a long series of essays and haikus and poems he wrote on Buddhist subjects when he was studying that which he kept for maybe eight years. You know, writing for Gary Snyder's ear and for mine. The San Francisco Blues (1954), written in a rocking chair from flop house hotel Mission Street, Third Street. There's a great notebook that he kept while writing On The Road which is in the University of Texas, a journal of writing On The Road which is in perfect fat print, very legible, and Andy Brown of Gotham Book Mart wants to publish a facsimile copy but he can't get permission from the family. Stella, his wife and widow, her view is "aaah leave something for Ph.D. scholars in another ten years. He's got enough out already." They still haven't republished yet all his books that are already in print. What's coming out now--Viking, I believe is bringing out something, I forget. I got the advance proofs about a half year ago. Vanity of Dulouz is in reprint, Desolation Angels in reprint, I think Tristessa and Maggie Cassidy, two other books hard to get are coming out McGraw-Hill or something like that. So I think by the end of the year every single published work will be back in print. Which is amazing, actually, because it's about nineteen books. They'll all be available finally again after being in and out. That was his publisher's stupidity and his agents'. The problem was he wrote On the Road, that was a big experimental thing after publishing his first book The Town and the City. It was turned down by everybody, Louis Simpson, John Hall Wheelock who just died the other day. Malcolm Cowley had to fight for years to get it published by Viking. So it wasn't published, he wrote it in '51 and it wasn't published until '57 or '58. Jack was broke all this time. He had to work and had to be dependent on his mother. Even after all these things were published he didn't have any money. A $1,000 advance for On the Road or something, $2,000. He never got any money. $7,000 for Tristessa. But that's a high school teacher's income, half a college instructor's income, and he's supposed to live on that. Finally he was going to sign a contract toward the end of his life to deliver a novel and I said "Don't do that, don't indenture yourself like that, sell my letters." So instead of signing a contract for $7 1/2 thousand, he sold my letters to Texas and had a few years of like, a little cash to buy a house for his mother.

What they should have done was first published On the Road, and then they should have followed that with Visions of Cody, and they should have followed it up with The Subterraneans, and they should have followed it up with Maggie Cassidy, and they should have followed it up with Doctor Sax, and they should have followed it up with Tristessa, and they should have followed it up with Mexico City Blues . . .

Then he wrote The Dharma Bums after On the Road was published because they said, "Why don't you write something simple to explain what all these people are about?" So he should have had everything published in a readable order just as he wrote them so people could follow the development of his mind and not confuse them. There was a publishers' boorishness, that's why I said "publishers' money-grubbing boorishness." They didn't realize they had a great prose artist on their hands and they were just looking at him as a social phenomenon or money or something.

Interviewers: What do you think of Ann Charters' biography?

Ginsberg: The problem with the Charters' book is: because of a contract that Aaron Latham the "official biographer" had gotten with Random House which shared the money with the family, Ann Charters' book was "unofficial" and she was not given access to his original manuscripts, nor given permission to quote directly from anything in his estate. She had written the book without knowing this, or without thinking seriously that they could have dared do a thing like that to literary material. So at the last minute the proofs of the book was in the hands of Straight Arrow Press, she was having a baby, went to Sweden, and the quotations were made into paraphrases by secretaries at Straight Arrow Press sort of like with a meat axe. So that what was once somewhat delicate in her book was transformed into a long narrative basically Kerouac's own words which were made into paraphrase, and it sounds like she is "kvetching" or coming on superior to Kerouac and he sounds depressing, when actually the long narrative passages are his own humor and wit and intelligence criticizing himself in a rueful burlesque manner.

For instance, there is a section that begins "Kerouac came up from Big Sur and all that he could see were nasty American housewives staring at him through the windows of their cars and looking the other way as if he were an axe murderer. . ." Well, that's Kerouac saying "I got up on the road and all I could see were these nasty American housewives looking at me as if I were an axe murderer or something. . ." So it was Charters without quotation marks saying "all he could see were nasty American housewives. . ." So it makes him seem like a depressing fool instead of a witty fellow. So the phrase I use for that is "he's not given credit for his own intelligence" in that book. And the biographer seems "superior" to him in moral perception, whereas she's relying on his own moral and psychological perceptions of himself, and long passages in her book are deceptive to the reader because the reader thinks it's her accounting of him in writing biography, whereas it's him telling what happened to himself very truthfully, very honestly. So the whole book's out of focus. One gets the impression that he's a depressed case, whereas actually it's the depressing case of American commercialism getting a text screwed up.

Interviewers: Do you have any comment on the Jarvis book, Visions of Kerouac?

Ginsberg: Well, Jarvis is kind of funny. It's a lot of local gossip. Kerouac kept patiently answering foolish questions by Jarvis who's a prurient questioner. So it's a kind of funny book. It's useful for you know that phase of Kerouac when he talked to local Charlie. Charlie's very shocked about my sleeping with Jack; he says he doesn't believe it or something. It's kind of naive. But it's useful source material. The new book by McNally I think is the best account of his life. That'll be coming out in a year or so.

Interviewers: Music is fascinating with some of your poems. When I read things I put on music in the background. Do you write much with music going on, or are you consciously aware that you're putting music on at all, no matter what kind it is?

Ginsberg: Well following the example of Hart Crane who wrote "The Bridge" with a lot of Bessie Smith records on or jazz or Bach, I used to do that, but I find it interrupts my own rhythm. I get a lot of influence through Kerouac by music, particularly for that long breath saxophone cry that you might get out of Lester Young, solos of Coleman Hawkins, Charlie Parker's long bird-flighted tunes that begin and end finally at the end of a sentence-MAWP! So the long breath, which is derived somewhat from Black American speech and which has been the inspiration to poets in America for the last fifty years. Lately I've been working with musicians. Well, not lately--I've been working with Don Cherry since 68-69-70. We recorded together. I set Blake's "Songs of Innocence" to music. And I'm still working on it. This past month I've been working on Blake's "Tiger" to get that together. It's a heartbeat. "Ti-ger, Tiger, burn-ing boom-boom, boom-boom
. . ." (chants part of the poem). And I've been working with Bob Dylan who's been teaching me chords. So I've been singing blues and I put out a book called First Blues and I worked with John Hammond, Sr., who recorded Billie Holiday and some Bessie Smith and Dylan and I made two records of First Blues. And this last long poem I have (The Rune) has a four chord rhapsody. Mostly with music I've been working on rhymed matter. I don't know how to handle the long line with music, as in -Howl-. I could in sort of Hebraic-Indian form "I saw the best minds of my generation. . . ." (chants first couple of lines from "Howl" in C chord). But I don't know ... could get something going that way, I'd like to.

Lately what I'm into through the influence of Ed Sanders--he being a classics specialist--is digging the tremendous dance music rhythms of Greek prosody, where they had feet that went BA-DAM BAM BAH . . . BA-DAM BAM BAH. Ionic meters, they're called. Or DUN DA-DUN DA ... DUN DA-DUN DA. "Moloch" was built that way. "Mo-loch whose eyes are a thou-sand blind win-dows." The long feet, which are basically ancient Greek dance rhythms. I didn't know that--I just got my own ear. But Sanders is making me more and more conscious of that. He said that he read "Howl" in Kansas City and he'd been studying classics and recognized old Greek dithyrambic rhythms and that was his specialty. So we've been working on that and he may teach that at Naropa. So I've been influenced by both irregular asymmetrical rhythmical run-on bop and the symmetrical meters of the Greeks, as well as Poe and things like that.

One other thing. We've been talking about rhythm. Now tone, notes. The big discovery I had in putting Blake together, I realized that when I pronounce my poetry I try to follow William Carlos Williams, try to use the whole gamut of what does a normal voice talk like. How many different tones do we use? In his preface to Basil Bunting's poems back in the fifties, Pound wrote a poet should "follow the tone leading of the vowels." One vowel leads to another in different tones and those tones are emotional tones, for emphasis. We don't in America have a study of the vowel lengths like classical prosody. The traditional measure of the line is accent, rather than the length of the vowels which Pound returned to American practice, emphasizing particularly the tone leading of the vowels. So when I began putting Blake to music I tried to figure out how you'd go about saying it if you had to say it "Ti-ger, Ti-ger," high-low, high-low. So actually if you've got a really good poem and you pronounce it as you would speak it, you'll get the different tones of the vowels and you can actually make melody or you can extrapolate it or project it into melody or into tunes real easy but you gotta first be able to pronounce it natural, because if you pronounce it like poetry it all runs out to monotone--there's no variation. If you say "Ti-ger, ti-ger," you'll get a different tone and you'll be able to get a melody out of it.

Interviewers: Semantic structure, but it's natural.

Ginsberg: Right, it's structural and it's natural as all good structures are, or enduring structures are.

Interviewers: You are one of the only poets in the U.S., and I would imagine in the history of the world, who has been able to survive financially from reading and writing poetry. A lot of us would like to know if you have any advice for anybody else.

Ginsberg: Write good poetry. . .Now wait a minute, I want to put a little clip into that. First of all, I didn't anticipate this, I got pushed into this situation when the customs seized my book and the vice squad descended on Howl and put it through a trial so notorious that people started buying it because they thought it was a dirty book. Normally, when Howl was printed in a thousand copies by City Lights like any other book of poetry, that's all they expected to sell.

So it's just an accident that I got pushed by the government into this situation. Before that, I made my living washing dishes in Bickford's or mopping the floor of the May Company or vacuum cleaning, or working as a welder in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, or I had a year's time on the ocean as a merchant seaman. I have several years' time in market research. So I had whole different kinds of careers as a day laborer, night laborer, blue collar worker, white collar worker, and I always figured that I'd have to make my living some other way beside teaching or writing poetry. I think people should figure on that because there aren't so many poets that can make it. And I don't make enough money writing poetry and publishing it to support myself really--if I live real cheap, which I do, I live in penury, not poverty. Like the suit I'm wearing which is beautiful is Salvation Army, $12, including the alterations to make it look distinguished so I can wear my National Institute medal with it. But it's all Salvation Army. I live on the lower East Side of New York in a real terrible slum rat street where the garbage is all over the street and I've been mugged and shot at with B.B. guns. So I'm not exactly living the life of luxury. But all I get from City Lights (which is my main publisher) is probably $7,000 a year. See I don't make a lot of money. For years I used to read free. From 1955-65 I made it a business of reading for free and supporting myself by sailing in merchant ships up under the DEW line. Cause I didn't think poetry and gold should mix. Particularly in that kind of America, where everybody was competing for gold, things would get too mixed up, I thought poetry should be something outside the system. I read now for money and I try to recycle the money to other poetic projects like this reading I'm doing in Washington. I get some money for reading when I'm broke and strapped and I have to pay off my debts. Cause I get extravagant like $200 phone bills and call Ann Arbor, call Ira Lowe* in Washington, call Ed Sanders, call Marty Lee of the Assassination Information Bureau here. You know to get it all together, call Princeton and get FBI Cointel-Program, Xeroxes from The Princetonian, call back to Ann Arbor to the Daily Michigan. "Have you got your story out, can you send me a copy so I can send it to the Assassination Information Bureau?" So I've got phone bills, and taxi bills and plane bills. My actual living expenses are pretty cheap. So I wouldn't suggest anybody anticipate making money on poetry. Your college prof makes anywhere between $15,000 and $25,000-$30,000, and the super college prof, $35,000 . . .Vonnegut or Schlesinger . . . special chair at CCNY. I could do that if I wanted but I'd rather be at Naropa Institute where I get $1,000 for the whole summer. Because there's a live scene there with student meditators and great teachers and Zen masters and Tibetan lamas. Kerouac didn't make any money. In his biography I saw some years he had nothing. A thousand dollar check from his agent, two thousand. He had to sell my letters to move to Florida. William Burroughs doesn't have any money, now, for instance. Burroughs, with all his books. He has money you know like a high school teacher, he doesn't have a lot.

Interviewers: Didn't he get anything for the film rights to Junky?

Ginsberg: He got I think twenty grand, which stretched over a two-year period, which is about $10,000 a year, which is what? A grant from the NEA gets that, Guggenheim, or something. Gregory Corso has no money and he's a productive poet. He's a world figure, sort of, but he gets what? I think his royalties from New Directions are a couple thousand, if that. From City Lights maybe $500, $400, $300 a year. He has to live by his wits. So I would suggest poets learn to live by their wits. Or best like Gary Snyder, get some kind of honest labor job, carpentry, something planting trees, something involving reforestation. Or applying for grants, maybe that's the way to do it.


Interviewed in 1978 by Eric Baizer, Reywas Divad, and Richard Peabody.

*Ira Lowe, a lawyer engaged in extracting the author's dossiers from FBI, CIA and Secret Service files.

Editors Note: Dennis McNally's biography is entitled Desolate Angel. The Warren Tallman essay on "Kerouac's Sound" is available in Open Letter, Third Series, No, 6, Coach House Press, 401 (rear) Huron St., Toronto, Ontario.

 

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