Sipping tea in a London Hotel and talking about his greatest influences – William Blake, Walt Whitman, William Carlos Williams – Alan Ginsberg is friendly, assured and (naturally enough) beatific. But, perhaps surprisingly, he’s almost as at ease talking about Sonic Youth and Gavin Friday as he is about fellow beats William S. Burroughs, Gary Snyder and Jack Kerouac.
Allen Ginsberg – poet, iconoclast, Jew, Buddhist and self-styled “Old auntie of the Beat Generation” – is 68 years of age. Forty years on from the publication of Ginsberg’s infamous Howl, his latest publication, Cosmopolitan Greetings collects together writings from 1986-92. With lyrical incantations, dream notations, calypso rhythms and haiku, Cosmopolitan Greetings shows a writer moving in ever increasing circles, his subject matter ranging from the intensely personal to the passionately political. I ask him if he finds it difficult writing under the weight of his past work.
“My mind is much too fragmented for the solidification of any single thought like that. Consciousness itself is discontinuous I think. As a Buddhist that’s my take on it. Shakespeare at the end of The Tempest has Prospero say ‘Thence to Genoa, where every third thought shall be my grave.’ So every 244th thought; ‘Oh I’m Allen Ginsberg and I have a history.’ The rest of the time it’s ‘There’s this tea – I got to go to the bathroom – How’s my diabetes going? – What’s this guy saying to me?’ So yes, there is the information of being around for forty years writing poetry and knowing a lot of people. But then every moment is completely blank and new.”
Despite an enormous body of work which bristles with positivity, passion and affirmation, Ginsberg admits “I got the reputation of being this negative nay-saying rebel. I don’t know why. But maybe the purpose is starting to come through now after all these years. People are beginning to read without the intervention of the media saying ‘these angry, wrathful idiot people smoking dope in dirty flats covered in flies.’ That was the party line of the media back in the early Sixties.”
At this point, Ginsberg is called away to take a telephone call which turns out to be from fellow author Salman Rushdie.* “I saw him when he came out to New York.” Says Ginsberg “We did some meditation classes together. Because let’s face it, he’s got lots of time.”
In recent poems such as Sphincter and After Lalon, Ginsberg details the ageing process with undiluted candour, whilst in his more directly political poems, he is still on a mission to report the unreported. “I’ve always been preoccupied with the intersection of repressive dope laws and dope dealing by French intelligence and American CIA. The expansion of killer drugs like tobacco and alcohol and political manipulation by cigarette and alcohol interests. The corruption of governments, police departments and so on. We are ruled by fantastic hypocrisy. In America, the theo-political right – the FCC and Jesse Helms – has ceased control of the main marketplace of ideas; radio and television. So we don’t have a free market in ideas now. So the censorship which formally applied to books and print and film is now being applied to the electronic media and may be applied to the internet before it’s all over.”
“My own poetry has literally been ripped off the air during the day. My poems are studied in high schools and colleges, but in October 1988, Senator Helms – who is subsidised by huge tobacco interests – rushed through a law signed by Reagan which effectively means that ‘obscene language’ can only be broadcast between the hours of midnight and six am. This being to protect school kids who are reading my poems in class anyway.”
A vivid conversationalist, the elder statesman of the counter culture is at his most animated when recalling the routines he used to improvise in his apartment with Burroughs and Kerouac in the 1950s. “After dinner, drinking coffee, smoking grass, we’d act out this stuff. We all had different characteristic roles; the well groomed Hungarian, that was me. The naive American in Paris with a straw hat: Kerouac. And Bill dressed up as a shifty, vicious governess. Bill would end up creased up laughing on the floor.”
I ask him what he thinks is the legacy of the beats. “I think the key to the Beat Generation was spiritual liberation. The media liberation of the word, the battle with censorship, sexual liberation, it ricochets out, but it started with a spiritual liberation. I always thought Howl was a very exuberant and positive and funny poem. But at the time, it was taken to be the ravings of this angry, rebellious jerk.”
These days, things are a little different. “I’ve got a really good job. It’s called Distinguished Professor of English. Which means I only have to go in one day a week.”
* In December 1994, when this interview took place, Salman Rushdie had been living with police protection, his whereabouts a closely guarded secret, for nearly six years. Ayatollah Khomeini, the spiritual leader of Iran, claimed that Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses was ‘blasphemous’, due to its supposedly disrespectful depiction of the prophet Muhammed, and declared a fatwa – offering a bounty for Rushdie’s execution.
Originally published in ‘The Punter’ January 1995.