face to face with allen ginsberg
Allen Ginsberg, Sunflower serpent, photocopy. © Allen Ginsberg Estate
Face To Face was a legendary BBC television series in the early days of British television, a series of half-hour interviews conducted by the broadcaster John Freeman, which aired between 1959 and 1962. The template proved a hugely influential one. Freeman never appeared on camera throughout the shows, only his questions could be heard. His guests were filmed in tight close-ups under stark lighting conditions, as if under interrogation. The format was revived by Jeremy Isaacs in 1990 and ran again through to 1998. The interview with Allen (video below) took place in 1994 and was broadcast on the 9th of January 1995.
Jeremy Isaacs: Allen Ginsberg, you are America’s best-known poet, you were a key figure of “the Beat Generation” with Kerouac and Burroughs, now beard and the hair are trim, you wear a suit and a collar and a tie, just brought out a new volume, Cosmopolitan Greetings, but is the real Allen Ginsberg still in there?
Allen Ginsberg: Well I’m a Buddhist and I think the Buddhists would say there is no real permanent self in any case but there are many appearances of self, so I’m certainly a Beat poet, and I’m certainly Jewish, and I’m certainly gay, and I’m certainly an American, and I’m certainly a practicing meditator, and, I suppose, a part of the counter-culture in America, which is now under attack by the neo-conservative theo-political televangelists who are denouncing the “McGovernik counter-culture”, threatening war on it, so, I don’t know if there is a real Allen Ginsberg any more than there might be a real Jeremy Isaacs.
JI: You’re a member, you say, of the counter-culture. In the bohemian New York, of New York in the mid 50’s, you lived, you almost grew up in, an atmosphere, of drink, and drugs and gay sex and some violence. Was there…?
AG: Well not too much violence. After all (we were) anti-war, and I’ve not been so involved in violence as in pacifist activity, but certainly drink, some friends drank, I never did — drugs, I’ve tried almost everything, but I’m more of a workaholic, so I never was addicted to anything except the killer drug — nicotine, which I quit many years ago because I have high blood pressure, among other reasons, but I’ve had friends who’ve been in trouble.
JI: And friends who… there were deaths among your friends, and violent deaths among your friends.
AG: Yes… some… but I think we have an actuarial average above-normal, after all, William Burroughs is 80 years old, and very productive, Herbert Huncke, who was, let’s say, was the original Beat personage, is approaching 80, or is 80 already, and is still writing, and has just been in England, I believe. Gary Snyder is thriving, a 60-year-old, like myself. Philip Whalen is now the Abbot of the Hartford Street Zen Center in San Francisco so… Peter Orlovsky is well…
JI: … and you’re sitting in front of me.
AG: … and Gregory Corso’s around, writing beautifully as ever…
JI: But what was the attraction of that very outré bohemian life-style?
AG: Well, you know, bohemia’s a very old life-style. You had it in Bloomsbury. You had it with mixed sex in Bloomsbury which was one of the attractions, that it was possible to be gay without having to be ashamed of it in that generation, in that community. Burroughs was gay, I was gay, Kerouac was straight, Neal Cassady, a friend, was straight, but willing to sleep with me. There was a sort of a tolerance, what Keats would call “negative capability”, the ability to hold ideas in the mind without an irritable reaching after fact and reason, the key there is irritable, as sort of sense of tolerance.
JI: It wasn’t long before in your poems, in “Howl” for example, you were able and willing to make explicit statements about your sexuality.
JI: Wasn’t that very difficult in, after all, what was McCarthy’s America?
AG: Well, it would have been if I had intended it to be public but, to tell you the truth and as I’ve said before, “Howl” was written sort of in despair at writing poetry, I figured I couldn’t… I hadn’t succeeded in writing anything interesting, and so I said, “Well then, I’ll just write, writing for myself, and I’ll forget about the idea of publishing poetry”, and so I started writing, “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness…” and I went on to catalog a series of the most grotesque, ironic, mocking, serious, sincere, trompe l’oeil psychologically, or, mythological, gossip that I’d heard of, and, when it got to my own, “got fucked in the ass by handsome sailors and and screamed with joy”! (rather than screamed with pain or agony), I realized how funny it was, but knew that my father would never… (would) not want to read that. So, from then on, I knew that I would never be able to publish that poem, so, I was completely free to write anything I wanted, (and) if you don’t show anybody, you can do anything you want! — that’s the funny part (which is why the poem is good, because it was written from my own privacy). Later on, people saw the manuscript and liked it, and then I gave a reading which I thought would be, like, a small private, arty reading in a small… art gallery, with other poets (Kerouac and Gary Snyder among others), and everybody liked the poem, so I said, “Well, I guess it’s alright then”. But I was still hesitant to publish it because I didn’t want my father to read the gay, explicit, imagery — but finally I sent it to him, and he wrote me back a very interesting letter (he, Louis Ginsberg, being a poet), saying, “This is a great poem, full of energy and exuberance, but do you need all those blue words?” So I explained to him, well, the way it passed through my head, and he got used to it.
JI: When it was published, it was prosecuted for obscenity.
AG: Yes. I was not there in San Francisco when the Customs seized it and then when the Juvenile Vice Squad (swooped) on City Lights and arrested the poet [Lawrence] Ferlinghetti for publishing it. I was already in Tangier with Jack Kerouac and Peter Orlovsky and William Burroughs, helping type and assemble the manuscript of Naked Lunch, and I thought that was much more important than going back to fight a temporary little local trial, because, if I won, I won, if I lost, I won anyway, because the poem would be sought after for generations if it were forbidden, so I couldn’t lose either way — and Ferlinghetti said it was not necessary to come back.
JI: And, in fact, a rather good judgement, by the judge, found for you…
AG: Legally a very interesting judgment. I don’t know if they have that in England. You know, the Bloomsbury Group, Roger Fry and Virginia Woolf, came out in defense of The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall, but they were not allowed to admit expert testimony as to its literary value. It was just whether it was obscene or not, and expert testimony was forbidden. In the “Howl” decision, Judge Horn said that questions of literary merit or beauty and questions of social critique are protected by the Constitution and that established a precedent, legally.
JI: In writing “Howl”, you also found the form, you found what you described as “open form” rather than “closed form”, to write verse in. Could you say something about that? What’s the difference?
AG: Well a shift to cadences used idiomatically in ordinary speech. Sometimes in Zen they speak of “ordinary mind” (as) the highest mind, so, in a sense, ordinary speech is the highest speech, and that there are phrases in idiomatic speech, vernacular speech, that penetrate in every direction, aesthetically, or intellectually, but are also commonly understood — like the phrase, “catch yourself thinking” — everybody knows what that means, and yet, in Esoteric Buddhism, it’s the process of stopping your mind and observing the mind. In everyday bar-room talk, or pub talk, it might be, “Well, the other day, I caught myself thinking of my mother-in-law…” So it’s a very good way of talking, it’s something [William] Wordsworth proposed, renovation of English diction, 150, longer, years ago, and that William Carlos Williams proposed in America, to break-up the stanza and measure the spoken breath by breath-stop, or measure the idea, or measure the length of the breath (“or” there, would be equivalent to “measure the length of the breath, or”). So you could have a “relative measure”, as William Carlos Williams, my mentor, called it.
JI: Was “Howl” an angry poem about America?
AG: I wouldn’t say “angry”. There are certain aspects “wrathful”, in judgment, but I would say, more “exuberant”, because, you know, the ultimate part of the peroration, at the end — “I’m with you in Rockland, where you’re madder than I am” — but “I’m with you” — it’s a gesture of sympathy to a friend who’s in trouble, basically, with a certain amount of anguish in it. The ultimate accusation, really, is, “Moloch, whose name is the Mind” It isn’t, you know, out there, the all-devouring God, the destroyer God, it’s not out there, it’s our own Imagination, as [William] Blake pointed out. So “Moloch, whose name is the Mind” is hardly angry. That’s a piece of wisdom-teaching actually, something that I understood from Blake long ago.
JI: Have you seen the best minds of your generation destroyed?
AG: It’s hyperbole.
JI: You’ve just rattled off half a dozen of them who are still with us.
AG: Yes… well, it’s hyperbole, there’s a certain exaggeration there. I mean… The first verse originally went, “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving, mystical, naked”, and I thought that was too sentimental, so I said “starving, hysterical, naked”. I did revise it that much, to get some sense of distance and irony for it.
JI: You speak of the need for candor in the writing and making the private world public, that’s what the poet does, is that right? Is that what you’re doing?
AG: Yes very consciously following the direction of my ultimate American mentor, Walt Whitman, who, in 1855, early edition of Leaves of Grass, said that he hoped American poets would develop a new direction of candor, (a) kind of inadvertent, unmanipulative frankness, like spontaneous frankness.
JI: To what degree was Whitman able to be (as you were), candid about his homosexuality?
AG: Well, you know, it’s amazing if you read the “Calamus” sections of Leaves of Grass, or even his “Old Age Echoes”, where (he gets to) talk about his constipation. He was quite candid about his emotions. He wasn’t candid about his physical loves, if he had any — altho’ I slept with Neal Cassady, who slept with Gavin Arthur, the grand-son of President Chester Arthur, who had slept with Edward Carpenter, who said that, Carpenter told him he had slept with Walt Whitman. So there is some kind of lineage of gossip there — but, I don’t think Whitman was able to proclaim any physical love in his poems, but he certainly proclaimed the emotional attachment in the “Calamus” sections.
JI: In “Kaddish”, you mourn for your mother.
JI: Tell me about her.
AG: Well my mother was a refugee from Russia in 1905. When she was about 8 years old she came to America, and had nervous breakdowns almost immediately, married my father who was born here of Russian parents —and then, in the 30’s, I remember visiting her in sanataria, where they had cricket played on the lawn — not cricket, but little mallets and balls going through hoops…?
AG: Croquet. And as I grew up, I had to take care of her on and off because my father was teaching in college, and so, when I was 9, 10 12, 13, I visited her by myself in mental hospitals, which were grimy, huge drab prisons in those days, where she’d had shock treatment — insulin and metrazol and lobotomy and electro-shock…
JI: You actually signed the forms for her lobotomy, is that right?
AG: Yes, I was told later — I was then 26 or so — the doctors told me that she was in a state of such paroxysm and high blood pressure and anguish, banging her head, literally, against the wall, bloody, that if I didn’t take action, for which I had to sign, she might have a stroke. And, rather naively, believing what they had to say, I signed. So I’ve always felt an enormous guilt and… but… uncertainty about it.
JI: What was the effect on you on living with a mother who was mad?
AG: Well it gave me a great sort of tolerance for eccentric behavior, certainly, and a kind of understanding for the varieties of suffering that people can go through, varieties of suffering she went through. I mean she was called “mad”, but there were varieties of physiological concomitants, like she had a thing called “hyperesthesia”, where any sound… at one point, I remember, she lay in a darkened room and any sound, any noise, was painful, physically, you know, like too much stimulation had some effect on raw nerves, maybe, some… I’ve heard of it since, as there are “synesthesia” and “cryptesthesia” — “dysesthesia” (which I have, which is feeling-lack in the foot-soles because of diabetes), so… I actually had to take care of her and had to deal with her irrationality and sort of, as a kid, not knowing if it were irrational or real but having to negotiate it diplomatically, so it gave me a kind of… well… I would say an armoring, difficult to get too pained. On the other hand, the lack-love, or the need for strong motherly affection, remained intact and hard, I think, and never does disappear, so there’s always this longing for a… feminine bliss, and at the same time, fear of it — and so I’m gay in a sense…
JI: In sane episodes, she was a woman of strong political opinions.
AG: Yes, she claimed to be the Secretary of the Paterson, New Jersey Communist Party cell. And Paterson was, like, a big “Red” town, with the great strikes, with John Reed in 1918 or so, has a great labor history, actually. One interesting thing, actually, is that J. Edgar Hoover, who was a closet queen, destroyed the labor unions in America, because they were originally formed by “left-wing pinkos”, you know, with political ambition, to form a Left in America, and in the destruction of the labor unions, the protected Mafia — Mafia, protected by the FBI, of which Hoover was the head — moved into the vacuum, when they purged all the unions and left-wing organizers that had started all the unions. That’s why we have no Labor or Socialist party in America — why we have no Left in America, we have (just) the Middle and the Right [wing] now.
JI: You also spent some time in your life in mental hospitals.
AG: Yes… in 1948, I think. Well, I’d had something like a visionary experience, or a hallucinatory experience, I was hearing William Blake’s voice reading (the) “(Ah) Sunflower!” and “The Sick Rose” and “The Little Girl Lost”, and something opened up in space for me, I don’t know what it was, maybe ordinary mind, but I suddenly realized the endlessness of the skies, and the exquisite work in the building sides and the cornices of New York apartment houses, (that) a hundred, maybe fifty years ago, Italian workmen had labored with intelligence, to make all the scroll work and copper work on the roof corners — and then… so that kind of confused me as to what I had seen — and I had no terms to think of it except Christian terms, or Jewish terms — but monotheistic terms, I hadn’t had any experience with the “empty mind” idea, or satori idea, of Buddhism, and so, I was quite confused as to what was real and what was unreal. As Bob Dylan says, “The princess and the prince discuss what’s real and what is not”.
JI: Tell me about the…
AG: So… I wound up with a group of friends, who were robbers, and got busted with them, and it was a question of going to jail with them or going to the madhouse (as polite students do these days).
JI: Tell me about the Blake experience, because that was a big thing, what happened?
AG: Well, I’ve just tried to give you a thumbnail sketch. I don’t know, it’s sort of like an albatross — “There was an Ancient mariner/ he stoppeth one of three/ by thy long grey beard and glittering eye/ wherefore stopp’st thou me? — BBC!” [Allen paraphrases and riffs on Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner”]. It was a situation in which I was alone. I had had a love-affair with Neal Cassady and he had gone off and got married and I thought abandoned me, Burroughs, was a close friend already for many years, was in New Orleans, (and) Kerouac had withdrawn to his house, and I was living (in 1948) in Harlem, East Harlem, New York, on the sixth floor of a tenement. There was a lot of theology books around, in an apartment that I had rented from a theology student-friend, so I was reading a lot of Plato’s Phaedrus, St John of the Cross… and other books and (William) Blake. And I had the sudden… reading “The Sick Rose” and “The Sunflower”, I had the odd sensation of hearing Blake’s voice outside of my own body, a voice really not too much unlike my own when my voice is centered in my sternum, maybe a latent projection of my own physiology, but, in any case, a surprise, maybe a hallucination, you can call it, hearing it in the room, Blake reciting, or some very ancient voice of the Ancient of Days reciting, “Ah Sunflower weary of time” — “Ah Sunflower weary of time,/ Who countest the steps of the sun;/ Seeking after that sweet golden clime/ Where the traveller’s journey is done;/ Where the Youth pined away with desire,/ And the pale virgin covered in snow,/ Arise from their graves, and aspire/ Where my Sunflower wishes to go”… So there was some earthen-deep quality that moved me, and then I looked out the window and it seemed like the heavens were endless, or the sky was endless, I should say.
JI: Did that help you become a poet?
AG: Well it was a very turning-around experience, it was a very definitive experience, yeah. I don’t know how to explain it and I wouldn’t assert it as a vision, I would say a hallucination, that’s fine, but it certainly left an imprint on my nature.
JI: You used drugs thereafter to try to recapture that hallucination, hallucinatory experience?
AG: Well, I had used drugs before, but, in that period, I wasn’t (not drugs, dried herbs, marijuana, that’s all), and I had… years later, I tried psychedelics, three or four years later, I tried peyote to see if I could approximate the experience, and I think the psychedelic drugs do approximate some natural experience, but they aren’t as ample, as grounded, as a natural experience, if you can call my own Blake experience natural. At the time, actually, I was eating vegetables, I wasn’t eating meat, and leading a solitary life, and sort of Beat, in the sense of something I’ve heard recently from a folk-singer (composer? Townes Van Zandt?), “Freedom’s just another word for nothing more to lose”. So my heart was open in a sense at the time.
JI: Is the value of such an experience, which you must have sought over and over again with the different drugs that you used… Is it, the experience, worthwhile in itself, or does it permanently help you perceive an expanded universe?
AG: Well I think a natural experience permanently helps you to have a key to the fact that the universe is, in “ordinary mind” even, endless, beyond the horizon. So it might wake you to that “ordinary mind”, as the Zen people call it. The psychedelic experience, whether with peyote, or LSD, or psilocybin, or natural mushrooms, as an extension of diet, might catalyze a very similar sense of infinity, or expansiveness, or “panoramic awareness” we call it, which you find in Wordsworth’s “Sonnet on Westminster Bridge” or his moment on top, when he steps out of the mist in “(The) Prelude”.
JI: I don’t think Wordsworth ever took drugs.
AG: No, no, but his friends did, remember? — the “Pneumatic Institute” — Laughing Gas — Sir Humphry Davy — and the Lake Poets, were very interested in that. And so he was familiar — and also familiar with (Samuel Taylor) Coleridge’s experiments with laudanum. But the natural experience of expansive panoramic awareness can be catalyzed by the psychedelic drugs and I think they’re quite useful. I would recommend however people learn some meditative centering, sitting-practice of meditation, in order to ground themselves so that they’re not entangled in their own projections, in their imagination, not confused by reality or unreality, what they think they see.
Allen Ginsberg, September 1980, Cherry Valley. Photo: © Cliff Fyman
JI: What does meditation do for you?
AG: Well it develops patience. If you have to sit there like this [Allen sits straight]… following your breath… and noticing when your mind wanders, you get a profile both of your mind and some sense of the space around you which might lead to that sense of panoramic awareness, since you’re not…
JI: Do you do that today?
AG: Yes, I do that every day, and I’ve done it since 1970 or so, before that also.
JI: How long for each day?
AG: Well there were some periods when I did it an hour, or two hours, a day, or some periods when I went on retreats and did it eight hours a day, for weeks at a time. Now it’s fragments and snatches, at time, mixed with other forms of meditation — Vajrayana-style Tibetan Buddhist (which involves visualization and mantra), but I had long experience of just sitting, as it’s called, just sitting —”shikantaza”, in Zen terms, or just “shamatha” (that’s the Sanskrit for “quieting the mind”), leading to “vipassana” (which is clear-seeing). In other words, if you let the water settle and the dust settle to the bottom of the fish-bowl, you can see through the fish-bowl.
JI: Your father was a poet.
AG: We didn’t finish… I don’t think with psychedelics tho’. One footnote — I tried something called “ecstasy” a few years ago and had a very useful interesting experience of remembering an old literary enemy, whom I’d argued with in my mind, like “the Blue Meanie”, for years, and suddenly thinking, “Oh, that good ol’ Blue Meanie, he’s been around since I was in college, he’s been annoying me, and I’ve been throwing all my thunderbolts at him, he’s been working for me all these years and suffering, how can I hate him?” It’s transformation from aggressive resentment to gratitude at having somebody who could define my limits, so to speak, or define what my objections…
JI: This was Norman Podhoretz.
AG: Yes , yes — it was very funny actually. I wrote him about it, but he said “you still don’t understand me!”.
JI: Your father was a…
AG: The last thing I would say about that is a conversation with the poet Henri Michaux, who said he was not so much interested in what experiences people had on psychedelics but what they did the next day, how they were to apply… how people were able to apply them in concrete terms in real, alternative ordinary mind. Okay. Onward and upward.
JI: Onward and upward and I’m trying to ask you about your father being a poet. Was he a good one?
AG: Well he was quite a great lyric poet, as lyric was understood in those days, not in the… you know, “lyric” comes from “lyre”, a stringed instrument, and, like, Bob Dylan is the perfect lyric poet, and maybe the greatest poet of this half of the century, and certainly, better known than me, incidentally (I’m not the most well-known American poet, I would say Bob Dylan is, and he’s a respectable poet too). But my father wrote what was called “lyric”, that is without music, without strings. They’re forms of lyric poetry, rhymed verse, and so I learned that as an apprentice at his knee, when I was five years old, and can even do spontaneous rhyme, and can do it any time and continue as long as I want, and stop when I faint! And so there’s a family business here involved. He wrote a number of very beautiful poems which I’ve echoed, particularly in a poem called “Father Death Blues”, which was a threnody on his death in 1975, which is one of my favorite poems and maybe the deepest poem I’ve written since “Kaddish”, except maybe “White Shroud”, which is another long poem, a dream-image poem, in which I meet my mother again in 1983 as a bag-lady in New York and have a chance to take care of her, as I hadn’t when she was alive.
JI: Did your Jewishness matter to you much when you were young?
AG: Well, my father was Socialist, my mother, left wing, Communist, and they were both Agnostics, as they called themselves. My own Buddhist conclusion is non-theistic. There is some problem with the Judeo-Christian, Islamic, tradition of an absolute hierarchical old “Nobodaddy” outside, as Blake calls him. So the Jewish aspect, I think, passed by, though I was interested in Martin Buber and visited him (and he was a great Jewish philosopher and Hasidic expert) and Gershom Scholem, whom I admired a great deal and read a lot of his work, and worked with him, trying to the names of the Aeons, from Sophia on down to the Garden of Eden, visited him in Jerusalem in 1961, I think, and saw him again in Paris… and worked out, for a poem called “Plutonian Ode”, worked out the names of the Aeons and the Archons of the Aeons [sic].
JI: Are you a writer or a performer? Are you best read on the page or heard in performance?
AG: Well what would you say about Homer? Was he a writer or a performer? He was certainly oral (it wasn’t written down until later). What would we say about Sappho (who both wrote and performed)? What would we say about (Thomas) Campion (who wrote and performed) or (John) Dowland, or (Edmund) Waller (Waller, whose poems were set to music). I’m primarily a writer actually. I conceive poems in my inner ear, but there is a dimension of sound, and there is the preparation in America, a vehicle for idiomatic communication, vernacular communication, using vernacular rhythms and diction (and that’s been my specialty), so that it’s possible to perform, or recite, or orate, or vocalize, I would say, my poems, and have them understood more rapidly, almost instantaneously (as “ordinary speech”), or, “intense fragments of ordinary speech best”.
JI: You write, you treat, you provoke, you mock, public themes, you write about America. Has that writing over the years, now collected in the great volume of Collected works, with new work still coming out, has that writing had a political effect?
AG: I think it had some… I saw Bob Dylan a couple of weeks ago (this being, what, December 1994?) and he was saying… “Who owns all the money? Who owns the media?”. As he travels around the world, he notices that all the media change their story every week, and someone is directing that. And “Who owns all the money?”, he was saying. And it was like he knew that he had a great deal of power, to influence people’s psyches, or minds, or thinking, or psychology, or opinion-ation, and yet his power was miniscule, compared to the power of the moguls of the media. And in America it’s only 22 people who run… who own… 80 percent of the mass-media, so that the… it would be very difficult for a poem… for a poet… to overcome that barrage of bullshit. On the other hand, poetry is the only place where you get an individual person telling his subjective truth, what he really thinks, as distinct from what he wants people to think he thinks (like a politician or someone preparing an editorial in a dignified newspaper). So if you need the historical truth of what people think inside, you have to follow [Percy Bysshe] Shelley (and his admonition is that poets are the “unacknowledged legislators of the race”) — or what William Carlos Williams said more acutely was, “The government is of words”. After all, the people making political speeches, they’re writing prose, if not poetry, and they’ are trying to get a little flowery language in there, but the language is shifty, and the language is manipulative, and people who are advertising, or even doing ordinary mass-media, are still inhibited and can’t say what they really think, but the poet can say what he really thinks, authentically, and that’s the advantage, and it’s longer-lasting than the immediate radio-broadcast or television-broadcast, because a poem is like a radio that can broadcast continually, for thousands of years. And so, in the long run, it may have an ameliorating effect on the spirit.
JI: Would the life that you lived in the ‘50s and ‘60s and ‘70s…
AG: Same life I’m leading now, not much different.
JI: Has AIDS affected that life?
AG: Yes, I have to use a condom now. Not that I can get it up to penetrate anybody, because I’m getting 68, and I have diabetes, so I’m relatively impotent, and so I don’t personally need one, but if anybody wants to.. amuse me, they’d better use a condom.
JI: Who was the love of your life?
AG: Well a number of people actually. Many crushes. I even have one a day, doesn’t everybody? — But, Peter Orlovsky, I lived with, and have been related to, since 1954, so that’s..what is that now? 40 years — and I saw him the day before I left from America to..France actually, a few weeks ago. I had an old boyfriend, or love, that I never slept with, who was a student, and I still cherish his memory, and we’re old friends now. I was in love with Kerouac. I think that..sexually, the most interesting, emotionally, turbulent and painful, pleasurable, was Neal Cassady, with whom I had sort of a funny affair that lasted 20 years on and off (in bed, naked). So I’ve had a very fortunate life, in that sense that any fantasy, naive fantasy that I had as an adolescent was somewhat satisfied.
JI: As you get older, what do you most fear?
AG: Oh I don’t know. Cancer of the rectum maybe? That is, the pain of… well I have a one-line poem — “Get used to your body, forget you were born. Suddenly, you’ve got to get out!” — So the exit from the body, whatever pain there is in that, might be fearful, just the physical pain, as I’m a coward, basically (everybody is, but I’m certainly a coward there). I have very good Tibetan Buddhist teachers who give me doctrines on how to leave the body, how to approach death, very interesting conversations with them, and there’s this certain stability in that view, but, you know I’m just flesh and bones, with (a) high blood-pressure and weak heart and some problems with my kidneys.
JI: Both Bob Dylan and Jack Kerouac, I think, described you as a “con-man extraordinaire”. What did they mean?
AG: Oh, maybe they were projecting their own goofiness on me. With Dylan, it’s a reference to the trickster-hero… Last time I saw Dylan, he asked me about Blake, (next-to-last time I saw him) he said, “Do you know the poem that begins ‘I asked a thief to steal me a peach:/ He turned up his eyes./ I ask’d a lithe lady to lie her down’.” And I continued, “Holy and meek, she cries.// As soon as I went/ An Angel came./ He wink’d at the thief / And smil’d at the dame—// And without one word said/ Had a peach from the tree,/ And still as a maid/ Enjoy’d the lady.” So it’s that question of “ ‘twixt earnest and joke”, I think, which… characteristic of Dylan, and somewhat characteristic of Kerouac certainly…
JI: How would you like us to remember you?
AG: Oh I think “Father Death Blues”, the poem “Father Death Blues”. Maybe I should sing that. Would that be of interest? I’ve mentioned it before. I think it’s the fruition of my Buddhist training. When my father died, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, my teacher, said, “I extend my thought that your father entered dharmakaya, empty blue sky. Please let him go and continue your celebration.”
Face to Face with Jeremy Isaacs: An Interview with Allen Ginsberg (1995). Source: UbuWeb
Allen concludes the interview with a reading/performance of “Father Death Blues”:
Hey Father Death, I’m flying home
Hey poor man, you’re all alone
Hey old daddy, I know where I’m going
Father Death, Don’t cry any more
Mama’s there, underneath the floor
Brother Death, please mind the store
Old Aunty Death Don’t hide your bones
Old Uncle Death I hear your groans
O Sister Death how sweet your moans
O Children Deaths go breathe your breaths
Sobbing breasts’ll ease your Deaths
Pain is gone, tears take the rest
Genius Death your art is done
Lover Death your body’s gone
Father Death I’m coming home
Guru Death your words are true
Teacher Death I do thank you
For inspiring me to sing this Blues
Buddha Death, I wake with you
Dharma Death, your mind is new
Sangha Death, we’ll work it through
Suffering is what was born
Ignorance made me forlorn
Tearful truths I cannot scorn
Father Breath once more farewell
Birth you gave was no thing ill
My heart is still, as time will tell.
This transcript was originally published by The Allen Ginsberg Project, and this revised version is being re-published by arrangement.