Flash Poetry? First Thought, Best Thought?

Posted by Maddie on October 1, 2011 at 8:15 PM

"First Thought, Best Thought" by William DeresiewiczWilliam Deresiewicz teaches English at Yale University. He is working on a study of Jane Austen and the British Romantic poets.

These interviews with Allen Ginsberg remind us that he was a master of improvisation. 


What an irony ''Spontaneous Mind'' represents. Allen Ginsberg's uniquely frank and vivid voice, silent now these past four years, seems to sound again in its deftly edited pages. Yet if anyone knew the difference between printed text and living speech, it was the poet who made immediacy -- improvisation, bodily presence, a Buddhistic immersion in the passing moment -- the foundation of his art. Indeed, there's a wider irony at work, for with the death this year of Gregory Corso, the last of the movement's major figures, the Beat Generation has essentially become what it forever more will always only be: words on a page. Ginsberg's embrace of immediacy was the Beats' as a whole, was in fact the common denominator of the most vital currents in postwar American art -- Gillespie and Parker, de Kooning and Pollock, Cunningham and Cage: a risk-seeking, ecstatic spontaneity flung in the face of the cold war mentality. And as the mainstream tilted ever more toward media and mediation, the filtrations of the glass screen, the ethic of immediacy -- happenings, be-ins, protests, street theater; the million jam sessions and acid tests of the 60's -- became the Beats' great bequest to the counterculture they inspired. How alien it all seems, in this age of mediation's terminal triumph.


''Life should be ecstasy,'' Ginsberg says here, and poetry, he implies, should be life. His poetics was shaped by an adolescent encounter with Williams and Pound, their rejection of what he called the metronomic ba-dum, ba-dum, ba-dum of iambic pentameter for the flexible, complex rhythms of everyday speech. As informed by his later discovery of Buddhist meditation practice, this recognition led to the idea of poetry as breath, an emanation of the body as much as of the mind (one reason he gave, and attended, so many readings). Indeed, Buddhism taught him to eschew rationality in favor of ''ordinary'' or ''spontaneous'' mind, the vast sea of consciousness upon which our concepts and categories, anxieties and prohibitions, float like so much junk. Hence Ginsberg's compositional method, the moment-by-moment transcription of thoughts and images as they passed across his mind. (The thousand-odd lines of ''Kaddish'' poured forth in one 40-hour session.) ''First thought, best thought'' was his governing principle: no heed to the high-modernist idea of poem as patiently constructed artifact, but an equally strenuous discipline, for it was only with hours of daily meditation that he maintained his wide-open path from mind to breath.

All of which helps explain why the interviews collected here are so great. Ginsberg talking is like Charlie Parker taking his saxophone out for a spin at the far reaches of harmony and rhythm; reading him is the mental equivalent of being driven at top speed down a winding mountain road. Long lines of thought unspool in image after startling image, gradually weaving themselves into argumentative structures of stunning density, originality and depth. And like any great jazzman, Ginsberg displays a multitude of musical personalities: ecstatic bard, wrathful prophet, serene yogi, patient teacher, ironic Jewish stand-up comedian. For like any great performer, he reveals himself in full -- self-critically, self-mockingly, with all his shortcomings, kinks and contradictions.

The candor and passion are to be expected, but the stereotype of Ginsberg as a semiliterate primitive leaves one unprepared for his erudition and intellectual brilliance. A question about his youthful discovery of Cézanne elicits six long pages on the transcendental implications of the painter's ostensibly workmanlike notation of optical phenomena, and the relevance of those implications to Blake, haiku and the composition of ''Howl.'' Elsewhere, belying dismissals of the Beats as willfully ignorant of literary history, Ginsberg details the ways the movement placed itself within both American and modernist traditions, as well as within the mystical tradition that leads back through Gnosticism to the ancient mystery cults. Other passages remind us of the courage and prescience of the man who was proudly, publicly gay over a decade before the Stonewall uprising. We find him talking about global warming in 1968. Above all, we find him continually challenging settled ideas, especially his own. Yes, as a 1976 interview shows, he eventually questioned some attitudes of the 60's left, but the fact is that, as we see in a 1963 interview, he questioned many of them almost before there was a 60's left.

Much credit for the shapeliness of this collection is due to David Carter's editorial labors. Its 30 selections were chosen from among some 352 assembled transcripts, and while Ginsberg always insisted that his responses be published without line-by-line revision (of course), Carter's larger abridgments are both inconspicuous and cunning. Many encounters that probably petered out toward their close are concluded here on a memorable cadence or turn of wit. There is also remarkably little repetition; indeed, Carter, who is working on a history of Stonewall, contrives to have successive interviews fill in different parts of the same topic -- Ginsberg's early life or musical projects or ideas about drugs -- so that each of these pictures gradually takes shape over the course of the volume.

One overarching picture takes shape as well, that of Ginsberg's career as a public figure. The bulk of the collection dates from 1965-72, Ginsberg's years as countercultural symbol and spokesman: dialogues at demonstrations and on the road, transcripts from ''Firing Line'' and the Chicago Seven trial. One of the most interesting things about these encounters is how successful Ginsberg is at circumventing the logic of celebrity -- in other words, the very premise of the interview itself. Just as he never let himself get stuck in an intellectual position, neither did he allow himself to be trapped in an image. Each interviewer tries to elicit the Ginsberg of his or her imagination -- William F. Buckley Jr., the dangerous radical; Playboy, the homosexual crusader; fellow dropouts, the mocker of squares -- and each time, Ginsberg performs judo flips on their expectations, handing back complex, nuanced versions of the attitudes with which they've tried to saddle him. Indeed, he helps us appreciate the great difference between a celebrity and a public figure -- one the creation of the media, the other a full human character seeking to act within the public sphere -- as well as why we don't really have any of the latter anymore.


There may no longer be anyone in America like Allen Ginsberg, but America is not the same for his having been here. Readers of this collection may also find that they are no longer the same after having encountered him in its pages. His breath is stilled, his voice literally silenced, but the converse of Auden's dictum is also true: the guts of the living are modified by the words of the dead.

Categories: Poetry, Flash Poetry, Other

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