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Revisiting the 'Fresh Air' interview with poet Allen Ginsberg

TONYA MOSLEY, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Tonya Mosley.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ALLEN GINSBERG: (Reading) I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving, hysterical, naked, dragging themselves through the Negro streets at dawn, looking for an angry fix.

MOSLEY: That's Allen Ginsberg giving his first complete reading of his now-classic poem "Howl," recorded at Berkeley's Town Hall Theater in 1956. Allen Ginsberg changed the course of American poetry. He made poetry an essential part of beat culture and then hippie culture. And he later became a father figure to many performance poets. Over the years, he received the National Book Award, the Robert Frost Medal for Distinguished Poetic Achievement and an American Book Award for Contributions to Literary Excellence. Ginsberg died in 1997. Next week a new tribute album to Ginsberg will be released titled "The Fall Of America II." It features musical interpretations of his poems from 1965 to 1971 by Philip Glass, Miho Hatori, Thurston Moore and others and this one by Seb Taylor for the poem "Denver Again" (ph).

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OVER DENVER AGAIN")

SEB TAYLOR: These dates over Denver. Gray clouds blot sun glare. Mountains float west, planes softly roaring over Denver. Neal dead a year. Clean suburb yards. Fit boarding house for the homosexual messenger's alleyway Lila four decades back before the atom bomb. Denver without Neal, eh?

MOSLEY: Terry Gross spoke to Allen Ginsberg in 1994. At the time, a box set of recordings of his poems and songs titled "Holy Soul Jelly Roll" had been released. She asked him about his poem "Howl," which was partly inspired by his mother, who had been in a mental hospital.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GINSBERG: She had been there for several years, and I had put her there after a breakthrough of some very violent behavior toward her sister and a cousin she was staying with. And then I had gone out to San Francisco, but the grief was very much on my mind. I had a friend, Carl Solomon, with whom I had been in a mental hospital six years before, and he was back also in Pilgrim State, too. So I addressed the poem ostensibly to him, but the emotions were, I think, directed toward my mother, both grief and a sense of solidarity.

TERRY GROSS: Yeah, you know, and part one begins with one of your most famous lines.

GINSBERG: Yeah.

GROSS: I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness.

GINSBERG: Starving, hysterical, naked. The original phrase was starving, mystical, naked. But I figured that was a little bit too simple-minded because the problem was not all the problem of society. It was also the neurosis of the people. So there's a certain ironic edge to it, which I don't think critics at the time realized. I said starving, hysterical, naked. So it wasn't just a one-dimensional protest for the safety of madmen. It was also like trying to give quick sketches of a series of cases that I drew from real life.

GROSS: Now, I want to move on to another poem, "America."

GINSBERG: Yeah.

GROSS: It was read the same night as "Howl."

GINSBERG: Yes.

GROSS: It was at the same reading.

GINSBERG: Yes, and that's the very first unveiling of that poem. It's really funny. The text in the recording differs a little from the final text that I wound up with. There are a few extra and some very funny, lines, actually.

GROSS: It really is very funny. And you get a lot of laughs from the audience.

GINSBERG: Well, it sounds like a stand-up comedy routine. That's the era, actually, of Lenny Bruce around San Francisco. He was playing, I think, at The Purple Onion. And I went down to see him and watch his act, actually. But I hadn't expected that kind of reaction, and I didn't think the poem was that good. Nor did Kerouac. It was just sort of like a joke, you know, like, a takeoff sendup of America, very lighthearted. But it's done with many different voices in a kind of schizophrenic persona. You know, one minute serious, one minute f*****y, one minute desperate, one minute religious, one minute patriotic. One minute, I'm putting my queer shoulder to the wheel.

GROSS: Why don't we hear the beginning of "America" as you read it in 1956 at Town Hall in Berkeley?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GINSBERG: (Reading) America, I've given you all, and now I'm nothing. America, $2.27, January 17, 1956. America, I can't stand my own mind. America, when will we end the human war? Go [expletive] yourself with your atom I don't feel good. Don't bother me. I won't write my poem till I'm in my right mind.

(LAUGHTER)

GINSBERG: (Reading) When will you be angelic? When will you take off your clothes? When will you look at yourself through the grave? When will you be worthy of your million Christs? America, why are your libraries full of tears? America, when will you send your eggs to India?

(LAUGHTER)

GINSBERG: (Reading) I'm sick of your insane demands. When will you reinvent the heart? When will you manufacture lands? When will your cowboys read Spengler? When will your dams release the flood of Eastern tears? When will your technicians get drunk and abolish money? When will you institute religions of perception in your legislatures? When can I go into the supermarket and buy what I need with my good looks?

(LAUGHTER)

GINSBERG: (Reading) America, after all, it is you and I who are perfect, not the next world. Your machinery is too much for me. I don't want to work for a living.

(LAUGHTER)

GINSBERG: (Reading) You made me want to be a saint. There must be some other way to settle this argument.

GROSS: Allen Ginsberg, recorded in 1956. That's one one of the recordings featured on his new box set, "Holy Soul Jelly Roll." You must have seen yourself as a provocateur, in a way, at a very young age. I'm thinking, you know, that you were just coming from a place that was not average. You know, your mother was mentally ill. Your mother had been a communist. You were gay. You were an intellectual. You loved poetry.

GINSBERG: But also...

GROSS: I mean, just everything about your life kind of set you apart.

GINSBERG: But you've got to realize, by this time I had already known William Burroughs and Jack Kerouac 12 years. This is not, you know, some sudden...

GROSS: Right.

GINSBERG: ...Discovery of a community or ideas. We had had a long period of privacy and silence to ripen our art, to know each other and to amuse each other and to understand each other's language and intelligence and sort of enlarge our own consciousness with the experience of others. Also, I'd already had some sort of natural religious experience. And we had all, by this time, tried out some of the psychedelic drugs in addition, on top of a natural religious experience that was without drugs, and already had traveled a bit. And so we were - I was a young kid then. I was 28 years old. You know, it was quite a ripe time.

GROSS: Was it surprising to you to find people like Burroughs and Kerouac, who you felt this kind of friendship and aesthetic closeness with?

GINSBERG: No, it was just some sort of natural kinship that we felt almost instantly on meeting.

GROSS: But did you expect you'd ever find that?

GINSBERG: Not exactly, but I hadn't even conceived of such a thing. I conceived of friends. And I'd had friends in high school, but I was still in the closet. Kerouac was the first person I was able to come out of the closet to and tell him about it. And I actually slept with him once or twice, though he was primarily straight.

But he was very tender toward me. And he saw that I was in solitary and in a great deal of confusion and anguish, and he took a sort of kindly view. Burroughs was always out front and clear and lucid and intelligent. So I was lucky when I was 17 that I met people whose genius sort of ignited my own talents to - and sort of upgraded, I think, my own natural intelligence. But I'm really a student of Kerouac and a Burroughs, and in some respects an imitator.

GROSS: But when you talk about being a student of Kerouac's, I've never been able to tell how much your style of reading influenced him and how much his style of reading influenced you.

GINSBERG: Oh, I think his style influenced me. It was way back in '47, '48, I heard him read Shakespeare aloud. And it was such an interesting intonation that he put into a soliloquy of "Hamlet," I think, where Hamlet is sitting down on the steps saying, what am I - you know, what am I doing? Am I nothing but a John-a-dreams (laughter)? And the way Kerouac said a John-a-dreams, it was like his mind went off into a little dream in that phrase.

So I began seeing that there were intonations, differences of pitch possible. You know, most poetry was - still is pronounced in a monotone or a dual-tone where, you know - it's like I'm talking now in a sort of monotone. But there are possibilities in conversation where you go from, you know, a little high when you're talking to a little baby, to down to your serious heart tones when you're talking to your grandmother on her last days on Earth.

GROSS: Of course, with your readings, I always felt that there was a certain Hebraic intonation, even though I know that, you know, Buddhism was probably an even greater influence on you. And you certainly hear that in your voice, too. But there is that kind of Hebraic sound.

GINSBERG: The Hebraic thing is very real. My grandfathers were rabbis. And one of the most strong musical influence I ever had was hearing a recording of Sophie Breslau, a great operatic singer, singing "Eli, Eli," with a kind of melisma, I guess you'd call it, sort of a very beautiful way of bending the notes that's characteristic of Hebrew melody.

GROSS: Now, when did that start to enter your reading style?

GINSBERG: Well, certainly with "Kaddish" because I was imitating the davening motion of Kaddish, you know, the sound of, (speaking Aramaic). Da, da, da. Da, da, da. Da, da, da. Magnificent, mourned no more, marred of heart, mind behind, married dreamed, mortal changed. That is - the whole rhythm of the poem has a kind of combination of Ray Charles, "I Got A Woman" - yes, indeed, yes, indeed, yes, indeed - and which I had been hearing the morning before I wrote the poem, and a rhythm of the original Hebrew Kaddish that was still running through my mind and body. First time I'd heard it, actually, a Jewish friend played it to me and Dawn Light the morning that I started writing the poem.

GROSS: And the Kaddish is the Hebrew prayer for the dead.

GINSBERG: Yes, it's kind of a Mass or prayer for the dead in the synagogue, when you have minyan or a group of elders that are - can get together to help you mourn for the dead.

GROSS: So I guess you didn't say the prayer when your mother died.

GINSBERG: Well, I didn't know it as well, but I did try and do it. Actually, I wandered around San Francisco with Jack Kerouac and Philip Whalen. And we went into various synagogues, but there was no minyan, so we couldn't do it. So this is a way of making up about a year - a couple of years later.

GROSS: And this is a couple of years after your mother, Naomi, died.

GINSBERG: Yeah, my mother died in '55. Incidentally, you know, I sent her the original - a copy of the original manuscript of "Howl," which she received about a week before she died. And she wrote me a letter which was postmarked the day she died, which is quoted in Kaddish, in which she said she got my poems. She can't tell whether it's good or bad. My father should judge because he's a poet. But judging from the bit - she'd read it, obviously. She said, get married, Allen. Don't take drugs. And she said, I have the key. The key is in the window. The key is in the sunlight in the window. And then she died of stroke, I think, perhaps hours or within 24 hours of writing the letter. So I received that letter after I had heard that she died, so it was like a message from the land of the dead, so to speak.

MOSLEY: Allen Ginsberg speaking with Terry Gross in 1994. We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF THELONIOUS MONK'S "FUNCTIONAL (TAKE 1)")

MOSLEY: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's 1994 interview with poet Allen Ginsberg. Next week a new tribute album of musical interpretations of Ginsberg's poems will be released. It's titled "The Fall Of America II."

GROSS: Now, if you had grandfathers - who were rabbis, did you say?

GINSBERG: Well, scholars, you know, guys with big, black hats and long-bearded - long, gray beards who died of cancer from smoking, actually.

GROSS: But how did...

GINSBERG: New York in the '30s.

GROSS: How did you get to be in your 20s before you heard the prayer for the dead?

GINSBERG: Well, we didn't. My mother was communist, and my father was socialist.

GROSS: So you didn't go to synagogue.

GINSBERG: So I did go to synagogue, and I went to - what? - Sunday school or - what do you call it? - the shul to learn Hebrew and the traditional - prepare for a bar mitzvah. But I somehow I asked questions that were resented by the rabbi. And I got kicked out when I was about 8 years old or 9. And I never did understand it because I thought I was just sort of talking intelligently to him and inquiring. But there must have been an age of skepticism to it. But there was no tolerance for that at all. My questions weren't answered, and I was just told to get out. So I've never had very much of a classical Hebrew education.

GROSS: Your mother was institutionalized several times.

GINSBERG: Many, many times. All during my childhood, I had to go out to visit her in Greystone Hospital.

GROSS: Were you frightened by her madness?

GINSBERG: Sometimes, sometimes sorrowed, sometimes frightened, sometimes stuck with a responsibility I couldn't carry out as a kid. Going out alone to see her in a mental hospital when I was 12, 13, 14 - it was - or having to stay home and take care of her while my father was in school teaching. And getting into crisis situations with her that I couldn't handle actually kind of broke my brain in a way, broke my spirit to some extent.

GROSS: Now, when you started doing hallucinogenics like LSD, did your hallucinations ever scare you because you'd seen your mother have hallucinations and delusions because of her mental illness?

GINSBERG: Well, no, not really. I realized that if everybody began disagreeing with me, I'd better look around twice...

GROSS: (Laughter).

GINSBERG: ...And think three times and be pretty sure I knew what I was doing. And so I've been able to be in situations where everybody disagreed but, at the same time, maintain my sanity, so to speak, by simply following my heart, really. I have as much a tendency to paranoia as anybody in the United States at this point, but at least I can see it's paranoia. And most people don't see their own paranoia.

GROSS: Where were you in your performance style in 1964, the year that the recording of "Kaddish" was made?

GINSBERG: I hadn't ever tried to read anything as long as "Kaddish" complete. And so - and I had drunk a little bit - not very much. So I wasn't really drunk, but I was sort of a little keyed up with alcohol. So I was able to loosen my feelings quite a bit. So the only problem there is maintaining control of feelings and not breaking up and crying in the middle of the more moving passages.

GROSS: Is there a particular section of "Kaddish" that you've had the most problem with controlling your emotion?

GINSBERG: Yeah. There's a section that begins when I'm visiting my mother in the mental hospital for the last time. And I walk in, and I see she's had a stroke. And then suddenly there's a break in the poem, and there's a kind of lyrical rhapsody. Communist beauty, sit here married in the summer among daisies, promised. happiness at hand - it's the section that ends, oh, beautiful Garbo of my karma. It's really a nice, exquisite, poetic passage, but it's also full of feeling. And it's like a flashback in the midst of tragedy to a happier day. And so there's a lot of emotion buried there from childhood. Also, at the very end, the section, oh, mother, what have I left out? Oh, Mother, what have I forgotten, with your eyes, with your eyes, with your death full of flowers? That has a sort of cumulative emotional buildup that's quite great.

GROSS: Why don't I play an excerpt of "Kaddish"? And you wrote this in the late 1950s. The recording we're going to hear from your new box set was made at Brandeis University in 1964.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GINSBERG: (Reading) With your eyes running naked out of the apartment, screaming into the hall, with your eyes being led away by policemen to an ambulance, with your eyes strapped down on an operating table, with your eyes with the pancreas removed, with your eyes of appendix operation, with your eyes of abortion, with your eyes of ovaries removed, with your eyes of shock, with your eyes of lobotomy, with your eyes of divorce, with your eyes of stroke, with your eyes alone, with your eyes, with your eyes, with your death full of flowers.

MOSLEY: Terry Gross spoke to Allen Ginsberg in 1994. The tribute album "The Fall Of America II" will be released October 6 digitally and on CD and vinyl. Proceeds benefit PEN America. Coming up, Justin Chang reviews the new futuristic thriller "The Creator." This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF BILL FRISELL'S "ACROSS THE UNIVERSE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.