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Readings — From the March 2017 issue

Filial Poetry

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From an interview conducted by Stephen Braitman with Allen Ginsberg and his father, Louis Ginsberg, in 1974. The interview is included in First Thought, a collection of conversations with Allen Ginsberg that was edited by Michael Schumacher and published this month by the University of Minnesota Press. Louis Ginsberg was a poet and often participated in joint readings with his son.

stephen braitman: How do you feel about these father-and-son readings?

allen ginsberg: It’s just the inevitable mess of reality. Whatever harmony there is, is real; whatever difference there is, is real.

louis ginsberg: We practice peaceful poetic coexistence.

braitman: What sort of response have you had?

louis: In general, I’d say the young cluster around Allen, while the mature cluster around me.

braitman: We were talking earlier about the risks involved in your poetry. Your poetry so often is politically oriented — almost a call to action.

allen: Not quite. My poetry is primarily a record of my consciousness. The basic principle relies on spontaneous and non-revised transcription of thought-forms.

braitman: Non-revised?

allen: For the most part. They’re touched up here and there, but the basic principle is to catch the bird on the wing rather than to construct an artifact.

louis: But the point it —

allen: Uh, I’m just trying —

louis: Well, go ahead.

allen: I was just trying to answer your question.

louis: Very good, very good. Go ahead, go ahead.

allen: I wasn’t trying to get into a polemic about what type or another —

louis: Oh, far be it from me to —

allen: I want to avoid it, right now. I wanted to answer his question.

louis: I thought the gentleman was soliciting my response.

allen: I want to answer his question.

louis: Very good, I’ll give you time.

allen: I want to answer his question . . . I only want to answer his question.

louis: You see —

allen: I only want to answer his question. So, since political activity is a part of the contents of my mind, it inevitably enters into the poetry.

louis: But at the same time you arouse indignation among people who are sleepy and sluggish. To them it is a call to action to say, “Why should this injustice exist? Let’s do something about it!”

allen: But that’s concomitant potential, rather than the intention.

louis: That may be, that may be.

allen: It is really important to make that distinction.

louis: I am aware, too, of injustices, though not as much as Allen. He’s younger and pays attention to them more.

allen: You lived a more sheltered life.

louis: In my day, we didn’t have this turbulence, this domestic intolerance. While I say what Allen is doing is wonderful and noble, still, that’s one part of life. Who’s to say that life is only this.

allen: The only thing that I know of life or can possibly know of life is what I know of life. I couldn’t know of life what I don’t know of life. That right? That right?

louis: The poet is a voice for the voiceless. He can articulate what many people can’t express.

allen: You’re going to mislead people if you say that. The poet is a voice for his own thoughts.

louis: Nevertheless —

allen: If he starts out intending to be a voice for other people, he will synthesize what he thinks other people should —

louis: I differ from you, if I am true —

allen: There’s a tendency —

louis: If I am true —

allen: There’s a tendency —

louis: Allen feels that anything that wells up in the subconscious is okay in art.

allen: I don’t feel that way.

louis: He says, “Catch it on the wing.”

allen: I only publish a fiftieth of what I write. Your formulation of “anything that wells up from the unconscious” is incorrect.

louis: But the fact remains that you think anything that wells up in the unconscious is poetry.

allen: One moment. Here is all the writing of the last year, 117 pages, of which I have published only five.

louis: Then you do practice conscious revision.

allen: No, I select what is most concrete. And hot.

louis: Is anything you publish consciously scrutinized and selected?

allen: I write a lot of crap. But once I write it down, I don’t revise it. I don’t go back and do it over again.

louis: But you omit certain things.

allen: I omit 98 percent of the things I scribble.

louis: I call that selection.

allen: That’s selection but not revision. I’m just using words precisely, as a poet should.

louis: Do you ever decide this verb is weak, that you need a more vivid, alive, palpitating word?

allen: Occasionally, very rarely.

louis: That’s revision!

allen: Occasionally, very rarely.

louis: That’s revision.

allen: I think you’re being unfair to me.

louis: That may be, but —

allen: In fact, you’re misquoting me. I think it’s unfair for you to misquote me.

louis: Well, I’m giving you —

allen: You said “everything” and I said “maybe five percent.” You’re misquoting me now, and it’s not fair. It’s just not fair!

braitman: What do you feel when you read each other’s poetry?

allen: When I read my father’s poetry, very often there is a tremendous melancholy awareness, an almost tearful realization, that I should have been kinder when we were together.

louis: I’m proud, of course, that he’s fulfilling his nature, that he’s successful and has fame and fortune. But in the end it’s complementary — he sees things, I see things a different way.

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