Allen Ginsberg’s Self-Recording Sessions

IN FOCUS, 9 Jan 2023

Kathryn Winner | The New Yorker – TRANSCEND Media Service

In the late sixties, Ginsberg began taping many of his public appearances, as well as his casual and private conversations. He used the recordings to compose his greatest work.

Allen Ginsberg’s poetry often resembles a travel log, attaching particular experiences to particular places.
Photograph by Martyn Goddard / Alamy

6 Jan 2023 – In September, 1965, the poet Allen Ginsberg had a series of vivid, sweaty dreams about literary celebrity. Accompanied by his fellow-poet Gary Snyder and a young woman named Martine Algier, Ginsberg was touring the Pacific Northwest in a Volkswagen camper van he’d bought himself with a Guggenheim grant, stopping to hike, climb, and camp along the way. He slept under the forest canopy in a saffron-colored sleeping bag and recorded his dreams in his journal, published in 2020 as “The Fall of America Journals.” The first dream took place at a friend’s apartment in New York City: lying with Jean Genet on a couch, Ginsberg talked loudly about his personal life as a roomful of people—journalists, former classmates, literati, extended family—looked on, sipping on martinis and hanging on Ginsberg’s every word.

In the second dream, Esquire wanted to interview Ginsberg “for a feature article on [his] divine person.” Ginsberg called his friend William S. Burroughs to share the news, but Burroughs disapproved, telling Ginsberg he’d been vain and stupid to accept the invitation. Ginsberg felt “chagrined,” and woke up. Next, he was headed toward San Francisco in the Volkswagen. A poem earnestly titled “Beginning of a Poem of These States” tracks his journey. Ginsberg records the character and color of the landscape, the tinny pandemonium on the radio, the Beach Boys singing tenderly against a backdrop of new industrial farmlands spreading; he suggests that his tennis shoes from Central Europe are not thick enough to keep his feet from getting cold in the early mornings.

What else do you want to know? Ginsberg’s life has been exhaustively catalogued by multiple encyclopedic biographies. But his experience of the late sixties is knowable in especially fine detail—a consequence of his efforts in those years to make the work of writing and self-documentation as mobile, flexible, and constant as possible. His poetry began to resemble a travel log, attaching particular experiences to particular places. In “Beginning of a Poem of These States,” he describes the morning sun warming his feet, ravens landing on a dead cow at the side of the road, tomato sandwiches, silence. Through California’s Donner Pass, the poem’s speaker feels a surge of giddy freedom; “I have nothing to do,” he says, “laughing.” Wildfire smoke forms a purple band at the horizon, and the speaker chants to the Hindu god Shiva—a “new mantra to manifest Removal of Disaster from my self.” As an unnaturally red sun sets over California, Bob Dylan’s “Positively 4th Street” comes on the radio. “Dylan ends his song / ‘You’d see what a drag you are,’ ” wrote Ginsberg. The actual line is “You’d know what a drag it is to see you.” Eventually, as the story goes, Ginsberg would obtain a tape recorder with help from Dylan.

“Beginning of a Poem of These States,” which appears in the first pages of “The Fall of America: Poems of These States 1965-1971,” demonstrates Ginsber’s growing enthusiasm for highly detailed modes of self-recording. “The Fall of America” is Ginsberg’s fifth collection of poems (after “HOWL,” “Kaddish,” “Reality Sandwiches,” and “Planet News”) and his longest and most critically successful standalone work. The original edition, published by City Lights in 1972, is a cult object, a chunky little book with a minimalist black and white cover, title and author intoned in a cool, lightly-serifed font. As the title suggests, its poems convey images of national decline and collapse, which Ginsberg attributes to an interlocking set of causes: racial exploitation and violence; the outsized power of certain depraved politicians and corporate owners; widespread, reality-warping abuses of mass media; and compounding environmental devastations—in short, an evergreen guide to the end of the empire. But virtuosic topicality and overdetermined relevance to our own moment aren’t what make “The Fall of America” special. To understand its prescience, and experience its enduring appeal, you have to zoom in on its process.

“The Fall of America” was famously written with the help of a portable tape machine. When Ginsberg began work on it in 1965, amateur recording was a relatively new possibility: magnetic tape technology had just made its way into the U.S. at the end of the Second World War, when reel-to-reel recorders were machines the size of mini-fridges, generally acquired by record labels or entertainment and news outlets. Rapid advancements ensued, and by the nineteen-sixties there were smaller, battery-powered tape machines available to consumers. Ginsberg used an Uher, an upscale German model that was distributed in the United States by Martel. The Uher was easy to carry (weighing only several pounds), plus its special features included a rechargeable battery that could be plugged into any outlet and a microphone that doubled as an electromagnetic remote control, making it possible to start and stop the recorder from a distance.

“The Fall of America” compresses the hours Ginsberg spent playing with his new toy. When he was composing what he called “auto poesy,” Ginsberg would switch on the machine and spout lines into the air of the Volkswagen. He recorded his reactions to billboards, pop songs, ads, and news reports; confessed intimate feelings; and addressed an eclectic list of higher powers (Hindu saints, yogis, Herman Melville, and Bob Dylan). He would replay the recordings again and again, listening carefully—repeating and re-recording certain lines, refining and building on his rhythms. Then he’d transcribe the tapes’ contents into his journal, editing, formatting, and polishing as he went. His journals suggest that he planned to clear his schedule of commitments, drive back and forth across the continental U.S., and spontaneously record his thoughts about life, friendship, waning youth, and the search for authenticity. Ginsberg himself seems to have acknowledged the conceit as derivative—an aping of “On the Road,” Jack Kerouac’s best-selling novel of the late nineteen-fifties.

“Pray for me, Jackie,” Ginsberg appears to have told his brand-new tape recorder around 1965, addressing it like a telephone receiver in a burst of coy neediness. “All I can do is think like you, write like you.” The comparison flatters Kerouac, who spent the late nineteen-sixties living semi-reclusively and struggling with alcoholism in Florida. But it fairly reflects Ginsberg’s passion for mimesis, and for talking to people who may or may not be listening.

Like Kerouac’s “spontaneous prose,” auto poesy was a more labor- and time-intensive process than the coinage suggests. Ginsberg began taping many of his public appearances, as well as his casual and private conversations. He carried the Uher with him everywhere—into auditoriums, classrooms, restaurants, train stations. He taped himself on planes and at parties. His use accelerated so quickly that it caused fights with his boyfriend, Peter Orlovsky. By 1966, recordings suggest that Peter felt abandoned for the little machine and the hyper-absorbed moods it could induce. “Work your fucking recorder, man,” Peter once told Ginsberg in the middle of a heated argument. Ginsberg tried to mollify him—“I like you, Peter, everything’s all right.”—Peter snubbed him. “You like your publicity,” Peter said, suggesting that the recorder appealed as a surrogate audience. “You keep it.” (This tape now sits in Ginsberg’s enormous tape archive at Stanford University; the tape is labelled “Peter angry in car,” in Ginsberg’s handwriting). Ginsberg would eventually avail himself of Peter’s insult: the long poem “Iron Horse” opens with a detailed transcription of the poet literally getting off to the sound of his own voice; he dirty-talks the microphone while masturbating, fully nude, in a train car.

Ginsberg once wrote in his journal that “the best antipolice state strategy was total exposure of all secrets.” “Unclassify everybody’s private life,” he suggested. “President Johnson’s as well as mine.” The years spanned by “The Fall of America” roughly coincide with the time that the F.B.I. was compiling a dossier on Ginsberg, focussing primarily on his sexuality, drug use, and psychiatric history. We could see Ginsberg’s obsession with self-recording as strategic, an effort to counteract repressive invasions of privacy by preëmptively surrendering everything to the eyes and ears of everyone.

But Ginsberg also appeared to be motivated by a prodigious appetite for fame and recognition. Bill Morgan’s biography, “I Celebrate Myself: The Somewhat Private Life of Allen Ginsberg,” opens with two juxtaposed anecdotes: in the first, Ginsberg interrupts a violent dispute on a sidewalk in New York City by approaching the person at the center of it, a woman evidently out of her mind on bad drugs, and offering her a Fig Newton, a kindness so incongruous it seemingly diffused the situation. The second takes place at the end of Ginsberg’s life. The last letter he ever wrote, according to Morgan, was addressed to President Clinton: “I have untreatable liver cancer and have 2-5 months to live,” it read. “If you have some sort of award or medal for service in art or poetry, please send one along.” These two impulses—the reparative and the approval-seeking—converge in Ginsberg’s experiments with recording. The lyric persona of the tape poems strives to be as worthy of our attention as he is desperate for it.

The most famous and highly regarded poem Ginsberg ever composed on tape is “Wichita Vortex Sutra,” completed in 1966. It wasn’t included in “The Fall of America”; Ginsberg released it early, apparently out of enthusiasm (it appeared in 1968’s “Planet News”). A symbolic struggle between the individual poet and the U.S. state forms the core of its dramatic action: Ginsberg—who identifies himself in the poem as “a lonesome man in Kansas . . . not afraid to speak my lonesomeness in a car”—declares the ongoing war in Vietnam “over now,” even as body counts come in over the radio. The euphoric climax:

I lift my voice aloud,
make Mantra of American language now,
I here declare the end of the War!
Ancient days’ Illusion!—
and pronounce words beginning my own millennium.
Let the States tremble,
let the Nation weep,
let Congress legislate its own delight
let the President execute his own desire—
this Act done by my own voice
nameless Mystery—
published to my own senses,
blissfully received by my own form
approved with pleasure by my sensations
manifestation of my very thought
accomplished in my own imagination
all realms within my consciousness fulfilled
60 miles from Wichita.

Ginsberg’s autonomously “published” voice commands a momentous authority—the suggestion being that his Uher is an instrument of radical democratization, channelling world-making power away from corrupted institutions and toward ordinary people. But this rosy view of technology is undercut by the poem’s conclusion: a racially obscene volta addressed explicitly to white people implies that the poet’s “Act” has excluded Black Americans, for whom nothing has changed.

“Wichita Vortex Sutra” brought Ginsberg’s investment in questions of politics, propaganda, and governance to the surface of his writing. “The Fall of America” was no longer a poetry version of “On the Road.” Ginsberg had a new, if still imperfect, point of comparison: “The Cantos,” Ezra Pound’s unfinished and infamously complicated modernist poem. Politically, Ginsberg and Pound’s differences were profound: Ginsberg was a left-wing activist leader, Pound a noted antisemite and Fascist collaborator. Ginsberg had nevertheless dreamed of meeting Pound for a long time—in one dream, Pound turned out to be “a short Jewish fellow” who was interested in the same things Ginsberg was. Ginsberg met Pound in the fall of 1967 in Italy, where Pound had been living a comfortable, increasingly catatonic existence since his 1958 release from St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington, D.C. (he was committed in 1946, after being indicted in absentia for treason for making Italian broadcasts which apparently expressed Fascist views).

If Ginsberg was at all nervous about visiting Pound, the entries in his journal suggest he didn’t show it. (These entries are extremely detailed; it seems possible that Ginsberg could have recorded some parts of his conversations with Pound.) “How old are you, old man?” Ginsberg reports asking when they met in Venice. (He also notes that he was “several wines and a stick of pot” deep.) Pound, it emerged, was turning eighty-two in a few days. They spoke several times during Ginsberg’s stay in Italy, most often at Pound’s home. Their conversation meandered (Ginsberg had a free-associative style of communicating), but it kept returning to Pound’s depression and self-loathing, his miserable inability to write. Pound complained that “The Cantos” were structurally “a mess” and Ginsberg offered his earnest reassurances: “I said the Cantos were solid.” At one point Ginsberg asked him “if he was at all familiar with my poetry.” Pound shook his head no. “I said, Well, oddly, it might even please you.”

Ginsberg was invited to spend Pound’s birthday with him. The night of, at 10 P.M., Ginsberg knocked on the door of Pound’s villa, wearing a gold silk shirt and carrying a harmonium and some of his own work—manuscript pages, it appears, from “The Fall of America.” After fireside cake and champagne, Ginsberg took a chance, reading “a few pages of ‘Middle Section of Long Poem on These States’ ” to “illustrate [the] effect of his composition on mine.”

The reading appears to have gone poorly. “Oops!,” Ginsberg wrote in his journal. “Silence. Eek! Put that down fast.” He recovered by picking up his harmonium and chanting “50 verses” of a Hindu prayer to Gopala. Before leaving, he made a small demand. “Say Goodnight!” Ginsberg said, waving from the entryway. “He nodded amiably, said ‘Goodnight.’ So I left.”

It’s unclear what effect this ambivalent encounter had on Ginsberg. The political and personal upheavals of the following year (the Tet offensive began in January, 1968; his friend Neal Cassady died that February) must have forced him to move on quickly. The latter half of “The Fall of America” reflects the chaotic, uneven quality of Ginsberg’s life in those years. But it’s possible to see, in the velocity of Ginsberg’s language, a repudiation of Pound’s terminal obsession with structure, his silent retreat into feelings of artistic failure. To paraphrase the literary critic Hugh Kenner, “The Cantos” seemed paradoxically ancient to readers of Pound’s era, despite being vehemently topical. Their extreme difficulty, combined with an initially limited availability in print, led readers to construe Pound’s mind as the unapproachable source of an orphic craft. “The Fall of America” can be described in precisely opposite terms. If the reader can’t approach Ginsberg, it is because he has approached the reader first, and is currently pointing at the sky like a preacher and reading insistent lines at her:

“stay silent, ugly teachers,
let me & the Radio yell about Vietnam and mustard gas.”

Or, in a tone of itchy despair:

“I called in Exterminator Who soaked the Wall floor with
bed-bug death oil. Who’ll soak my brain with death oil?”

Or, venting stiff outrage at a journalist,

“Hanson Baldwin is a Military Ass-Kisser.”

Or maybe he’d go with something lovely, like an image of himself in landscape, rendered in warm, globular phrases:

“St. John’s Wort nodding yellow bells at the sun! eyes
close in your presence, I
lie in your soft green bed, watch light thru red lid-skin,
language persistent as birdwarble in my brain.”

However indebted Ginsberg may have felt to Poundian composition, his opus is defined by the way it makes his mind available, moment by moment, to our knowledge, attention, observation, and scrutiny. To read “The Fall of America” is to follow its author as he continuously converts individual experience into a stream of bright, informationally dense mosaics—a perusable abundance of compelling images, catchy sounds, and sensitive reactions to looming existential threats. Where Ginsberg went and with whom; how he dressed and what he ate; the headlines and articles he read and reacted to; the protests he attended; the hotel rooms he passed through; the meditations he practiced; the drugs he took; the sights, sounds, and smells he enjoyed or endured: all of this is discoverable. Ginsberg’s auto poesy gives us his life not merely as a collection of facts, but as an imminent reality—there for you to judge, worship, reject, envy, study, or imitate as you will.


Kathryn Winner is a Ph.D. candidate at Stanford University.

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