Ginsberg's Thoughts on Art and Politics

Last Spring The Crimson spoke with Allen Ginsberg, beatnik poet and social activist. The following are excerpts from that conversation.

Q: You wrote the earlier poems like Howl in a period when the United States was coming out of a very repressed society...

A: Yes and no. There is a kind of public repression now with the neo-conservatives that I think wouldn't have been allowed in those days. A kind of stupidity--this business of creationism, the invasion of the public forum with religious fundamentalism, the overt attempts to muzzle the press, the conglomeration of multi-nationals owning the television networks, the multi-nationals owning the government, the extreme military budget, you know, 300 dollars a year. In 1959, I wrote a little essay denouncing the military spending and the budget then was 52 million a year instead of 300 billion. And I thought that was already extravagent. So there is a huge Big Brother thing going on now that if it went on before was not noticeably big brother. And the people that noticed it would have denounced it. But now people notice it and not only do they not denounce it, they want more.

For example what they'll do is send the U.S. Army down to get the cocaine growers in Columbia and simultaneously they'll raise the import tax on Columbian coffee. Simultaneously, it was like the schizophrenia of the decade.

Q: You were talking about your opera. Would you tell me a little about it? Is it an example of something that can be done about the society?


A: I think so. To put in grand opera at the climax, a CIA dope negotiator giving all the information on Bush's relation with Noriega and Don Regan, his security advisor, dealing with Felix Rodriguez--that is useful to have in a grand opera. It is not only of transitory interest but it is also typical time capsulation. People will look back and say "So that was what was happening."

Q: How would you respond to those who say that revolutionary theory and writing is by nature harmful to revolutionary action because it is adopted by the establishment?

A: It seems like a rather perverse use of language--what about reading them? It's a sort of Pyrrhic victory, if it's a victory at all. I doubt if it is. There is an attempt to cast out all language. I would say that at the extreme of the language pool people seem to be collaborating when they are consciously producing, trying to produce, directing all public discourse towards bubble-gum, whether empty language under the idea that at least empty language can't be used by the establishment. It seems to me a silly idea because it is precisely empty language that is used by the establishment as a substitute art form--I'm not going to say an art which is socially committed but an art which is committed to a representation of the actual mind, a real accurate presentation of the nature of consciousness and the nature of dealing.

Q: How do you accomplish that?

A: What are the sequences of "forms of dealing" as a touchstone of candid intellectuality? To cover most of the basis of my recurrent thoughts, preoccupations, the things that I think when I'm lying alone by myself at night and thoughts are racing through my head. Things that occur naturally to me, trying to catch myself thinking, write those down and present them to the external phenomenal world and end this constant division between inside and outside--that's the great function of art. And I think that's revolutionary in itself in that it contrasts manipulativeness and public speech with the candor of interior music. That's what Walt Whitman asked for. His word was candor and I don't think that can be emphasized enough...

Of course we can cite specific instances of rock and roll being co-opted and certainly why not? But on the other hand, there are successive waves of punk and rock and Dylan and others that rise fresh in a generation. After a while even Shelley was co-opted. He was revolutionary and then he was part of the canon. But then when you read Shelley or Blake you suddenly realize that it breaks through all canon or all reactionary and status quo.

Q: Couldn't you say that poetry is a lie to justify human relations?

A: Somewhat, but I think you could justify human relations through maximum awareness, maximum information, minimum number of syllables, concentrated. One person saying one thing is very interesting. The highest form of civilization is that which can be expressed by dance, which combines bodily movement and rythm with words and music. This combines the body, speech and mind in one activity, synchronizes them. That is the highest flower of civilization. In that sense science is not the highest, the highest flower of civilization. Which is why African nations have influenced the whole world through blues, rock and roll, rhythm, movement of the body, going beyond restrictions and chains and mechanical blood, rationalistic repression. Hyper-rationalistic. There is nothing with rationality but hyper-rationality creates chaos. Witness the creation of the bomb and the inability of the creators of the bomb to get rid of the waste product.

Interview conducted by Suzanne Petren Moritz.

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