These are fragments of a conversation held in New York City on December 28th, 1978. My friend Peter Orlovsky was also in attendance. This dialogue was taped at the Chelsea Hotel, walking 23rd Street to a coffee shop, in a taxi, up 6th Avenue, walking in the village. . .
Regarding the Modem Language Association, on one evening I participate a reading of Hart Crane’s poem, the Atlantis section of “The Bridge,” before an assembly of American literature scholars. On the second evening, I was invited to read with other poets and asked Voznesensky to come up with Orlovsky and my self to demonstrate the oratorical style common to us, which was relatively unknown to the scholars.
Our conversation that week included some detailed accounts of the history of the attack and near-destruction of the American underground press by the E.B.I. The latter is the subject of a white paper I am writing for the PEN Club.
Allen Ginsberg: You ever heard Han Crane?
Andrei Voznesensky. No.
Peter Orlovsky: Oh, you’ve got a surprise coming.
Alien Ginsberg: He is a great oratorical poet. He committed suicide around 1932. Tomorrow I will be reading Crane.’ You want to hear some? What this sounds like in English? This is very high, powerful. The howl in my style comes from the power—like Shelley. Very hard to understand, but you can decipher. It is about the Brooklyn Bridge, linking present to future. Science. Like your poem to the airport. His vision of the Brooklyn Bridge in 1920. A long poem, made of many parts.
Peter Orlovsky: Very condensed, and no fat.
Allen Ginsberg: I’ll begin with just this small invocation to Brooklyn Bridge; then I’ll read you the grand chorale at the end. It ends. . .big ecstasy. Begins:
How many dawns, chill from his rippling rest
The seagull’s wings shall dip and pivot him,
Shedding white rings of tumult, building high
Over the chained bay waters Liberty—
Andrei Voznesensky: Very good, very good.
Allen Ginsberg: This is where Robert Lowell got much of his iron. You know he has some iron-clang rhyme? Very beautiful parts on the railtracks with old bums. Big American panorama, like Kerouac, who loved him.
Peter Orlovsky: What is a “prayer of pariah?”
Allen Ginsberg: A pariah is like an outcast, a beggar. Prayer of pariah.
Andrei Voznesensky: Very good, yes.
Allen Ginsberg: But the great moment is the “Atlantis.” I won’t read it for sense, just for sounds. The pure rhythm sounds. It’s like a Bach fugue. It rises, comes like this, rises again, comes like this and then comes. And then post-coitus, you know? After...
Through the bound cable strands, the arching path Upward, veering with light. ..
Andrei Voznesensky: Fantastic.
Allen Ginsberg: Great. Like Shelley. Like Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind.”
Peter Orlovsky: What is “sidereal phallanx?”
Allen Ginsberg: Sidereal. The starry assemblies of the bridge. Very., .somewhat technical language. “Kinetic of white choiring wings.”
Andrei Voznesensky: Very good.
Allen Ginsberg: It’s mouthfuls. Of tremendous vowels, end, “Oh, Answerer of All!” .. .bom-bom-bom-da-pa-da!
Andrei Voznesensky: Very good, very good.
Allen Ginsberg: This was published in ’33. This volume was given to me by William Burroughs in 1946. I’ve had it all these years. The poem was written, I think, in the late ’2O’s. What year did Mayakovsky go to the Brooklyn Bridge?
Andrei Voznesensky: I think ’29.
Allen Ginsberg: William Carlos Williams went to Greenwich Village, he told me, and he went to a reading of Mayakovsky’s.. .a small hall, a few people, poets. But good poets, like Williams, the avantgarde. After it was over, Williams went up to Mayakovsky and said, “You laid an egg.” Now in English it’s funny. To lay an egg means to smell... bad thing. But what he meant with Mayakovsky was “You put something solid on the table.” Laid an egg.
Peter Orlovsky: Something real. Something you could see.
Allen Ginsberg: That will grow, give birth. He laid an egg, he said. Williams told that story.
Andrei Voznesensky: But Mayakovsky did not understand it?
Allen Ginsberg: I think Williams said he was not sure; they had to translate it ovet and over again. Because it also means something terrible. Like a show “lays an egg.” But Williams turned it upside-down.
Andrei Voznesensky: It was a small room, like for friends?
Allen Ginsberg: In America there were no big poetry readings then. Except Vachel Lindsay. Do you know him? He tried to write syncopated jazz poetry. He wrote one about the blacks, called “The Congo,” that goes:
Fat black bucks in the wine barrel room.
Barrel-house kings, with feet unstable.
Sagged and reeled and pounded on the table.
Pounded on the table.
Beat an empty barrel with the handle of a broom.
Hard as they were able.
Boom, boom, BOOM.
With a silk umbrella and the handle of a broom,
THEN I SAW THE CONGO, CREEPING THROUGH
CUTTING THROUGH THE FOREST WITH A
Peter Orlovsky: Kettle drums.
Allen Ginsberg: There is a recording of him. He was the fust twentieth-century-on-the-road-bard, He wrote Rhymes to be Traded for Bread. Out on the road he’d offer to recite poems for a piece of pie. And he lectured like we do. Went to clubs. “The Chautauqua Circuit,” in those days. It was a circuit of educated clubs. (Voznesensky takes a phone call, speaking in Russian)
Allen Ginsberg: Something terrible happened at the Academy.
Andrei Voznesensky: What?
Allen Ginsberg: I sent in the proposed names to, I guess the literary department. And they voted. When we got the final ballot yesterday: neither Burroughs nor Snyder was on it.
Andrei Voznesensky: Was Brodsky?
Allen Ginsberg: Brodsky was on it. John Hollander was on it. Many others, younger people, let us say, than Burroughs. Or Snyder. It’s amazing. I can’t imagine. Brodsky is all right. But Burroughs is like this vast international presence.
Andrei Voznesensky: Certainly.
Allen Ginsberg: So I was thinking of resigning, but I don’t know. That won’t cure ignorance either. What apparently happened is that the Battle of Anthologies, as they called it, between the academic poets, the university poets, and the open-form poets—post-Williams, post-Whitman—is continuing; there really continues to be a kind of establishment. I thought because I was in the Academy it didn’t exist any- more. But to exclude Burroughs is scandalous, actually.
Peter Orlovsky: Gary Snyder, too.
Allen Ginsberg: And Gary Snyder, yes. The poets they chose may be worthy but they are not of equal power, or originality, or influence, or accomplishment.
Andrei Voznesensky: How many?
Allen Ginsberg: Well, they had eight poets, I think, that they could vote for. The expected ones were proposed and seconded by William Meredith, William jay Smith, Richard Wilbur, with a few eccentrics proposed by Richard Eberhart or Muriel Rukeyset. And the totally eccentric proposed by me! So when that man said he thought I should resign, at that supper we had there, I thought, well, he’s just talking drunk. But it probably represents the majority, for all I know.