See You Later, Allen Ginsberg

allen ginsberg on what poetry is.

Poetry is words that are empowered that make your hair stand on end, that you recognize instantly as being some form of subjective truth that has an objective reality to it because somebody’s realized it. Then you call it poetry later.

— Allen Ginsberg

2 thoughts on “See You Later, Allen Ginsberg

  1. You almost might not notice that it’s poetry.

    – Allen Ginsberg

    The mention of Dylan and Ginsberg together and thoughts of the revolution in poetry that they helped bring about in the 1960s brought these thoughts back to mind.

    When music ceases to “move around,” the poet Ezra Pound explained, it “begins to atrophy when it departs too far from the dance. . .poetry begins to atrophy when it gets too far from music.” If anyone needed proof of this, Jefferson Airplane’s Marty Balin pointed out that this was exactly what happened to jazz: “Jazz started out as dance music, and ended up dead as something to listen to.”

    Beat poet Allen Ginsberg also believed that somewhere along the way poetry had lost key components of its character. In his view, each stage in poetry’s evolution marked an increase in its degradation. To Ginsberg, poetry was at its zenith when it was tied to dance and the natural rhythms of the body. It lost the physical aspect when it was reduced to music and shed the critical musical aspect when it was relegated to the spoken word. Finally, poetry was condensed to its weakest, most disembodied form – words on the printed page.

    Ginsberg was optimistic, however, about the promise of the new, fully “embodied” musical poetry of the mid-1960s and its reunion of verse, rhythm, and dance. He maintained that this revival of poetry as song” would continue to evolve until “ultimately what you can expect is a naked, prophetic kid getting up, on a stage, chanting, in a trance state, language, and dancing his prophecies.” (Stephenson) Ginsberg was to discover that he was closer to the truth than even he thought. In the liner notes to his album Bringing It All Back Home, Bob Dylan proclaimed: “a poem is a naked person. . .some people say that i am a poet.”

    In 1964, when the Byrds were in the process of transforming “Mister Tambourine Man” into a full, electric rock band arrangement and changing the time signature from 2/4 to 4/4 in the process, their manager, Jim Dickson, invited Dylan to hear the band’s rendition of his song at World Pacific Studios in Los Angeles. Dylan, apparently impressed by what he heard, commented enthusiastically, “Wow. You can dance to that!” (Anon.)

    Soon after, Dylan began transforming his own sound with the addition of electric instruments and would embark upon a tour in 1965-66 in which he appeared on stages throughout North America, Asia, Australia, and Europe delivering his new elliptical, abstract, and abstruse songs in a pharmaceutically fueled wave of stunning power.

    Completing the fulfillment of Ginsberg’s prophecy is Dylan telling the Beat poet in 1965 that he would “go into the studio and chat up the musicians and babble into the microphone then rush into the control room and listen to what he said, and write it down, and then maybe arrange it a little bit, and then maybe rush back out in front and sing it [again]!” (Heylin)

    So it was that Dylan, by virtue of his “spoken poetry music, spoken poetry going into songs,” spurred a movement that would produce a re-embodied poetry reflective of man’s reassociated sensibilities. By recoupling poetry and music, Dylan and the poet-musicians who came along with and after him were to demonstrate that poetry need not be something static. Speaking of Dylan, poet Sandra Hochman said that it “is wonderful that poets are becoming bards again. Since all poetry has to do with song, he is making a real contribution to our idea of what poetry can be.” (Shelton)

    Paul Williams elaborated on that theme as it related to Bob Dylan and, in the process, revealed the essence of this new musical poetry: “I claim that the songs Bob Dylan so famously wrote in his heyday only found or achieved great power and beauty when he sang them. Then they meant something to their listeners, something they could not possibly have meant if they were just words on a piece of paper. He’s not that kind of poet. He makes poetry with his musical voice, his performances.”

    Gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson held Dylan in high regard and, in fact, had “been arguing for years now that music is the New Literature, that Dylan is the 1960s’ answer to Hemingway.” (Wills) In 1967, as if to reinforce these claims, writer Jack Newfield pronounced that Dylan “is a poet.” Carrying that thought a step further, he added, “If Whitman were alive today, he too would be playing an electric guitar.”

    It wasn’t dope that gave you truth
    nor money that you stole –
    was God himself that entered in
    shining your heavenly soul.
    –Allen Ginsberg “On Reading Dylan’s Writings”

    I particularly like the part of that interview when Ginsberg says Dylan has become a column of smoke (I believe it is smoke, but it might be a column of air.) I don’t remember, however, if that portion is in No Direction Home or It Was 20 Years Ago Today, a BBC documentary celebrating the life and times of Sgt. Pepper.

    The author requests that no portion of this essay or the ideas contained within be used without his permission.

    Thank you

    1. I love that Paul Williams concept, which really drives his studies of Dylan. Those books he wrote have been overshadowed by Dylan’s own effort in the 2000s with memoir and doc film to portray his story, plus the Greil Marcus and Sean Wilentz stuff and the Christopher Ricks efforts to treat Dylan on the page (my least favorite take on Dylan), but I always loved those Williams’s books on Dylan: the emphasis on performance without any distinction of it from poetry, just as you write and Ginsberg himself was so attuned to (Have you heard the out of print Artemis Records recording of Wichita Vortex Sutra from a St. Marks Church concert in early 90s? I think it’s great, with Philip Glass, Arto Lindsey, Steve Shelley, Thurston Moore, and many others, put together by Hal Wilner I believe…I can actually say what I cannot say about the 60s with that concert, I was there!).

      I remember it as Ginsberg describing Dylan as a column of air. “What struck me was that he had become one – or had become identical with his breath. Dylan had become a column of air, so to speak, at certain moments, where his total physical and mental focus was this single breath coming out of his body. He had found a way in public to be almost like a shaman, with all of his intelligence and consciousness focused on his breath.”

      Thanks as always for your thoughts about all this!

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