Spontaneous Mind: Selected Interviews, 1958-1996. Edited by David Carter. HarperCollins, 2001. $40.00 (hbk).
As Reviewed By: Justin Quinn
Does Allen Ginsberg need an introduction? Arguably, not at all. He was the most famous North American poet of the last century, a household name unlike T. S. Eliot or Wallace Stevens. His public presence was huge–bolstered by his friendships with rock-and-roll idols such as Bob Dylan and the Beatles and his extensive political activities–and it seems fair to say that he was one of the main catalysts for social and cultural change in the U.S.A. in the 1960s. That was certainly the opinion of the many groupies that drew near his flame, but it was also the opinion of his life-long enemy Norman Podhoretz in his essay, “My War with Allen Ginsberg”, published in Commentary a few months after Ginsberg died of liver cancer in 1997. However, there is a tendency now to condescend to the Beats, as one condescends to what one’s parents thought was fashionable in their youth. Ginsberg’s reputation has suffered similarly. For many people, his poetry was part and parcel a lifestyle that required a low level of personal hygiene, poor taste in music and clothing, indiscriminate sexual activity and the ingestion of large quantities of mind-expanding substances. In other words, Ginsberg gets written off with the 1960s.[private]
If that is true, then Allen Ginsberg does need an introduction in 2003, for he was one of the finest poets of the last century, perhaps the equal of his mentors such as William Blake or Walt Whitman. At the height of his powers, Ginsberg was at once a mystic, a comedian, a political commentator; and it is difficult, and senseless, to separate those roles. The combination is wholly original and resulted in such achievements as “Howl”, “Kaddish”, “Wichita Vortex Sutra”, and “Kral Majales”, to name but a few. To suggest, as numerous critics and journalists have done, that Ginsberg’s work is that of a self-promoting, “know-nothing Bohemian” whose poetry was a meaningless outburst of energy, is a misjudgment. If this book of interviews, selected from the entire span of Ginsberg’s writing life, is valuable then it is for the way it makes clear the utter seriousness of Ginsberg’s poetic vocation. And it is valuable for other reasons also.
The book carries a helpful epigraph from Ginsberg which begins: “A long time ago I figured out that the interview and the media was a way of teaching”. One of his primary gifts, which was instinct with his gift for great poetry, was for public relations. (It is likely that without him there would have been no conception of the Beat Generation.) The stories go that Ginsberg, when he returned to the U.S. from visits abroad, would spend the first few days phoning journalists (whether it was to promote the work of his friends, a political cause, or, lastly, his own poetry). One consequence of his early realization of the uses of the media is that he tried to answer every question put to him as fully and honestly as possible. That is no mean achievement given the outright hostility of some of the interviewers, and the media in general, to his ideals and to his own person. He never resorts to cheap irony or bitterness when he is mocked or attacked.
Nowhere is this more obvious than in the interview with John Lofton for Chronicles in 1988. Lofton’s stated intention in the interview was “to confront [Ginsberg] with the Truth of God’s Word”, although it is clear that he would have preferred to see Ginsberg burn at the stake. At one stage, he questions Ginsberg about pedophilia, and the poet admits to having had sexual fantasies about boys, but denies having acted on them; Ginsberg then makes the more general point many people have such fantasies but don’t act upon them. Lofton says that perhaps the people Ginsberg knows have such fantasies, but not the people that he does. Ginsberg is surprised at this and starts interviewing the interviewer, asking him he if has had sexual fantasies:
JL: …I’m a Christian. So I don’t fantasize.
AG: Do you ever have sexual fantasies?
AG: None at all?
JL: No. I said I’m a Christian.
AG: You’ve never had *any* sexual fantasies?
JL: Before I was a Christian, I had them, absolutely.
AG: And since you’re a Christian you don’t?
AG: You have no erotic dreams, at all, that you remember?
JL: None that don’t feature my wife, no. It’s an amazing thing what Jesus can do for a person.
The interview continues with the theme of such fantasies and Ginsberg admits that he’s
…occasionally had fantasies about making out with trucks as well as beasts. And maybe I’ll be making out with you before it’s all over. (laughs)
JL: Well… maybe I’d like to drive the truck while you made out with it, if you don’t mind, an 18-wheeler, with the pedal-to-the-metal.
AG: Well, now, here we are with… there’s your fantasy! (laughs)
Before the end of the interview, Lofton, a soi-disant Christian, is declaring that “some people ought to be trampled on […]. Some people ought to be put down. Some people ought to be stomped on”. This is funny, but it is important to note that Ginsberg was not out for cheap laughs at his interviewer’s expense. It is clear from the overall transcript, and the other interviews here, that he genuinely wished to get the measure of his interviewer in order for him to answer his or her questions as fully as possible, as though he knew that his ideas would not be communicated if that bond was not created. That he failed in this case to make such a connection is an exceptional event.
The interviews have been selected well and cover the main areas of Ginsberg’s activities–gay activism, the anti-war movement, literary friendships, drug-culture, and later, photography. That several of the interviewers are not American also helps to bring out different emphases (for instance, Simon Albury’s interview is particularly good for establishing an account of Ginsberg’s involvement with hippie culture, Josef Jarab’s for his relationship to African American literature). There are some minor errors (i.e., a book by William Carlos Williams is interestingly retitled, Agora in Hell, and Basil Bunting’s Briggflatts is divested of one of its dentals), but overall, David Carter has done an admirable job. The book conveys how multi-faceted and consistent Ginsberg’s ideas were, and it is also a kind of eye-witness account of the U.S. during the Cold War. It is more entertaining and useful than what has been published of Ginsberg’s journals, and indeed than his Deliberate Prose: Selected Essays, 1952-1995. It is the best companion I know for his Collected Poems.[/private]