SOUTH AMERICAN JOURNALS January – July 1960 by Allen Ginsberg – review

SOUTH AMERICAN JOURNALS
January – July 1960
by Allen Ginsberg
edited by Michael Schumacher
University of Minnesota Press
$29.95

First, I was immediately struck by how much unpublished poetry or early drafts (such as “Aether” and “Magic Psalm”) are contained in this volume – far beyond any previous journal publications of Allen Ginsberg. In fact, he mostly wrote his journal as poetry during this period. Granted much is not A-list material, as Allen correctly understood in not publishing a lot of it. But for earnest scholars and fans, it is a gold mine. There are also amazing little notations of events, such as seeing Montgomery Clift’s “Raintree County” (“he too looks sad” – in fact, Monty’s face-rearranging car crash occurred in the middle of filming that picture). Likewise a long dream about Marlon Brando, who imitates Jack Kerouac’s voice at one point(!) and includes a dream discussion of how great Orson Welles’ Magnificent Ambersons is.

Of course, thoughts of Jack Kerouac are everywhere in this journal.

"I should write K. a letter - I owe him one, full of everything…i.e. Confession.  
Afraid to write because of his mother.
Kerouac whom I love most.
	Who tries me most -
	Who makes me devil most,
		Kerouac who's true,
		Kerouac who's hypocrite,
		Kerouac who lets the chain fall down,
Who heard the whoosh of car wheels in the rain -"

Second, it is especially ironic that these journal entries obsess about consciousness. South America is the backdrop for this introspection, mostly pursued by drugs – and of particular current interest, ayahuasca..

"Opio makes you think & dream
Pot makes you perceive
Peyote makes you doubt thought & perception
LSD makes you transcend thot [sic] & perception
Laughing gas obliterates the whole process
Nature makes you know.
(…)
Cocaine, Snow, makes the archetypes seem more brilliant."

Yes, boys and girls, Ginzy tried ayahuasca in 1960, and he was still second to William Burroughs’ mind-safari, who went to the Amazon to try it in 1953 after reading about it “probably in National Geographic or …some goofy tabloid” as Allen later said. In fact, Oliver Harris states in his 2006 intro to an expanded Redux edition that such an article doesn’t seem to exist. Likely Burroughs found out from 19th Century botanical sources. Their “vine” correspondence was published by City Lights as The Yage Letters in 1963, and again Harris states that Burroughs’ “In Search of Yage” (correctly spelled yagé in actual fact) “…did not start out as real letters, or edited letters or any kind of letters at all.” His section was a sort of “epistolary novel.”

Though ayahuasca undoubtedly does something differently than the usual psychedelic suspects, both Allen and Bill had been there and done that, and though none the worse for wear, didn’t seem all that better, either. These journals supplement The Yage Letters, which WERE real letters from Allen, though clearly pulled in part from his journal accounts. Here’s a part that’s new:

“The great squid of Eternity opening & closing its mouth in vast slow motion in the innter phantasmal recesses of imagination during hallucinated state – with undersea fringed labia.”

Ginsberg annotates this Lovecraftian vision with a line from Gregory Corso: “Einstein his mythmouth made real on the moonsquid’s brain”

Compare Allen’s ayahuasca experiences with the third time in the week of his 1948 Blake vision. As reported by Allen in his 1996 “Vomit of a Mad Tyger” essay: “And I had a sense of the black sky coming down to eat me. It was like meeting Yamantaka without preparation, meeting one of the horrific or wrathful deities without any realization that it was a projection of myself, or my nature, and I tried to shut off the experience because it was too frightening.”

The biggest difference in Buddhism from Eastern religions in general is non-theism, no creator god. As Kerouac put it, “mind alone/introduced the bone.” Wrathful and peaceful visionary Buddhas are not regarded as separate entities, but manifestations of primordial awareness – ultimately, though appearing, essentially empty – even of a fixed reference point such as a Divine Eternal Self.

Ginsberg had formally declared himself a Buddhist in a letter to Lawrence Ferlinghetti in 1958 after a dentist chair nitrous experience, but none the less, Jack Kerouac, Gary Snyder and Philip Whalen seemed to have a much better understanding of what that actually meant until Allen reconnected with Chogyam Trungpa on a chance New York City street in 1970 after first meeting him in India in 1963 (and with no memory of that meeting until a photo by Gary Snyder proved it).

Before this, he shared the bohemian psychedelic view that Krishna/Buddha/Allah et al were interchangeable, which became philosophical problematic for Allen after his 1968 car crash. ““I gotta get a new metaphysics. Body’s too unreliable.” Ginsberg wrote Ferlinghetti at the time of his accident. Around 1973, Allen took on Trungpa’s open-eyed breath mindfulness meditation, or “shamatha,” as the poem “Mind Breaths” specifically indicates.

Still, these journals represent our mind-hero’s pilgrim progress, warts and all. There are many great moments, as always, which is what makes his journals of enormous interest in that spiritual-poetic journey, and of the Beat Generation in general.

“The Beat Generation, a decisive moment in American Consciousness – henceforth the horses’ are herded to eternity/ No group as weird before. Weird in sense of Lamantia’s paraphrase of Poe’s Weir – the elements were [p]resent before in Poe,
Dickenson [sic], Melville, then Crane – an evolution of human consciousness – ‘Widen the area of consciousness.'”

Philip Lamantia’s surrealist “paraphrase” of Poe, might best be clarified by his widow and editor, Nancy Peters: who said that Lamantia “found in the narcotic night world a kind of modern counterpart to the Gothic castle — a zone of peril to be symbolically or existentially crossed.” “In the ghoul-haunted woodland of Weir” is Poe’s made-up location in “Ulalume.”

Of course, for those of us who are obsessed with all things Beat, it represents a much bigger gestalt than the cultural period of 1950-1965. It is a springboard into a Western world waking up and perhaps now-fatalistic hope for the planet. As the impossibly ambitious Bodhisattva Vow says (and it’s easy here to imagine Allen’s voice), “Sentient beings are numberless – I vow to save them.”

Read this book. Editor Michael Schumacher has done it again, and I look forward to his further excavations.

–Marc Olmsted


Poetry Reviews

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