High Times Greats: Allen Ginsberg

The poet bares all in a 1992 interview.
High Times Greats: Allen Ginsberg
Allen Ginsberg, 1979/ Wikimedia Commons

To commemorate the anniversary of Allen Ginsberg’s death on April 5, 1997 at age 70, we’re republishing Gregory Daurer’s interview from the February, 1992 issue of High Times.

Count Beat poet Allen Ginsberg among the nation’s first hemp activists. After his seminal poem “Howl” thrust him into the national spotlight in 1956, Ginsberg began speaking out in favor of marijuana-law reform, gay rights, and a myriad of other causes close to his heart. Since then, he’s produced a body of work (including Planet News, the anti-nuke Plutonian Ode, and White Shroud) that has earned him the recognition of not only the counterculture, but also that of the literary establishment—receiving the 1974 National Book Award for The Fall of America

Besides Ginsberg’s literary notoriety, he’s recorded with Bob Dylan and the Clash, and his recent spoken-word/music disc The Lion for Real is tender and raunchy—highly recommended. Ginsberg also recently wrote lyrics for an opera, Hydrogen Jukebox, collaboration with noted composer Phillip Glass. And as if this weren’t enough, Twelvetrees Press has just released a beautiful book of the poet’s photographs.

A devotee of Tibetan Buddhism since 1972 (and less and less a pot-smoker), Ginsberg, now 65, teaches poetics during the summer at Naropa Institute’s Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics in Boulder, CO, where this interview took place. At first testy due to his consistently hectic schedule, Ginsberg quickly warmed up and proved to be a generous interview subject, his stream-of-consciousness replies sounding like improvisational poetry.

Why do you think there’s a revival of interest in the ‘50s Beat Generation and its literature?

The literature and mythology of the Beat generation runs counter to the current hyper-technological, homogenized, money-obsessed, security/fear-based, militaristic gross-out. It specialized in the analysis of the technological police state; the refreshing insight into ecological sanity; the revival of the Whitmanic notion of American friendship and affection as the basis of democracy; respect for individuality; disrespect for individuality; disrespect for the law where “the law is an ass,” pertaining to psychedelics, marijuana and the handling of heroin, not as a medical thing but as basis for sort of police state structure.

All these themes make the original Beat ethos quite user-friendly, compared to the destructiveness of supposed “straight” world that can go nuts, killing 150,000 people in Iraq for the sake of oil that that’ll pollute the planet. These themes are perennial values in a decade without values in America—a nation sustained by abuse of the earth’s resources and consuming a disproportionate amount of raw materials, creating a disproportionate amount of garbage, and possessing a disproportionate amount of military power for such a small nation. 

What Beat works best reflect the ideal you’ve discussed?

Books like On the Road or Visions of Cody, or Visions of Gerard or The Subterraneans – any of Kerouac’s writings coming from his spontaneous natural mind. Or Burroughs’ extremely intelligent analysis of the addiction situation in America. Or my own sort of exuberant, sometimes gay, sometime psychedelic, sometimes Buddhist, sometimes angry, sometimes funny, natural mine—see Collected Poems or White Shroud. Or Gregory Corso’s historical scope in Mine Fields, because he’s a pretty good one for applying Greek myth to contemporaneity. Or Gary Snyder’s Practice of the Wild, correlating backcountry with wilderness of mind. Or Philip Whalen, the first Beat poet abbot. Or Michael McClure’s new biological poetry, nature talking. As well as the sometimes inspiring myths of Neal Cassady who transcended—or spanned—several generation so of American psyche and road simultaneously—from Kerouac to Kesey.

Can you comment on the genesis of the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics—how that came together and how it expresses these values you’re discussing?

Well, to begin, the Ven Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoches, was a Tibetan lama and came to Boulder and established a meditation center, Dharmadhatu, and invited me and Gary Snyder and Robert Lie out of a poetry reading to raise money for it in 1972. At the end of summer, 1974, Trungpa sat down with me and John Cage and Anne Waldman and Diane di Prima and a few of his students and said, “Can you fellows take the responsibility for forming a school of poetry here within Naropa Institute to teach the Buddhists pure mouth, poetic mouth, because they’re not going to be good teachers or good Buddhists unless they use the world of speech skillfully to enlighten other people, to liberate other people. And at the same time, the poets who work here can learn meditation and sanity so there’s less death from alcohol and suicidal behavior and doubt about poetry being OK. So I thought that view was great. It’s gone on for seventeen years, and the school finally got accredited about five year ago in 1986. 

What are your current views on psychedelic drugs?

The last thing I tried was Ecstasy. The first trip was really great—here in Boulder—five years ago. One immediate conclusion I came to was that Ecstasy was misnamed. It was not a poet who laid that trip on the poor drug. It’s “Empathy.” “Ecstasy” is some kind of hippy-dippy exaggeration hyperbole. “Empathy” is more accurate, because the trip immediately made me feel very sympathetic, empathetic to everybody I knew. 

Have you tried it since then?

Second time I took it, same thing, but much diluted and it wasn’t that interesting. The amphetaminesque aspect of it was dominant and I didn’t like that. I don’t like amphetamines or cocaine—they just make you nervous and frazzle your nerves and exhaust your endorphins.

What did you learn from psychedelics?

Psychedelics seem to me a classic educational tool or classic visionary tool.  The only thing is I’ve slightly changed my view of them—it’s been twenty years of meditating now—I think it’d be useful to have some information or instruction or experience in centering yourself with meditation practice. Preferably nontheistic, so you don’t get trippy on Hindu gods, or Christian gods, or Jewish Jahvehs, or monotheistic monsters in the sky, or devils; but more open space as in Buddhist and some Hindu and some Kabbalah and some Sufi view—a centering mechanism so you don’t get entangled and trapped in your own projections. And being trapped in your own projections on acid is something I’ve experienced often and I can see how it could lead to disasters.

Explain what that concept means.

Some people get into a circular feedback, “Oooh, I’m in a human body, oooh, I’m dying, I must be dying this very minute, maybe I’m dying now, oooh, call the police!” And that’s how one gets entangled in one’s own projections. Or take off your clothes and jump in front of the cars and say, “Stop all the machinery!” So you might get run over or arrested, not knowing skillful means of communicating naked nature.

What would “skillful means” be?

The “skillful means” aspect of activities comes as a by-product of centering. The “wisdom” aspect might be psychedelic perception of the transitoriness of the world—with minute, particular detail glittering in the malady of the eyeball, a sense of emptiness in the world. So, combining wisdom and skillful means together would be necessary.

Unfortunately, the teaching of the government is neither wise nor skillful. It’s fixated on some God realm or some monotheistic central statism. And the government is entangled in its own projections, the projections that it had originally when the CIA introduced acid: That psychedelics were war weapons, and would drive the enemy nuts. They never got over it, because perhaps they were nuts themselves, the CIA director of project MK/ULTRA. 

You’ve described Timothy Leary’s psychedelic retreat in upstate New York—Millbrook—as a remarkable place. What do you recall about those times in the early ‘60s?

Well, they trained people—psychologists and Easter advisors—with a foundation aimed at exploring reactions and uses and safe procedures with LSD or other psychedelics. Hospitable. Open. Actually, quite scientific compared to the government’s experiments, which were totally unscientific. And, as someone who took part in legal government experiments, I know how they were unscientific. 

How were the government-sponsored acid tests unscientific?

They put me in a terrible room with whitewashed tile hospital walls and all sorts of batteries and machines and stuck electrodes in my skin and treated me like a hospital victim. It wasn’t the right way to take LSD.

Leary had you take it in the woods or in the big house with friendly people so you didn’t become and “object.” See, in government experiments at the Stanford Institute of Mental Health—1959—they treated subjects like objects to be studied, rather than living persons with whom to relate. Leary was treating the people he was working with as living, autonomous, individually-different people and taking a lot of notes and information on the subjective experience, saying that all you can get from that experience is subjective description.

Just like with lovemaking: You can measure the prick or the pulsations or the number of sperm or the body heat, but you won’t get the subjective thing in the belly: How does it feel in the belly or the heart when you relate to someone? And that’s the key to sex; you can’t measure it form the outside. And it goes along with [physicists] Heisenberg and Einstein: The measuring instrument determines the appearance of the physical world. Anyway, the government was inept and Leary was ept.

What did you find useful about Leary’s methods?

Millbrook was a safe center and he evolved a number of good generalizations for the use, mainly: Don’t make it secret, be candid, give the people the drug to take as much as they want themselves, so that they control the input rather than some controller—take it in a relaxed setting.

Leary came to the generalization that the set and setting influence the trip, which is the most wise thing that’s been said so far by an psychologist about drugs, and it’s the key to why some people freak out and it’s the key to why the whole government criminalization of the psychedelics put a wet blanket on the whole psyche.

So Millbrook was an oasis of sanity. Naturally they went overboard here and there and got caught up in their own ideas of LSD saving the world or whatever—cleaning out their brains with LSD. But they were actually quite judicious in their use. You know, give it to one or two people and there’d always be observers and guides—people to help out if someone got into a panic or got upset. They were able to take care of it. They built a support system psychologically.

Who do you recall first lining up for Leary’s Harvard psilocybin experiments?

Kerouac. And Bob Kaufman, the black poet, living upstairs. Leary came to my apartment—a real small Lower East Side living room. Kerouac and Kaufman came and we tried psilocybin. I remember “Coach Leary,” as Kerouac saw him, like an Irish football coach, and Kerouac looking out the window and saying in a funny voice, “I feel like pissing at the moon,” or something.

But then Kerouac said one great thing when he realized the import of it—though he’d had peyote ten years earlier. He said, “Walking on water wasn’t built in a day.” I’ve always remembered that in terms of the change of American consciousness or the alteration of the hyperindustrial monstrosity—a deconstruction which is necessary for the survival of the planet. That kind of miracle isn’t built in a day. Slow patience.

That’s one of the best things I’ve ever heard about acid or psychedelics as distinct from crazed enthusiasts—who think with one experience they understand the secrets of the universe.

What do you think of the War on Drugs?

I think it’s a fraud, and it’s a conscious fraud. The government has been entangled in the sale of hard drugs all along:  Mainly the transportation of heroin from the Golden Triangle from the ‘60s on, at least.

The tradition goes on through Central America, where you see marijuana and cocaine being used to pay for arms. That’s been gone into at great length with Kerry’s Senate subcommittee; so that’s pretty well established—even in the mainstream. And the government, simultaneously appointing a War on Drugs, has been secretly dealing drugs or using drug money for its own nefarious purposes, secret and illegal, off-the-shelf CIA/NSA operations.

So, the War on Drugs doesn’t make any sense at all. It’s completely chaotic and evil, sinister, outright criminal enterprise by the government. It’s not a War on Drugs; it seems almost an effort to spread drugs. 

What do you see as a solution? 

The only way there’s ever going to be a solution is to legalize grass as a cash crop for small family farms, to reinvigorate the small family farm ideal in America and make it economically feasible. Send the junkies to doctors either to cure or maintain with natural opiates that are better than heavy, synthetic methadone. The latter seems to give too heavy a habit and is too hard to kick; so some natural opiate would be better as [Herbert] Hence said in a previous issue.  Liberate the psychedelics for a scientific or spiritual use, maybe licensed in some way: You know, maybe you can get it free if you take a course in samatha-vipassana or a course in centering or tai chi.

And you could then reexamine what you wanted to do with cocaine and amphetamines, because they do lead to psychosis, they are a threat like alcohol. They’re not as big a threat as alcohol, but they are the similar parallel threat to the family, to friends, to houses—violence and burglaries rise with that kind of psychosis. But at least we could look at the real heavy substances to find a way out, or cure or “skillful means.”

But as long as you pile up the War on Drugs as a war on all drugs and call everything a drug whether it’s a dried herb or natural opium or a mushroom or a cactus plant—that doesn’t make any sense at all. It never did. It’s such a prejudiced, stupid, narrow-minded, ignorant setup that it must be a setup on purpose. And the purpose would be to extend government control over individual lives, over dissidents and seekers for an authority outside organized state and rigid religion.

What emboldened you to start speaking out in public against drug laws in the ‘50s?

What emboldened me was meeting Hence and hearing about his situation as a junkie and realizing he was in trouble and the police were hounding him like Nazis hounding a Jew, something parallel. He had this addiction, there was no doctor that could cure him.  He had a medical condition and he was being hounded by the police with guns. It didn’t make any sense at all. It wasn’t like you read in the paper; he wasn’t a dope fiend in that sense. He was just a guy in trouble. And a brilliant and sympathetic guy.

I went on a boat to New Orleans in 1945 or ’46 and the Puerto Rican messman/roommate turned me on to some grass and told me where I could find some in Harlem on 111th street. The difference between the government party line on marijuana and my direct experience of it was the difference between a world of abstract fantasy—the government’s—and my own concrete realization—an experience that was not only sort of innocuous, but also I had surprisingly funny perceptions.

Like what?

I can remember the first time I really got high in Manhattan. We got in a car and couldn’t find our way around the block practically. But we wound up going into a small cafe, and I ordered a black and white sundae. And it was this extremely cold, sweet, vanilla white ice cream covered by thick, hot, black, syrupy chocolate and it was amazingly good! My taste buds never realized the common black-and-white sundae: The humor of that combination, the polarity of it, the commonality, the commonness—this is the all-American creation, this completely yin-yang or polar opposite, artistic creation! And then all of a sudden I think of the government idea that marijuana drives you mad like a frothing dog until you take an axe and kill somebody. Instead they give me ice cream!

What were some of your other grass experiences in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s?

I’d go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to look at the Carlo Crivelli and other Renaissance paintings and I went on to look at Cezanne and Paul Klee from that point of view. I found it useful for the study of aesthetics. I really don’t dig people using it just for giggling and having parties and getting drunk on it, because it seems that with marijuana you can refine your sense, if you make that your purpose.

So, the difference between my direct experience of grass—and a whole generation who had direct experience—and the government party line depicting grass as monstrous, causing psychosis—gave me to realize that the habitual tendency of the government seemed to be intended to close the “doors of perception,” lest people become too individualistic and begin to suspect the government of being some type of network, plot to keep people asleep, in line, not merely physically, but psychologically. 

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