Graded on a Curve:
Allen Ginsberg,
Songs of Innocence
and Experience

I had a long talk with Allen Ginsberg once. To be more exact, he talked, and I drove him into a mad rage. Here’s the basic story: An English professor at my old alma mater, a so-so state school in rural Pennsylvania, lured Ginsberg there to do a poetry reading. And said same English professor, who’d taken a shine to me despite my shoddy class work and limited intellectual capacities, somehow convinced Ginsberg to sit down with me to discuss a paper on the Beat writers I was supposed to be working on. I’m still amazed Ginsberg agreed to do it. I suspect he demanded double his usual speaking fee.

Still, what a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity! How many mere mortals are granted a tête-à-tête with Allen Fucking Ginsberg, the man who’d written “I have seen the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness”? There was only one problem. I wasn’t one of the best minds of my generation. I wasn’t even one of the lesser minds of my generation. What I was, frankly, was a waste product. So when we finally met I wasn’t just mildly giddy from a few weak drinks taken to calm my nerves. I was drunk, stoned, and all revved-up and ready to go thanks to some Black Beauties a pig farmer pal had given me the day before. Ginsberg never had a chance. Say what you will, it’s scientifically impossible to hold a cogent conversation with a pinwheel-eyed yahoo talking faster than the rinse cycle of a deranged washing machine.

But to get down to specifics, I opened with a few words about what an honor it was, etc, then promptly proceeded to rattle off a rapid-fire series of disjointed questions about Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady, Bob Dylan, the Merry Pranksters, the Fugs (a band I’d never listened to), and sundry other matters. The only thing I failed to quiz him on was the new poem (“Plutonium Ode”) he’d read just hours before. I suppose it slipped my mind.

In hindsight, this must have vexed poor Allen. Here he was, a legendary 20th Century American literary figure with a new poem, saddled with a gibbering cretin too clueless to ask him about it. Still, he continued to sit patiently through my colossal display of stark insensibility until, no longer able to contain himself, he snapped. “Are you listening to a word I say?” he shouted, spittle flying. “Shouldn’t you be taking notes for a paper or something? Did you actually attend my reading?” A good question, that. Had I? I couldn’t remember.

I bring up all of this to introduce the subject of Ginsberg’s 1970 recording Songs of Innocence and Experience. On it Ginsberg sings, rather than recites, the poems of 19th Century English visionary poet William Blake, based on his belief that they were meant to be sung. Ginsberg’s choice of Blake went beyond his sense of kinship with Blake’s mystical sensibility and and lack of conformity with the conventional poetry of his day. It was a 1948 auditory hallucination of Blake singing his poems that afforded Ginsberg a glimpse of the “depths of the universe” and cemented his decision to make poetry his vocation. He would later call it “the the moment I was born for.”

Listening to the album you would never guess Ginsberg was (or so he believed) patterning his music on the popular songs of the day, primarily The Beatles and Bob Dylan. Because pop these songs ain’t. They sound like the sorts of Merry Olde English folk traditionals played an early ’60s East Village folk clubs, primarily by the likes of Pentangle. But there is the occasional surprise–I like the way Ginsberg interprets “The Garden of Love” as a country song.

What else? A whole lot of instruments get played, in two cases by jazz luminaries (free jazz trumpet legend Don Cherry and John Coltrane Quartet drummer Elvin Jones). And while Ginsberg tackles most of Blake’s best known poems, from “The Sick Rose” to “Ah! Sun-Flower,” a few poems are notable for their absence, including both “Milton” and, inexplicably, “The Tyger.”

As for my ill-fated audience with Ginsberg, it only increased my respect for the man. Anyone else, confronted with an incoherent undergraduate of no consequence, would have wandered off to make chit-chat with someone more lucid, like the professor’s dog. But Ginsberg, a saint of forbearance, put up with me. Why, we even parted on friendly terms. I told him how much I admired his work. He suggested I take a hard look at my drug intake.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
B

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