By referencing movements like Dadaism in his poem “Howl,” Ginsberg situates his actions and the actions of his circle of Beat contemporaries as an Americanized continuation of the radical political-aesthetic projects of the European avant-garde. Each of these figures — the “great minds” referenced in the poem’s first line — appears by the end of the poem’s first section as a Jesus, a savior or Messiah “destroyed” for living free, brains and imagination sacrificed to the bloodthirsty demiurge Moloch. The key to Moloch’s true identity appears midway through Section II when Ginsberg reveals its more common alias, “the Mind,” i.e. dead labor, A.I., the practico-inert: “consciousness without a body” (22).
Thomas Merton teaches us, in the face of the nuclear desert as potential future, to wage war unceasingly and courageously against despair. Kikagaku Moyo fill the air with pregnant, dripping, liquid sound with the song “Silver Owl” from their third album, 2016’s House in the Tall Grass.
Listening is like flying regally over a crisp October landscape, air in one’s lungs. Think of that Walt Whitman epigram from Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems as a joyous, hearty psychedelic “yea” in reply to William Blake’s line about the “doors of perception.” “Don’t just unlock the doors,” says the psychedelic evangelist. “Tear them from their frames!” Ginsberg begins his poem in much the same spirit as Blake, evoking the power of vision. By this he means “the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night”: the god-like imaginative power behind dream-work and kosmos-creation. Just as Blake aligned himself with the angry prophet figure Rintrah, so too with Ginsberg, who aligns himself with figures like Muhammad. It’s such a psychedelic place, this world, this book written at the tip of the mind. It was from the Angel Gabriel, remember, that Muhammad claimed to have received the revelations that became the Koran. Ginsberg speaks of Blake appearing before him in a vision hallucinated while lying in bed after an orgasm. Ginsberg’s mother Naomi was hospitalized for mental illness. As biographer Barry Miles notes, this gave Ginsberg “an enormous empathy and tolerance for madness, neurosis, and psychosis.” One of my favorite moments in “Howl” is when Ginsberg refers to “kind king light of mind.” I’ve experienced that kind of high. Also the low he describes on the next line as “the drear light of Zoo.” Ginsberg mapped the emotional antipodes represented in the heroic deeds and misdeeds of the radicals and anarchistic free spirits of his generation. “Howl” is epic poetry set to the purpose of narrating the collective subject of universal liberation collision-coursing its way through the ultimate bender.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge “marries” or in a sense “reconciles” apparently contrary images in “Kubla Khan” by way of the latter’s poetic vision of a dome and a bursting fountain. So sayeth the literary critic Harold Bloom. In Bloom’s “anxiety of influence” school of interpretation, poets relate Oedipally to their precursors, each poem thus a demonstration of superiority — a flexing of imaginative muscle, an elaborate brag. Compared to Kublai Khan’s palace, the poet’s is, as enactment into global consciousness, the “finer dome,” the “more abiding paradise” (Bloom, The Visionary Company, p. 219). Bloom reads “Kubla Khan,” in other words, as a poem about poetry’s power. Through use of language, the imagination ruptures the given, allows back the forbidden, the excluded: the knowledge of Paradise. We are that unified, eternal Being — the one that reconciles contraries. Thou are that. Matter languaged. The oboe made articulate. (I classify the above as “notes toward a theory of fantasy.” In the same file I might add topics of conversation from my recent dinner with fantasist extraordinaire John Crowley. Change the stars, and one changes the world. As Above, So Below.)
Like a squirrel pausing on a high branch to admire a nut retrieved from below, I return home from office hours savoring a day well-spent in joyful, growth-oriented dialogue with students. Work in such moments seems capable of being harmonized with utopianism and individual and collective jubilation. My approach to reality coincides with my approach to students: infinite wonder, infinite passion, infinite forgiveness, infinite care. I can do this. I can bring spirited delight to conversations about consciousness, history, reality, and being, and still have time afterwards to recline and reflect. Students and I through study seed each other’s minds with new language sequences, new hopes, new possibilities. “What about plants?” a student and I wonder. Do they, too, possess consciousness? How do I eat with minimal undue suffering, minimal deconstruction of the order of the Oikos? A version of me tells another version of me across a distance of years to compare the “sacred river” referenced in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s opium-induced poem “Kubla Khan” with the “stream” metaphor employed in the poem’s preface. Consciousness appears in the work as both non-reflecting pool and mirror. Or more precisely, as Coleridge writes, “The pool becomes a mirror” (emphasis mine). But which the surface, which the depth? I grow frightened of the implications. Suddenly I worry that the poem carries within it a warning about drug use as a sinful act of hubris, God’s creation (the mind, the soul, consciousness) purposed, put to use, instrumentalized, enslaved, the eternal Adam damning himself out of Eden by trying to “finish for himself what had been originally, as it were, given to him” — living for an augmentation, a “more,” a heavenly end of time that is always and forever “yet to come.” The infinite deferment or postponement appears mysterious in its implications in the final lines of the poem’s preface — made all the more complicated by annotations about modifications of the text made by Coleridge at different stages in his career — and thus different stages in the evolution of the author’s political sympathies and related worldview. The poem, wistful and tragic in its unreconstitutable, permanently fragmentary form, gestures toward its parent texts, Paradise Lost and the Book of Genesis. I hope students write papers comparing garden imagery in “Kubla Khan” and Pearl. “Kubla Khan” appears equally in this light as ultimate psychedelic metatext and prophetic anamnesis of the destiny of humankind. Gardens and enclosures, experience-bounding laws and hedonistic transgression. Plenty and the desire for more. Drug use is disruption of the stream of consciousness, the sacred river Alph — language, alphabetic reality. The Symbolic. Coleridge likens the altered state of consciousness to “images on the surface of a stream into which a stone has been cast,” whereas in Pearl, the dreaming narrator imagines himself as the cast stone, trying to cross the uncrossable stream dividing Earth from Heaven, only to find himself awakened from his dream and returned to the site of his misfortune.
Pods unzip and out burst bundles of sealed lavender flower heads. Introducing Robert Hass’s Field Guide, I would tell students, “It matters where you read this,” the slim volume of poems held up for demonstration purposes, waved lightly between thumb and forefinger in front of me. “Read properly, these poems cast spells. What do I mean by that, you ask? I mean, used deliberately, in the sun, after walks through Australian and jungle gardens, after swimming and breathing exercises, beneath a bleached California sky, these poems are tools for the alteration of consciousness.”
That final ordnance
a spry sparrow of a chapbook,
as set in its way as Zen in the Art of Archery
but healthy as a hound,
a quick study.
I’m missing following you
What was then is now
not a bear but a trap—
“Moral”: stand there, act that
“Which first, meat or engine?”
welcome, give rise, help raise
Urged rumble at cochlear dawn:
A multi-headed virtual army
wielding Pitchfork, chanting atop a backbeat.
“Doggone criminals,” mutters the Demiurge,
the Injustice League foil to Shelley’s
bull goose legislator
in the undercommons of a lax bro
Of your “Many”
your Class Struggle Avatars
your Elected Representatives
here at the Nancy Reagan psychic hotline
(“This call may be monitored—
please wait, please hold”)
with whom do you wish to speak?
With those who are
as from the heads of gods
and who are thus
in all the senses to which consciousness has been as yet made to refer
Since we came to get down,
and since we are as gods,
As Brand says,
we might as well get good at it.
So, in place of what is:
joined with those who have been at these tasks all along
we must build it, conjure it—at the very least, dream it—here, now,
hidden from the sense of those who rule,
the utopia in which none may act as master.