My students seem less televisual than they were in the past — though perhaps we’ve just steered conversation elsewhere, constructing through our shared readings a shared grammar. Reading allegory trains us to think allegorically. Texts assemble into vast systems of meaning. We become acquainted with what’s happening. A world pregnant with hope and possibility.
A kid interrupts my wondering about my relationship to Language Poetry. Leaning over a low fence as I sweep leaves from my back deck, he hails me with a “Working hard or hardly working?” or some such commodified, scripted banter, then tries to sell me an alternative media provider. My response is “No thanks, capitalist roleplayer. You bore me,” thus in no uncertain terms sending him on his way. Back to L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E. Why have I never taught any of that material, venturing only so far as poets with whom they conversed? Ginsberg, Olson, Mackey, et al. I suppose I’ve lacked courage — though opportunities to do so also never materialized, really, until this past year or so. Perhaps it just felt a bit too rarefied. Work that makes demands, with comparatively little gain. When does one have time enough to keep up with contemporary poetry? Apparently I did, if only for a brief moment, during my first years out of college, during my stint as a “text editor.” Back when I used to sit at a computer all day listening to early recordings from PennSound and the Kelly Writers House.
Students and I discussed Allen Ginsberg’s “America” today. What if instead we had taken the poem’s use of apostrophe — America addressed as though it were a person — and performed it together as a class? What might we have said to one another? Would any of us have dared to be as candid as Ginsberg?
The drug experience enters cultural memory, becomes an object of philosophical investigation from the Romantic period onward — though perhaps it was already informing the thinking of the Ancient Greeks by way of the festival of Eleusis. Walter Burkert writes of these famed “experiences of ecstasy and wonder” in his book Ancient Mystery Cults, a work of “comparative phenomenology.” I think of it as a form of listening across time for psychedelic travel narratives, trip reports from wonderland written by heads possessed by a shared, singular-but-multiple “voice of experience,” a “general equivalent” allowing Being to relate to itself across time. By reading literary history as a continuous dialogue, something like a holy ghost emerges, self-consistent despite change, urging us toward happiness and freedom. Ernst Bloch called it the “Utopian impulse” or the “principle of Hope.” Jung imagined it as a “collective unconscious.” Teaching a course this way is a bit like saying, “You, too, can live allegorically. The way to do so is by reading.”
Throughout a day of rich, heady conversations, students waking up section by section, the parts of my course finally begin to click. Texts and lives start to resonate into lightly held rhymes and refrains, an allegorical epic poem of many dimensions, a song of consciousness across time, conjuring the universe within. I celebrate, too, throughout the evening, walking outdoors, ears attentive to the system of systems, joyful, knowing that we read tales of beatnik glory in the weeks ahead. Of course, there’s a lot of work to be done, papers to grade, learning and growth on my end as well as theirs. Shared labor, shared power — that’s how we make space for change.
Students and I have been tracking vast allegorical systems as they’ve developed in parallel with historical transformations across centuries. The texts we read contain banners on behalf of consciousness raised by philosophers, poets, bards, prophets, visionaries. Descriptions of the macrocosm shift with great suddenness and power into descriptions of the microcosm and vice versa once we learn to read allegorically. Through it all, a sense of the Mind’s evolving sense of itself. When I return from work, I honor Robert Hunter, who died the other day, by contemplating a song of his that a student mentioned after class. The student wondered if there might be a bit of Blake’s “voice of the devil” in Hunter’s “Friend of the Devil.”
Another student inquired after the Holy Spirit, prompting me to investigate pneumatology. Mightn’t we interpret altered states of consciousness as charismata? Gifts, powers, inspired forms of being, with or without psychoactive sacrament?
I return home from work exhausted, the energy left from teaching and climate striking enough only to kick back and stare at squirrels. Though by doing so, I’m replenished. I relax, I lay back, contemplating tree-crowns teeming with life. Smoking helps me bring consciousness into accord with Nature, its correspondent other. As Shayla Love notes, psychedelics “recreate the core feeling of relatedness…the sense that nature is a part of us, our bodies, our lives, and that we are a part of it.” Ego dissolves, boundaries between self and other break down. When we emerge on the other side of that threshold, we possess new powers, new ways of seeing, a new sympathetic cosmology.