Tag Archives: William Blake

Allen Ginsberg, Timothy Leary, and the CIA

31 Jul

leary

 

It’s widely acknowledged that the Beat Generation writers experimented with drugs, which influenced both the content and style of their writing. I’ve written before about how Allen Ginsberg’s drug use shaped his writing when he had a vision while reading William Blake, forever guiding his poetry.

But dear old Allen Ginsberg was also leery of America’s hand in the drug trade.

Let me backtrack a moment. In 1960 Allen Ginsberg became friends with Timothy Leary. Timothy Leary was an American psychologist born on October 22, 1920, in Springfield, Massachusetts—meaning he’d been born near Herbert Huncke, Jack Kerouac, and John Clellon Holmes a little after Huncke was born and a little before Kerouac and Holmes were born. At Harvard University—which William S. Burroughs also attended—Leary conducted experiments involving psychedelic drugs for the Harvard Psilocybin Project.

The friendship between Ginsberg and Leary led to the psychedelic revolution, with Leary popularizing the phrase:

“Turn on, tune in, drop out”

Timothy Leary invoked Socrates when he said:

“Question authority”

The irony of this, though, is that Leary didn’t drop out or subvert authority. Much like the way the CIA funded abstract expressionism, Leary was doing research at an ever-prestigious Ivy League college which consisted of experimenting on prisoners (see the Concord Prison Experiment). This isn’t all that different than in the 1950s when the CIA launched Project MKULTRA, which administered LSD to unwitting participants as a means toward experimenting with mind control. In fact, prior to meeting Leary, in 1959 Ginsberg participated in experimental studies of LSD at Stanford University, which it turned out were administered by psychologists working for the CIA to develop mind-control drugs. Leary also began experimenting on writers.

Peter Conners’ book White Hand Society: The Psychedelic Partnership of Timothy Leary & Allen Ginsberg, published by City Lights in 2010, alleges that Leary used Ginsberg to further publicize his studies. Here’s the marketing copy for the book from City Lights:

In 1960 Timothy Leary was not yet famous — or infamous — and Allen Ginsberg was both. Leary, eager to expand his experiments at the Harvard Psilocybin Project to include accomplished artists and writers, knew that Ginsberg held the key to bohemia’s elite. Ginsberg, fresh from his first experience with hallucinogenic mushrooms in Mexico, was eager to promote the spiritual possibilities of psychedelic use. Thus, “America’s most conspicuous beatnik” was recruited as Ambassador of Psilocybin under the auspices of an Ivy League professor, and together they launched the psychedelic revolution and turned on the hippie generation.

White Hand Society weaves a fascinating and entertaining tale of the life, times and friendship of these two larger-than-life figures and the incredible impact their relationship had on America. Peter Conners has gathered hundreds of pages of letters, documents, studies, FBI files, and other primary resources that shed new light on their relationship, and a veritable who’s who of artists and cultural figures appear along the way, including Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs, Thelonious Monk, Willem de Kooning, and Barney Rosset. The story of the “psychedelic partnership” of two of the most famous, charismatic and controversial members of America’s counterculture brings together a multitude of major figures from politics, the arts, and the intersection of intellectual life and outlaw culture in a way that sheds new light on the dawn of the 1960s.

Years later, 1967 to be exact, this conversation between Leary and Ginsberg took place about “dropping out”:

Ginsberg: For instance, you haven’t dropped out, Tim. You dropped out of your job as a psychology teacher in Harvard. Now, what you’ve dropped into is, one: a highly complicated series of arrangements for lecturing and for putting on the festival…

Leary: Well, I’m dropped out of that.

Ginsberg: But you’re not dropped out of the very highly complicated legal constitutional appeal, which you feel a sentimental regard for, as I do. You haven’t dropped out of being the financial provider for Milbrook, and you haven’t dropped out of planning and conducting community organization and participating in it. And that community organization is related to the national community, too. Either through the Supreme Court, or through the very existence of the dollar that is exchanged for you to pay your lawyers, or to take money to pay your lawyers in the theatre. So you can’t drop out, like DROP OUT, ’cause you haven’t.

The year after that, Ginsberg penned an article called “Remarks on Leary’s Politics of Ecstasy” for The Village Voice, in which he suggested the American government was trying to silence Leary:

Timothy Leary quit public life to write a book in Mexico some years ago, but he was searched by Agents of Government as he went to cross borders, arrested for possession of some herb, and thus forced to interrupt his writing, return to public action, and defend his person from attack by the State. So he traveled to academies and lectured to the young, & thus he paid large legal fees required by the State & thus maintained an Ashram of fellow seekers well known in Millbrook. Agents of Government raided and repeated abused the utopia, whereupon Dr. Leary was obliged to be Dr. Leary and lecture more to raise money for his family of imprisoned friends. Agents of Government concluded this phase of prosecution with a piece of Socratic irony so blatantly echoing an old Greek injustice that the vulgar rhetoric of a Tyrannous State would need only be quoted to be recognized, were it not for the fact that these States are by now so plagued with Tyrannously inspired chaos and public communication so flooded with images of State Atrocity from the alleys of Saigon to the parks of Chicago that official public conscience here now, as memorably in Russia and Germany, is shocked, dumbed & amnesiac.

Ginsberg grew to become leery of the government’s hand in drugs. Researching, Ginsberg became convinced that the CIA was involved in drug trafficking. Ginsberg’s poem “CIA Dope Calypso” uses the following refrain:

Supported by the CIA

Wikipedia gives a quick summary of Ginsberg’s conspiracy theory that the CIA profited off of drugs:

Through his own drug use, and the drug use of his friends and associates, Ginsberg became more and more preoccupied with the American government’s relationship to drug use within and outside the nation. He worked closely with Alfred W. McCoy who was writing The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia which tracked the history of the American government’s involvement in illegal opium dealing around the world. This would affirm Ginsberg’s suspicions that the government and the CIA were involved in drug trafficking. In addition to working with McCoy, Ginsberg personally confronted Richard Helms, the director of the CIA in the 1970s, but he was simply brushed off as being “full of beans”. Allen wrote many essays and articles, researching and compiling evidence of CIA’s involvement, but it would take ten years, and the publication of McCoy’s book in 1972, before anyone took him seriously. In 1978 Allen received a note from the chief editor of the New York Times, apologizing for not taking his allegations seriously so many years previous.[83]

Despite our notions of how counter-cultural drug use is its history is steeped in academia and politics. Even so-called counter-cultural writers theorize the government is behind drug trafficking.

Of course there are others who’d suggest that it was Timothy Leary and Allen Ginsberg who were conspiring to change the world.

 

Happy 88th Birthday, Allen Ginsberg!

3 Jun

ginsbergAllen Ginsberg at the Miami Bookfair International on November 7, 1985. Photo by MDCarchives via Wikipedia.

 

Today would’ve been Allen Ginsberg’s eighty-eighth birthday, and in honor of the Jersey-born poet’s powerful and beautiful work we asked people on the Burning Furiously Beautiful facebook page what their favorite Ginsberg poem was. I’ve loved hearing the results! So far we’ve heard:

My favorite is “Sunflower Sutra,” in which Ginsberg writes about Kerouac and him sitting under the shadow of a train as the sun set and spying a dried up sunflower amdist the machinery. The line “when did you forget you were a / flower?” slays me every time.

What’s your favorite poem by Allen Ginsberg? Leave it in the comments below or on the Burning Furiously Beautiful facebook page.

Want to read more about Ginsberg on his birthday?

And if you’ve ever been curious about how Allen Ginsberg met Jack Kerouac in the first place, you can read all about the early origins of the key people who came to represent the Beat Generation but who are all really so much more than that in Burning Furiously Beautiful.

 

Before the Beats, Rimbaud Had a “Bohemian Life”

17 Apr

225px-RimbaudPhoto by Etienne Carjat (1871)

Rimbaud’s kinda cute, eh?

Before Jack Kerouac coined the term “Beat Generation” during a conversation on the Lost Generation with fellow writer John Clellon Holmes, before he went on the road and lived a bohemian life, he attended (and dropped out of) Columbia University. It was through his Columbia connections—which Paul and I explain in more detail in Burning Furiously Beautiful (it’s actually super interesting to discover how they all met and became friends)—that Kerouac met Lucien Carr and Allen Ginsberg. Back then, the phrase they were throwing around was a “New Vision.”

Carr had borrowed the phrase from Arthur Rimbaud, and the young friends in Morningside Heights used it to mean:

1) Naked self-expression is the seed of creativity. 2) The artist’s consciousness is expanded by derangement of the senses. 3) Art eludes conventional morality.[17]

As a teenager, Rimbaud was part of the Decadent movement in late-nineteenth-century France. The term “Decadents” refers to the clever poets who preferred to show off their literary skill rather than emote as naturally as the Romantics. The earlier Romantics—such as William Blake, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and John Keats—used more colloquial language than the highly stylized language of the Decadents.

In a letter to a friend, Rimbaud wrote:

I’m now making myself as scummy as I can. Why? I want to be a poet, and I’m working at turning myself into a seer. You won’t understand any of this, and I’m almost incapable of explaining it to you. The idea is to reach the unknown by the derangement of all the senses. It involves enormous suffering, but one must be strong and be a born poet. It’s really not my fault.

 

Sounds like something Kerouac might write, doesn’t it? Not because the author of On the Road sought to make himself scummy by any means, but because he shook off pretensions and suffered for his art, appreciating the authenticity of experience.

I couldn’t find a translation of any of Rimbaud’s poetry that was in the public domain, so here is Rimbaud’s “My Bohemian Life (Fantasy)” in the original French:

Ma Bohème (Fantaisie)

Je m’en allais, les poings dans mes poches crevées ;
Mon paletot aussi devenait idéal ;
J’allais sous le ciel, Muse ! et j’étais ton féal ;
Oh ! là là ! que d’amours splendides j’ai rêvées !

Mon unique culotte avait un large trou.
– Petit-Poucet rêveur, j’égrenais dans ma course
Des rimes. Mon auberge était à la Grande Ourse.
– Mes étoiles au ciel avaient un doux frou-frou

Et je les écoutais, assis au bord des routes,
Ces bons soirs de septembre où je sentais des gouttes
De rosée à mon front, comme un vin de vigueur ;

Où, rimant au milieu des ombres fantastiques,
Comme des lyres, je tirais les élastiques
De mes souliers blessés, un pied près de mon coeur !

You can read a 1962 English translation by Oliver Bernard here.

 

Allen Ginsberg’s William Blake Vision

3 Apr

 Blake_Roses_Sun-Flower_LillyWilliam Blake’s illustrated “Ah! Sun-Flower”

I’m kicking off this National Poetry Month series with William Blake for reasons that will soon become obvious. In 1948, when he was in his early twenties, Allen Ginsberg experience a supernatural vision. He was alone in his Harlem apartment, reading William Blake, when the Romantic poet appeared to him. Ginsberg said he wasn’t high at the time but was having some … um, personal alone time. Wink, wink. He looked out his Harlem window at the bright blue sky and realized that the sky had been created, that the sky did the creating, and found God. In later years, Ginsberg experimented with drugs to try to recapture that feeling.

One of the poems that Ginsberg heard Blake read in his vision was “Ah! Sun-flower,” published in his 1974 poetry collection Songs of Experience. Blake illustrated the poem (see above). Here is the poem in its entirety:

Ah Sun-flower! weary of time,
Who countest the steps of the Sun:
Seeking after that sweet golden clime
Where the travellers journey is done.

Where the Youth pined away with desire,
And the pale Virgin shrouded in snow:
Arise from their graves and aspire,
Where my Sun-flower wishes to go.

Close to a decade after his Blake vision, while in Berkeley in 1955, Ginsberg composed his own sunflower poem, “Sunflower Sutra.” I’m inclined to say it’s my favorite poem. You can read it here.

You may also like these posts:

And of course you can read more about Allen Ginsberg in the book I coauthored, Burning Furiously Beautiful.

Clip: Trading Text for Visuals: Poets As Visual Artists

25 Apr

blake-300x211

I had a really fun time putting together an article for Burnside about poets who are also visual artists. From the time I was a little child, I have been drawn to both the literary and visual arts worlds. Even in undergrad these two loves of mine co-mingled, as I majored in English and minored in studio art. My undergrad thesis looked at the relationship between writers and artists in New York in the ’40s and ’50s. It didn’t end there. While obtaining my MFA in creative writing, I took a poetry class on the collaborations of the poets and artists of the New York School. My article touches on some of the poets I’ve studied over the years, with of course a focus on the people commonly associated with the Beat Generation, but I pushed myself to find other examples as well.

Our cannons are so steeped in “dead white males” that it was important to me in stretching my knowledge to seek out poet-artists who did not play into that categorization. I was delighted to discover that Elizabeth Bishop painted.  Two years ago it was the hundred-year anniversary of the former Poet Laureate of the United States’ birth, so there were many readings and events to honor her work. Somehow, though, I missed the fact that she was a painter. Maybe it’s because she herself did not take it all that seriously, as I point out in my article. I happen to think they’re delightful, though.

A contemporary poet-painter I am quite interested in researching more about is Babi Badalov. As my article touches on, he mixes languages in his works, a result of having moved a lot between cultures to avoid persecution for his controversial visual poetry. As a writer, language is something I hold dear. My vocabulary is a key to who I am: the words I’ve picked up come from my mother’s midwestern phrasing and my father’s Greek tongue as well as the vernacular of northern New Jersey and the jargon of the institutes of higher learning I attended. I’ve found the preservation of endangered languages so critical because language is about identity. The idea that a poet has no language and has many languages intrigues me. When does Badalov express himself in his native Azerbaijani language and when in Russian? Is his use of English a political act?

In my exploration of the Beats as visual artists, I could have easily waxed on and on. In fact, I did not go into any detail about Jack Kerouac’s artwork, even though he has been the subject of much of my studies. If this is something you’re interested in, leave a note in the comment section below, and I’ll write something up on this. What I did try to do for the Burnside article, though, was show that the Beats were following a rich tradition that came long before them. I point to William Blake and the Chinese and Japanese calligraphers as forerunners and influencers on the work of Allen Ginsberg and Phillip Whalen, for example.

My article was limited to just a few examples, a small taste of the artwork of poets. I’d love to hear who you think should be added to the list. Maybe I’ll make a part II!