Allen Ginsberg On Norman Podhoretz’s ‘Ridiculous Fat-Bellied Mind’


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October 15, 1958, Vol. III, No. 51

Here to Save Us

By Marc D. Schleifer

“Why have you come back, Allen,” I said. “To save America,” he answered. “I don’t know what from.”

Between the question-smile, answer-laugh, the first beer in the time and space between table and saw-dust-covered floor, the order of an interview was lost; order that demands a stiffness one cannot long maintain when talking with Allen Ginsberg, reading Allen Ginsberg, digging Allen Ginsberg.

Data: Allen Ginsberg, 32, Paterson, NJ, Columbia College, Merchant Marine, Texas, Denver, Times Square, Mexico City, Harlem, Yucatan, Chiapas, San Francisco, “HOWL,” Rue Dit le Coeur, Lower East Side.

Ginsberg sat at the table in a Village bar wearing a colored T-shirt and faded wash pants. Also remember the breaks into time when I got the beer, or he borrowed matches from three girls nearby. Sometimes I took notes and sometimes I didn’t, and this is no New Yorker profile but a series of responses, thoughts, and phrases. If I were to write of Ginsberg instead of Ginsberg’s sayings, this would not be an interview — it would be a litany.

Paris: “Eight months in Paris living with Burroughs and Gregory Corso. Corso’s poetry is really flowing now, he and Burroughs (‘author of “Naked Lunch,” an endless novel which will drive everybody mad’–“HOWL”) are still living there, he’s writing great perfect rich poems. Corso has extended the area poetry covers since ‘Gasoline.’ I’m too literary, you know, but Corso can write about moth balls or atom bombs…We went to visit Celine, you don’t read anything about him any more in Europe because of politics. He’s an old, gnarled man dressed in black, mad and beautiful, and he thought we were newspapermen—’Ah, the press!’ — until we told him we were poets.”

Flash! Corso needs money to get back home; contribute to the most modest emergency committee in existence. Your dime or dollar will not feed a starving child in India, free Willie McGhee, or save Washington Square. It will bring Gregory Corso home. Contribute now: The Corso Fund, c/o Village Voice.

Kerouac: “Jack is the greatest craftsman writing today. He writes continuously, can write a hundred words a minute, and gets better each time, reducing the grey-mush percentage that bugs every writer, with each effort…I dig your comparison of his spontaneous writing and Zen archery, but Jack’s style was discovered—arrived upon instinctively, not copied — theoretical-like from a theology.”

Norman Podhoretz: (in the Spring 1958 issue of Partisan Review, Norman Podhoretz attacked beat-generation writers, primarily Kerouac and Ginsberg, as “Know-Nothing Bohemians.” Podhoretz charged that K. & G. were violent anti-intellectuals and that their cultivation of spontaneity destroyed “the distinction between life and literature.”) “The novel is not an imaginary situation of imaginary truths–it is an expression of what one feels. Podhoretz doesn’t write prose, he doesn’t know how to write prose, and he isn’t interested in the technical problems of prose or poetry. His criticism of Jack’s spontaneous bop prosody shows that he can’t tell the difference between words as rhythm and words as in diction…The bit about anti-intellectualism is a piece of vanity, we had the same education, went to the same school, you know there are ‘INTELLECTUALS’ and there are intellectuals. Pohdhoretz is just out of touch with twentieth-century literature, he’s writing for the eighteenth-century mind. We have a personal literature now—Proust, Wolfe, Faulkner, Joyce. The trouble is that Podhoretz has a great ridiculous fat-bellied mind which he pats too often.”

Norman Mailer: “I read his ‘White Negro’ piece, it had a real grasp and kind of apocalyptic flip reality and is the only good definitive article I’ve run into. I’d love to talk to him, I hope he takes to pure poetry and becomes an angel poet; he has a great grasp of the Goof.”

Flash, all news services! “I’ve been with an awful lot of beautiful juvenile delinquents. I’ve done my best to go to eternity with them.”

American Poets: “There’s a renaissance in poetry going on. I’ll give you a list of the 20 best poets in America; you know there’s never been a list before of all the hip poets. These are poets who are mostly published underground because publishing in America is a trap, illusion, and fraud; Kerouac, yes, Jack’s a poet; Corso, Ginsberg, Burroughs, we were together in San Francisco; Gary Snyder and Phil Whelan, also San Francisco, both now making the Zen scene; Robert Creely, writes the small tight little poetry that you dig; Charles Olson, Denise Levertov, and Edward Marshall with Creely, Black Mountain people; Frank O’Hara and Kenneth Koch, New York painters’ poets; John Ashbury, Persky from Chicago; John Wieners, who publishes Measure; Paul Blackburn and Joel Oppenheimer, also Black Mountain; the recent Robert Lowell; Stuart Perkoff, Mike McClure; the old man is Robert Duncan. There are more like Raymond Brimser in Bordentown Refermatory and Ron Lowenson lost in Los Angeles, but I forget and must apologize for not giving the laurel halo to hundreds of unknown angels.”

Flash, Reader’s Digest: “So I told this guy on the radio that I liked marijuana and he put his hand on the controls and I said: ‘Don’t touch the button; if you cut me off, your audience will know why anyhow,’ so he didn’t do anything…Part of ‘HOWL’ written under peyote. It’s a vision of the St. Francis Drake Hotel in San Francisco.”

The rest I cannot remember or can, but, leaving it at that, this is a piece on les pensees d’Allen Ginsberg, not about angels, Saints, Salinger, and “The Way of the Pilgrim.” I cannot mock you, Allen, or deliver you described, pinpointed in a phrase or two. I can only listen, report some of it, and try to grasp the rest, for you are the only man I know who can discover dharma in a dentist’s chair.

[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956.]