Homage to Allen Ginsberg. Conference.
New York, 2006
When Howl was published, in 1956, there were things in Spain that were possible and things that were impossible.
It was possible, on the day when General Franco left on his vacation, for the highway from Madrid to the Basque coast to be under the vigilance of five thousand Civil Guards; a guard every hundred meters. And it was possible on that day, along that highway, between one guard and the next, for there to be, from time to time, chefs, in their white hats, chefs who asked "Is he almost here? Is he coming yet?" as they stirred fish soup or filled artichokes with ham. And the General did arrive, the chefs saluted with arms outstretched, the guards saluted presenting arms; but the General didn't stop, he didn't eat; he didn't salute, he went on his way to the sea, where every year without exception he caught himself a lovely tuna.
In Spain in 1956, or even in 1959-at the time of Howl's second edition-it was also possible for spring to arrive, with Holy Week, and for it to be impossible to dance in public, since all dances were banned by governmental order. It was possible, too, during that same Holy Week, for the most pious of countrymen to go out and segregate his rooster from the hens, and put him in a cramped wooden box where he could commit no sins, not even of the autoerotic variety.
It was possible, in 1959 and later, when Howl was already a popular poem among many American young people, for a policeman to stop a pair of passersby on a street in Bilbao and ask them, "Who destroyed Guernica?" and the questionees would have to answer "The Reds did". In 1960, when one of the best Spanish poets of the twentieth century, also one of the bravest-Blas de Otero-wanted to write a poem about Guernica, he decided, out of prudence, to scramble the name and use an anagram. He titled the poem "Ca ni guer."
Blas de Otero published his poems outside Spain, in Mexico, Puerto Rico, or Paris, and in many of them he asked only for what was fundamental. He, and the same happened to all the other political or prophetic poets writing in Spain in the times when chefs lined the highways and roosters spent Holy Week in boxes: they asked for what was fundamental, for the basics; they were asking for peace and permission to speak.
I ask for peace and permission to speak (said Blas de Otero)
in defense of the kingdom
of man and his justice. I ask
and permission to speak. I've said
"shadow," "empty space,"
"of man and his justice"
whatever they let me.
for peace and permission to speak.
All this and much more was possible in that country under the dictatorship of General Franco. What wasn't possible was the publication of a poem like "Howl." But not just because of the censor, as in the case of Blas de Otero's poems; but because it was impossible for anyone to put himself in Allen Ginsberg's place or in that of the protagonists of his poem. Who were those great spirits who dragged themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix? What was marijuana? And mescaline? Not a clue. "Howl" was talking of another planet. If it had been published, in Spain at the beginning of the sixties, it would have been a U.F.O.
The poem was published at last in 1970, in a book entitled Anthology of the "Beat Generation". Times had changed a bit: the chefs had become more discreet, the tuna weren't biting, roosters led a normal life, young people went dancing even in the springtime, and at the dances-this was the most important thing-they were hearing songs that had nevcr been heard before: Twist and Shout, Hard Day's Night, The House of the Rising Sun, Satisfaction, Just Like a Woman, Walk on the Wild Side, Sitting on the Dock of the Bay, California Dreaming, Suzy Q.... The songs came out before Allen Ginsberg's book did, and they made it possible. The flying saucer could finally touch down in Spain.
The editor and the translator-Marcos Ricardo Barnatán-moved with great savvy to insure a smooth landing. And so they put these lines, perhaps the most amiable in Ginsberg's book, on the back cover of the edition.
The weight of the world
be mad or chill
obsessed with angels
the final wish
The lines also appeared on the book's first page, along with a quotation from Henry Miller in defense of laughter and against war; moreover, that Spanish "Howl" of 1970 was, in actual fact, a fragment of "Howl." The version didn't get to the paragraphs where Allen Ginsberg speaks of people distributing "Supercommunist pamphlets in Union Square" or those who fucked until they screamed with joy.... it was one thing for the tuna not to be biting or for roosters to lead a normal life; it was another for the Head Chef and his censors to be chowderheads.
To finish up, two words about paradise.
In the Basque Country they tell the story of some hikers who were eating in the refectory of a monastery in the mountains, and they spoke to a monk who had just begun on his soup-chicken soup, on this occasion-and they asked him, "Father, what is paradise?" To which the monk, opening his arms wide to take in the soup plate, the table, and the whole dining hall, responded: "Just this, dear brothers. These aromas, this taste, these surroundings that we have here." The hikers had to acknowledge that the monk had things clear in his mind. Which, when you're speaking of paradises, is no small thing. Remember Auden's questionaire, which in effect asks the reader of his book "The Dyer's Hand" to come up with concrete answers to questions like "What is the mean temperature of your Eden?" How large are its cities?" It's hard to answer questionaires like that. It's hard to have things clear in your mind regarding paradise.
I won't say that the prophetic poets or protest poets of the mid-twentieth century-Blas de Otero, Allen Ginsberg and all the rest-had things clear in their minds, or could have given as potent an answer as the chicken-soup monk; but they did have some idea of a paradise; they would certainly have been able to fill in a good part of Auden's questionaire.
Just as Hosea, Amos, or Jonah believed that they knew what Yahweh thought, what He didn't like about the world and what He demanded of those who wanted to enter the Celestial City, Blas de Otero believed that he knew what was unacceptable to the goddess of Justice and he was convinced that the Celestial City of the twentieth century was communist utopia; in Ginsberg, utopia, without being precisely communist, also had to do with alternative, anti-bourgeois, liberatory ways of living; with ways of living in which Love would triumph. Because ...
The weight of the world
be mad or chill
obsessed with angels
the final wish
I'll say it again: they had an idea of what paradise should be. And from this idea came their power, their capacity for suffering, their vehemence in protest, their heroic attitude and posture. Let's for a moment consider a third poet, the Turk Nazim Hikmet. Would he have been able to stand what he stood-with the same integrity and as gladly-during the twenty years he spent in prison for his poems? I don't know if an idea of paradise-which is to say, faith-moves mountains. I do know that it moved the mind and hand of many who wrote in the past and turned poetry into something necessary, which is to say, important.
In 1956, when Howl was published, there were things in Spain that were possible and things that were impossible. Now-now when I've been reading the Basque version of the poem, published in its entirety for the fiftieth anniversary-there are also possible and impossible things. In Spain and in the world.
Among the possibles is Moloch, the same Moloch invoked by Allen Ginsberg: "Moloch whose love is endless oil and stone!"...
Among the impossibles is faith in a paradise, because we know by now that the earlier ones, the twentieth-century ones that impelled Blas de Otero, Nazim Hikmet or Allen Ginsberg, ended up in another Moloch or in nothingness.
In these circumstances-in the presence of Moloch and with no idea of paradise-will the poets be strong? Can poetry be important? Can it be necessary to people? I'm remembering an automaton that's on display at the puppet museum of Monte Tibidabo, in Barcelona: the light goes on in the glass box, a hurdy-gurdy plays, the poet-dressed as Harlequin-begins to write. He writes and he keeps writing until, all of a sudden, the light goes off and the hurdy-gurdy stops playing. Harlequin-the poet-sits there with his head fallen forward; I can't tell if he's sleeping or dead. I hope this won't be the image of the poets of the twenty-first century; I'd rather think that they're more like the roosters shut up in those wooden boxes, and will be able to make some kind of noise.