Authors / Remembering Allen Ginsberg
April 02nd, 2008
I could not wait to get a quick credit: only 4 weeks of Mon. Wed. & Fri. classes with am lectures, afternoon workshops and pm public readings. I had heard Robert Creeley read at UBC in ‘62, but had never read any of the so-called Black Mountain poets: Margaret Avison ( only Canadian), Robert Creeley, Allen Ginsberg, Robert Duncan, Denise Levertov and Charles Olson. Their books ranged in price: Ginsberg’s HOWL, 75 cents to Olson’s The Maximus Poems, $2.10. Some were out of stock, but there were UBC library copies.
Warren Tallman sent this message after registration:
“If you wish to have your poetry discussed in the afternoon workshop sessions, please submit immediately ( Canada Post, of course) not more than 125 lines of poetry (typed) for mimeographing and bring typed copies of any other poetry that you would like discussed.”
“NOTE: It is not necessary to submit poetry to receive credit for the course as the mark will be based on written commentaries on the lectures and discussions rather than on the student’s poetry.”
I was ecstatic ( Okay, I had just re-wed on July 19) as also I was going to have listeners and commentators for my jingly, rhyming verses. (Yes, many students smirked, but the 6 teachers kindly pointed out some original phrases.) As a small town, prim school teacher, wearing my nylons and high heels to Warren Tallman’s opening party, I felt like Alice at the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party – well, it was too early for Halloween. So my first introduction to Beatniks was shocking; I even wrote that Ginsberg was repulsive with his vulgar language. By the end of English 410, I embraced them all, and believe they helped me “grow” as a poet.
Here is a piece I wrote for Dee Livesay in her 1965 UBC prose course about 1963.
POINTERS to POETS
Seeing that evergreen tree, that shaded grass patch, and shallow water in the cement rectangle, I recalled the “ Ginsberg fish bowl” incident. Indoors the heat drained us, so he moved our poetry class outside. Grouped around Allen under that tree, we listened about his then past three years in India; how he kept a daily diary, tasting Eastern philosophy and drink, trying to put those in his American perspective, always relating to Man, how Man : men & women dying, babies beginning to find, feel, know their world and how much they miss – blind to their universe, dumb to each other.
“Put it down, put it down everyday, “ he chanted, nodding his hairy head in rhythm.”You start with a chain of phrases, connected as your never before saw their relationships — A Poem Is Born. Never stop writing, keep your words flowing. Live all the time, all the ways, all the places: Be Aware. And put it down.
Remaining in his crossed-legged sitting position, he stripped off his T-shirt and flexed his strong stomach muscles to show us how Zen believers use deep breathing to relax as an aid to concentration. The class began discussing what points of benefit could be gained from taking mescaline and/or following Zen in obtaining different levels of reality. As Allen summarized for us, “You can only write what you experience; all the rest is hypocrisy, garbage and/or non-communicative language.”
The tiny, dark woman from New York exclaimed, “But that’s how we learned to relax at prenatal clinics, to keep calm during childbirth.”
“Great, let’s all trr…,” his words drifted off to silence, but the whole class felt that silence bounce back off those staring, flat faces behind us.
We were encircled. Strangers inspected us as throngs of students exchanged buildings. Even the tree’s shade seemed less. One tie-and-briefcase spectator, pointed at Allen, his finger only inches from my forehead, “It’s the Beatnik.”
Another chimed in from around the chain, “He’s not even dressed or clean!”
“Look, one’s asleep; some creeps, hey? “ smirked a third in our ears. “Homo”
Isolated and scorned by pointing fingers, I wanted to yell at them. “Oh, can’t you show a little decency. Where’s the HOPE if you, the educated, reject your poets?”
Allen’s soft voice broke into my emotional maze, pleading, “Give me something to read.”
I handed him my latest poem, describing our poetry course and the effect each of the six leaders had for me. Allen immersed himself in my written world.
The class shuddered, then they, too, took to reading to escape the censorship hovering over us. Finally, buzzers cried through the buildings, and we were left unmolested once more.
Leaning back against that tree, his bar back against its rough bark, Allen let his grave eyes delve into mine, as he asked, “Do I really get to you like this?”
Suddenly, I recalled the last line of my Ginsberg description: “he names my unnumbered fears.’ I sensed he was unhappy and tried to justify my position.
“But that’s good. I needed to face the animal in my nature, accept the baseness to which Man can be driven. We must know our limits: good or bad. I had always written about ‘a pink lacy world’, and it wasn’t real. However, unpleasant, I needed your poetry.” I blushed and looked away.
“Okay, Bernice.” He handed back my pages and continued to discuss the problems of putting reality into words. The tree’s shadow lengthened as we learned together.
I no long feel angry at those human pointers , only sad, sensing the narrowness of their experience. They have accepted such a hard, thin sliver of existence. Mostly, I remember Allen’s words of encouragement and knowledge throughout the course. He taught me to read my poems aloud, feeling their rhythm until it was right – before I spaced my words on the page, and more importantly, to love a little more of MAN by knowing more about his despairs and exhilarations. These pointers are useful to the poet.
What I did not include in 1965 was The Vancouver Sun report of the RCMP arresting one of our poets in that circle for MJ ( Mary Jane cigarettes), as a First in 1963 at UBC. I did not want my School District Superintendent ever to learn that I studied at UBC with “pot smokers”!
Margaret Avison and I exchanged addresses: she in Toronto and I in Marple Bridge, Cheshire , UK , keeping in touch. A copy of my journal is in the
Charles Olson Memorial Collection in the USA. Dorothy Livesay and I kept in contact for years, and later, she even spent a few days at our Thornhill, ON home as I prepared a long interview of her for Canadian Forum.
So many stories to tell: Milton Acorn and Al Purdy yelling and high, telling Dorothy Livesay and Miriam Waddington to quit asking for an equal share of LCP readings at an early 70’s meeting in Toronto with “Just shut up ‘nd go back to the kitchen.”
So many wonderful personal interactions with creative Canadian writers, especially with a day long talks that led to published interview with Margaret Laurence and others. Al Purdy, Dave Godfry, Miriam Waddington and more writers were editorial advisors for our WAVES, a literary magazine, 1972-1987.
But I doubt I will ever encounter another poetry workshop with such a diverse group as Avison, Creeley , Ginsberg, Duncan, Levertov and Olson. They all had their wisdom and voices, particularly – their courage to be honest – but no space here to depict each one of these as well as my many talented friends/mentors over the years.
Yes, a rich tapestry of Canadian writers , editors, publishers, and importantly readers, especially here in British Columbia to enjoy.
Essay Date: 2007