In the late sixties, Ginsberg began taping many of his public appearances, as well as his casual and private conversations. He used the recordings to compose his greatest work.
January 6, 2023
In September, 1965, the poet Allen Ginsberg had a series of vivid, sweaty dreams about literary celebrity. Accompanied by his fellow-poet Gary Snyder and a young woman named Martine Algier, Ginsberg was touring the Pacific Northwest in a Volkswagen camper van he’d bought himself with a Guggenheim grant, stopping to hike, climb, and camp along the way. He slept under the forest canopy in a saffron-colored sleeping bag and recorded his dreams in his journal, published in 2020 as “The Fall of America Journals.” The first dream took place at a friend’s apartment in New York City: lying with Jean Genet on a couch, Ginsberg talked loudly about his personal life as a roomful of people—journalists, former classmates, literati, extended family—looked on, sipping on martinis and hanging on Ginsberg’s every word.
In the second dream, Esquire wanted to interview Ginsberg “for a feature article on [his] divine person.” Ginsberg called his friend William S. Burroughs to share the news, but Burroughs disapproved, telling Ginsberg he’d been vain and stupid to accept the invitation. Ginsberg felt “chagrined,” and woke up. Next, he was headed toward San Francisco in the Volkswagen. A poem earnestly titled “Beginning of a Poem of These States” tracks his journey. Ginsberg records the character and color of the landscape, the tinny pandemonium on the radio, the Beach Boys singing tenderly against a backdrop of new industrial farmlands spreading; he suggests that his tennis shoes from Central Europe are not thick enough to keep his feet from getting cold in the early mornings.
What else do you want to know? Ginsberg’s life has been exhaustively catalogued by multiple encyclopedic biographies. But his experience of the late sixties is knowable in especially fine detail—a consequence of his efforts in those years to make the work of writing and self-documentation as mobile, flexible, and constant as possible. His poetry began to resemble a travel log, attaching particular experiences to particular places. In “Beginning of a Poem of These States,” he describes the morning sun warming his feet, ravens landing on a dead cow at the side of the road, tomato sandwiches, silence. Through California’s Donner Pass, the poem’s speaker feels a surge of giddy freedom; “I have nothing to do,” he says, “laughing.” Wildfire smoke forms a purple band at the horizon, and the speaker chants to the Hindu god Shiva—a “new mantra to manifest Removal of Disaster from my self.” As an unnaturally red sun sets over California, Bob Dylan’s “Positively 4th Street” comes on the radio. “Dylan ends his song / ‘You’d see what a drag you are,’ ” wrote Ginsberg. The actual line is “You’d know what a drag it is to see you.” Eventually, as the story goes, Ginsberg would obtain a tape recorder with help from Dylan.
“Beginning of a Poem of These States,” which appears in the first pages of “The Fall of America: Poems of These States 1965-1971,” demonstrates Ginsber’s growing enthusiasm for highly detailed modes of self-recording. “The Fall of America” is Ginsberg’s fifth collection of poems (after “HOWL,” “Kaddish,” “Reality Sandwiches,” and “Planet News”) and his longest and most critically successful standalone work. The original edition, published by City Lights in 1972, is a cult object, a chunky little book with a minimalist black and white cover, title and author intoned in a cool, lightly-serifed font. As the title suggests, its poems convey images of national decline and collapse, which Ginsberg attributes to an interlocking set of causes: racial exploitation and violence; the outsized power of certain depraved politicians and corporate owners; widespread, reality-warping abuses of mass media; and compounding environmental devastations—in short, an evergreen guide to the end of the empire. But virtuosic topicality and overdetermined relevance to our own moment aren’t what make “The Fall of America” special. To understand its prescience, and experience its enduring appeal, you have to zoom in on its process.
“The Fall of America” was famously written with the help of a portable tape machine. When Ginsberg began work on it in 1965, amateur recording was a relatively new possibility: magnetic tape technology had just made its way into the U.S. at the end of the Second World War, when reel-to-reel recorders were machines the size of mini-fridges, generally acquired by record labels or entertainment and news outlets. Rapid advancements ensued, and by the nineteen-sixties there were smaller, battery-powered tape machines available to consumers. Ginsberg used an Uher, an upscale German model that was distributed in the United States by Martel. The Uher was easy to carry (weighing only several pounds), plus its special features included a rechargeable battery that could be plugged into any outlet and a microphone that doubled as an electromagnetic remote control, making it possible to start and stop the recorder from a distance.
“The Fall of America” compresses the hours Ginsberg spent playing with his new toy. When he was composing what he called “auto poesy,” Ginsberg would switch on the machine and spout lines into the air of the Volkswagen. He recorded his reactions to billboards, pop songs, ads, and news reports; confessed intimate feelings; and addressed an eclectic list of higher powers (Hindu saints, yogis, Herman Melville, and Bob Dylan). He would replay the recordings again and again, listening carefully—repeating and re-recording certain lines, refining and building on his rhythms. Then he’d transcribe the tapes’ contents into his journal, editing, formatting, and polishing as he went. His journals suggest that he planned to clear his schedule of commitments, drive back and forth across the continental U.S., and spontaneously record his thoughts about life, friendship, waning youth, and the search for authenticity. Ginsberg himself seems to have acknowledged the conceit as derivative—an aping of “On the Road,” Jack Kerouac’s best-selling novel of the late nineteen-fifties.