In advance of the 12th Ginsberg Poetry Marathon, I’m presenting excerpts from my 1994 interview with Allen.
AG: We were gonna talk about Whitman, remember?
PN: That’s exactly where I was going, yeah, Walt Whitman. A couple of references to Walt Whitman, in the book.
PN: Obviously an inspiration. What has he meant to your work?
AG: Well, you know, Whitman was the first major world poet, aside from Poe, who had tremendous penetration around the world, incidentally. But he was the one that introduced a whole new language of open forum, vernacular talk, exuberance and self-empowerment, very democratically into the literatures of all the countries in the world, from up to China in 1919. There were a couple of poets, Guo Moruo and Ai Qing, who translated Whitman for the first time, and it had a tremendously energizing effect on poetry all over the world, even for the surrealists and the futurists in Russia, 1907- 1910.
And in America he’s like “a mountain too vast to be seen,” which is what I’ve said a number of times, and that we take him for granted. But if any kid, at the age of 15, 16, sits down and reads through all of Whitman in a couple weeks, beginning to end [laughs], it’d be like taking acid. It just opens up the head and you know, gives a breath of fresh air into the heart, especially. In this recognition of oneself as open and as friendly and as tolerant as Whitman, himself. Secrets that one kept to oneself about Eros or cowardice or one’s own idiocy, are all revealed in Whitman in a way that makes them into transparent humor and generosity and exuberance, and friendliness. So it leads people to become friendly to themselves and friendly to others. It’s all sort of a energizing and uplifting, in a very interesting way, and it’s only in the last 20 years that Whitman has finally begun to find his place in America as a kind of hero. At first it was the literary idea, “Oh, he didn’t write in rhymes and verses and stanzas like Longfellow, so he couldn’t be a superior writer.” And he’s obviously, an awkward, crude provincial jerk-off individual that didn’t know what he was doing literarily. And yet the style of open form became an international style, whereas the more limited Longfellow style was really just limited to the 19th Century, basically. And as imitations of classical meters from Greek and Latin, but sort of by putting American literature into a kind of a corset or a straightjacket. So Whitman got out of that straightjacket, mentally and physically in the first line and inspired a whole new wave of poets, including Ezra Pound, who was, felt he was more sophisticated but really finally had to come around and say, “I make a pact with you, Walt Whitman. I’ve been pigheaded long enough.” And of course, that goes into William Carlos Williams who began experimenting with living vernacular idiomatic Americanese and that influenced everybody, including me and Robert Creeley and Kerouac and just the whole world of poetry. Even Robert Lowell, the academic poet, champ, finally in the ‘50s, opened up his verse form so he could speak in Americanese and use the cadences that you use when you’re talking. Da da da da da da, . . . da da da, da, da, da, da, da da da. And use the cadences that you use when you were talking.
You can hear highlighted excerpts from the interview here: https://paulenelson.com/allen-ginsberg-june-12-1994/ and know that you can always find this page by looking at the American Prophets main page.