In advance of the 12th Ginsberg Poetry Marathon, I’m presenting excerpts from my 1994 interview with Allen.
AG: Yes, it is the title of a book by Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, my Tibetan lama guru. I just wanted to interrupt, that long poem I spoke of about Kesey and the Grateful Dead, called “I Went to the Movie of Life,” is dated April 30th, 1987, 4:30 to 6:25 a.m. I mean, that’s how much time it took me to write this very long, elaborate story-like visionary dream. Of, you know, a dream in which I found myself in Clarksdale, Mississippi, the Home of the Blues, waiting for the Grateful Dead tour bus, for their Ken Kesey psychedelic bus passing by, and wanting to join them.
PN: When you . . .
AG: That was about . . . first thought about . . .
PAUL NELSON: Yeah, exact–I mean when you write the poetry, is it a finished product? Or do you go back and edit it? Or how does it usually work?
AG: I edited very slightly but I depend on the first notation, and if it’s not there, then the poem won’t work at all in any way. As in the poem, it’s sort of a dream, and 4:30 to 6:30, writing down the dream with all the detail in the dream, remembering it and finding some poetic form to write it in, so that it comes out intact, both as a poem and a dream record, with some surprise thing at the very end. You think that maybe it’s real or a story and all of a sudden it comes to some impossible situation and you wake up. So that provides sort of the magical vision for the poem. But to do that, you have to remember the primordial details of the dream.
“First Thought, Best Thought” is a title of a book by Chogyam Trungpa, my Tibetan lama guru, and it came up in the course of a conversation, which we were composing a chain poem together. Each of us contributing one line apiece. And at some point I said, “‘The monk bent down to lace his animal shoes.” And I didn’t know what I meant by “animal shoes.” It was just, came up out of my head. And he said, “‘Animal shoes?” And I said, “And, oh, yes, the shoes are made of leather – animal shoes.” And he said, “‘First thought, and the first thought is the best thought.” And I said, “First thought, best thought,” i.e. condensing it down. Meaning, the first raw flash on your mind that’s usually visual, before you mediate it and edit it and editorialize on it, and generalize on it or make it OK for other people to look at censor it . . .
PN: Filter. Filter.
AG: . . . or filter it.
AG: Before you filter it, it usually comes intact as a kind of raw, emotionally interesting gleam, usually visual. So Kerouac has the idea in his instructions for writing, “Don’t stop to think of words, but to see picture better,” i.e., the first primordial picture that you see. ‘Cuz what people tend to do is be a little ashamed of their minds, or ashamed of their raw thoughts or theme – “Well, that’s too personal,” or, “That’s just me. Maybe I should generalize it.” Say I’m having a dream in which I’m sleeping with mother. No, I don’t wanna write about that! People would . . . So I’ll think I’ll say, “I had a dream in which I did something bad. Ha! Or I had a dream in which I outraged society, or I had a dream in which I . . . I don’t know. And it’s a bit . . . so finally, you’ll lose the humor and contradictoriness and quiddity and humanity of the first glimpse that goes back to either person, goes back to Freud or goes back before the Bible. And you lose the detail and you lose the believability, and instead, you get some generalization or abstraction. And one very interesting thing that William Blake says is, “Generalization and abstraction are the plea of the hypocrite, knave, and scoundrel.” “Labor well the minute particulars.” Take care of the little ones, the minute particular details. Take care of the little ones. Kerouac has the phrase, “details are the life of prose or poetry.” Or as Pound said, “Direct treatment of the thing or object,” or Williams says, “No ideas but in things,” or the American vernacular, “Give me a for instance.”
AG: Same thing. So, “First thought, best thought” means you catch yourself thinking, that’s an American vernacular, and you notice what you noticed in your mind. And you retain it, intact. It doesn’t mean first thought chronologically, because chronologic, it might mean a surface thing. Like, “Oh, well, I’m gonna think about what I was thinking about.” You know, you gotta get to the bottom. You know, if you stirred the pool, wait ‘til the water settles so you can look down at the bottom, like in a fish tank.
PN: Sounds sort of like meditation or Buddhism. That’s the first thing that comes to my mind.
AG: Very much so, and that phrase, “catch yourself thinking,” which is totally American vernacular, which everybody knows, really, or giving you—catches little thinking, is basically the seed of meditation practice itself…
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.