John Lofton Interviews Allen Ginsberg

Lofton: In the first section of your poem “Howl” you wrote: “I saw the best young minds of my generation destroyed by madness.” Did this also apply to you?

Ginsberg: That’s not an accurate quotation. I said the “best minds,” not “the best young minds.” This is what is called hyperbole, an exaggerated statement, sort of a romantic statement. And I suppose it could apply to me, too, or anybody. It cuts both ways. People who survived and became prosperous in a basically aggressive, warlike society are in, a sense, destroyed by madness. Those who freaked out and couldn’t make it, or were traumatized, or artists who starved, or what not, they couldn’t make it, either. It kinda cuts both ways. There’s an element of humor there.

Lofton: When you say you suppose this could have applied to you, does this mean you don’t know if you are mad?

Ginsberg: Well, who does? I mean everybody is a little mad.

Lofton: But I’m asking you.

Ginsberg: Everybody is a little bit mad. You are perhaps taking this a little too literally. There are several kinds of madness; divine madness. And in the Western tradition there is what Plato called—

Lofton: But I’m talking about this in the sense you spoke of in your 1949 poem “Bop Lyrics,” when you wrote: “I’m so lucky to be nutty.”

Ginsberg: You’re misinterpreting the way I’m using the words.

Lofton: No, I’m asking you a question. I’m not interpreting anything.

Ginsberg: I’m afraid that your linguistic presupposition is, as you define it, that “nutty” means insanity rather than inspiration. You are interpreting, though you say you aren’t, by choosing one or another definition and excluding another. So I think you’ll have to admit you are interpreting.

Lofton: Actually, I don’t admit that.

Ginsberg: You don’t want to admit nuttin’! But you want me to admit something. Come on. Come off it. Don’t be a prig.

Lofton: No, I just want to ask you a question.

Ginsberg: No, you’re not just asking me a question. You’re first interpreting the language and wanting me to use the idea the way you use it. [But] it’s my words. And I’m trying to explain to you what it meant.

Lofton: On the contrary, I was asking you what you meant by what you wrote.

Ginsberg: Oh, I see. It’s a double use of the word “madness” or “crazy” or “nutty.” But if you’ll listen to this tape you’ll find you asked to exclude one aspect and wanted “nutty” to mean “crazy” or “insane.” And that’s why I say you are interpreting and not wishing to use the language as I had originally set it out. And you weren’t interested in my explanation. Are we communicating or just sparring?

Lofton: I think you can do both. It’s not either/or.

Ginsberg: All right. All right. But you have to remember what we’re saying. You can’t amnesize what we were saying. I feel you’re trying to avoid recognition of the fact that you were trying to exclude both meanings of the word “crazy.”

Lofton: No, I’m just trying to understand what you meant by what you wrote. But this question of madness—

Ginsberg: There’s also another background. In Zen Buddhism there is wild wisdom, or crazy wisdom, crazy in the sense of wild, unlimited, unbounded. Or as in jazz, when someone plays a beautiful riff or extemporizes, they say crazy man.

Lofton: But I am interested in this question of your possible madness. It’s not a gratuitous question. There is a history of “madness in your family.

Ginsberg: Very much so.

Lofton: Your mom died in 1956 in-a mental institution. So my question is not cute or facetious. And the Current Biography Yearbook for 1987 says that when a roommate of yours, in 1949, stole to support his drug habit, and was arrested, you were implicated circumstantially and pleaded a psychological disability and spent eight months in the Columbia Psychiatric Institute. What was this psychiatric disability and why did you spend just eight months in this institute?

Ginsberg: Well, I had sort of a visionary experience in which I heard William Blake’s voice. It was probably an auditory hallucination but was a very rich experience.

Lofton: This happened while you were masturbating, right? Ginsberg: Yes, but after.

Lofton: Not during, but after?

Ginsberg: After. Did you read this in the Paris Review?

Lofton: No, in the Current Biography Yearbook for 1987. But I want to ask you about your roommate, this drug arrest and this psychiatric disability you pleaded.

Ginsberg: No, no, no, no, no, no, no no. Sir, first of all your tone is too aggressive. You have to soften your tone because there’s an element of aggression here. There’s an, element almost like a police interrogation here.

Lofton: But that’s not all bad. The police, in some instances, do a good job, particularly in dealing with criminals.

Ginsberg: Sir, in this case it’s a little impolite. You’re being a little harsh and unfriendly and making it very difficult to relate to you gently and talk unguardedly and candidly because there is an element of manipulativeness in the way you’re asking questions. You don’t feel that at all?

Lofton: No.

Ginsberg: No element of manipulativeness or coercion or aggression or a hard edge here that is supposed to put me at a disadvantage?

Lofton: There’s no doubt that from what I’ve read about you, I don’t like what you have stood for over the years. I don’t like your politics, the kind of sex you engage in. So, if you mean there’s a hostility here towards what you are, absolutely [there is].

Ginsberg: But you’re talking to me as if I’m an object of some kind and not a person in front of you. There’s an element of abusiveness in the way you’re talking to me—your tone of voice and interrogative method in which I seem to have to answer yes or no.

Lofton: But an interview is an interrogation.

Ginsberg: Or it can be a conversation, a little warmer. It can have a little more sense of respect and less sense of hard-edged, police-like interrogation. I’m asking you, in a sense, to watch your manners.

Lofton: That’s interesting because I’m not asking you to respond in any particular way. Why are you telling me how to ask questions? You can use any tone you like. . . . So, can we return to my question? What was this psychiatric disability that put you in an institute for eight months?

Ginsberg: Well, I’m not sure it really was a disability to begin with. So I can’t answer the question the way you propose it.

Lofton: But I’m asking you if it’s true, as the Current Biography Yearbook has reported, that you had this disability?

Ginsberg: It’s neither true nor not true. Now, do you know about that?

Lofton: But it is true that you were in an institute?

Ginsberg: Yes, I was. I had a kind of visionary experience relating to a text by William Blake, “The Sick Rose.”

Lofton: “The Sick Rose”?

Ginsberg: Yes, it went: “O rose, thou art sick! / The invisible worm / That flies in the night, / In the howling storm, / Has found out thy bed / Of crimson joy, / And his dark secret love / Does thy life destroy.” So, it’s a very mysterious, interesting poem that keyed off a kind of religious experience, a visionary experience, a hallucinatory experience—whichever way you want to interpret it. All three descriptions are applicable and possible. Reality has many aspects.

Lofton: Were you using drugs while you masturbated [and had this experience]?

Ginsberg: Not at all. I had been living very quietly, eating vegetarian diets, seeing very few people and reading a great many religious texts: St. John of the Cross, the Bible, Plato’s Phaedra, St. Teresa of Avila, and Blake. So I was in a kind of solitary, contemplative mood.

Lofton: Did you put yourself into this institute?

Ginsberg: More or less. Because I questioned my own sense of reality and I couldn’t figure out what the significance of the illuminative experience was, whether it was a kind of traditional experience, religious experience, that you might find within James’s book The Varieties of Religious Experience where there is a sudden sense of vastness and ancientness and respect and devotional awareness or sacredness to the whole universe. Or whether this was a by-product of some lack-love longing and projection of the world with my own feelings, or some nutty breakthrough.

Lofton: What made you think anyone at the Columbia Psychiatric Institute would have any light to shed on what you thought your problem was?

Ginsberg: Well, I was very young [about 22].

Lofton: Did they help you find reality?

Ginsberg: I don’t think there’s any single reality. They helped me relate to my own desires.

Lofton: You think you were better when you got out of there?

Ginsberg: I think they said I wasn’t ever really psychotic or crazy, just an average neurotic.

Lofton: Did they think it was normal to have the experience you had after masturbating?

Ginsberg: No, but you could say perhaps normal or average, yes. People have very many extraordinary experiences in their lives, whether or not connected with having masturbated, although most people do masturbate.

Lofton: But, clearly, you thought something was wrong with you or you wouldn’t have gone to this institute, right? Ginsberg: Well, I wasn’t thinking it was exactly wrong—

Lofton: But something was out of whack. You went there for some reason.

Ginsberg: You’re putting words in my mouth.

Lofton: No, I’m asking you a question.

Ginsberg: No, you’re asserting something—that I thought something was wrong.

Lofton: But someone doesn’t go to a psychiatric institute because he thinks everything is OK, does he?

Ginsberg: You might very well do that, depending on what you mean by “out of whack” or “OK.” Actually, I was more inquisitive as to what the nature of my experience was, and I thought I would be able to find out that way.

Lofton: Did you go to anywhere else besides this institute?

Ginsberg: Oh, later—I’m going to a psychiatrist now.

Lofton: How long have you been in therapy?

Ginsberg: About three years. I went through about five years when I was in my 20’s, and about three years now.

Lofton: Why are you in therapy?

Ginsberg: To see what the structure of my uh, uh—to sort of like get down to the bed-rock root and see what has conditioned me to be the way I am. To examine the texture of my feelings, whether my experience with my family has at all been sort of like digested and absorbed and whether I’m handling it properly and whether I know my own emotions, and sort of exploring the depths of my own feelings.

Lofton: What makes you think the people you are going to now know anything about this?

Ginsberg: It’s not that they know. It’s whether they’re—it’s not like—it depends on what you mean by “know.” What do you mean by “know”?

Lofton: Well, I could ask that this depends on what you mean by what I mean by “know,” but this wouldn’t give us much of an interview if we do a whole lot of this.

Ginsberg: Some sense of warmth, trust, and intelligence that goes back and forth between myself and my psychiatrist. It’s an experiential matter that gives me confidence to have a trusting relation and to discuss my problems with another person.

Lofton: But you could have a trusting relationship with your barber.

Ginsberg: I have trusting relationships with people who are not psychiatrists and I talk to them, too. But a psychiatrist is trained, generally, to check through habit patterns. It’s a very specialized thing. It may not be very much superior to just an ordinary wise person that you might talk to or someone who has more handy experience. . . .

Lofton: I assume you’re going to a secular humanist-type psychiatrist.

Ginsberg: I never inquired about her religious beliefs.

Lofton: Really? So you’re going to someone whose religious beliefs, whose presuppositions, you know nothing about?

Ginsberg: Not all their presuppositions.

Lofton: Do you know any of them?

Ginsberg: Some, by body language and the response to the immediate situation in front of me, which is what I am really interested in rather than, say, in this conversation. I’m dealing with you in terms of how you display yourself here, not the history of your thoughts. I’m trying to deal with the evidence or manifestation of how you present yourself here—your harshness, aggression, and insistency and—

Lofton: Why not call it my perseverance? Isn’t that a nicer word? Or guts? Or tenacity?

Ginsberg: I would say there is a little element of S&M in your approach. Power.

Lofton: No, I would say this is more like the kind of sex you like.

Ginsberg: And I would say this is the kind of power relationship you like, judging from your behavior.

Lofton: Well, that’s certainly what S&M is all about, power.

Ginsberg: And you seem to like that, don’t you? Have your sexual fantasies ever involved that kind of power relationship?

Lofton: No, not to my knowledge. I’m a Christian. So I don’t fantasize.

Ginsberg: I know. But so is Jimmy Swaggart.

Lofton: No, I think that we’re finding out that Jimmy Swaggart wasn’t a Christian and that was his problem.

Ginsberg: Do you ever have any sexual fantasies?

Lofton: No.

Ginsberg: None at all?

Lofton: No. I said I am a Christian.

Ginsberg: You’ve never had any sexual fantasies?

Lofton: Before I was a Christian, I had them, absolutely.

Ginsberg: And since you’re a Christian you don’t?

Lofton: No.

Ginsberg: And when you had them did they involve any dominance/ submission fantasies?

Lofton: Mine were pretty orthodox heterosexual kind of fantasies. But there’s no doubt they were bad. And I am so glad that Jesus Christ delivered me from them.

Ginsberg: So you don’t have any at all now?

Lofton: No. Ginsberg: You have no erotic dreams, at all, that you remember?

Lofton: None that don’t feature my wife, no.

Ginsberg: Yeah.

Lofton: It’s an amazing thing what Jesus can do for a person.

Ginsberg: Uh-huh.

Lofton: The power of the Holy Spirit. . . . Do you feel that after these years of therapy that you’re any closer to knowing more—

Ginsberg: Yes.

Lofton: Like what?

Ginsberg: I think some of that is rather private.

Lofton: Fair enough.

Ginsberg: But they would relate to some of what I have written about in my poems “Kaddish” and “White Shroud” . . .

Lofton: Let’s talk about some of your feelings over the years and see if they should be respected. An April 21, 1978, Boston Globe story says that when you were on a local TV show you shared your sexual preference for “young boys” and this caused an instant irate reaction from mothers watching—

Ginsberg: A few. Not that many.

Lofton: A few mothers who had children home on vacation from school. Is this an accurate report? That you do have a sexual preference for “young boys”?

Ginsberg: No, no, no. It’s not accurate in the context of the broadcast.

Lofton: Did you say you had a sexual preference for “young boys”?

Ginsberg: We’re not on trial here. I’m trying to explain—

Lofton: But, in a way, we’re all on trial.

Ginsberg: Well then you must excuse me if I don’t adopt the submissive attitude you wish. . . . I got on the air and said that when I was young I was approached by an older man and I don’t think it did me any harm. And that I like younger boys and I think that probably almost everybody has an inclination that is erotic toward younger people, including younger boys.

Lofton: How young were the boys?

Ginsberg: In my case, I’d say 14, 15, 16, 17, 18.

Lofton: That you had sex with?

Ginsberg: No, unfortunately I haven’t had the chance [laughs]. No, I’m talking about my desires. I’m being frank and candid. And I’m also saying that if anyone was frank and candid, you’d probably find that in anybody’s breast. The—

Lofton: But why? Why do you persist in imputing your own rottenness to other people?

Ginsberg: One moment. Your question is: why do I persist in imputing my own rottenness to other people?

Lofton: That’s right.

Ginsberg: Is this a newspaper interview or is it—

Lofton: I’m a columnist who writes commentary and opinion.

Ginsberg: You realize that you’re using language which could be considered insulting.

Lofton: I hope so. I think it’s a rotten preference to want to have sex with young boys.

Ginsberg: You feel that it’s part of your role to sit here and insult me?

Lofton: Do you feel you should be insult-proof?

Ginsberg: No, but in this circumstance you might have better manners.

Lofton: You’re a little hung up on manners, I think.

Ginsberg: You might couch your conversation with me a little more politely since—

Lofton: Why? Why should I be polite? I think to have sexual preferences for young boys is rotten. I can’t say that?

Ginsberg: Yeah. But you want me to say it, too. . . . It seems you’re being so abusive that it takes a great deal of patience to be your host and to allow you to try to manipulate the situation.

Lofton: But I don’t think it’s true that most people want to have sex with younger people.

Ginsberg: I didn’t say that. You’re taking words out of my mouth.

Lofton: That is what you said.

Ginsberg: No, I said that—we have this on tape, you know.

Lofton: That we do, and I won’t burn this tape.

Ginsberg: What I said was that most people have erotic desires for young people. And that doesn’t mean they would actually want to—

Lofton: What do you mean “most people”? Where do you get your data?

Ginsberg: Well, I’m just speaking as a human being poet who’s been around 61 years, a little older than you.

Lofton: But that doesn’t mean, necessarily, that you’re smarter.

Ginsberg: No, but that’s my experience. If you go back and talk to old folks—they don’t see it as horrible. They see it as part of the charm of—

Lofton: Yeah. Well, maybe you’ve been running around with the wrong people.

Ginsberg: Maybe you’re not wanting to listen to the whole sense of eros here.

Lofton: I don’t doubt that most of the people you’ve run with have wanted to have sex with young people. I’m just suggesting that their views don’t reflect the views of all Americans.

Ginsberg: I didn’t say have sex. I said most people have a kind of erotic attraction to younger people.

Lofton: You mean a fantasy they don’t want to act on?

Ginsberg: Most don’t act on it. Of course not. But most people have in their breasts an erotic pleasure for younger people.

Lofton: You’ve repeated that several times. And I’m denying it. But I’m not denying the people you ran with felt this way.

Ginsberg: It’s a kind of grannywisdom. And you’re overreacting to it.

Lofton: I don’t think your grandmother would have told you this.

Ginsberg: You’re overreacting to the notion that—

Lofton: I hope so.

Ginsberg: You’re interpreting it in sort of a negative way. This is a part of the general spectrum of human charm and emotion rather than sin or rottenness as you say.

Lofton: I think most people reading this interview will agree that the desire to have sex with young boys is rotten.

Ginsberg: It depends on where you publish it.

Lofton: That’s right. If you publish it in the pedophile community, you’ll get a large amount of support.

Ginsberg: If you publish it in the Times or The Washington Post, people will say well, Ginsberg is just talking normal, humanistic, obvious old granny wisdom like you can find in Shakespeare.

Lofton: Okay. We obviously had different kinds of grandmothers. . . . Do you now have a desire to have sex with young boys?

Ginsberg: I have a sexual desire for them, I must say, yes.

Lofton: Still?

Ginsberg: Oh, the older I get, the more.

Lofton: And after six years of therapy, too. This therapy must really be doing a good job.

Ginsberg: You know what the therapy does?

Lofton: It probably tells you it’s fine, just get comfortable with it, right?

Ginsberg: No, not quite. . . . Usually it’s a discussion of where this comes from and trying to find the origin of it. And find what conditioning affected me that I arrived at this particular orientation. That’s all.

Lofton: How about sin? Is it a possibility that you are a sinner?

Ginsberg: That doesn’t come into play. What comes into play is an attempt to cultivate an awareness of the situation so that if there are any harmful consequences, in myself or others, they can be seen through and avoided. The attempt is to understand the situation, not categorize it with knee-jerk words like “sin,” but to understand the roots of it historically and what the personal experience roots were.

Lofton: Well, sin goes back pretty far.

Ginsberg: And then relate to the direct personal experience in a way that will take the sting out of it in a sense of doing harm to others or yourself.

Lofton: But this sexual preference for young boys doesn’t seem to be something you want to be delivered from. You smile when you talk about it. You don’t want to be cured of this, do you?

Ginsberg: I should say my sexual preference is not exclusively for young boys, but also for middle-aged men, straight men, and women. I’ve occasionally had fantasies about making out with trucks as well as beasts. And maybe I’ll be making out with you before it’s all over [laughs].

Lofton: Well, maybe I could drive that truck while you make out with it, perhaps an 18-wheeler, with the pedal-to-the-metal.

Ginsberg: Now there’s your fantasy [laughs].

Lofton: Excuse me, but you raised the idea of having sex with a truck.

Ginsberg: You extended it.

Lofton: I’m just trying to accommodate you. And you’re attacking me again. Ginsberg: No, I’m not attacking you at all.

Lofton: I even offered to drive the truck. And you attacked me.

Ginsberg: You sure did.

Lofton: But to hell with you. I won’t drive the truck. Get your own truck.

Ginsberg: Oh, you can’t get out of it that easily. You’ve already driven the truck in my mind. Gosh, you’re funny. But you’ve got this sort of contentious obsession—God knows what’s underneath all that.

Lofton: Well, yes. He does know. . . .

Ginsberg: You’ve got to remember that I’m talking on the basis of the experience of remembering my unconscious. And maybe you’re not as aware of what’s going on in your mind as I am. And therefore when you condemn impulses or fantasies that I’m willing to be candid about, you may not be so familiar with your own mind as to know that you do contain—

Lofton: Well, let’s clear this up right now. If I had the fantasies you have, I would also consider them rotten. They are rotten not because you have them but because they are rotten desires, preferences.

Ginsberg: But what if you find human nature does contain such a great spectrum of fantasy, a different aspect of reality, as a kind of way of checking out all the possibilities—

Lofton: Mr. Ginsberg, the Book of Jeremiah says that the human heart is desperately wicked. You don’t have to tell me—a born-again Christian, Calvinist. Reformed, Puritan—about the variety of evil fantasies human beings have. I read the Bible, sir, and it tells us all about this. And it tells what is to be done about this.

Ginsberg: But you don’t read your unconscious, the contents of your mind, very carefully. You don’t remember your dreams, your daydreams, subliminal thinking.

Lofton: You know why?

Ginsberg: Why?

Lofton: Because I’m not like you. The Scripture, talking about unbelievers, asks the question, why do the heathen rage, and the people imagine a vain thing? (Psalms 2:1). The Scripture tells us to trust the Lord with all our heart and lean not to our own understanding (Proverbs 3:5). You are an unbeliever. You lean to your own understanding. You’re a heathen who imagines vain things. You have an overactive imagination, a kind of mental cancer.

Ginsberg: No, it’s not quite like that. Do you know anything about meditation practice?

[At this point he says he’ll show me how to meditate. I say fine, but ask him if he plans to take his clothes off. He says no. I meditate. We resume the interview.]

Lofton: I’ve read that you are afraid of death.

Ginsberg: No, I was talking more about the pain, like dying under torture, or from cancer of the eyeball. Something like that would bother me. . . .

Lofton: The 1970 Current Biography says that you aren’t a proselytizer for homosexuality. What does that mean?

Ginsberg: I’m sort of reporting my experience rather than attempting to—

Lofton: So you’re not saying that homosexuality is good, or better?

Ginsberg: I’m observing my own mind and consciousness and reporting on that and trying to be candid. Walt Whitman, who was a very great poet and, incidentally, gay, said he thought that for poets and orators of the future the great quality would be candor, frankness, truthfulness—like first-thought-best-thought, the notion of nonmanipulative communication rather than trying to dress it up and look good for the outside.

Lofton: Well, Walt Whitman suffered from, if I may say so, what might be called terminal candor—not unlike yourself I mean, who cares? You don’t have to tell us everything, instantly reporting on everything you feel. Who cares?

Ginsberg: Nobody could report instantly on everything.

Lofton: But some of you have tried hard. You have said you write down every dream you have. You report on every little impulse from the brain.

Ginsberg: But it’s like a musician who has to practice and limber up for six or seven hours before he gives a concert. And so you get certain selected dreams and impressions you finally report on in a little book of collected poems. You have to do a lot of writing before you get sort of into shape and get practice enough to get an old dog attitude and are able to do it accurately.

Lofton: Well, some people do this and some people don’t.

Ginsberg: Yeah. But the ability to transcribe comes from experience. And you build on it, learning your mistakes and blessings. So I don’t think Whitman wrote too much. He’s considered a great classic around the world.

Lofton: I don’t consider him as such.

Ginsberg: You don’t like Whitman?

Lofton: No.

Ginsberg: Have you read Whitman?

Lofton: Some.

Ginsberg: What have you read?

Lofton: It really doesn’t matter.

Ginsberg: Do you remember the name of the poem you read?

Lofton: Yes, one that says something like: “So, I make mistakes. I contradict myself So what? I contain all things.” This is absurd. Talk about arrogance.

Ginsberg: Dig this.

Lofton: I’m diggin’ it.

Ginsberg: He says: “Do I contradict myself? Very well. I contradict myself I am large. I contain multitudes.” Do you know what he meant by that?

Lofton: Probably nothing good. And I doubt if he knew what he meant.

Ginsberg: Yeah, he did. I know what he meant.

Lofton: How do you know what he meant?

Ginsberg: [laughs] Because I am large. I contain multitudes.

Lofton: But you might contradict yourself.

Ginsberg: Yes. And I certainly will contradict myself.

Lofton: This will be one of your multitudes—the ability to contradict yourself.

Ginsberg: That’s what Whitman is saying.

Lofton: It’s gibberish.

Ginsberg: That our own minds are so vast that we c