Allen Ginsberg at Brooklyn College: Diversity Poetics Materials

Allen Ginsberg

Drawing by Allen Ginsberg on Brooklyn College napkin (n.d.).


Allen Ginsberg (1926-1997) accepted an appointment as Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College from 1986 to until his death. Ginsberg scholar Bill Morgan has suggested that by the mid-1980s, the poet had begun to show "an increasing interest in consolidating and passing on his legacy." For example, he agreed to publish his Collected Poems, 1947-1980 through Harper and Row in 1985. His tenure, beginning the next year at Brooklyn College, was another legacy statement regarding his poetics transmission.

From the time he replaced John Ashbery, who took leave from the college after a grant from the MacArthur Foundation in 1985, Ginsberg encountered and responded to an urban public diverse secular academic community scene in a way that offered him a unique opportunity to explore the legacy of the Beat Generation he had taught during his years at Naropa at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics.

When asked by Steve Silberman in an interview published in the Whole Earth Review (Fall, 1987) how it felt to be teaching at Brooklyn College, Ginsberg responded by saying, "It seems like a ripening—that the culture has changed sufficiently that it will take me more or less on my own terms." I have twelve years' experience at Naropa helping run the poetics department so I'm really an old-dog teacher now, and Naropa—inasmuch as it's accredited—is in a sense institutional too.... So I feel kind of proud that I was part of that—something real, in that sense, socially...."

Contrary to expectation that teaching at Brooklyn College would somehow be "anticlimactic" to the wild and historic Buddhist-oriented scene he'd been a part of at Naropa, Ginsberg's Brooklyn College experiences do not seem any less rigorous or any less profound. His courses were not rehashings of those on the Beat Generation that he developed at Naropa. His explorations into African-American literature and his various event programs did not reveal a person getting by on dusty lecture notes, out of touch with the social mood, or easing up on the mental discipline required for the masterful transmission of his contemplative lineage approach to diversity.

The watershed of his Brooklyn College academic period was the spring semester of 1989 when along with Professor Marie Buncomb, Ph.D., Ginsberg co-taught a Brooklyn College course "African American Poetic Genius: Ma Rainey to Gwendolyn Brooks." Together,they hosted teacher/poets Quincey Troupe, David Henderson, Jayne Cortez, Lorenzo Thomas, June Jordan, Audrey Lorde, Alice Childress, Sonia Sanchez, Michael Harper and Gwendolyn Brooks. A componenent of this course was the African-American Oral Tradition signified by the blues. As noted by the Allen Ginsberg Trust, the blues were one of Allen's specialties. He had a big collection, generally preferring the country blues singers like Missisippi John Hurt, Leadbelly, Charlie Patton, Bo Carter, Bill Williams, Blind Blake, Richard 'Rabbit' Brown & Robert Johnson, but his top favorites were Besse Smith and Ma Rainy. He made blues anthologies for his Brooklyn College classes, teaching the lyrics as poetry.

In a reminiscence by Brooklyn College colleagues Robert Viscusi (English) and Ethyle R. Wolfe (Humanities), Ginsberg was described this way: "One could not spend an hour in his presence and not come away wishing oneself a better person, a more attentive teacher, a more devoted citizen of the republic of letters. Like Whitman before him, Ginsberg practiced citizenship at an intense level of visionary clarity. His achievement is to have invented whole new worlds for the democratic mind to inhabit, whole new sympathies for democratic ethics to explore."

The purpose of exhibiting these late-Ginsberg diversity source materials is to present a cross-section of the raw academic data of Allen Ginsberg's Brooklyn College diversity course curriculum, promotional fliers, reading programs and biographies of poets, as well as other materials only available at Stanford University. Stanford University Libraries acquired the archive of Allen Ginsberg in 1994, making official announcement of the acquisition of the Allen Ginsberg Papers on September 7. The Museum of American Poetics, in collaboration with and by permission of Stanford University, Department of Special Collections, and the Allen Ginsberg Trust, presents these xeroxed excerpts from the Allen Ginsberg Papers.

African-American Poetic Genius
Typed letter from Allen Ginsberg and Marie Helen Buncombe, Ph.D. to Amiri Baraka, 10/14/1988, inviting Amiri Baraka to participate in a Brooklyn College course with the working title "American Black Literary Genius 20th Century Ma Rainey to the present." Corrections by Allen Ginsberg.
Handwritten, annotated, chronological research notes on roots of the Harlem Renaissance—late nineteenth, early twentieth century African-American poets, musicians, statesman, educators—race relations and Black identity by Allen Ginsberg.
Draft of outline by Allen Ginsberg of the African-American Literature course, including notes on instruction and evaluation, which would become African-American Poetic Genius.
Typed course syllabus titled "African-American Literature: Poetic Genius Jubilee: Ma Rainey to Gwendolyn Brooks," taught by Allen Ginsberg and Professor Buncombe, Spring, 1989. [This course is also referred to as "African-American Poetic Genius" in this exhibit - MAP]
Typed draft of poets' biographies for reading program to accompany African-American Poetic Genius course, Spring, 1989, with corrections by Allen Ginsberg.
Extensive handwritten teaching notes, beginning January 30, 1989, by Allen Ginsberg for African-American Poetic Genius course, with reference to poets in the accompanying reading series.
"A Brief Survey of Blues Records: Ma Rainey to Elizabeth Cotton—": a cut and pasted poster prepared by Allen Ginsberg to accompany African-American Poetic Genius, Spring 1989.
Handwritten notes by Allen Ginsberg for African-American Poetic Genius oral tradition component focusing on twentieth century African-American Blues artists.
"Oral Tradition: Panel 1" typed bibliography used by Allen Ginsberg and Professor Buncombe for Oral Tradition units of African-American Poetic Genius course.

"Tyger" Blake-influenced drawing by Allen Ginsberg, found in Brooklyn College files at Stanford University Special Collections.


In addition to his own research and teaching of key sources of African-American poetry, Ginsberg advanced a poetics curricular blueprint that should be considered both consistent with Beat literary traditions and diversity poetries. That is, having come from a marginalized poetic tradition, an alternative, anticanonical literature, with roots in the Dadaist, Objectivists, Harlem Renaissance, Black Mountain, San Francisco Renaissance, Black Arts Movement, and New York School, he was deeply committed to illuminating the interesting complementarities of history such as the relationship between the American Beatnik and diversity or multiple identity struggles. He looked for ways beyond ideology to address the Postbeat diversity connection.

Regardless of one's personal identity politics, Ginsberg was interested in getting beyond battles of class warfare and into some practical attitude of transcendence. "Practical," he said in a 1989 interview with Josef Jarab, "had to do with cleansing the doors of perception themselves; in which case middle-class notions and ego notions and everything else gets cleansed; personal identity as well as national or class or race chauvinist identity as well." The following examples, from the "Rainbow" readings he worked on, as well as additional related materials found among his Brooklyn College files at Stanford University, illustrate the arc of his cultural insight toward the end of his life.

Rainbow Poets
"Rainbow Body Poetics Brooklyn" drawing by Allen Ginsberg, 12/18/1989. This "poetic gold" "cultural gold" rainbow image would be used on the Wolf Institute for the Hunanities at Brooklyn College flier announcing readings by diversity poets introduced by Allen Ginsberg and Regine LaTortue, Spring, 1990.
The Wolfe Institute for the Humanities "Saturn" flier for Spring, 1991, "Rainbow Body Poetry" reading series, introduced by Allen Gisnberg, Virginia Sanchez Korrol and Regine LaTortue.
The Wolfe Institute for the Humanities "Tyger" flier for Spring, 1993, "Rainbow Body Poetry" reading series, introduced by Allen Ginsberg.
Living Poetry
Typed copy with edited handwritten changes by Allen Ginsberg of biographies for "Living Poetry" reading series, 1988.
Poetics Practicum
"Poetics Practicum" is part of Allen's course package for his Brooklyn College classes the last 5 or so years of his life. Started in 1992, and revised in 1995, it is one of three notebooks that circumscribe Allen's practice as a teacher, though one should have a copy of his syllabus to get a sense of how he used them. "Poetics Practicum" is important as poetics text (and should be published in tandem with the others) because it outlines a thorough pattern of instruction in learning poetics. In this respect, it serves very much the same purpose as Pound's "A Retrospect" and other literary essays—reminding the neophyte that poetry is a discipline with mental orientation, traditions, movements, and most importantly, technique to be mastered. Of the other notebooks, "Clear Seeing Poetics" is a collection of the poems Allen referred to most often and taught with. "Mind Writing Slogans," by contrast, is a step-by-step way of training the poet's mind, following the threefold approach in Tibetan Buddhism: 1. Ground (situation or primary perception), 2, Path (method or recognition), and 3. Fruition (result or appreciation, candor and self- and other- recognition). To get a full appreciation of what Allen's teaching involves, one needs all three, though the Practicum is the initial volume of a major comprehensive training practice in dharma poetics: these volumes are a major foundation for anyone seeking to learn this art. [notes by David Cope, 10/28/08, with thanks to Peter Hale of the Allen Ginsberg Trust for permission to exhibit.]
Photocopies are for reference use only. Furthur reproduction requires permission from the Department of Special Collections, Stanford University Libraries.




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