H e a r t S o n s & H e a r t D a u g h t e r s of A l l e n G i n s b e r g
N a p a l m H e a l t h S p a : R e p o r t 2 0 1 4 : A r c h i v e s E d i t i o n
(A transcription of an improvised presentation at an event honoring the 50th anniversary of
Allen Ginsberg’s poem “Howl,” hosted by Naropa University, July 2006)
I’m an example of the apprenticeship program that Allen [Ginsberg] ran while he was here. I
was a course that you could sign up for, you got credit for it, and met alone with Allen once a
week for three hours. Some of the time was spent looking at your own work as a poet and
giving you one-on-one instruction. And some of it was secretarial work: you actually were an
apprentice, you did the work of a poet.
But I want to talk about the apprenticeship program in a way that is not about sentimentality or
nostalgia, or as something that happened in a circumscribed period of time and is no longer
active in my life. As Allen said in that William Buckley clip, being a poet is grounded in a
consciousness. And in that one-on-one instruction I learned how to ground that
consciousness—for myself and others. I learned from him the way a baby bird learns from its
parents how to fly—through observation and practice. He showed me how to do things that I
always knew were possible but I’d never actually seen anyone live them out or practice
them—what they actually looked like in action. In fact, most people told me that these ways of
living were unrealistic—like giving all of your extra money away, like dedicating your life to the
service of others. He showed me how these practices actually work.
When I came to Boulder in ‘79, as a 25-year-old, the problems I had as a poet were basically
three. The first was that I was more or less ignorant of my poetic lineage and tradition. I was
technically unread. The second problem was that my poetry was awful and, in addition, it was
false, which made it even worse. And, three, I was socially inept. [Laughter] I was socially
retarded in the sense of someone who was not behaving at their chronological age,
emotionally, and living in a way that wasn’t congruent with what they knew and believed.
So, how did Allen deal with those three problems? The first was easy. He gave me
assignments. He told me what I needed to read in order to be a poet. The second problem with
my poetry was that I had fallen in love with the poetry of William Butler Yeats as a teenager: I
thought he was the greatest poet—and still do—of all time. The problem was, I was a 25 year
old kid writing as if I was, you know, William Butler Yeats. But I didn’t have the wealth of
experience or depth of insight to pull it off, so it was a false persona—false to my actual
experience. So Allen gave me assignments to write from my own experience: What did I
remember? What did I see? What did I feel? And when that wasn’t working, he would make
me face a white wall and take a poem of mine and ask me: “What did you actually see that
gave you these thoughts? What was the color of the sky? Where were your hands when you
thought this? What color dress was she wearing?” Precise details. His idea was that I needed to
learn how to transcribe my own sense impressions, what actually occurred previous to my
thoughts about what happened. Third, he sensed that I had a reservoir of emotions that I had
frozen; I had squelched them in many ways; I was afraid of exposing them. And so I tended to
be a body that carried my brain from room to room—I dealt with everything intellectually. So
he began asking me questions that I could only answer from my heart. And by answering out
of my heart over and over again—the actual, literal experience of honestly answering out of
my heart—he gave me my self.
Allen wasn’t interested in creating little Allen Ginsbergs. That was frightening to him. There
was nothing worse than being Allen Ginsberg surrounded by Allen Ginsberg clones. He wanted
big Randy Roarks, big Joe Richeys, big Steven Taylors. He wanted to see how good we were,
how deep. So he would create situations that were high profile, challenging, like throwing you
in to pitch in Yankee Stadium against the Red Sox. “Okay, kid, let’s see what you got.” These
situations were always spontaneous, so you had no way of preparing for them. He was
constantly pushing, pressing you to be better, to be you, to find out what resources you had
inside of you that you weren’t yet aware of. “Let’s take this baby out and see what it can do.”
The other side of the apprenticeship was the work part. I was an expert at that. That sort of
made up for my social ineptness and ignorance. I could type really fast, work really hard, I
never missed an appointment or deadline. And I was totally attentive to Allen. He would send
me on errands that he would do if he had the time, so I was occupied with a poet’s errands, I
did a poet’s work. I went to the library, researched Milton, scanned his poetry: what rhythms
did Milton use? Are there any contemporary first-person accounts of Blake singing his poems?
And social and political investigations, rabblerousing, networking, phone calls, letter writing,
building a community of poets. I learned that that’s what a poet did, as much or equal to the
writing of their poems.
The benefit of this is that I realized that I had my ideas about how to become a poet all wrong.
I thought that to become a poet what you did was create a significant body of work and then
you were acknowledged for that and people would consider you a poet. They would sort of
give you that title. And that’s how you made it. But it became clear to me that to be a poet is
something completely opposite of that, that I had it completely upside down. To become a
poet, you have to be a poet in every moment of your life. Like this moment, right this second,
how it is for me now. That’s how the apprenticeship continues in my life, how it’s always
present. It’s not like you can “make it new,” like [Ezra] Pound said—because it’s always new.
The apprenticeship never ends. Every second is always just the latest installment, and no one
can anticipate what’s about to happen, so you look at it as if you don’t know, and you pay
attention to what you see and you take note of it and declare it. That’s the job of the poet
whether they’re reading a poem or writing a poem or having a conversation or just observing
what’s going on above or beyond and behind what appears to be happening—to experience
epiphanies, which my friend Jonathan Gill explained to me comes from the Greek for epi or
the highest—and phanos—sight. That’s the job of the poet, to experience the highest vision, to
experience all of the possible epiphanies in any moment. And then you try to capture some of
that excitement in words and gather it into a poem.
So as a poet, every moment, whether driving your car or shopping at the supermarket, sitting
next to your friends at a reading like this—whatever you’re doing, you could be the only poet
in that moment! It could all be up to you! And if your being a poet is grounded in a
consciousness, there’s never an off switch. There’s no down time. You are a poet. And, if
you’re a poet, you write poems out of those experiences that seem to capture something you
were looking for, to preserve it and present it to others who may find some consolation in your
being able to put into words what they’ve been experiencing themselves. Whatever it is,
your poem can never be more than your ability to experience whatever you experience. It’s
obvious—it can’t be anything more than that. And if you can stay in that state of
consciousness and write a poem while still in it, then your poem will be a series of revelations
and insights, like footsteps in the sand, or a path through the woods. And as they follow you,
you and the reader will share that state of consciousness, at least for a moment, and you can
make others become poets for a moment, too.
What I’ve thought about the last couple of days is that the reason Allen was so unafraid of
public relations and getting the word out about his work and being and manifesting as a poet
was because he thought his poetry was medicine. It was education. If you think of your work
as medicine—medicine that people need—as a living example of what it is that they can be,
then you want as many people as possible to experience that. And so any kind of self
consciousness about promoting and advertising yourself and work disappears. Poetry in this
sense has a higher purpose, and promoting and advertising yourself merely become tools for
getting the medicine to as many people as possible before you expire.
And when I thought about the apprentices I’ve kept up with, in addition to all being
accomplished poets, one is working to preserve the ecological habitat of the Mississippi River.
One works for Disability Services at CU and runs a virtual Museum of American Poetics on
the web and is a blues guitarist. Joe [Richey] is an investigative reporter, involved in local
politics, and an international emissary for poetry and politics, going to Central and South
America when he’s not playing in a Buddhist rock band. One person writes children’s books
for gay and lesbian families. Another poet is teaching meditation in the prisons and translating
Buddhist poetry from the Korean and writing a biography of Tilopa in verse. And then there’s
whatever it is I do—my interest in improvisation and recording oral wisdom traditions. So:
ecological understanding and sensitivity, working with the disadvantaged and socially and
culturally isolated, the blues, preserving the American poetical lineage, investigating the
government, working in local government, an interest in Buddhist rock-and-roll, teaching
meditation, Buddhist poetry and oral wisdom traditions, an attempt to broaden acceptance and
understanding of the gay and lesbian community, and improvisation.… Sound like anybody we
know? [Laughter] In many ways, I think of Allen as a firebrand, as a burning bush, and when
he died, little sparks of him flew out everywhere and set a lot of ground fires.
When Allen died it was the last teaching he gave to people who were actually paying attention,
because he was not afraid, not grasping. It wasn’t like it was a good thing, but he was kind of
relieved and relaxed when he got the news that he was terminally ill, because of the way he
lived his life. There was no off switch. He lived his life fully. He checked every box. So when
it came time to die, it was like, “Okay, I did it.” It was his last important teaching to his
students—how to constantly be aware of your death so you can decide how to live the rest of
your life. And my death will be the end of my apprenticeship, too.
So blessings to everyone for coming here tonight. Thanks for celebrating this poem and this
poet and, uh, I wish you luck.
[Originally published in NHS 2007, http://www.poetspath.com/napalm/nhs07/Randy_Roark.htm.]