Hugh Holmes Norton,
Eleanor Katz, Elliott Macis,
Mary Sue Valenti,
INT: Very good answer. Can we go back to the emergence of the counter-culture? Some of your writings hit a very popular vein and you became very, very popular...
INT: Could you describe to me a little bit about why you think that happened, what they were and why that happened, and what the elements of this... what your philosophy was, if you like, that emerged from this period?
AG: Well, the main themes, actually, of a whole group of poets - that would be Gary Snyder, myself, Philip Wayland, Jack Kerouak, William Burroughs, Michael McLure, Philip Lamonti of the surrealists, the San Francisco group, and the New York group, the beat group, as well as to some extent the Black Mountain group - one: spontaneous mind and candor, telling the truth in the public forum, completely difficult during the time of censorship and party-line mass media, moderation and... well, deceptiveness, deceptiveness in terms of the American violence abroad. And...
(Interruption - change tape)
INT: So, we were talking about...
AG: Yes, the counter-culture.
INT: ... the counter-culture and new revolutionary (Overlap) (.?.).
AG: (Overlap) What were the tenets or themes of the counter-culture, as I know them from the Forties and Fifties, meaning the beat group and some allied friends.
AG: First of all, open forum in poetry, rather than a closed forum. It's like when you split the atom, you get energy. So we were following Whitman and William Carlos Williams and the imagists and objectivists in technique, rather than the academic folks who were having a metronomic beat. That happened in painting, poetry, music and all the arts. And that involved candor and spontaneity, spontaneous composition, a classic thing from Tibet, Japan, China, not recognized here as classic because people weren't scholarly enough, so they thought it was some home-made spontaneous prosody, but it was the great tradition of Milarapa, the Tibetan poet.
Candor, arising from that, meaning if you're saying what's really on your mind spontaneously, you might say things that people would object to or censor. Thus Burroughs's Naked Lunch, which couldn't be printed in America until after many, many legal trials.
An interest in ecology and restoration of the planet, particularly on the part of Kerouak, who said "The earth is an Indian thing," or Gary Snyder who's a famous ecological poet, or Michael McLure whose specialty is in biology, or Philip Lamonti as a surrealist, using surrealist means to go back to the indigenous mind, so to speak.
Then there was also an interest in breaking the bonds of censorship, which we did, and being able to speak freely. There was an exuberance in art rather than any sort of a wet blanket, some sense of exuberance that... as Blake said, "exuberance is beauty", and even some visionary element. There was the introduction, along with that, of Eastern thought, Zen and Tibetan Buddhism, from the early Fifties on, through Kerouak and specifically through Gary Snyder, who was studying Chinese and Japanese in the early Fifties, and then went to study in a Zen monastery in Kyoto, where I joined him on that trip from India through Saigon to Kyoto to Vancouver. So meditation practice and exploration of the texture of consciousness was central, meaning exploration of our own aggression, and some way of relating to our own aggression rather than it run wild over the world as the American diplomacy was allowing: American fear, aggression dominance, macho delusion, to destroy other cultures.
We had a real strong interest in African American culture and in the arts of African American culture, which have never been fully recognized as the great American contribution to world culture. So, the entire program of Kerouak's writing is really related to the new sounds and the new rhythms of beebop, with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonius Monk and other musicians whom he visited and heard directly in Harlem during the late Thirties, early Forties.
So there was an interest in both Asiatic culture and African American culture, The Tibetan Book of the Dead... so an expanding of the American horizon of what was canon, what was the canon: not merely the Judeo-Christian but also the Deists, Buddhists, and let us say animists or indigenous, worship of stocks and stones, as the Catholics would say, who came to America and burned all the Mayan goddesses, despising the pagan cultures. So we were actually checking out the pagan cultures, and finding a refinement, both artistic and intellectual, that we didn't have in Western culture, a Western culture based on some kind of either logical Aristotelian... a thing is either A or not A, or there's one single monotheist center, as distinct from the old hermetic tradition of Heraclitus through Blake and the Eastern tradition of no center, or emptiness, or ku, or shrwinyatah, that things are real but simultaneously no inherent permanent nature. That's a big intellectual distinction, and we were beginning to absorb that question through the Highest Perfect Wisdom sutra, which is chanted every morning in Zen and Tibetan rooms.
So there was a complete change of mind, and also a rediscovery of America itself and the indigenous land, people, folk tales, folk music, urban folk arts like beebop and dozens, rather than a looking to Europe for sophisticated models only. This is part of an old American tradition from Whitman through Williams, of trying to find things that were in the American grain - not a nationalism, but an attempt to use the local virtues, and use them artistically and enrich the ground, rather than reject our own ground, to use our own speech, our own speech rhythms, our own diction, rather than an inherited 19th century English diction speech and so forth. And Williams's argument with Eliot was that by going English, Eliot basically set American poetry back 25 years, which I think was quite true, because it took a long time to recover from the elegance and intelligence of Eliot, but to come back to native grounds. So there were books like On Native Grounds or The Bridge, that celebrated the American style, and finally you get something as brilliant as Kerouak's On the Road, Visions of Cody, which actually celebrate American ground, American character, and go back to the tradition of Whitman.
INT: This hit a hugely popular vein, though, didn't it? By the time you come into the Sixties, this was taken up...
AG: By the time you come to the... oh, I forgot the Sexual Revolution, gay liberation - yeah, you've got to add that in! So if you have complete change in view of the function and texture of consciousness, complete change in sexual tolerance, complete opening of artistic form, complete acceptance of human nature as is, as the fit subject matter, including the chaos of human nature, as your ground, naturally any young generation finds that exciting, 'cause they can reclaim their own bodies, their own speech and their own minds, they can use their own bodies, they can use their own speech, they can use their own minds, as the basis for their art or for their love-making or for their business. Naturally it caught on, because the whole older thing was censored, stultified, secret, secretive. The whole point of the Cold War, of the nuclear matter, was that it was all done in secrecy. From whatever proclivities they had in bed, through whatever proclivities they had in the war room of the White House or the Pentagon, through the creation of the single greatest political decision of the century: to make the bomb and drop it, you've to got realize it was all done undemocratically and in secret. And people had to hide their emotions sexually, hide their personal feelings, disguise themselves as men of distinction, and create a world-ravaging Frankenstein, the nature of which they could never put back in the bottle, or... to mix my metaphor, a genie that they couldn't put back in the bottle, or a Frankenstein that they couldn't stop, because we still don't know what to do with the wastes, the nuclear waste. So, boasting intelligence, they made a half-assed science that did not take into account its own results, and the complete equation was not resolved, yet they had the pride of billions and billions and billions and trillions of dollars of investment, trillions of dollars of war materials, secrecy, perquisites, pride, an incredible conspiracy of silence surrounding what was supposed to be a democratic nation. We were never consulted on the creation of the bomb; and people are so blind to the horror of that situation, they don't get it, that there was a dozen people in secret that took the decision that shakes the world, in what is supposed to be a democracy. This is Stalinism at its worst, or Hitlerism at its worst. People are not used to thinking of America or the West in these terms, but you really have to realistically look and see how we have poisoned the world.
There is the further problem that, because of conspicuous consumption, we are maybe more responsible for the garbage on the planet than anyone else, and for setting models of garbage ... of disposable planets, so to speak.
INT: So what was it like, in that case - come to '67, for example, when you have this huge explosion, expression of personal freedoms, what was it like to be part of the be-in (Overlap)...?
AG: Well, I must say, one other question we haven't covered, which was the introduction of the drugs which alter consciousness very slightly, like marijuana, which had a bad rep from the Government, but which actually, when one tried, one found that they were quite mild, like marijuana certainly. You know, I remember my first experience was that it made my vanilla ice cream with chocolate syrup Sunday delightful to eat, like a totem I'd never... an icon I'd never experienced before. And this was supposed to be the drug that sent Algerian dogs frothing at the mouth, mad. (Laughs) So actually, that was one reason that the US Government lost its authority, all the way up to the levitation of the Pentagon in 1967. (Laughs) It was simply that the authority of the "government" word was deconstructed, the authority of the Pentagon was deconstructed by one good-looking kid putting a flower in the barrel of the gun held by another good-looking kid in uniform. Everybody realized the Pentagon is an arbitrary authority. You know, it's like in Blake "old Nobodaddy". So... much less LSD, of which Blake might say "The eye, altering, alters all" - i.e. a change of consciousness that's experienced for, say, 8-10 hours, and that actually gives some perspective to the entire structure of social consciousness, the social arrangement, that you begin to see... X-ray, a little X-ray view of that; and particularly during a wartime, the realization of... people would get high, and I think that LSD was likely enough that psychedelics may have been a great catalyst to the anti-war movement. That was my guess at the time, and still is. So there's another element.
OK, so what did it feel like? It felt like we were walking around in a large mass hallucination, sustained by all the politicians, but particularly Lyndon Johnson and later by Nixon, extremely, based on lies and secrecy, sustained by the media, who were not able to... or couldn't conceive that the whole structure of the United States mentality could be so wrong and so disastrous and so Earth-destroying, because they participated in primping it up all the time. So, in a sense it was a piece of cake. You know, (Laughs) all these madmen walking around in a dream, and all you had to do is make some common sense. You know, all I had to do is say was... say, "I'm putting my queer shoulder to the wheel," (Laughs) or, you know, "I here declare the end of the war - I here declare the end of the war." Lyndon Johnson never even declared it: he just sent soldiers over. OK, if he's going to have that chutzpah, that brass, OK, I can undeclare it. And not only that: my word is going to outlast his. (Laughs) So it was sort of both a play, and at the same time a serious attempt to communicate to people, to transmit information that came from experience and self-knowledge, from wider travel, from maybe a deeper heart understanding, than was being displayed in the official media party line. And I'm using that word, "party line", with the overshadow echo of the Communist Party line. We definitely had a party line, The Times had a party line, and they've still got it.
I remember doing a lot of research in 1971 on CIA involvement with opium trafficking in Indochina, working with Alfred McCoy, who put out a very great scholarly and reliable book on it, and The Times simply couldn't accept it. I even debriefed Richard Helms, the head of the CIA, and got that story in the newspapers, but The Times really wouldn't... it was too shocking; it would have unseated the reason of the country. And it was not until 1993 or '4 that the The Times finally said in an editorial: "Yes, the CIA was involved with opium trafficking in Indochina," and that was one of the black marks against the CIA. At the time, I was in correspondence with their editors and with C.L. Salzburger, who was a foreign correspondent, of the family... part of the family that owns The Times, and he thought I was just full of beans. But then I got a letter from him in '77 or '8, when he was resigning, saying that in going over old dispatches, he owed me an apology, he felt, 'cause he thought I was full of beans at first, but he'd found out I was quite right. But you still can't get The Times to really do an investigation in 1996 of the Contra-cocaine connection. They make believe they're doing it, and instead they investigate the story, you know, the media treatment of the story, as they did in the previous days.
So you had an establishment party line which, after all, is part of the power structure, and worse and worse from those days to this, as it gets more and more concentrated. But the beginning of that concentration of power in so few hands was back in the Fifties, when the networks and the few newspapers of record - Times, Washington Post - were in a state of what the Alcoholics Anonymous people would call "denial" of both scandal, error, and treason even.
INT: This was a tremendous period of explosion...
INT: ... not just in poetry, but in music...
INT: ... so on and so forth. Could you describe for me a little bit about the music that was going on there, the work of Phil Oaks, Joan Baez and so and so forth? A lot of it was anti-war-orientated as well.
AG: Well, I think the major thing was that, first of all, there was this counter-culture in music from the late Thirties, early Forties, the black counter-culture, beebop, which was attaining a music that could not be imitated for white co-optation; it was too complex and exquisite and somewhat intellectual, but emotionally very powerful, as with Charlie Parker. And that influenced almost all American writing, through Kerouak, as Kerouak influenced American writing, and as I did also.
Then, in painting there was a similar new move from the Thirties on, toward abstraction, or abstract expressionism, as they called it. And many of the poets and painters of that time were friends - and musicians - like Morty Feldman, who opened up... or John Cage, who opened up music to many new forms; De Kooning and Klein and Pollock; or at the Seater Bar where I was, was (Miriam Barraca) the great black poet, then Leroy Jones; or you could find John Weaner who's a great gay poet from Boston, or Robert Creely, Frank O'Hara of the Museum of Modern Art and another great New York poet, mixing with John Ashbury and Kenneth Coake; Kerouak coming in from his mother's house at weekends and getting drunk in the Seater and talking to Pollock.
So there was an explosion in almost every direction, including social studies, a reconsideration of what was America's past, relation to the Indians, relation to blacks, relation to women, relation to gays. So a reconsideration of the myths of history that had been established; even a reconsideration of the canon, with the beginning of, let us say, why at Columbia University, a freshmen humanities course, which begins with Herodotus and goes up through St Thomas Aquinas... why is there no King, why is there no Mahabharata, why no Diamond Sutra, why none of the international classics, why no Ramayana, why no (Gassiers Lut?) from Africa? Why are we restricted to the white Protestant or Catholic central macho canon, when actually I got to be more interested in Eastern thought, and more and more into African thought? And with the expansion of the arts, particularly since Picasso and others, African forms and African thought became more and more interesting, with the explosion of jazz, which is after all an African American origined art form, the poly-rhythms and the improvisation and the boasts and the toasts and the warriors, Lut -(Gassiers Lut?) that Pound talked about also, the renunciation of power in favor of art. That had an enormous effect on Western thinking, on the vanguard of Western thinking, and slowly on the general populace, so that now young kids are interested in meditation practice, let us say, or in African shamanism's or American Indian relation to the ground and American Indian relation to the commons, let us say.
I forgot what the question was.