Creative Environments: The Geo-Poetics of Allen Ginsberg
2. Psychogeography or the Art of Awareness
Depending on what you are after, choose an area, a more or less populous city, a more or less lively street. Build a house. Furnish it. Make the most of its decoration and surroundings. Choose the season and the time. Gather together the right people, the best records and drinks. Lighting and conversation must of course be appropriate, along with the weather and your memories.
If your calculations are correct, you should find the outcome satisfying. (Please inform the editors of the results.)
Psychogeography is then, in its first two mentions in Potlatch, either a game to create a new “situation”—based on the “dialectic setting-behavior” (Debord 1957)—or a poetic exercise unveiling the confrontation of a subject and their environment (whether it be a natural environment or an intimate environment). But those are not satisfying in terms of intellectual definition and implication; is psychogeography a concept? A tool? A process? Subsequent issues of Potlatch bring no solid answer to those questions, even though the term is used several times. But psychogeography is part of a wider philosophy in which urbanism plays a key role. The aim of this avant-garde group of thinkers, who sought to meld arts and politics, is to “create situations” (Conord 1954d), to offer the unexpected, partly through what they called “influential urbanism” (Conord 1954d). It is important to underline that, even though urbanism could be thought of as in opposition to ecological questions, this is not the case for Debord’s vision of it. Indeed, besides advocating against the “temporal fixation of cities” (and “fixation of people at certain points of a city”), the museumification of cities, and purely aesthetical architecture, Debord asks for “moving cities”, “the overgrowth of tropical vegetation”, and a “marriage with nature more audacious than anything attempted by Frank Lloyd Wright” (Debord 1959).The postman Cheval is psychogeographical in architectureArthur Cravan is psychogeographical in hurried drifting.Jacques Vaché is psychogeographical in dress.Louis II of Bavaria is psychogeographical in royalty.Jack the Ripper is probably psychogeographical in love.
Psychogeography could set for itself the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behavior of individuals. The adjective psychogeographical, retaining a rather pleasing vagueness, can thus be applied to the findings arrived at by this type of investigation, to their influence on human feelings, and even more generally to any situation or conduct that seems to reflect the same spirit of discovery.
In other words, the “dérive”4 is an exploratory process—cabs are in this regard the preferred vehicle (Dahou 1954a)—used by psychogeographers in order to produce reports and maps, as architecture is seen by the Situationists as “a means of knowledge and a means of action” (Debord 1958a). In Potlatch #14, the “dérive” is also defined as a “method of aimless displacement” founded on the “influence of scenery” (Dahou 1954b. My translation). This point will be important when we will study some poems written during Allen Ginsberg’s own wanderings.A mode of experimental behavior linked to the conditions of urban society: a technique of rapid passage through varied ambiances. The term also designates a specific uninterrupted period of dériving.
In this passage, besides advocating for an active reshaping of urbanism, Debord adds a new feature to psychogeography that will be important when studying Allen Ginsberg’s poetry. Psychogeographical reactions seem indeed to be circular and could be seen as active reciprocity between the landscape and observer. More than a mere mirroring effect, the landscape affects the observer who, in turn, affects the image and representation of the landscape following a phenomenological impulse. We will see later how this sensitive exchange triggered Ginsberg’s compositions, but also what forms this circularity takes on in his poetry.A situation is also an integrated ensemble of behavior in time. It is composed of actions contained in a transitory decor. These actions are the product of the decor and of themselves, and they in their turn produce other decors and other actions. How can these forces be oriented?
3. Towards a Geography of Memories
Ginsberg emphasizes here what is called the spirit of places: when a place is so loaded with a strong sense of history that it can transcend temporal structures. Time and space appear here as two sides of the same coin—the poem is somewhat balancing on its edge. The place becomes a personal book of history. The place is, as Nathalie Caritoux wrote, not “an empty frame to fill with behaviors” but “the cause, the source of behaviors” ((Caritoux and Villard 2017, p. 10) My translation). Therefore, this phenomenal impulse (in the phenomenological sense) of a past inhabiting a place could be seen as an extension of Walter Benjamin’s idea of unconscious memories, to the extent that unintentional memories emerge from the junction of collective and personal memories (Benjamin 2000, p. 335). And it is also the persistence of place through memories that is at work in this poem, as symbolized in this passage where hands are part of the forces pushing the poet into the geography of the mind (Ginsberg 2006, p. 188):the universe is a graveyard and I walk around alone in hereknowing that Apollinaire was on the same street 50 years agohis madness is only around the corner and Genet is with us stealing books
Between those lines, the reader understands that a place, when infused with poetics, can complicate the notion of time—not as in the cliché of overcoming death in writing5, but in transcending time through space (reversing thus the equation of space transcended by time). At the heart of this poem is not so much the temporal difference between two eras (a dividing force that is physically experienced), but the common ground that allows the melding of those eras into one another (the merging force geography gives birth to). Therefore, in the second part of the poem, Ginsberg describes himself at the Bateau Lavoir, in the company of artists like Jacob, Picasso, Tzara, Breton, Cendrars, Gide, etc. The reader easily understands that the conventional notion of time is abolished by the very fact that the poet wanders (“dérive”) in the same place as these French artists did once. Another important element in this poem (as in other works involving “meeting” other deceased artists, like Whitman or Lorca in A Supermarket in California) is that Ginsberg uses his imagination to physically describe himself amongst those artists he admired. Once again, time is overcome through the place and those souvenirs are ones of situations that never happened.Already our hands have vanished from that place my hand writes now in a Room in Paris Git-le-Coeur
Strange now to think of you, gone without corsets & eyes, while I walk onthe sunny pavement of Greenwich Village.downtown Manhattan, clear winter noon, and I’ve been up all night, talking,talking, reading the Kaddish aloud, listening to Ray Charles bluesshout blind on the phonograph
Again, the poet walks and remembers his mother who died earlier, and like in At Apollinaire’s Grave, the place impacts the poet and the poet impacts the place. The main difference though is that the poet is transported by a historical force, which is here not collective as in At Apollinaire’s Grave but personal. In the entire reflection that is Kaddish the notion of place is confused, disturbed by actual memories, imaginative ghosts, and projections of the mind. The landscape blurs the notion of time and acts like a mirror reflecting the past for Ginsberg. The city becomes an intimate wound and this poem a report of eco-trauma, the simple fact of moving triggering metaphysical questions, each detail of the city forming a scar, like in this passage:It leaps about me, as I go out and walk the street, look back over my shoulder,Seventh Avenue, the battlements of window office buildings should—dering each other high, under a cloud, tall as the sky an instant—andthe sky above—an old blue place.or down the Avenue to the south, to—as I walk toward the Lower East Side—where you walked 50 years ago, little girl—from Russia, eating thefirst poisonous tomatoes of America—frightened on the dock—then struggling in the crowds of Orchard Street toward what?—towardNewark—
Time and place are blended into each other, the poet making one with the universe (“Myself, anyhow, maybe as old as the universe”). The poet is here a psychogeographer of personal trauma, exploring his own memories in space throughout the poem.[…] Strange to have movedthru Paterson, and the West, and Europe and here again,with the cries of Spaniards now in the doorstoops doors and dark boys on thestreet, fire escapes old as you—Tho you’re not old now, that’s left here with me—
4. Natural Echoes: Eco-Linguistical Readings
This passage is almost an animistic ritual, merging religious (“Lord”) with natural power (“caw”), echoing each other. Therefore, nature harmoniously embodies the mourning of the poet in a natural, elegiac form. This could be linked to a claim formulated by Mircea Eliade: “All over the world learning the language of animals, especially of birds, is equivalent to knowing the secret of nature” (Manes 1996, p. 19). In that sense, natural elements accompany the poet’s sentiments throughout the absurdity of death: a secret pact, known only to the landscapes and the poet is formed. The intimacy of death is made part of the poet’s surroundings and goes beyond the language spoken by mortals. Confronting death becomes, then, a metaphysical secret that can only be revealed in the mourning process, when the poet is made lonesome, his “naked” soul contemplating his surroundings. Death is reevaluated, debunked, and re-mystified through space and nature. The power of nature is invoked, and the crow is more than a mere symbol here—it is a vision of nature as an understanding entity. Christopher Manes’ take on animism and language (from which I draw Eliade’s quotation) is also insightful:caw caw all years my birth a dream caw caw New York the bus thebroken shoe the vast highschool caw caw all Visions of the LordLord Lord Lord caw caw caw Lord Lord Lord caw caw caw Lord
This last part of Kaddish is a cry for meaning before the unreal feature of death and a desperate realization that it is all part of a natural cycle. The whole poem is not only about what is located within the Anthropocene but also it is a way to zoom out, to shift focus from the individual towards the gist of the universe, and to a wider sense of belonging. In other words, Allen Ginsberg’s poetics could be seen as a counterpart of the Camusian idea of the absurdity of mankind before the universe. On the contrary, Ginsberg’s poetic is one of union, transcendence, and humility—as Nathalie Caritoux wrote “The distinction between the subject and the world becomes ineffective” ((Caritoux and Villard 2017, p. 71) My translation).[…] the “animistic subject” [is] a shifting, autonomous, articulate identity that cuts across the human/nonhuman distinction. Here, human speech is not understood as some unique faculty, but as a subset of the speaking of the world.
Ginsberg develops here an interesting linguistical conception of the name “Manhattan”, going from “Man city” to “my city”, emphasizing a sense of both objective and subjective belonging to the city. But the mention of Mannahatta also invokes historical forces, in an almost Rousseauist vision of a nature that has been lost and destroyed by modernity. This point recalls the beginning of Ginsberg’s poem entitled “Ecologue” (a wordplay on “eclogue”), a Rousseauist vision of an apocalyptic America:Whizz of bus-trucks shimmer in Earover red brickunder Whitmanic Yawp Harbor hereroll into Man city, my city, MannahattaLower East Side ghosted &grimed with Heroin, shit-black from Edison towerson East Rivers rib—
Later, in the same poem, Ginsberg also writes, “All landscapes have become Phantom” (Ginsberg 2006, p. 463). This dystopian or Rousseauist cartography of a future America—depending on the reader’s point of view—echoes Deleuze and Guattari’s claim that “writing has nothing to do with signifying. It has to do with surveying, mapping, even realms that are yet to come” (Deleuze and Guattari 1987, pp. 4–5). But in the passage of Bayonne Entering NYC mentioned above, the city is also associated with human features, like the “East River’s rib”—this goes with the deep sense of belonging to a city that is growing, and here somewhat on the verge of dying. The term “Mannahatta”, which also appears on the back cover of The Fall of America is also present in the long poem Iron Horse—again associated with organic terms (Ginsberg 2006, p. 464):In a thousand years, if there’s HistoryAmerica’ll be remembered as a nasty little CountryFull of Pricks, thorny hothouse roseCultivated by the Yellow Gardeners.[…]Earth rolling round, epics on archaic tonguesFishermen telling island tales—All autos rusted away,Trees everywhere.
Ginsberg also writes in the same poem: “crowd iron cancer on the city’s throat” (Ginsberg 2006, p. 457) recalling Mathieu Perrot’s analysis of “the poetic of the poisoned city” which is here insightful: “just like cancer changes living matter into dead matter, industrial societies’ inclination to inorganic matters is the very proof of their degeneration” (Perrot 2018, p. 43). In his pamphlet A Sick Planet Debord would argue that “it is not the symptoms but the illness itself that must be cured” (Debord 2008, p. 91). Therefore, Ginsberg’s use of an aboriginal name for Mannahatta would be an act of resistance against this metaphorical degeneration. Occurrences of “Mannahatta” can be found in other poems like Memory Gardens, Friday the Thirteenth or Contest of Bards. Of course, this use of the word “Mannahatta” is part of a wider Ginsbergian vision inherited from Whitman, of a primary land, “an appreciation of the Amer-Indian vision of America as “Turtle Island”, as he said in an interview (Geneson and Ginsberg 1975, p. 30).Mind wanders. Sleep, cough & sweat…Mannahattastunnel-door cobbled for traffic,trucks into that mouth
In Greek mythology, the sphinx is a cruel and heartless creature killing and eating those who are not able to answer its riddles, famously represented in the myth of Oedipus. The city is seen then as an unsolvable riddle, brutally crushing its crazed youth. And Ginsberg goes on to compare the city to Moloch:What sphinx of cement and aluminum bashed open their skulls and ate uptheir brains and imagination?
Biblically, the figure of Moloch is connected to the practice of child sacrifice, so then again to a youth that is being sacrificed to the city and capitalism—Caitlin Cater analyzes it as Ginsberg’s fear of “the increasingly pervasive mass culture and [...] its deleterious impact on mankind” (Cater 2008, p. 15). And if we keep in mind Gilles Ivain’s remark from his Formulaire pour un urbanisme nouveau that “Architecture is the simplest means of articulating time and space, to modulate reality, to make dream” (Ivain 1953), Ginsberg’s poetry underlines thus that capitalism took over urbanism to make it a real nightmare. The whole poem recalls a quotation Marx Debord uses about the theory of the “dérive” in the second issue of Internationale Situationniste: “Men can see nothing around them that is not their own image” (Debord 1958b). Hopefully, and this might be the most important point in Ginsberg’s work, the creative act can be, if not lifesaving, at least an impetus towards reawakening an awareness of our surroundings. This is precisely the mechanism at work in Ginsberg’s “Sunflower Sutra”, in which the ruins of an old locomotive (which could be interpreted as an industrial vision of America) form a big sunflower. Here, the poetic sensibility of the observers (Ginsberg and Kerouac) helps them to overcome the disenchantment of nature, while the poet advocates, on the contrary, for a re-enchantment of landscapes.Moloch whose eyes are a thousand blind windows! Moloch whose skyscrap-ers stand in the long streets like endless Jehovahs! Moloch whosefactories dream and croak in the fog! Moloch whose smokestacks andantennae crown the cities!
5. Composing on/from the Tongue: Recording Geography
The word “horns” above is intentionally in bold character because it is in fact a fragment of the real, added in real-time into the poem. In the recording, Allen Ginsberg recorded those lines quite normally, when all of sudden, just after saying “nostril”, one can hear horns in the background and Allen Ginsberg adding spontaneously the word “horns” in his recording, making those horns instantaneously and definitively part of the poem. In this example, the outside world of the city and the inside world of the poet are united, and the psychogeographical aspect of the poem is even more concrete. This incorporation of already existing elements into his poetry, a kind of collage of the real in a way, underlines at the same time the porosity of the frontier between the outside and the inside, but also the referentiality of the poem, as Ginsberg decided to keep those fragments of raw reality in his poems. To that extent, Ginsberg’s poems of that period are made from and born in the landscapes through which he traveled.More Chimney fires than all Kansas in a mile,Sulphur chemical Humble gigantic viaductsnetworked by road sideWhat smell burning rubber, oil“freshens your mouth”Railroad rust, deep marsh garbage-fumeNostril horns—city Announcer jabbering at City Motel
Here again, the lines in bold characters are revealing, when compared to what could be considered Allen Ginsberg’s first draft. One can hear how Ginsberg worked on this passage: he heard on the radio some country music, and he improvised over it, including the very song in his poem. The creative process, its imagery, and its structure are here inherent to the temporal and geographical structures perceived.Thy sins are forgiven, Wichita!Thy lonesomeness annulled, O Kansas dear!as the western Twang prophesiedthru banjo, when lone cowboy walked the railroad trackpast an empty station toward the sunsinking giant-bulbed orange down the box canyon—Music strung over his backand empty handed singing on this planet earthI’m a lonely Dog, O Mother!
Once again, those lines are taken from the vivid flux of life, as one can hear in the recording. This way of composing in real time with and from the outside world hooks and involves the reader into the vortex Ginsberg creates, where one cannot distinguish what is imagination and what is reality. This kind of collage also adds new shades of meaning by exploring words in a new context and therefore, could be understood in the vein of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s notions of de-territorialization and re-territorialization, in the sense that a fragment of the real is de-contextualized and re-contextualized—what was a trivial experience now becomes a poetical statement and shifted in category. Another example can be found in the line “Ham steak please waitress, in the warm café” in “Wichita Vortex Sutra”, as Ginsberg tape-recorded himself ordering food in real-time in a café. For Deleuze and Guattari, the book (here the poem) is not “an image of the world” (Deleuze and Guattari 1987, p. 11) but “it assures the deterritorialization of the world” and “the world affects a reterri-torialization of the book” (Deleuze and Guattari 1987, p. 11). To borrow the words of the two philosophers, Ginsberg’s poems are an “assemblage, a “multiplicity” made of “lines of articulation” as well as “movements of deterritorialization and destratification” (Deleuze and Guattari 1987, p. 3). In other words, Ginsberg’s lines are creative movements—a process of shifting territories—from a world that builds upon itself and with its own raw material. In fact, this also recalls some characteristics of Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of a rhizome: “Any point of a rhizome can be connected to anything other, and must be” and “a rhizome ceaselessly establishes connections between semiotic chains […]. A semiotic chain is like a tuber agglomerating very diverse acts, not only linguistic but also perceptive, mimetic, gestural, and cognitive” (Deleuze and Guattari 1987, p. 7). Ginsberg’s poems could be then considered as poetic rhizomes: the lines know more than one ramification and layer and connect between themselves and each reader’s experience in more than one direction.Hitchhiking studentsupported by National Defense Fundwith his black horn rimmed glasses,thin blond hair,“If your country calls you, would you go?”“If my country drafted me…then I would go.”
In the recording of this passage, even though it is of poor quality, one can distinctly hear Bob Dylan singing in his unique voice—and once again, Dylan’s lyrics are re-contextualized in a country at war. To paraphrase Deleuze and Guattari once again, “there is no difference between what a [poem] talks about and how it is made” (Deleuze and Guattari 1987, p. 4).Angelic Dylan singing across the nation“When all your children start to resent youWon’t you come see me, Queen Jane?”His youthful voice making gladthe brown endless meadowsHis tenderness penetrating aether,soft prayers on the airwaves,
Mathieu Perrot describes in that sense Ginsberg’s “green poetry” and “ecological poetic” as a way to “reawaken consciousness put to sleep by the verbal pollution which hypnotizes the masses.” (Perrot 2018, p. 46). But besides language, the place itself bears violence (Ginsberg 2006, p. 418):The war is languagelanguage abusedfor advertisement,language usedlike magic for power on the planet
The place seems here to be morally poisoned by its inhabitants and instead of rippling throughout the land, this hauntological violence ripples through time.Here fifty years ago, by her [Carry Nation] violencebegan a vortex of hatred that defoliated the Mekong Delta—Proud Wichita! vain Wichitacast the first stone!—
I search for the languagethat is also yours—Almost all our language has been taxed by war.
Most of the time, the line breaks coincide with the “clicking on and off” of the tape-recorder, making each line a unit of thought. The layout of the poem is thus, deeply influenced by Allen Ginsberg’s physical actions on the tape-recorder, actions which are themselves influenced by auditive or visual experiences during his travel. His use of a tape-recorder is in that sense a tool with which he sculpted his poem on the page but also a way to archive the poetry available in the world.While the triangle-roofed Farmer’s Grain Elevatorsat quietly by the side of the roadalong the railroad track *American Eagle beating its wings over Asia *million dollar helicopters *a billion dollars worth of Marines *who loved Aunt Betty *Drawn from the shores and farms * shakingfrom the high schools to the landing barge *blowing the air thru their cheeks with fear *in Life on Television *Put it this way on the radio *Put it this way in television language *Use the wordslanguage, language:“A bad guess” *
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It will be later subtitled the “information bulletin of the Lettrist International” until finally the Lettrist International becomes the Situationist International.
Gilles Ivain will be excluded from the Internationale Lettrist in 1954, as mentioned in Potlatch #2.
To which the Lettrist Internationale collaborated from issue #6 onward.
The term is already used in Gilles Ivain’s essay mentioned earlier.
On this topic, and in this poem, Ginsberg was rather clear, and he wrote lines like “my temporary hands” and “my temporary American Howl” (Ginsberg 2006, p. 188).
In Over Kansas, Ginsberg writes about the limit of imagination:
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Ferrere, A. Creative Environments: The Geo-Poetics of Allen Ginsberg. Humanities 2020, 9, 101. https://doi.org/10.3390/h9030101
Ferrere A. Creative Environments: The Geo-Poetics of Allen Ginsberg. Humanities. 2020; 9(3):101. https://doi.org/10.3390/h9030101Chicago/Turabian Style
Ferrere, Alexandre. 2020. "Creative Environments: The Geo-Poetics of Allen Ginsberg" Humanities 9, no. 3: 101. https://doi.org/10.3390/h9030101