Saturday, November 26, 2011

Ginsberg on Auden: "I think he got a little bit silly"

The Allen Ginsberg Project recently posted Ginsberg's memories of W.H. Auden on the anniversary of Auden's death in 1973. Reading them is a reminder, again, of how Ginsberg attempted to be friends with everyone -- even when the "funny but fussy" Auden told him Ginsberg would "embarrass me" by singing during his visit.

Ginsberg's observations (of which this is only an extract) show him always ready to show off something new he'd learned or written. The description of Auden appearing "pinned wiggling to the wall" while Ginsberg sang mantras in Auden's presence is a literary cameo of the generational shift that was accelerating in the 1960s.

This essay appears in the Ginsberg collection Deliberate Prose: Selected Essays 1952-1995 and was originally published in The Drummer, 1974.
...Auden was very funny, sort of generous but fussy. In the 'sixties, I used to go visit him every year or two, have tea. Soon after I came back from India, I went to see him with a harmonium and started singing Hare Krishna and various mantras and he sat and listened, but he was uncomfortable, like pinned wriggling to the wall, and having to be polite and really mind-wandering and not really interested in my great display of knowledge, because I was laying this trip on him.
The next time I went to see him I brought my harmonium wanting to sing some Blake songs. He said "Oh no no no no, I just can't stand people singing to me like that, makes me terribly embarrassed. I can't sit here and have people singing. I'm quiet and prefer to listen to them in a concert hall, or on a record. Don't sing, have some tea, have some tea, please, you'll embarrass me".
I think he got a little bit silly. When he was last in New York he was doing some work with a cartoonist making some funny little poems. So instead of my singing to him, he wanted me to look at those. I was full of big serious mantras and Blake and spiritual trippiness and he wanted me to look at all those little household domestic verses about how silly and comfy the Victorians were. Summer 1973 in London, we all read together - Basil Bunting and Auden and myself and (Hugh) MacDiarmid at Queen Elizabeth Hall and he read some really great poems saying farewell to his body, farewell to his eyes, to his senses one by one, evaluating them and putting them in place, dissociating himself from permanent identification with his senses, and preparing his soul to meet his ultimate empty nature God. So there was an individualistic, solitary complete objectivity that he arrived at.
Apparently, he was very domestic but his apartment was a complete mess, there were papers all over, books piled up on end tables and shelves, just like a real artist's.
I had a couple of funny run-ins with him different times, and always had a very uneasy time with him. I always felt like a fool, trying to lay a trip on him culture-political or otherwise. Once we had a big happy agreement about marijuana should be legalized. He said, "Liquor is much worse, quite right, quite right. I do think...end all this fuss".
He must have been lonely because he said he was afraid he'd drop dead in his apartment and have a heart-attack and nobody would find him. Quite true because he did have a final heart attack a year later. I don't know if he encouraged local friendliness or not, but every time I called him up, he'd make a date for about a week later, and he'd be there and be expecting me and have tea ready."

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