Opening the Doors: William Blake, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and the Beat Generation

Howl: The War of this World against Vision and Imagination

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Old New York

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Introduction: Blake & the Beats

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Allen Ginsberg (1926–1997) in front of the opening lines of Howl, referencing Blake in its opening section

William Blake’s influence on the Beat Generation is arguably more significant than that of any other writer or artist. Most notably he was Ginsberg’s “guru” and the “catalyst” for his poetry, and even warranted a mention in “Howl”. Blake supposedly appeared to Ginsberg in 1945 and read “Ah Sun-flower”, and again in 1948 when Ginsberg was reading “The Sick Rose”. He explained,

I was never able to figure out whether I was having a religious vision, a hallucinatory experience, or what, but it was the deepest ‘spiritual’ experience I had in my life, and determined my karma as poet. That’s the-key pivotal turnabout of my own existence. That’s why I was hung up on setting Blake to music.

Visions were important to Blake, who claimed that his poetry was not necessarily a work that he created, but something channeled through him. He referred to himself as a “true Orator” and claimed that poetry came from a voice that he simply wrote down.

This isn’t too different from Williams S. Burroughs’ claim about the origins of his own weird prose:

I get these messages from other planets. I’m apparently some kind of agent from another planet but I haven’t got my orders clearly decoded yet.

It should also be noted that Burroughs was supposedly unable to recall writing any of the original material for Naked Lunch. However, Burroughs – who originally leant Ginsberg copies of Blake’s poetry when they first met, not long before Ginsberg’s famous vision – was dismissive of the mystical idea of visions, claiming that Blake simply saw things that others couldn’t see.

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Burroughs and Kerouac, taken by Ginsberg: “Bill Burroughs and Jack Kerouac locked in Mortal Combat with Moroccan dagger versus broomstick clear on the couch—they had its hold still a full second which I steadied camera on back of chair. They’d known each other nine years by then. Jack came in from Richmond Hill he’d finished Maggie Cassady, Bill stayed with me in two room apartment consolidating Yage Letters, he’d sent over the year from Peru and Ecuador. 206 East 7th st. Apt 16 Manhattan, September-October 1953.”

Blake’s method of transcribing words from the ether also seems to bear a strong resemblance to Kerouac’s fabled Spontaneous Prose, which shunned traditional ideas of composition and sought to grasp something holy from within. Although Kerouac named numerous influences on his style, just months before he died he wrote to Philip Whalen and told him that “Blake’s Jerusalem … is worth a fartune” (“fartune” being a Blakean spelling of “fortune”). Jerusalem was one of the poems Blake claimed to have dictated from a voice.

Essentials of Spontaneous Prose (1959) Jack Kerouac

“Kerouac’s fabled Spontaneous Prose, which shunned traditional ideas of composition and sought to grasp something holy from within”. The purpose was to get close to the source – to the “unconscious” (i.e. supra-conscious) right hemisphere portals and processes, through which imaginative vision and intuitions arise.

But perhaps even more so than Ginsberg, Burroughs, and Kerouac, it was [Beat poet and writer] Michael McClure that took Blake as his greatest literary influence. Like Ginsberg, Blake also came to McClure in a vision, and the two men marveled over the difference in their perceptions of this visitor. McClure explained,

Allen has a Blake who is a Blake of prophecy, a Blake who speaks out against the dark Satanic Mills. My Blake is a Blake of body and of vision.

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Ginsberg’s Vision of Blake

Living In Allen Ginsberg's Old Apartment Is Sort of Like Sleeping With James Franco, Right?

Doors of Perception. Photo by Allen Ginsberg, caption reads “I sat for decades at morning breakfast tea looking out my kitchen window, one day recognized my own world the familiar background, a giant wet brick-walled undersea Atlantis garden, waving ailanthus (“stinkweed”) “Trees of Heaven,” with chimney pots along Avenue A topped by Stuyvesant Town apartments’ upper floors two blocks distant on 14th Street, I focus’d on the raindrops along the clothesline. ‘Things are symbols of themselves,’ said Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche. New York City August 18, 1984.”

In a compilation of his personal journals, The Book of Martyrdom and Artifice, Allen Ginsberg recalled a particular event, which had a strong impact on his career and on his spiritual approach to life. In July 1948, that is to say eight years before the publication of Howl, Allen Ginsberg had a dynamic impression of unification and of human understanding through visions. He wrote in his journals:

I realized that what I was seeing had been there all the time – indeed excited in me a recognition of that aspect of the imagination which is referred to as the eternal – longer than my own life, extending beyond my life and my former consciousness. I was staring at no human objects except the tops of buildings and at nature. Of the human objects, I remember that I understood in this one glance, their utility and significance.

This experience of visionary awareness, which would evolve into a positive trauma, is linked to William Blake. Indeed, thanks to the precise readings lists he kept in his journals, we know that in May and June he wanted to read Blake’s early poems, among others. It is interesting, by the way, to notice that it was William Burroughs who suggested to Ginsberg to read Blake, along with Spengler and Yeats’ A Vision.

But this July of 1948, the young Ginsberg reread a passage from a book of Blake’s poetry, more precisely poems like “The Sick Rose” and “Ah! Sun-Flower”. First, while masturbating and reading at the same time (a habit he confessed), he gave an innocent look to the poem “Ah! Sun-Flower” and a visual and auditory vision occurred. Allen Ginsberg then “felt the Weight of Time”, “spent a week after this living on the edge of a cliff of eternity” and identified with the sunflower. Then another deep sensation came a moment after, while reading the poem “The Sick Rose”.

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He suddenly understood it in his own interpretation: He was the metaphorical “Sick Rose” and he was “hearing the doom of the whole universe” and its “inevitable beauty”. At last, the same day, he also identified with Lyca in William Blake’s “The Little Girl Lost”. 

Simultaneously with his Blake visions, he heard what he called a voice “tender and beautifully … ancient”, that is to say Blake’s voice in his room, while being illuminated alone physically. At that moment, the poet “saw into the depths of the universe”. He described this spiritual event in “Psalm IV” in 1960:

I lay broad waking on a fabulous couch in Harlem
having masturbated for no love, and read half-naked an open book of Blake
on my lap
Lo & behold! I was thoughtless and turned a page and gaze on the living
Sun-Flower
and heard a voice, it was Blake’s, reciting in earthen measure …

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“I say I heard Blake’s voice”

And he would write about this event in many letters and poems, like in “One Day”, from his 1961 journals, emphasizing one particular element which reveals his ambivalence and doubt between reality and imagination:

I say I heard Blake’s voice
There was something wrong with me
aural hallucination …
I heard a physical voice
That was not an hallucination

Allen Ginsberg seemed to be afraid of his own visions, making them both tempting and scary at the same time. It also feels like he had to justify to himself his visions, maybe to avoid the threat of a psychological trouble like his mother had had. Indeed, in putting a certain contradiction into the poem, Allen Ginsberg reduced the blur between appearances and reality, between his inner illumination and the exterior world.

Furthermore, there are clues about his fear of being considered crazy about his Blake visions. For example, Allen Ginsberg wrote a letter in 1962 to Nobel Prize [winner] Bertrand Russell about William Blake (Bertrand Russell having studied Blake too) and wrote more precisely about his visions. Interestingly, Bertrand Russell also experienced “visions” of William Blake, and Allen Ginsberg wrote about it at different moments in this letter:

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Bertrand Russell (1872–1970). Russell worked in philosophy, mathematics, and logic, and his work has had a considerable influence on mathematics, logic, set theory, linguistics, artificial intelligence, cognitive science, computer science, and various areas of analytic philosophy, especially philosophy of mathematics, philosophy of language, epistemology and metaphysics. He was a public intellectual, historian, social critic, political activist, and Nobel laureate.

What happened to you with Blake? Any further significance to the sensation that nearly made you faint?
[…]
Would Blake say that Tiger be scared by bomb?
[…]
What does Blake say to you?
[…]
I hope you put your experience of Blake on verbal record in more detail, it may be helpful.

Those lines convey a fear of being abnormal. Allen Ginsberg is almost oppressive, asking many times about the effect the Blake visions had on Russell, as if to reassure himself with the desire of being normal (“helpful”), or at least reassured he was not the only one illuminated by Blake.

And he also referred to the voice in his Blake visions three years later in “Kral Majales” (“because I heard the voice of Blake in a vision, and repeat that voice”), going further in describing his literary aim regarding poetry and regarding those visions, twenty-five years after it occurred in his poem entitled “Who”:

From Great Consciousness vision Harlem 1948 buildings standing in Eternity.
I realized entire Universe was manifestation of One mind –
My teacher was William Blake – my life work Poesy,
transmitting that spontaneous awareness to Mankind.

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The Music of Blake

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Sick Rose: “the worm is in the heart of man” (Camus).

During the same month of his Blake visions, Allen Ginsberg also composed a poem entitled ‘On Reading William Blake’s The Sick Rose‘. The mysterious poem of William Blake seems to refer to the human condition, poisoned by its own existence, like Albert Camus wrote in Le Mythe de Sisyphe: “le ver se trouve au cœur de l’homme”. This point is corroborated by an entry in Ginsberg’s journals, in January 1949:

Destiny itself is sick. The rose is sick. We must be doctors we are the sickness.

The definitive version of Allen Ginsberg’s poem is also mysterious in its way:

What everlasting force confounded
In its being, like some human
Spirit shrunken in a bounded
Immortality, what Blossom
Gathers us inward, astounded?
Is this the sickness that is Doom?

Just like Blake emphasized the importance of the “rose” with a capital “R”, Allen Ginsberg echoes to him with the accentuation of the capital “B” of “Blossom” (which is also a title of a poem of William Blake, “The Blossom”). Allen Ginsberg also chose to accentuate the word “Doom” too, making the idea of destruction as important as the idea of being born (“Blossom”), like the cycle of life. This particular spiritual link Allen Ginsberg maintained with Blake’s poetry is confirmed by his numerous performances of Blake’s poetry, as he did for “The Sick Rose”.

Allen Ginsberg – The sick rose / Nurse’s song (William Blake)

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His performance, with a harmonium, sounds like a mantra recitation, a spiritual experiment that is to be connected with his own metaphysical experience of Blake’s poetry.

As a major event, ten years after his imprinted visions, Allen Ginsberg still referred to it in his poetry like in “Back on Times Square, Dreaming of Times Square” or in “Ignu”. Much later, in a 1975 course at the Naropa Institute, he would remember his 1948 visions, with a more concrete and mature look on it:

When I was twenty, I had an auditory hallucination of Blake’s voice, which was just about like that [he had played a recording of himself singing Blake’s “The Nurse’s Song” before]. But it took me about twenty years to perfect it. So it was probably a hallucination of my own latent diaphragm vocalization. I was hearing my own voice, probably, as in a dream.

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Allen Blakeberg

This idea of hearing his own voice is supported by his mention of “a conception of a voice of rock” he had after his visions. In fact, he remembered having in mind this concept as a consequence of his Blake visions:

In 1948 I had a vision and heard William Blake’s voice reciting […]. After that experience I imagined a “Voice of Rock” as the sound of prophesy.

This “voice of rock” is also recorded in his journals:

Reminiscent also my thought that the conception of a “Voice of Rock” of poetry, my preoccupation in 1949, had been embodied finally in the absolute literal voice in the poetry 1955.

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Carolyn Cassady’s photograph of Neal Cassady and Jack Kerouac, later used on the cover of the novel

In Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, where Allen Ginsberg is named Carlo Marx, the author also related a “Voice of Rock” that Carlo was using, which underlines the fact that this voice was a major issue the poet must have talked about:

In these days Carlo had developed a tone of voice which he hoped sounded like what he called The Voice of Rock.

Allen Ginsberg even composed a whole poem entitled “The Voice of Rock” and wrote about it in his Indian Journals (“When I was young you came with the / voice of tender rock). In the 1975 Naropa class mentioned above, he definitely accepted the place of Blake as his external mentor, who acted as his inner catalyst for mixing poetry and spirituality, but also as his inner mirror in which he could see what he really was, by the voice of himself/Blake. In 1966, he understood these visions in a more physiological way:

The interesting thing would be to know if certain combinations of words and rhythms actually had an electro-chemical reaction on the body, which could catalyze specific states of consciousness. I think that’s what probably happened to me with Blake.

It is also interesting to notice that Ginsberg tried to obtain visionary hallucinations without Blake, which he mentioned in another poem, written in July 1948: “Vision 1948”. The line “Dance, dance, spirit, spirit, dance!” is directly connected to a declaration he made in an interview where he summoned his vision in dancing and yelling “Dance! Dance! Dance! Dance! Spirit! Spirit! Dance!”. He added that “he felt like Faust” and “got all scared and quit”. The experimentation of a widened consciousness induced by self-provoked visions is negative without Blake. His Blake visions were always positive, as he recalled having another one in the same page, while reading Blake’s “The Human Abstract”.

Burroughs on Allen Ginsberg and William Blake

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Ah Sunflower, William Blake, read by Allen Ginsberg

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Pull My Daisy is a 1959 American short film adapted by Jack Kerouac from the third act of his play, Beat Generation. Kerouac also provided the improvised narration It features poets Allen Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky, and Gregory Corso.  The Beat philosophy emphasized spontaneity, and the film conveyed the quality of having been thrown together or even improvised. Pull My Daisy was accordingly praised for years as an improvisational masterpiece.

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This is an edited version of William Blake and the Beat Generation by David S. Wills, originally published in Beatdom#11, an annual journal dedicated to the work of the Beat Generation, and Visions, Symbols and Intertextuality: An Overview of William Blake’s Influence on Allen Ginsberg by Alexandre Ferrere.  To read the original article, please click here and here.

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