Wednesday, August 20, 2003

If you do want to hear something decent on Ginsberg, though, you should get yourself to San Diego between Christmas and New Year's and look for some spiky-haired Asian kid in a suit talking about "Auto Poesy: Allen Ginsberg’s Poetics of Transcription":

This paper examines the original recordings of Allen Ginsberg’s "auto poesy," poems dictated into a portable tape recorder as Ginsberg criss-crossed the country by car in the late 1960s. These tapes, now housed in the Ginsberg archives at Stanford University, provided the materials for most of the work in Ginsberg’s collections Planet News and The Fall of America, including some of Ginsberg’s most forceful poems against the Vietnam War. Ginsberg’s political poetry of this period is an effort to oppose the "black magic" language of politicians and the mass media with the truth of his own poetic language. To Ginsberg, the tape recorder seemed to be the perfect tool with which to combat the "official" reality of war: it allowed a spontaneous "transcript of consciousness," free of the self-censorship that signaled society’s control of the individual. At the same time, it promised an accurate and objective recording of reality, a counterweight to the false data provided by the media. This conjunction of the subjective and the objective was best captured in Ginsberg’s term for this writing: "auto poesy." "Auto" suggests "automatic writing," the surrealist technique in which one attempted to shut down the conscious mind in order to channel the unconscious. But it also stands for "automobile," suggesting the way the poem is mediated by technology, perhaps becoming a kind of machine itself.

While the published versions of these poems are ostensibly direct transcriptions of Ginsberg’s recordings, listening to the tapes themselves reveals a much more complex sonic collage, as much a media and commercial landscape as a physical one; in particular, Ginsberg’s microphone often picks up music and talk from the radio alongside Ginsberg’s voice. Indeed, in a poem like "Wichita Vortex Sutra," Ginsberg’s struggle to assert his own words and presence in this media landscape becomes the poem’s primary political drama. But Ginsberg’s emphasis on his own "conscious will power" as the key factor shows the strain in this project; for it is precisely this will to order that Ginsberg has given up in turning to auto poesy. This contradiction is evident in the gap between tape and transcription: for while the tape reveals a transcript of a consciousness that is uncertain, stuttering, self-conscious and self-revising, breaking up the language of war, Ginsberg’s printed version re-orders this material, unwilling to give up the authority offered by the existing language of power.

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