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Literary Treasures: Ishmael Reed and Allen Ginsberg, April 29, 1974

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The following is a guest post by Alejandro Pérez, a spring intern in Literary Initiatives.

This post is part of our “Literary Treasures” series, which highlights audio and video recordings drawn from the Library’s extensive online collections, including the Archive of Recorded Poetry and Literature. By showcasing the works and thoughts of some of the greatest poets and writers from the past 75 years, the series advances the Library’s mission to “further the progress of knowledge and creativity for the benefit of the American people.”

It’s been two months since I began my internship with the Literary Initiatives division at the Library of Congress. During this time, I’ve written many author biographies for newly digitized recordings (launching next week) in the Archive of Recorded Poetry and Literature, and have spent an extensive amount of time familiarizing myself with the archive: learning from previous author biographies, listening to readings, discovering new authors, and delving deeper into the works of acclaimed poets of the 20th century.

Allen Ginsberg
Allen Ginsberg; head and shoulders portrait, facing left. Prints and Photographs Division.

A few weeks ago, as I was going through the archive, I came across a recording of Ishmael Reed and Allen Ginsberg reading their poems in the Coolidge Auditorium on April 29, 1974. I clicked on the recording because I was familiar with Ginsberg—from reading Howl in a poetry class I can’t remember the name of—and because I wanted to hear his voice. And more than a poetry reading, this felt like an hour-long conversation with two people who wanted to share all their secrets and lessons they’d learned. I think Ginsberg would definitely want me to take something away from his poems; maybe he’d want me to remember his verse in the poem “Night Gleam” (43:01): “Over and over through the dull material world.” And maybe he’d want me to remember that the material world is dull, that nothing is worth hoarding or holding onto, that possessions and attachment only lead to destruction. And I think Ishmael Reed would want me to remember his verses in the poem “Skydiving” (8:25): “You can’t always count on things opening up for you. Know when to let go. Learn how to fall.” I think he’d want me to be optimistic, to know that if you know that things could go wrong, and you don’t expect them to always go right, you can find happiness, whether they go perfectly or not. I think he would tell me that in every blues there is a kind of celebration, a hidden joy to always be found.

Ishmael Reed
Ishmael Reed

The most exciting part about this reading is the constant innovation. Ginsberg, instead of reading, decides to sing poems such as “Bus Ride Ballad Road to Suva” (36:47), accompanied by a harmonium, as if to say there isn’t any difference between poetry and music. Meanwhile, Ishmael Reed explores different forms, extending the boundaries of what poetry can be. For instance, his poem “Flight to Canada” (4:46) takes the form of a letter in the voice of a slave who has escaped and is writing to his master. We also see innovation in the similes that Reed creates, which upend our traditional notions of what is considered “poetic.” In his poem “Skydiving,” for example, he claims that a parachutist whose parachute doesn’t open is “spread out on the field like scrambled eggs,” and later, when describing a float veering into a crowd and bruising one of its members, he compares this bruising to a “love affair on Second Avenue.” Reed’s comparisons are based on the mundane: on the scrambled eggs he cooks in the morning and on the possibly broken relationships he has seen on Second Avenue throughout his life. He is creating a new kind of poetry, based on what he knows and what people around him may relate to: poetry that is no longer esoteric or isolated from everyday life.

Reed and Ginsberg also prove that poetry, when stripped of its decoration, can look like something as simple as a list. For example, in his poem “The Reactionary Poet” (9:57), Reed writes, “Bring back suspender!/ Bring back Mom!/ Homemade ice cream/ Picnics in the park/ Flagpole sitting/ Straw hats/ Rent parties/ Corn liquor/ The banjo/…/ The syncopation of Fletcher Henderson.” Through this enumeration, Reed is able to depict his nostalgia for earlier times, and his desire to travel backward instead of ahead. On the other hand, in his poem “Bus Ride Ballad Road to Suva,” Ginsberg documents all the sights he sees on his way to Suva, singing “Oho for the feathery grass standing still/ Oho the palm islands that rise from blue sea/ oho the breezy sky that hangs over me…”

Perhaps the most important takeaway from this recording is that poetry is sometimes a documentation: a documentation of what we see, of what we hate, of what we miss, and of what we long for; a documentation available to anyone.