Allen Ginsberg's Length of Breath
Q. Rinpoche, you once told a fascinating story about Allen Ginsberg.
Ngak’chang Rinpoche: Yes… I was introduced to Allen Ginsberg by Eleanor Johnson, an experimental filmmaker. It’s always difficult to be introduced to anyone famous because everything depends on who introduces you. I don’t think Eleanor Johnson was quite famous enough to introduce me to Allen Ginsberg – or at least not in his perception. I don’t blame Allen Ginsberg for his approach to me. He was actually most kind to telephone me as he did. Be that as it may, he proceeded to give me a crit on my poetry. I had not asked for it – but thought ‘Who am I to turn down a crit from Allen Ginsberg?’
So … I listened. He insinuated that I had emulated Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche in my style. I hadn’t read Trungpa Rinpoche’s poetry at that time. It was accidental that in my earlier poetry I refer to myself in the third person—Chögyam does this, Chögyam does that, et cetera. That was an aspect of his style. I’m not sure whether Allen Ginsberg believed me or not.
Ngak'chang Rinpoche in conversation
with Ngakma Yeshé Zértsal
1st of September 2018
Wesley Hills, New York.
Q. Can you give me an example?
Ngak'chang Rinpoche: She said “You told me the Granola Gaye dropped 50 megatons of fried muesli on Hirohito – but that’s not true.” “Most amusing.” Chögyam replied “I said nothing of the sort – I just said, I sometimes enjoy lox & bagels for breakfast.” She said “You said Wensleydale Churchill said ‘We shall fight’em in the bleachers, we shall fight’em for the coffee grounds.”
However, when I want to seriously lampoon something (spoken in Cockney accent) I might start writin’ in a East Lunun accent and leavin’ the g’s off the end words. I wrote one about going to an art exhibition recently. It was called ‘David Cockney visits the Aldofini Galley:’
Yeah, right, so I took the day off di’n’ I – an’ went t’Bristle t’see some Art—y’know—paintin’s an’ the like.
So I goes t’the Adophini, an’ first thing I see’s this huge bloody phota of a fella dressed like Dame Edna Everadge Riding some-sorta Mary Poppins bicycle (there should be a law, shouldn’t there?) So, I thought ‘This is ‘Art’ then.’ But ’e wasn’t Barry ’umphries—naaah: got that all wrong f’starters—’e was Graceland Presley or Greystoke Perrier Or somethin’ like that – but ’e looked nothin’ like Tarzan Lord of the Apes; ’e was more like Lord of the Ringlets Lyin’ there with ’is kit off—weddin’ tackle lookin’ like a bunch of chipolatas—an’ thruppnies better’an Meatloaf’s. So this is what gets yer Turner Prise, then? And the Dakinis sing ‘Once a jolly artist so camp upon his bicycle, Well over-paid by his Arts Counsel fee, an’ ’e botched as ’e blotched an’ daubed ’is willy-nilly coils, you’ll come A-waltzing Matilda, with me. Waltzing Matilda—schmaltzing Brunhilda—you’ll come a-waltzing Matilda with me.’
Q. Is there a subject that you explore repeatedly?
Ngak'chang Rinpoche: People's bad behavior.
Q. Why is that motivating?
Ngak'chang Rinpoche: Because it’s humorous — both in itself and in my reaction to it. However, poetry written about bad behaviour needs to age so that the person involved is not really playing a major part. The piece has to stand on its own without knowing whom it concerns. I have to leave it for some years – because after a couple of years I will discover the lines that are flaccid. They no longer carry the charge that I thought they had on the initial wiring. The flaccid lines have to be ruthlessly discarded. The charge has to be vital all the way through the canto.
Q. But why bad behaviour?
Ngak'chang Rinpoche: Bad behaviour is interesting. There’s not much you can write about good behaviour. Good behaviour stands on its own to be admired – so I don’t need to write about it. Occasionally, pieces of poetry are simply about delight. Lampooning samsara is always my favourite subject – because it’s not merely bad – it’s bad that is a distortion of primordial goodness. It’s also bad behaviour that is occurring in tandem with world events. I find reflections in everyday life—something else is happening in the same time frame. Someone is assassinated somewhere. Someone releases a song with certain lyrics. Some animal becomes extinct. A new animal is discovered. Someone has a barcode tattooed on his forehead. A whale appears to be singing a phrase from La Marseilles. An escaped giraffe canters down the highway. Streaking comes back into fashion along with bell-bottom trousers. A lost song of Robert Johnson is discovered. Architects decide to listen to Prince Charles and stop building atrocities. Bathyscaphes go down further in the sea than they’ve ever been and they find something bizarre down there. The world is full of events that are occurring—events occur simultaneously—and word-picture emerges from that magnificently maniacal melange. If the picture that emerges seems to have a vector, then that’s enough to start writing poetry.
Poetry can’t merely be based on bad behaviour. There have to be co-emergent phenomena. Frequently the co-emergent phenomena echo Shakespeare. Then Shakespeare echoes the Beatles. The Beatles echo an Icelandic saga. As the associations proliferate, so the puns proliferate. Words, homonyms, antonyms. These are the fuel and the raw material.
There was somebody I knew who would go in for almost wilfully misinterpreting me. I was looking at a packet of granola one day and I just watched something about the atomic bomb being dropped on Hiroshima. A line suddenly came to me. It had a certain pattern that could be repeated along the lines of ‘You said I said this. I saidnothing of the sort.’ Then I rang the changes with words that sounded like each other.
Q. Did the use of the word ‘critical’ also come from Allen Ginsberg’s ‘crit’?
Ngak'chang Rinpoche: No. Critical Mass is a term used in atomic fission. Critical Mass occurs when two pieces of uranium are propelled at each other and they combine to form an excessive mass. The mass then explodes. It’s that idea – the quality of juxtaposing unlikely words to create poetic fission that is Critical Mass Poetics. Critical Mass also carries that idea of density – because what I write is that density.
Critical Mass Poetics moves in and out of linear sense. Words are used for their sound values and for how they affect each other. In that way, I have some means of assessing the quality of the work. I tend to edit poetry over years which is why the first volume of my poetry is just coming out now that I’m 66. I never felt it was worth publishing it before. It takes a long time for a piece of poetry to be finished. It’s finished when I look at it and I can’t change it anymore. It’s at the point when I don’t want to move a comma or colon that it’s finished.
Q. He speaks as an innocent.
Ngak'chang Rinpoche: Yes – I got the idea from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.
Q. What about the dakini choruses that you use in your poetry?
Ngak'chang Rinpoche: The dakini choruses . . . yes . . . I don’t know exactly how they started, they just started. I was just halfway through one stanza and I wrote…the dakinis sing…
There weren’t so many of them originally until I gave a poetry reading where I actually had a dakini chorus—actually the last one I gave in Bristol was successful. I could tell that the audience was enjoying it. The dakini chorus could really be anything. Often it’s 1940s, 1930s pop songs. I think the original idea was that educated poets or middle-class poets quote classics so I quote pop music. I don’t even have to like the song to quote it. It just has to have some reference. For example, I quote the Bee Gees, ABBA, Frank Sinatra. I don’t have to like the music. It just has to be the exactly right line in exactly the right place.
Because this worked out so well, I went back and added dakini choruses in older cantos. Now it’s a standard part of the nine-line stanza. The end of every stanza has a dakini chorus. It dramatically changes a poetry reading. It detracts from the horrific tedium of people having to sit listening to poetry. It becomes cabaret.
The Dakinis sing: Willkommen, bienvenue, welcome - fremde, etranger, stranger. Gluklich zu sehen, je suis enchante, happy to see you, bleibe, reste, stay. Willkommen, bienvenue, welcome, im Cabaret, au Cabaret, to Cabaret.
The three ladies keep bursting out into song. It’s somewhat startling. People don’t know what they’re going to hear next. It could be the National Anthem of any country. It could be Wagner.
Ngak'chang Rinpoche:Certainly. Walton’s Façade, the Kaye Sisters, the Andrews Sisters, the Supremes, the Pointer Sisters, Martha and the Vandellas, the Shirelles, Frank Zappa, Captain Beefheart, Cream, the Beatles, Bob Dylan—particularly Bob Dylan—Handel, Leonard Cohen, anybody. Some old folk song, sea shanty, Schiller’s Ode to Joy from Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, anything. The whole realm of the vocal lyrical world is there. I could use any of it. The only limitation is how much I know. I don’t always quote the song precisely. Sometimes I take liberties. I change lyrics to suit the poetry. So, it’s not all direct Kaye Sisters – although it might be.
Q. Can you say a bit about the linear sense and lack of linear sense in the poetry—how there are some parts that are almost prose?
Ngak'chang Rinpoche: I use prose as a poetic form within poetry. I employ standard English within a Surrealist stanza for shock value.
Q. Do you plan for this or it just happens?
Ngak'chang Rinpoche: It usually simply happens – but then, I have to make it work. I don’t break lines in arbitrary places. That’s an important factor. Some people employ carry-ons — ending a sentence by wrapping it into the next line. I never do that. I might break a sentence – but it has to be in a place where there would be a comma. It cannot be an arbitrary point. In order to achieve that, I have to change the sentence until it halts at the end of a line. Even if it continues there has to be a grammatical pause before the next line.
Q. So the linear sense making and the lack of linear sense. Are they a movement between emptiness and form?
Ngak'chang Rinpoche: Yes. This is very much the Buddhist aspects of Critical Mass Poetics. Sense and lack of sense move in and out of each other.
Q. Thank you very much. Most enjoyable.
Q. What was that like as a process?
Ngak'chang Rinpoche: The poetry seemed to break up into two different forms: five-line and nine-line stanzas. The earlier work broke up most readily into five-line stanzas – but now I write mainly in nine-line stanzas. What I developed from this, I called a canto. The canto form I’ve adopted is nine, nine-line stanzas: eighty-one lines. If I can’t write eighty-one lines on the basis of an idea or inspiration it’s not worth writing.
Q. It’s either eighty-one lines or nothing?
Ngak'chang Rinpoche: That's right. I find that valuable because it’s hard work. It forces a creative form that has more substance – and substancelessness. It’s a form in respect of which I have to experience emptiness. So, I’ve really appreciated Allen Ginsberg’s poetic criticism. It pushed me into evolving the mode that I call Critical Mass Poetics.
Q. Critical Mass Poetics?
Ngak'chang Rinpoche: There’s a certain similarity with Allen Ginsberg’s work and Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche’s work: the pairing of unlikely words which have an explosive effect on each other. This is where the idea Critical Mass originated – particularly from Allen Ginsberg’s line ‘. . . listening to the cracks of doom on the hydrogen jukebox’. The pairing of the words hydrogen and jukebox is explosive. Hydrogen suggests hydrogen bomb— and jukebox is . . . What the hell is jukebox? It’s a machine – but a machine from popular culture. It came from juke joint– a shack where you could hear Blues, schmooze, and booze . . . The cracks of doom—according to the Bible—are the sounds that heralds the day of the Last Judgment, when ‘God’ decree the fate of humanity according to their benevolence or sociopathy. Or Allen Ginsberg may have gotten it from Shakespeare where Macbeth says more-or-less ‘Thou art likethe spirit of Banquo! Thy crown does sear mine eye-balls. And thy hair, that gold-bound brow, is like the first. A thirdis like the former. Filthy hag! Why does thou show me this? A fourth! What! Will the line stretch out to the cracks of doom?’
So, ‘listening to the cracks of doom on the hydrogen jukebox' creates a wealth of impressions. You can’t really say what it means – but when you read it: a realm of images arises.
Q. I appreciate your explaining the process here. Can you say more about Critical Mass Poetics?
Ngak'chang Rinpoche: It’s interesting the way that poets quote poets. It goes back a long way. I named it Critical Mass Poetics – because, looking at poetry, I had to define poetry. Why is it not prose? Some people have said that what I write is prose because of the long line-length. I would answer that it is not prose for various reasons. It conforms to a particular form. It also has density to it that prose does not have. It uses words in peculiar ways. It doesn’t make linear sense in the way that prose is required to make linear sense. It’s densely written and contains often highly condensed imagery. These are particular factors of Critical Mass Poetics. There are many people who take the quality of poetry to be based on its meaning: usually political or spiritual meaning. There’s no problem with writing political or spiritual poetry – but its quality cannot hang on the spiritual or political correctness of what is written. The same criterion can be applied to prose. I would say that poetry—to be defined as poetry—has to employ language in a way that is distinct and different from prose.
Poetry used to be defined by meter and rhyme – but, when one abandons meter and rhyme, there needs to be some other criterion to distinguish poetry from prose. I do however, use some form of meter. The words have to flow but it’s not a fixed meter. I also rhyme from time to time – but the rhymes are used in the same way one might use alliteration or assonance. They are occasional. They are not regular. I might rhyme a word several times within one line. I use rhyming as a method within the piece of poetry as I use other figures of rhetoric.
Q. Figures of rhetoric?
Ngak'chang Rinpoche: Alliteration is the most commonly known. Then there is Polyptoton – as in the Beatles song Please Please Me– the use of the same word in different cases. Antithesis, as in Oscar Wilde’s ‘What is fashionable iswhat one wears oneself - What is unfashionable is what others wear.’ Mersin: superfluous verbiage that repeats a sentiment for effect – as in The Charge of the Light Brigade: ‘ . . . cannon to the right of them, cannon to the left of them, cannon in front of them.’ Blazon: using multiple similes to describe a person, place, of object. ‘Full fathom fivethy father lies, Of his bones are coral made, Those are pearls that were his eyes . . . ’ Then there is synæsthesia – which is found in surrealism and psychedelia – where senses describe each other. There are a score of these figures of rhetoric that are used in poetry – but I have not found them employed a great deal in most modern poetry. This seems a shame because they are the fundamental tools of poetry.
That’s about it. That’s the story of Allen Ginsberg who had a profound effect on me but never knew that he had. He died before I was able to send him my revised work.
Q. Did he have any other comments to make?
Ngak’chang Rinpoche: Yes. He said my ‘writing’ couldn’t be considered to be poetry because there was no ordinance which governed its line length. This was a peculiar comment because the same criticism would apply to Trungpa Rinpoche’s poetic line length. Incidentally, after this conversation, I did meet Allen Ginsberg a few times—in passing—during the New York Kalachakra event and we exchanged friendly words on those occasions – so I presume he must have accepted the fact that I’d never seen Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche’s poetry.
Anyhow – when I went back to Britain, I thought about what Allen Ginsberg had said. I did use one-word lines in poetry – but I did so for emphasis; as a form of dynamic punctuation – but it occurred to me immediately that I didn’t have to use that form. It was wasteful of paper – when I could simply punctuate conventionally.
It also occurred to me that many poets stagger their lines as a visual technique – and as I have never enjoyed that, I saw no good reason to continue in a mode that was in some way similar.
Q. Can you say why you don’t like poetry that is staggered or written in shapes?
Ngak’chang Rinpoche: Because it seems to me—entirely subjectively—to be a gimmick that has become a convention and therefore a cliché.
Q. Did anything else come from you thoughts on poetry as a result of meeting with Allen Ginsberg?
Ngak’chang Rinpoche: Well, Allen Ginsberg said that he had devised the merest form of ordinance, with regard to line length in poetry: length-of-breath. His line length was the length of his breath. I thought ‘I can’t really do that. If I go bymy breath length I would be writing paragraphs.’ As anybody who knows me can attest: I can hold a note for well over a minute. It’s due a history with yogic breathing exercises. So I couldn’t employ Allen Ginsberg’s technique. It would be unmanageable – so, I decided to use Allen Ginsberg’s breath length. I worked that out from an analysis of Howl. I took an average of his line-length – and that is what I have used ever since. It came out as 11 point Garamond on A4 paper with a margin of an inch on one side and an eight of an inch on the other. That was his breath-length. Although Nanao Sakaki—most kindly—considered Allen Ginsberg’s criticism of my work invalid – I found it interesting.
Q. Damn interesting if you ask me!
Ngak’chang Rinpoche: Allen Ginsberg’s criticism proved highly influential in my case. It prompted me to take a different and dramatically creative direction with poetry. I decided to rewrite every piece of poetry I’d written—and kept—according to this specific line length.
Q. How did that work out?
Ngak’chang Rinpoche: I joined the short lines until they were as close as I could make them to the required line-length. Some lines were too short so I had to lengthen them. There were run-ons with other lines and I either had to shorten the line – or split the line into two new lines and lengthen them to fit. That was a highly creative process of editing – and often decidedly demanding. Far from merely re-jigging poetry to fit a new pattern – it became a process of writing new poetry.