This essay was originally published in Beatdom #21.
On July 18th, 1963, Allen Ginsberg sat on a train as it rumbled through the Japanese countryside. A year later, the country would introduce its first high-speed railways, marking a new era in transportation, but for Ginsberg, who was on the final leg of a two-year journey, it was impressive enough. Sleek, clean, and modern, this was a world away from the poverty and filth of India.
Outside the window, he admired an orderly but ancient landscape that swept away to the foot of Mount Fuji. Fuji-san, a scene he knew well from his studies of Asian art, was shrouded in thick clouds as it so often is, but the scene nonetheless elicited tears. As these rolled down his cheeks and into his black, bushy beard, he began to write in his notebook:
In my train seat I renounce
my power, so that I do
live I will die
Ginsberg was returning from a month-long stay in Kyoto with poets, Gary Snyder and Joanne Kyger. The train was taking him back to Tokyo, where he would board a flight to North America, marking the end of a life-changing journey that had lasted more than two years and taken him through fourteen countries.
The Allen Ginsberg that stepped back into the heart of the burgeoning counterculture in West Coast America was unrecognisable from the one who had departed in 1961. He was the Allen Ginsberg that the world soon came to know as an outspoken poet-activist, bearded and beaded and chanting mantras of peace and free love.
Ginsberg’s travels had begun on March 23rd, 1961 when he and Peter Orlovsky sailed on the S.S. America from New York to Le Havre, in France. He had a wealth of travel experience already and this time he anticipated it would be the longest trip of his life. As they set off, Orlovsky quipped, “I hope America will still be there when we get back.” Ginsberg had been thinking the same thing.
They travelled through France over the course of two months and then sailed across the Mediterranean to Morocco with Gregory Corso. Ginsberg was looking forward to seeing his old friend, William Burroughs, but Burroughs was undergoing a period of intense paranoia. He treated Allen and Peter poorly, and their time in Tangier was unhappy. Ginsberg was shattered by Burroughs’ apparent rejection and also feeling lost in his own life. At thirty-five, he had accomplished much – having already written many highly-regarded poems – but he was unsure of his direction.
He set off alone through Greece and Israel, but again found more unhappiness. Israel in particular was a reminder of humanity’s capacity of intolerable stupidity under the influence of religious and nationalist fervour. What he wanted was to get to India, a country that had called to him for years. However, getting out of Israel took months of effort.
Finally, after reuniting with Orlovsky, he set off for India via East Africa. They were able to see some of Djibouti and Kenya, then endured another long boat trip before setting foot on Indian soil at Bombay on February 15th, 1962. Testament to their proto-hippie travel style, the two men had just one dollar between them.
From the offset, Ginsberg loved India. It was crowded and dirty and chaotic, but none of these things were off-putting. He loved the madness of it all: the vibrant colours and exotic sights; the strange customs and spicy foods; perhaps, most of all, he fell in love with Indian music. The country was entirely alien in spite of his voluminous preparatory reading, and he was keen to learn everything that was on offer.
With Snyder and Kyger, whom they met in Delhi, they travelled into the foothills of the Himalayas in search of ancient wisdom. The four poets were determined to squeeze every lesson possible from the sub-continent. As Ginsberg learned more and more from the holy men they encountered, the depression that had gripped him over the last year began to lift. He found calmness in mantras and breathing exercises and hope in the diversity of life and thought that he encountered.
For years, Ginsberg had been obsessive in his pursuit of visions and lessons, but had often sought these through chemical means, experimenting widely with drugs. After a meeting with the Dalai Lama, however, he rapidly moved away from this approach and felt embarrassed by his prior preoccupation with it. The Dalai Lama informed him that psychedelic experiences are too easily achieved to be of any real value and that visions should be sought through means requiring more effort. He wrote:
. . . I realized how much of my life I’d put into this sort of exploration of mind thru drugs, & how sad & futile I felt now that I had gotten to point with hallucinogens where I no longer liked what I felt & was too disturbed and frightened to continue.
After Snyder and Kyger returned to Japan, and with Orlovsky occupying himself among the prostitutes of Bombay and Calcutta, Ginsberg travelled alone into the remote border regions of the country, where he found yet more wisdom. Much of it was contradictory, yet Ginsberg noted it all down and attempted to internalise it. Of particular importance was the lesson, “If you see anything horrible, don’t cling to it. If you see anything beautiful, don’t cling to it.” This concept of non-attachment was integral to Tibetan Buddhism.
All of this helped him transition into a new understanding of life and death and the universe, but of particular help was an odd pastime he developed in Benares. Sitting beside the Ganges, smoking marijuana, he watched as bodies were burned and the remains pushed into the river. The human body changed in his mind, reduced to mere “pillows of meat.” What, he wondered, was the point of attachment to such temporary vessels? Why had he been so worried of his own mortality and that of his friends and family? Life was brief, transitory, not worth clinging to.
Ginsberg’s time in India was packed with life-altering experiences, and he also began to shift his views towards poetry, too. Although he did not develop any set style of poetry, he began to move away from old, preconceived ideas about what poems should be. Meanwhile, he was learning breathing methods that would later be incorporated into his future work. There were no major poems produced in this period, but those he played with in his journals were highly experimental.
On May 23rd, 1963, he flew from Calcutta to Bangkok, and from there he travelled briefly through Southeast Asia, visiting war-torn Vietnam before flying to Cambodia, where he saw the ancient temple complexes of Angkor Wat. The trip inspired a long poem that was published in various forms under the erroneous title, “Ankor Wat.”
The day after completing this poem, he flew to Japan, where he witnessed a land in the grips of a stunning modernisation. Just two decades after being flattened by American bombers, culminating in the two atomic bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan had rapidly become one of the most developed nations on Earth. After months of being surrounded by poverty, death, and squalor, Ginsberg felt as though the jet planes he had flown on when leaving the country – a new experience for the seasoned traveller – had been a form of time travel:
Traveling by jetplane kind of a gas, you do get in and out of centuries from airport hangars & glassy modern downtowns to jungle floating markets & 900 year old stone cities in a matter of minutes & hours instead of weeks & months. Like space cut-ups or collages, one minute paranoiac spyridden Vietnam streets, the same afternoon quiet Cambodian riversides.
In Kyoto, he studied Japanese forms of meditation and art with Snyder and Kyger, which he found the polar opposite of his experiences in India. With Snyder translating for him, he was able to pick up breathing and meditation techniques quickly. He was also able to appreciate being free of the spectres of death and poverty and oppression. In Japan, even the animals were better fed than the people had been in India, and young folk could walk hand-in-hand in the street. There were even gay bars for him to visit.
Here, he was also able to begin processing everything that had happened to him over an eventful two years on the road. This reconciliation of innumerable ideas and sights and experiences poured out of his soul and onto the pages of the notebook that he held on the train to Tokyo. The poem, dense in personal mythology and cryptic allusion, is an insight into his new understanding of himself and the universe.
“The Change: Kyoto–Tokyo Express” is not one of his best-known works, but it is surely among the most significant. The finalised version, evidently completed after his train journey due to the imagery and references to sights and experiences back in the US, begins with a description of his rebirth through a “silent soft open vagina.” It is an ecstatic declaration of arrival and acceptance and highlights just how transformative his travels had been. He had not just grown; he had been reborn as a new entity.
Indeed, Ginsberg had for decades existed in a state of uncertainty, unhappiness, and often self-loathing. In 1945, he had told Jack Kerouac, “I do not wish to escape to myself, I wish to escape from myself,” but in 1963, after returning to the US, he said “I seem finally to have returned back into my body after many years absence – I think the Indian Gurus did it.” The opening of the poem then alludes to a new beginning, a new Allen Ginsberg. The poem itself was the great dividing line in his life. Everything that had happened before it was a part of his education. It had all led to this realisation and change.
Falling back into his old views, he describes his fears and anxieties prior to this understanding. In violent imagery, he depicts the pain of life and the unknown dread of death. However, as the poem progresses, he shows the process of his acceptance of life. His epiphany here is that he is a part of the universe, inseparable from those he has seen suffering. He no longer fears or loathes his human form and its attendant fragilities. He accepts his mortality and his weaknesses, explaining, “This is my spirit and / physical shape I inhabit / this Universe.” Then he laments the years he has spent insecure in his own body:
oooh for the hate I have spent
in denying my image & cursing
the breasts of illusion
His imperfections are those of the universe, of which he is a part and which resides inside him. It is “a universe of skin and breath / & changing thought and / burning hand & softened / heart in the old bed of / my skin” that is now visible to him thanks to the changes he has undergone.
The reborn Allen Ginsberg no longer views himself as a man wandering in the world, but as an integral and inseparable part of it. He is neither man nor god but a part of the universe like anything and anyone else, and the universe, too, is a part of him. He has found acceptance of himself and others, asking, “Who would deny his own shape’s / loveliness[?]” The poem shows a connection to all the people of the world, with whom he now feels a close connection. He writes “my Heaven’s gate / will not be closed until / we enter All” and then he clarifies “All human shapes,” including “suffering Jews” and “Bengali sadhus.”
“The Change” ends with an ecstatic declaration:
My own identity now nameless
neither man nor dragon or
but the dreaming Me full
of physical rays’ tender
red moons in my belly &
Stars in my eyes circling
And the Sun the Sun the
Sun my visible father
making my body visible
thru my eyes
Back the US, Ginsberg found himself spontaneously crying tears of joy and asking people if he could kiss them. He wrote Snyder from the US to say that he was in a form of “happy rapture” and explained “[the] stay in Asia did me a lot of good […] but effects didn’t really take place till I left Japan.” He was now morphing into the Allen Ginsberg the public would come to know – the man leading peaceful protests and attempting to spread love, awareness, and non-attachment. “I take no drugs no more nothing but belly flowers,” he said to Kerouac.
It was also the beginning of a fertile new period in his career as a poet. Though he had written various poems in India, as well as “Ankor Wat” in Cambodia, he referred to “The Change” as the first poem he had written “in years” and elsewhere he called it the “one great poem” to have emerged from his journey around the world. Not only did it express some of the ideas he had come upon in India, but it was written in a style intended to reflect the breathing techniques he had learned there. To Snyder, he explained that it “follows mantric-pranayamic-belly-breathing” and that by reading it aloud people would be able to obtain the benefits of that form of breath. It was a technique he would pursue throughout his career as he attempted to educate and expand consciousness through poetry.
Travel was always important to Allen Ginsberg. It gave him both the space and inspiration to write and exposed him to views outside of those he would have gotten living in the United States. There were many great journeys in his life, including important stints in Mexico, Europe, and the Soviet Union, but surely none were quite as important as the transformative experiences he found between March 1961 and July 1963 as he wandered in search of wisdom. Though all of these journeys shaped his worldview in some way and added ideas and techniques to his poetic arsenal, none quite had the impact of this vast and life-changing circumnavigation of the globe – a journey that ended with a poem aptly titled, “The Change.”
 When first published in Fuck You/ a magazine of the arts in December, the poem was titled “The Change: Kyoto–Tokyo Express July 18th 1963.” When printed in Planet News, the title lost its date but this was appended at the end, stating “7/18/63.” However, in his Collected Poems, it says that the poem was written on July 17th rather than July 18th.
Do you know whether the Fuck You publication was before or after the Writers Forum chapbook, in November 1963?