Review: Ginsberg’s Karma

Ginsberg’s Karma is a short documentary about Allen Ginsberg’s trip through India between 1962 and 1963. Directed by Ram Devineni and narrated by Bob Holman, it was uploaded to YouTube last weekend and is free to watch:

This 25-minute documentary begins with a little background on Ginsberg, who by the time he fled America for a two-year trip around the world was already a famous poet but struggling to cope with various personal woes. He travelled extensively in search of something but he was not always sure what that was. He wanted to learn as much as possible about the world and about himself, and he felt that India was the place to do it. “He was just curious about everything,” Gary Snyder tells us in the film.

In India, Ginsberg travelled with lover Peter Orlovsky and, for a short while, with poets Gary Snyder and Joanne Kyger. Both Kyger and Snyder are interviewed for Ginsberg’s Karma and provide amusing and informative insights into that period. (Kyger is notably more positive here in her reflections on Ginsberg and Orlovsky than elsewhere.) Many others contributed pleasant and frequently funny memories of Ginsberg, including poets Anne Waldman and John Giorno. There are various recollections shared by Indian poets that show us how keen Ginsberg had been to meet with every poet, artist, and wiseman he could find in that country.

In addition to these, there are contributions by Beat scholars and biographers, including Deborah Baker (who wrote a book about Ginsberg’s time in India), Tony Trigilio, and Bill Morgan. This is all stitched together with the story of narrator Bob Holman’s own journey to India, where he meets sadhus and visit ghats like Ginsberg had done a half-century before.

The film is an interesting patchwork of visuals and audio recordings. There are tapes of Ginsberg reading his poems and excerpts of his journals read by Holman. There are innumerable photos of and by Ginsberg, as well as stock footage of the era, and film of modern sadhus. There are also quirky illustrations that are sometimes animated, which lend the documentary a particularly enjoyable quality. (These work much better than a crude clipart sunflower that appeared at the beginning to illustrate Ginsberg’s famed Blake vision.)

A still from the film.

This all leads up to Ginsberg’s departure from India and brief visit to Japan, where he wrote his poem “The Change.” This is discussed by Trigilio and Baker, who attest to its significance. (It is the subject of an essay in Beatdom #21.) Finally, we are informed that Ginsberg’s journal of self-discovery in India lead to a personal change that he shared so widely in the United States that it became a cultural phenomenon. He was, we are told, America’s first hippie. This seems a bit of an overstatement, but there is no doubting that the trip was of incalculable importance for Ginsberg himself. This film, which I highly recommend, does a wonderful job of exploring that.

You can read more about Ginsberg’s Karma here.

David S. Wills

David S. Wills is the founder and editor of Beatdom literary journal and the author of Scientologist! William S. Burroughs the Weird Cult and World Citizen: Allen Ginsberg as Traveller. His next book, High White Notes: The Rise and Fall of Gonzo Journalism comes out in November, 2021.

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