Categories: Reviews

The Fall of America Journals 1965-1971: a Meta-Review

Plymell and his friends inventing the Wichita Vortex contribute to a tradition stretching back…to Poe and earlier American vibration artists…- unearthly hum of a tornado of consciousness droning in on a brain born to provincial solitude, perverted local politics, sick police…blackout of Whitman’s blissful Adhesiveness among Citizens…

– from Allen Ginsberg’s 1966 intro to Charles Plymell’s chapbook Apocalypse Rose

1965 to 1971 represents quite a chunk of American history and its effect in the world, as well as in Allen Ginsberg’s own life. Years later, the Whitney Museum’s Beat retrospective would consider 1965 to be the cut-off year of Jack Kerouac’s literary & artistic generation. In American culture and journalism, it would also represent the last gasp of “beatnik” – “hippie” would soon replace it.

What becomes immediately interesting about these journals (which continue the second half of 1965 from the Iron Curtain Journals) is that they join from what we already know from the Collected Poems and the two major biographies of Bill Morgan and Michael Schumacher himself, as well as Gordon Ball’s East Hill Farm, which covers a great deal of this period in particular.

For instance, little is said about San Francisco in 1965, but Allen had an apartment near the burdgeoning Haight (1360 Fell Street1) in the second half of 1965, where various famous photos of Allen, Michael McClure and Bruce Conner were taken by Larry Keenan.  From a number of sources, we can also establish Allen hanging out with Charles Plymell and Bob Branaman. Charles Plymell, besides being a significant poet and novelist (The Last of the Mocassins), printed the very first edition of Zap Comix in 1967,  (distributed by Apex Novelties in early 1968; worth a fortune now).  In terms of the Haight, both Conner and Bob Branaman would contribute artwork to the famous and colorful Oracle newspaper, as well as a sizable output previously showcased in the 1960-1965 Batman Gallery on 222 Filmore in the Lower Haight. McClure’s and Plymell’s work also appeared there.

Only McClure will get journal mentions here.

Still, what this means is that two generations of the Wichita Vortex movement out of Kansas, the first wave being McClure and Conner, the second being Branaman and Plymell, were very much present in Allen’s San Francisco phenomena.2

The Uher tape recorder Bob Dylan gave Allen money to buy in 1965 (Dylan is also in Keenan’s famous San Francsisco1965 photos) would eventually produce Allen’s epic “Wichita Vortex Sutra” auto poesy.  The poem is arguably “way the fuck up there” with “Howl” and “Kaddish,” to quote a phrase of photographer and writer Lisa Andreini. It is the crown jewel of his auto poesy. All of the main players of the Wichita Vortex are movement are referenced in the other auto poesy that are now together in the Collected Poems, specifically “Hiway Poesy: L.A.-Albuquerque-Texas-Wichita.” Dylan is also mentioned continuously in the journals during this period, but only as a song on the radio. 

“Ginsberg had purchased a van with a grant that would enable him to ride across America while Peter Orlovsky drove. We were leaving from City Lights Bookstore in North Beach…” Plymell has written in his biographical sketch, “From Kansa, Land of the Wind People.”

Allen Ginsberg began his Vietnam poem-culture critique “Wichita Vortex Sutra” in 1966, a taped collage of conversation and radio snippets. He had already begun and transcribed “auto poesy” (as Allen named it) with the Uher, appearing in the journals first as ‘Beginning of a Poem of These States.” Less known is that the term “Wichita Vortex” was a phrase Ginsberg heard from his friends McClure, Conner, Plymell and Branaman, all who migrated to East and/or West Coasts from this strange Kansas center of America. For the most part, these figures also experimented outside of both the poetic and artistic disciplines they were often pigeon-holed in. Film, collage, assemblage, stage plays, and photography exploded through the shifting paradigm of the 1950s/’60s Beat phenomenon — the multi-media aspect of the Wichita Vortex filtering the American mind—deconstructing and reassembling its artifacts in ways that are now part of mainstream media culture. Ginsberg’s poem “Wichita Vortex Sutra” also can be seen as an extension of this same approach. It is also not surprising that the van trip that begins in San Francisco would stop off in Los Angeles, where Allen would stay with Wallace Berman. Berman’s Semina magazine and circle of friends are another nexus of assemblage and collage art culture, one that would also interface with Conner, MClure and Branaman documented in Berman’s own collection Photography. Berman’s most famous design, nearly two decades before punk xerox art, was a repeated high-contrast hand holding a transistor radio, and instead of the radio’s speaker, an image. Allen Ginsberg was among those images.  (Tosh Berman, Wallace’s son, remembers the Ginsberg visit vividly – alas, the journal shows Los Angeles but not Berman.)

As to the origins of the phrase, “Wichita Vortex”… In the late 1940s, Lee Streiff, a high school pal of Michael McClure and poet-printer David Haselwood, first transmitted this Vortex to the soon-to-be Beats. (Bruce Conner joined the Wichita High School East group in 12th grade.)

Streiff repeated and added to a sci fi highschool nerd “Martian history” of some of Wichita’s “secret alien inhabitants,” which unsurprisingly included Streiff, his older brother and his friends, describing a “vortex” that apparently pulled spacecraft to shipwrecked disaster. This idea was passed to McClure and McClure passed it to best friend, Bruce Conner. They brought the mythos with them when they left Wichita behind, and in 1966, the Vortex was further hammered home in Wichita when Moody Connell’s Skidrow Beanery briefly became the Magic Theatre-Vortex Art Gallery. Charles Plymell claimed he could actually feel the Vortex there! Weirdly, it even crops up in Native American legends of the area.

Implicit in Ginsberg’s “Wichita Vortex Sutra” poem is that this Vortex was both a sort of collapsing star and birthing womb of the worst and best of America. As Glenn Todd quotes Plymell in his Book of Friends: “This is where it all comes from!”3

We see the first draft of this major Ginsberg poem starting to shape in here. In fact, “auto poesy” dominates throughout these journals, ending with a previously unpublished “Denver to Montana Beginning 27 May 72.”  “Auto poesy” is the unifying structural  theme of these Ginsberg observations in the slow-motion “Fall of America.”

We also see first drafts of “Wales Visitation,” “Memory Gardens,” “On Neal’s Ashes” and “Please Master.”  All are among the most significant of this half-decade of Allen’s poetry. We also see previously unpublished poems.

The Human Be-In of January 14, 1967 in San Franciso’s Golden Gate Park Polo Fields is considered by many to have ushered in the Haight-Ashbury Summer of Love. Of course, Allen was there, along with Gary Snyder, Michael McClure, Lenore Kandel (of the cop-busted The Love Book) and Tim Leary announcing “Turn on, tune in, drop out” for the first time. A later Oracle interview would have Allen asking Tim, “Drop out of what?”  Journal editor Michael Schumacher understands the cultural importance of this event to document his book with photos, but alas, there is no mention in the journals themselves. 1967 is also the period we see a lot of Maretta Greer (Ginsberg’s girlfriend/companion!) in photos, here and elsewhere. Some sort of biography of Greer and her relationship with Allen should definitely be researched. Young scholars, I call to you!

There are brief mentions and one prose sketch of visiting poet Ezra Pound, September 22, 1967 in Rapallo, Italy.  It has been told in more detail elsewhere.  Though Pound is among the greatest poets of the 20th century, in other accounts of this visit, most notably Allen’s own “Encounters With Ezra Pound (Journal Notes)” that opens the 1980 volume, Composed On The Tongue, Ginsberg, in an extremely open, therapist-like manner, gets Pound to address his anti-Semitic and, by association, Italian Fascist past. Pound admits “my worst mistake was the stupid suburban prejudice of anti-semitism, all along, that spoiled everything – “  Still, will Pound survive modern “purity testing,” let alone Ginsberg himself?

The 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention and subsequent trial of the Chicago 7 (8 if you count Bobby Seale, who would later be tried separately) does get quite a bit of attention in the journals, and may be one of the most reported historical observations in general found outside of Allen’s thoughts.4  It is a major period in U.S. history, and, short of the Civil War, perhaps closest to the political divisions our country faces now. Despite Allen’s presence at both the Convention and trial, Aaron Sorkin’s uneven new Trial of the Chicago 7 on Netflix dismisses him with a bufffoonish bit part.

Since “auto poesy” dominates these journals, it is no surprise that one of the most significant events for Allen involved a car crash in Nov 29, 1968 that led to his hospitalization with four cracked ribs and a broken hip. 

Here in the journal from his hospital bed, December 3, 1968…

Can’t rely on body, all the

pleasures only equal to the

awful pain.  Depend on

body pleasures & get hooked

on meat thrills?  Then be stuck

with the break-rib Crack hip

palm fatigue of trembling on a broken

auto seat ready to die —

Flesh – a collapsible trap? 

This event is bracketed by Neal Cassady’s death on February 4, 1968 and Kerouac’s October 21, 1969 death. Buddha’s First & Second Noble Truths, that suffering is ever present to a grasping self, were now more than ever stark realities for Allen.

Ginsberg’s poem and the mantra “Guru Om” get quite a bit of coverage in the journals in 1970, which according to his 1994 essay “Vomit of a Mad Tyger,” came from Swami Muktananda whom he met through Ram Dass. Unlike his previous spiritual practice, which involved singing mantras, he now learned to meditate and became serious about it. He had never learned before from Jack Kerouac or in India! Muktananda is mentioned in passing in the journal here. 

The Tibetan mantra to the great yogi master who established Tantric Buddhism in Tibet, Padmasambhava. also begins to show up regularly in the journals, as well as in harmonium chant, postcard and poem: “om ah hung vajra guru padma siddhi hum,”5 first noted in Allen’s poem, “Sonora Desert-Edge,” April 29, 1969. There he mentions he got it from Gary Snyder, who got it from the Tibetan lama Tarthang Tulku, just arriving in Berkeley from India in 1969. On Halloween(!), 1970, Allen describes in his journal a dream where he repeats “Guru Om” and it turns into “om ah hum vajra guru siddhi hum,” which he realizes in the dream and changes it back.

Editor Michael Schumacher is repeatedly tasked with attempting to transcribe Allen’s handwriting when it comes to mantras and names unknown to him. I recognized enough of them to skip boring you with corrections, dear reader, but more significantly, Dec. 25, 1970 mentions the important Tibetan translator, Sonam Kazi, spelled in journal transcription as “Kaai.”  Allen is apparently helping Kazi  (whom Allen met in India but now lived in NYC) with a Tantric ritual feast translation, or “Tsog Ceremony.,” Allen then dreams of a woman’s hand being chopped off bloodlessly.

Diane J. Mukpo in her memoir Dragon Thunder, My Life with Chogyam Trungpa recalls the “chance” synchronicity of their running into Allen and his father and sharing a taxi cab in NYC as occurring sometime in July 1971. Allen’s journal already has an entry dated July 1, 1971, indicating a later visit with them in NYC. So perhaps late June for the taxi… even more startling, Gary Snyder’s photo of Allen and Peter Orlovsky in India 1963 later revealed that the monk they were talking to was Trungpa. 

As to this July visit, from what can be presumed here, a late celebratory night had left Allen and Trungpa crashing on a hotel bed at the Pierre Hotel. Waking first, Allen can’t resist touching Trunga’s early morn semi-erection. Trungpa wakes and says, “What is it for?”  No previous or further shenanigans are suggested, though Trungpa later leaves with Allen and Trungpa compassionately kisses a slumped street derelict on the mouth. This journal entry is wild enough to suggest it may even be a dream, though it would break with Ginsberg’s distinctly regular habit of recording it so.

Ginsy mentions Trungpa’s wife as “Saide Kaye”…again, this is Diana Mukpo, who has never heard of “Saide Kaye,” nor has any other Trungpa old-timer I could reach.  The easiest explanation for this comes from Bob Rosenthal, Allen’s long-time secretary, who describes discussing with Allen his list of funeral boyfriends’ imaginary send-offs in the poem “Death & Fame,” adding that women would say, “He never did remember my name.”

I couldn’t bring myself to ask Diana about where she was during that night’s sleeping arrangements,  though she was obviously staying with Trungpa.

Though Muktananda came from a Kashmiri Shaivite background, a Hindu Tantric non-dual view that is closest to Tibetan Buddhism, Trungpa slowly proved to be more magnetizing. 

This is spelled out specifically in the journal.  “Worship Guru Om or Om a Hum Vajra Guru Padna (sic) [actually “Padma” – mo] Hum.  Hindu Gurukripa Kundalin personalist yoga or Tibetan Zog Chan [Dzogchen – mo] No Mind meditation?” is written January 8, 1971, a full six months before the NYC (re)connecting with Trungpa. “Personalist” is a philosophical label that includes the belief in a soul or atman. Buddha, even in his basic teachings, said there was no such fixed reference point, even divine, summed up as “anatta.”  No atman. Ordinary rebirth is just a continuation of a belief in a separate self that survives body death. 

Sometimes considered an earlier signpost of Buddhism, Ginsberg’s 1963 poem “The Change: Kyoto-Tokyo Express” was written after leaving India – but what exactly changed?  We find in the previous Iron Curtain “Cuban” journals:

I explained my Indian Mystery version of “get back in your skin” or return to the body, that Death was only a threat only if life is lived solely in the mental worlds but life opened to infinity like in Blake  if lived in the feeling body – which means acceptance of this body that must die–

So Allen’s primary experience up to Muktananda was that he knew the effect of mantras, both Tibetan and Hindu, by chanting them aloud and repeating them silently in an informal way. What had dominated thus far was the physical chanting, which induced a state in the body of Allen and of the audience who joined him. Though John Giorno’s sometimes resentful memoir, Great Demon Kings, calls Allen a Hindu in 1970, Allen himself had been calling himself a Buddhist since a nitrous oxide dentist chair of 1958. The truth is somewhere in-between, since Allen shared (and perhaps helped instigate) the zeitgeist of 60s acidhead “metaphysical slopbucket” (to use a term of William Burroughs). Still, the huge impact his late ’68 car crash is referenced again and again in Allen’s poetry, letters and interviews. I believe it is an even more significant revelation than “The Change” in terms of his Buddhism: the futility of ego winning unassailable happiness. 

Trungpa would later suggest that Ginsberg’s chanting was giving the audience a buzz and nowhere to go with it.  Just another trip, another bliss-out to fall from. He suggested replacing OM with AH, because it was less exotic, more familiar, as in a sigh or an audible moment of comprehension. It was also more grounding, in Trungpa’s view. “Ah! shall be my mantra – America’s gasp of Awe –” first mentioned in “These States: to Miami Presidential Convention” July 1972. Allen even had Walter Cronkite repeating it on national news.6 AH also ends Allen’s acceptance speech for the 1974 National Book Award he received for the collection Fall of America, appended in these journals.

Four months after these journals end in 1971, Allen would send me (age 19) my first postcard from him. On it, he wrote “om ah hum vajra guru padma siddhi hum,” a mantra I’d never seen before. Years later, I’d repeat it a gazillion times at my own teacher’s direction.

Due out Nov. 10, I also have been writing this thinking: wow, Fall of America Journals – it’ll be one week after the election and ten days before I’m 67.

America, it will be a bumpy ride no matter what. 

Hang in there. 

AH.

Notes

1 This address has been confirmed by a postcard from Gary Snyder to Allen in the Standford U. Special Collection.  [The flat has since been torn down, but would’ve been directly across from the still-standing DMV.  It resembled many of the second floor flats that remain on Fell between Masonic and Stanyan to this day.] 

2 For more on the Wichita Vortex art movement, specifically see  Lief’s “Beat Vortex’ in the website Beats in Kansas just for starters. Also, my article in Beat Scene #68, “Mapping the Wichita Vortex,” which interviews McClure, Branaman and Plymell.  (Conner had already passed.)  For more on Bob Branaman specifically (the most overlooked of the Vortex crew), also see http://www.othercinema.com/otherzine/goldmouth-an-introduction-to-the-films-of-robert-branaman/  and  https://youtu.be/D1jLWN30zYk (where he discusses his friendship with Neal Cassady).

3 “It’s the vortex,” Glenn Todd further quotes Plymell: “Can’t you feel the forces pulling you in!  It’s twisting in twister land.” 

4 The famous Uncle Sam hatted Ginsberg photo by Fred McDarrah, sometimes conflated (at least by me) as Ginsberg’s appearance at the Chicago Convention, is actually from a NYC Peace Rally in 1966.)  It is used for the cover of these Fall of America Journals inside what seems to be a shattered glass frame.  Also for the record and of current significance re: “not voting for the lesser evil,” Ginsberg voted for Hubert Humphrey that election.

5 In “Holy Soul Jelly Roll,” Allen’s CD selected anthology of all his recordings, he includes “Pacific High Studio Mantras (Oh Ah Hum Vajra Guru Padma Siddhi Hum), recorded 1971 with  Dr. Ajar (aka “Rev. Adjarai”), whom Ginsberg refers to as “a strange Mongolian Russian fruitcake Lama” in his poem “Elephant in the Meditation Hall,” written in 1990  (Ajari was precisely that in my own meeting with him in 1975 – a champion bullshitter -mo)… Allen translates this in the liner notes: “‘Body Speech Mind Diamond Teacher Lotus Power Amen’ (or ‘Tough Teacher Tender Teaching’.)”  Diane Mukpo again recalls in her memoir Dragon Thunder that Allen greeted Trungpa with this mantra when they met on the NYC streets, and Ginsy would later ask what Trungpa thought of that. Trungpa  “…wondered whether Allen understood what he was saying.”  Allen’s fanciful though somewhat literal translation effort above would indicate he did not.  Diana gives the mantra a more accurate explanation: “the syllables than invoke the essence of [Padmasambhava’s] energy.”  Allen’s scorecard of general accuracy about mantras and ritual gestures (mudras) he’d picked up is often shaky at best in these journals and elsewhere, unless directly from his main teachers.

6 Still, it would appear that Allen does not completely cross over to Trungpa’s tutelage until 1973,  when his poem “Mind Breaths” first references shamatha, the sitting practice of attention to the out-breath dissolving into space, Chogyam Trungpa’s starter method (based on Shakyamuni Buddha’s “Sutra on the Full Awareness of Breathing.”)

Marc Olmsted

Marc Olmsted is a poet. Olmsted's 25-year relationship with Ginsberg is chronicled in his Beatdom Books memoir Don't Hesitate: Knowing Allen Ginsberg 1972-1997 - Letters and Recollections. For more of his work, www.marcolmsted.com

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