Essential Gossip: Allen Ginsberg, Robert Duncan and U.S.-Australian Poetics

By | 15 February 2023

‘(T)he confident assertion that the oldest poetic traditions are germane, even native, to America,’ writes Jed Rasula, was a major conceptual achievement of twentieth century American verse (455). Rothenberg’s anthology can thus be understood the culmination of a ‘colossal enterprise of cultural imperialism’ (ibid) that had begun with Walt Whitman’s ecstatic claim of ‘Kanada (sic)’ as one of ‘these (United) States’ (128), and was sustained with T.S. Eliot’s description of Ezra Pound as the ‘inventor of Chinese poetry for our times’ (Pound, 14), Olson’s fascination with palaeolithic cave paintings, and Gary Snyder’s attempts to ‘re-discover’ pre-Columbian America ‘thoughtways’ (see: Silko, 4-5). The rebranding of the United States as a cultural metropole required the Adamic construction of a distinctly American poetic tradition. Yet, crucially, it also entailed a careful configuring of that tradition’s place at the heart of world geography and history. In this essay, I seek to locate Australian poetry within this American network of world relations, by focusing on three case studies: the antipodean visits of Allen Ginsberg, Robert Duncan and Denise Levertov.

The New American Poetry marketed itself as a chorus of voices, rather than a homogenous tradition; an ‘anti-establishment’ and disorganised ‘band of rebels’ united in their rejection of ‘middlebrow’ producers of ‘Official Verse Culture’. These heterodox and insurgent tendencies are displayed in the discrepancy between O’Hara’s ‘personism’ and the Buddhist effacement of personality in Snyder and Philip Whalen, the juxtaposition of Beat rants with the scholastic display of cultural wisdom in Olson and Duncan. It is because of this diversity that the Sydney poet John Tranter could lampoon fellow Australians for being excessively smitten with Duncan –

                                                  In America no writers
have false teeth, they are too beautiful!
Imagine meeting Robert Duncan in your laundromat – 
in America it happens all the time – you say
Hi, Robert! – and your teeth fall out!
And you can’t write a poem about that! (Selected, 102).

– while, at the same time, Tranter was discovering his own poetic voice under the sign of the New York School of American poetry, particularly in this poem, where the bathetic wit of O’Hara’s relaxed line is emulated. That is to say that, read against a different American original, Tranter’s poem might equally be accused of brandishing ‘false teeth.’ Yet over-stressing this irony, I think, risks missing the point. Tranter’s poem is emblematic of the ways in which ‘American poetry’ came to stand for different things to different Australian poets. ‘How lucky to live in America’, Tranter writes, ‘where / supermarkets stock up on poets’, poking fun at the cornucopia of choices on display in Allen’s New American Poetry (Tranter, Selected, 102). As I argue in this essay, the heterogeneity of the American scene allowed local Australian debates to be played out through international surrogates; foreign poets were promoted as champions within local aesthetic skirmishes. To give a sense of this diversity, this essay constructs a parataxis between three very different poets, Ginsberg, Duncan and Levertov, each of whom experienced Australia in very different ways.


In late February 1972, Ginsberg travelled with the poet and City Lights editor Lawrence Ferlinghetti from San Francisco to Australia. The two were scheduled to read at the Adelaide Festival of the Arts, where they were met by Andrei Voznesensky, a legendary Russian performance poet who Ginsberg had befriend in Moscow in 1965, and who would join the Americans at concert hall readings in Melbourne and Sydney. After the tour, Ferlinghetti broke away from the group, travelling north to holiday with his son, Lorenzo, on Great Keppel Island on the Great Barrier Reef (Ferlinghetti, 225-6). Ginsberg and Voznesensky went inland, first to Alice Springs and Uluru, before flying to Darwin and Yirrkala, Arnhem Land. Getting through his professional commitments and escaping the cosmopolitan east coast was, for Ginsberg, the purpose of his visit: ‘to go to Ayers Rock Central Australia (…) central heart sacred place in the middle of the desert in the middle of giant continent isle,’ he wrote in anticipation from Adelaide on 16 March. ‘It is some kinda prehistoric science fiction’ (Ginsberg, 2008, 139).

In part, it seems that disappointment with Australia’s urban centres spurred Ginsberg’s excitement about the outback. His visits to South Australia, Victoria and New South Wales were marred by misadventures. In Adelaide, he met with Judith Wright (though she ‘didn’t much appreciate (his poetry) I’m afraid’ (Wright, 2006, 235)) and lunched with Geoffrey Dutton and A.D. Hope on the banks of the Murray River (‘Australia’s Mississippi,’ Ferlinghetti quipped, ‘but got no Mark Twain’) (Ferlinghetti, 225). Later, in Melbourne, Ginsberg admonished his local hosts, describing Hope’s poetry as a derivative relic of Australia’s colonial past: ‘quatrains (about) European mythology that any amateur poetaster might write’ (Ginsberg, Midnight Blues, Hotel Windsor, 1972). This sense of imperial simulacrum followed him to Sydney, Ferlinghetti portraying the city in his diary as ‘like London in Eliot’s Wasteland (…) Dead mythos!’ At Taronga Zoo, the American visitors envied the koalas, ‘zonked out of their eyes on eucalyptus leaves (…) eyes hardly open, against the trunks,’ as they questioned the potency of the local drugs they had been able to score (Ferlinghetti, 225).

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