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

By | 15 February 2023

Travelling in India in 1962-3, Ginsberg had met with Brahmin and visited ashrams, and he hoped Australia would present equal opportunities for spiritual education. About Rothenberg’s Technicians of the Sacred, published four years prior to his visit, Ginsberg later wrote that it ‘offered nothing less than a redefinition of what poetry could be’ (Rothenberg, cover copy). Among the book’s copious citations is an abridged Arrernte creation myth, quoted from T.G.H. Strehlow’s ethnography Aranda Traditions (1947) (ibid., 9, 391). Perhaps Ginsberg recognised the anthropologist’s name when, on 1 March, he was invited to meet with Strehlow at the University of Adelaide.

A missionary’s son, Strehlow had grown up in Hermannsburg, near Alice Springs, speaking ‘Arrernte, Classical Greek, German and English – in that order’ (Shakespeare, 409). At the University of Adelaide, where he was later made a professor, Strehlow studied classics and English literature. But it is unlikely that it was Ginsberg’s poetry that motivated him to contact the American. Strehlow’s interests inclined toward less contemporary works: William Wordsworth and the Romantics, the Old English epic Beowulf (c. 700-1000), the poetry of Ancient Greece and the sacred song cycles of the Arrernte which, as he explained to Ginsberg, had been sung in Central Australia for many thousands of years. Instead, Strehlow’s interest in Ginsberg was motivated by his assessment of the poet’s popular celebrity. He identified the visiting American as a potentially valuable advocate for his research in Australia and overseas.

Gifting Ginsberg a copy of his newly published Songs of Central Australia (1971), the culmination of three decades of research, Strehlow explained that its contents (which included nearly 800 translated Arrernte songs, and descriptions of sacred rites and ceremonies) represented only a small fraction of the material that he had gathered. 1. Collating and translating the remainder of his archive would require substantial funding, better equipment, and well-trained research assistants. To demonstrate the value of his work, Strehlow arranged for Ginsberg to attend a class taught by Pitjantjatjara elders at the Centre for Aboriginal Studies in Music, Adelaide University. Convened by Strehlow’s colleague and former research assistant, the musicologist Catherine Ellis, the class was designed to educate white Australians in the Miniri/Langka song cycle.2 Ginsberg was taught parts of a simple couplet verse which he later transcribed phonetically in a letter to Gary Snyder, ‘wallpanka tjarpama ngana ngalili,’ alongside an English translation: ‘Jumping in the whirlwind, one by one’.3 In return, Ginsberg taught the musicians to sing the Hare Krishna; he had taught the mantra before but, as he later recalled, his Indigenous hosts picked it up with remarkable ease.


Ginsberg wrote only one poem during his visit to Australia:

‘Ayers Rock Uluru Song’ 
When the red pond fills fish appear. 
When the red pond dries fish disappear. 
Everything built on the desert crumbles to dust. 
Electric cable transmission wires swept down. 
The lizard people came out of the rock. 
The red Kangaroo people forgot their own song. 
Only a man with four sticks can cross the Simpson Desert. 
One rain turns red dust green with leaves. 
One raindrop begins the universe. 
When the raindrop dries, worlds come to their end. (Ginsberg, 2006, 587).

The poem strikes as something of an oddity among the other works in Minds Breath: Poems 1972-77 (1977). This is partly because the familiar Ginsbergean themes that are found elsewhere in the book – the collective madness of cold war America in ‘Hadda Be Playing on the Jukebox’, for instance, or free love and homosexual desire in ‘Sweet Boy, Gimme Your Ass’ – are here supplanted in the poem by Pitjantjatjara symbols: Ginsberg not only appropriates the setting (Mutitjulu Waterhole, located on the east side of Uluru) but also the major imagery (Malu Piti Wati, the ancestral kangaroo men; and Ngintaku and Milpali, the two ancestor reptiles of Uluru).4 Yet, more than this, ‘Ayers Rock Uluru Song’ is a formal oddity. Elsewhere in Minds Breath a freewheeling, heavily enjambed line is the dominant mode:

Philadelphia city lights boiling under the 
green Babylon’s heart attracting rain, 
                         lighting, smoke gathered
            about the excited city – shouts, vibration
                         of trucks, radio antennae, streets’ 
solid electric glitter under sulphur waterfumes – 
the plane glides to Miami Beach over Atlantic’s
                         coast metropolis (Ginsberg, 2006, 631).
  1. 800 Arrernte songs is Strehlow’s own estimation, which Barry Hill disputes, claiming the actual number to be closer to 44. See: Barry Hill, Broken Song: T.G.H. Strehlow and Aboriginal Possession (North Sydney: Vintage Books, 2003), 491-2.
  2. In Aboriginal Music, Education for Living: Cross-cultural Experiences from South Australia, Ellis quotes a student’s memories of a standard lesson:

    The men sit on one side of the circle and women are directed to sit together on the other side. The women kneel and beat into their laps with one hand on top of the other, while the men clap their cupped hands together. (…) The singing has a very hard nasal quality and often the downward movement leads to very low-pitched passages. Alternatively, when the women sing an octave higher the sound is piercing. (…) The level of energy that goes into the singing and beating is quite astounding. For some verses it is intensified, and the syllables may be heavily accentuated by the diaphragm muscles forcibly to expel air. This, coupled with the long phrases (…) may account the shortness of inma when students are participating.

    Catherine Ellis, Aboriginal Music, Education for Living: Cross-cultural Experiences from South Australia, (St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 1989), 113-4.

  3. Allen Ginsberg to Gary Snyder, 16 March 1972, Selected Letters, 139. Ellis transcribes verse 4 of the Langka text as follows: ‘yilingkarkaralu tjana wata wata waralu / ngumi ngumi witinu ngumi ngumi witinu.’ Ellis, 96.
  4. See, for instance, the song cycle reported to Géza Róheim by Pukutiwara, a Pitjantjatjara elder. The Eternal Ones of the Dream: A Psychoanalytic Interpretation of Australian Myth and Ritual (New York: International Universities Press, 1945), 17-33.
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