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

By | 15 February 2023

Australia had provided Ginsberg his desired inspiration. At home in America, in the summer of 1976, he taught a postgraduate course on ‘Spontaneous Poetics’ at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado, dedicating one of the final seminars to the ‘Aboriginal Poetics’. The course took its framing from Jack Kerouac’s theory of ‘spontaneous prose’, which Kerouac had outlined in 500-word programmatic manifesto, published in a 1953 issue of the Black Mountain Review at Ginsberg’s behest. Kerouac outlines his ‘first thought, best thought’ theory of poetics as follows: ‘Never afterthink (sic) to “improve” or defray impressions, as, the best writing is always the most painful personal wrung-out tossed from cradle warm protective mind-tap from yourself the song of yourself’ (Kerouac, 485). This endorsement of the American ideals of unself-conscious craftsmanship and individual expression makes Kerouac an unlikely theorist to apply to an Indigenous context. Writing of the difference between Arrernte song and the common Western verse categories of elegy, hymn, panegyric and so on, Strehlow observed that: ‘There is virtually no (Arrernte) verse giving expression to personal emotion, and accordingly no body of true lyric verse in the commonly understood sense of that term’ (659). Ginsberg was conscious of the relationship between Indigenous song and long preserved ancestral stories, telling his students: ‘this is the oldest form of poetry in the world, actually, (and) as poetic lineage, they have the most sophisticated and longest classical heritage of any group on the planet.’ Yet, his framing of Indigenous song as ‘spontaneous’ – read alongside Western poets ranging from Gerald Manley Hopkins to Vladimir Mayakovsky, William Blake to Philip Whalen and other Beats – is telling of the ways Ginsberg incorporated Arrernte and Pitjantjatjara forms into his own work.

According to literary historian Paul Giles, Ginsberg’s Naropa lectures provide evidence that he had ‘internalised Aboriginal culture’, applying what he had learned in Australia to ‘reshape (his) own poetry’ (490). For Giles, Aboriginal poetics help account for the ‘chantlike style’ of Ginsberg’s late poetry, and acknowledging this ‘antipodean parallax opens up perspectives on his work that might not otherwise be visible’ (490). This may be true. However, Ginsberg’s relationship to Indigenous song is so heterodox, so varied and at times bizarre, that even when this influence is known about, the Arrernte and Pitjantjatjara content of his poetry is still difficult to discern. ‘I tried applying (Indigenous poetics) to the Vietnam war,’ Ginsberg explained: ‘thinking that it’s (repetitive form) would be interesting as a means to get attention in large rallies.’ From this experiment, Ginsberg developed ‘Hum Bomb’ (1972), a chant initially written about the carpet bombing of North Vietnam, but which would later be adapted to protest the Gulf War in the 1990s:

What do we do?
You bomb! You bomb them!
What do we do?
You bomb! You bomb them!
What do we do?
We bomb! We bomb you! (577).

Still, even when performed with Indigenous bilma clapsticks, which Ginsberg had returned with from Australia as souvenirs, the formal origins of this poem are mostly undetectable. ‘I had been working with song sticks with the idea of trying to adapt Aboriginal style to some modern situation,’ Ginsberg observes, here speaking of Arrernte inspired work:

Dont (sic) smoke dont smoke dont smoke
Dont smoke
It’s a nine billion dollar
Capitalist Communist joke
            Dont smoke dont smoke dont smoke dont smoke
                        dont smoke (102).

The floating Indigenous signifiers littered throughout ‘Ayers Rock/Uluru Song’ are entirely absent in these kitsch, agitprop poems. What remains, perhaps, is the idea of song as a communal performance. In Australia Ginsberg had seen ‘songmen use songsticks along with their verses to mark time and to lead the rest of the tribe in chanting’ (Ginsberg, 1976). He wanted to apply the same techniques to his own American ‘tribe’: the politically engaged youth of the counterculture, who were the audience for his poetry.


Ginsberg’s enthusiasm for ethnopoetics was not universally shared by his American audience. Robert Duncan, who had attended some of the Naropa seminars, recalls hearing ‘someone say that it was a con job that Ginsberg had been conned by the Aborigines (sic).’ ‘(He) seem(ed_ to have driven off a cliff’, remarked Eliot Weinberger, ‘(started believing) that all along there has been a secret political order to the world, an ancient order to the world that we never knew existed – and now it is ours!’ (40). These comments might reasonably be discounted as Western cynicism, prejudicial assumptions based on a lopsided American ignorance of Indigenous poetics. However, in a lecture titled ‘Warp and Woof’, Duncan attempted to examine the charge seriously, taking it as the launching pad for a wider discussion of world poetry. He was personally invested in the terms of the debate, having been scheduled to travel to Australia later in 1976 for a lecture and reading tour. ‘In poetry the entire thing is a con,’ Duncan declared ‘And the poets know it’s a con. They (the Indigenous people Ginsberg met) wanted to know his con as he wanted to know their con – it’s the same word, a confiance (to trust). They were getting together’ (Duncan, 1976).

Duncan’s 1976 reading tour of Australia was organised as a direct result of Ginsberg’s earlier visit. As the Sydney poet Robert Adamson recalls, it was because of meeting Ginsberg at the Adelaide Festival that he first contacted Duncan:

I started showering Ginsberg with questions about poetry; he answered some and ignored others. I remember asking him what he thought of the poetry of John Ashbery, W.S. Merwin, and Robert Bly, among others. He started singing again  – maybe to avoid answering my questions  –  however, I pushed on; I was obsessed with the need for answers. I think I became frenetic, but Ginsberg remained calm. After a while he sat down on the floor in the lotus position and began chanting a mantra.

I tried to interrupt when he lowered his tone of voice but he waved an arm and placed a finger to his lips. Finally he stood up and went over to the desk and picked up his Indian shoulder bag and rummaged through for a notebook. He wrote something on a page and handed it to me, saying, ‘Here, Robert, this man will be a godsend to you, he is a scholar-poet and will answer your restless questions.’ I looked at the page and there was a little drawing, and he had written Robert Duncan’s name and home address. (quoted in Johnston, 2016).

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