Early Influences

I’m standing at the Berkeley City College podium about to accept a lifetime achievement award. Tears stream down my cheeks. I’ll need to speak and of all the ideas rattling around my head, I haven’t settled on one. I tell this to the audience and mention, “I asked my mentor, Herbert Huncke, who passed in 1996, what to say. He thought for a moment and then replied, ‘I have no idea.’”

I begin a mini-biography on the spot. An old fellow, with elegant gray hair streaming from his tonsure and an alert glint in his eye, introduced himself as a poet. “How did you get into poetry?” I asked, and he shrugged. “Teenage angst. I never left it.” That’s the feeling in the body, an authentic, informing source of the first poem I wrote, too, at fourteen. I quarreled with that impulse for years because it wasn’t cool. I would work halfway out, and the impulse would pull me back into one of the body’s disguises. Little by little I sank into the creative unconscious and got stuck.

Michael McClure laments in Dark Brown, “So much to remember, so much to remember, so much to remember.” The conscious mind admits so much is going on in the creative unconscious that it can’t keep up. The poet stands at a portal, overwhelmed. Confronting a darker portal, Alden van Buskirk wrote in Lami, as he was dying, “I could write in all tones, mad and/or sweet drones.” I hear this as awe at the range of possibilities. Allen Ginsberg concurs in a casual, playful tone, “I am eye, old father fish eye,” with a touch of self-mockery, since “Fish eye” might be something suspect. But to this young writer, his words hinted at the wise and mysterious strength of the sea, as if that’s the creative source and Ginsberg is there, swimming in it.

In The Hotel Wentley Poems John Wieners asserts, “The poem does not lie to us. We lie under its law.” The poem does take over our minds. We are like the Greek soldiers, whose epitaph reads, “Here we lie, obedient to your will,” and we’ll tell untruths to serve its ends. We should do just that.

In 1964 Diane di Prima wrote, “The sidewalk is crumbling into diamonds. In the sky a mouth is opening to take you finally in.” I drop into the myths and passions flowing through us when I read this. Could it be an accident that the men, effective at pointing the way, contrast so sharply with the woman, whose words themselves are a portal?

Alden van Buskirk’s advice to himself was “Indolence.” That’s his way to the source, and it underlines how the huge amount of cerebration about poetry sucks our energy. Whole systems of thought tell us how to write poems, what we should include, what we should leave out. We’ve got those systems in our heads, and bend under their weight, even if we haven’t been to school.

Just be lazy, says van Buskirk, and they’ll go away. How refreshing and how simple, like Timothy Leary’s, “Tune in, turn on, drop out.” Except that we can ignore the middle command. Once you tune in to the creative unconscious, you are turned on.

You might want to turn yourself off, though. The creative source could have raging sand storms, rain funnels, a chaos of weather, foul mists, and glorious sunsets. No wonder the conscious mind wants to protect us! But too often that protection becomes a wet blanket.

Don’t give it energy, says van Buskirk, and that restrictive mind will vanish.

“Tune in and drop out.”

How does that sound?