In December of 1998, I spent close to a month in India with my partner at the time and an older friend. This friend had lived in India in the ’70s for a couple years, and worked with peasants in small villages and for a brief period with Mother Theresa in Kolkata. She hadn’t been back, and was treating her visit decades later as a spiritual journey. I was approaching it as I had previous trips of this sort: as a way—I hoped—of increasing experience, knowledge, political awareness, empathy.

A similar set of mixed intentions played out last Saturday at The Beats in India: A Soul of Asia Symposium hosted by the Asia Society in New York City. In reality, it might have just as readily been titled Allen Ginsberg in India, since much of the day’s conversation swirled around Ginsberg’s trip to India in 1962 with Peter Orlovsky, and their meeting up with and subsequent travels there with Joanne Kyger and Gary Snyder. All four panels, as well as the short poetry readings sprinkled in between, repeatedly returned to this visit, documented in Deborah Baker’s new book A Blue Hand: The Beats in India, which served as backdrop, provided the title, and may have been the motivating impulse for the symposium itself.
Like Baker’s book, there was plenty of information conveyed about Ginsberg, Kyger, Orlovsky, and Snyder traveling to India for all kinds of reasons: “enlightenment” (a word nearly all of the symposium’s participants seemed to dislike), drugs, boys, religion, material discomfort, expanded consciousness—as Kyger phrased it on the opening panel, “a larger sense of what the world meant.” But like Baker’s book, the day’s events were also about cultural translation: how to take what one encounters in a place like India and transmit it—for oneself or others—to a dramatically different context like the United States? I spent a month in Mexico, with three weeks in Chiapas, in the summer of 1995, ostensibly to learn more about and report on the recent Zapatista uprising. It took me three years before I figured out a way to write about my trip. I never ended up writing about my visit to India. Ginsberg, Kyger, and Snyder each published their diaries from India; Orlovsky wrote one too.
Surprisingly, there was very little talk at the symposium about appropriation or cultural tourism. But, then, Ginsberg needed more than a decade—and an introduction to Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche—to become less distracted enough to put into sustained practice some of the spiritual teachings that fascinated him in India. As was pointed out during the symposium, Snyder is the poet who did the most in bringing traditions from the East—and specifically Zen Buddhism—to the West. Snyder himself said on the opening panel that his comparison with India wasn’t the United States but Japan, where he spent a decade living and studying. Eliot Weinberger later pointed out that in today’s institutionalized and academic-oriented poetry world, such cultural and geographical dislocation would be career suicide for a younger poet. On the second and third panels respectively, Anne Waldman and John Giorno spoke about their own trips to India in the early ’70s after the floodgates of cultural tourism had opened in the wake of the hippies, Beatles, Rolling Stones, etc. Given their subsequent life-long dedication to Buddhism, it’s clear these were important trips for Waldman and Giorno, perhaps even more than for the poets who preceded them in 1962.
On the other hand, the Indian writers who participated in the symposium—Sunil Gangopadhyay, Gita Mehta, and Pankaj Mishra—displayed a healthy skepticism toward Westerners on enlightenment quests in India, as well as toward some Indian spiritual tendencies in general. This, in turn, may itself be a product of their own complex relationships to India’s modernization process. At one point in 1962, Gangopadhyay told Ginsberg that the latter's new-found guru in Kolkata was something of a quack, to which Ginsberg responded, “Yes, but he’s a beautiful liar.” In this sense, Ginsberg biographer Bill Morgan articulated one of the day's most useful insights when he said that Ginsberg went to India—repeatedly—not to become enlightened but to become a better human being.

Originally Published: June 20th, 2008

Alan Gilbert is the author of the poetry collections The Treatment of Monuments (2012) and Late in the Antenna Fields (2011). He has earned praise for his ability to move between personal, national, and global scales and experiences in his wide-ranging, politically and ethically astute poetry. He is the author...

  1. June 24, 2008
     one of the billion indians out there

    the 60s and 70s called. They want their news back.
    Wake up its 2008 ;-)

  2. June 24, 2008
     David Perry

    a decade-ago-plus called. it wants its lame joke back.
    Weinberger's comment is interesting and seems true to a significant degree, and though I can think of a few exceptions and despite the fact that the internet makes it easy to be almost anywhere and stay in contact with other poets, physical presence in a particular community counts for a great deal. It's true too of the scenes that exist somewhat outside of academia, such as those in NYC or SF. If a poet can't go to readings and read, that poet risks fading. Nonetheless, that poet can, still, keep writing, publishing and--as long as international air travel remains affordable--making the occasional physical appearance on the scene, and do it all without significant delay. Yet there is, still, a major difference that comes from being there.
    Of course, that pretty much pertains only to the North American anglophone poetry world, as far as I can see (which isn't, perhaps, very far). I've been in China for the past couple of years (it's smoggy), where many of the PRC's major poets have, of course, made a large part of their careers outside of the geographical bounds of the country (and certainly outside of China's stultifying official and academic cultures). And the poets here I've talked to carefully manage themselves to avoid trouble with the authorities--in fact, a Shanghai poet just informed me that an informal reading we'd been discussing organizing involving a few American writers, a Japanese-American writer, and some local Chinese poets should be abandoned. His given reason: the Sichuan earthquake. The real reason, I'm quite sure: the government is disrupting the lives of anyone who might be seen as "dissident" ahead of the Olympics and in the wake of the recent trouble in Tibet, and they're especially watchful of Chinese who deal with foreigners. I don't want to open that particular can of worms any further; I just want to point out that Weinberger's comment, as interesting and relevant as I find it, is quite limited in a global context to quite a specific community of poets (North American native anglophone "careerists," more or less).
    But back to Gilbert's points about the difficulties of writing from and about and in a place that is culturally not anglophone North America (we're both white male poets, and I think this is significant), there's really something there, at least I'm finding it to be the case as I try to figure out what it means to live and write in Shanghai after starting my "career" in NYC and having seen it stall out since leaving NYC (due mainly to my own laziness, to be sure, but that laziness has some determinants in the kinds of questions of travel Gilbert touches on here).
    I'm quite interested in Gilbert's note that the symposium failed to address tourism or cultural appropriation, and I think that, for me (and perhaps for Gilbert too, vis-a-vis his experiences in India and Chiapas and apparent difficulties writing about them in ways that worked for him), these issues loom large. Of course, colonialism, orientalism and imperialism are the ghosts in the tourism industry machine, and writing through such heavy historical complexity--or attempting it in a conscious and responsible way--can often, I find, make poetry difficult to write. (That's probably a good thing.)
    I appreciate Gilbert's reframing of the "enlightenment" model (a kind of spiritual tourism, really) with a broader desire to increase knowledge, empathy, and political awareness, though this too entails a certain position-making and position-taking derived from a range of privileges (mostly economic at root) and that complicates writing enormously (or should). I'm a bit worried about how, under the pressure of these complications, this impulse always threatens to devolve into a pat expression of a desire "to become a better human being." It's not that that's not a worthy goal in and of itself, but in the way its often used it contains and conceals a host of pop-psych cultural assumptions about what being "a good person" means, assumptions that are, again, largely determined by and rooted in degrees of privilege. This might be part of the reason for the skepticism on the part of the Indians on the panel--so often Western approaches to the rest of the world are freighted with these layered assumptions (of course, such skepticism can devolve into pat dismissal, witness the tired "Wake up it's 2008" quip above).
    Anyway, thanks to AG (and AG) for the food for thought. And given the global nature of nearly everything in 2008 (thanks to One of the Billions of Indians Out There for setting the record straight), I think it makes great sense to discuss, reconsider and evaluate the intercultural dimensions of 20th century poetry and use that discussion to energize contemporary writing and criticism on all fronts.

  3. June 25, 2008
     Nada Gordon

    For an Indian take on the Western hippie movement, 60s/70s drug culture, and cultural appropriation/pollution, I very strongly recommend the film "Hare Krishna Hare Ram," which featured the beautiful and very groovy Zeenat Aman "singing" Asha Bhosle's classic song, Dum Maro Dum.

  4. June 25, 2008
     Don Share

    Asha Bhosle is one of my all-time heroines!!!! Thanks for this great link.

  5. June 27, 2008
     Emily Warn

    In case you missed it, we recently published an interview with Gary Snyder in which Alan Williamson asked Snyder about his previous experiences in India and Japan.
    Emily Warn