Poetry Live to Tape

June 5, 2018

Curtis Fox: There is some language in this podcast that might be offensive to some people. This is Poetry Off The Shelf from The Poetry Foundation. I’m Curtis Fox. This week, Poetry Live to Tape.


Allen Ginsberg: Turn right next corner, the biggest little town in Kansas.


Curtis Fox: In 1965, Bob Dylan gave Allen Ginsberg money to buy an expensive portable tape recorder. On a cross country trip in a Volkswagen camper bus, Ginsberg started to spontaneously record poems to tape as they were driving.


Allen Ginsberg: White tanks, blinking signal towers, white bulbs …


Curtis Fox: Lytle Shaw, what in the world is Ginsberg doing?


Lytle Shaw: He’d gone across the country in a VW camper as you mentioned, and he was upset about the way that radio was producing support for the war. And he wanted to hear, in a kind of anthropological project, what the rest of the nation was hearing. So he had gone to record himself hearing the radio and composing poems as he went.


Allen Ginsberg:… beating across the railroad tracks, blue lights along the highway curve ahead, light at dome and the flat plane, Kansas, Kansas.


Curtis Fox: Lytle Shaw is a professor of English at New York University. I’m recording him in his New York University office and there’s some construction noise outside that you’ll hear. He’s the author of several books. His latest is Narrow cast: Poetry and Audio Research, and one of the chapters in that book focuses on Ginsberg and his tape recorder. Lytle, tape recorders weren’t ubiquitous as they are today. Pretty much anybody with a smart phone can now make a decent recording. So take us back to the mid 1960s, and explain for us why Ginsberg found such poetic possibility in the tape recorder.


Lytle Shaw: Well, unlike a lot of other poets from the period, Ginsberg had access to technology. More access. He had a lot of friends who were musicians, and it was, as you mentioned, Bob Dylan who gave him the money to buy the recorder. He probably found out about the recorder from hanging out with musicians. He was very interested in it; he knew that it was hip, he knew that it was cutting edge. But he was also a little bit disturbed by it, because what it did was it made his voice just one part of an overall environment. And he wanted to contain that, so he didn’t use the actual tapes when he might have.


Curtis Fox: So Bob Dylan gave him the money to buy him the tape recorder. It was like $600, which was a lot of money at the time. But he didn’t give him the lessons on how to use the tape recorder properly (LAUGHING). As we can hear in this recording, he didn’t care about the audio quality that much, he was simply there to record his voice and be able to transcribe it later.


Lytle Shaw: That’s maybe the first thing you notice, is what crappy quality the recording is. But I’ve come to really find that to be in some ways the most interesting part of it, because what it does is it gives you access to the actual radio that he was listening to at the time, whereas the text just makes references to it. It gives you the sound of the road, it gives you the sound of wind whizzing into the windows, it gives you the sound of Ginsberg’s body and the ambience in which he’s actually recording. All these things strike me as much more interesting in some ways than the printed version of the poem that we actually have.


Curtis Fox: So let’s hear a little bit more from the tape, you can hear the radio intruding in the middle of his recording and he seems to be almost responding to what’s happening on the radio as he’s composing live to tape.


Lytle Shaw: Yeah, there are references to a Western, some kind of cowboy song, and it sounds like what he’s just done is heard something on the radio and spontaneously improvised in relationship to it.


Curtis Fox: Let’s hear that section.


Allen Ginsberg: … I’ve been the forgiven, lonesomeness, I know …


Curtis Fox: So there’s a country western singer crooning in the background while Ginsberg is going at it.


Allen Ginsberg: … when the lone cowboy walks up the railroad tracks past the empty station, towards the bare canyon where the sun sank westward, giant bulbs at the end, on the other side, music on his back, and empty handed, singing …


Curtis Fox: So what do you hear there? You’re hearing more than just a poem. You’re hearing background noise, you’re hearing the radio, what else perks your ear?


Lytle Shaw: Well, we hear a cowboy crooner in the background, and as you mentioned Ginsberg seems to be responding to that. He seems to be responding to what’s happening on the radio. So he’s showing himself to be also moved by the radio, even though he’s gone out to criticize the way the radio goes to work on people subconsciously, and goes to work on their opinions. He’s also susceptible to the radio, he’s responding to it. But what we hear there is we hear a lot of different tonalities that you don’t hear on more finished and higher end recordings. You hear these kind of gurgles. He’s hoarse on the tapes. You hear non-articulate sound of the body. You hear throat gurgles.

Curtis Fox: Now why does that interest you? Because ultimately, the final poetic product is usually a poem on the page, and all those bodily sounds, the gurgles, the circumstances in which something was composed, are erased. So why does that interest you?


Lytle Shaw: Ginsberg’s critique of the radio was in part that it allowed people to forget about the bodies that would be dismembered in Vietnam and think about these abstract ideas. So he wanted to return us to the bodies that would be hurt if they went to war. He wanted to return us to those bodies also to kind of de-instrumentalize them, to allow them not to become war machines, to make them more sensitive than they would otherwise be. And so what we’re hearing here is his actual body making this sound. We’re hearing the basis for his whole poetics.


Curtis Fox: I think it’s important to point out that Ginsberg was a big believer in the sanctity of the first draft. And it makes total sense for him to want to get a first draft in his head down on tape recorder and then put that straight into print. Is that what he in fact did?


Lytle Shaw: No, it’s not. And normally when literary critics go back and look at drafts, it’s not particularly remarkable if people revise. Everybody revises. But if you have a whole myth that first thought is best thought, and that you’re spontaneously recording everything on a reel to reel, then it’s a little bit strange to discover that actually, Ginsberg revised extensively. He wrote lots of notes in advance, he recorded, then he wrote more notes, he tested different formulations. One of the things you hear on the tape is his constant clicking on and off, and trying things out in different keys in different ways.


Curtis Fox: And one of the things we’re hearing on the tape in your office as I record you in your office is construction outside, and the reality of non-studio recording, which is what Ginsberg was really into.


Lytle Shaw: Maybe I could say one other thing if it could fit in somewhere. Another reason I’m interested in the ambient sound of recording is that we’ve been told by media theorists, people who work on tape, that what tape really does is separate speaking bodies from the audio effects that they make. And in a certain sense, that’s of course true. You can all hear this interview without seeing us speak, and being in the same room with us. But the more I listen to tapes, the more I got interested in the ways tapes record bodies and rooms. They do this, they give us a lot of information about those bodies and those rooms. So I began to write what I thought of in a sense as a site specific history of tape recording of poets in the 1960s.


Curtis Fox: It’s curious that you say that because I have been recording poets for many years now, and one of the things that I’ve often tried to do, more in the past than in the presence, is to try to disembody them as much as possible.


Lytle Shaw:(LAUGHING)


Curtis Fox: To put them in a studio where it’s really quiet, and to cut out noisy breaths or replace them with more acceptable breaths, and use a lot of room tone



Curtis Fox:(LAUGHING) Cut out that stuff. You make a great argument for why we shouldn’t do that. We should keep things more naturalistic.


Lytle Shaw: One of the moments I talk about in this book is in the middle of Andy Warhol’s novel, A, one of the characters that’s being taped, says what are we going to do when we hear this on the tape? And Warhol says, we’re not going to hear it on tape, we’re going to transcribe it all into print. And the character very reasonably wonders why it’s all being transcribed. And I think the same question could really have been asked of Ginsberg’s book, Fall Of America. It’s all about tape recording, it’s all about the radio, it’s all about this project of hearing what the rest of the United States hears, so why wasn’t it a record? And the more work I’ve done on this, the more I’ve thought that these crappy original tapes have in a sense more of an interesting conceptual dimension. They actually embody the sounds that he was studying in ways that the finished book kind of doesn’t.


Curtis Fox: So Ginsberg ultimately turned that recording into the Wichita Vortex Sutra, one of his better known poems actually, but he also performed it to tape. He was quite a performer, he got up on stage frequently and read his poems to large audiences. So let’s go to one of those recordings. This is a performance of Ginsberg reading a section of Wichita Vortex Sutra that we just heard him spontaneously compose. You’ll hear an echo of that in this recording. It’s a much better recording, and he’s even accompanied by an electric guitar.


Allen Ginsberg: Thy sins are forgiven, Wichita!


They lonesomeness annulled, O Kansas dear!

as thee western Twang prophesied

thru banjo, when lone cowboy walked the railroad track

past an empty station toward the sun

sinking giant-bulbed orange down the box canyon —

Music strung over his back

and empty handed singing on this planet earth

I’m a lonely Dog, O Mother!


Come, Nebraska, sing & dance with me —


Come lovers of Lincoln and Omaha,

hair my soft voice at last


As Babes need the chemical touch of flesh in pink infancy

lest they die Idiot returning to Inhuman —


Nothing —


So, tender lipt adolescent girl, pale youth,

give me back my soft kiss

Hold me in your innocent arms,


accept my tears as yours to harvest

equal in nature to the Wheat

that made your bodies’ muscular bones

brand shouldered, boy bicep —

from leaning on cows & drinking Milk

in Midwest Solitude —

No more fear of tenderness, much delight in weeping, ecstasy

in singing, laughter rises that confounds

staring Idiot mayors


and stony politicians eyeing

Thy breast,


O man of America, be born!


Truth breaks through!


How big is the prick of the President?


How big is Cardinal Vietnam?

How little the prince of the FBI, unmarried all these years!

How big are all the Public Figures?


What kind of flesh hangs, hidden behind their Images?


Curtis Fox: Now, I’m going to be a contrarian here and say that I’ve listened to both, and I kind of prefer the live performance.


Lytle Shaw: Oh, I so much like the other one better.


Curtis Fox:(LAUGHING)


Lytle Shaw: The live performance is really very classic, it has a voice amplified and cleared of all the contingency that we hear in the other one. But the contingency, the fact that the voice can’t separate itself from it’s environment, is what the whole project is about. So I see it as really a much clearer embodiment of what Ginsberg was after. Ginsberg was after thinking about how a subject comes to have it’s opinions, and is embedded in this audio environment that’s always pressing on him and forcing him to do things. This audio environment of the car is also one in which there are other people, you hear them speaking, you hear wind, you hear the road. It really is for me a much more interesting embodiment of his project. Whereas this one, it’s great. Lee Renaldo is providing this kind of ambient backdrop, but it just sounds like every spoken word record you’ve ever heard. I’m much less interested in those.


Curtis Fox: That’s a good point.


Lytle Shaw: The other thing about it is that when Ginsberg used the tape recorder, one of the reasons I think that he didn’t include the tapes as a record was that he I think was concerned about the extend to which his voice was woven back into the environment of the car. So in a sense he almost overcompensates for it in these live performances. The voice is always so clearly separable from it’s environment. It looms above and it has this kind of power. So the very sense that the voice is woven in in the other one is part of what I’m interested in. Also, the tonalities that Ginsberg uses in the car are much less … they’re stranger.


Curtis Fox:… Performative. Yeah, they’re weirder. You can hear him thinking. But in the performance he’s kind of acting.


Lytle Shaw: He’s sort of hoarse and deranged a lot of the time in the cab, and I like that. He doesn’t know where he’s going with these thoughts. Whereas, he’s this kind of reflective, older, wise poet when he performers live. And that’s fine, he was a great performer. But I find that less interesting, I don’t think it’s quite as surprising.


Curtis Fox: So Ginsberg was using tape with the idea of later transcribing it and coming up with a poem that was the very traditional idea of putting it into a book. At the same time, the FBI was doing something very similar. They were recording a lot of people who were opposed to the war. Perhaps Ginsberg, I’m not sure if he was recorded, but many other people of Ginsberg knew. They also were out for transcripts. They were looking for written documentation of subversion. And you relate those two ideas in your book very effectively. So explain that a little bit to us, what the FBI was up to and how it fits into Allen Ginsberg’s world.


Lytle Shaw: I didn’t start this book thinking that I would be writing about the FBI or the CIA.

Curtis Fox:(LAUGHING)


Lytle Shaw: I really didn’t. I more was interested in the fact that we have this real surplus of audio evidence now, especially with the formation of PennSound in 2005. I teach with recordings much more than I used to, I listen to recordings much more than I used to. We just have this enormous access. I realized that it was time to pause a little bit and think about what kind of evidence it really was, what kind of new arguments it could allow us to make. Did recordings always just refer back to printed versions of text? Were they just to be judged in terms of their quality, how effective they were? Or could they tell us other kinds of things about what poets were doing, how they were situated in culture. I was trying to explore what kinds of arguments you could make with tape, and what kind of evidence it could provide. I kept running across these strange, enticing references to the fact that some of these poets were also under surveillance. That made me think about the way that these recordings were operating as evidence for FBI and CIA listeners, which in turn made me think more and more about the kind of scholarly dimension of what the FBI and CIA actually does, which is that they have to have hypothesis, they have to have theses, and they have to go in search of evidence for those. They use recording as a way to generate that kind of evidence. When you’re a poetry critic and you write on contemporary poets, you think the summit of what you could do would be to intervene decisively in the reception of the poet so that when later critics write about it, the book that you produced or the article that you produced is kind of a major event in the reception. The FBI and CIA critics had a different horizon of possibility. They could actually halt production with living poets and put them in jail. That was a real kind of intervention in reception.


Curtis Fox: That’s real criticism (LAUGHING).


Lytle Shaw: That’s real criticism, right? That was like the James Russell Lowell prize of CIA scholarship. They didn’t get there with Ginsberg but they tried. At first, I kept thinking about what sort of … obviously there are a lot of ethical problems with what they’re doing. I also kept thinking, what are these poets doing with this avant-garde literature? Because I’m also writing about Charles Olsen and Larry Eigner and Amiri Baraka. They must not understand it at all, they must not know how to make sense of it and isn’t it going to be funny when they try to account for this. Turned out I was really pretty wrong about this.


Curtis Fox: A lot of them came out of academia, they were sophisticated readers.


Lytle Shaw: They didn’t just come out of academia, they came out of Yale, studying with new critics. Harvard studying with new critics. They had literary magazines. They were extremely educated and subtle readers. I began to think about them as a little closer to the poets world, rather than farther. Not just as ironically distant, about look at what these hand fisted bumbling critics are going to do when they encounter this, but rather, what really were their interpretive paradigms, and what were they thinking about this? How did they use it, how did they use this work?


Curtis Fox: It’s a totally bizarre chapter in American literary history to think of poets being surveilled by the security apparatus of the government. It could be happening today, but it seems almost quaint.


Lytle Shaw: One of the things that’s quaint about it is that back then you had to listen in real time. You shared duration with your poets. Now we can have sophisticated enough sound searches, keyword searches, that you don’t have to sit there and share duration with your listener. I got really interested in this because a lot of poems from this period are also interested in pushing the idea of real time, of duration, of ongoingness rather than thinking about poems as these sudden epiphanic rushes of understanding, or having conclusions. A lot of the black mountain work from the period, a lot of the open field poetics, a lot of the experimental poetry across the board was really trying to produce what we might think of as more all-over works, where the attention was equally spaced across the entire work and they were longer and they were about a kind of duration or ongoingness. So in a weird way, the FBI and CIA scholars were forced to engage with this. This was the problem they encountered when they bugged rooms, that they would just have to listen to these rooms for four hours. What was going on? People were clanging dishes, and having mumbled conversations like this that they can’t make out, and I found CIA agents writing about this problem. How they have to reconstruct the speeches, not just based on lexically what was said, what the actual words were, but imaging the gestures, imagining the attitudes of the speakers very much like poetry criticism.


Curtis Fox: Surveillance technology has proceeded quite quickly since the 1960s. I have a cell phone in my pocket, and my location can easily be tracked by anyone that wants to do that. Spy technology is so sophisticated nowadays that the NSA is capable of hacking my own phone to record us as we talk right now. What do you see as a relationship between our era of hyper surveillance, and that’s noise from outside by the way, that’s construction noise but no big deal, it’s part of the recording. What connection do you make with the surveillance that was coming up in the 1960s and today?


Lytle Shaw: When one regime of technology leaves, we begin to see it more clearly I think since we’re no longer in it. And audio tape is now a kind of out moded regime …


Curtis Fox: Sure is.


Lytle Shaw:… and one of the things that I’m fascinated about is the kind of incredible confidence that these mid-century audiophiles had about it’s ability to record everything, and to provide us this really super reliable, exhaustive …


Curtis Fox: Documents.


Lytle Shaw: Yeah, they’re documents. But when you go back and listen to these tapes, even the high end ones that were used to record JFK in his office, they’ve had to hire audiotape specialists and analysts, and even these guys can’t figure out what’s being said a lot of the time. So this kind of optimism about this technology is part of what seems to have vanished. Not just the social optimism, the fact that they imagined it to be a force of good very often. But also the technological, the very basic technological optimism seems ridiculous now when you listen to it. So part of what’s great about this tape is how quaint it is, and how there’s all this noise and part of the idea of the narrow cast is not just that it’s the immediate space around you, but it’s also the problem of the actual tape itself being kind of narrow and encrusted with materials, and not actually allowing you to see through it like a window.


Allen Ginsberg: just crossed the state lines, how much is gas in Nebraska? Dark night. Giant T-bone steak.


Curtis Fox: Lytle Shaw, thanks so much.


Lytle Shaw: You’re welcome.


Curtis Fox: Lytle Shaw is the author of Narrowcast: Poetry and Audio Research. We love getting emails with your comments and suggestions. Email us at [email protected], or write a review of the podcast in Apple podcasts. Please link to the podcast on social media. The theme music for this program comes from the Claudia Quintent. For Poetry Off The Shelf, I’m Curtis Fox. Thanks for listening.

When poets used tape recorders to compose not for the page, but for the audio environment.

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