Ginsberg, voluble when not downright loquacious, gave hundreds of interviews over his 40-year career; Carter has chosen generously for this new gathering, including many previously uncollected.
The late poet (1926–1997) saw the interview as “a way of teaching,” and he discoursed on a kaleidoscopic catalogue of topics, from poetics to gay sex, Buddhism to politics. A firm believer in the dictum “first thought, best thought,” he was famous (or notorious) for not editing his verse, and the spontaneity of the interview format was well-suited to his desire for undiluted self-expression, not to mention his free-wheeling, free-associating range of interests. The early interviews in this collection, which is graced with detailed and helpful introductions to each piece by the editor, have that loose-fitting, freefalling energy that makes the great poems of the 1950s such a revelation. But in an interview—often aided and abetted by the giddily foolish counter-cultural amateurism of his alternative-press interlocutor—Ginsberg’s occasional wackiness dates badly, looking like mere eccentricity and all but obliterating the intelligence underneath. As his fame grows, he doesn’t fare much better when interviewed by uncomprehending mainstream journalists (although a sparring match with William F. Buckley is amusing). The best material in the collection comes from interviews done for the Paris Review, the New York Quarterly (where he can expatiate on his aesthetics for sympathetic and thoughtful questioners) and, ironically, Playboy (where the sheer length and breadth of the dialogue gives him enough room to stretch out his riffing into full-length song). The interview format does bring out his tendency to absurdly categorical statements and pronouncements with little relationship to reality (as in a spirited but idiotic defense of Ezra Pound’s economic theories on the occasion of the older poet’s death). But Ginsberg was someone who, although more than capable of being foolish, was incapable of being boring. As a result, this is a book that can be profitably mined for many gems, especially when the subject is poetry.
A valuable and extensive collection, intelligently edited.