Hear Allen Ginsberg’s Short Free Course on Shakespeare’s Play, The Tempest (1980)

Image by Michiel Hendryckx, via Wiki­me­dia Com­mons

Gins­berg Class One

Gins­berg Class Two

Like so many great poets, Allen Gins­berg com­posed extem­po­ra­ne­ous­ly as he spoke, in eru­dite para­graphs, recit­ing lines and whole poems from memory—in his case, usu­al­ly the poems of William Blake. In a 1966 Paris Review inter­view, for exam­ple, he dis­cuss­es and quotes Blake at length, con­clud­ing “The thing I under­stood from Blake was that it was pos­si­ble to trans­mit a mes­sage through time that could reach the enlight­ened.” Eight years lat­er, Gins­berg would begin to mid­wife this con­cept as a teacher at the new­ly-found­ed Jack Ker­ouac School of Dis­em­bod­ied Poet­ics at the Naropa Insti­tute in Boul­der, Col­orado. Gins­berg taught sum­mer work­shops at the school from 1974 until the end of his life, even­tu­al­ly spend­ing the remain­der of the year in a full-time posi­tion at Brook­lyn Col­lege. The Inter­net Archive hosts record­ings of many of these work­shops, such as his lec­tures on 19th Cen­tu­ry Poet­ry, Jack Ker­ouac, Spir­i­tu­al Poet­ics, and Basic Poet­ics. In the audio lec­tures here, from August 1980, Gins­berg teach­es a four-part course on Shakespeare’s The Tem­pest (parts one and two above, three and four below), a play he often returned to for ref­er­ence in his own work.

Gins­berg Class Three

Gins­berg Class Four

Ginsberg’s method of teach­ing Shake­speare is unlike any­one else’s. He’s not inter­est­ed in exe­ge­sis so much as an open conversation—with the text, with his stu­dents, and with any ephemera that strikes his inter­est. It’s almost a kind of div­ina­tion by which Gins­berg teas­es out the “mes­sages” Shakespeare’s play sends through the ages, work­ing with the rhyth­mic and syn­tac­ti­cal odd­i­ties of indi­vid­ual lines instead of grand, abstract inter­pre­ta­tive frame­works. Ginsberg’s ped­a­gogy requires patience on the part of his stu­dents. He doesn’t dri­ve toward a point as much as arrive at it cir­cuitous­ly as by the chance oper­a­tions of his med­i­ta­tive mind. His first of four lec­tures above, for exam­ple, begins with a great deal of futz­ing around about dif­fer­ent edi­tions, which can seem a lit­tle tedious to an impa­tient lis­ten­er. Give in to the urge to fast-for­ward, though, and you’ll miss the dia­mond-like bits of wis­dom that emerge from Gins­berg’s dis­cur­sive explo­ration of minu­ti­ae.

Gins­berg explains to his class why he thinks the Pen­guin G.B. Har­ri­son edi­tion was the best avail­able at the time because it draws from the orig­i­nal folio and has “more respect than the actu­al arrange­ment of the lines for speak­ing as deter­mined by the edi­tions print­ed in Shakespeare’s day.” Harrison’s text, he says, recov­ers the idio­syn­crasies of Shakespeare’s lines: “Since [Alexan­der] Pope and [John] Dry­den and oth­ers messed with Shakespeare’s texts—straightened them out and mod­ern­ized them and improved them—they’ve always been repro­duced too smooth­ly.” Such was the hubris of Pope and Dry­den. Gins­berg spends a few min­utes “cor­rect­ing” the punc­tu­a­tion of a line for stu­dents with more mod­ern­ized edi­tions. One can see the appeal of the first folio for Gins­berg as he insists that its text is “not all exact­ly prop­er­ly lined up pen­ta­met­ric blank verse but is more bro­ken, more irreg­u­lar lines, more like free verse actu­al­ly, because it fit­ted exact­ly to speech.” Much like his own work in fact, and that of his fel­low Beats, whom he reads and draws into the dis­cus­sion of The Tem­pest’s poet­ics through­out the course of his lec­tures. The Allen Gins­berg Project has more on the poet­’s teach­ing of Shake­speare dur­ing his Naropa days.

When Gins­berg found­ed the Jack Ker­ouac School with Anne Wald­man in 1974, he and his fel­low Beats had not taught before. They sim­ply invent­ed their own ways of pass­ing on their poet­ic enlight­en­ment. Invit­ed to cre­ate the school at Naropa Uni­ver­si­ty in Boul­der by his spir­i­tu­al teacher and Naropa founder Chogyam Trung­pa Rin­poche, Gins­berg seemed to com­bine in equal parts the Bud­dhist tra­di­tion of spir­i­tu­al lin­eage with that of West­ern lit­er­ary fil­i­a­tion. He dis­tilled this syn­the­sis in his ellip­ti­cal 1992 text “Mind Writ­ing Slo­gans,”: “two decades’ expe­ri­ence teach­ing poet­ics at Naropa Insti­tute” and a “half decade at Brook­lyn Col­lege,” Gins­berg writes, “boiled down to brief mot­toes from many sources found use­ful to guide myself and oth­ers in the expe­ri­ence of ‘writ­ing the mind.’” This doc­u­ment is an excel­lent source of Ginsberg’s eclec­tic wis­dom, as is his “Celes­tial Home­work” read­ing list for his class “Lit­er­ary His­to­ry of the Beats.”

Gins­berg and company’s rela­tion­ship to Trungpa’s Shamb­ha­la Bud­dhist school, and to the artis­tic com­mu­ni­ty of Boul­der, was not with­out its detrac­tors. Poet Ken­neth Rexroth and oth­ers accused Gins­berg and his teacher of a kind of cul­tic exploita­tion of Bud­dhist teach­ings, of “Bud­dhist fas­cism.” The con­flict between Ginsberg’s guru and poets like W.S. Merwin—who appar­ent­ly had a humil­i­at­ing expe­ri­ence at Naropa—is doc­u­ment­ed in Tom Clark’s polem­i­cal The Great Naropa Poet­ry Wars. Oth­ers remem­ber the Naropa founder much more fond­ly. Two doc­u­men­taries offer dif­fer­ent por­traits of life at Naropa. The first, Fried Shoes, Cooked Dia­monds (above)—filmed in 1978 and nar­rat­ed by Gins­berg himself—presents a raw, in-the-moment pic­ture of the anar­chic Ker­ouac School’s ear­ly days. For­mer Naropa stu­dent Kate Lindhardt’s “micro-bud­get” Crazy Wis­dom, below, offers a more detached look at the school and asks ques­tions about what she calls the “insti­tu­tion­al­iza­tion” of cre­ativ­i­ty from a more fem­i­nist per­spec­tive.

Gins­berg’s Tem­pest course will be added to our col­lec­tion of 875 Free Online Cours­es; the films men­tioned above can be found in our col­lec­tion of 640 Free Movies Online. The Tem­pest and poems by Gins­berg can be found in our col­lec­tion of Free eBooks.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Allen Ginsberg’s “Celes­tial Home­work”: A Read­ing List for His Class “Lit­er­ary His­to­ry of the Beats”

Allen Ginsberg’s Last Three Days on Earth as a Spir­it: The Poet’s Final Days Cap­tured in a 1997 Film

Allen Gins­berg Record­ings Brought to the Dig­i­tal Age. Lis­ten to Eight Full Tracks for Free

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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