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Kill Your Darlings

December 1, 2015

KYDThe phrase “it’s complicated” appears more than once. As first uttered by 19-year-old Allen Ginsberg, when the poet was still finding his footing at Columbia University and just establishing friendships with the writers who would become known as the Beat Generation — it’s a reference to Ginsberg’s mentally ill mother, who was in and out of sanitariums during the poet’s youth. The person that the line is spoken to is Ginsberg’s schoolmate, Lucien Carr, a ne’er-do-well and fellow aspiring writer who quickly becomes Ginsberg’s crush and tour guide to the literarily and sexually transgressive world of 1940s Manhattan, where the film is set.

“I love complicated,” Carr says in reply, with a purr halfway between seduction and a threat.

The phrase “kill your darlings” refers to advice sometimes given to writers: always edit out the parts you’re most in love with, because they’re probably the most self-indulgent. In this tale of longing, loss and regret, it isn’t always possible to know who’s deluding oneself, or someone else.

Ginsberg first came to public attention in 1956 with the publication of Howl and Other Poems. “Howl,” a long-lined poem in the tradition of Walt Whitman, is an outcry of rage and despair against a destructive, abusive society. Ginsberg called it “Hebraic-Melvillian bardic breath.”

Ginsberg followed Howl in 1961 with Kaddish and Other Poems. “Kaddish,” a poem similar in style and form to “Howl,” is based on the traditional Hebrew prayer for the dead and tells the life story of Ginsberg’s mother, Naomi. The poet’s complex feelings for his mother, colored by her struggle with mental illness, are at the heart of this long-lined poem. It is considered to be one of Ginsberg’s finest: Thomas F. Merrill called it “Ginsberg at his purest and perhaps at his best”; Louis Simpson simply referred to it as “a masterpiece.”

A major influence was Ginsberg’s friend Kerouac, who wrote novels in a “spontaneous prose” style that Ginsberg admired and adapted in his own work. Kerouac had written some of his books by putting a roll of white paper into a typewriter and typing continuously in a “stream of consciousness.” Ginsberg began writing poems not, as he states, “by working on it in little pieces and fragments from different times, but remembering an idea in my head and writing it down on the spot and completing it there.”

Ginsberg’s political activities were called strongly libertarian in nature, echoing his poetic preference for individual expression over traditional structure. In the mid-1960s he was closely associated with the counterculture and antiwar movements. He created and advocated “flower power,” a strategy in which antiwar demonstrators would promote positive values like peace and love to dramatize their opposition to the death and destruction caused by the Vietnam War. The use of flowers, bells, smiles, and mantras became common among demonstrators for some time. In 1967 Ginsberg was an organizer of the “Gathering of the Tribes for a Human Be-In,” an event modeled after the Hindu mela. It was the first of the countercultural festivals and served as an inspiration for hundreds of others. In 1969, when some antiwar activists staged an “exorcism of the Pentagon,” Ginsberg composed the mantra they chanted. He testified for the defense in the Chicago Seven Conspiracy Trial, in which antiwar activists were charged with “conspiracy to cross state lines to promote a riot.”

Ginsberg’s poetry focussed on the spiritual and visionary. His interest in these matters was inspired by a series of visions he had while reading William Blake’s poetry. Ginsberg recalled hearing “a very deep earthen grave voice in the room, which I immediately assumed, I didn’t think twice, was Blake’s voice.” He added that “the peculiar quality of the voice was something unforgettable because it was like God had a human voice, with all the infinite tenderness and anciency and mortal gravity of a living Creator speaking to his son.” Such visions prompted an interest in mysticism that led Ginsberg to experiment, for a time, with various drugs.

His interest in Eastern religions eventually led him to the Venerable Chogyam Trungpa, Rinpoche, a Buddhist abbot from Tibet who had a strong influence on Ginsberg’s writing. The early 1970s found the poet taking classes at Trungpa’s Naropa Institute in Colorado as well as teaching poetry classes there. In 1972 Ginsberg took the Refuge and Boddhisattva vows, formally committing himself to the Buddhist faith.

A primary aspect of Trungpa’s teaching is a form of meditation called shamatha in which one concentrates on one’s own breathing. This meditation, Ginsberg said, “leads first to a calming of the mind, to a quieting of the mechanical production of fantasy and thought-forms; it leads to sharpened awareness of them and to taking an inventory of them.” Ginsberg’s book, Mind Breaths, dedicated to Trungpa, contains several poems written with the help of shamatha meditation.

Ginsberg wanted to be remembered, “As someone in the tradition of the oldtime American transcendentalist individualism,” he said, “from that old gnostic tradition…Thoreau, Emerson, Whitman…just carrying it on into the 20th century.”

Warning: the bonus scene with the directors talking  is over long and pretentious.

KYD 2Allen Ginsberg: Some things, once you’ve loved them, become yours forever./And if you try to let them go… /They only circle back and return to you./They become part of who you are…

Lucien Carr: …or they destroy you.

 

Allen Ginsberg: [reading his poem] Be careful, you are not in Wonderland. I’ve heard the strange madness long growing in your soul, in your isolation but you fortunate in your ignorance. You who have suffered find where love hides, give, share, lose, lest we die unbloomed.

Jack Kerouac: Allen, that was beautiful, kid.

Lucien Carr: You wrote that?

Allen Ginsberg: You asked me to.

 

Lucien Carr: First thought, best thought.

 

Allen Ginsberg: Another lover hits the universe. The circle is broken. But with death comes rebirth. And like all lovers and sad people, I am a poet.

 

Lucien Carr: I was a kid, and you dragged me into your perverted mess.

David Kammerer: How can you say that? You know that’s not true. I will never give up on us.

Lucien Carr: You’re pathetic.

 

Allen Ginsberg: You got me and Jack and Bill making your vision come true because you can’t do it yourself.

Lucien Carr: No, Allen. You got what you wanted. You were ordinary, just like any other freshman and I made your life extraordinary. Go be you, now all by yourself. Leave me alone!

Allen Ginsberg: [crying] You don’t mean… you don’t mean that.

Lucien Carr: Allen. Leave!

 

Lucien Carr: [on Kerouac’s writings] It’s brilliant, no?

Allen Ginsberg: It’s missing some periods and commas.

Lucien Carr: It’s better than anything you’ve ever written.

Allen Ginsberg: I use periods and commas.

 

Allen Ginsberg: [upon William Burroughs offering him a joint] Uhm, no thanks, I don’t do the cannabis.

William Burroughs: Show me the man who is both sober and happy, and I will show you the crinkled anus of a lying asshole.

 

Allen Ginsberg: [to Lucien] Fuck you! You’re a phony.

 

Allen Ginsberg: [Ginsberg has just met William S Burroughs] Is he a criminal?

Lucien Carr: He wishes he were.

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