Niall O'Sullivan

high brow, low brow, none of that stuff in the middle

Allen Ginsberg – Ah! Sunflower

Posted on | March 6, 2017 | 1 Comment

When I started out as a lecturer, one aspect of modern academic life disconcerted me. As I fumbled through my sophomore powerpoint presentations, I noticed that most students’ faces were illuminated by their laptop and tablet screens. I soon learned the difference between the attentive frowns of those that were making lecture notes and the fixed half smiles of those checking their social media feeds.

My stepdad, a man with considerable teaching hours behind him, overcomes this issue by using a clicker to change slides while standing at the back of the room. That way he can see what’s on every student’s display.

I didn’t adopt that strategy, but I found a video that helped in making students more aware of their present environment and how digital media can dampen that awareness.

In this excerpt from the Ah! Sunflower documentary, Allen Ginsberg sits in a London garden and delivers a short address to the viewer. In the same way that Pauline Pearce’s rebuke of Hackney looters gained a new significance when it became a viral video – Ginsberg’s speech gained a new level of relevance in the digital epoch that took place after his death.

Ginsberg begins by describing his immediate physical state and then reminds the viewer to become aware of theirs (-transcript from The Allen Ginsberg Project):

If you will keep your mind on the image that is in front of you, which is my face in the camera or in your tv tube or screen (tv tube) and realize (now) that I’m looking from the other side directly into a little black hole imagining that you are there,

In the 21st Century, the viewer isn’t watching this on a cathode tube television. There is more chance that the viewer is watching Ginsberg on a small glass rectangle, or possibly an interactive smartboard in a sterile academic setting.

Ginsberg muses on the nature of this act of communication.

and also imagining what would be possible to say that would actually communicate, through all the electricity and all the glass and all the dots on the electric screen,

Ginsberg speaks with a low, animated tone from his serene garden setting. He points to himself and then to the camera to differentiate between his me and the me of the viewer. He then makes a number of frenetic gestures to imply the physicality of the media that convey the message. He has already signified the screen or “TV tube” with the hand gesture we often use to signify closed gates or doors. He invokes electricity and glass with the same gesture of opening his hands and quickly bringing them together, signifying a kind of compression. The dots on the electric screen are signified by a series of prodding finger gestures – as if he is making those dots himself.

so that you are not deceived by the image seen but that we are all both on the same beam, which is, you’re sitting in your room, surrounded by your body, looking at a screen, and I’m sitting in my garden, with my body, with noise of cars outside, so that we’re, at least, conscious of where we are, and don’t get hypnotized into.some false universe of just pure imagery,

Ginsberg once again uses gestures to great effect, drawing a curved line with his finger around his own face when speaking of the “image seen”. Pointing gestures continue to differentiate between “me” and “you”. Hocus pocus gestures signify “hypnotised”. He waves his hands up and down to signify the “false universe of pure imagery”. The basic message of all these words and gestures is: I am here picturing you. You are there watching my image. We must not become distracted or entranced by all the processes that come in between.

Here, with this deceiving image and false universe of pure imagery, Ginsberg is speaking from a quaint familiarity with television and cinema. He surely couldn’t be aware of a universe of pure imagery that incorporates Virtual Reality, Clash of Clans and Snapchat. He surely couldn’t be cognisant of a deceiving image that can call out, or buzz in your pocket, when it demands your attention. He states again that only an awareness of our mutual environments in conveying or receiving the image can save us from this grand deception:

you’re taking the film in front of you as an image, with a grain of salt, as an image rather than a final reality, and so you don’t get deceived by either my projections or the projections of the newscaster who will follow

Doesn’t this perfectly describe the digital world and the willing deception that it enables? It hinges on mutual acceptance of a phantasmagorical realm, an imaginative world that unites the content provider and the content consumer. Both are complicit in the denial of the real world.

There is something startling in that, when confronting my immediate now while Ginsberg confronts his – we are both living in the present despite our experiences of the present being a half century apart.

On another note, this video has helped me to deal with my own particular issues about being filmed. I’ve always been comfortable around audiences, even audiences that don’t like me, but I’ve never been comfortable with cameras. There was something disconcerting about that “little black hole” that was the camera lens. Now I can simply remind myself that I am not performing to a machine, I am speaking to the person of the other side, in their own world and their own body.

This is the latest in an ongoing series of posts that work towards a criticism of the Spoken Word. I will be looking at all forms of Spoken Word — not just poetry readings and spoken word/poetry performances but stand up comedy, confessional monologues, academic lectures, speeches, wrestling promos and any other act of public speech that rings my bell. All posts will appear under the Toward a Criticism of the Spoken Word category. Click to see if new posts have been added and for any you may have missed.


One Response to “Allen Ginsberg – Ah! Sunflower”

  1. Jean Binta Breeze – The Wife of Bath Speaks in Brixton Market : Niall O'Sullivan
    March 16th, 2017 @ 2:39 pm

    […] taking place in this video. The first is from the dub poet Jean Binta Breeze, recited towards the tiny black hole of the camera lens, constructed from many separate takes. The second performance is from the market […]

Leave a Reply

  • insta-haiku (hover over picture to see the poem)

  • Warning: Unknown: open(/home/content/85/3517485/tmp/sess_m8sag9oag57c3tfcdn4h2p9f45, O_RDWR) failed: No such file or directory (2) in Unknown on line 0

    Warning: Unknown: Failed to write session data (files). Please verify that the current setting of session.save_path is correct () in Unknown on line 0