"Ankor Wat" read by Allen Ginsberg (1969)

by Allen Ginsberg

Published: 1969

Language : English

"These notations were taken during one night in Siem Reap, outside of Angkor Wat", states the author in this historic recording dating from 1969. Later, he would be more specific: "This composition was written in one night half-sleeping and waking...made somnolent by an injection of morphine-atrophine in a hotel room in the town of Siem Reap".

A stunning sample of "spoken poetry", or "spontaneous prose"(to use the phrase coined by another Beat poet, Jack Kerouac), Angkor Wat poem is also probably the first attempt by Allen Ginsberg to apply to the English language the style and techniques he had been initiated to a few months earlier by the Bengali Hungryalists, a literary movement initiated by Malay Roychoudhury, Shakti Chattopadhyay, Debi Roy and Samir Roychoudhury, in Patna.

Arrived in Angkor from India via Bangkok and Saigon on June 5, 1963, the author penned down his first impressions in his Journal. The form appears reminiscent of the "écriture automatique" dear to the French Surrealists, but also to the "image association" that Asian poets have practicized for centuries -- and under the influence of several drugs, including hashish, the consumption of which was not banned in India and Southeast Asia until quite recently. Through his Bengali friends, Ginsberg had asserted a principle that would have a lasting influence on his work: "If it's not composed on the tongue, it is [only] an essay".

Evocations of a rainy, dreamlike Angkor alternate with incongruous mentions of Hollywood trivia (actress Jeanette McDonald and her supposed frigidity), American lurking presence in Cambodia -- "Helikopter to— Sh, spies with telescopes for seeing the bullets that shoot—", and even the Pope (Saint John XXIII had died in Rome a few days earlier, June 3, 1963).

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"Hollywood Christlike" Peter Orlovsky in Benares, 1962 (photo Allen Ginsberg)

Sexuality is also lurking in the background. Ginsberg's companion, Peter Orlovski, had opted for not going along with him for the Southeast Asian part of their journey. According to Indian sources, he had stayed in India to carry on his "his torrid affair with lady guitarist Manjula Sen". At some point in Siem Reap, Ginsberg wonders "why do I not even faintly desire those black silk girls in the alley of this clean new tourist city?" A month later, in Tokyo, an encounter with a Japanese girl in a bathhouse leads him to realize how drastically had he excluded women from his life. Not that he'd renounce his homosexuality, quite the opposite. But the vision of his own mother at Angkor -- "Ah those Deva faces on the walls of Thommanom!/ Clean eyebrows and smiles of Lady Yore/ Ever Naomi in my ear—a sad case of refusing to/ grow up give birth to die"-- does not seem so ominous anymore. Ginsberg has "changed" in Japan, and the "change" was probably accelerated by his vision of Angkor.

More

  • Allen Ginsberg talks about Buddhism and poetry in 1993 (to some students of the Tibetan Buddhist monk, Lobsang Samten)
  • The author in Face to Face (BBC Program, 1995) interview. Here, he reiterates a teaching that had deeply impressed him during his first trip to India: "When you see something horrible, don't cling to it; when you see someting beautiful, don't cling to it."

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Playing his harmonium during the BBC 1995 interview

Source: Spoken Poetry Readings, Sir George Williams University (SGWU, now Concordia University), Montreal. Reading of Angkor Wat poem starts 00:18:56, ends 00:41:28.

Main Photo: Ginsberg in Benares with friends, Dec. 1962 (asiasociety.org)

  • In January 2020, Howl Cambodia organized a Night of Poetry and Prose at OneEleven Gallery, Siem Reap, around the theme "Bukowski never made it to Siem Reap...but Ginsberg did":

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  • On December 10, 2021, 1 PM, author David S. Wills talked to the Angkor International Festival of Arts visitors about "On the Road: Ginsberg in Siem Reap & Other Beat Tales". Here is the transcript of his talk. The founder of Beatdom literary journal, David S. Wills, who lives in rural Cambodia, is the author of Scientologist! William S. Burroughs and the ‘Weird Cult’ (2013), World Citizen: Allen Ginsberg as Traveller (2019) and, more recently, High White Notes: The Rise and Fall of Gonzo Journalism, a biography of Hunter S. Thompson released in November 2021.

Tags: poetry, literature, American travelers, India, Vietnam, Japan

About the Author

Portrait of Allen    Ginsberg

Allen Ginsberg

Irwin Allen Ginsberg (3 June 1926, Newark, USA - 5 April 1997, New York) was an American poet, writer and social activist, initiator of the Beat Generation movement with William S. Burroughs and Jack Kerouac, and a perceptive explorer of Hinduist and Buddhist cultures, especially after his first trip to India (and Cambodia) in 1962-1963.

Born from Jewish parents who immigrated from Russia and had a lasting influence on his writing (his 1984 edition of Collected Poems was dedicated "To Naomi Ginsberg 1894–1956, Louis Ginsberg 1896–1976"), Ginsberg sought to reconcile transcendentalism and mystical quest with social responsibility, including the defence of racial and sexual minorities, environmentalism and libertarian aspirations.

Traveling the world, from South America to the Soviet realm to Japan to Africa (he visited sixty-six countries since his first journey abroad as a young Merchant Navy sailor, according to biographer David S. Wills), Ginsberg was an outspoken critic of American expansionist stance, to the point he was listed on the FBI Dangerous Subversive Internal Security list in 1965, as well as censored for "obscenity" for several of his compositions, such as Howl (1956) and Kaddish (1961).

Unlike Kerouac, who had studied Buddhism as early as 1950 but went to another path, Ginsberg was profoundly influenced by his visit to the Dalai Lama in Tibet, his travels across India and the Far East, and later on with his friendship with A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, the founder of the Hare Krishna movement in the West. His conversion to ("non-theistic", as he stressed it) Buddhism in 1972 did not refrain him to search for transcendence in other religions.

Deeply fascinated with the musicality of words, he worked with famous musicians (John Cage, Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney, The Clash, Phil Glass...) and was prone to public chanting sessions, often accompanying himself on the harmonium he had brought back from his stay in Benares (Benaras). This trait was particularly important in his attempt to build a bridge between the Beat and Hippie countercultures.

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Allen Ginsberg, left, with Timothy Leary and Ralph Metzer during the New York 'Illumination of the Buddha' event in November 1966 (photo AP/NYT)