"Angkor Wat" by Allen Ginsberg

by Allen Ginsberg

Publication: From Collected Poems 1947-1997, Harper Collins e-books (with author's notes from the 1968 Fulcrum Press edition) | ADB Publication

Language : English

1997 - 20 pages

Held by some as Allen Ginsberg's "first Buddhist poem" (for instance Tony Triglio in Allen Ginsberg's Buddhist Poetics, SIUP, 2013 (1)), Angkor Wat ("Ankor Wat") remains one of the most significant evocations of the Khmer temples in modern literature.

In form and in relation with the author's own trajectory, this June 1963 unsettling apparition of Angkor "in a stone nook in the rain/Avalokitesvara faces everywhere/high in their stoniness"/in white rainmist" definitely marks a transition in Ginsberg's style and worldview. It also informs us of how a major American -- yet citizen of the world, above all -- writer had a premonitory sense of how modern Southeast Asia tragic history was to unfold.

Angkor Along a Long Road

When, on 23 March 1961, Ginsberg and partner-lover Peter Orlovsky embarked at New York Harbor into what was going to be an around-the-world journey, the itinerary wasn't planned. Ginsberg had just, almost out of the blue, got a 1,000 USD cheque from the Poets Foundation, and an open credit line on airline tickets that would allow him to change its route as often as needed.

Paris was the first stopover, characteristically for young American rebels, then Morocco, where writer Paul Bowles initiated him to North African secret pleasures, then Greece, then Israel, where he was taken aback by consumerism and the loss of universalist concerns, felt "the Holy Land blues" and had several dreams about India (he also met with Martin Buber and Gershom Scholem, Jewish philosophers who had a lasting influence on his outlook).

Much has been written about the Indian periple, the long vegetarian spell, the effort to avoid sex in all forms, the discovery of a gentle form of Buddhism symbolized by Avalokiteshvara (the compassionate Bodhisattva so ubiquitous in Angkor), the questioning of Hindu rigid caste system (reading and meeting the Bengali poets perpetuating the Revolt of the Shudras [lower caste] movement).

What's interesting here is that all throughout his Indian Journals (published in 1970), Ginsberg never mentions Cambodia as an intended next destination. For instance, in Jaipur on March 25 1962, he writes: "On Morphia But all the connections are vague, machines make noise & lights across the road I’ve never investigated. Next the rest of India & Japan, and I suppose later a trip: England, Denmark, Sweden & Norway, Germany, Poland, Russia, China & then back home again." In May 19, 1963, from Calcutta (present-day Kolkata): "I about to leave for Japan-America, Peter wearing a pink lungi rayon skirt, bare-chested." And further on: "No escape but through Bankok & New York to Death".

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Benares, 19 December 1962: Allen Ginsberg ready for Angkor

India, Bangkok and Vietnam, prelude to Angkor

So when did Ginsberg decide to add Angkor to his both psydechelic and well-articulated drift towards the "Far East"? For an American citizen, he was rather well-informed on the situation of the Kingdom of Smile, caught in the deadly power game in which the US, China and Vietnam were already locked. Still in India, he wrote in his stinging address to America: "O Land of the free with gaping mouth (...), or even thinking of you while they vote for Police Commissioner in Israel & Egypt, or in Cambodia shooting guerillas". And the poem Angkor Wat itself contains several references to the "kingly neutrality" Prince Sihanouk attempted to keep in the midst of Cold War hysterics.

On May 23, 1963, exactly two years after leaving New York, Ginsberg flew to Bangkok from Calcutta. The hedonistic city awoke him from his quasi-ascetic spell in India. According to biographer Michael Schumacher (Dharma Lion: A Biography of Allen Ginsberg, UMP, 2016), "after having spent a year eating almost entirely vegetarian meals, Allen gorged himself on pork, Peking duck, shrimp, and pork wonton soup, the meals being inexpensive but delicious. A canal running through the heart of the city reminded him of Venice, whereas the friendly male prostitutes who hung around King Rama's statue in Lumbini Park reminded him of Tangier."

Yet this sudden (and often awkward) reconnection with his "human-beingness" came with the revelation of the Southeast Asian take on Hinduist and Buddhist influences, particularly through art: he spent hours at the Bangkok Museum, reveling in Sukhotai-style statues. It is probably when he read more about the Khmer civilization, and Angkor Wat. The lines "reassurance from Buddha’s/ two arms, palms out/ stept up to 13th Century/ Sukothai feminacy/ step forward—/ I’ve read the 1910 Guidebook about them", might refer to Etienne Aymonier's Le Cambodge, II. Les provinces siamoises.

Then, on June 1st, Ginsberg flies to Saigon. Accounts of his stays are somehow blurry, and he's certainly in a blur, abruptly connecting with fellow countrymen who have hidden (or not so hidden) motives here. American press correspondents are skeptical, at best, in front of this tanned, bearded, long-haired "beatnik". They taunt him to "come and see some action" in the hinterland, and he dodges the opportunity to see what he senses to be a "horrible mess" ("I'm a coward!"). Vietnam is too "real", a bad dream becoming real.

In "Understand That This Is a Dream", a poem "written a week before" (according to Ginsberg himself) his Angkor visit, he writes: "If I dream that I dream / what dream should I dream next? Motorcycle rickshaws/ parting lamp shine / little taxis / horses hoofs/ on this Saigon midnight street. Angkor Wat ahead and the ruined city's old Hindu faces/ and there was a dream about Eternity. What should I dream when I wake?" Painter and Ginsberg’s archivist Bill Morgan (in I Celebrate Myself: The Somewhat Private Life of Allen Ginsberg, Penguin, 2007, pp 395-396), wrote: "After Vietnam, Allen was glad to get to peaceful Angkor Wat, an enormous area of temple ruins in Cambodia the size of a small city. He bicycled around the ruins and examined the sculptures and bas-reliefs, which had been overgrown by the jungle." Ginsberg's Angkor Wat, according to this author, "sounded like the beginning of a new fertile period of poetry for him".

Here, we guess that the magnet-like effect of Angkor has started on him long ago. Perhaps because the astounding ruins -- he has been deeply impressed with the Mayan ruins in Mexico -- formulate the equally astounding question a poet has to face, a question he would summarize fifteen years later: "It all comes from the Prajnaparamita sutra, presumably authored by Nagarjuna in the second century, A.D. It says form is emptiness, emptiness is form. Things are real; but because of transitoriness, at the same time, they’re empty. If you get stuck on the real side, you’re stuck. If you get stuck on the empty side, you’re stuck."(2)

There is one more (informed) guess: what if Angkor came to symbolize the ideal, so much sough-after syncretism, a rare confluence of distinct traditions and wisdoms? Angkor Wat is one of his few poems Ginsberg illustrated with an image, that of the three-fish with one head, the "Buddha footprint repetition", the symbol of the necessary convergence of faiths and philosophies (Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam) cherished by Indian emperor Jalaluddin Mohammad Akbar? [main image]

Japan...and the Change

The day after completing the poem, on June 11, Ginsberg flies to Japan via Hong Kong. He's going to meet in Kyoto with his time-honored friend who led him to the Dalai Lama, Gary Snyder ["Maybe Gary’ll have the answer! Maybe Jack have/ the Answer?"]. On the train from Kyoto, one month later, the Angkor effect hits him in full force. He has seen the "kingly reservoirs", the smiling statues left by "other Hindu dreamers". Self-loathing is over. Desire, the one he couldn't feel for "the black silk girls in the [Siem Reap] alley", isn't necessarily wrong.

In "The Change Tokyo-Kyoto Express", composed July 17, 1963, he writes: "My own identity now nameless/ neither man nor dragon or God/ but the dreaming Me full/ of physical rays’ tender/ red moons in my belly &/ Stars in my eyes circling/ And the Sun the Sun the/ Sun my visible father/ making my body visible/ thru my eyes." Naomi, the puzzling and nurturing mother, had written to him after her death in 1956: "The key is in the window, the key is in the sunlight at the window".

More: Allen Ginsberg reads Angkor Wat in 1969.

(1) Angkor Wat “is the first of a series of poems in Ginsberg’s career that attempt to merge [William Carlos] Williams’s poetics with one inspired by Buddhist vipassana practice—a poetry grounded in concrete particularity but also in Ginsberg’s belief, inspired by vipassana meditation, that an inextricable connection between perceiving body and perceiving mind creates sacred space and therefore, sacralizes the imagination.” (p 38). Other authors have claimed the composition had much more to do with T.S. Eliot (1888-1965), William Burroughs (1914-1997) or William Blake (1757-1827).

(2) Alan Twigg, Interview with Allen Ginsberg in Georgia Straight, Vol. 12, Issue 575, December 1–8, 1978.

About "Angkor Wat" publication:

  • Initially written directly in his Journal, and on the spot ("notations taken during one night in Siem Reap, outside of Angkor Wat", as presented by the author, and dated "June the 10th, 1963, Siem Reap, Cambodia"). The spelling was then "Ankor", like in the title of the 1968 edition. It has to be noted that in his Indian Journals, Ginsberg similarly spelled Bangkok "Bankok", which was not amended in further publications, contrary to Angkor.
  • Interestingly, the poem was not initially included in the volume Planet News 1961-1967 (Pocket Poets Series 23,1968), and it seems that the author at first didn't regard it as such, since he noted in a letter addressed to American friends at the end of 1963: "Thank god I did write ONE great poem during all that time away", referring to The Change (written in Japan one month after the Angkor visit). [cf David S. Wills, World Citizen: Allen Ginsberg as Traveller, Barnes & Noble, 2019]
  • In 1968, the text was published in London by Fulcrum Press, a small avant-garde publishing house focusing on poetry which operated between 1967 and 1974 (Ankor Wat, 48 p, unpaginated). This edition was graced with photographs by Alexandra Lawrence, something quite new for Ginsberg, who loved to take photographs himself and tended to work with male photographers -- such as Robert Frank or Richard Avedon, yet he befriended Berenice Abbott. While all the critics concurred to praise this photographic work, we've been unable to find any information regarding Alexandra Lawrence, not even one single mention in the many biographical essays or blogs about Ginsberg. [this is a call to contributors, researchers and just curious minds tired of seeing women authors systematically "ghosted".]ginsberg-lawrence-ankor-wat.png#asset:5757:squareMediumFit
  • Why did Ginsberg never take photos in Thailand, Angkor or Vietnam? Peter Hale, a researcher with Allen Ginsberg Blog, answered to our inquiry in November 2021 with this interesting guess: "He may have just run out of film and was living on a budget, [to the point that] once he got to Japan he may have borrowed money from Gary Snyder."
  • In his Foreword to Collected Poems (1984), the author remarked on the "advantages of chronological order" and noted: "Travel poems Calcutta-Saigon-Angkor Wat-Japan, 1963, mixed through three separate books, now cohere in sequence."
  • The manuscript of Angkor Wat is kept at Stanford University, Allen Ginsberg Archive, box 1, folder 24 (Source: OAC - Online Archive of California)
  • Further reading: The Change: Allen Ginsberg Reborn, in Beatdom #21, July 2021.

About the Author

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)