No Imperfection in the Budded Mountain: Allen Ginsberg and the writing of Wales Visitation By Andy Roberts
This article originally appeared in the Psychedelic Press journal (2013) and also appears in Andy Roberts’ essay collection Acid Drops: Adventures in Psychedelia (2016)
As a historian of LSD culture in Britain, I can honestly say I haven’t come across much LSD poetry. Verse written under the influence of, inspired by, or about LSD is uncommon and when it does exist it is often doggerel, of the you-had-to-be-there kind. There are exceptions, of which doomed Brit Beatnik Harry Fainlight’s The Spider, about a bad trip, is possibly the most famous. Another excellent example, which accurately and succinctly distils the acid experience, is Roger McGough’s dry, witty 1967 koan-like Poem for National LSD Week (The Telegraph): Mind, how you go.
At the other end of the spectrum is Lancashire poet and former acid dealer Dave Cunliffe’s lengthy and descriptive The Two-Hour Assassination of God, the first and last stanzas of which are:
At 4am, she entered the brain of God
And stumbled blindly through its convoluted
Swamps until reaching a clearing
In which was reflected the image of everything
That had ever happened
To anyone anywhere in time and space
At 6 am she clearly and directly saw
A myriad living things manifest
In joy and liberation upon the surface
Of a world which didn’t really change
Except some skin and scales just dropped away
I know. We’ve all been there!
Fainlight, McGough and Cunliffe’s efforts notwithstanding, the fact is that Britain has only ever produced one really great and perceptive LSD poem. And it took the American beat poet, Allen Ginsberg, to create it.
Ginsberg, love or loathe him, was a major influence on the literature and lifestyles of the beat and psychedelic scenes. His story is largely an American one but he visited the UK on several notable occasions, including giving a reading on the same bill as Harry Fainlight at the 1966 Wholly Communion event at the Royal Albert Hall. His most notorious poem, Howl, a word jazz paean to a generation redefined how poets from the 1950s onwards wrote.
And Ginsberg liked getting high. Besides experiences with alcohol, marijuana, mescaline, peyote, yage, nitrous oxide, psilocybin, heroin and other mind altering substances, by the mid-60s Ginsberg was a veteran acid head, having taken it first in 1959 at the Mental Research Institute in California’s Palo Alto.
The set and setting for Ginsberg’s first trip were odd, to say the least. As Hofmann’s potion suffused his being, Ginsberg lay in a windowless room full of medical equipment, listening to Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde while undergoing a battery of psychological tests. He survived the ordeal, and passed the acid test before it had been invented, commenting, “It was astounding [I] saw a vision of that part of my consciousness which seemed to be permanent and transcendent and identical with the origin of the universe… this drug seems to automatically produce a mystical experience. Science is getting very hip” (Miles 259).
Indeed, he was so impressed with LSD he concluded it to be more powerful, more meaningful, than mescaline or peyote and so safe he even wrote to his father, encouraging him to try it! The experience stimulated him to write the unambiguously titled Lysergic Acid which opens:
It is a multiple million eyed monster
it is hidden in all its elephants and selves
it hummeth in the electric typewriter
it is electricity connected to itself, if it hath wires
it is a vast Spiderweb
and I am on the last millionth infinite tentacle of the spiderweb, a worrier
lost, separated, a worm, a thought, a self
I Allen Ginsberg a separate consciousness
I who want to be God…
Ginsberg took to LSD, rapidly becoming something of a psychedelic evangelist. In November 1966 he suggested to a room full of Unitarian ministers in Boston, Massachusetts: “Everybody who hears my voice try the chemical LSD at least once… Then I prophecy we will all have seen some ray of glory or vastness beyond our conditioned social selves, beyond our government, beyond America even, that will unite us into a peaceful community” (PlosBlogs).
Ginsberg first visited Britain in 1965, appearing in D. A. Pennebaker’s film document of the Bob Dylan tour, Don’t Look Back,and in Peter Whitehead’s film of the International Poetry Incarnation event at the Royal Albert Hall, Wholly Communion. He returned to London two years later in 1967, the so-called summer of love.
Infamous psychiatrist, R.D. Laing, and his friends in the Institute of Phenomological Studies (David Cooper, Joe Burke and Leon Redler) organised the ten day Dialectics of Liberation conference, to be held at the Roundhouse – London counterculture’s iconic venue – between 15-30 July. Ostensibly about social injustice, yet ironically not featuring a single women speaker in its line up, the conference featured countercultural heavy-hitters including Stokely Carmichael, Gregory Bateson, Herbert Marcuse and Emmitt Grogan. Ginsberg planned to deliver a paper titled ‘Consciousness and Practical Action’.
On confirming the invitation to speak Ginsberg contacted his UK publisher Tom Maschler, asking if he could stay with him in London. Maschler was a high profile literary agent and publisher, noted in a Guardian profile as having “re-established Jonathan Cape as the blue chip literary imprint.” He was also one of the people responsible for creating the Booker prize.
A young Iain Sinclair, many years distant from his fame as novelist and psychogeographer was very much into film at the time. Sinclair was offered £2000 by a German TV company to make a film of Ginsberg’s visit to London, filming him at the Dialectics of Liberation conference and in a variety of other settings, both in interview and giving readings. Ginsberg made many pronouncements about LSD use during the course of filming in London, and Sinclair’s Kodak Mantra Diaries is an indispensable record of these and of the poet’s London visit in general (Sinclair 1971).
Following the conference, Ginsberg took a break from filming with Sinclair and was invited to spend the weekend at Tom Maschler’s Welsh holiday cottage at Carney Farm on the slopes of the Black Mountains.
On Thursday, 28 July, Maschler drove Ginsberg the 150 miles or so to his Black Mountain retreat. After the pair had settled in at the cottage they ate and over dinner Ginsberg opened a small tin, showing Maschler two pills wrapped in cotton wool, saying, “These are LSD. I thought you might like to try it.” Maschler was an LSD virgin, although he had often considered taking it. “If you don’t want to, I won’t either”, continued Ginsberg, “but you need not be nervous. If you take the pill I will wait to make sure you are OK before I follow you” (Maschler 280).
Maschler thought Ginsberg’s “degree of caring was seductive” and, considering the set, setting and companion to be as perfect as it would get, agreed to the strange invitation. Ginsberg, by now a frequent flyer, knew exactly how to handle a neophyte on the golden road to unlimited devotion and suggested they wait until the following morning, so the drug’s effects would have worn off by evening and they would not be kept up all night.
Friday 29 July dawned, wet and humid in the Black Mountains, with cloud wreathing the surrounding hills. Pan had clearly heard the call and was marshalling his elemental forces in order to give Maschler and Ginsberg a day to remember. Maschler took the LSD and, once Ginsberg was certain everything was ok, he swallowed the other pill. In the early stages of the trip, Maschler experienced the usual strong visual disturbances, “I took the pill and looked out of my sitting room window on to the mountainside opposite. The mountain gradually turned a reddish-brown and the earth began to run down the hillside like lava” (Maschler, 280). After three or four hours, possibly at the peak of the trip, Ginsberg wisely suggested they go for a walk, no doubt on the principle that venturing into the great outdoors is one of the best things you can do with a neophyte tripper.
Both men donned wet weather gear and wellingtons and set off up the hillside to the rear of Maschler’s cottage, into the great mystery. Maschler was somewhat nervous about the climb. In fact it is neither particularly steep nor dangerous but the amplified sensations of LSD could well have made it appear so. To allay his fears Ginsberg taught Maschler a calming mantra: Um, Um Sa Ra Wah, Buddha, Da Keen E Eye, Ben Za, Wan Niye, Ben Za, Be Ro, Za Ni Ye Um, Um Um, Pey Pey Pey So Ha.
Despite being high Maschler had the presence of mind to take a camera with him on their lysergic adventure. He took several photographs of Ginsberg communing with nature on the Welsh mountainside; “the poet in his gumshoes communing with a chunk of nature” (Sinclair 1971, 87). Maschler recalled, “The hills surrounding my cottage are dotted with sheep and Allen saw us as just two more sheep under the sky.” Away from his home country, the city, the literary establishment, the politics and the weight of his own fame, Ginsberg’s trip thoroughly embraced the environment. Maschler remarked, “He was immensely moved by the landscape and in the afternoon, still heavily under the influence of the drug, he began to write a poem called Wales Visitation” (Maschler 281).
Ginsberg’s hand-written first draft is reproduced in the 1968 Cape Golliard edition, the poem at the time of writing apparently had no title other than the date, Wales 1967 July 29 Saturday. The astute reader will note that 29 July was in fact Friday and the confusion of dates may have come from the fact Ginsberg was writing as Friday slipped into Saturday or just because Ginsberg got the date or day wrong! The beginning of the first, as yet untitled, draft of the poem is reproduced here, with spelling and grammar exactly as Ginsberg wrote them on that misty mountain day forty six years ago:
Thru the thick wall’d window on vale Browed
White fog afloat
Trees moving in rivers of wind
The clouds arise
As on a wave, gigantic eddy lifting mist
Above teeming ferns exquisitely swayed
By one gentle motion vast as the long green crag
Glimpsed thru mullioned windows in the valley raine
Bardid, O Self, visitacion, Tell naught
But what was seen by one man
In a vale in Albion, of the folk, of Lambs,
Of the satanic thistle that raises its horned symmetry
Flowering with sister grass & flowret’s visible
Pink and tiny invisible-small
Budded triple-petalled bloomlets
Equally angelic as lightbulbs,
Remember your day 150 miles from London’s
Symmetrical throned Tower & network
Of TV pictures flashing bearded your Self,
Link the lambs of the tree-nooked hillside of
With the cry of Blake and the silent thought of
Wordsworth in his Eld stillness –
Maschler and Ginsberg drove back to London, Maschler still feeling the psychedelic effects of his back-to-nature acid experience, “On the way back to London I had a sense of driving over the earth, the earth that was underneath the tarmac of the road” (Maschler, 281). Once in the city Ginsberg continued to hone the poem as he resumed filming with Iain Sinclair who noted, “He’s just been down to Wales, to the countryside, the hills. And has written (is writing) Wales- A Visitation…. He has drunk of the Black Mountains and is easier for it, is calm and reflective.” (Sinclair 1971, 56).
Ginsberg later wrote of the poem, “Wales Visitation was written on the sixth or so hour of an acid trip in Wales at the house of my English publisher. The word “visitation” comes from the peregrinations of the Welsh bards, who went once from village to village rhyming their news and gossip. The poem uses two thirds of the notes made at that time, stitched together later.” In London, as the poem developed, it was later annotated “July 29, 1967 (LSD)August 3, 1967 (London)” (Ginsberg 1994, 21). Justly proud of the poem and of how he had captured his psychedelic ramble Ginsberg wrote:
“I was interested in making an artwork comprehensible to people not high on acid, an artefact that could point others’ attention to microscopic details of the scene. They wouldn’t necessarily know the poem was written on acid, but with an extraordinarily magnified visionary appreciation of the vastness of the motif in its ‘minute particulars’ it might transfer the high consciousness of LSD to somebody with ordinary mind. By focusing the poem’s eye outside of my thoughts onto external pictures, details of the phenomenal world, I was able to maintain a centre and balance, continuing from beginning to end in an intelligible sequence, focusing on awareness of breath. It was coherent enough to publish in The New Yorker, whose editors eliminated the note about acid.” (Ginsberg 1994, 21)
Wales Visitation is regarded by many as one of Ginsberg’s best poems, haunted as it is by the observant ghosts of the English Romantic tradition, like William Blake and Wordsworth, “Long-breath Blakean invocations” (Sinclair 2002, 87). But as one of Ginsberg’s fictionalised contemporaries (Japhy Ryder (Gary Snyder), in Kerouac’s Dharma Bums) said elsewhere, “comparisons are odious”, and poetic analysis is not going to overly concern this writer. The poem’s technical merits aside, Wales Visitation is, to me at least, a perceptive description of what an acid trip can be like in such wild and numinous surroundings; the elemental qualities of landscape, plants, animals, wind, and rain, intensified and coloured by the drug’s effects. Distance from his everyday reality as the counterculture’s poet-in-residence allowed Ginsberg to drop his mask and just let the acid show him what was in the moment. As he later reflected, “for the first time I was able to externalise my attention instead of dwelling on the inner images and symbols” (Portuges 122).
The poem begins as the LSD comes on, inside Maschler’s cottage, with Ginsberg observing the weather and myriad subtle movements of the landscape through mullioned windows. He vows to “Tell naught but what seen by one man in a vale of Albion,” although his thoughts briefly flash back to the filming he did earlier in the week with Iain Sinclair, before the trip intensifies and he heads out onto the hillside. Then, a full-on lysergic celebration of and communion with nature takes place, inner and outer sensations mingling as, “Roar of the mountain wind slow, sigh of the body/One Being on the mountainside stirring gently/Exquisitely balanced from bird cry to lamb to this voice knowing.”
As Ginsberg dreams the world alive, the symmetry of flowers suggests to him mudras, the bleatings of new born lamb sounds recall mantras. He wandered the hillside, Maschler following and snapping Ginsberg in a variety of poses; pensively surveying the valley, lying on the wet grass examining an incised stone, kneeling and gazing into the camera’s eye. Aware, thinking, sentient. High. As the poem draws to a close he reflects on the fact that the experience had been about the minutiae of what Irish mythology refers to as ‘The music of what happens’ – “What did I notice? Particulars!”
Ginsberg had clearly attained that most clichéd but no less valuable of altered states, the sensation of being at one with nature becoming, “one giant being breathing-one giant being that we’re all part of”. The imagery of Wales Visitation was completely different to that of his first acid poem, Lysergic Acid, much softer and pastoral, concerned with observation of the minutiae of right here, right now, rather than the earlier poem’s cosmic vision.
Back in London, the first draft of Wales Visitation written, Ginsberg’s parents, Louis and Edith, joined him, and father and son (Louis being a well-known poet in his own right) gave a reading together at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in Dover Street on 22 August 1967. His freshly minted lysergically inspired nature poem under its full title of Wales – Visitation July 29th 1967 had its first reading that night. The reading was recorded and later released on the Saga Psyche record label as The Ginsbergs at the ICA.
Iain Sinclair came across Wales – A Visitation by accident. During a visit to poet Nathaniel Tarn in Hampstead, Sinclair was given a copy of the glassine-covered Cape Golliard hardback, “Reading it, I found out where Allen had been when he absented himself from the filming: back in my home territory, Wales, climbing the hills behind Llanthony Abbey. Doubling the metaphors of romanticism, a Worsdworthian high on a high ridge. Hallucinogenic tourism in the great tradition. With muddy wellington boots and a camera.” (Sinclair 2006, 70)
Wales Visitation was first published in 1968 by Cape Goliard Press (London), as a hardback book with illustrated dust jacket, outer glassine jacket and endpapers made of Japanese wood pulp paper. The text of the poem is printed opposite a facsimile reproduction of the heavily edited and corrected manuscript. The edition comprised 300 copies of which 100 were signed and numbered by Ginsberg and included a 45-rpm recording of the poem attached to the inner rear cover.
A further 200 copies were issued by Cape Goliard Press. These were hors commerce (not for trade) and the edition was published in small, landscape format, pamphlet size, with card covers and endpapers of Japanese wood pulp paper. The last page was printed with ‘An offering for a peaceful summer from Allen Ginsberg & Cape Goliard Press.’ These editions have become collectors’ items, selling for several hundred pounds.
On 3 September, 1968, Ginsberg appeared on the conservative US TV discussion show Firing Line, where host William F Buckley Jnr asks him if he has a poem and Ginsberg responds, “An interesting project, which is a poem I wrote on LSD.” Buckley: “Under the influence?”. Ginsberg responded, as he pulled out from behind his chair the text of Wales Visitation, “Under the influence of LSD”, noting it was “a long poem, long enough to be entertaining”. As Ginsberg reads the title, Buckley interjects with “w.h.?”, presumably thinking, possibly trying for a laugh, that the title was Whales Visitation! Ginsberg corrects him and launches into the full poem, with Buckley somewhat inanely interjecting “nice” after the first stanza. Ginsberg gives a spirited reading of the poem, complete with trademark stare and gesticulations. Buckley’s rictus grin never wavers throughout, but rather than the expected sarcastic put down, the best he can manage is, “I kinda liked that” (Firing Line).
Ginsberg revised and changed the text of Wales Visitation a number of times over the years, most notably on live versions, and the interested reader is urged to locate and compare as many as possible. For copyright reasons we are unable to reproduce the finished version of the whole poem here, but a number of versions can be located on the internet, with the definitive printed version being available in Allen Ginsberg: Selected Poems 1947-1995. The poem is also on Ah!, CD 3 of the 4 CD box set Holy Roll, Jelly Soul (Rhino Word Beat R271693), where a recording of the poem taken from The Richard Freeman Midnight Show (Radio KPFA , Berkeley, 2 July, 1971) is used, together with a backing track of Ginsberg himself on harmonium.
In March 2013 a media report announced that the part of the original typed manuscript of Wales Visitation was to be auctioned at Bonham’s of London. Simon Roberts, books, maps and manuscripts specialist at the auction house said he expected the sixty-line, hand annotated, manuscript to fetch between £800 and £1,000 (Wales OnLine). At the auction on 10 April the manuscript exceeded all expectations by selling for £3,125. Ginsberg would have been most amused that the flimsy material evidence of his psychedelic intimacy with the elemental forces of the Welsh hills had been reduced to the mere exchange of money in one of capitalism’s finest institutions!
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Wales OnLine. “For sale: Allen Ginsberg poem written while on drugs in Wales”. 14 April, 2013. http://www.walesonline.co.uk/news/wales-news/sale-allen-ginsberg-poem-written-2494407