IT'S HOW YOU HANDLE ITby Martín Rodríguez-Gaona
“Poetry’s basic nature is Mind. […] After it arises in the mind it can take countless forms.” John Giorno
In a typical John Giorno performance, crisp and intense discourse is deformed by repetitions and superimpositions that both transform and amplify the meaning of what is spoken. Giorno’s poetry books such as Cancer in My Left Ball (1973), Grasping at Emptiness (1985), and You Got to Burn to Shine (1994) are the prelude to radical hearing experiences that frequently transcend the verbal materiality and the industrialized coarseness of American society, achieving something close to religious elation.
John Giorno is a pioneer and a myth. But to understand the nuance of his status we need to consider the environment in which his artistic activity began in 1960s New York. Mentioning only that Giorno was a collaborator—sometimes a groupie, always a friend—of figures such as Andy Warhol and William Burroughs, repeating the story that he was the man sleeping for five hours in Warhol’s underground classic Sleep (1963), or explaining that his strategies to bring poetry and daily life closer together are among the most influential of the latter half of the twentieth century fails to present an accurate picture of one of the most essential poets and artists of our time.
New York painters abandoned their precarious condition in the mid-1960s to join poets, the cultural elite of the richest society in the Western world. Painter’s companions in aesthetic and alcoholic revolts, poets left stranded and became confined to another project that was also condemned to transformation: that of the counterculture. Giorno was a lead protagonist of this moment, with initiatives such as creating poems for the New York City subway and his recording company Giorno Poetry Systems, which produced sound anthologies with some of the most innovative voices of American literature. Another one of these projects, the Dial-A-Poem service, had unprecedented success—by calling a hotline of sorts, and through the mediation of chance, one could listen to texts in the voices of their authors, among them John Cage, Allen Ginsberg, John Ashbery, Patti Smith, and Laurie Anderson.
The energy that John Giorno was able to channel over the years was a responseto a number of factors largely linked to America’s postwar economic prosperity. The youth of the mid-1960s created a common front rejecting the expectations placed upon them by wprevious generations, which translated into a need for artistic independence. Writers as diverse as Robert Creeley, Gregory Corso, and Jack Spicer had a common program: to break with modernist virtuosity. All of them advocated for an expansion of what was then understood as poetic. The Beat ethos of denial of the bourgeois project was key, and it bears remembering that for a youthful bohemia, until recently, Allen Ginsberg was the “President of Poetry of the United States.”
But New York, the city par excellence, offered other paths, to some extent in opposition to the anarchist utopia “on the road” à la Kerouac. Giorno stood out for his willful exploration of urban pop culture and his repudiation of the lure that the bucolic ideal had on hippies. He gave continuity to the avant-garde legacy of sustaining a dialogue between the arts, whose most recent manifestation was between the Abstract Expressionists and the poets of the New York School. Unlike such poets, however, Giorno decided to partake of the art scene not by writing criticism, as Frank O’Hara, a curator at the Museum of Modern Art, or John Ashbery, Paris correspondent at ARTNews, had done, but by participating directly. The challenge was to go beyond the occasional collaboration (i.e. O’Hara with lines from his poems in lithographs by Jasper Johns and posing for Larry Rivers) but by engaging in production itself, in pursuit of the experimental but also of autonomy. Freedom of movement was decisive—the Beats had only been able to take off thanks to the fact that they had their own publishing house, City Lights, and even poets like Ashbery and O’Hara, in the beginning, had also barely managed to publish their first books with the support of then emerging art galleries such as Tibor de Nagy.
From this moment on John Giorno was subject to a vertiginous succession of influences: Andy Warhol and found poems; William Burroughs, Brion Gysin, and cut-ups; Robert Rauschenberg and collage; Bob Moog, synthesizers, and sound poetry. Much of what Giorno achieved was due to his talent for establishing dialogue with artists across different generations. In subsequent decades he would come into contact with musicians like David Byrne, Debbie Harry, and Sonic Youth, and with artists such as Ugo Rondinone.
At the beginning of the 1970s, Giorno, in his permanent quest for creative independence, took on the Spoken Word as his main field of expression, after a long period of experimentation with various techniques and media (installations, prints and posters, sound distortions, etc.) However, what really came to define his style from this moment on was the practice of meditation according to the teachings of Tibetan Buddhism (specifically the Nyingma branch). Whether on the page or in public presentations, the sacred and the profane, as well as the eschatological, the political, and the everyday, became a crucial part of what his poetry evokes, reconciling, to a certain extent, mantras and neurotic obsession.
Thus, the eschewing of urban alienation became the discursive key to Giorno’s poetry, which attempts to redirect self-destructive, even sadomasochistic, tendencies through Buddhism. By the 1980s, the desperate and erratic struggle to attain spiritual fulfillment joined a political consciousness. The challenge was to overcome nihilism, since the revolt of the ’60s had become a nightmare, reinforced by the neocons of the Reagan era and the AIDS epidemic, which took some of Giorno’s friends, Robert Mapplethorpe and Keith Haring among them. Nevertheless, Giorno gained recognition as one of the US’s most celebrated performers in the 1980s, when we went on the road in the company of Burroughs.
For many, John Giorno is one of the lead figures in one of the most radical linguistic explorations taking place today in English-language poetry. The relevance of this project corresponds to political and demographic shifts on a global scale that have practically made culture equivalent with entertainment, forcing new generations of artists to examine the ties between leisure and consumption in order to revitalize their dialogue with their public. Yet a Spoken Word performance relates not only to the work of avant-garde poets such as Filippo Tommaso Marinetti or Kurt Schwitters, but also to an ancient tradition of oral poetry embodied in Europe by bards and troubadours. In this sense, John Giorno should be recognized as a prime postmodern poet.
The Wisdom of the Witches (La sabiduría de las brujas) is Giorno’s first to appear in full in Spanish translation. All its poems are subtly focused on vindicating the spiritual. The type of introspection they put forth, so counterintuitive at the beginning of the twenty-first century, is not based on the superficial Orientalism of the ‘60s—Giorno humorously recalls the attitude when saying, “I took LSD and saw Buddha”—but in an everyday disposition, one that requires a great effort and that does not deny or overlook the miseries of the Western city. Sordidness and luxury, violence and love, death and sex are part of the same illusory nature of reality, and must be overcome to achieve equanimity.
From the first lines of “Just Say No to Family Values” it is clear that Giorno does not confuse a reflexive attitude with passivity, with a cynical detachment from the world. The poet is always attentive to what is happening in the public realm, and this makes him follow and comment on historical events: his struggle to overcome the limits of subjectivity blends with his generation’s political concerns, and hence a critique of the United States emerges. Take a poem like Thanx 4 Nothing. This is a nation whose behavior he characterizes mostly as self-destructive rather than imperialist. Giorno’s criticism is never disloyal, since it starts with the recognition of being part of the problem, acknowledging that evil is also inherent to human nature. Humility reveals itself as an antidote against fundamentalisms of all stripes.
A civic component is expressed in the warning against military violence, as in the tremendous poem “Nothing Suceeds like Excess,” but also in a constant demystification, in his refusal to repeat complacent images of false romanticism—the media immolation of Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady, or Kurt Cobain—that has contributed to the neutralization of the counterculture. This is the self-criticism and defiant ambivalence of texts such as “The Death of William Burroughs” and “Demons in the Details.” Giorno does not claim marginality as a unique answer to the bourgeois world or as an alternative to totalitarianism, but neither does he deny it. Bohemia and precariousness are just another set of conditions—not valid in themselves—in which meaning might be found.
The poetry of John Giorno has a deceptive simplicity. We are not dealing with the work of an intellectual poet, but of a deeply intuitive one, who escapes any kind of arrogance and seeks a deliberately kind discourse. In the lyrical poems of The Wisdom of the Witches, the first-person subject plays with a common sentiment such as desire (for possession, recognition and celebrity, lust, and so on) and nullifies it, revealing its irrelevance, and how little difference there is between itself and that of millions of individuals who zealously protect and obey their egos. To a great extent, this insight is based on a resource as traditional and ubiquitous as song, enhanced by repetitions that emphasize the absurdity of thoughts like it. As William Burroughs pointedly observed: “The repetition that characterizes John Giorno’s poetry is rooted in the basic nature of language, or symbolic representation, which is actually concerned not with communication, but with orientation in time: you wake up. You go to the bank. How many times will you repeat to yourself while you get ready to leave for the bank ‘I have to go to the bank to go to the bank the bank the bank…’. As if you could not get to the bank without repeating your intention to go there over and over to yourself.”
This communicative and transcendent will is also seen in other types of poems such as “There Was a Bad Tree” or “The Wisdom of the Witches,” which, based on storytelling, try to create something similar to postindustrial sermons in which Oriental philosophy and Western sensibility appear imbricated and exoticism and utopia are avoided, without renouncing imagination and magic. Giorno creates in these texts curious parables of an urban Buddhism that allow the exercise of a religion without dogmas.
Halfway between the inventory of a life and civic commitment, the poet of The Wisdom of the Witches proposes the consecration of the everyday, betting all his cards on the mixture of vitality and enthusiasm, despite the paradoxes and the contradictions of the so-called real.
The poet once said: “I think the first few years of experimentation were like walking blindfolded through traffic, trying not to be crushed.” Beyond the academy and the counterculture, on and off the page, the work of John Giorno opens new paths to the formal, technological and moral exploration of poetry as if it were bursting into crowds and traffic jams.
MARTÍN RODRÍGUEZ-GAONA is a Peruvian poet and translator. He is the author of five books of poems and the translator of Giorno’s The Wisdom of the Witches as well as the volume of selected poems by John Ashbery Pirografía: Poemas 1957–1985.