In a small Harlem apartment in the summer of 1948, something phenomenal happened to Allen Ginsberg. Ginsberg, one of the founding members of the Beat literary movement and renowned for his magnum opus “Howl,” had experienced a vision that had changed him as both as a person and poet. While alone in his apartment one day, he was masturbating while reading William Blake’s “Ah! Sun-flower” poem. As he climaxed, Ginsberg heard a deep voice, which he instantly knew belonged to William Blake’s, reciting the poetry. After his orgasm, as he was gazing at the window onto the rooftops of East Harlem and taking in what had just happened, Blake’s voice came to him again, but this time reading the words of “The Sick Rose.” As he looked out onto the city, “the entire universe was revealed to him,” and Allen was more alive and self-realized than ever (Morgan 103). Bill Morgan, Ginsberg’s premier biographer, states that in this hour of cosmic awareness, the mysteries of the universe were unlocked to Allen, and that he could almost say that he saw God in that one important moment (103). Once his Blakeian cosmic experience faded, the enlightenment from the experience stayed with him forever, and changed how he saw himself and the world around him. Ginsberg would insist to those he confided in later that this experience was not an auditory hallucination; to him, it was something that had actually happened, and Blake speaking to him was as real as “how the saints heard the Virgin Mary speaking to them” (Morgan 103.) Without a doubt, this experience had shaken him to the core, and Ginsberg would never be the same again.
While this experience had enlightened Allen and opened his eyes to corners of the world he never imagined, it was the closest to madness that Ginsberg would ever reach (Morgan and Stanford 60). In one of Ginsberg’s letters to Jack Kerouac, his close friend and a fellow key figure in the Beat Generation, he denied his Blake visions completely. His previous letter to Kerouac, though, had boasted about them and how it had changed the world around him. Kerouac had written Ginsberg’s claims and denials off and attributed them to Ginsberg “flipping [out]”, and Ginsberg remained relatively quiet about the Blakeian experiences until decades later (Morgan and Stanford 60). In the 1966 issue of The Paris Review with Tom Clark, Ginsberg was very open about that moment of realization he had in Harlem, and described the incident in detail, and how it had changed him into becoming his own “self-prophet” (53).
Consequently, that concept of the “self-prophet” that Ginsberg had embraced is extremely important when thinking about his poetry. After the summer of 1948, Ginsberg’s poetics had taken a completely different turn, and started to sound more and more, for lack of better words, prophetic. His poems went from being more “traditional” in nature, to transforming into surrealist and scriptural language. Therefore, Ginsberg having Blake speak to him really changed his writerly identity, in a way where Ginsberg began to think of himself as a self-proclaimed oracle, which made every word of his poetry a self-important prophecy to the public.
For my thesis, I want to explore that concentrated period of time during the summer of 1948 in Harlem, and map out the transformation of Ginsberg’s own writerly identity once he had his Blakeian vision. Before Blake spoke to him, I argue that Ginsberg was at a low point in his life, emotionally and poetically; after, though, Ginsberg then thought of himself as a prophet, and proceeded on a poetic and writerly binge regarding his visions and how he saw himself and world around him. As a writer myself, I find that change absolutely fascinating. I believe all artists experience constant imposter syndrome, as well as a lot of self-doubt when it comes to their work— the need for validation is crucial for a lot of artists, but even then, when do you get to call yourself, truly, an “artist?”
Thus, I will explore the mindset behind Ginsberg’s transformation, and humanize the change by mapping out a distinct week in Allen’s life; during the week, I aim to illustrate events, both real and fictional, through both my poetry and the multimodality of electronic literature. The piece aims to be interactive, informative, and a poetic homage to the crisis of writerly identity and to Allen Ginsberg himself. Ultimately, I want the poetry to capture the interest of the reader, and immerse them in a world that chronicles the real and cosmic journey Ginsberg follows on his search and realization when it comes to what it means to be a writer.
Review of Literature
Significant Literature, History, and Influences
Blake, William. “Ah! Sun-Flower.” The Poetry Foundation.
“The Sick Rose.” The Poetry Foundation. Both of these poems are central to the events that occur to Allen Ginsberg that summer in 1948. It is “Ah! Sun-flower” that Ginsberg hears William Blake directly read to him, and it is “The Sick Rose” that Blake again recites several minutes after his first auditory hallucination. In my electronic literature, both poems appear in full for the reader to read, and potentially draw both context and significance from.
Clark, Tom. “The Art of Poetry (No. VIII).” Spontaneous Minds: Selected Interviews, 1958-1996, edited by David Carter, HarperCollins Publishers Inc., 2001, pp. 17-53. This interview with Tom Clark in The Paris Review is also a core piece of this project’s inspiration. It is in this interview that Ginsberg retells his hallucination, and the first time it is documented for the public to hear. In detail, he describes the night— what happened before, what happened after, and how the event changed his outlook on the world and his personhood— “this is what I was meant to do.” A majority of the poetry and framework of the electronic literature were created on the basis of this interview.
Ginsberg, Allen. “Sunflower Sutra.” Collected Poems, 1947-1997, HarperCollins Publishing, 2006, pp. 146. I referenced this poetry in the piece of electronic literature, because I believe it is an important piece of writing by Ginsberg where he truly reflects on the enlightenment of his hallucination. While it was written a few years after the episode, he acknowledges how William Blake, his vision, and the imagery of sunflowers played an important role in shaping who he was, and the person he was becoming.
Morgan, Bill. I Celebrate Myself: The Somewhat Private Life of Allen Ginsberg. Viking Penguin, 2006. Ultimately, this book serves as a very detailed biography of Allen Ginsberg. Bill Morgan accounts for important events and relationships Ginsberg had for almost every year of his adult life, along with noting of certain poems or collections of Ginsberg’s poetry were published during certain years. Due to the well-documented nature of Morgan’s biography of Allen Ginsberg, I can use the book as both inspiration for poetry, as well as a way to help authenticate Ginsberg’s voice and character I am trying to flesh out in my own poetry. Additionally, and more obviously, I will use the biography to help chronicle certain events and dates that are key in illustrating the week of Ginsburg’s life that I am focusing on.
Ondaatje, Michael. The Collected Works of Billy the Kid. In this collection of poetry, Ondaatje reinvents the history and fleshes out the character of Billy the Kid, as well as the world around the cowboy legend. Ondaatje writes poems in the perspectives of Billy and other key characters, as well as implements different mediums to illustrate the history, such as segments of letters, photographs, vignettes, and even comic strips; ultimately, through Ondaatje’s artistic endeavors, he makes the reader relate to and empathize with Billy and this reinvented history of the legend. Similarly, I would like to emulate Ondaatje’s artistic vision in order to expand my own project regarding the week of events in Allen’s life that changed who he was as a person and, most significantly, a writer.
Schumacher, Michael, editor. Family Business: Selected Letters Between a Father and a Son. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2001. In this book, Michael Schumacher compiles selected letters between Allen Ginsberg and his father, Louis, which best illustrate their relationship to the reader. In particular, I was interested in the letters sent closest to 1948, in order to best analyze what was going on between the father and son. Additionally, it is in this collection that the infamous “Exorcise Neal” letter is found, which dealt a depressing blow to Allen when he came out to his father about his homosexuality and affair with Neal Cassady. It starts to set the tone for emotional turmoil and the depression Ginsberg was dealing with before his hallucination.
Spinks, Lee. “Sense and Singularity: Reading Ondaatje’s The Collected Works of Billy the Kid.” Canadian Literature, 2008: 62-78. EBSCOHOST. In this article, Spinks examines what makes Michael Ondaatje’s The Collected Works of Billy the Kid have such a strong sense of self and history within the poetry. Spinks thus analyzes and praises the poetry in several different ways, such as commenting on how the reinvented history, textual self-awareness, and even the form, are what make Billy’s character and Ondaatje’s poetry so effective and engaging for the reader (62-64). Through Spinks’s own observations and my own regarding the captivating success of Ondaatje’s poetry style and how he builds up the myth of Billy the Kid, I can emulate some of the methods that are particularly impactful, such as including different mediums to tell a story, or writing poems based on specifics events that would lend a historical and personal sense to the character and the Beat Generation itself.
Stanford, David, and Bill Morgan. Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg: The Letters. Viking Penguin, 2010. In this book, Stanford and Morgan compile the hundreds of letters Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg sent each other throughout the course of their relationship, and all the way until Kerouac’s death. The letters contain bits of poems and stories that were never published, as well as personal conversations between the two Beat friends. Thus, the intimate nature of the letters and rawness of their shared poems and stories can further help in understanding the psyche of Kerouac and Ginsberg, as well as to help emulate the authenticity of their relationship in my poetry; additionally, I can use the primary excerpts of letters and lines of poems to incorporate as different mediums in my collection, as well as to serve as inspiration to creating some of the poetry itself.
Wart, Alice van. “The Evolution of Form in Michael Ondaatje’s The Collected Works of Billy the Kid and Coming Through Slaughter.” Canadian Poetry Press 17 (1985): n.p. Western University Canada. Wart’s article closely analyses the form Michael Ondaatje uses is both his poetry and prose in The Collected Works of Billy the Kid and Coming Through Slaughter, respectively. In both works, Ondaatje experiments with mixed mediums to carry his literary narratives, which consequently helps make the world he is building very realistic; as a result, Wart discusses how Ondaatje’s form lends to the voice he is creating for these characters, and how that voice consequently becomes very authentic and compelling for the reader. Through Wart’s article, it provides a closer reading of how Ondaatje composed The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, as well as explains how the evolving form of the poetry lends to the way Ondaatje fleshes out both his characters and world that he creates.
Watson, Steve. The Birth of the Beat Generation: Visionaries, Rebels, and Hipsters, 1944-1960 (Circles of the Twentieth Century). Pantheon Books, 1998. Another detailed and credible source that chronicles the start of the Beat Generation, as well as the relationships of the key figures, such as Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady, William Burroughs, Gregory Corso, Gary Snyder, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Herbert Huncke, and more. More than the other books, Watson focuses on the birth of the group itself, such as when and how the connections were established between the Beat Generation. Consequently, the insight of the relationships between more than just Jack and Allen will help in adding personal details and create poems during his isolated week.
Digital Humanities Literature & Theory
Alexander, Bryan. “Storytelling.” Digital Pedagogy in the Humanities: Concepts, Models, and Experiments, 2016. MLA Commons. In Alexander’s article “Storytelling,” he discusses how narratives can be told in a digital space, and what tools can be used to further enhance the timeless experience of storytelling. Today, especially in pieces of electronic literature, the author creates a multimodal experience for their reader; for example, they utilize audio, graphic, and video components, along with other computational affordances to create different dimensions in their work. Alexander’s exploration of different tools in storytelling and several examples of how multimodality is achieved in certain digital stories can help me think about how I will utilize a variety of mediums in order to convey a compelling narrative, such as how Ondaatje’s form does that for his poetry, despite just being on published in print.
Aronson, Jerry. “BURROUGHS ON ALLEN GINSBERG WILLIAM BLAKE.” YouTube, uploaded by David Gillett, 5 Aug. 2012. This video clip comes from a segment of the film The Life and Times of Allen Ginsberg, directed by Jerry Aronson. In the clip, Burroughs briefly tells how he felt in regards to Ginsberg describing his Blake hallucination to him. Essentially, Burroughs concludes that “this was the closest to madness Ginsberg had ever been,” which I believe is an important primary source— a confession by one of Allen’s closest friends and a core member of the Beat Generation, in how he truly perceived Ginsberg’s episode.
Flanders, Julia. “The Literary, the Humanistic, and the Digital: Toward a Research Agenda for Digital Literary Studies.” Literary Studies in the Digital Age: An Evolving Anthology, 2013. MLA Commons. In essence, Flanders explains why incorporating a digital humanities approach is important for contemporary literary scholarship. While digital literary studies is undermined and misconstrued, Flanders says that the digital humanities is to enhance what scholars understand as “traditional” literary studies and scholarship, as opposed to replace it entirely with computational elements. With that being said, by analyzing certain primary sources of the Beats and Ondaatje’s The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, I will be able to analyze the books from a different approach to look for text patterns and word frequencies, which I am not able to do through regular literary analysis.
Grigar, Dene. “Re: E-Lit Inquiry.” Message to Hailey Carone. 16 March 2018. E-mail. In this email that I received from Dene Grigar, the curator of The Electronic Literature Organization, I had reached out to her about electronic literature platforms. I wanted to know if the platform matters when it comes to the “validity” of electronic literature. For her response, she tells me that it is not the medium, but the elements that make a piece of e-lit “valid.” She explains her elements of P.I.E when evaluating electronic literature— participatory, interactive, and engaging.
Heckman, Davin and James O’Sullivan. “Electronic Literature: Context and Poetics.” Literary Studies in the Digital Age: An Evolving Anthology, 2016. MLA Commons. In their article, Heckman and O’Sullivan cover the historical, contemporary, and future context of electronic literature, as well as define the term and explain what constitutes a piece as “e-lit.” In the overview, they explore a few examples, along with the computational elements that made the pieces simultaneously engaging and effective as works of e-lit. Consequently, “Electronic Literature: Context and Poetics” gives me a great plethora of successful and compelling pieces of e-lit for me to view, along with the poetics that Heckman and O’Sullivan have identified for the literary subset of the digital humanities; with that, I can look back to their poetics in order to see how my own work does or does not match up with their definition and expectations, and how my piece fits alongside and in with the evolving future of electronic literature.
Hoover, David. “Textual Analysis.” Literary Studies in the Digital Age: An Evolving Anthology, 2013. MLA Commons. In his part of the Literary Studies evolving anthology, Hoover explores the significance of textual analysis to approaching literary research, and how those statistical and quantitative data can be used alongside literary criticism. Thus, Hoover talks about different ways a scholar can use certain programs and methods to test out a hypothesis and find literary importance in computational data, in order to further their own understanding of the text. By going off of some of things Hoover discusses in “Textual Analysis,” I can try some of those approaches when looking at my texts through Voyant Tools, and see if any of these lenses can help in advancing my own understanding, as well as creating some new questions and insights, when doing my own literary research.
Ryback, Chuck. “Poetry.” Digital Pedagogy in the Humanities: Concepts, Models, and Experiments, 2016. MLA Commons. Overall, this article is a compilation of different digital poetry, from generative twitterbots to the publication of e-poetry. However, the compilation gives insight on to the many forms digital poetry can be, as well as different ways on how to analyze it. Consequently, Ryback’s article is useful in giving ideas about how to approach and publish the digital poetry component of my thesis, along with thinking about how to present my poetry and how the audience will computationally perceive it.
Sinclair, Stéfan, and Geoffrey Rockwell. “Visualization.” Digital Pedagogy in the Humanities: Concepts, Models, and Experiments, 2016. MLA Commons. In “Visualization,” Sinclair and Rockwell explore a variety of tools that help visualize data, as well as why data visualization is an important aspect in research. Additionally, they talk about how visualized data can be perceived and interpreted by audiences, as well as the significance of having graphic and mapped information when researching and presenting your findings in your research. Sinclair and Rockwell also specifically break down the benefits of data visualization available in Voyant Tools, a program I plan on using in order to interpret my text through a digital literary research approach.
When I began my process about thinking of what to do for my thesis, I knew I wanted to incorporate two particular elements: first, having Allen Ginsberg’s poetics included in some form, and second, having the thesis presented as electronic literature. I was attracted to the Writing Studies program at Kean University because of the interest and integration of digital humanities and culture into a number of the classes, and wanted to learn more about the inspiration, creation, and publication in the blooming world of electronic literature. In particular, I found myself drawn toward digital poetry projects and how the digital elements in these pieces added a whole new layer of analysis and reading to the audience. Multimodality became an important piece I wanted to focus on when creating my thesis project, as I felt that the idea of interdisciplinary elements could add a new dimension of feeling and experience in the poetry; by including multimodal components such as audio, visual, animation, video, and interactivity, it would open up a whole different experience between the reader and the poetry.
In terms of choosing Allen Ginsberg as the inspiration and focus of my work, I felt like he would be the perfect subject to create a thesis that dealt with the concept of writerly identity— that is, the threshold young writers are afraid and unsure of how to cross in order to be validated as a “real writer.” As someone who is also standing before that threshold, I thought it would be interesting to write poetry about the psychology and humanity of the thoughts, fears, and hopes of an aspiring artist, especially one right on the cusp of becoming one of the most influential literary figures of the 20th century. Before Allen Ginsberg’s infamous 1956 publication of “Howl,” he was just a kid from Paterson who drank too much, smoked too much, thought about boys, and worried who he was going to grow up to be. His poetry was godly to his friends, but less than impressive to some professors and family members. To me, he is a completely human character that a lot of other artists, including myself, can see parts of themselves in. Thus, the poetry I wrote for my thesis wanted to explore the concept of both self-doubt and self-confidence, mini-existential crises and mental breakdowns, and an artist’s pure expression of self through their medium. During the summer of 1948, he had his heart broken, was just about to graduate from school, had a shitty temporary job, was depressed, and was also trying to figure out his next big step in life; amidst everything happening, one night when he was home alone, he experienced an auditory hallucination of William Blake speaking directly toward him. In that moment, Ginsberg believed he saw the secrets of the universe, and achieved a sort of climatic, self-realizing nirvana, which changed his whole outlook on life and humanity, as well as his own poetics and who he was as an artist. Ultimately, I found that this time was extremely ripe with emotional and poetic potential, and I would also argue that it was one of the biggest moments in Allen Ginsberg’s life that determined who he was as both an artist and as a human being.
In order to create a poetic caricature of Allen Ginsberg, I wanted to go to the source of the inspiration for the period of time I wanted to focus on in his life. In Tom Clark’s 1966 “Art of Poetry” for The Paris Review, Clark interviews Allen Ginsberg about his writing, in which he then divulges, for the first time to the public, about his Blake hallucination (18). He describes what he was doing leading up to the significant moment, how it happened, and how it changed him. I used the wonderful primary source that was The Paris Review interview as a basis for my thesis, and then continued to look for sources that would flesh out the rest of that time period.
While there are no specific sources that can pinpoint the exact day or week that Ginsberg’s Blake hallucination happened, multiple biographies of the Beat writer cite that the incident happened in the latter part in July of 1948 (Morgan 102). From there, I started to look for this particular month and year in other biographies, letters, and even pictures, to see if I could pull primary sources that were as close to the date as possible. In Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg: The Letters (2011), there is a mentioned possible letter that happened between the two friends discussing Ginsberg’s initial vision and Kerouac’s response, but it was only noted in a paragraph, and the actual letter was not included in the collection (Morgan and Standford). However, there were letters between them during that summer that I used for inspiration in what they were both doing at the time, what they were interested in, and particular vernacular they used. From those letters, I drafted my own fictitious letters to supplement the missing real ones. I tried to mimic both Ginsberg’s and Kerouac’s literary voices as best as possible to continue that authenticity. Additionally, I included some original, primary letters from Jack Kerouac in my digital poetry project, which are denoted by an asterisk (*) by his name signed at the end.
Additionally, I also looked to letters between Allen Ginsberg and his father, Louis Ginsberg. In Ginsberg’s biography, it notes that around the start of the summer of 1948, Allen came out to his father and told him about his sexual and romantic relationship with Neal Cassady. In Family Business: Selected Letters Between a Father and Son (2001), it contains the famous, short response from Louis upon Allen’s confession (which, unfortunately, is missing in letter form): “Exorcise Neal” (Bloomsbury). I also included the response as a primary source woven into my project, in which Allen’s fictitious response is in that of a poem that laments on how he wishes and wants to be normal and to “drop the rebellion.”
In addition to epistolary sources that I used for poetic inspiration, research, and inclusion for my thesis, I also explored other multimodal storytelling elements, such as audio. On June 23rd 2017, The Complete Songs of Innocence and Experience, which is a collection of Allen Ginsberg reading all of Blake’s poetry from both his books of Songs of Innocence and Experience, was released for CD and digital use. Even though there were audible readings of Ginsberg reciting Blake available on YouTube before, this collection included material not yet issued. The album has Ginsberg reading the poem “Ah! Sunflower,” which is the poem he heard Blake reciting to him back in 1984. As a result of the significance of that particular poem, I made the decision to keep sunflowers as running them in my digital poetry project. A few different pages either have actual sunflowers or drawings of them in it, and one of them actually has the audio of the reading of “Ah! Sunflower” from The Complete Songs of Innocence and Experience. Hearing Allen Ginsberg read the poem that changed his life and had a very extraordinary significance to him is a very important, vulnerable, and special moment, and the multimodality of electronic literature allows me to share that with the audience and for them to make that same realization and connect with Ginsberg’s experience in a completely new way.
After the main bulk of the research, I began to start drafting my poetry. At the start of February, I made a plan to write a poem for my thesis every day for the next two weeks. To start the process of generating concepts and significance to my writing, I created a set “routine” for my characterization of Allen Ginsberg. However, as the days progressed, Ginsberg’s routine would change based on certain events that I imagined had happened in order to move the story of the vision along. For example, my idea for his “everyday” routine is written as follows:
- CLASS AT 8 (VICTORIAN LIT)
- TAKE THE 1 TRAIN TO WORK
- BUSYWORK AT OFFICE
- LUNCH (BLT FROM DELI)
- GO TO STORE (MOSTLY ON MONDAY)
- FLIRT W/ BODEGA BOY (RAFAEL)
- WALK REST OF WAY HOME
- NIGHTLY NEWS
- MAKE DINNER AND/OR NIGHTCAP
- WRITE LETTERS TO JACK (TYPICALLY NOT SENT)
- READ POETRY (BEEN KEEN TO BLAKE)
- JACK OFF
- GO TO BED
Each day is based off of this schedule, with different things happening based on the days of the week leading up to, as well as the aftermath of, his vision.
After I would write the poem in my notebook, I would type it up later that day on my computer and edit the content and format of the poetry. Once the poem was saved, I would put it in a folder where I thought it best fit in terms of events during the “days of the week,” such as “Monday” or “Thursday.”
However, about a third of the poetry I wrote did not make it into my final project. When I started putting together the digital space for the project, some of the literature did not make sense in my creative vision. Thus, once the majority of the website was completed, I had to go back and write more poetry to fill in the gaps that existed in my electronic literature.
The biggest problem I faced when I moved on to the creation portion of this process was thinking about how it would manifest itself in a digital space. In fall of 2016, I took an “Introduction to Electronic Literature” class with Dr. Mia Zamora, where I created my first piece of e-lit, “Hikaru”: it was a sneak-peek into the life of a boy’s computer. I used Wix.com to make the piece, where the base of the story was this boy’s desktop background; from there, readers were able to click different icons to access and piece together more parts of this story I had hidden. I made fake Skype and Facebook messages, document icons, folders, Skype and iTunes playlists, Sticky Notes, Google Chrome icon, and so forth. All of them were clickable, and offered a new way for the reader to experience the work and feel like they were truly in the life of this character I had created. The best part about the piece was its nonlinear form, which allowed the reader to, no matter how they explored the e-lit, still takeaway the same story and feeling that the piece generated.
After I had made that piece, I knew I wanted to create more electronic literature. Thus, when I started brainstorming my thesis, I was sure of the genre of the piece. However, I was uncertain about the actual digital medium I would use. Even though I had used Wix for “Hikaru,” I was not sure if I wanted to do the same for this piece. While Wix allowed me to build my space from scratch and implement multimodal elements for my story, it still had its drawbacks; most noticeably, it had ads and a banner across the page that would only disappear once the user upgraded to one of Wix’s premium plans. Additionally, I had been getting feedback that Wix was not a great space because it was not deemed as “professional.” While I appreciated the feedback, the alternative I was shown, a different domain-hosting site through State University, was too complex for me at the time. Also, I was not sure it could manifest the vision I had in my head; alternatively, I knew Wix could potentially do everything that I had theorized. As stated, I struggled making a decision, until I reached out to Dr. Dene Grigar, the curator of the Electronic Literature Organization, about if certain digital spaces are more “professional” or validated in the field of e-lit than others.
While it seemed like an odd, even desperate, question, the response I received from her was both insightful and motivating. She informed me of the acronym P.I.E, which stands for the three main characteristics that define a piece of electronic literature: participatory, interactive, and experiential. Consequently, the platform was not the important part; instead, it was if my thesis fulfilled all three of the elements that Dr. Grigar had laid out. After receiving that response from Dr. Grigar, I decided to go with Wix for my digital medium. I created another page through the Wix domain I created “Hikaru” on, with hopes to later pay for the premium plans and start my professional portfolio at a later date. From there, I started my new digital poetry project, “The Week.” Since my poetry was already created and categorized into days of the week that Allen Ginsberg experienced his iconic hallucination, it only made sense for the framework of my e-lit to do the same. As a result, besides my Home and Calendar page, I have pages for Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday.
With the help of my adviser, I first had to find images I could use to make a visual layout that had licenses that allowed me to openly share and modify. Using pexels.com, I was able to find pictures with open licensing that I could use for free for my project, like wood to create a desk image, a yellow-painted wall for the Calendar page, and even paper textures to put poems on. In addition to that site, I also utilized Google, but changed the settings to find licensed pictures that were free to use, share, and modify. There, I found transparent images, such as a coffee cup, a pen, an old-looking envelope, and even an animated ripple effect. When I could not find an image or effect I was looking for, I would create it myself; for example, I created an animated black “x” that appears on the calendar page when the reader hovers over Ginsberg’s face. To do so, I saved several variations of a drawing of the “x” on a transparent layer on pixlr.com, and then imported them all into giphy.com to create a GIF out of the photoset. Additionally, I also used pixlr.com for photo manipulation in order to edit some photos, like cropping images and make them transparent, specifically the sunflower petals on the Friday page and Blake’s face on the Wednesday one.
Then, once I started to build my image database, I proceeded to visualize my project. To start with, I kept the Home page simple, much like a title page: I used an open licensed picture of a black and white apartment, with a yellow opaque dot over a window to “enter” Ginsberg’s apartment. Once clicked, the reader is brought to a room in Ginsberg’s house, where a strip of paper is taped on the wall, along with two personal photos of Allen. The strip of paper is a week torn from a calendar, and the reader is invited to click any of the dates to bring them to that respective “day of the week” page. Under the dates, in smaller lettering, is the text “July 1948,” which if clicked, pops up another website altogether in the reader’s tab. The website is a “This Month in History” site, in order to give additional context about that specific time in 1948, if the reader wishes to explore that option.
From there, there are the days of the week left to explore. Each day is set up at Allen Ginsberg’s “desk,” where various things are sprawled out, depending on the day. The only consistent item that is on the desk each of the days is either a piece of paper or notebook, where the main poem defining the day is. In order to experience the page, readers are encouraged to click around, as various items are interactive or navigational, and continue to add to this story of Blake speaking to Ginsberg. Consequently, those various items might contain fictional or real letters, more poetry, audio, photos, or other clickable or mouse-over effects.
After I was done making the majority of the framework and logistics for the website, I started to add navigational elements to each page. So the reader does not have to necessarily click on the back button after reading each page, when they click on either a word or image, depending on the page, it will bring them to another day of the week to move the story along. Also, I included an “about” page to the website, as well as a “thesis” page, so more information about the project, along with the thesis itself, would be available for any interested individuals.
Throughout the process of piecing my creative thesis project together, I knew I had to be purposeful in a lot of the imagery and language that I used. I wanted the thesis to be quintessential Allen Ginsberg— whether the reader was an expert on the Beats or was just learning about them, I wanted the reader to know who Allen was by the end of the piece. I wanted to maintain true to how Allen would have sounded and what he would think, even with fictional embellishing throughout the poetry to fill in the details of his life.
As mentioned before, when I started to write the poetry for my project, I focused on a fictional week in Allen Ginsberg’s life. After that, I created a generic “routine” that would happen each day, and from there different events would take place or were hinted at, leading up to his hallucination with William Blake. The start of the week focuses more on the exposition and background context of Ginsberg’s state of mind; ultimately, I wanted to lay the ground work for how his emotional state was being pulled every which way, which might have pushed him to a mental breakdown, or even auditory hallucination. Thus, within my piece of electronic literature, the multimodal elements I have on each page help bring the hallucination of Blake more “to life” for the reader. Consequently, by following Dene Grigar’s “P.I.E” elements in electronic literature, it allows a whole new dimension of storytelling— through video components, poetry readings, surrealist artwork, clickable objects, interview bytes, and much more, I was able to make the poetry participatory, interactive, and engaging.
Sunday. For Sunday, even though this piece is non-linear, I wanted to “start” the story by opening up with a poem about Ginsberg’s identity crisis and heartbreak. The poem is Ginsberg asking no one in particular about “who is he” as a person— he feels depressed, isolated, and a bit jealous. He is living alone in his apartment on 151st street in Harlem, taking his summer class so he can graduate Columbia. The job he is working at is something dead-end, and not what he wants to be doing. Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs, Ginsberg’s closest friends, had not visited him throughout July, which left him feeling particularly lonely. And, to top everything off, Neal Cassady, Ginsberg’s heterosexual lover, had broken things off between them at the start of the summer. The poem laments all of this, as well as his frustration with not being able to write as well as he wants.
Monday. Monday, Allen is still dealing with his heartbreak from Neal, as well as rejection from his father, Louis. Around this time in 1948, Allen told his dad of his homosexuality and affair with Neal, to which Louis only replies, “Exorcise Neal” (L. Ginsberg). In response to that, I wrote a poem, where Allen expresses his want to be able to conform to society’s heterosexuality; additionally, the poem also touches on wanting to be considered “normal” all-around, in order to join “that inner circle.” Allen is aware of the mental illness that potentially runs in the family, since his mother, Naomi, would have bouts of madness that had her hospitalized handfuls of times. Allen fights with his inner self constantly about conforming to “normality” and being “himself”— with society being extremely conservative in the late 1940s/early 1950s, the latter was a harder truth to come to terms with.
Tuesday. On Tuesday, things start to change a bit for Allen. The poem on the page alludes to Allen feeling like he is being watched, “heavenly eyes / staring at [his] shoulders and ass.” At this point, Allen is semi-aware of this Blakeian consciousness, potentially preparing himself mentally for the reception of this auditory hallucination. On the same page, there’s another letter written to Jack, where my fictional Ginsberg writes about his obsession in reading Blake. However, if the reader clicks on the text, an actual letter written by Jack Kerouac to Ginsberg at the start of the summer of 1948 shows up. In it, Jack relays how he has been doing, and how he misses Ginsberg; consequently, the first letter is supposed to be in response to Jack’s real letter, where I reimagine Ginsberg writing to him during July and hinting at the madness yet to follow.
Additionally, this page also includes other Blake references; for example, the reader is presented with a sunflower at the top of the page. There is also a book of William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience sitting on Ginsberg’s desk. Both objects are interactive if the reader clicks on them, and give the reader context into potentially who Blake is and which poems Ginsberg had been keen on reading that summer. The sunflower itself, if clicked, plays a reading of “Ah! Sun-flower” by Allen Ginsberg, which he recorded decades later on an album dedicated to reading and pairing musical instrumentation to Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience. I wanted to include this reading, because I believe that this reading was extremely powerful to Ginsberg in the moment when he recorded this; after all, this was the poem of his auditory hallucination that vastly affected his personhood, thus this reading and homage to Blake must have been particularly important.
Also, when the reader clicks on the image of the book, Blake’s poem, “Ah! Sun-flower,” will show up, along with the artwork included in the actual book of Songs of Innocence and Experience. When the reader clicks on the artwork for “Ah! Sun-flower,” Blake’s other poem “The Sick Rose” will pop up in its place. Additionally, when Blake spoke to him for the second time that night, it was “The Sick Rose” he hears as he is looking out over East Harlem (Clark 38). Even though Ginsberg was obsessed with the first poem, I believe “The Sick Rose” resonates with the emotions Ginsberg was feeling at that time. In his inner turmoil and self-confliction, “his dark secret love / Doth his life destroy” (Blake). Ginsberg even admits to identifying as the “sick rose” himself, “sick because [of his] mind” (Clark 38); thus, due to his difficulty conforming to society, through his homosexuality, mentally turmoil past, and his general entirety, it eats at his self-confidence and inner peace, only pushing him further to emotional madness.
Wednesday. On Wednesday, the sunflower imagery becomes more prominent, with sketches of sunflowers lining his notebook and pieces of paper. Ginsberg can tell something, definitely, is happening at this point, and his obsession with sunflowers is the only way to try and make sense of his own madness. If the user clicks on the sunflower to the left, an audio byte plays of an interview of William Burroughs about Ginsberg’s hallucination from The Life and Times of Allen Ginsberg. In the byte, Burroughs describes Ginsberg’s incident as the “closest to madness” that the poet had ever been.
The sunflower to the right, when hovered over, sports a yin and yang symbol in its middle, which represents a future, enlightened Ginsberg from the event. Thus, when the reader clicks on that particular sunflower, it links to a YouTube video of Ginsberg reading his notable poem, “Sunflower Sutra.” In that poem, he recounts his vision, albeit briefly,
—I rushed up enchanted—it was my first sunflower, memories of Blake—my visions—Harlem
and Hells of the Eastern rivers, bridges clanking Joes Greasy Sandwiches, dead baby carriages, black treadless tires forgotten and unretreaded, the poem of the riverbank, condoms & pots, steel knives, nothing stainless, only the dank muck and the razor-sharp artifacts passing into the past— (Ginsberg 146).
After the hallucination, Blake, as well as sunflowers, still made a huge impression on Ginsberg’s personhood. Even though Ginsberg’s close friends and family around him did not approve of his excitement in the retelling of his hallucination, he still kept it inside of him.
Thursday. In my fictional schedule, Wednesday night is when the infamous moment happens. As Ginsberg is masturbating in bed, reading “Ah! Sun-Flower,” he hears a distinct voice, who he immediately knows is William Blake, iterating the iconic poem (Clark 37). However, that is not the only time it happens; a few moments later, Blake’s voice speaks to him again. In that moment, Ginsberg says that he “knows the secrets of the cosmos” and sees universal truth in the world around him and beyond.
While it is an awakening to Ginsberg, it appears as madness to others, which is exactly why I chose to make Thursday’s desk look as unorganized and distraught as possible— there are ink stains all over, random slips of paper where he is madly scribbling his name, and poems that try to recapture the climatic, cosmic hallucination he had experienced.
Additionally, if the reader clicks on Ginsberg’s coffee, everything on the page shifts. I tried to make it seem like the picture and text on the page were jumping out at the reader, three-dimensional but trippy, to try and make the reader feel like they were also having an episode of prophetic madness. A transparent image on William Blake’s head also rises from the coffee cup, as if staring back at Ginsberg and the reader. Furthermore, another yin and yang symbol spins to the forefront of the page; if the reader clicks on the symbol, another poem pops up, where I tried to establish this new self-prophecy that Ginsberg begins to create for himself. Suddenly, he knows the “secrets to the universe”— he believes that he is holy, that he is wise, and that he has understood the meaning of life itself. After the incident of being directly spoken to by Blake, that is how he brands his poetics and his personhood— as a self-determined prophet (Clark 53).
Friday. Come Friday, it appears at first sight that things have substantially calmed down. There are no ink spills, no ripped pieces of paper. Instead, there is a single sheet of paper, with sunflower petals completely strewn around the desk. Ultimately, the desk is supposed to visualize now this battle between the madness Ginsberg has just experienced and his coming to terms with reality again. Again, he is met with an identity crisis— while there is more self-assurance in who he is, and what he is here on this earth to do, it is a matter of the struggle with how society will accept it. The scattered sunflower petals try to represent that internal chaos, with their random placement and the fact that they are spread on his desk anyways.
At this point the reader can click on each petal. In doing so, it pieces together a poem, where Ginsberg revisits an earlier question, asking, “Harlem / who am I.” However, even though the poem is a cohesive piece once all the petals are clicked, the process of putting the poem together itself is, in fact, a poem. Readers can choose to bring the poem together in whatever order they please; as a result, they can create new meaning as they form this poem together with different bits and pieces.
Saturday. On Saturday, it seems things are back to normal. Ginsberg’s desk is organized— there are no items or flowers making the space seem disheveled. The desk may even be too organized. I wanted to make the organization seem purposeful, because at this point, Allen is trying to really tighten his grasp on reality around him. There is a feeling of denial in the organization, a denial about what he has experienced that has changed him; however, there is an internal understanding about the importance of this event, yet still inner conflict.
To other people, there are many theories when it comes to the events that took place in the summer of 1948. In a state of such emotional and mental vulnerability, it could be possible to boil Allen Ginsberg’s hallucination to an episode of madness, brought on by a family history of mental illness. Regardless of what we, as readers, as artists, or as experts, may think, the fact remains that Allen Ginsberg believed that this was not “hallucination.” To him, William Blake honestly and truly did speak to him that night and reveal to him the secrets of the universe. Whether other people choose to believe it is up to them— to Allen, that was his truth and his reality, and that moment changed him and his career for the rest of his life. He may have perceived himself as a self-prophet, but the world viewed him as a literary and cultural icon by the end of the twenty-first century.
Overall, I wanted to illustrate the inner mind of such a fascinating poet through the possibilities of electronic literature. By choosing to tell this story digitally, I was able to utilize elements that otherwise would be near impossible to create on paper. For example, by capitalizing on the multimodality of storytelling through audio, video, visual, primary, and interactive elements, I created an even more “lifelike” poetic recreation of the legendary Beat poet. I was able to immerse readers in the mindset of Ginsberg, regardless of if they knew of him before or not, and contextualize his world and experiences leading up to the hallucination. While some may just brush off his Blakeian encounter to “madness,” I try to offer a humanized explanation and walk-through of how, and even why, it happened.
Additionally, through my research and writing, it may sound cliché to admit that I felt like, at times, I was channeling Allen Ginsberg himself. Once the individual really gets to know the life of the other person, as well as experience them at their most human— in their writing— it establishes an odd bond and understanding on the part of the researcher. In a way, creating this piece was my own “Blakeian” moment— while I did not hear Allen talking directly at me, going through the process of writing and reimagining his life peculiarly helped me start to define my own.
I mentioned before how the significance of the thesis was to explore how writerly identity is self-perceived and established at the start of a young person’s career. I wanted to examine the individual’s humanity and struggle with accepting their own work and embracing the title of truly being an “artist.” As a young person who is also going through those motions, this piece is also one of my first real contributions to the real world in terms of “art”— I have put a great deal of research, effort, and creativity into its conception and execution, in hopes of one day having someone view it and consider it to be “good enough” in the world of electronic literature. Part of why I even reached out to Dene Grigar was because I myself was worried about the “validation” of mediums for electronic literature.
Ultimately, I can see a lot of my own journey in my retelling of Allen’s hallucination; while I did not, again, have Ginsberg reveal the secrets of the cosmos to me, I was able to better outline an exploration of self writerly identity in young adulthood. Ginsberg’s story, albeit mystical and, to some, “mad,” is still very human. However, we do not necessarily all have to be self-prophets in order to embrace our artwork; yet, when we do accept ourselves as artists, regardless of what people think, it is the first to embracing our poetic madman and taking that real step into the reality of our own making.
Thesis site https://haileycarone.wixsite.com/the-week