This week we’re excited to feature Elissa Schappell‘s essay, “The Craft of Poetry: A Semester with Allen Ginsberg,” as our Longreads Member Pick. Her recollections are an intimate window into the Beat legend. The piece originally appeared in the Summer 1995 issue of the Paris Review and was later anthologized in their 1999 collection Beat Writers at Work. Thanks to Schappell and the Paris Review for sharing it with the Longreads community:
Of all the literature classes I have ever taken in my life Allen Ginsberg’s “Craft of Poetry” was not only the most memorable and inspiring, but the most useful to me as a writer.
First thought, best thought.
It’s 1994 and I am getting my MFA in fiction at NYU. I’m sitting in the front row of a dingy classroom with a tape recorder and a notebook. The tape recorder is to record Allen Ginsberg, the big daddy of the Beat’s “Craft of Poetry” lectures for a feature I’m writing for The Paris Review. No. Lectures is the wrong word—Ginsberg’s thought operas, his spontaneous jet streams of brilliance, his earthy Dharma Lion roars—that’s what I’m there to capture. His teaching method is, as he explains it, “to improvise to some extent and it have it real rather than just a rote thing.”
It was very real.
The education Ginsberg provided me exceeds the bounds of the classroom, and far beyond the craft of poetry. Look inward and let go, he said. Pay attention to your world, read everything. For as he put it, “If the mind is shapely the art will be shapely.”
—Elissa Schappell, 2013
Photo via MCDarchives