In his published works, Allen Ginsberg wrote not one single thing about moonlight and madness, yet there is a popular Internet meme—an Internet poster—usually seen with a handsome photo of our moon and the rousing declaration credited to him that you should “Follow your inner moonlight; don’t hide the madness.” (See above.)
It is a Bizarro World version of a speech given by a football coach at halftime. “Follow your inner moonlight, boys, and let’s win one for State! Don’t hide the madness!” (The team huddles together and starts to chant, quietly and slowly at first, but then they build it to a hypnotic intensity: “Don’t. Hide. The. Madness. Don’t. Hide. The. Madness.”)
But did Ginsberg, the bard of the Beats, ever write or say such a thing? Yes, no, and yes. According a post in the blog The Allen Ginsberg Project, in the late 1980s Ginsberg’s biographer Michael Schumacher interviewed Ginsberg about writing and inspiration and submitted the answer to a Writer’s Digest publication, On Being a Writer, which was a book that read more like a calendar of daily inspirations than a book made of sentences and paragraphs and thoughts.
The writer at The Allen Ginsberg Project did the footwork and even wrote to Schumacher in the search for an answer, so credit must be given to that blog. The full piece is here: “The Mystery of the Inner Moonlight.”
What Ginsberg wrote to Schumacher was:
“It’s more important to concentrate on what you want to say to yourself and your friends. Follow your inner moonlight; don’t hide the madness. Take [William Carlos] Williams: until he was 50 or 60, he was a local nut from Paterson, New Jersey, as far as the literary world was concerned. He went half a century without real recognition except among his friends and peers.
“You say what you want to say when you don’t care who’s listening. If you’re grasping to get your own voice, you’re making a strained attempt to talk, so it’s a matter of just listening to yourself as you sound when you’re talking about something that’s intensely important to you.”
Long before this interview, he had used one half of the declaration and wrote the phrase “Don’t hide the madness” in a poem in 1954. While he was editing William S. Burroughs’ novel “Naked Lunch” with Jack Kerouac, Ginsberg wrote a poem titled “On Burroughs’ Work”:
On Burroughs’ Work
The method must be purest meat
and no symbolic dressing,
actual visions & actual prisons
as seen then and now.
Prisons and visions presented
with rare descriptions
corresponding exactly to those
of Alcatraz and Rose.
A naked lunch is natural to us,
we eat reality sandwiches.
But allegories are so much lettuce.
Don’t hide the madness.
For a writer who found his voice in compound nouns and lists of the super-specific details of his humdrum day (some graduate student not named me must have tallied up the many grocery and other kinds of bills that he so frequently includes in his work; perhaps they won an assistantship), the minutiae of his existence. “Reality sandwiches” was a great turn of phrase, so good it appears to have surprised the poet. He brings the work to its swift conclusion right there, lest he pile on some allegorical lettuce and bury the meat.
But moonlight? “Inner moonlight,” no less? That was a new one. In 1955, he had already written his best known, best regarded, poem, the long “Howl,” which was published the next year. Its opening line, “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness,” seems to tell of a hard-earned caution about the lunacy of following any moonlight, inner or not. But the madness in “Howl” is the pain of those “best minds” attempting to fit in with repressed and repressive society and finding their outlet in self-inflicted agony, trying to find a fix.
By 1989, Ginsberg knew that a phrase like “inner moonlight” voiced a sentiment akin to the similar—and similarly purposefully over-simplified— “follow your bliss” of Joseph Campbell. Both are inscribed in the long history of poorly understood phrases used by people to excuse bad, or self-centered, behavior. Neither one deserves that fate; neither phrase deserves many of the people who declare them as personal credos. (I am happy to report that every post I read in response to this question was an example of a writer genuinely not declaring anything, not anything at all. Writers follow their bliss and do not need to tell the world that they are doing so.)
A writer’s life is not often a conventional one and a writer’s wisdom is often a hard-earned one. Any writing that declares its “wisdom” as “hard-earned” or to be the product of following an inner blissful moonlight is usually missing its own point, and is thus conventional enough to be put on an Internet poster. But the “crazy wisdom” that Ginsberg and Corso and many of the Beats did manage to sometimes touch upon and stare directly at and give to their readers, that is always worth encountering for the first time over and over again.
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What did Allen Ginsberg’s voice sound like, his poet’s voice? Here is a recording, with music by Tom Waits underneath.
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This post first appeared two years ago.
The WordPress Daily Prompt for August 18 asks us to reflect on the word, “Moon.”
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