[William Carlos Williams (1883-1963) – Photograph by Jonathan Williams – from “A Palpable Elysium: Portraits of Genius and Solitude]
(Continuing with Allen Ginsberg’s class on “Spontaneous Poetics” at Naropa Institute, from June 28 1976)
AG: Breath-stop is the next measuring concept. In (William Carlos) Williams case, and in Robert Creeley‘s case, and in my case, and in Charles Olson’s case, and in the practice of many modern poets, one way they divide the line when they’re doing free verse is.. (because these are all the elements, still, in open-form verse, (that) I’m talking about, saying there’s a shadow of a syllable count, there’s a shadow of accent, the shadow of vowel-awareness (and) there is a definite practice of breath-stop). That’s always been part of poetry, particularly part of song. The other night (several friends) were (over in my apartment) and (we were) sight-reading (Thomas) Campion songs from the original music (which really got much (so) better than when we (first) started with Campion, (earlier in) the term). We had a whole musical group, with flute, that can do it now, some Campion (If anybody’s interested, it might be good, some time or other (in these lectures), to get back to song, and have it (them) performed more accurately for the breath than the Campion songs that I was reading (more accurately than we started at the beginning). But I was noticing that, in song, they were discussing where do they take the breath? – breathing the old ancient music – there were technical discussions of where the breath was to be taken. And were there breath marks in those music sheets?
Student: (Well, not per se) that’s usually something you determine either within yourself or with a teacher..
Student: … wherever it’s convenient… (taking a breath at) the end of a phrase.. and..
AG: That’s part of the oral transmission…
AG: …rather than the written. Well, I think that there are some notes. There’s no notation to show breath in traditional music of any kind that you know of? No mark or notation?
Student: There is..there’s a mark very similar to the “light” [accentual mark], except it’s more like a hill than a valley..
AG: And (so) then, there is no definite notation that can be used..?
Student: No, I’ve never seen it in any printed music (manuscripts)
AG: I’ve noticed that in the practice of trying to vocalize from the music sheets, a good deal of discussion was (about) where do you take your breath?
Student: (For flute)..they use a mark.. [Another Student – they do?] …where you take a breath..
AG: Yeah, I imagine, in almost any wind instrument.
Now, the marks for where you take the breath in poetry have always been the comma, the period, and the line. I mean space – space-arrangement on the page – indicates the breathing. I think without the control of continuous comma punctuation and semi-colons, colons, with the advent of the dash as an all-purpose gap of mind or speech, in meditation as in action, there also is this newer preoccupation with the line-break as the spot where you take another breath, or you have a breath-stop and you don’t need a comma. And Creeley’s practice was, he would write little funny couplets like – “If you were going to get a pet/ What kind of animal would you get?” – with a definite breath-stop in-between the two verses (lines) of the couplet. What he wanted was (for) the two verses of the couplet (to) be so far apart and so discrete and so independent of each other that you could pronounce one – “If you were going to get a pet” – and then take a walk around the block and come back and say – “What kind of animal would you get”. So his image of the breath-stop was you take a walk around the block and then you come back. A real definite stop-gap, for the mind, for the speech. That’s his style, that’s his own personal idiosyncratic speech. He, being Bostonian by nature, a stammerer of some sort, a stammerer and tipsy Catholic Irishman. That’s the way you talk in Boston, some time – a little hesitancy, short lines, (with) space between – walk around the block before the next thought . So there’s the breath-stop as a measure. Yes?
Student: Something strange.. I’ve noticed, in reading Creeley though, that his lines are so short it’s almost like a hyperventilation..if you take a breath between each line.
AG: Well, I think sometimes that goes on in Creeley, And that’s quite literal. You see, he has this idiosyncratic breathing, connected with the breath-stop, or certain words , but I think very often there is a real breath…
[tape ends, but picks up again on next side]
So the breath-stops are used different ways. You can have it for short, or you can have it for a different effect, the kind of effect that you get in Charles Olson very often, in which he’s a very thoughtful man, full of intellect, and it takes a little time for the sentences to formulate themselves in his head. But when they do formulate themselves, they come out and they come out long, and they’ll stretch from the margin from the left-hand-side of the page and go all the way over to the right-hand-side margin, and continue. But when they continue, there’s a break, so that’s another line, so “and continue” will balance that whole other streak of language I just emitted. So Olson’s Maximus Poems, if you notice, are arranged on the page to fit long and short breaths, physiologically emitted by the poet, either in the scratch of a pen on paper, or whether he has to pick up the pen and then continue again with a short line, or how it might be spoken. As I was reading it the other day (those few Songs from The Maximus Poems), I don’t know if you noticed, there was a great variability and nervousness, so to speak (not uneasiness-nervousness, but nervousness of riding along on pure impulse and a very sensitive projecting outwards and advancing into the thought (or into the air) with the words, and then stopping, and containing all the hesitancies of thinking on your feet or writing directly as the mind produces images, or as the mind moves (So “moves” there, would be one line – “as the mind/moves” – which is just like “you sing also you who also want. You have to look that up on the page in Don Allen’s anthology). So for a sample of the breath-stop as a measure of variable line-lengths, or a regulation if not a measure, a regulation of the line on the page, according to the breath-stop in a most variable form. Yes?
Student: Allen, it seems that Robert Duncan seems to have refined this to a fine art.
Student: I remember (when I saw him read) the way he was sort of conducting himself
AG: Yes, well there, he was (probably) cultivating other pulsations of waves of speech, or perhaps even, there to some extent, accents, or, I wonder…
Student: He said he was counting heartbeat
AG: Heartbeats, he’s counting?
Student: So he says.
AG: Incredible. Incredible. So he’s counting time by heartbeat. That’s something I never thought of. That’s really… literally? .. Where did he say that?.. I forgot.. Did he say that in (an interview) or..? I guess I just missed that. But that’s great. That takes a good deal of diffusion of consciousness throughout the body and mind to be able to do that simultaneously. Maybe he just counts the heartbeats until he begins speaking?.. I see
Student: As the words are arranged on the page
AG: As the words are arranged on the page?
Student: How long a space he takes relates to the length between words on the page.
AG: And that relates to the number of heartbeats? – The space on the page relates to the length of time he takes to speak between the sentences, and that relates to a count of heartbeat often. Of course, in Olson the length of space on the page, the white space on the page, relates to the time it takes between one sentence or another, or one line and another.
In (Jack) Kerouac’s Mexico City Blues, there’s the same principle – large spaces indicating long pauses – spaces for breathing, spaces for the breath, spaces indicating “take a breath”, mixed with commas, in Kerouac.
Another way of dividing the line on the page is dividing it by units of phrasing. Not so much the breath because several units can be in a breath. Perhaps even you could find three units in a breath. Perhaps if you listen to your speech, as you were talking aloud to a dearest friend, you’d come to find that, at certain heart-felt moments (mind dwelling in the heart, meaning heart-felt) your exposition would exist in triads (as mine just was for about three lines) . That is, though there was one breath, there were perhaps three phrases within the breath, or two phrases within the breath, or one phrase and an isolate word. So there are the spoken phrasings, and one could study those by listening to people talk, or listening to yourself talk, and find little rhythmic units, little squiggly articulations of speech that, after a while, become familiar. Or patterns that you can model your own writing on, or simply take directly from the air and take them to the page, like magic – unique specimens of isolate rhythmic flex. So you can imitate the sound of words in the air, or you can imitate the sound of words in your mind, what is called the “subconscious gossip” often, in Buddhist meditation terms, the literal sound in your mind. As Kerouac says, “The sound of poetry is the sound you hear is the first sound that you would hear if you were standing at a cash register, if you were singing at a cash register with nothing on your mind”. The sound in your ear is the first sound you would hear if you were singing at a cash register with nothing on your mind”. So you could hear your own sound of your own talk, to yourself.
And they come in units of speech too – little rhythmic units. So you can divide the line by those rhythmic units and set it out on the page, scoring your own speech, or scoring other speech, or scoring common speech, but taking as a model all of the little idiosyncratic rhythms that don’t belong in the schemes of light and heavy accent – iamb, trochee, anapest and dactyl – that don’t belong divided into monometer, dimeter, trimeter, tetrameter, pentameter, etcetera. An example – when I visited Williams, he had written on a 1948 prescription pad, “I’ll kick yuh eye” (this is something I’ve said any number of times because it struck me, repeated any number off times) – “I’ll kick yuh eye” -Y-U-H E-Y-E”, he;d written.He said, “How can you scan that in accentual meter?” – But he would appropriate that completely for his poetry.
There are a number of very short poems which are experiments in listening to little units of speech – “Details” he called them – “Her milk don’t seem to../ She’s always hungry but../ She seems to gain all right,/ I don’t know.” – Some mother talking to the pediatrician. –“Her milk don’t seem to../ She’s always hungry but../ She seems to gain all right,/ I don’t know.” – “Doc, I bin lookin; for you/ I owe you two bucks./ How you doin’?/ Fine. When I get it/ I’ll bring it up to you” – Detail – “Hey!” – great, Hey! – “Hey/ Can I have some more/ milk?/ YEEEAAAASSSSSS!/ – always the gentle/ mother” – (and) – “I had a misfortune in September,/ just at the end of my vacation./ I been keepin’ away from that for years./ Just an accident. No foundation/ None at all, no feeling. I’m too/old to have a child. Why, I’m fifty!” – Again, a little rhythmic lyric without the lyre, without guitar, so you couldn’t call it lyric, it’s not music in the sense of notes of music with it, but, substituting for the old lyric form – “I bought a new/bathing suit/ Just pants/and a brassiere -/ I haven’t shown/it/ to my mother/ yet.” – “At The Bar” – “Hi! Open up a dozen/ Wha’cha tryin’ ta do/charge ya batteries?/ Make it two/ Easy girl!/You’ll blow a fuse if/ ya keep that up” – So he was listening to what he heard around him and the specimens of rhythm that weren’t in the books already – “To Greet A Letter-Carrier” – “Why’n’t you bring me/ a good letter? One with/ lots of money in it./ I could make use of that/ Atta boy! Atta boy!” – I think.. isn’t there a.. last year from this poem we evolved a magazine – “Atta boy!” – a literary magazine
with student poetry – “Atta boy! Atta boy!”
So I was just reading these to exemplify Williams’ study of the units of phrasing and will continue with this subject anon…
[Audio for the above class is available at http://archive.org/details/Allen_Ginsberg_class_on_William_Carlos_Williams_and_prosody_June_1976_76P051 – beginning at approximately twenty-four-and-a-quarter minutes in]