Allen Ginsberg – Ars Poetica – Dallas Texas 1980 – Joe Stanco Interview

Following on from last weekend, and complimentary to an earlier tape that we featured (from Richmond College, Dallas Texas), another video gem from the Stanford Archives – Ars Poetica – An Interview with Allen Ginsberg conducted by Joe Stanco

[The participants begin, caught in conversation, in media res]

JS: Oh. – My name is Joe Stanco and I’m talking today with Allen Ginsberg and, at the moment, we were discussing Ezra Pound who’s certainly..in fact you said, at one point, “the most important American poet since Whitman

AG: I guess. Yeah. Well… (Because ) he had more effect than anybody, than almost anybody – that . he impressed everybody with his ear (he had a great ear, great musical sense)

JS: He changed the whole concept of prosody in American English. How did he go about doing that, do you think?

AG: Well, it was a real simple subtle trick. William Carlos Williams told me, “Ezra Pound has a mystical ear” (and I thought “Gee!” “Wow!” – I was twenty-two or something I didn’t know what that meant)

Then later I studied Pound and I began picking up on exactly what it was that he was doing. When we wrote poetry in the nineteenth-century in America, generally, we counted stress – “This-is-the-forest-primaeval-The-murmuring-pines-and-the-hem-locks – Light and heavy stress – heavy (“this is the”), the heavy-light-light, heavy-light-light, “thisis-the-forest-primaeval” (or a line of mine, from “Plutonian Ode” – “Over your dreadful vibrations of measured harmony” – “Over-your-dreadful-vibrations of..” – So.

Now what Pound did, he realized, that all these counts, like this dactylic line (datta-da datta-da datta-da datta-da – a dactyl – that a dacty, or any other of the measures that we use, like an iambic or trochaic (iambic is da-da da-da, trochaic s “Tyger, Tyger”, da-da, da-da”), that those have all derived originally from Greek dance meters, Greek foot (foot because of dancing), from Greek measures of the verse.

But the Greeks had a couple of other things that we didn’t have. The Greeks had, for one thing, when they were counting in their lines, they could count tones of voice, a couple of high tones and low tones. So they had marks to go up and down and up-and-down. Like, so, “Sing, O wizard..” “Sing, O muse of the wrath of Achilles, and Peleus’ son”. I think in Greek it’s “Pe-le-us”), So it goes up and down. And it’s indicated by a circumflex,  like a little hat-shaped mark. So they had tone or pitch to the vowels and you could have a line that had a regular tune, like.  Now with talk, regular talking, we do have tones (just like “mean (as) .. hell)

JS: In English?

AG: In English, yes – Sure Sure! When you emphasize the word you have a tone. The pitch goes up high – see? – and when you’re less emphatic it tends to go goes down. So we have up and down . We have up-and-down too.

JS: Sure

AG: So Pound trained his own ear to hear the up and the downs of the pitch of the vowels. And he said, a good poet now should “follow the tone-leading of the vowels” , the going up and the going down of the vowels, and you could make a kind of musical line from line to line being aware of the pitch of the vowels.

JS: But we don’t have any way in English to notate that

AG: Yes, up and down. You just need consciousness of it . In English, they never thought about it, (although they did figure things like….). In Chinese you have tone, in Chinese poetry , Tibetan poetry, a tone, I believe, a lot of languages. In Greek they have definite tones. We don’t have a regular scheme of tones up and down, but we have ears to hear high and low. So that a good poet will begin to begin digging that..

[Allen Ginsberg and Joe Stanco]

And the second is the length of the vowel . Pound was interested in what was called “quantity” (rather than just stress). See? -“Stress” is ”Tell me not in ..” whereas “quantity” would be a little more subtle, it would be hearing how long it takes to pronounce the vowels, or duration of vowels.

Pound, in order to practice up on that, went back to the earlier writers in English who tried to play with classical quantity or duration and that was  Sir Philip Sidney and Thomas Campion and Edmund Waller, people in the Renaissance who had gone to Italy during the classical revival in Italy when they were studying the classics again and getting out those naked statues and reading up the old Lesbian poets like Sappho, and beginning to pick up on their old prosody, as it is called.

So, one of the early English examples of quantitative verse, is by Edmund Waller and his poem called “Song” and years later, three hundred years later, I guess it is, (it was written when? 18? !6?…1645). Then, 1905 or so, Pound imitated the same song. So I’ll read Waller’s attempt at approximation of English quantity and Pound’s attempt at approximation of English quantity. Ok? – It’s a very famous song (and it was “song” – to be sung)

[Edmund Waller (1606-1687)]

[At approximately six and a half minutes in, Allen begins reading Edmund Waller] –   “Go, lovely rose…”… “That are so wondrous sweet and fair!” – “all things rare” – You see? – “All things rare” – three long vowels – “all things rare”

JS: A procession

AG: Yeah.    He did that funny procession of vowels   Doing the same rhythm, as a little inscription in one of his books in 1919 – [‘Envoi‘] – “Go dumb-born book…” Go-dumb-born-book” – Four long vowels – row – row of four-long-vowels. – “Go-dumb-born book’/”tell-her-that-sang-me-once-that-song-of-Lawes” – (Henry Lawes, who set Edmund Waller to music, a seventeenth-century composer) – “Go dumb-born book/Tell her that sang me once that song of Lawes/Hadst thou but song/ As thou hast subjects known/Then were there cause in thee that should condone/Even my faults that heavy upon me lie/and build her glories their longevity/Tell her that sheds/Such treasure in the air,/Recking naught else but that her graces give/Life to the moment,/  I would bid them live /As roses might, in magic amber laid,/ Red overwrought with orange and all made/ One substance and one colour/ Braving time./ Tell her that goes/With song upon her lips/ But sings not out the song, nor knows/ The maker of it, some other mouth,/May be as fair as hers,/ Might, in new ages, gain her worshippers,/ When our two dusts with Waller’s shall be laid,/ Siftings on siftings in oblivion, /Till change hath broken down/ All things save Beauty alone.”

AG: So maybe you can use some of that long-vowel music

JS: If you listen for it, you can hear

AG: “Till change hath broken down/ All things save Beauty alone.” (It isn’t “Till change hath broken down All things save Beauty alone” – that’s not the lilt in it, that’s not the cadence, it’s “Till change hath broken down/ All things save Beauty alone”. ). So it’s funny, they have an equivalence, it’s, like, “Till”, “change,” “hath”, “broken”, “down”, like four long vowels and two half vowels – “Till” “change” “bro-“, “down” – (you) can have’ – so that’s “till”, “change” “bro-“, “dow’” – four long vowels – (“n” and “ken” is sort of half left, so you could say there’s five vowels altogether, once you add up the halves) Four plus two halves . That’s the way they did it in Greek _ “All-things-save-beauty-alone” – So, “all”-“things” “save”, “beaut” “.lone’ – Yeah, were you folks following that? – “All-things-save-beau-ty-a-lone” – four long vowels and two half-vowels.

So those two lines are measured by the length of the vowels not by the number of accents or stresses. Dig?

[Ezra Pound in London, 1913 – Photograph by Alvin Langdon Coburn]

JS: So it was Pound’s intent to kill off the hold that iambic pentameter had on English and American poetry

AG: Iambic pentameter is like da-da da-da da-da da-da da-da – iambs – five of them – da-da da-da da-da da-da da-da – “I go you go she goes we go you go”. He (Ezra Pound) said that “To break the pentameter, that was the first heave”, in the late end of the nineteenth century, to free the ear so that we could hear new measure and so that we could hear the way we all..we talk to ourselves, to each other, so that we could write poetry that’s more like the way we’re.. the way people make.. want  to themselves want to..  spoken to each other. Like, well, I’ll begin the poem [“Portrait d’une Femme”] – “Your mind and you are our Sargasso Sea” – “Your mind and you are our Sargasso Sea/ London has swept about you this score years” –  (Okay, it isn’t,  “London has swept about you this score years”, it’s, “London has swept about you this score years”, it’s that same ear for long vowels – “this score years” – from his famous poem “Portrait of A Woman”)

“And bright ships left you this or that in fee:/Ideas, old gossip, oddments of all things,/Strange spars of knowledge and dimmed wares of price./Great minds have sought you — lacking someone else/.You have been second always. Tragical?/No. You preferred it to the usual thing:/One dull man, dulling and uxorious,/One average mind —   with one thought less, each year./Oh, you are patient, I have seen you sit/Hours, where something might have floated up./And now you pay one.   Yes, you richly pay/.You are a person of some interest, one comes to you/And takes strange gain away:/  Trophies fished up; some curious suggestion;/Fact that leads nowhere; and a tale for two/ Pregnant with mandrakes, or with something else/That might prove useful and yet never proves/That never fits a corner or shows use,/Or finds its hour upon the loom of days:/The tarnished, gaudy, wonderful old work;/.Idols and ambergris and rare inlays,/These are your riches, your great store; and yet/For all this sea-hoard of deciduous things,/Strange woods half sodden, and new brighter stuff:/In the slow float of differing light and deep,/No! there is nothing! In the whole and all,/Nothing that’s quite your own./Yet this is you.”

So, basically, the trick of Ezra Pound that I began talking about was to listen to the duration of vowels, developing the ear for the duration of the vowels. That’s why Williams said to me. knowing that, that Pound had a mystical ear, meaning that it was an ear very fine, you know. Not very many poets, as poets, develop that.

So what I get out of Pound and I’ve tried to develop is some similar thing.

JS: Okay so even though he had “a mystical ear”, we are able to take the insight and apply it to what we do as poets and readers now.

AG: Yeah, We were just kidding. He meant it was very refined. But it was something real you know. It was a real thing. It wasn’t, you know, mystical up-in-the-air.

JS: Do you see that you have taken Pound’s break with iambic and made your own heave beyond that?

AG: Well, somewhat, yeah, there’s also the idea of …that the mind thinks in spontaneous flashes and sometimes you mouth things, you don’t know what you say till you say it . So what I try to add in is some little aspect of Surrealism, that is, say the spontaneous babblings of the mind , governed somewhat by the sense of the ear, trained out of Pound or trained out of William Carlos Williams’ friends.  A mouth used to talking in English – or Americanese -used to making my own rhythms and my own emphasis, just for whatever body of Americanese, body-English is characteristic of me, and (then) trying to put that in my poetry, trying to hear Pound’s vowels, trying to arrange it on the line so that it falls into natural cadences – “trying to arrange it on the line so that it/ falls into natural cadences”, bearing in mind again the question of quantity, the length and duration of the vowels, and trying to throw in the kitchen-sink of the mind also, in other words, anything that rises spontaneously (which is something I’ve learned from (Jack) Kerouac)

JS: Right and is that free association, basically, or is it more than that?

AG: Well, there’s some element of free association, it’s just the natural ..oh, it’s the natural run-on, associational run-on, “deep form” of the mind, as Kerouac would say.

[Jack Kerouac,  c.1956 – Photograph by Tom Palombo]

I have a Mexico City Blues, Kerouac’s little book of poems. Let me read a little poem of his that’s really extraordinary, for following the mind jumping around. In the middle of the poem he tried to remember a classical name (Neptune) and he can’t get it, it’s on the tip of his tongue. So he writes down everything that leads up to the final getting it off the tip of his tongue. And it describes his father in Lowell, Massachusetts, alone in the street, going out to go to the mailbox and looking in and walking down the street and thinking about…Jack Kerouac. .Kerouac is describing his dead father, thinking about him years and years back – [At approximately sixteen minutes in Allen reads Kerouac’s Mexico City Blues”, 97th Chorus] –  “Meanwhile..”  ( 97th Chorus of Mexico City Blues”) – “Meanwhile there’s my Pa…”..”my poor l’il Ti Pousse/.he thinks of me/He’ll get it too”).     So Kerouac had the common sense to include all that run-on of associations and verbal trilling – you know trilling and trilling and cadenza that led up to his recollection of Neptune “– “N-e-p-p-y T-u-n-e –“ – “Then all’s wet underneath, to Eclipse/)Ovan the Heaven Sea-Ice King, Euclid/Bloody Be Jupiter, Nucleus,/Nuclid, What’s-His-Name – the sea.The sea-drang Scholar with mermaids,/Bloody blasted dadflap thorn it/ -“N-e-p-p-y T-u-n-e –“ – And then “All’s wet clear to Neptune’s Seat” So he had that swiftness of mind/

JS: And swiftness of hand

AG: And swiftness of hand, yeah. So I got interested in that. And he describes how..how you get that swiftness of mind actually. At the end of the book, he says (242nd Chorus) – “The sound in your mind/is the first sound/that you could sing/ If you were singing/at a cash register/with nothing on your mind.” –  In other words, you’re just sort of standing there idly. You just listen to whats going on in your head. You don’t have to make it up, you just remember it rather than making it up

JS” But what about the chitter-chatter that goes on in your mind –“I have to do the laundry, pork chops for supper?, where’s the nickel I need to put in the parking-meter?” – should that be included?

AG: Yes. in certain times. Like he says – 17th Chorus – (“Starspangled Kingdoms bedecked/in dewy joint – DON”T IGNORE OTHER PARTS/OF YOUR MIND, I think/And my clever brain sends/ripples of amusement/Through my leg nerve halls/And I remember the Zigzag/Original/Mind/ of Babyhood/when you’d let the faces/crack & mock/& yak and change/& go mad utterly/in your night/firstmind/reveries” – (talking about the mind) –  The endless Not Invisible/Madness Rioting/Everywhere”). – So this is a little poem about the mind, the nature of the mind. His interest was, yes, in including all of the babble of the mind because he was interested in the music of the babble of the mind.

JS: Okay Is your interest the same?

AG: Basically, yeah, I think..oddly enough, I think good poets travel along the lines of sound and then they understand what they say afterwards but the first that they hear is the sound of the vowels and then they say, “oh boy, that means something really great”

JS: Yeah – ok – so

AG: “Moloch whose eyes are a thousand blind windows” – (I’m listening to Moloch whose eyes are a thousand blind windows” and see “Oh, that’s all about the city !” – See I didn’t realize I was writing about Chicago, New York City horizon megalopolis thousand skyscrapers till after I wrote it, practically. Well, I knew it but.. the vehicle I was using was sound, and the sound collects picture images around it.

JS: So the sound is the…

AG: I think in rhythm and sound involved. One..  and just like a painter who might think in colors, you know, might think in shapes and colors, so a poet might think in sounds (underneath the intelligent part, you know, of what he’s signifying).

JS: Since we’re talking about “the poet”, perhaps we could…

AG: Sometimes kinds of poet, let us say. Yeah

JS: The poet in general rather than the product that he comes up with, namely poetry. Do you think that the role of the poet in society is changing today?

AG: No I don’t think so. The role of the poet has always been to tell his own secrets, to reveal his inner mind, to reveal the babble of his inner mind.

JS: And what does that do in terms of the society that he is part of?

AG: Well, everybody’s doing… everybody’s thinking the same thing actually, but nobody.. everybody’s afraid of saying it. So some guy comes up and says,” well, I was thinking this morning about the extra bright lights all over Dallas and the obvious assassinations that nobody ever figured out . I was thinking about my feet and I was thinking about my nose” and.. everybody says, ” Yeah, I was thinking about my feet, and my nose, and my assassinations too. How smart he is – he said it!”

A good example of that is William Carlos Williams. Here’s a poem about being at home, him being at home, which is really shocking when you come down to it but on the other hand it’s everybody, its everybody’s soul. It’s called “Danse Russe and   he wrote it when he was in his twenties – (William Carlos Williams, great old poet, friend of Pound, a doctor,so, solid citizen, can’t fault him, this is an American talking here) – “Danse Russe”  [At apprpoximately twenty-and-a-half minutes in Allen begins reading Williams]

So…he’s absolutely proud of himself and proud of looking at his behind in the mirror, like everybody else in America (because anybody who said that they don’t do the same thing is a liar, or anybody who doesn’t behave as individually, personally, fully, and amazingly as that just hasn’t lived, or doesn’t know of it probably. So Williams was able to say this and reveal this about himself and that gives permission for everybody else to recognize it about themselves and their neighbor, that we all have this funny human individuality and quirkiness, slight rawness, vulnerability, real-ness (a kind of real-ness and vulnerability you don’t see in the newspapers – this kind of humor you don’t see in the newspapers, this kind of humor you don’t see on television generally, this kind of humor you only see in the mirror)

JS: In the mirror of words.

AG: No, of your own consciousness. And then the poet takes that mirror from his own consciousness and puts it out in words so that other people can see it and be a mirror for other people to look at themselves. So this book of Selected Poems by William Carlos Williams is a mirror of American humanity, of American common sense It follows the  mirror that Walt Whitman set up when he began in the nineteenth century to break through to personal poetry and say I celebrate myself and sing myself /And what I shall assume you shall assume/For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you”

So, following that, William Carlos Williams, writing a big poem about his nose called “Smell” “ (O strong-ridged and deeply hollowed/ nose of mine!…… “Must you taste everything? Must you know everything/Must you have a part in everything?” – Well, the answer is, of course, “Yes” –  The mind goes out in every direction and has a part in everything. And that’s why he’s a great teacher,  who Whitman said, in his little poem “To A Common Prostitute”,  ”Not till the sun rejects you, do I reject you”, [“Not till the sun excludes you, do I exclude you”} –  or what the Japanese Buddhist haiku artist said, – “The Autumn…” – Issa, his name – Issa, the writer of haiku –“The Autumn moon shines kindly on the flower thief”.  It’s the nature of the mind toi shine continuously, to enter everything, take a part in everything, to be inquisitive in every crevasse.

JS: Are you saying that the poet is a priest of consciousness?

A: Well, in modern times he seems to be, because, certainly, it’s not the Church – where are the priests of real consciousness? – or, at least, the God churches seem to be interested in starting wars all the time , particular in..  we’re talking around election-time of the year anno domine 1980, United States of America, Northern.. Northern Continent, the Western Hemisphere. There’s all these fundamentalist Christian churches going out, wanting a big military budget, wanting to rape Russia, or something – some kind of weird dog-eat-dog religion around here that has nothing to do with perfect human heart, has nothing to do with, even,  sacred heart, you know..  I don’t know what religion would be.. (would) provide priests for consciousness. I like Buddhist religion because their meditation practice makes you realize the same things that Williams’ poetry makes you realize (because when you’re doing non-theistic Buddhist meditation practice, you’re just sitting there doing nothing but observing the phenomena of your mind and your breath, going back and forth between breath and mental pictures).

JS:   I think if we have poetry like Williams and like yours, then, we would not even need Buddhism, is that correct?

AG: But you might not be able to get our poetry withouy Buddhism! . As you may guess, William Carlos Williams got the hint for this concreteness, and Ezra Pound got the hint for this concreteness, from Chinese and Japanese Buddhist poetry, because the Buddhist poetry made a point of making a point, looking, focused, carefully, where the eye hits, not talking about big abstractions but talking about the souring smell of the festering poplar bulbs, or whatever, talking about the strong-nose raised hollow nose of mind, in other words, the real thing. So we’re getting rid of ideas and putting in things instead

There’s a kind of interesting poem by William Carlos Williams that’s very brief called “Thursday” that is a little bit like meditation practice. Meditation practice in Buddhist style, (which has led to the art of haiku, painting and calligraphy and spontaneous poetry and spontaneous painting), consists of sitting back straight, spine straight, eyes open, paying attention to the breath – [Allen demonstrates – “I’m hamming it up a little obviously but.. following the breath”] – So you sort of focus in a place that’s real (you’re breathing already, so it’s not doing anything that you’re not doing already). So be mindful of what you’re already doing. So that’s the basis of zazen or Zen meditation

Wlliams wrote a poem in 1919 that intersects with. the idea intersects with that Buddhist sitting practice – “I have had my dream…” – (It’s called “Thursday’ – Thursday? – any old Thursday’ll do) – “I have had my dream…”…”and decide to dream no more’- (that’s really interesting, “the rim of my hat”, “air passing in and out of my nose”, and decide to dream no more”, but wake up,as you were here, right in that space – “air passing in and out of my nose”

So, well, it would take a certain awareness to remember that you said that too. The mistake is also interesting, the mistake is also poetry. Rather than ignoring it you know, and saying, “Oh I didn’t… )no_forget that! “What tactless asses we are, you and I, boney nose”,  “must you be interested in everything?”

So the mind in itself is inquisitive and the mind goes everywhere. So poetry goes everywhere and says everything, says what’s not supposed to be said, was forbidden to be said, that everybody knows but is scared to say. (I guess it’s (Alexander) Pope’s phrase – “What oft was thought but ne’er so well expressed” or to use (William) Shakespeare’s phrase, “One touch of nature makes the whole world kin”. If one guy like Williams can get up and say, “I’m dancing naked in my room in front of my mirror waving my shirt around my head   and I’m having a good time” Everybody recognizes “Oh I’ve done that and had a good time too”, (except you don’t say that in polite society – or do you? – maybe you do say that in polite society so that society becomes really polite, really delicate, really inteligent , really sophisticated, really useful to itself.. So that the poet maybe can talk in such a way as everybody gets a little bit more human, acknowledges their own feelings and acknowledges their own perceptions.

JS: Is that how the poet takes social action?

AG: Yeah – In other words, just, remember what you already thought. You don’t have to make up a social program, you remember what you already thought. If you smoked a joint and you realized that, wow, you got a little high, and you saw some bright red in the Cezanne, or the Picasso, that wasn’t like going to the madhouse, like it said in the Narcotics Bureau papers. Actually, you know, your own individual senses you can trust them. So the poet trusts his senses and announces what he experienced. And other people learn to trust their senses and trust what they experience. Trust yourself, folks

JS: We’ll see you later.

[The video, from which this is a transcript may be accessed here in the Allen Ginsberg archives at Stanford University. See our continuing transcripts and posts drawing from these archives]

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