Smart Went Crazy (Christopher Smart)

Picture of Christopher Smart, poet and author of

Christopher Smart (1722-1771)
On this day Christopher “Kit” Smart was born, “mad” English poet (habitue of Bedlam), progenitor (via biblical Hebrew prosody) of the classic, now-instantly-recognizeable, Ginsberg-ian long-breath long line.
“The reason I want to lay Smart on you now”, Allen tells his students in 1980, “is (that) his line is basically the same line I used for Howl. I didn’t get the Howl line from Whitman and I didn’t get it from Robinson Jeffers or Kenneth Fearing, who are the American precursors of long line, nor from the 19th century British poet Edward Carpenter, who was also as a student of Walt Whitman, writing long lines – but from Christopher Smart”.
“Kerouac’s long line comes somewhat out of Christopher Smart also” – “Hallelujah from the heart of God, and from the hand of the artist inimitable, and from the echo of the heavenly harp in sweetness magnificat and mighty” (Allen cites this line of Smart’s as a particular favorite, and recalls their (he and Kerouac’s) 1948 bop collaboration (“Song” in The Book of Martydom and Artifice, “Bop Lyrics” in Collected Poems”): “When I think of death/I get a goofy feeling./Then I catch my breath:/Zero is appealing/Appearances are hazy./Smart went crazy/Smart went crazy”).
The remarks quoted above (along with many other insights, and an informative reading of Smart, (in particular his classic “Jubilate Agno” (“Rejoice In The Lamb”), can be found here at the inestimable Internet Archives – (“A literature class, “Basic Poetics,” taught by Allen Ginsberg (at NAROPA Institute) May 26, 1980. Ginsberg begins the class by singing poems by Sappho and songs by William Blake and Isaac Watts accompanied by harmonium. The rest of the class (starting approximately 30 minutes in, please note) is devoted to Christopher Smart’s poetry”).

“Smart is smarter than anybody else around”, Allen declares. “His language is smarter than Pope or Dryden. Their’s is very stiff, compared to the liquidity and intelligence and humor (of Smart), as well as classical scholarship involved, as well as a pure vernacular improvisation and contemporary quotidian reverence”.

One comment

  1. Thank you! I am a great admirer both of Ginsberg and Smart. My own lines are almost always short. Perhaps I should give the long-breath line a shot.

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