This little gem from Australian tv – [2012 update, regrettably, this instructive little tv interview-clip has been pulled from You Tube, presumably for copyright reasons. We can only hope that ABC will see fit to re-instate it. In the meantime, at least we have the transcription]
Allen in Adelaide in 1972 for the Arts Festival, interviewed for ABC (the Australian Broadcasting Company) by an earnest and sympathetic Juene Pritchard. He speaks of Aboriginal tribal poetry, and of “the body of rhythms and chant patterns that are the foundations of his work”.
Here is the transcript:
JP: Allen, you were saying, when you write your own poetry, the rhythms of it, you try to follow natural body rhythms, or Buddhist rhythms, or Aboriginal rhythms. Do you think you’ve learnt something from listening to the black songwriters in Australia?
AG: Yes, very much, I was originally interested in song and working with Bob Dylan and doing blues, and also, earlier, doing mantra, as I began – “Om Mani Padme Hum” – but the mantra, as you may have noticed, is very long breath it’s “Ooooooooooooooooommmmm” – so, now what is the Aborigine breath? – what they do is they take a little short song-form, (like the one that I translated into English before – that was, “into the whirlwind they go, the young kids, in play, into the whirlwind’). What they do is, take a simple form like that, (and) repeat it eight or nine times – sort of like a Japanese haiku, you might say, it has the intensity and compression of a haiku, except it’s got a funny little lilting rhythm. which they play against their songsticks, (which I don’t know how (to play).. I’m trying to learn how). So, first of all you have the syncopated rhythm, and secondly, you have the completed song, like in a mantra, like, say, “Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare”, which takes one breath, (remember – Hare Krishna is one long long long breath with a lot of fast words!). So, if you were going to do the whirlwind song, you would go..
(Allen then chants): “Wappenka Jarparma Nyanna Nalalee, Wappenka Jarparma Nyanna, Nalalee, Wappenka Jarparma Nyanna Nalalee, Wappenka Jarparma Nyanna Nalalee, Wappenka Jarparma Nyanna Nalalee, Wappenka Jarparma Nyanna Nalalee.
Wappenka Jarparma Nyanna Nalalee, Wappenka Jarparma Nyanna Nalalee, Wappenka Jarparma Nyanna Nalalee“.
“Into the whirlwind, into the whirlwind, the young boys, for fun” – so it’s, like, a children’s song. What they’ve done is taken a long breath. The other thing I’ve noticed, they’ve got the repeated.. the mantra, or the little lyric, or the verse, repeated many times, but, in addition, I noticed (that) they have a funny kind of voice, that comes sometimes from the center, as with yogis, sometimes from the heart chakra, or center, here [gestures vocalization] – it’s that “Nyanna Nalalee, Nyanna Nalalee“, “Wappenka Jarparma Nyanna Nalalee, Wappenka Jarparma Nyanna Nalalee“. So I’ve heard sometimes a voice coming from the cheek-bones..”
Allen goes into more detail here – a class he gave (at NAROPA) on July 23 1976.
Herewith, a few excerpts:
“My own preoccupation has been increasingly with spontaneous utterances or spontaneous forms, and so I’ve been experimenting around with that a lot. One really interesting and very ancient form of poetics, which was maybe the oldest, is Australian Aborigine practice. They have epic material – that is, it takes sometimes forty years to become a songman in Pitjantjatjara, which is Central Australia, or in Arnhem Land, among the Yirrkala tribes, involves memorizing epic material that covers a cycle of migration that the tribe takes over anywhere from twenty to forty years. And that’s why it might take that long to become a songman…”
“The songman uses a very simple form – (a) line (of) verse, which is then repeated by the entire tribe (which might be anywhere from five to fifty to a hundred people). Not many people could travel like that. You’d have to have small groups moving, and, say, stopping for a couple of weeks in one spot, in a continuous nomadic existence. So the songmen use songsticks along with their verses to mark time and to lead the rest of the village chanting. The songman is the only one who has in his head the entire stock of words and information…The songman’s profession is to keep track of everything, so that the entire village, actually, depended on a poet. In that case the poet has the Encyclopedia Brittanica in his head and is the only one who knows, actually, how to survive, or at least has specific instructions how to survive in certain places..”
“These are Aboriginal songsticks, and they’re used for keeping time. Almost every elder will have songsticks. Sometimes, carved with maps, geographical directions, sometimes carved with messages. Those who don’t have songsticks will pick up twigs or anything. In other words, a songstick can be anything from a couple of pencils pounded together, to bottles, but, generally, little sticks, branches or twigs. And so a whole village chanting together makes quite a musical din, a good racket, like, everybody on time. Those who don;t know the verse will pick up on the verse as the songman begins it, and so they’ll chant the verse ten or twelve times, and there are little dances that may go along with it…”
“Children’s songs are taught to begin with, just so the kids get trained. They’re used for teaching simple children’s games at the beginning. I ran into songmen in Australia, in the University of Adelaide, when a group of very old, gorilla-faced-looking songmen, who had never been out of the Central Australian desert, were brought down, four of them, in trucks, to an anthropology class, and asked to put on children’s songs (in an attempt) to relate to some autistic children. .the anthropologists brought in some kids who weren’t communicating very much, and they wanted to see whether the songmen’s rhythm sticks and chants would rouse any response in the kids…I sat in on the class, made friends with some of the songmen. I found that they had (a) fantastic auditory imagination. They don’t have a written language, so anything that enters their ear, they can remember it, or they can pick up anything rhythmical. Anything poetic that they hear, they reproduce almost instantly. We were trading songs. So I did one verse of “Hare Krishna”, and they were able to pick up on “Hare Krishna” instantly, and sing it right back after one verse.”
“Their (the Aborigines) eternal Dreamtime seems to be some sort of continuous present, which fits in with their migration cycle, in the sense that some animals mentioned in the migration songs are known to have been extinct(ed) twelve or fourteen thousand years ago, which means they have the oldest viable human culture on the planet that we know of. I don’t think there are any other poetries that have survived that long. If you want to, as Thomas Merton once did, measure the validity, or viability, of a culture by its stability, its long-lasting-ness, (then) they have the most viable culture of all – or they had, until we began destroying it”
“..Well, this is Northern Australia. There were about, I think I read somewhere, three thousand different Aboriginal languages spoken. So each tribe had its own dialect, some of them completely different so that one tribe couldn’t understand another. Originally, before Englishmen came to Australia, they lived in the lusher parts of (the country). It wasn’t total desert, but Australia is a vast continent, larger than the US, so the geographical instructions would be different for every part. Where I attended a funeral ceremony was in Arnhem Land, which is Northern Australia, which is only a few hundred miles south of New Guinea..”
Wandjuk Marika (1927-1987) was the famous songman (indigineous artist, poet, activist) Allen sought out and who accompanied him to the funeral rites. Shane Maloney’s illuminating account of their encounter may be read here. Videographer, Wednesday F Kennedy has also produced a short video documentary (featuring Djawa (“Timmy”) Burarrawanga reading Marika’s “Who I Am”, and more recollections of Allen’s brief, but influential, time in Australia). It can be accessed here.