Allen Ginsberg’s 1974 Spiritual Poetics class continues from here
Student: When you’re using the notebook technique, how do you deal with the whole problem of the breath? Do you read it out loud as you’re writing it down?
AG: Sometimes. It’s an interesting question whether it’s breath or whether it’s mind-unit. I’ve never figured that out entirely.
Student: That was the next question.
AG: That’s a rule-of-thumb thing and it’s very interesting. What I would suggest is experiment, sit down and experiment with it. The art of poetics is your sitting down alone at a desk, trying to figure how to lay out the lines according to some apprehensible or logical measure, whether it be the measure of the breath, where you stop each line literally where a breath stops, or stop each line where the writing stopped, When you’re writing poetry, one doesn’t necessarily write continuously, there’s lapses, scratches of the nose, going to the bathroom, just flubs. “Uh..” In the physical act of writing, there is the suggestion of line-length, where you stop, where you run out of mind, where you run out of material, where you stop and then don’t continue the line, unless it really is a continuation. You go on to the next. Or, even if it is a continuation, you go on to the next line indented, And, very interesting, it turns out, in reading, when you vocalize that, even if you haven’t been vocalizing it while writing, it turns out, very often, in reading you can pronounce it using just one breath for each unit you’ve laid out on the page, according to the way you were thinking, thinking writing, thinking scribbling. I first saw what I thought was a really groovy specimen of that, it turned me on.. does anybody know the anthology, The New American Poetry 1945-1960. How many don’t know that?
Student: You mean (Donald) Allen’s?
AG: Yeah, Don Allen, Grove Press, The New American Poetry 1945-1960. While all these theories of composition, or this approach to composition, was being practiced (and a lot of people were turning on to it from ’45 to ’60, in the way that I’m talking about it). There’s an anthology of all the early texts and specimens of this kind of experiment called The New American Poetry 1945-1960.
(tape ends, second side begins)
AG:…(It includes)..Projective Verse.. (an essay) called Projective Verse by Charles Olson.. (which is very famous in the Academy), which has a lot of discussion of how you use a typewriter, how there are all sorts of little signs on the typewriter that you can use to indicate breath and spacing, how white space in the typed manuscript communicates time, pause when you’re reading aloud, how you can use the typewriter-machine just like you use the click of the tape-recorder, how you can use the typewriter’s spatial lay-out to indicate your breathing and indicate the emotional pulsations on the page by the way you scatter your lines, to indicate pauses for thought, to indicate that you had nuttin’ to say, to go on and continue with a long babble – getting back to the original question you were asking, for… what? That’s the difference between notebook end-of-line and physical vocal breath-stopping of line.
So what I’m saying is there seems to be some kind of correlation between the breaths or halts you take when talking and the breaths or halts you take while writing. If you’re writing as if you were talking to your best friend, or to yourself, if you’ve got that tone to begin with, using that kind of material, if you’re in this area of exploration, if you’re in this area of writing, then there’s a kind of feed-back. As you get more and more experienced with putting it down and reading it aloud, you get more and more shrewd about it. In that sense, that’s art craft, what they used to call craft – knowing how to write a sonnet, for instance. This is a new kind of craft, a very modern kind, because it didn’t exist before there were printed notebooks, and it didn’t exist before there were printed books, and it didn’t exist before there were millions of poets who had heard of Bob Dylan, and it didn’t exist before the 20th Century, in a way. That is, it could have existed when there was parchment manuscript, but it’s a by-product of the actual mechanics of writing now, I think. This craft is body-english, seat-of-the-pants.
In reality, I would like to say, there are no rules, there are not rules. It’s totally open space to work with. I really don’t follow any rules. I have some experience when I write but I don’t follow any rules. I have some experience, and what generalizations I’m making that sound like rules are sort of generalizations, I guess, for the purposes of a classroom, to say that you can collect your thoughts on this point, and collect your thoughts on that point. You can collect your idea of the line around your idea of the breath-stop, you can collect your practice of run-on line around the idea of an indentation, if you’re working with a tape-machine, you can collect your thoughts about how to write it down by using the click, but, really, there ain’t no rules, you’re free to do anything you want. It’s just that your final page should be sensible, there should be some common sense there somehow or other (“common”, in the sense, common to other people, so they can pick up on it). And, likely enough, if you’re really talking and saying something, it will be sensible, and your breaks will be sensible, and your stanzas will be sensible, and your ordering will be sensible, the way you lay it out on the page will be sensible. So, from that point of view, I tend to distrust one-word poems, or very arty sort of, you know, one-line-a-page poems, unless somebody wrote it that way, decided to write one line a day. I tend to distrust poems that don’t look accidental on the page. The more accidental they look, the more curious I am. What kind of accident happened?, or what did the guy see?, or what did the girl know, at that moment?
Student: I remember a line from the reading last night (sic) . I wonder how that fits with this. I don’t know if I had it right, but it was something like, “Art isn’t empty which shows its own image”.
Student: Couldn’t those forms be used to reflect? Isn’t that what the general purpose of them is, to reflect that?
AG: By “emptiness” I meant.. I don’t know what I meant by emptiness when I said that. I forget. It sounded good at the time – But are those forms you’re referring to these open forms?, or the older forms, the sonnet?
Student: Well, the forms like a one-word poem, or a one-line poem
AG: Yeah..but.. They’re.. I don’t know, too tight-assed or something. It’s sort of too thought-out, it’s not spontaneous enough. It’s an idea of it, rather than the actual articulation and manifestation of it by the whole process of going through the whole business of living, and coming to the end of the poem, with all.., with all the objects of living around.
Student: Well, what happens then in terms of something like (Lawrence) Ferlinghetti’s graphic gymnastics on the page?
AG: Well, Ferlinghetti – and also there’s a little (Guillaume) Apollinaire that does that, and I’ve done a few poems like that, and there’s a whole school of poetry that, considering the page as an object, makes a picture out of all the words. Do you know about Apollinaire’s Calligrammes? Does anyone here not know about Apollinaire’s Calligrammes? Well, quite a few do, quite a few don’t . Apollinaire, 1910, France, a Surrealist precursor, and first “modern” poet, in a way (a great influence on (T.S.) Eliot). He had stream-of-consciousness run-on lines, but very succinct. Once in a while, he would write little poems in which the words go around in the shape of a heart, or there’s that one poem in which each sentence comes down from the margin at the top of the page, all the way down on a slant, and it’s called “Rain”, it’s all about the rain falling on the roofs of Paris, Actually, the form and the subject are so unified in those poems that they’re interesting, but they do require print and type, and they’re a specialty of print, of type, which is somewhat into painting and graphics too. There’s a whole school of concrete poetry which specializes in that form – of making use of the picture of the page, making the page a picture too. I’m more concerned with the auditory and mental qualities of the poem than the page aspect, well, I’m concerned with the page aspect, as it relates to auditory instructions of how you say it aloud, so that other people can read it with the same breaths or some idea of the swing of it you had in mind. Yes?
Student: Does thinking in words have a corresponding effect on the mantra, reading and chanting?
AG: I think so, yeah. Thinking in words probably degenerates the quality of attention to seeing outside, according to (Marshall) McLuhan, but I don’t know. That’s why thinking in words has a tendency to degenerate the quality of poetry very often, in the sense that you get so wrapped up in word-word-words finally, without any outside reference, that a poem could be built up purely artificially, just out of words thought up in the mind which don’t have any immediate reference. That’s another whole school of poetry, and, actually, the long poem (that) I read last night at the reading was mainly that – a lot of words that were going through my head when I was writing on the plane, but I had to keep coming back to the actual plane, the space where I was on the plane, as the center of the poem, all the time, after the mind wandered, coming back.
Student: Yeah, like remembering breath?
AG: Or like that long poem I read about going around the world, which I lost…well, I didn’t remember.. I didn’t forget about the breath, because I just carried the breath all the way around the world, but, finally, did come back to the real breath coming out of the nostrils , again with the real breath coming out of the nostrils, and came back to that.
There is a lot of Surrealist poetry, very great Surrealist poetry, which is a purely mental language, And that’s a whole alchemical thing of its own, because that’s sort of the magic of language itself. Robert Duncan is a great practitioner of that. He relies purely on the language, not on any sensorium around him, not on any facts, or, at least, he’s trained in that. He knows that, and that gets in, but he has, I always thought, and I think, maybe not now, but early on, he had the idea that it’s a universe of language so any outside reference doesn’t make any difference. It’s pure language, like mathematics or something. It’s pure language that you’re composing, and you’re using the principle of spontaneity to arrive at the language that you’re gonna put down. Whatever flows, but with the repetition of vowels and the introduction of all sorts of memorable syllables and symbols from reading and from reverie, vague ideas – sort of an impressionistic verbalism.
AG: Yeah, and then, in what was known as the “New York School”, was almost completely verbal constructivism. Anne, is that the term?
(Anne Waldman: It’s ok)
AG: Verbal constructivism. In other words, purely skating along on the language. So there’s a whole school there too. But, oddly enough, all those different approaches, somehow, by sweet history – (John) Ashbery and Frank O’Hara and Kenneth Koch, as well as Robert Duncan, (practitioners) of some sort of language constructivism involving spontaneity too – all trace their inspiration back to William Carlos Williams to a great extent , realizing it was Williams who discovered the idea of the raw material, it was Williams’ discovery of the America of.. in his terms, the American of..ourselves, our own personal raw material, as being the poem, our person as being the poem, our own language. Our own behavior, or our own daily life, does, as (Walt) Whitman insisted, “bring the muse back into the kitchen”. So Duncan and Ashbery (probably Ashbery less than O’Hara) paid homage to Williams as one of the first minds that were clear enough for them to appreciate (that) poetry is what it boils down to.