AG: It’s interesting that there’s two streams of writing now among younger people that I see – one of which is.. above the ears – sort of psychotic, schizophrenic poetry, maybe modeled on rock lyric and on (Bob) Dylan, or sumpin’ – but it’s all “dancing dominoes behind the minstrel sky”, which Dylan did well that one time, somehow, it fits with him, but there’s a solely imaginary poetry that’s written, and then, there’s a whole bunch of rock poetry, and just private poetry, or school poetry, which does include the weirdest things of personal life, like in the little poems I was reading to begin with, but there does seem to be, like, a cultural accretion, or accumulation, or a spread of understanding, of the humor, eternality , or the rightness, or the acceptability, of our own artifacts, and our own speech, and our own surroundings, and our own mind, and our own thoughts, and our own objects, our own noticings, as the proper subject matter for art.
(second side of tape ends here, tape picks up in media res)
AG: …which has specimens, texts of this kind of writing – most of the anthologies completely ignored it, and ignored (William Carlos) Williams even, back, up until the (19)40’s and (19)50’s. Then, there were a lot of anthologies putting together the modern poets who were writing post-Williams style, but there have been a few attempts, and a few anthologies, which have tried to include… well, Samuel Greenberg was one. Samuel Greenberg died of tuberculosis in 1913, or something, in New York, in one of the welfare islands. He wrote some very beautiful poems that were never published in his lifetime, but were picked up by Hart Crane, and turned Hart Crane onto a funny kind of home-made language. And there’s Marsden Hartley, whom you might know of as a painter, who has a really good book of poems, which are completely natural, and completely about his family and his home environment. There’s (William Carlos) Williams, of course. There are probably a lot of specimens of that kind of writing scattered in George Quasha’s anthology, which was extended outward to include blues, to include black poetry, primitive poetry, Indian poetry, and anthropological material, which also has a lot of that nakedness. Anybody want to talk?.. Well, someone else had a hand up somewhere. Yeah?
Student: What’s the difference between good poetry and great poetry?
AG: Well, for the purposes of this discussion, I would say, “nah, no difference”, no need for a difference. We’re just trying to talk about how to get around to writing and how to find an area to write about that’s real. The difference, I would say, between “good” and “great” – “good” is what is written here, because it’s real, it’s common, it’s elegant in a funny way, and its awkwardness is elegant. What makes it “great”, sometimes, is an element of Bodhisattva magnanimity, where the guy writing in his solitude realizes that he’s actually speaking to all generations, all peoples, all minds, and all alonenesses at once. It has that much panoramic consciousness that it covers not merely the room he’s in and the city he’s in but the world he’s in and times past and times present and times future. So that the range of panoramic awareness, the range of consciousness, goes outward, and the reader is included in the poem, as a solid object – known, understood, talked to – so that the soul comes forth then. And that’s what makes it “great”, when you know that your solitude is ultimate, and you talk through it, because it’s a parallel thing to the bodhisattva vow, that you’re not doing it just for your own kicks only, but that the function is universal. In a sense, that you’re talking to generations ahead.
There is a very beautiful poem, that I would say is “great”, by Vladimir Mayakovsky, his last poem, a suicide note. I don’t have the text here, so I’ll paraphrase it, to get the structure of it. He’s talking to Lili Brik, his old girlfriend, who’s in London, saying, “well, the little paper boat of our love has been wrecked on the reefs of life”, or sumpin’. Then he recalls himself to where he is, at his desk, in a side-street in Moscow, under the trees, and the time (or maybe there’s some images, a bell ringing, or sun going down, or something happening of that moment) and then (he) looks up into the sky and describes the constellations, panoramic in front of him, with some very acute, swift description of constellations above the house-tops of Moscow, and then he says, “At such a time, one could speak to centuries, to generations, centuries, eras”. It’s a great moment when he realizes that his awareness and his strength are equal to communicating beyond the moment and beyond the situation, and that he is creating an artifact that is time-less. In the sense that it exists, it could exist at any time, and will exist in future time.
Student: Is that a formula for anything great?
AG: I imagine.. I wouldn’t think of it as a formula, but I was thinking that was a condition, or that’s my feeling about the condition of what greatness is. I think it would apply to almost any action – that it have that bodhisattva quality. Maybe not the bodhisattva quality of Mayakovsky’s suicide-note, but the bodhisattva quality of penetrating through time, penetrating through illusion, through consciousness, through the immediate moment, and getting to a place where everybody is, and everybody will be, and talking, in that place of that place, in such a way that a reader who has never arrived at that place might be drawn to that place, that it might actually awaken an objective consciousness in the reader. I think that one of the possibilities of poetry, like meditation, and like LSD, is in, literally, waking up areas of awareness, that were not developed, or not noticed, because you’re making an artifact of your own mind at the time of full awareness, including all the details that you’re aware of, so somebody else, amidst different details, can begin noticing some details, and seeing through his own details, seeing the emptiness of the two – that aspect, also. So that it acts as a catalytic agent, say, for awakening consciousness, for illumination, for enlightenment. So the “great” poetry, I think, is what succeeds in doing that, and the way it’s done (getting back to where we began) was (is) partly through melody – the mantric, hypnotic mantric thing, that causes the reader to breathe along with the poem, or maybe to recite it aloud and to get into that breath. So one of the things that, if we ever have time here, I would like to do is to read (Percy Bysshe) Shelley’s “Adonais” aloud, from beginning to end, or Hart Crane’s “Atlantis”, because there’s a few specimens of long-winded poems, long long poems, which, when read aloud in full voice, do sort of accomplish a sort of physiological change of the body of the reader, and, somewhat, of the hearer, who’s following along with their sympathetic nervous system. Or, I would suggest as homework, one of these weeks, taking Hart Crane’s “Atlantis” (or better, Shelley’s “Adonais” – and if that’s too long for you, Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind”), and reading that in some solitary place, with complete voice. Not shouting, not screaming, not straining your voice, but reading with the voice coming from your heart area, your heart-chakra voice, and full attention to all the vowels. Just laying it on, and having a ball. I used to do that under a bridge in New York on 125th Street, that was a completely solitary place with lots of noise around, and you could make all the noise you wanted and nobody could hear you. It’s like writing – you have to be in a place where you’re not going to show it to anybody, where you really are alone, so that you can get to express yourself. Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind” would be a good beginning exercise for that. Has anyone ever read that particular poem aloud? Yeah, because it’s basic, that’s what it was meant for.
AG: Well almost any poem is good aloud, but I’m thinking for a particular, almost psychedelic-high quality. Leaves of Grass may be too frenzied, but, some frenzied, high, quality, which is enthusiastic, powerful. There are sections of Leaves of Grass, which, read aloud. are also very penetrant. I’ve read Leaves of Grass aloud a lot. Actually, if I were teaching a longer course, I would do that, because I have that here. We’ll probably read through several days of Leaves of Grass, several days of (William Carlos) Williams, and several days of (Percy Bysshe) Shelley, and a few other things. So, I’ll say, you do it yourself.
Student: Is there a quality of magic, do you think, in any great poetry?
AG: What do you mean by “magic”? There was a quality of magic, say, in the long poem that Anne (Waldman) read (several of them), and there’s a quality of magic, say, in Diane (di Prima)’s poem about “free Barry Goldwater!” . The magic is the assumption of roles, the magic is in the chutzpa of saying, “I am the claw lavender woman. I am…”, or “Free Barry Goldwater, Free all political prisoners”. It’s the jump of mind, that humorous jump of the mind that makes everything its own, that accepts all, that first accepts all of its own indications, all soul indications, and takes them in and includes them in the poem, no matter how weird they are, because they all turn out to be noble, finally, as real. No matter how imaginary they are, because, somewhere, somehow, they are real, in the imagination, if nowhere else. In the imagination, they’re as real as anything, so it’s the acceptance of the imagination, too, as a solid fact, as an object that you clamp your mind down on. So there’s a certain magic, if you want to say it. In other words, there’s no body there but the words are there, and the humor is there, and the enthusiasm is there, the acceptance is there.
Student: And as a result of all this, there’s magic?
AG: Well, the magic is… (to Anne Waldman) Are you “a lavender claw woman”?
Anne Waldman: Sometimes.
AG: Now you say a “lavender claw”..I don’t know, what was the phrase?
Anne Waldman: “holy clown” – “I’m a holy clown woman”.
AG: Yeah, you don’t look like a holy clown to me. But, anyway, someone coming up and saying, with total conviction, “I’m a holy clown woman”, after a series of other truths, it must be! In fact, the saying of it, it makes it so. Especially, in that great oratorical, nervous-energy-production saying of it in public, the declaration. All magic is a series of formulas that you declare, magic formulas. If you declare it like mantra magic, if you declare it with the right heart, if you put your whole heart in the mantra you get there with it, they say (some say, some schools say). Other than that, the jump of the imagination to acceptance of all the impulses of the soul, then I don’t know what else magic could be. And simultaneous awareness of the ghost illusion quality of the magic show you’re putting on, that it is your projection. You can get away with anything you want to project. So genius would be the full realization that you can get away with anything, and good poetry is a partial realization that you can get away with it. It’s a question of the impulse, of the soul’s impulse, of the soul meaning breath, really. You could almost put it down physiologically as the depth of the breath with which you pronounce your magic formula. If you’ve got a deep enough breath and it comes from the whole body, you’ll be there. If it’s a nervous understanding and you don’t really believe it, you don’t really believe in yourself and your assertion, then you’ll find the voice coming from the throat, and, though loud, sort of hysterical-sounding and straining and unpleasant. Nobody believes it because you don’t.
Student: It’s like (Chogyam Trungpa) Rinpoche, when someone asked him if a vajra teacher was a magician, he said the teacher gives us access to the cosmos to reclaim that energy. So it seems that it’s magic, but it’s just sort of a transmission, actually.
AG: Yeah. Really it’s the magic of being in full possession of your breath. And full possession of your body. Once and for all. So, actually, the best poetry I’ve written is at those moments when I suddenly arrive at full possession of my whole body, and my whole life, and my whole feeling, and feel like the Vajra master of my own breath, and can do anything I want, can say anything I want, anything that I have thought as mine, and it’s as real as anything I’ll ever think, or anybody else will ever think, so why not? So, finally, why not?. So you have to get out to past “why not?”, to doing it. It’s just like sports, it’s like fucking, it’s like anything where you finally lose yourself and get your whole body into it, when you’re all there.
A poetry which is revised doesn’t often get a chance to get all there. That’s why I’ve been trying to outline a method which involves your body and your actual mind and your actual present surroundings. There are other kinds of geniuses – there’s other kinds of genius. The genius of constructing some great powerful thing. Though, oddly enough, when you get to it, you see a lot of great, epical, works, like (John) Milton‘s Paradise Lost) are things where Milton was blind and he was dictating it to his daughters. Although there was some revision, the thing was something that had to come out in a flow, the flow was necessary. The idea of flow, also, I didn’t even touch on, but the idea that, while writing, you can sometimes get into a groove, where things are flowing, where things are opening up, your imagination is opening up because you can accept anything that comes to you, your awareness is opened up because you can accept the details around you, and use them, bring them in. You put in the kitchen-sink, put in the fish-man. You can ride it a little bit, it doesn’t happen too often to me, but it does happen, and I imagine it happens to everybody, of finally getting to a rhythm. That’s why (Andrei) Voznesensky said he thought in rhythm, getting to a rhythm that gives you a surf-board to ride out on. That was the function of the stanza and that was the function of rhyme, and it is the right function of stanza and rhyme in older forms, exceot that they were practiced in such a way that they stopped the flow, finally. It got to be, very simply, purely mental, with no words pronounced aloud. It was just poems written silently on the page to be read silently, by fire-side, in printed books. The shabda was lost. Sound was lost, and the vocalization was lost, and so, the art of using old iambic stanzas, or the meter, the old poetic foot, the art of using that so that it was vocalize-able, was lost.
The blues stanza form was never lost, because it was always vocalized, and it wasn’t always written down. It’s always a vocal form. If we wanted to talk about a classical form, if anybody wanted to write in a form, that’s a good one to get on to. It’s an A-A-A rhyme, where the first two lines are the same, and the third line rhymes with the other two lines and caps it, basically. “Sometimes I think that you’re too sweet to die/ Sometimes I think that you’re too sweet to die/ Other times I think you oughta be buried alive”. It’s just like Williams, I mean that kind of thought is just like Williams. There is a poem in Williams’ (Collected Poems) in which he says, “When I come up my house stoops in the morning, coming back from a call, why is it, when I see the happy faces of my children, expectant, shouting at me from the steps, I want to kill them?” – which is a moment which any parent has known. “What oft was thought but rarely dared to be so well expressed”. “Sometimes I think that you’re too sweet to die”. That same poem has, “I’ll give you sugar for sugar and you’ll get salt for salt” – , “I’ll give you sugar for sugar and you’ll get salt for salt/ Baby, if you don’t love me, why, it’s your own fault” – “I’ll give you sugar for sugar and you’ll get salt for salt” is as great as anything in Dante, or Buddha! It’s just a pure, great, demonstration of the activity of karma – “I’ll give you sugar for sugar and you’ll get salt for salt” – but done in total personal terms, in American terms, and down-home terms. I thnk it’s past class-time. Well, I’ll continue next time with Williams, or with Whitman, maybe…
(the tape and class end here – there are no further tapes available from this course).
[A version of some of this text, Spiritual Poetics, first appeared in the book, Composed on The Tongue, Grey Fox Press, 2001 – The original audio source may be heard on the Internet Archive at http;//www.archive.org/details/Allen Ginsberg class Spiritual Poetics part 1 July 1974 74P001 and continuing on http://www.archive.org/details/Allen Ginsberg class Spiritual Poetics part 2 July 1974 74Poo2 – & – http://www.archive.org/details/Allen Ginsberg class Spiritual Poetics part 3 July 1974 74Poo3 – also http://www.archive.org/details/naropa art of poetry reading at the ]