Spiritual Poetics – 4

Student: Does it always have to do with what you choose to use?, whether you’re typing, or writing, or (using a) tape-recorder (amassing) amounts of material in that way?

AG: Right. Very much so. Yeah. I want to go into that, actually, in about four sentences. I just want to get to the nub of “selection”, because that used to be a big academic argument – the principle of selectivity, and “beatnik” writers being un-selective, and that selection was so important, that you really had to make fine intellectual distinctions between different kinds of thoughts, and only choose the (most) loftiest thoughts, or the most poetic thoughts, and you had to intercede or intervene on your mind, with another mind, from somewhere else, somebody else’s mind actually, Lionel Trilling’s mind, or Allen Tate’s mind, or (Cleanth) Brooks mind, or (Robert Penn) Warren’s mind (those were the critic minds). You had to use somebody else’s mind, or some “objective” mind, to choose among the thoughts. But I think that’s too hard – that’s too much work. It will only get you tangled up in a feedback loop of some sort, because you’ll forget what you are thinking and you’ll think what you’re supposed to be thinking. The problem is to stay with what you were really thinking, rather than what you think you’re supposed to be thinking. So, from that point of view, I would say, the only thing that you can get down is what you remember and what you can write down. In other words, the actual writing-process, the physical process of writing (or vocalizing, or tape-recording, or babbling spontaneously) (it’s) that physical activity determines what gets laid out on the paper, or on the air, and it’s a pretty good critic, because the mind, somehow or other, if you leave it alone a little bit and accept it, tends to “select its own society”. It tends to cling to its real obsession(s)-preoccupations. Recurrent thoughts finally do get out, things that are really recurrent do come up and are memorable. And one really difficult part is, that there’s a tendency toward censorship, that some thoughts seem too embarrassing, too raw, too naked, too irrelevant, too goofy, too personal, too revealing, too damaging to one’s own self-image, too cranky, too individualistic, too specialized, or too much.. fucking-your-mother, or something.., so you (don’t) want to put it (them) down.

That’s a real problem with everybody, including myself – modesty. Shyness. Like, I failed to write down a dream the other day. Fortunately, I remembered it. Peter Orlovsky caught me smoking. He’s very much anti-smoking, and we were living together, and in the dream he was so dismayed that he vomited up his liver! And I realized I was violating something sacrosanct and rooted in him and something real. I got so scared of the domestic situation that I didn’t write that dream down. But it was actually one of the more interesting dream poem-possibilities that I’d had in the last month. But in the moment of writing, they’d be all sorts of images rise, separate “thinks” (sic) that will be unappetizing. I think that’s the most important point – the parts that embarrass you most are usually, the most interesting poetically, are usually the most naked of all, the rawest and goofiest and strangest and most eccentric, and, at the same time, most representative, most universal, because most individual, most particular, most specific, like vomiting out a piece of liver. Actually, I thought that was just my scene, but, really, it’s (a) universal.. it’s an archetype, much as anything is an archetype. And that was something I learned from (Jack) Kerouac, which was that spontaneous writing could be embarrassing, or could seem to be embarrassing. So the cure for that is to write things down which you will not publish, and which you won’t show people. To write secretly. To write for nobody’s eye and nobody’s ear but your own so you can actually be free to say anything you want. In other words, it means abandoning being a poet, abandoning any careerism, abandoning the idea of even writing poetry, really abandoning, giving up, giving up as hopeless, abandoning the possibility of really expressing yourself to the nations of the world, abandoning the idea of being a prophet with honor and dignity, and abandoning the glory of poetry and just settling down in the muck of your own mind. And the way that’s practiced is you take it out a week later and you look at it, and its no longer embarrassing. It seems, by that time, funny. The blood has dried, sort of. But you really have to make a resolution to write just for yourself, but really for yourself, in the sense of no bullshit to impress others, in a sense, not writing poetry to impress yourself but just writing what yourself is saying. My own experience of “Howl” was precisely that – that, after writing some very formulistic poetry, I decided I’d let loose whatever I wanted to let loose with and say what I really had on my mind and not write a “poem”, finally, break my own forms, break my own ideals, ideas of what I was supposed to be like as a poet, and just write whatever I had in mind, and, once written, I realized it could never be published, because it would offend too many people (I thought), particularly my family (which, I think, is a problem Keroouac had too. He was afraid his mother would read his secret thoughts, and disapprove of his friends, or his sexual activities, or his dope-smoking, or “beatnik” habits, or something – the drinking? who knows?, the snot, his masturbation, whatever). Yeah?

Student: A friend of mine once, a Canadian poet, got into the habit of making copies of all the letters he typed to his friends, and they turned out to be more poetry than his poetry. And one day he read them as such, and that was really beautiful.

AG: Sure.Yeah, that’s a common occurrence, especially among younger poets – to find that the form of writing that they didn’t conceive of as their main thing, their main schtick, their main poem – like notes to themselves, or their journals or letters, or just sort of banjo-chanting by themselves, or chanting to themselves walking across Brooklyn Bridge, or mountain-tops – was actually more interesting, later on, than the stuff they prepared as poetry. And I found that it my case to be so – that for years I wrote very formal rhymed verse and, at the same time, was keeping, like, a loose erratic journal (very similar to a journal I published called Indian Journals), a journal which I’ve kept continuously from ’46 on. And I found that little fragments from the journal were a little more hot that anything I’d written down and prepared and rhymed and poeticized with the idea of writing poetry. So it’s almost like if you can catch yourself not writing poetry but writing down what you’re really thinking, actively, you arrive at a genuine piece of writing, of self-expression and that may be more interesting than what you’re careeristic-ly considering as your poem. I had a good guru for that, besides Kerouac, who was William Carlos Williams. I sent him a whole bunch of poems that I’d prepared, like – “If money made the mind more sane,/ or money mellowed in the bowel/ A hunger beyond hunger’s pain/ Or money choked the mortal growl/ And made the groaner grin again/ Or did the laughing lamb embolden/ I’d go make money and be golden. If fame were not a fickle charm,/ There were far more famous men:/ May boys amaze the world to arm,/ Yet their charms are changed,/ And then fearful heroes fall to harm;/ But the shambles is a sham/ A few angels on a farm/ Fare more fancy with their lamb” [Editorial note – from ‘Stanzas: Written at Night in Radio City’ New York, March 1949, now in Collected Poems 1947-1997].  It went on and on. It was pretty good, actually, for that mode, but he said, “In that mode perfection is basic, and these are not perfect. They were near-perfect, but they were imitation, they weren’t my real thought entirely. So I went through my notebook-journal prose-pieces, and selected about eight (to) ten little fragments, and re-arranged them from prose into little poetry lines, imitating Williams, that were just awkward little notes to myself, and sent it to him, and that forms a book called Empty Mirror (now it is published). And he said, “This is it! Have you got any more of these?” . He immediately responded. So it was genuine, in the writing. It was sort of natural – which was unfaked, which was awkward, which was raw, which was my own, as distinct from something with the inheritance of a lot of other people’s styles. They were little pure, odd, personal realities that I had to deal with. A sample would be – “I made love to myself/ in the mirror, kissing my own lips,/ saying “I love you/ I love you more than anybody” – or – “How sick I am!/ Does this thought always come to everybody?” (“That thought always comes to me with horror/ Is it this strange for everybody?”) – “(But) such fugitive feelings have always been my métier” (that’s a little literary) – “Baudelaire, yet he had great (joyful) moments staring into space/ Looking at his image in eternity” (“Looking into the middle distance, contemplating his image in eternity”) “These were his moments of solitude…”, no, ”These were his moments of identity (it’s solitude that produces these thoughts). “It’s Christmas, almost. They’re singing Christmas carols down the block in front of the department stores on 14th Street”. Well, now, that plain, raw, piece of mind-jump, exhibition of actual native thought, was what made Williams say, “This is it! This is active.” And I sent him more, longer pieces, and he told me, in one piece, to get rid of two or three pages of prefatory bla-bla-bla and just keep what was exciting and raw. He said even one or two lines of really active statement are more interesting than a lot of “poetry”. Just a few lines of real thought are more useful to other people and yourself than a big frame about it. So you can just have little poems of just fragments of thoughts, whatever you can get down. And that immediately catalyzed, crystallized, clarified, precipitated, my own thinking about it. And I saw where my natural bent was, or where my own mind was, Before that, I didn’t have my own mind, or wasn’t writing my own mind, exactly.I was imitating what I thought should be poetry. I had an idea, an external, an outside, learned, college idea of what it was, So then there’s this struggle, then, continually, then, to return to your own mind, keep track of your own mind, just like in meditation, not get too sophisticated, not loose track of the root of your feelings and self and embarrassments, and use that as the basis for heroic epic poetry. So as soon as you begin to get that ambitious then, of course, you begin overlaying it, and so there’s always a struggle to find your mind again. So, as I say, one of the technical aids would be to stick to poems that you’re not going to publish, so that you’re really free to write down what you want to write.


  1. Though I find an explanation or summary of the poem usually trumps the 'meter' or composition, I still have qualms with diary-ah style confessional poetry. The danger of Ginsberg's method is that poets get stuck inside themselves, producing masses of repetitive, introspective material. Dreams and anxieties are important but images people can relate to are your bread and butter. TELL your poems like you're talking to a stranger. Like you're bothering a stranger, not pitching to an editor.

  2. This is very good and helpful not only for "poetics" but as a cognitive therapy which is being used with increasing frequency as a model for improving in bipolar diagnosis. The problem is, as stated, what if so and so sees this? Or how do I hide this? If you can get past that and be open it's not only useful but revealing – the mind gets stuck in "loops" as they say, journaling and mindfulness can be a mirror.

    August 3, 2011 6:16 AM

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