Spiritual Poetics – 5

Pablo Neruda – (1904-1973)

Allen Ginsberg 1974 Naropa class  on Spiritual Poetics continues 

Student: Do you find that even just transcribing down straight thoughts tends to focus your attachment to your thoughts sometimes? I found that…
AG: Focus your attachment? What do you mean?

Student: Yeah, with journals. I found that keeping journals, I got so attached to thoughts, so aware of thoughts that I would, I think, actually, subtly manufacture more to make a more pleasing journal.

AG: Well, yeah, there’s a certain amount of baroque elegance that can be indulged in, playfulness. If it’s playful enough, it’s alright. Sometimes. Because that’s just sheer abundance and playfulness, but actually, while you’re doing that, sometimes, there’s something else going on – an undertow of real thought, that you’ve got to pay attention to. So maybe you start getting baroque and then interrupt it, just break it off in the middle, be playful and break it off in the middle. (William Carlos) Williams used the dot for an unfinished sentence, an unfinished thought, a dot extended out like a period but in the middle of the line – or just a dash could be used, as Hart Crane did, in a really interesting poem which you might look up, Havana Rose, which was like a drunken suicide-note to himself (I’ll try and bring it in and read it, because it was one of the things which turned me on to raw thought as poetry, a little free-associational piece, like the kind of note you might write to yourself drunk which wasn’t meant as a poem, which was recovered from his papers and which was one of his most charming personal pieces.

Student: How did you use that stuff for material and what could you possibly do afterwards that wouldn’t super-impose that other kind of stuff you’re trying to get away with..(I mean, get away from, not get away with)?

AG: Yeah. You use that stuff to publish, you mean, by material? Or what?

Student: Forget publishing, but, as you say, you use those fragments of thoughts as material – what are you using them as material for?

AG: That’s the.. they’re the poem.

Student: Oh

AG: You don’t have to work any more on it, that’s it. You don’t have to do any more work.

Student: Really

AG: No, The whole process of poetry is without any work at all. It should be. I think. At least to begin with. There might be some work later on but until you establish this basis of honesty, or of practice, I don’t think it’s worth working on anything beyond that. It takes a lot of practice just to get down what you’ve got already, to find out what you’ve got already, to get it down. You can worry about it later. I mean it’s really so.. charming, and hard. I can’t do it that often. To catch myself and write it down. You can only do it once a day, or once every week, or once a month even. To really catch yourself thinking, thinking something interesting. And if you can do one little four-line fragment a month, you’ve got it made for the rest of your life, you realize. You’ll be better than Sappho! – as much as Sappho, as much as Anacreon. If you’re young and you start out four-lines-a-month, you build up a total body of work by the end of your life that will be too much to read! If you do a few.. five minutes a day, practicing five minutes a day writing, it’s more, oddly enough, more than anybody wants to read.

Student: Does that mean catching yourself with something interesting you said, or, where does that…

AG: Well, interesting, because clear, and because definite, and because there, and because you really did catch yourself unwittingly, trapped yourself in a moment you didn’t like (or maybe did like a lot). So that brings up, “how do you catch yourself?” and how to be prepared to catch yourself, so that brings up.. brings us back to the question of materials, what you use for transcription. What I use, basically, is this.. well, there are different (things). I use a pocket notebook. I generally use one a month, or one every two months.

Student: Boy, it’s cheap too, 29 cents!.

AG: Yeah, 29 cents and a 19 cent ball point pen is all the investment you need. That’s for moving around, for travelling, for getting thoughts on the wing. “Dinosaur, cancer, Buchenwald, hell-rat, heavy-metal, petro-chemical, sweet oleanders down the middle of the strip of the freeway”? Well, I don’t know. It was part of a conversation with Gary Snyder. And the title is – “On The Way To Pick Up Peter, Sacto Airport, June 1”. Not much of an entry. Well, it’s mixed up, because I’m building a house, it’s mixed up with addresses for “granite, oak, two bundles, slate, asbestos sheet 4 x 8, Olivehurst turn-off on Route 70 – Stanley Tools, Workingman’s Headquarters, used tools, Mission and 24th Street – So Cal Hardware, Cost Plus, tatami mats, work shoes”. Well, so that’s nothing much. “Nothing lonelier than being on a Greyhound crossing Donner Pass on this Super Highway 80, through Truckee to Reno, age 20, rolling overconcrete, past the pines and icy Castle Peak”. So that was just a thought.

Student: When you’ve done meditating, do you ever sit and jot down some of the neat stuff that happened in the last..

AG: Well, sometimes I take this (notebook) to meditation and I sneak in a couple of lines or go to the bathroom. I did that.. I was in Wyoming, at the seminary, sitting for that three months (of) September to December last year. I had a little notebook and a couple of times I interrupted the sitting to write something down. (Pablo) Neruda had died and I read it in the paper before I went in to sit, and I was thinking about breathing, and – “Some breath breathes out Atlantis Adonais/ Some breath breathes out Bombs and dog barks/ Some breath breathes over Rendezvous Mountain/ Some breath breathes not at all”. And I thought, jeez, that’s funny, Neruda’s not breathing – “Some breath breathes not at all”. It was so mysterious and strange, the thought, that I pulled out my notebook and wrote.

Student: Did it come out like that?

AG: Exactly

Student ; Did you shine it up a little?

AG: No, I didn’t have to mess with it. Well, I shined, yeah, I messed with it. I added the first line – “Some breath breathes out Atlantis Adonais” and “Canto General” because I was thinking of Neruda. Then, later on, I wrote more, but the more wasn’t any good. It was just that nut. I went on later, Actually, I went down to the bathroom then and wrote a little more, but it was “now your shoes have no feet and your neck-tie has no neck, your underwear, no chest to put on”, or something. It was a little more literary. I was taking advantage of writing the poem. I published the whole thing, but then, using Williams’ principle of just a few active lines are better than something surrounded by fuzzy distracting material, I just reduced it to that little piece, finally. If I make a book, I’ll just make that little piece, in a book, I’ll just have that little four lines – ““Some breath breathes not at all”. It’s enough. It’s said there, and that was the end of my thought, so if I wanted another poem, then begin another. Another thought would be another poem, and that was a very definite end. What else? You can’t go on from there – ““Some breath breathes not at all”

Student: Do you think it’s possible to get..to go back to the place you were when you were writing that, or something, something that you.., something that you wrote (and), when you look back later, you want to change..?

AG: I don’t know if you can intentionally do it, but you might find yourself back, particularly if the place where you were was a basic place, so you’d naturally go back there. Though I mean “basic”, in terms of your feelings – your sitting, your posture, your breathing, your appreciation of your eyeballs, your appreciation of space in front of you, or wonder at being there again – in a body, sitting, breathing. That’s a place you always go back to when you’re sitting, or sometimes when you’re writing, But then the content (of Neruda’s death) you couldn’t go back to, the freshness of that knowledge.

Student: Do you ever find a few fragments that were separate for a long time and they were..

AG: If they’re related, I put them in, 1-2-3-4, and have done so. Earlier, I used to try and tie them together as big formal poems, but it was fakery. And I got more and more interested in just the bare bones of the process as being enough – more exemplary – teaching more to other people and, at the same time, teaching me more, and, at the same time, more honest and less weighty, less heavy, less heavy-handed, less ambitious, less egotistical. Also, there’s an awful lot of writing by now. There’s more writing than anyone can read. The swifter we are at it, the better, I think. You get more chance of being read if you stick to what you know, rather than trying to construct something that you don’t know. Though, in the process of trying to construct something using your spontaneous mind, and playing, there’s also that element of invention and comedy and friendliness, that also is useful and can sometimes arrive at a genuine soul feeling.

So, the problem of transcription becomes a very practical, grounded problem of what kind of notebook you use, and always being prepared with at least two pens, because one might run out at a crucial moment, because you never know when you’re going to be writing. If you’re a real pro, you’ve got to be prepared all the time, always, in this mode. Other people get up 9 to 5, or 9 to 3, or, Michael McClure has managed to get up before his family and actually sit down between 7 and 9, and actually write every day and produce beautiful things. Yeah?

Student: Are you talking about, now, writing with preconceived ideas for a sort of poem or are you just talking about as it comes up?

AG: As it comes up.

Student: What do you think about …

AG: Preconceived idea of a certain poem?

Student: Yeah, writing as a.. (indecipherable)

AG: Well, I’ve never been able to write a poem where I had a preconceived idea, because it always turned out different.

Student: What kind of an idea, or a poem (indecipherable) that you can write about, sort of an idea behind it…

AG: I’ve never been able to do it

Student: Neither have I , but…

AG: So why bother? Why go to all that trouble? If an idea is recurrent, in that sense preconceived, if a recurrent perception comes up at the time of writing, or comes up so strongly clear – “Some breath breathes not at all” – so you take your notebook out and write it, then you got it. If it’s a recurrent perception, and not just a preconception based on a lot of reading and sociology, or temporary metaphysics that you’ve arrived at on the basis of your latest samadhi – I wouldn’t trust it as material. It’s too wobbly, it’s too shifty. Gary Snyder recently wrote a poem that did have a preconceived idea. He wrote a book that was a history of the last 60 billion years on earth, which talked about the flowering of the brain, in which the biota was looking for a form to produce brain and eyeballs, so that it could look at itself from high, which is, like,an old thought, you know, that man is, like, an evolutionary creature, that, finally, looks back on it all. It’s a corny old idea, and probably everybody’s thought it and written about it at one time or other in high school essays about the future, but Gary finally put it down, and it sounded pretty good, finally. That somebody said it, again. It’s sort of an idea-idea (I don’t know if it’s a perception, I don’t know if it’s really a genuine visionary perception, or just sort of an accumulation of thinking that idea over so many times that it seems reasonable, though it was nice to hear it said.). But when I heard him read it, I said, “Gee, well that’s another fake idea” (but one of those archetypal fakes, that you might as well write about, because, it so often comes up, maybe it’s true?

Student: That’s sort of what I had in mind.

AG: Well, I don’t bother with that, because, finally, in my case, later on, I find my language is stilted and artificial and arbitrary and too snobby, snotty, creepy, self-y. The language you arrive at, trying to reconstruct something like that, for me, my language, the language I arrive at constructing something like that , generally, is too artificial for me to recite and hold voice and really feel and believe in. I feel I’m trying to get away with something and sneak it over as an idea.

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