Allen Ginsberg continues his 1974 Naropa class on Spiritual Poetics from – here
AG: Just writing down whatever you want to write down, what would you come up with? What’s the quality that I’m promoting, that I’m peddling? What’s the feeling of that kind of writing? Well, someone gave me a little pamphlet of poems that were very good samples. I don’t know how they were written but they felt sincere and interesting – “It’s not a death-wish/It’s giving up when your muscles hurt/and that I’m afraid of life”. I had been doing some building-work, and, actually, it’s.. that’s.. a real accurate note. It’s something that’s very personal, and yet everyone knows that – “it’s giving up when your muscles hurt/and that I’m afraid of life”. So there’s no attempt at poetry here, but, on the other hand, it’s so accurate that if you read it, you get interested, instead of bored with someone trying to write.
“Turn out the light./ I don’t want to see any more tonight/ Murder all the crickets/ I don’t want to hear/ Turn off what connects me to my knees/ I don’t want to feel any more tonight/ I got whiskey in my blood/ I got you on my mind/ I got whiskey in my blood”.
April – “Crazy understanding in the morning/ Last night I didn’t want to be so happy/ Every April when the warm rains come/ I don’t want to get so happy”.
Here’s the end of a poem called “Spring” – “In spring life comes right out of the ground/ And people everywhere open their windows and smile/ And walk into the sweet sunshine . Well, today the snow is on the daffodils/ And I’m glad to see winter again”.
“Almost winter/ Rain on the black roof/ November. The hard lines/ of black branches/on the gray sky”.
I mean, it’s so obvious that somebody is sitting at his desk, not knowing a thing, and just looking up and seeing something, actually seeing the “hard lines/of black branches/on the gray sky”. So what that gives you (is) the actual space in which someone is solitary, in which someone feels lonesome, or somebody feels solitude, or somebody feels egolessness, where somebody is actually “raw”, to use the terminology Chogyam Trungpa has been using. “Rain on the black roof/ November. The hard lines/ of black branches/on the gray sky”. It’s also very similar to William Carlos Williams‘ attention to what was in front of him.
“Almost winter/ Makes me calm/ with the year so old/ Work work work in the winter/ We have such easy lives” – It’s a little home-made pamphlet – Philadelphia, 1974 – “Camac Street – “Poems by Walter Fordham“, whom I think is in this class (or, at any rate, somebody who I don’t remember laid it on me). Yours?. Yeah, I thought they were fine
(Walter Fordham: Thank you)
AG: Particularly the “hard lines/ of black branches/on the gray sky”. Well, it’s a sort of.. this is sort of very primitive, in the sense that it’s down to the bare bones. It’s essential, it’s “passing thinks”, it’s got all the quixotic-ness and contradictoriness of somebody actually thinking to themselves, unselfconsciously – “I didn’t want to feel so good”. I don’t know why I find it so attractive, but it’s a kind of poetry I always look for when I’m reading somebody’s writing. When I was thinking about it before, I was wondering, if it’s something that they used to write before the 20th century, or not? – or is this a very specialized piece of raw material, of raw person and naked person-mind. I keep looking for that when I look at specimens of poetry of my own or anybody else’s. When I open my notebooks and read back to see what I’ve written, I usually look to see if I’ve written anything as awkward as that. There’s a quality of awkwardness (if that word makes sense). It really is shrewd and very sophisticated because you’ve gotten rid of all the bullshit entirely. When you get down to it, what it is, is, that you just have that body, or the guy, whoever, in total solitude, aware of his presence in the space around him, aware of the mysteriousness of that situation, and accepting, from the situation itself, what few signs there are, like the bare branches against the black sky, or black branches against the bare sky, whichever. Accepting evidence from the senses around him and noticing it sharply enough, so it gets to be like an eternal gleaming symbol almost. Just a tea-cup on a table suddenly becomes a sacramental object. So there’s an element of sacramental-ness that comes in when you’re that solitary. And to get that solitary, you have to be very patient, and have enough faith that it don’t hurt, that you can stand to sit in that space, solitary, completely alone, and then begin to make a few scratches on paper of what you see around you. Sometimes, almost emotionlessly (instead of having a big emotional poem, actually no emotion at all, just the actuality around you, which has no emotion, in a way. After all, the idea of bewailing your own solitary state gets boring and “poetical”. So you wouldn’t want to write big poems saying “I’m lonely” and “blah blah blah”. However, if you do, just say what you see, you get that loneliness there, as much as anybody can get lonely and appreciate it (as much as anybody else can appreciate your loneliness), you really have it there. If you want sympathy, you‘ve got it, also, without having to work for it so hard by writing a big rhapsodic poem about how lonely you are.
Student: That makes me think of (Matsuo) Basho (in Narrow Road To The Deep North) – how, in his prose and poetry journals, he just wrote about very simple things – like the horse urinating by his pillow all night long.
AG: It’s the same solitude, and the same vast space all around, and, accepting whatever happens in that space at the moment that he becomes conscious of being alone in that space. Some synchronicity takes place, like the horse pissing on his pillow – or noticing that there’s snow on…what was the flower?
AG: Was that something that you actually noticed?
Student: Yeah, I was walking by the park and there were daffodils on the ground and the snow was on them.
AG: So reality will provide enough poetry. You don’t have to worry about making it up. You don’t have to worry about being smart, or being brilliant, or being perceptive, or being poetical, or being a genius. All you have to do is accept what’s around you and notice it. I think the quality of genius that I’m interested in is that clarity of attention – that attention, that notices what’s around and is able to put it down simply, without farting around, and without overlaying it, without getting it too heavy. In fact, just sort of like this little bare sketch. That’s basically what haiku writing is, in that same solitude – the Basho that the young lady (the student) was (just) talking about. There are endless examples of that. I think the best study-source possible for someone who wants to practice poetry is to read extensively in the simplest forms like this. One of the best anthologies of that is the four-volume series of translations of haiku by R.H.Blythe, published by (Charles E) Tuttle Company. How many of you know that set? There are a lot of us here, who are old poets, who know it. It’s really worth looking at. It’s something that, in the mid ‘50’s, Gary Snyder and (Jack) Kerouac and Lew Welch and myself, and Philip Whalen, and a lot of other poets around San Francisco, used as a basic gas book, a basic source. You could call it academically-based. It was a book we had around all the time and were reading, discovering all the haiku and reading them out to each other, and making up haiku imitating them. But not having to imitate much, because the form is so basic, just two lines about what you see in front of you at a moment when you suddenly become aware that there’s a front of you to see into. So, in that case, it’s real spiritual, because what you’re doing is putting your attention outside of yourself. You’re observing, empathizing, say, but you’re observing what’s going on around you, and you’re not purely hung-up on the chatter and babble and yatter going on in your own head.
In a way, that contradicts what I was saying yesterday, to just write down the babble in your own head. But I’m talking more primary babble or first thought. I think that’s what Chogyam (Trungpa) meant when he said, “First thought, best thought”. You might be thinking about your family situation but you’d also notice the branches against the sky, and that would be a little more basic to what’s actually going on around you. So it’s a question of training your mind to stop paying attention to your own bullshit and open up and look around, look outside of yourself. One exercise can then be the practice of the “still life”, or sketching just what’s around you. You don’t have to be inspired, all you have to do is sit down with a notebook, anywhere, any time, any place (from the cabin of a strato-cruiser (sic) to (the) bathroom at Naropa, or (the) classroom, (the) dining-hall, or in bed), and simply sketch what you see around you. Remember what you see, remember what you just saw around you. Just look up from the pad and actually try to describe in meticulous detail. An attempt to describe a brick pillar like that (points to a brick pillar) will lead you into some sort of psychedelic wonderland, really, in the sense that the attention required to figure out what is actually going on with the pillar (what it looks like, what’s attached to it, wires running out of it, the aluminum plates on it, the mortar in-between the bricks, the work that went into building the mortar, the curiosity – who put it together? was it a workman, or was it some sort of mass-production scene?) could lead to all sorts of side-associations too, which are outside of the scene you’re sketching, but which, since they occurred in the mind, can also be included.
That concept of sketching is something that (Jack) Kerouac came onto in around 1952, in his house, when he suddenly became aware of a flumpf sound of a car door, 1950’s American car door, being slammed at two a.m, and it was that muffled-civilization sound. See, they build cars so that they don’t make a big iron clank when they close the doors, but they have this plastic flumpf. Actually, the whole “space age” is brought up with a piece of noticing like that, whole civilizations are projected. So what Kerouac did was write a little prose-poem describing all the sounds he heard in his inner ear at midnight (actually, I suppose, a very awkward, early, naïve, American shabda yoga, actually paying attention to what was going on in that sensorium, looking at the sense operating), and, oddly enough, he arrived at a sort of Buddhist conclusion of the emptiness inside of all of the sounds. The sketch of the car door (and another sketch, which is about fifteen pages, of all the reflections in a bright shiny fender of an automobile reflecting neon, reflected from a plate-glass window in Denver), is in Visions of Cody which was published last year, which is actually a great long prose-poem.
So, when you get working on material like that, it really doesn’t matter whether its in lines, or it’s not, or whether it’s in prose or it’s in poetry, it’s the quality of the attention, and the concentration of the attention, and the concentration of the sentences, so that you’re not writing anything empty but you’re actually describing some thing with every scribble you put down, and every scribble does contain a fact, or contain some information, or contains something that you’ve seen, that you’re noticing, that you paid attention to, or, better, that caught your attention. Something that caught your attention. The process is trying to remember what caught your attention.