Spiritual Poetics – 8

Sappho (c.630-612BC – c.570BC) – “portrait of a young woman” from the Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli

Allen Ginsberg continues his 1974 Naropa class on Spiritual Poetics from here 

AG: Because it’s too much to say, you gotta pay attention – you can’t do that, you just get self-conscious, so, it’s more remembering what caught your attention when you weren’t trying to pay attention. So it’s slightly subliminal in that sense. So with the normal waking mind, we don’t generally remember what we.. well, except once in a while, everybody does, and then tells his friend, his best friend, “You know what I saw today, walking down the street – a weird scene I saw”. But I feel that one could practice that all the time, and that there must be some form of yoga where that is practiced all the time.

Imaginarily, there is an extension of that in the state of consciousness that (Chogyam) Trungpa was describing in the last lecture, where he was saying everything was happening at once, all over, that the attention wasn’t centered in the kundalini but in the certain state of awareness that everything was happening all at once. All color was bright. All color was its own archetype. All color was bright. Green was really luscious. In fact, last night, that really impressed me. I got very high from some hash oil. Driving up from a party and stopping at a red light, I remembered what Chogyam (Trungpa) had been saying, and it was like magical recall in a dream, sort of, a déjà-vu, because the red lights were really bright bright bright, and the amber had its own message, and the green really had a very definite message: “Go”. I guess everyone’s experienced that in America with the traffic lights. “What oft was thought but n’er so well expressed”

So the problem that was brought up – and always is brought up – is – why would anybody be interested in what you see anyway? – “bullshit – you know, everybody sees…” – but everybody doesn’t see, and the whole point of the poem is to point attention to the thing that you see, to the fact that you see, and that everybody sees, and waken other people up to the fact that they see, because they think. “oh, I’ve had thoughts like that, this is easy to write”. Well, it’s true! It is easy to write. It’s not hard to write haiku or poetry. Maybe something longer and more complicated might be hard to write, but then it would probably last a thousand years anyway.

These little haiku, and fragments of Anacreon and Sappho, are permanent, and they’re just like not even finished poems. In Sappho, they’re often one little precise recollection of when she was in love, there was a tingling on her skin she remembered, her heart beating and a tingling on her skin, like a subtle fire creeping around. Everybody had felt that, but nobody (had) quite got (that) right, paid attention to it clearly enough to say that would be an interesting subject for a poem.

She was probably the first one who thought of those little quasi-physiological body-sensations during moments of amour as being a fit subject for a poem. Probably everyone around her was saying, ”oh that’s too personal, nobody will understand it”. So, if you write personally, in that sense, sketching from the phenomena that you are experiencing, or directly witnessing, with any of your senses, you have the likelihood of touching a key, which everybody else also touches but is not quite aware of. So it’s that “What oft was thought but n’er so well expressed”, which means that you don’t have to have an elevated thought, you just have to have an average real thought, or average real perception. I’m mixing up thought and perception, but the point is clear, I guess.

Getting back to materials for work, it means – be prepared (because you’ll never know what you’ll remember). You never know when you’ll remember that you just realized something. Some such realizations are very fugitive, unless you’re in a real habit of recollection, and one way of developing that habit of recollection is carrying a notebook, or having (a) notebook by your side at home, or in some stable place, like you have a mandir, or altar, or shrine. If you’re a poet, your shrine may be your notebook, which you are always conscious of in the household, or on your person, and you always know where your pen is, so that you’re not caught short. Because there is an enormous inertial-drag in interrupting the activity of love-making, or food-eating, or sleeping, interrupting activities, to take the physical effort to drag yourself out of bed and turn on a light and actually write down the dream at four a.m., or whatever thought it was that kept you awake, whatever.

Like some deep recollection – like remembering how you went to the zoo with your mother, aged four, or, something, that comes up at midnight twenty years later and it seems really important and, like, a celebrated moment in your personal history. Every day we get flashes, everybody gets flashes every day – not mystical flashes, just flashes of themselves, flashes of their own life every day. It’s a question of getting those flashes down and to get those down you have to be prepared, and not be afraid to write for fear that it might not be pretty enough, or good enough, or poetical enough, or usable enough, or publishable, or sumpin’. It’s just a question of you, alone, with the flash of your own light, life, with a means of articulating it in language so that it becomes almost an independent object, so that when you’re dead, other people can look at that flash and take nourishment from your flash can recall themselves from your self-recollection.

In that sense, immortality is of interest in poetry, but only in that sense, in the bodhisattva function of the poem as it stands. So other people outside of yourself can recollect it, and that’s the reason for writing, ultimately, I think, as a service – or like a service. It’s not that much work, but it’s sociability, as a sharing of the timeless space that everyone goes through, which is always the same space from century to century, because it’s the great solitary space.

So the solitariness, the aloneness is the same throughout time, as we speak of time, and it’s touching on that aloneness with awakened mind so that you’re awake in the aloneness. You’re sentient, aware, woken up in the middle of the dream of life, remembering what you’d been dreaming, and anybody in a later year, or in another city, or another century, or another planet, can waken to the same vast space and the same vast solitude, and recognize where we all are together. But it’s only through noticing of the particular detail of your own life that you have any material to work with, or that’s the primary material.

You can interweave in other theories and intellectual formulations and half-baked or half-digested Buddhist or Christian theories or philosophic notions with it, but William Carlos Williams’ phrase is that the mind should be clamped down on objects. I think that’s the condition of arriving at your awareness of what’s around you, writing it down, articulating it, writing poems, the mind being clamped down on objects. William Blake, visionary and elevated and romantic as he was, oddly had exactly the same recipe. His practical rule was “minute particulars”. Poetry should consist of minute particulars, tiny details. And (Jack) Kerouac’s formula for his novels was “detail is the life of it”. When I read a page of someone’s poems, I notice I look on the page for details, minute particulars, and everything else is sort of opaque. You can’t see, hear, feel, taste, touch anything else other than what is offered in the poem to be seen or smelt or tasted or touched, or approached, one way or another, with the mind clamped down on an objective world. So I find myself reading vast reams of poetry with my eye running down the page, looking for a taxi-cab.

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