The History of Poetry – 1 (ABC of Reading)

After a short break, we continue today with our serialized NAROPA transcription

The History of Poetry – Allen gave this class on June 16, 1975.

AG: …Was it alright?… It wasn’t a total bore? – So I’m going to go back, since there is some empty space, since people don’t know some earlier poetry, I’m going to go back and do a fast shuttle through my favorite early poems, in English. Later on, we might go back further and get to Anacreon, but I want to start with “The Seafarer” Anglo-Saxon, originally. So when would that be? When was “The Seafarer”? Do you know?

W.S.Merwin (sitting in on the class) – I don’t know what the original (date) was.

AG: Does anyone know when “The Seafarer” was? Anglo-Saxon, that would be 6th Century?, 7th Century?

WSM: More like about the..

AG: Ninth? Written originally in alliterative verse, with a caesura in the center of the line, which I’ll overemphasize to begin with so you hear how the verse-form goes. This was Anglo-Saxon – too difficult for me to read, and so translated into English, or American English, by Ezra Pound back in 1910-1920, probably 1910 or so, “The Seafarer”.

Another thing I wanted to find out, how many here are Buddhist? Raise your hand. Wow, yeah. Now, how many Buddhist, or non-Buddhist actually, have learned how to do some kind of formal meditation practice? Okay, now how many have not? Now for the purpose of the class, it would be useful if you’d pick up on how to do it, take a half-hour course from one of the instructors. Will you? Is that alright? Just to do the meditation, because we may be making use of it in the class. So, pretty nearly everybody knows something of it. In a way this refers to the First Noble Truth, of suffering. [Allen then reads in its entirety Pound’s translation of “The Seafarer” (“May I for my own self song’s truth reckon..”)].It’s really interesting, given, say, our own Buddhist preoccupations, how close that is to versions of the Four Noble Truths, or versions of some of the Ngondro, or preliminary practices, prefatory prayers – “Delightful to have human body, free and well-favored, but death comes, this body will be a corpse. The laws of karma inexorable, cause-and-effect can’t be escaped. Most of all, samsara, an ocean of suffering, un(en)durable, unbearably intense”.
I was looking over a lot of earlier poetry in anthologies, to bring in, and I was struck by (I’ve always been struck by, actually) how close the English verse that was taught in high school is to primary Buddhist understanding of transiency, the fact that all the constituents of being are transitory, “pleasure waneth”.

“Seafarer”, I laid on you because… did anybody know this before? does anybody know “The Seafarer”? So most don’t. That’s pretty strong, actually. Very manly. Very solid manly kind of verse. Alliterative verse – that is, “Bitter breast-cares”, “dire sea-surge”, “Narrow nightwatch”. The lines are composed of halves. Two, usually two, alliterations of the same kind of sounds. Consonant and vowel, alliteration is a consonant and vowel together repeated. “Sea-surge”.

WSM: Consonants

AG: Consonant linked to, it could be a different vowel, like “sea-surge” on each half of the line, and a caesura – cut, cut, “caesura” (like “Caesarian”) – in the middle of the line. “May I for my own self song’s truth reckon/ Journey’s jargon, how I in harsh days”. So, you heard that verse-form, or you can hear it, can’t you, when (it’s) being read?

(A) curious thing about this – this is in Pound’s Personae, which is in the library, and there is also another book of Pound’s, of collected Translations you have in the library..So Pound did a lot of research. He had the problem of attempting to reconstruct, or construct, some kind of measure or meter for his own practice for American verse and, in the course of that, he ransacked the world’s literature, looking for usable verse forms, usable measure, usable practices in relation to music, in other languages, in Provencal particularly, usable examples of phanopoeia, the casting of an image on the mind’s eye, melopoeia, the music of the verse, the music of the vowels, the tone-leading of the vowels, and logopoeia, the dance of the intellect among words. He divided poetry into those classes and if you’re interested in exploring what he did with poetry (because he’s really the most heroic poet of the century, in terms of his research and his practice, like encyclopedic research – and, at the same time, cranky and personal), there is one useful book that can be used as a little anthology textbook for schools, The ABC of Reading. This is from the library. It’s a selection. It’s general essays, or piths, not essays, paragraphs, in English literature, and (the) tracing of the back-bone, the skeletal back-bone, of the progression of European verse to the 20th (Walt) Whitman. In other words, he chose his.. (as) if it were an evolutionary development, considering it as an evolutionary development, with a great leap forward every century or so, with one poet making a discovery, a new discovery, he made the selection for a little teaching anthology. I’ll be using a different set of selections because what I’ll be teaching is just the poems that I like (or the poems I found in my own ear), much less systematic than Pound. But for an idea of Pound’s systematic survey of what happened, real brief, with real brief selections, The ABC of Reading is great.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *