History of Poetry – 12 (James Shirley)

Abraham Bloemaert (1566-1661) – Vanitas With A Putto Resting His Head On A Skull, oil on panel 16 3/4″ x 13″

Allen’s June 10 1975 NAROPA class concludes.

AG: It’s called “Dirge”. Now, (James) Shirley‘s 1596-1666, so now we’re getting about half a century later than Shakespeare. So that little airy thing in Shakespeare is beginning to get a little bit lost, but a kind of funny Buddhist Noble Truth logic horror is coming in. A Death’s Head is coming in. It’s perhaps stupidly, in a sense, like, Western mechanistic industrial-minded.. the wheel has been invented or something, and (William) Blake is about to be born pretty soon (well, maybe another century). It’s this kind of thing that drove Blake mad, really, but actually it’s the apex of logical English horror thought. It comes out of Shakespeare, because it’s like the Shakespeare lines, “All lovers young, all lovers must/Consign to thee, and come to dust. “Golden lads and girls all must consign to thee, come to dust.” “Dirge”, from “The Contention of Ajax and Ulysses”. [Allen reads James Shirley’s poem – “The glories of our blood and state/ Are shadows not substantial things..”] – No, it’s better than I thought, actually. That’s really good, Marianne Moore paraphrases that in one of her poems about the war. I was influenced by this.. and, this mainly. This is [he turns to his own poetry] called “Stanzas – Written at Night in Radio City”, [Allen reads his 1949 poem – “If money made the mind more sane/ Or money mellowed in the bowel..” in its entirety] – Actually, the first, one, two, three, four, five, six lines were after Shirley’s “Scepter and crown/ Must tumble down”, and then I got mixed up and started writing like (W.B.) Yeats. The “woman withered in the lips”. So I got to be “Crazy Jane” or something. “Contemplate the unseen Cock/ that crows all beasts to ecstacy” – that was a take-off on “I know, although when looks meet..” You know Crazy Jane”? Yeats?, a figure, sort of a dharma crazy-wisdom figure in Yeats. “I know, although when looks meet..” On “Wild Jack”, her lover..[Allen then reads Yeats (“I know, although when looks meet..”, from “Crazy Jane and Jack the Journeyman”)]. So I think I was getting some of that dirty old woman talk, kind of “Crazy Jane”.

So, that was James Shirley. That’s really so good, that – “Upon Death’s purple altar now,/ See where the Victor/victim bleeds” – it’s like perfect dharma karma talk. That poem, “Brightnesse falls from the ayre” of (Thomas) Nashe, and (Shakespeare‘s) “Of his bones are Corrall made” have some funny perfect things. “Death lays his icy hands on kings/ Scepter and Crown/ Must tumble down”. It’s really so pearl-like, it’s so beautiful. You should know those poems. You should keep track of just a few really exquisite lines, with the exquisite time, and the exquisite literary detail that they present. So that’s Shirley. If you’ve got it written down, look it up and read it a couple of times. If you read it a couple of times, you’ll have it in your head without even attempting to memorize it. That’s what I find, and I find (true) with a lot of people. If you have something really good and perfect like that, where it makes total sense and where it’s totally literal, and the music is perfect, if you read it three or four times, then fragments hang around in your consciousness, and you’ll have them for the rest of your life to refer to, and then you’ll have to fight them when you want to write your own poetry. Because the nervous system practically gets altered, the entire nervous system, the neural network, gets altered by these vibrations. It’s like really subtle perfect vibrations (which was a theory of the French 20th century poet, Antonin Artaud, who, speaking of music and voices and poems, said that there are some tones and vibrations which are so penetrant that they actually alter the molecular composition of the nerves. A certain vibration enters in and alters the physical, biochemical, structure of the corpse, making a permanent change. What time (is it)?

Student: It’s ten to..

AG: Yeah, okay, We’ll continue. I’ll continue with a few more of these. I’ll continue next week, or next, with George Herbert, (Henry) Vaughan, (Andrew) Marvell, (Thomas) Traherne, and begin/do a little (John) Donne.

[class and tape end here]

Audio of “History of Poetry” parts 10-12 is available at http://www.archive.org/details/Allen_Ginsberg_class_the_history_of_poetry_part_10_June_1975. As always, thanks and gratitude to Randy Roark

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