History of Poetry – 13 (John Donne)

John Donne – 1572-1631

Our transcription of Allen Ginsberg’s NAROPA History of Poetry class (continuing from last month) continues from here (with notes on John Donne)

AG (singing with harmonium) : “Go and catch a falling star,/ Get with child a mandrake root,/ Tell me where all past years are,/ Or who cleft the devil’s foot…” [Allen improvises/ sings the whole poem – and then, self-depreciatingly] – Well that’s not a very good tune.

Sweetest love, I do not go,/ For weariness of thee…” – you know that? How many know that? I guess it’s the sweetest of them. Huh?

Student: Which one is the one with the contest?

AG: Later on. I think that’s the one where they’re lying in bed, looking into each others eyes. Well, I’ve got it here. Eventually probably. You all know “Hymn” – [Allen then reads in its entirety, Donne’s poem – “Sweetest love, I do not go…“]. What I liked about that, I guess, is it’s really song, and it says “Song”, “Sweetest love, I do not go,/ For weariness of thee…” There is a comma: “Sweetest love, I do not go,/ For weariness of thee…” But, without a comma, it’s a very curious perfect swift “Sweetest love I do not go/ For weariness of thee/ Nor in hope the world can show/ A fitter love for me/ But since that I/ Must die at last,’tis best/ To use myself in jest/ Thus by feign’d deaths to die.” “O how feeble is man’s power..” – it’s a funny kind of syncopation. “O how feeble is man’s power/ That if good fortune fall,/ Cannot add another hour,/ Nor a lost hour recall.” It’s a delicate ear. I remember I had to read it when I was in college and those few little rhythms like, ” Sweetest love, I do not go,/ For weariness of thee” stick a long time. I used to write a lot of imitations of it.

And (then) there’s “The Canonization”, which I begin to appreciate now [Allen reads “The Canonization” – “For God’s sake hold your tongue, and let me love..” – just the opening stanza] – that’s the first stanza – you can read on yourself.

How many here know “The Extasie”? I’m not sure, so I’ll read that. It’s longer. [to Student] Do you know these at all, any, (Don)?. You went to school in Maine?

Student: No, actually…

AG: Where?

Student: It was a long time ago in Iowa…

AG: Iowa.

Student: …where I finished high school.

AG: What really upset me is Lewis MacAdams, who is an older poet, told me that he had the same experience that when he went to school they were teaching me and (Jack) Kerouac, rather than this, or rather than traditional poetry, and it seemed like a bum karma, kind of. Even MacAdams hadn’t read that (James) Shirley poem about “Scepter and crown/ Must tumble down”

Student: How old is MacAdams?

AG: Huh?

Student: How old is MacAdams?

AG: Well, he must be 32. Yeah. Can you hear me actually?

Students: No

AG: Way back in.. There’s a chair here. I want you to move up. Move a little more then. I feel kind of weird because my pronunciation feels funny with my face [Editorial note – Allen here is alluding to his “bell’s palsy”] – Visually, I keep seeing myself as sort of like a Francis Bacon painting with half the face slipping. I have difficulty with “f”‘s and “p”‘s.

Well (ok), it’s sort of like a Platonic thing, called “The Extasie” [Allen reads “The Extasie” – “Where, like a pillow on a bed..” …there’s a kind of erotic haze throughout the room. I guess you’ve all had that experience. If you haven’t, then go do it immediately, with the knowledge that you’re going to make it, but hold off and lie there a long long time until there’s some total erotic communication before you get to the body, before you get to the hard pushing.
So the interesting thing there, “Our hands were firmly cemented/ By a fast balm” – ok – “Our eye-beams twisted, and did thread/ Our eyes upon one double-string” – that’s clear (it’s a little ugly, actually, but I have to say it was clear anyway). Now, “As, ‘twixt two equal armies” – as between two equal armies – “Fate / Suspends uncertain victory/ Our souls – which to advance their state/ Were gone out – hung ‘twixt her and me” – so that’s a common experience – “And whilst our souls negotiate there/ We like sepulchral statues lay” – that’s a good one. So there’s a lot of funny stuff, like “This ecstacy doth unperplex”, which is like “On purpose lay’d to make the taker mad” – “This ecstacy doth unperplex” – what really gets kind of interesting, talking about finally getting back to the body. “Else a great prince in prison lies” – the next time somebody doesn’t want to make it with you, well, just say, “A great prince is lying in prison”, and they’ll laugh. And, at the end, “And if some lover, such as we..” – it’s very firm, very clear, that he has accomplished something in love, has experienced something in love, or has accomplished something in love, or has felt something”. There’s his poem, “On His Mistress..” Yeah?

Student: I think there’s.. I don’t know.. when you were reading that, I got a different impression than the way you were seeing it…

AG: Yeah.

Student: …which is that.. Yeah, I saw the poem, and in a kind of different light than the time right before two people make it, seeing it more like ideal love, when two people become one, that experience of inner twining of souls and leaving the body, more than any kind of sexual.. like leaving the body, like entirely..

AG: But he’s saying then you’ve got to get into the body. That’s the whole point of the poem.

Student: I thought it was more like… especially in.

AG: “To our bodies turn we then, that so/ Weak men on love reveal’d may look;/ Love’s mysteries in souls do grow,/ But yet the body is his book”. In other words, this is explaining why he, finally.. why, after a long time preparation, a long time looking in each other’s eyes, finally the metaphysical turn was to the physical, and it was alright.

Student: I thought that it just needed a physical manifestation of ideal love

AG: Well, it’s the same thing,

Student: Yeah.

AG: What do you want? That’s all he’s saying. Yeah, sure. I’ll buy that, sure – “But, O alas! so long, so far,/ Our bodies why do we forbear?” – Why don’t we make it in the body? – “They are ours, though not we; we are/ Th’ intelligences, (but) they are the spheres. / We owe them thanks..” – I mean, he’s glad – “Nor are dross to us..” – The bodies aren’t dross – “..soul into the soul may flow,/ Though it to body first repair.”

Okay. There’s a poem , “On His Mistress..”, which I won’t read at length, except the first ten lines or so because of the movement of the lines, which is something you might note, because, except maybe for that little passage of Shakespeare, “in cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces..”, here it begins a movement which starts like a repetition and builds up to a mighty kind of rhyme, builds up a flow, builds up a sort of cum, beginning of orgasmic poesy, beginning of rhapsody which we’ll get to later in (Percy Bysshe) Shelley, total rhapsody – or in Hart Crane, total rhapsody. So far we’ve been dealing with intelligence, precision, music, break-time, but here, time build-up, rhapsody build-up. “On His Mistress..” – See, just dig how he begins it, and then, sort of, a Bach Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, just building it [Allen reads first nine lines of “On His Mistress” – “By our first strange and fatal interview/ By all desires which thereof did ensue..” – He came. Rhetorically and syntactically. By this, by that (duh-dah, duh-dah), “I conjure thee..” – “..and all the oathes which I/ And thou have sworn to seal joint constancy/Here I unswear and overswear them thus..” And so forth. It goes on and on, long poem about his lady, full of intelligence. And another great line: “When I am gone, dream me some happiness” – That’s very strange, sort of Shakespearean, oddness. “When I am gone, dream me some happiness” – You know what I mean by a rhythmical build-up here? It’s pretty obvious. And this is something stronger than anything I’ve been reading so far. So, if you’re writing, that’s where your ear develops, if you can start something like that and pick up and go on and build it. Here it’s the repetition. Does anybody know what the technical word for repetition like that is? There is a technical word for, “..who throw themselves on the meat truck looking for an egg, who did this, who did that..”, like in “Howl”, or, well, it’s not a litany, there’s a litany form, but there’s a technical word for it. Maybe I’ll find out by next time…

Student: Why were they so into that third-person titles?

AG: “On His Mistress”

Student: Yeah

AG: Let me see. It may be that there was no title. It might have been a letter and it might have been titled by another person, saying..

Student: It’s pretty common, though.

AG: Yeah. The titles may have been given by friends, “John Donne, On His Mistress”. There’s the great text, this poem beginning “By our first strange and fatal interview..” which may have been a letter or just a little poem without a title, but I don’t know. Or, actually, I think it probably began that way and then people got used to it like that and began titling their own poems that way. I don’t know, though, otherwise. When I was twenty, I used to write “On His..” because I was influenced by this.

Student: I think it was just a conventional thing Allen, from like wills and things – you know, “John Donne, his Last Will and Testament”.

AG: Yes, it might have come from legal language, but I think in poetry, the convention might have come just from the usage of hands passing poems around.

Then there are a series of “Holy Sonnets”, which are very powerful. They’re no longer that light violin music or whatever – cellos – like in Shakespeare, and they get very solid in confrontation with death, but also he has this obsession with transcendence and coming to another life and being taken up by Christ and being redeemed. A whole Western shot which you’ll find building up into the final suicide by Hart Crane in the 20th Century – an insistence on making it into Godhead, and so breaking up his body. In other words, he’s depending on a God here. See, the early poems, they were a little more pagan. All of a sudden in here, with God, they get really serious about a Central Intelligence Agency (sic) in the universe running things, and from there on in, in a sense, the poetry gets less freely playful and more and more intellectually serious and begins hardening, and finally people stop singing even, and they get more and more intellectual. They still mixed song, but here now he’s writing sonnets which are not likely even meant to be sung, or are almost prayers, but they’re so intelligent, or so well-built and so intelligent, that they’ve got a lot of strength.

“Thou hast made me, and shall thy work decay?/ Repair me now, for mine end doth haste, / I run to death, and death meets me as fast,/ And all my pleasures are like yesterday..” – Well, that’s almost as good as Shakespeare – “And all my pleasures are like yesterday..” [Allen continues] “I dare not move my dim eye any way/ Despair behind, and death before doth cast/ Such terror and my feebled flesh doth waste/ By sin in it, which it t’wards hell doth weigh./ Only thou art above, and when towards thee/ By thy leave I can look, I rise again;/But our old subtle foe so tempteth me…” – He’s got the Devil in there already. Nothing as terrified.. I haven’t seen anything as terrified as this, of a personal bring-down, of a personal demon – “But our old subtle foe so tempteth me” [Allen concludes the poem] “That not one hour I can myself sustain;/ Thy grace may wing me to prevent his art,/ And thou like adamant draw mine iron heart.” – Like a magnet – “thou like adamant draw mine iron heart”.

Then, the very famous one, “Death be not proud…” [Allen reads the first six lines of this John Donne sonnet] – “That’s pretty funny. Do you understand? – “From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,/ Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow” [Allen continues with the last eight lines] “And soonest our best men with thee do go,/ Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery, / Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings and desperate men/ And dost with poison, war and sickness dwell, / And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well/ And better than thy stroke; why swell’st thou then?/ One short sleep past, we wake eternally/And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die” – That’s very heroic. Actually, it makes sense in a non-Christian or a pagan system too.

Thanks, as ever, to Randy Roark, for his initial careful and attentive transcription.

The audio for this, June 21, 1975 NAROPA class (including Allen’s renditions of Donne), may be listened to here – http://www.archive.org/details/Allen_Ginsberg_class_The_history_of_poetry_part_11_June_1975_75P010A

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