Allen Ginsberg’s “History of Poetry” class continues
Student: Are you going to read “To His Coy Mistress”
AG: Yeah, sure. Now Marvell, 1621-1678, so that’s late 17th century, middle-late, was a secretary to Oliver Cromwell, so he was involved in very heavy politics and then withdrew from it, retired somewhat, and did some writing. I like (Thomas) Nashe and (James) Shirley, but Marvell is maybe the most solidly beautiful of all the lyric writers. I don’t think by this time he was writing for music. Marvell was Cromwell’s secretary, wasn’t he? – Yeah (and) what was his relation to (John) Milton?
Yeah. The thing about Marvell is he’s among the most perfect people writing lyrics. Some of the lines in Marvell’s work also stick in your head permanently and are useful, like Zen koans, or little fragments of Rinpoche’s speech, like “All the constituents of being are transitory”, or Buddhist speech. There are a few lines of Marvell that are part of anybody who’s read him, part of permanent thought forms that stick in your head and some of it you’ll recognize, even though you haven’t read him. “To His Coy Mistress” – “coy”, like she didn’t want to come across, or she wanted to talk first. She wanted to be entertained. She didn’t want to go to bed immediately, she felt they should take some time getting to know each other, as if they might not get to know each other in bed, so she wanted to do something besides just make love.[Allen reads “To His Coy Mistress” in its entirety] – “Had we but world enough, and time…” – The great lines that everybody hears in their head: “Had we but world enough, and time,/This coyness, lady, were no crime” and “My vegetable love should grow/Vaster then empires, and more slow”. “…you should, if you please, refuse/Till the conversion of the Jews.” “But at my back I always hear/Time’s winged chariot hurrying near:/And yonder all before us lie/Deserts of vast eternity.” Now how many have never heard those four lines? – “Deserts of vast eternity.” Raise your hand if you’ve never heard that before – “But at my back I always hear/Time’s winged chariot hurrying near:/And yonder all before us lie/Deserts of vast eternity”. Now how many have never heard those four lines? – “Deserts of vast eternity” – Raise your hands if you’ve never heard that before. “But at my back I always hear/Time’s winged chariot hurrying near:/And yonder all before us lie/Deserts of vast eternity” – He spells it… well, I’ve seen it spelled “D-E-S-A-R-T-S”. Chariot is (also) spelled “C-H-A-R-R-I-O-T”. “Time’s winged chariot hurrying near”, “And yonder all before us lie” – “L-Y-E” – “Deserts of vast eternity”. There’s also, for witty people, the lines “The grave’s a fine and private place,/ But none I think do there embrace.” – It’s pretty funny – “And the last age should show your heart/ For, lady, you deserve this state/ Nor would I love at lower rate” – For space and time – “..at my back I always hear/ Time’s winged chariot hurrying near” – For time, that’s actually one of the most suggestive phrases, lines, that I’ve ever heard – For space – “And yonder all before us lie/ Deserts of vast eternity” – also one of the most suggestive for total blank spaciousness, infinitely extensive – “Deserts of vast eternity” – it’s as good as Shakespeare. I don’t know if Shakespeare did anything… well, it’s as good as anything Shakespeare did – “..at my back I always hear/ Time’s winged chariot..” – That’s as good as anything from Prospero in “The Tempest”.
AG (to Student): Where did you go to school?
Student: University of Illinois
AG: And what did you study?
Student: English Literature
AG: So what did they make of that? That was studied there wasn’t it? What did they make of that – “..at my back I always hear..” – Was there much to-do about that?
Student: The whole idea of..
AG: How did they teach it is what I mean
Student: Basically his arguement in “To His Coy Mistress” is carpe diem.
AG: Carpe diem – seize the day
Student: Seize the day and do it
AG: Yeah, but I mean, did they ever go into why those four lines open up such an extensive space in the head, because it’s really like a magic thing
Student: Well I think “Time’s winged chariot” was a reference to the chariot that Apollo was supposed to have driven in front of him
AG: Yeah, so you see Apollo driving a chariot in front of him. “Time’s winged chariot hurrying near”, coming up on him.
Student: You have “deserts of vast eternity” coming right after that. If you can connect the two and picture this chariot coming over the deserts, then that really opens up the space
AG: Yeah, they’re still sort of separate things, in a way – “At my back, Time’s winged chariot..” “And yonder all before us..”
Student: Still, the words being in such close proximity.
AG: I don’t know how to analyze it, but what I do want to point out is, if you dig on it, “At my back, I always hear/ Time’s winged chariot hurrying near” is a very powerful and suggestive phrase that you may wind up remembering for the rest of your life. “And yonder all before us lie/Deserts of vast eternity” is another powerful phrase that may stretch out in front of you for the rest of your mortal days. Why the lines are so vast and iron-like, that “winged chariot” is very iron-like, I don’t know, but it’s something you can keep with you. Do you know those lines “But at my back I always hear/Time’s winged chariot hurrying near:/And yonder all before us lie/Deserts of vast eternity”? We just read that. Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress”. So you should do your make-up home-work by looking that up. Andrew Marvell – “To His Coy Mistress” – Pretty forward, actually, in terms of trying to make out.
He’s actually a sort of Platonist, as he turns out later, with an ideal Universe elsewhere. “The Definition of Love“, which I’ve always liked because it was a little bit of a statement of how hard it was to be gay, really, though he’s not gay [Allen reads the first three stanzas of “The Definition of Love”] – “My Love is of a birth as rare..” “But Fate does iron wedges drive/ And always crowds itself betwixt” – In other words, he just can’t make out. Something is in the way, or the situation never arises for such an extreme desire that he says he has to find itself an object. [Allen reads rest of the poem, next five stanzas] – You can make of that whatever you want. There’s a whole bunch of arithmetic in here…
The thing about Marvell, he also had a kind of fairy-like celestial imagination. And there are two poems that show it. One is “The Mower to the Glow-Worms” and another is called “Bermudas”, but “Bermudas” I don’t have here, so, look it up, if you can. “Bermudas” by Andrew Marvell. “The Mower and the Glow-Worms”, I can give you a little sample. It’s sort of like sugar candy, prettiness, which is actually very solid. You have the “Bermudas” here? – great – What book do you have? you have the Oxford…Yeah, I didn’t have.. Is this in the library?..There is?.. Probably most of what I’m reading you can get out of this Oxford Anthology of English Poetry. The Oxford books are very solid. Well, Marvell you can get for 35 cents in Dell (Marvell, Blake and a few other poets you can get in the Dell (paperbacks)). But for all the stuff we’ve covered, the Oxford books, of 16th Century, and 17th Century poets, the separate volumes for the different centuries, or for different eras, they’re good solid things to have around the rest of your lifetime, because hundreds of poems that you slowly get into, or get out of.. you can open up before you get into bed when you’re forty or something. But they’re good investments. They won’t make books like that with fine paper and solid backs in another ten years, probably. They’ll run out of solid backs and lumber. So they’re good things to invest in now. It’s the Oxford series. This particular one is alright, I guess, Anthology of English Poetry, put together (by)…(I haven’t checked this out actually, but probably I should have been using this, rather than the little Auden(-Pearson) anthology – It’s just because the Auden I know, and have at home). “Bermudas” – I guess it’s an early poem. The Bermudas were just first being explored in his day, so it’s an imaginative Walt Disney view of boats in the water in Bermuda. [Allen reads the first 12 lines of Marvell’s “Bermudas” – “Where the remote Bermudas ride..” to ” Safe from the storms and prelate’s rage“] – “Prelate”, you know, priest – “Safe from the storms and prelate’s rage”. [He continues (with the next 11 lines) – “He gave us this eternal Spring” to “But throws the melons at our feet,/ But apples..”] – Pineapples actually, according to my note [continues, completing the poem] – Pretty good. The things I always liked was, “He hangs in shades the orange bright,/ Like golden lamps in the green night”. And there’s a funny line, “He makes the figs our mouths to meet,/ And throws the melons at our feet”. He echoes that later on in a poem, “The Garden”, but even more gorgeously and extravagantly, a sort of Walt Disney humorous richness of nature presented. Does it have the rest of the poems I want, the Oxford Anthology of English Poetry [Allen then reads the first four lines of “The Mower to the Glow-Worms” – “Ye living lamps, by whose dear light/ The nightingale does sit so late,/ And studying all the summer night,/ Her matchless songs does meditate”] – That’s really carrying it a bit far, but it’s perfect. Perfectly pretty. Total prettiness. [Allen reads the poem in its entirety] – He’s just having some fun. Sort of a poem to “Juliana” (“Your courteous lights in vain you waste,/ Since Juliana here is come”). But then he got very serious. I guess he’d worn himself out in the city and in politics and working for Cromwell and came to a monastic conclusion, or decided to do.. some kind of solitary meditation, or retire from the world, or cultivate his own garden, or his own consciousness, or his own local terrain actually. Maybe actually a little Zen garden, so to speak. In other words, a move parallel to what we know ourselves, moving from city to country, and abandoning aggressive ambition, and estimating the aggressive ambition of New York City or London. Before I begin, though, classically, the palm, the oak and the bay – the bay is for literature, right?, the crown of laurel, or bay?, the oak-leaf cluster is for military victory, n’est-ce pas? – and the palm? for what?
AG: Peace, or, no, who gets palm?
Student: Easter Sunday
AG: Well, somebody wins a garland of palms. Does anybody know? Anybody got any idea? I think palm is maybe diplomacy, or peace
Student: Peace. You get it in the church like helping the church
AG: Victory. I think the oak for military victory, yeah. The oak-leaf garland, Caesar’s ok, or something. The palm would be..well, maybe diplomacy or something.. We’ll figure it oout in another lifetime! – or look it up! – I don’t know. You can always look it up in a book if the right words are important, which they are, actually. It’s just this is my first year teaching so I haven’t polished my…
Student: What book would you look it up in?
AG: You would look it up in.. did Basil Willey write a book on 17th century poetry? – Okay, then, somebody probably named Basil Willey – W-I-L-L-E-Y, called…
Student: “The Golden Book“? [sic], the book that has all that symbolism in it?
AG: No no.. Well, you can look it up in the dictionary. Look it up in a dictionary, in a little encyclopedic dictionary, classical dictionary might do it too, like the Everyman edition classical dictionary, or you could look it up in a good, solid… does it have a little footnote there in your Oxford book?
Student: It says a symbol for victory, in the Oxford.
AG: The palm? Okay. The oak? The palm is victory?
Student: Yeah. It talks about Christ, though. It’s a symbol of victory. Isn’t that what (Yasser) Arafat held? Didn’t he hold a palm in one hand ehen he came to the US?
AG: Yes, that;s right. But that was peace wasn’t it? when he held the palm?
Student: Maybe that’s what he thought.
AG: That it was really victory. Okay. “The Garden”. They don’t have “The Garden” in the Oxford book? Amazing! It’s his best poem.
Student: The other one, the Glow-Worm, wasn’t in there either
AG: Yeah, well.
Student: Oh yeah. It’s in here.
AG: I guess this is the most famous poem in the English language, “The Garden”, in terms of being the most classically perfect poem, smartest poem, the poem with the most suggestiveness hidden in it, the poem that’s the hippest, the poem that has most Gnostic information in it, the poem that’s like the totally disillusioned poem, the perfect Christian poem, the perfect Buddhist poem, the wittiest poem, the most intelligent poem, the poem with the brightest imagery (except for maybe “Brightnesse falls from the ayre”, because nobody can beat that – that’d pure brightness, that’s total air and brightness, you can’t go beyond it), the most suggestive, dark, shadowy, transcendental meditation poem in some of his lines, the unbeatable poem that every poet that wants to write rhymed poems always tries to beat. And, actually, it’s a poem that turned on T.S.Eliot, and turned on a whole line of poets who were friends or students or imitators of Eliot, during the ’20s, ’30s. and ’40s (Incidentally, Eliot in “The Waste Land” quoted that “At my back I always hear..” what is it? – “At my back..”
Student: Winged charriot..
AG: No, no, Mrs..Something Mrs.. No, “But at my back I always hear..bringing Mrs Porter to her daughter.. or something like that, some sort of World War 1 pop song – “Mrs Porter and her daughter washed their feet with soda water” – “But at my back, I always hear, Sweeney coming home from Mrs Porter”.. or, something like that – in The Waste Land, you’ll find it somewhere. Look it up. [Editorial note – The correct quote is – “But at my back from time to time I hear/ The sound of horns and motors which shall bring/ Sweeney to Mrs Porter in the Spring”, followed by “O the moon shone bright on Mrs Porter/ And on her daughter/ They wash their feet in soda water”.]
How many here have read The Waste Land by T.S.Eliot? How many have not? Higher? Who have not? Frank, actually. That’s not bad. Okay. Most have. How many have read “The Garden” by Andrew Marvell? Or how many have not read “The Garden” by Andrew Marvell? – Okay, here goes. The most perfect poem in the English language! Imagine! – I’ll try to read it so it’s comprehensible, but there are a couple of later stanzas that are very complicated. You’ve got to use your head and mine isn’t in very good condition. Andrew Marvell – M-A-R-V-E-L-L – “The Garden” [Allen then reads to the class, in its entirety, “The Garden” -“How vainly men themselves amaze/ To win the palm, the oak, or bays…” ] – So that’s “The Garden”. There’s that extravagant passage, “What wondrous life in this I lead!/ Ripe apples drop about my head;/ The luscious clusters of the vine/ Upon my mouth do crush their wine/ The nectarine and curious peach/ Into my hands themselves do reach/ Stumbling on melons as I pass,/ Ensnar’d with flow’rs, I fall on grass.” – I’ve always liked that line (and) the stanza about the soul going up like a bird into the… I guess the bird of paradise into the.. the peacock up into a tree and waves (waving) its plumes in the light. But that “green thought in a green shade” is obviously the key, because that’s a statement again of another way of what Shakespeare said when he said (that) “these are players (actors),/ as I foretold you..vanished into thin air (melted into air, into thin air)/ and like the insubstantial (baseless) fabric of this pageant (vision)/ ..fades (faded)/ (and) leave not a rack behind” – I’ll read that one stanza – “Meanwhile the mind from pleasures less,/ Withdraws into its happiness/ The mind, that ocean, where each kind/ Does straight its own resemblance find/ Yet it creates, transcending these/ Far other worlds and other seas;/ Annihilating all that’s made/ To a green thought in a green shade” – Each kind, each thing, each type, each person each face, each sensation. Kind of mysterious. “The mind, that ocean, where each kind/ Does straight its own resemblance find” – What does that mean? Do you know? Anybody know what that means? – “The mind, that ocean..” – Okay, we know the mind is an ocean, an ocean of thought, limitless consciousness, where “each kind” finds “its own resemblance”. What do you make of that?
Student: Can that mean that you seek out in the other what is in you, that you seek to find outside yourself what is in yourself? or have something to do with projection?
AG: Each finds its own resemblance in the mind; that it was there in the mind, before it was “peach” – Pardon me?
Student: It’s there anyway… The concept of the peach..
AG: Well that the peach was invented by the mind in a way, the mind invented the universe, more like a Buddhist shot, I think, there. That the mind invented the universe, so therefore each peach finds its own resemblance originally in the mind, or its own eidolon, or its own archetype.
Student: Do you think it might also might have to do with the way resemblances just occur. It’s like Heidigger says that we don’t go towards… they come to us … rather than they’re actively projecting it, or recognizing it.
AG: Well I don’t really know what it means, what the line means. It’s just that the arrangement of the words is so suggestive that it can obviously evoke a philosophical suggestion (such) as yours, or a Buddhist suggestion (such) as mine – or a Platonic suggestion. The Platonic suggestion was eidolons, or archetypes, somewhere in the mind, and down here below we find reflections. Actually, this is probably a Neo-Platonic statement in terms of the line of philosophy. It’s pre-Existentialist, and probably Neo-Platonic, somewhat Gnostic. You had your hand up?
Student: No, no.. I was going to say something about the image of Plato’s cave fits very well there.
AG: Well, I don’t know how the cave gets into it.
Student: Well, the shadows on the wall.
AG: Yeah, maybe. Well, you’ve got an ocean here – an “Ocean where each kind/ Does straight its own resemblance find..” – The Ocean is there.
Student: What are the Gnostic references in the poem?
AG: Well, the Gnostics were like the Buddhists and they didn’t believe the Universe really existed, or that, if it did, it did and it didn’t, or don’t take it.. They had a notion, actually, instead of Shunyata. Do you all know Shunyata? How many know the notion of Shunyata and how many don’t? Shunyata? No mind, emptiness, the emptiness behind reality. Close your eyes. Everybody close your eyes. What do you see? Well, there’s a bit of black and there’s maybe some white bars, but basically what you’re seeing in Shunyata, which is the vast emptiness, Okay? Alright? Now open your eyes. Open our eyes, really, and look straight ahead through the window, the curved window screen of your eyeballs, but not at any object, and let the image there flatten so that in the optical field there’s nothing but a flat painting by some abstract flat realist, right?
Student: Barnett Newman
AG: Barnett Newman. Anyone. But keep yourself hypnotized there for a second and you notice that behind the flat painting there ain’t nothing anyway. Okay? So open-eyed or shut-eyed, there’s nothing there. I mean there’s hings here but they’ll be gone in a million years, so don’t worry about it. That was (Jack) Kerouac’s favorite saying, “Come back in a million years and tell me it’s all real”. It’s unreal. “Come back in a million years and argue with me”, No, “Come back in a million years and argue this world”.
So Shunyata. I guess was a Madhymaka, a 2nd or 3rd Century doctrine in Buddhist thinking, as it was 2nd, 3rd, 4th Century doctrine in Western thinking, (the) saying was that appearances deceive, that behind appearance is a sort of emptiness, or that the emptiness and appearance are simultaneous and it’s an important thing. That’s actually, basically, what (William) Burroughs was laying out – that if you actually saw something completely, it would disappear, or if you actually stopped the discursive chatter of language, in the beginning was the word, and if you ever stopped the word, if you were able to stop the word from repeating its tape-recorded self in your consciousness, all that was created by the word, concept, word and concept, would vanish. So the Gnostics had the concept of the “Abyss of Light”, as being the basic place where everything was happening, or being the only place that was existent. An “Abyss of Light” – and that’s a Western conception. From the Mandaean Gnostics. It’s very roughly the equivalent to the notion of awakened emptiness, or Shunyata, which is a Buddhist idea. If you want information on Western forms of double-think, Buddhist illusory consciousness examination, a history of all the Western schools of Gnosticism is given in a book by Dr. Hans Jonas – J-O-N-A-S – Dr Hans.. – H-A-N-S J-O-N-A-S, called The Gnostic Religions – G-N-O-S-T-I-C Religions.
Audio for this class (including Allen’s readings of the five poems by Marvell) may be listened to (from approximately 30 mins in, following his observations on John Donne) here: –http://www.archive.org/details/Allen_Ginsberg_class_The_history_of_poetry_part_11_June_1975_75P010A