Death Is.. An Improvisation (1975 Naropa out-take)

Image: Mischievous Dead, Jose Posada / Public Domain

One final transcript from Allen’s 1975 NAROPA History of Poetry classes – this curious and lively in-class improvisation. Gregory Corso and W.S.Merwin were on hand on this occasion to add their contributions.

AG: The subject of today’s improvisation will be death. So, in answering the roll call, “Death is…”, fill it in. No reading from old books. No stumbling on your own old quotations. Death is your tongue speaking right now.
Student: Death is your obsessive angel.
AG: Death is pure obsessive anger? Is that what you said?
Student: Your obsessive angel.
Student: She thought she was holding but she’s six feet under now.
AG: Death is she thought she was holding but she’s six feet under now. Repeat the first line, then keep it going.
Student; Death is everywhere…hmm.
AG: Death is everywhere, Hum?
Student: Death is momentary madness.
Student: Death is all there, breathing.
AG: Death is all there breathing? That’s nice.
Student: Time is…
AG: Death is…
Student: Timeless void.
AG: No good, rejected, do it again. Two abstractions don’t make a concretion. You have to at least have one concrete and one abstract.
Student: How about “voidless time” instead of “timeless void”?
AG: Come on. Try again [long pause]  David [long pause]. Look at anything in front of you and say what it is [longer pause]. Look out of your eyeball and say what you see. Don’t look in your head. Just look out at anything in the room.
Student [after another long pause] Confusion
AG: No, that’s another abstraction. You can’t substitute one abstraction for two abstractions.
[Another] Student: He’s getting closer, though.
Student: Is there a right answer?
AG: Yes, there’s a right answer. Just something concrete. Clamp your mind down on objects, an object in the room. Look out of your eyes. Don’t look in your head, look out of your eyes.
Student: Unborn flower.
AG: You don’t see that in the room. Give me a specific text. Just name one object in this room, with an adjective.
Student: Concrete wall.
AG: Okay. Death is a concrete wall. That’s better than “timeless void”. [AG calls out another name, another student’s name sounding something like “Shambodhichti”]
Student: Iron dog jumping through a hole in the earth.
AG: Death is an iron dog jumping through a hole in the earth. Where did you get that name?
Student: In death.
AG: Oooh.
[Another] Student : Death is recording this lecture on my tape-recorder.
Student: Death is my shadow on a cloudy day.
Student: Death is my favorite character in literature.
Student: Death is a silent piano.
AG: Silent piano, right, right in the room.
Student: Skin of your teeth, skin of your eyes.
AG: Come on, say it! – Death is skin of your teeth, skin of your eyes.
Student: No, I just like the line.
AG: No, no, you gotta play by the rules! – “Skin of Your Teeth” was the title of a play, anyway, you know.
Student: Yeah.
AG: “Skin of your eyes” is nice. “By the skin of your eyes” is a good phrase.
Student: Death is this day, all day, crazy painting white wall gig in Denver, rush to poetry class with three cylinder Volkswagen.
Student: Death is an erased blackboard.

AG: Death is an erased blackboard? Pretty witty.

Flying skeleton via Mexicansugarskull

Student: Death is a pole vault in Benares.
AG: A pole vault in Benares? Pretty esoteric.
Student: Death hurts.
AG: Death is..death fruits? – I can’t hear.
Student: Death hurts.
AG: Death hurts. Oh, death hurts, okay. That would fit in, though Gregory (Corso) wouldn’t agree. Once you’re dead, he’d say, there’s no death, so.. Well, cancer hurts
Student: Death is breath is all.
Student: Death is what we practice when we sleep.
Student: Death is your flower.
Student: Death is our friend and lover
Student: Death is randomizing your particles on magnetic tape.
AG: That’s the second time you’ve got that magnetic tape in there. Vandalizing the particles?
Student: No, randomizing.
Student: Death is the smell of a dying flower in a bunker of roses.
AG: Speaking of which, where were you the last couple of chain-poem (assignments)
Student: Late.
AG: Late? Oh. Well then you owe three lines of death.
Student: Death is choking smokers in bunker rooms.
AG: And the third death?
Student: Death is choking smokers.
AG: Ahh, we need a fresh corpse!
Student: Death is fresh quotations upon request.
AG: Yeah, Cadavre Exquis, the Exquisite Corpse, was a form of drawing or painting that Surrealists used or Dadaists used in which they’d fold a paper, and one would start a figure, and then, without seeing the other, but where the lines ended on the fold of the paper, (Hans) Arp would continue, and then fold the paper, and then Tristan Tzara would continue, or whoever, (Francis) Picabia would continue, and so they made what they called (an) “Exquisite Corpse”, which is a combine painting, or a collaboration painting or drawing, part chain-poem.

Student: Death is a cold hard knife, slashing at my flesh (indecipherable) death peace.
AG: Now make one up again.
Student: I made that one up.
AG: Yeah, I know, but you wrote it down, you cheated. You cheated!
Student: Fuck you!
AG: Death is fuck you.
Student: Death is flesh and flowers for gone Kerouac.
Student: Death is a busted universal joint in Grayville, Indiana.
AG: Gregory Corso
Gregory Corso: Death does not exist
AG: Death does not exist.
Gregory Corso: Let me make one more. Death is a gimmick.
Student: Death is a window with screws.
Student: Death is a warm trampoline.
AG: Death is a warm trampoline?
Student: Well, I’m not registered.
AG: It’s alright. You’re on the list for auditing. We’re doing everybody.
Student: Death is nobody ever did anything that bad.
Student: Death is an old woman walking backwards.
Student: Death is being called on, but he’s not here.
AG: Ah, Death is being called on but he’s not here.
Student: Doesn’t exist, he can’t be here.
Student: Death is a blackboard.
AG: A black wart?
Student: A black board.
AG: Okay. The black wart.
Student: Death is a myth to die by.
AG: Death is a myth to die by . What do you think of that one,Gregory?

Gregory Corso: It’s top shot.
Student: Death becomes old hat after a while.
Student: Death is boredom in the garbage grid.
AG: Death is boredom in the garbage grid? If you insist.
Student: death is the last time you get off.
Student: Death is the ballad’s end.
AG: Death is the ballad’s.. ah, that’s too corny, come on!
Student: Death is wrestling with self.
AG: Ah, that’s too corny.
Student: Death is no smoking.
AG: Oh well, Death is wrestling with yourself, no smoking.
Student: Death’s illusion counterpoints life’s orgasm.
Gregory Corso: Oh dear!
Student: Death is the ultimate.
AG: The ultimate? The ultimate what?
Student: Zapper.
AG: The ultimate hand gesture zapper.
Student: Um-hum.
Student: Death is a warped phonograph record
Student: Death is a beautiful woman I encountered in my dream.
AG:  Umm. What color hair?
Student: Black.
Gregory Corso: Edgar Allan Poe again.
Student: Death is so boring.
AG: Huh?
Student: Death and whatever.
AG: Death and whatever? One abstraction, you need at least one concrete and one abstraction.
Student: Absolutely.>
AG: Death and absolutely whatever?
Student: And so on.
AG: That’s three abstractions in a row. Just throw in one microphone. Come on, just one concrete object.
Student: Death and a booger.
AG: Huh?
[Several] Students: Booger!
AG: What’s a “foe-gurt”?
Student: Booger!
AG: Booger, Okay.
Student: You look like a booger, Allen.
AG: Okay, Death looks like a booger. I keep saying, don’t let yourself be embarrassed by your false unconscious – William Merwin? [alongside Corso, the poet W.S.Merwin is also in the room]
W.S.Merwin: Death is the dust of the piano.
AG: Death is the dust of the piano, microphone  – David Rome?
David Rome: Oh shit, Death is… next door.
AG: Next door? Well what next door?
David Rome: In the music store, next door, before I came here.
AG: Death is…not think. All you have to do is not think.
Student: Death is life laughing.
AG: Life laughing? That’s too abstract. Well, I guess laughing is, I suppose, concrete, you might say. Death is laughing, twiddling our beards.
Student: Death is an unpeeled tomato.
AG: Melissa Sprowl?
Student: I’ll take it. Death is your feeling of  being alive.
AG: Why is it an unpeeled tomato?
[Another] Student: I liked that line.
[& Another] Student: I liked that too
AG:  What made you think of that?
Student: That was the line I said before, on Monday.
AG: Death is eating the same unpeeled tomato twice!
Student: Death is the donut we spend our whole life eating.
Student: Death is like graduating.
AG: Death is like graduating? Graduating where? what?
Student: From..
AG: Death is like graduating from..?
Student(s):  Naropa!
AG: The University of Oklahoma.
Student: Death is knocking.
AG: Anybody I didn’t get? What are you doing standing in the doorway, death?
Student: Listening.
AG: What is death?
Student: Listening.
AG: Death is listening. Anybody listening besides death? Yeah?
Student: Death smells, especially when it decomposes.
Gregory Corso: And that means a smell that is not very, you know, nice.
Student: Death is taking your pants off for nothing.
AG: Death is taking your pants off for nothing?
Gregory Corso: There’s nothing there.
AG: Anybody got any other lines they tought up?
Student: Death is welcomed with white eyes.
Student: Death is a pool cue in the hands of  W.C.Fields
Student: Death is a factory foreman.
Student: Allen, I came in late. Death is a mocking boy sucking on my windshield, laugh off, fucker.
AG: Any other Deaths here?
Student: Death is a donkey trying to be Ulysses S Grant.
Student: Death is my name.
Student: Grey plastic bag.
AG: Death is a green plastic bag.
Student: Grey
AG: Grape?
Student(s): Grey!
AG: A grey plastic bag.

Gregory Corso: Alright, Ginzy. What is death?

AG: Death is the end of the poem.
Gregory Corso: No, you laid it out the other night. It was beautiful.. Do you know what you said?
AG: “Ah poor death!”
Gregory Corso” No, you said, “Gregory, why pick on poor death?”
AG: (I wasn’t intending) such a poem.
Gregory Corso: That’s top shot.
AG: Now, going back to life, coming back to life.
Gregory Corso: Oh great.
AG: Can I have a cigarette, please.
Gregory Corso: See, you’re playing with death.
AG: death smokes in a death fire
Gregory Corso: Does anyone have another kind of cigarette?
AG [to straggler] – Did you get here in time to answer? No. What is death again? Death is..?
Student: (indecipherable)
Gregory Corso: That’s good enough.
AG: Not in a poetry class.

The original audio for this transcript (a roll call with improvisation) is available at:,  (for the first approx. 25 minutes)
– Grateful thanks (once again) to Randy Roark for the transcription. Transcriber’s note: “I have deleted extraneous material and transcribed only that which I believe to be to the point. Names, repetitions, etc have not been included”.

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