Whitman Introduction (1975 Naropa Class)

Walt Whitman in Camden, New Jersey, 1887 – Photographer unknown, possibly Thomas Eakins – courtesy Aldeerman Library, University of Virginia

AG: You’ve all heard some of Whitman. His first line, which is generally taught in high school, and which you all know, isn’t generally spoken correctly, it’s “I celebrate myself, and sing myself” (Allen emphasizes the second syllable – he then goes on to read the first five stanzas of “Song of Myself”, pausing only after/mid-way through the third section – “Knowing the perfect fitness and equanimity of all things, while they discuss I am silent, and go bathe and admire myself” – Actually that sounds like Philip Whalen a little – “while they discuss I am silent, and go bathe and admire myself”)

Student: What’s the name of that poem?

AG: It’s “Song of Myself”, it’s the beginning, the first five sections of “Song of Myself”

Student: Will you read some more?

AG: I’m going to, actually, later, I think, in the week. It’s clear what he’s saying, isn’t it? I read some of this on a plane between Denver and Jackson Hole to (Trungpa) Rinpoche once, and by about the time we got to this point, he said, “It’s like sutra“. He recognized it as open statement, actually of no identity, like sutra, because, actually, remember?, when I was talking about Gregory (Corso), I was saying, “well, there’s Gregory, the difficult person, and there’s also another sense.. I was thinking of that when I was reading the section, “Apart from the..”, Where is that? I just read it [Allen takes up the poem again – from section 4 – “Apart from the pulling and hauling stands what I am/ Stands amused, complacent compassionating, idle, unitary,/ Looks down, is erect, or bends an arm on an impalpable certain rest,/ Looking with side-curved head curious what will come next/ Both in and out of the game and watching and wondering at it”] – which is actually good Buddhism, for.. what is this 18..?

Student: ’70

AG: 1870 America. Yeah. There’s a lot of very beautiful little vignettes. I’d like to go through a lot more Whitman (and so, will, later), but what I’m just doing now is giving samples of the break-out from the older form that we’ve been dealing with all along, a stricter and more rigid form, sometimes depending on a God up there to chasten and hasten and subdue. Whitman may be the first to really break out, really crazily, in the sense of to make his own sense stand for an egoless play of wind in the leaves, that is his own self is as egoless as the wind playing through the leaves. (He) understood that the self was not an ego, or the self was not a “self” – the self was mere noise through the branches, that the registration of the variety of his moods and sensations was as impersonal as the ocean’s roar, or that the only completely subjective is actually objective, that only total subjective, only registration of completely subjective fact, is dealing with the self in an objective way, or that by registering a variety of self-observed fact you actually are dealing with an impersonal object. So it’s sort of like the watcher watching in meditation, or sort of the non-watcher, the wakened emptiness through which thought-forms pass. So there’s an element of wakened emptiness in Whitman, of thought-forms passing which he’s not attached to – “Do I contradict myself / Very well, I contradict myself” – because that’s the way it is, or that’s the way the mind is.

Student: Allen, (Carl) Jung says the same thing about dreams, that they’re the only objective part of you, because you don’t have a chance to manipulate them

AG: You can’t control them. Yeah. I feel good if I write a dream down because I can’t be accused of being subjective. I’m just observing the data. I’m just registering data, like you’d register the look of the Empire State Building. So a dream is always a very good way of (proceeding). If your tendency is to write sort of stupidly subjectively – getting lost in your generalizations and abstractions and images of yourself and attached to fixing a specific image forever as being your nature – then, you’re naturally going to get entangled in yourself in a way that’s a drag. Whereas if you’re just looking at a dream, it’s just something you didn’t.. it’s you, it’s just you there, but the “you” there is as “non-you” as a rock.

Student: Don’t you think that the “you” would have some control over that, and that there would be different kinds of things…

AG: If you study Naropa’s dream yoga, yes, you could have control over your dreams, but until you’ve done some selective self-examination, of such extent that you can actually control your dreams, you can’t really blame yourself for them. You can’t blame, at least, your conscious mind. You can’t help it. If you can’t help it it’s not you. Provisionally. For the next ten minutes…

[Allen, after discoursing on other topics, returns to Whitman at the end of the class] –

..reading Whitman, who was a dreary old fart – or myself! – the great egotists who have created a self as big as the entire universe – which was in a sense, the Yogacara trick in early Buddhism – there was the phase of the Buddhism, which was One Mind, that Buddha was one mind, one mind pervading all, one mind in the trees and god in the window, god in the door, god in the stairway, god all over the floor – one yogacara, or One Mind school of Buddhism, which Maitreya-natha Buddhism or Asanga destroyed, saying that there was no mind, it was shunyata, and there wasn’t a shunyata because that was objectifying something that didn’t exist, or reifying something that didn’t exist.

So in a way Whitman is like the final extension of selfhood to cover the cosmos (and that’s why he’s “I, Walt Whitman, a Kosmos..”). It’s a remarkably great position that somebody had to fill out, a position which I took for a long while too, thinking that that was the only way to extend the self, or to… that the body was real, and that the feelings were real. The only more charming position is, (as Trungpa pointed out in his lecture the other night), is (that) – no self, in which case, then you can slip anywhere in the universe, also, if you want to, but there’s nothing to be destroyed there, so it’s totally illusory, also. But Whitman doesn’t have total victory because he spread himself throughout the universe, and then at the end he has to (renege?) and gets to wonder..because Whitman has poems called “Sands at Seventy” – well, he had just a funny kind of attitude towards himself when he was really old – and when he was ill. He had a… there’s a very brief poem.. in which he talks about that the only thing he can write about at this point is his bowel movements, but he wrote it down, he wrote it down, and laid it out. [Allen reads. in its entirety, “Queries to my Seventieth Year” (“Approaching nearing, curious..”) – That was one of Whitman’s last self.. last presentations of self. So it shrank with sickness too – Seventy – Later, he said “After the supper and talk, after the day is done..” “garrulous to the very last” [Allen reads this late poem too] – What time is it now?

Student: 7.30.

AG: …jumping ahead.. so Whitman and Rimbaud broke up the form and what we’re dealing with is a total break-up of the psyche and the formal manifestation of the psyche in poetics in the late 19th Century – Rimbaud in France, Whitman in America, somewhat at the same time, somewhat contemporaneous – a breaking apart the stanzaic structures and the rhythm of the vocalization, fulfilling the prophecy of Plato – “When the mode of the music – or the prosody – when the mode of the music changes, the walls of the city shake, because the changing of the mode of music means change of rhythm, that means a change of the speech-rhythms, or a sudden re-consciousness of the speech-rhythms, which means a sudden realization of speech, which means the.. what? ..the..grammatical illumination?, (Chogyam Trungpa) Rinpoche spoke (of) yesterday as the “Zen method”, (a) consciousness of language, and a consciousness of its expression, therefore of what are the movements of the self, or what are the tongue-ings of the self, a discovery of self, as distinct from the society, or the culture, or the country, a breaking of the forms of the culture, a breaking of the walls of the culture, a new thought, new consciousness, initiated by Rimbaud, Verlaine (Whitman)…

Audio of this is available at http://www.archive.org/details/Allen_Ginsberg_class_The_history_of_poetry_part_15_June_1975_75P016
(starting, approximately ,six-and-a-half minutes in, and concluding approximately twenty-and-a-half minutes in)
Audio for the second section can be found on the first 20 minutes of the recording – http://www.archive.org/details/Allen_Ginsberg_class_The_history_of_poetry_part_16_June_1975_75P017

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