Louis Ginsberg Guests In Allen’s 1975 NAROPA Class – Part One

Allen & father Louis Ginsberg, teaching course at Naropa, August 1975. Photo c. Rachel Homer

AG: Okay, my father and I have given poetry readings together in the past, and he’s one of my gurus of poetry in a sense that he first taught me verse and first taught me sound, so I thought, getting it from the horse’s mouth, since he was going to be here, it would be a good idea for us to teach together, because we’ve never taught poetry together. I’ll turn the class over to you for about three quarters of an hour to go back to Keats probably.

Louis Ginsberg: When Allen asked me to come here and read some poetry, I asked him what he read, and he said “Shelley”. Well, immediately, of course, you think of Keats. As a mater of fact my mind went back to the time when Allen and another boy of mine, also a poet [Eugene] were lying on the rug reading the jokes, and I came home from the school, college, and quoted Shelley and Keats and Milton and so on, so that perhaps some of the lines sank into his subconscious.
Poetry, of course, is a subject that everybody talks about but sometimes can’t quite put their finger on. The best definition of poetry that I know is this: “Poetry is the most beautiful way of remembering what it would impoverish us to forget”. Man is distinguished from all other creatures on earth by his ability to express himself, and the highest power of expression, the cream of expression, is poetry. Now, sinking lower to something more concrete, here’s a notion, or general idea, of what real poetry is, namely, poetry is a collaboration of a concrete particularity with a general principle. Most of the people who write poetry write in generalities, but that’s more like prose. Prose states, but poetry implies. And one of my favorite poems is this, called “Ozymandias” by Shelley. Ozymandias was a famous Egyptian captain, then he became king, a tyrant. Shelley was told by a traveler that this traveler saw a broken statue in the sand,. From this, Shelley made this sonnet [Louis reads, in its entirety, Shelley’s “Oztmandias” – “I met a traveler from an antique land..”..”the lone and level sands ] – Now there’s a concrete detail, namely, “shattered statue”, “And on the pedestal..” – “Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”/ Nothing beside (the statue) remains. Round the decay/ Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare/ The lone and level sands stretch far away”.
Another way of stating that theory of poetry was (that) the lines of a poem should move with a double-force of observation and implication. Now I’m going to ask you what do you think is the implication of this poem? Anybody? Let me repeat the nub of the poem which is “And on the pedestal these words appear:/ “My name is Ozymandias, king of kings;/ Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”/ Nothing beside remains. Round the deacy/ Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare/ The lone and level sands stretch far away”. See, prose states and explains, but poetry implies, hints. Anybody? Please.
Student: Impermanence
Louis Ginsberg: Pardon me.
Student: Impermanence?
Louis Ginsberg: Now you’re near it. Impermanence of what?
Student: Impermanence of achievement by man.
Louis Ginsberg: Pardon me?
Student: The impermanence of achievement by man.
Louis Ginsberg: Impermanence, that’s right. The impermanence of the man’s (achievement), or man’s vanity, contrasted with what?
Student: The sand.
Louis Ginsberg: The what?
Student: The sand.
Louis Ginsberg: Well, what about the sand?
Student: The sand is eternal.
Louis Ginsberg: That’s right. The transience of man’s vanity and boasts contrasted with the imperturbable permanence of nature. Note the last lines – “boundless and bare” – the alliteration – to emphasize – “lone and level” – the alliteration.
Now one more point, in order to emphasize the imperturbability, the impermanence, the solidity of the earth, the poet does what all good poets do, he unites sound and sense, matter and meaning. Can anyone tell me what there is especially good in this last line that contributes to the permanent solidity, the eternal imperturbability of nature. Anyone?
Student: It’s pure meter. It’s pure..what is it, iambic?
Louis Ginsberg: Well, the whole poem, of course, is iambic.
Student: Yeah, but this is very pure.
Louis Ginsberg: Pure? Well, I don’t know if that’s the world we should use. You’re getting close though. You’re flirting with the answer
Student: It’s totally monosyllabic.
Louis Ginsberg: That’s it. There’s the poem. It is monosyllabic in the main. It drags because of the monosyllables that make the reading of it slow. “The lone and level sands stretch far away” . So, as in this poem, so in most good poems, the implication is very important. I remember Robert Frost’s poem, “Mending Wall” – he’s talking about two men, one wants the wall, the other doesn’t. The one that wants the wall is.., the poet says, he stands in the shadow, in the past. He is in the shadow of the past and the shade of trees. What a bad poet would say (would be), “Yes, but not only that, he’s old-fashioned” – or in “Othello”, when Othello is crazed by jealousy, and he’s furious and raging, he goes into the bedroom of Desdemona to kill her, and he says, “(Now) put out the light, and then put out the light”. The first light, of course, is the lamp, but the second light goes on in our minds. The light of his life. So in all poetry there is that implication. Suppose I pause, now, for a few questions on poetry in general. Is there some water here?
AG: There’s also, in the end, the other element is just space. The other element is just endless space also< Louis Ginsberg: Endless space? AG: As an image. Louis Ginsberg: Well that may be true but meanwhile he’s anchored it to earth. He’s talking about the lower level, sands. Of course, it might be space too, but it’s more anchored to the land. Now, if you had some questions about poetry, some nights when you couldn’t sleep, and you resolved some day that you’d like to find the answer, well, maybe I can roll away the fog from your mind. Maybe, I said. If I can’t, then Allen and I might. So any question about poetry in general. Yes sir? Student: In monosyllabic phrasing, should the words be spaced on the page to make it that way or just will the presence of the words do it? Louis Ginsberg: No, it’s normally printed. There’s no space there, although some poets might do that. AG:(e.e.) Cummings, remember – the balloon?
Louis Ginsberg: That’s right, yes, but..
AG: Do you remember the line?
Louis Ginsberg: That’s right. But the fact remains that you’re forced, when you read it, not to rush, but you’re held back, as if to say, there’s something ponder-able, something weighty, something lasting. Anybody have a question about poetry in general
AG: I want to add, there’s a line of Cummings about the balloon man. Do you know how that goes? “Far and wee” – “The balloonman whistles/ far and wee” [from the poem [in-Just-]]
Student: “The little/ lame balloonman/ whistles far and wee”
AG: And how does he divide that line? “Whistles….far….and….wee”. The “and….wee” is way over on the edge of the page. I guess it’s mostly Cummings did experiment with page.. ways to get that break,

Louis Ginsberg: Anyone else have a question?

Student: what did you do to help your son become a poet?
Louis Ginsberg: Well, that’s rather difficult to answer. As a matter of fact, I have two sons. Another boy is a lawyer, a little older, but he writes poetry and he’s had a book of poems published. So the question is, is it nature or nurture? I think it’s both, because it may be, as I gather, in the lineage of my family. There were writers in Europe, and then, as I say…
AG: Rabbis.
Louis Ginsberg: ..Rabbis and writers, and that the two boys, as they grew up, were..was it molested?, no, by my reading, my reciting poetry all the time, and, subconsciously, as I think, some of it sank in.
AG: I can remember “Ozymandias” by the grand piano in the living room
Louis Ginsberg: Is that so?
AG: “My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings”. I can hear that echo for a long long time.
Louis Ginsberg: And then, John Milton. One night we walked to and from Milton. “Him the Almighty Power/ Hurled headlong flaming from th’ ethereal sky/ With hideous ruin and combustion down../… there to dwell/ In adamantine chains and penal fire,/ Who durst defy th’ Omnipotent to arms..” Well, it must be that…
AG: Page one of “Paradise Lost”.
Louis Ginsberg: It must have been that these influences sank into his subconscious and (were) having an effect on him. But there’s an anecdote (that) I remember – although I don’t think Allen remembers, or he disclaims it. One time when Allen was in Columbia, I went visiting him, and a friend said, “You know, Allen writes poetry”. So I looked at Allen, and I said, “Is that so?”. And he said, “Yes”. “Well, why didn’t you tell me?” “I thought you didn’t want me to write”. I said, “How do you figure that one out?”. He said, “Well, you introduced me and Eugene (my other son) and you said, “Eugene and I write poetry, but Allen is normal”. So he thought… So I answered him and I said, “No, I don’t want you to write poetry because I write, or Eugene, your brother, writes. I want you to write poetry because you have an inescapable inner compulsion to write, if there’s a burden of expression you cannot withhold, and so, if you do write, you’ll find an exhortation, or exaltation, and so he began writing. And before I knew it, he was in media, soaring high in the skies. Anyone else? We’ve often given readings together, all over the country, in Europe. I am a traditional poet, a square poet, Allen is avant-garde, or left, let’s say, but people like to see us together and they think that we bridge the generation gap, and in many ways we do, although sometimes we transcend it. Because we differ a little bit. I’m traditional, you know, and old-fashioned. Well, not exactly old-fashioned but traditional not conventional. But we get along. I maintain, I have no ax to grind. I say that any poem that works is good, whether it be a free-verse poem, or a poem in regular meter. I like to write in regular meter because I think that meter has a certain hypnotic effect, you know, and it enhances emotion. Any emotional utterance psychologically starts to be rhythmic, and I like rhyme. It doesn’t have to rhyme, but there’s an instinctive magic to rhyme. For instance, when we’re in lower grades, we remember verses, we don’t know what they mean, but the rhyme seduces us, it sinks deep into the threshold of our primitive natures. But, as I say, Allen writes long flagellating Walt Whitman lines, with which he flays the corrupt body politic. I’m more philosophical and write short brief (poems). But (today) we’re supposed to talk to read..
AG: It’s S & M versus Missionary Style!
Louis Ginsberg: any more questions, and then I’ll read
AG: There’s a person on your side there.
Louis Ginsberg: Okay
Student: What I’ve heard of your aesthetics sounds very similar to a poet I studied with a long time ago at the New School by Garcia Villa
AG: Jose Villa ? Jose Garcia Villa?
Student: Your aesthetics sound very similar
Louis Ginsberg: Oh yes,yes. Is that so? Yes, I’ve read him and I like him very much.
Student: talk about concrete detail and generality and the fact that prose names and poetry suggests. That’s very similar to what he said.
Louis Ginsberg: That’s right. Of course, the essence, too, of poetry, as Allen can well attest, is the concreteness, the vivid concreteness. The concreteness should be like the.. what do they call it? the sun has a corona. The corona sort of radiates so many meanings in a symbolic way. As for the difference between prose and poetry, here is a statement that somehow I like, see what you thinki of it. In prose the words dissolve in the idea, but in poetry the idea dissolves in the words. Because in poetry it ain’t so much what you say as the way you say, the vividness, the uniqueness, the felicity, the fresh concreteness. You take Shakespeare, the master. His thoughts were universal, commonplace – greed, hate, love – but he clothed them in such immemorial, magnificent, masterful, language, that it’s ever new. Any other questions?

Student: This is sort of a comment along those lines. Keats said something, in one sentence, that combines the general
Louis Ginsberg: Pardon me?
Student: Keats gave comment that combined his idea of putting the general and the concrete together. Poetry should strike the reader as a working of his own highest thoughts, which includes the general, and appear almost as remembrance.
Louis Ginsberg: That’s right. Doesn’t Frost have a line like that? That with poetry we remember what we forgot? Something like that. It reminds me of one of my comments of what a college is – it’s a place where the reluctant are led by the incapable to do the impossible in too short a time. But, of course, this place is an exception! Anyone else have a question on poetry?
Student: Could you recite some more Milton?
Louis Ginsberg: Milton? Well, I don’t remember too many of his. Of course, there’s Milton, the one we studied.. inL’Allegro“?.. in “Il Penseroso“? [ it is, of course, from “L’Allegro”] – “Come, and trip it as you go/ On the light fantastic toe/ , and in that right hand lead with thee/ The mountain-nymph, sweet Liberty..” – which reminds me, a question you don’t ask that you should have asked, when did I start writing poetry?
Student: When did you start writing poetry?
Louis Ginsberg: Thank you. It reminds me. Milton, one day in high school, our teacher was reading Milton’s poems, and she said (this was Friday),”Monday, everyone will come in with a poem imitating Milton”. Well, I’d never written a poem, much less an imitation, and I hesitated, but that Sunday night, late at night, I thought, “Well, I’d better do something” and I wrote one line. Before I knew it, other lines tumbled in place so quickly that I turned around to see if anyone were dictating it. And I thought to myself, “Well, that’s not too bad”. And I took it to school and the teacher next day said, “ Well, I’m going to read a poem here”, and, sure enough, she read my poem. Well, then, from there I went to Rutgers College and won a prize in poetry and one of my professors said, “Why not send them out?”. I sent them out, and by this time I’d known how to concoct reasonable facsimiles of poems so they eluded the questions of the editors and they published them in their papers. In other words, they began to publish them. So I figured I might as well continue. So I continued and had three books (one was published in 1970, and the man who wrote an introduction to it, and praised it… [tape ends here]

[tape continues] – Really, you know, .you wouldn’t believe it, but I really don’t remember my poems, except little short ones, like, for instance, four lines, an epigram, like, what do we call them? – it’s called “Fetters” – Fetters – F-E-T-T-E-R-S – Shame – “Only in fetters/ is liberty/ Without its banks/ Could a river be?” I mention it because Allen is wide. Well, he says, the banks could be wide. Or this one about knowledge – “Heap the logs of wisdom higher/ Yet the bigger leaps the fire/ It realizes a greater arc/ of impenetrable dark”. And mine are (typically) short poems, but Allen goes over the landscape. Well, any other., we have time..it’s 7. You said to stop at 7,
AG: Well, let’s get on to Keats unless there are more questions.
Louis Ginsberg: Unless there’s another question or two? Anything about poetry that never let you sleep. Now at last..
Student: What was your reaction to “Howl”?
Louis Ginsberg: “Howl”? Well..
AG: First reaction.
Louis Ginsberg: You want my reaction to “Howl”?< Student: Your first reaction. Louis Ginsberg: Well, my first reaction was that.. “boy, that was wild!” . And some of the words I didn’t use. But it had violence and strength and energy that made it a landmark in literature. Of course, some of the words I don’t use. AG: I’ve heard you use every word in that. At one time or another, Maybe afterwards. Louis Ginsberg: Not publicly, not publicly. I said to a little girl one time, little girl, seventeen or eighteen, listening to Allen, “What do you think of those words?” “Ah, we know what they are, (it) doesn’t matter”. “Suppose I use them?” “Oh no, Mr Ginsberg, you’re too dignified for that!” – But, anyway, one more question, and then I’ll…

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