Student: Can you read some Shelley?
Gregory Corso: Let me see. What do I know of Shelley? What’s his top-class poem? His top-class poem is “Ode To The West Wind”. Yeah, that’s a very great poem. Yeah, that’s a great one because it’s a lyric, and he puts the “I” with the lyric, it means you put yourself in it, he put himself right at the end, and he connected himself with the wind all the way – he transformed himself into the wind. Yeah, let me find that one.
Student: I’ve got it here.
GC: You’ve got it there. Well, why should I read it through? It’s a long poem too. Oh Gregory. Do you people know it? You read it? All of you must have read “Ode to the West Wind”. Okay, let’s see. How many have read “Ode to the West Wind”?
AG: How many have not?
GC: How many have not? Oh, then great. They get the great poem. Alright, I’ll find it.
AG: [to class] – How come?
GC: How many (have) read “Annabel Lee”? Oh, I asked that first in the class, Al, I forgot to tell you. First time I came onto the stage here, you know, the desk and all that, I called ’em “dumb fuckers”, and all that. I said they fucked around in the ’60’s, and now they want to learn, right? There’s lots that they don’t know.
AG: “The Ode to the West Wind’ – when I was going to high school that was standard.
AG: Everybody would get that in the ’40’s. They didn’t teach that in high school? What are they teaching?
Student: Your stuff.
AG: In high school?
Student: Sure, in high school, that’s what they’re teaching.
AG: That’s a degeneration.
GC: You gotta get your sources.
AG: You add it on, not replace.
GC: Don’t let them con you that way. Good God, get your sources. Okay, let’s see, Percy Bysshe.. “Ode to the West Wind” (page) 243.. [tape ends..then continues] – ..Alright, it’s an ode, alright, and it’s to the West Wind, and it’s done from the Italian terza rima. Pure versification it would be anyway. Here you go. [Gregory begins reading, reads the entire “Ode to the West Wind”] – “O wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn’s being…”..”If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind” – That’s a goodie poem. He put himself at the end of it. He put himself right at the end with, “Make me thy lyre, even as the forest is.” – And today I was up in the forest with (Wlliam) Burroughs and some other people, and the wind came through the trees. So I thought, “What’s the onomatopoeic sound of that in English?”. What they have in the dictionary is “murmur”, “breeze” (“breeze” is an onomatopoeic word), and Carlyle’s “brool” – B-R-O-O-L – Brool – Carlyle – Thomas Carlyle. Thomas Carlyle made that sound out of the sound of the wind going through the trees. But William and I hit the other word – “sow” [whispering], sow (and we realized that the word “sow” has always had a bad connotation in life, somehow. People put it down somehow, right?. But euphoniously, it has a nice sound.
GC: It could be that – or S-O-W.
AG: So the wind S-O-W-I-N-G through the leaves.
GC: Or S-O-U-G-H. Alright, so anyway, that poem, well, that’s alright, that’s a goodie. Let me see, what else? More poetry to be read. What else did I have in my head to give to you guys? Oh yeah, this is what I wanted to give you – but Allen’s here, he might have given it to you, he told me he’d give it to you – was.. so bring your Mexico City Blues, poems of Kerouac, (on) Monday..
AG: Or else maybe we’ll continue with Shelley.
GC: Or you can continue with Shelley. What’s the line you like in Shelley? – “Die if thou wouldst be with that which thou dost seek”. Do you believe that?
AG: I did when I quoted it.
GC: It sounds good but I don’t believe that shit, man. See, he’s another one laying on you (that) you gotta die.
Student: Can you give us that line again, please?
GC: “Die if thou wouldst be with that which thou dost seek”.
AG: From “Adonais”. How many here have read “Adonais”? From beginning to end..? How many have read in it? Read in it?. And how many have never read (in) “Adonais” by Shelley?
GC: Well, check it out.
AG: Well, you’ve got an open field.
GC: Yeah, I’ll give you the best of “Adonais”, man. Let me get it then. Oh wow.
Anne Waldman [also present]: “(To A) Skylark”
AG: Yeah, “Skylark”
GC: Yeah, anybody know “Skylark”?
AG: Save “Adonais” for me.
GC: Only one. Alright, three only know it, four, five, six, seven, eight. How many more? Well, alright, I’ll give you ten. Okay, recite it to me.
AG: Who’s familiar with it?
GC: Who’s familiar with it? That’s the hands I want to see up. Who’s familiar? Alright, give it to me. Recite it. I can. I won’t look at the book.
Student: That’s amazing.
GC: What I know over you people. Aren’t you embarrassed?
GC: You raised your hand there. Give me just the first stanza?
Student: I’m familiar with it (but) I don’t know it.
GC: The first stanza is the top shot in the “Skylark”. Am I supposed to do it?
GC: I knew it [he proceeds to recite the first stanza of Shelley’s”Ode To A Skylark”] – “Hail to thee, blithe Spirit!/ Bird thou never wert, /Far from Heaven, or near it..
AG: That from Heaven, or near it..
GC: “You pour out a full heart/ In profuse strains of unpremeditated art” – And that’s the first stanza..
AG [ & joined by others in the class]: Pourest out.. pourest out..
GC: Wait a minute, wait a minute, alright, “Hail to thee, blithe Spirit!/ Bird thou never wert, /Far from Heaven..”
AG: “That from Heaven, or near it, pourest…”
GC: That far from heaven?
AG: No, no, “bird, that from heaven, or near it, pours..”
GC: Bird that never were..
AG: Bird that never wert that
GC: Alright, put that down, that word they’re going to get ya here, alright – “Hail to thee, blithe Spirit!/ Bird thou never wert, /That from Heaven..”
GC: “That from Heaven, or near it”
AG: or near it..”
GC: “Pourest thy full heart/ In profuse strains of unpremeditated art”
Student(s): Thy full heart
GC: “thy full heart/ In profuse strains ..”
W.S.Merwin [who is also present]: It may even be “who”, not “that”.
GC: You guys! Excuse me fellas, I don’t even know, I thought I knew him well.
AG: Well, let’s find out now.
GC: Okay, “Skylark”.
Student: He’s embarrassed.
GC: I’m not embarrassed. There’s not that many poems I know by heart – C’mon.
AG: We aren’t afraid to re-write Shelley!
GC: [turning to the book] – Alright, “To a Skylark”. “Hail to thee..” (Page) 246, let’s see where the fucker’s at. Do you think the book’ll lie? – Here we go..“Mutability”.…it’s funny, they don’t got it?..No, they have to have it..Alright..here we go..yeah..It’s 246, they have 241 for it. Alright.. [Gregory begins reading (again) the opening stanza of “To a Skylark”] – “Hail to thee, blithe Spirit!…”
GC: P-O-U-R, no apostrophe E-S-T. What is “wert”?
GC: Were not.
GC: It’s a contraction without the apostrophe there, “wert” – W-E-R-T – “Bird, thou never wert” – Bird thou never was’t.
GC: Bird thou never were not.
GC: Bird thou was not.
AG: Yeah, but he’s already got a “never”..
GC: You would never…
AG: It’s an archaic form of “were”, I guess.
Student: Unless he invented it.
GC: Well, it’s a funny word. It is. Well, let me finish the poem for you. Let’s see how good this poem is.
AG: It’s important to get hung up on that detail. All of a sudden you realize how weird the poem is. Pardon me?
Student: It’s so it rhymes with “heart”.
GC: “Wert/heart”, yeah – E-R-T/ E-A-R-T, with “art”, the I-T, with “spirit”, yeah, all the “T”‘s at the end of it, and two, three, four, five “R”‘s. There are five “R”‘s, but two “R”‘s have an “I” after it. – “near it”/”Spirit” – “Wert”, “art”, “heart” – yeah, he’s so good, man. Let’s get the second stanza and see [Gregory continues reading from Shelley] – “Higher still and higher/ From the earth thou springest/ Like a cloud of fire;/ The blue deep thou wingest/ And singing still dost soar, and soaring ever singest”. – “Singest”/”wingest”/”springest”. “Fire”/”higher”. See, he don’t play really right with it. He’s good. Yeah, “fire” and “higher” are not the same, but it is the same. [Gregory continues] – “In the golden lightning/ Of the sunken sun…”..”Like an unbodied joy whose race is just begun” – Yeah, he’s so good. What the fuck is that now? – “Like an unbodied joy whose race is just begun”. Birth of joy? Big birth. It’s all new. Yeah. [Gregory reads further] – “The pale purple even/ melts around thy flight…”…”By warm winds deflowered,/ Till the scent it gives/ Makes faint with too much sweet those heavy-winged thieves” – “Those heavy-winged thieves” – Here’s a line that used to catch me as a kid [Gregory returns to the poem] – “Chorus Hymenal/ Or triumphal chant,/ Matched with thine would be all. But an empty vaunt” – What’s a “vaunt”?
AG: (A) boast.
GC: Vaunt would be boasting?
AG: Yeah, “your vaunted Shelley”
GC: Right right [returning to the poem] – “A thing wherein we feel there is some hidden want”.. [breaks off] – It’s a long poem. I don’t want to read the whole thing.
AG: Who is Shelley and why do you like him?
GC: I like him because of his first five lines. I like him because of a few things in “Adonais” and the whole of the “West Wind”. I like “The Cloud” very much. Does anyone know “The Cloud”? [ Gregory begins reciting Shelley’s “The Cloud’] – “I bring fresh showers for the thirsting flowers…” [reads the entire poem, pausing only once – “I gotta finish this because this one’s a goodie”]..”Like a child from the womb, like a ghost from the tomb/ I arise and unbuild it again” – That’s a nice cloud talking. That’s not too long. He had a very high-pitched voice, Shelley. He had a high-pitched voice but (Lord) Byron loved him so. Every time they’d rap, they had these conversations with Trelawny and Hunt, Byron and Shelley, and Shelley topped the shot all the time. Keats (John Keats) would never come into the conversation. He would never come into the house. Shelley dug him and wanted him (to), but Keats said, “I want(ed) nobody fucking up my brain. Let a man teach you something and he owns a part of you”. That’s what Keats believed, so he didn’t bother with those poets of his time, who were great fuckin’ poets. Keats was – but he stayed clear of them. Shelley was the only one who really made sense, who cared about social things. This man had money and everything like that but he gave blankets. He went into a rowboat to (the) islands, in a ridiculous rowboat. To the..islands. from England. They laughed at him – he comes in a rowboat! the great revolutionary!, but he did, with the money he got from his father, Timothy, who was in the House(s) of Parliament, he did buy blankets and things for the people who didn’t have them. I think he’s a fine poet, but he does go on a little bit!
AG: You know what? – it would be interesting… have you ever got inside the “Ode to the West Wind”? I wonder what Bill (Merwin) would sound like reading that?
W.S. Merwin: (Why don’t you read it) yourself.
AG: Yeah, well I will, after you, or before you. I’d like (us) to all read it
GC: (to W.S.Merwin): Will you do it for me? Alright.
AG: Since not many of you know it, to hear it sounded a couple of times would be good.
GC: Bill always gave the class. I never introduced him to the class. I think they knew anyway. Robert ‘s [sic] coming on with Bill. I didn’t have to introduce him. Alright. But here’s a fine young American poet, Mr Merwin..
Anne Waldman: [gesturing to W.S.Merwin] Stand a little closer. Down a little.
AG: When did you first get into that?
W.S.Merwin [ begins reading – and proceeds to read, in its entirety – “Ode to the West Wind”] – “O wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn’s being..”…”Beside a pumice isle in Baiae’s bay..”…”The trumpet of a prophecy! O Wind/ If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?”
GC: Allen – “in Baiae’s bay”?
AG: “Bay-eye”, I think.
GC: That’s a name, right?
AG: In Naples, I think. Bay-eye
GC: His color – azure all the time for blue. He hit on azure.
AG: (to Anne Waldman): Did you ever get onto this? Did you ever get into it? Want to try to read? What time is it?
AG: So we have some time,
Anne Waldman; “O wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn’s being…” [begins a reading/vocalization of the poem – reads the whole poem] – [tape ends here, re-starts again]
GC: Very nice, Anne. Okay, class, (so) what do you get out of that? You get it’s an emotional poem. Alright, that’s what you get out of that shot. What it is is that Shelley was very emotional, but he hid, in the last four lines, a very good hit to make the change. He brought it really nicely about. He got very high class in that poem. First, because he draws (you in) with the wind, he made himself like a leaf or a cloud…
AG: In a way, it’s like a…
GC: ..a wave, right? Three – he has the leaf, cloud..
Now his falling on “the thorns of life” is very hard for me to take at times. I mean, good God, “I’m thrown on the thorns of life, I die”, I couldn’t take (that).
Anne Waldman: “I bleed”
AG: “I bleed”
GC: “I bleed”, yeah – He didn’t die, he bleeds. Oh, that’s high class. Oh good, I’m glad.
AG: But we all do, we all do, actually. It’s very literal, actually.
GC: We do bleed, yeah. It’s literal. Fuck it. It’s a good one.
AG: A lot of people made fun of it for a long time.
GC: I know they made fun of him on that condition.
AG: Because they didn’t know the First Noble Truth of suffering.
GC: Right. They made fun of Shelley on that one a lot. Alright. Okay.
AG: I learned it from my father when I was fourteen or so, or twelve, because he taught it in high school, and he used to recite it around the house with a big full voice, so I learned how to..I learned it in his style, which is, like, bravura style.
GC: Well, so let’s hear it, Al.
AG: Okay [Allen himself then proceeds to give his rendition of the poem – again, the poem is read in its entirety] “If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind”
GC: So what you got there are variables. Variables and emotional. The other one (Anne Waldman’s reading) was emotional, this was powerful. So Shelley..(they say..) that it’s Romanticism, that the rose is dying, and they weep over the rose. (But) Shelley, when he said. “O woe is me”, didn’t say “Oh woe is me“, he said, “Oh woe is me”. They took all of Shelley very light (and) airy, which he..I guess he was (airy). Looks airy. What a heavy person indeed! – Al, thank you very much. That’s the Shelley shot, the way to read it. I’m sure he would have done that, but he had a high-pitched voice.
GC: [in a screeching tone] – “Where are you?” ..go like that.. Embarrassing. He did actually
AG: Who says?
GC: Byron said it, Trelawny said it, Hunt said it, they all said it. They knew him.
AG: I think you said last week that he took laudanum
GC: Yeah, he took laudanum. I saw a painting, a watercolor done by, not Severn ,who was a friend of Keats, but by somebody else..Richards? Richards? [Roberts, perhaps?] Anyway, the picture has him with his eyes very expanded and dilated and like he was on laudanum. It says it underneath the picture, when Shelley experimented with it
AG: A drawing?
GC: Yeah, it’s a watercolor. He experimented with laudanum. All the Lake Poets were doing it. I’m sure Shelley took opium at the time, but I don’t think it was constant. Not as constant as, say, De Quincey was, or Coleridge. So he’s good, but, see, when you read the “Adonais”, it’s going to be boring for a while. He has great stanzas in there – wowie! – I mean (he) really comes into the goodies. I should have done it. Penguin Books asked me to do a thing on Shelley, you know, to get it condensed down. (His) “Epipsychidion”, yeah. [Allen corrects his pronunciation] Such a good poem. His “Mutability” poem is good – “Like the winds through a rude cell/ the sound of a dead seaman’s knell.” [Gregory is actually quoting from “When the Lamp is Shattered” – “Like the wind through a ruined cell,/ or the mournful surges/ That ring the dead seaman’s knell”]…alright, so, Shelley, I would suggest then, is… or, we can give you some of the shots in our heads, what sounds so good about Shelley, or.. just check him out. But he was a revolutionary at his time, definitely that. He got in trouble with it. He wasn’t just airy-fairy all through it..
GC: So..Thomas Hood, why I brought Thomas Hood out the other day, this guy laid it down that Thomas Hood was really at the time getting on with the workers, with the “Shirt” poem – “stitch, stitch, stitch..”.. sounds humorous…
AG: Could you read that for us?
GC: I’ll read “stitch, stitch, stitch”. See, it sounds humorous, but I don’t think it’s humorous. But I bet it is! – That’s it – you get screwed with Hood! – because he really embarrassed me before with the “clammily lips” – remember? when he’s kissing the girl and the “clammily” thing – I mean, good God! I try to make him serious, and then he got silly on me!
AG: How many here read Hood in high school? Can you raise your hands? Or college? Has anybody ever read any Thomas Hood? So, three, four, people. That was pretty standard, also, as part of the.. I guess, well, that book.
GC: Social ills, yeah, he took care of social ills, but social ills..
AG: That was my text. I had it in Columbia in 1945, that was my text. My brother hand it before me at Montclair State Teachers’ College in 1938.
GC: [prepares to read Hood] – Alright, now, here you go. “Song of the Shirt” – this is a humanitarian poem. Dig. [reading from the introduction] – “This humanitarian poem was inspired by the sordid condition of workers in London. One widow was trying to support herself and family by making trousers at seven shillings a week” – Good God. They’re not interested in our condition. I’m not. Why are you laying this down on me for?” – Wait – [resumes reading] – “One widow was trying to support herself and family by making trousers at seven shillings a week. “A good living”, her employer called it. Hood’s monument bears the inscription – “He sang the song of the shirt” – [Gregory begins reading from “Song of the Shirt“] – “With fingers weary and worn…”…”Oh to be a slave, along with the barbarous Turk/Where woman has never had a soul to save if this is Christian work” – I should check that one out better. Let’s see. It’s “Oh to be a slave, along with the barbarous Turk/Where woman has never had a soul to save if this is Christian work/Work, work, work, till the brain begins to swim/ Work, work, work, till the hours are heavy and dim/ Seam, and gusset, and band,/ Band, and gusse, and seam” – Well, that’s beautiful.
AG: That’s good. If you read it slower. If you read it slower, it’s…
GC: I’ll tell you to fuck around. I’ll do it. Look what he did with the two lines – “Seam, and gusset, and band,/ Band, and gusse, and seam”. He did a nicely in two lines. Yeah, he’s tops, man. Alright. So [Gregory continues reading] – “Over the buttons, I fall asleep and sew them n in a dream…”..”Stitch, stitch, stitch, and poverty, hunger and dirt”..”a wall so blank my shadow I think for sometimes falling there” – Oh, wait, .”and a wall so blank my shadow I thank for sometimes falling there”. Yeah, that’s nice – .”and a wall so blank my shadow I thank for sometimes falling there”. [Gregory continues] – “Work, work, work, from weary chime to chime…”..”with fingers weary and worn/ with eyelids heavy and red/ a woman sat in her womanly rags/plying her needle and thread/ Stitch, stitch, stitch, and poverty, hunger and dirt/ and still with a voice of dolorous pitch, would that it’s tone could reach the rich, she sang this song of the shirt”.
AG: To “work, work, work”.
GC: He went back to what he began with, Al. He began with “fingers weary and worn”, so it’s a real circle – “with fingers weary and worn/ with eyelids heavy and red/ a woman sat in her womanly rags/plying her needle and thread.”
AG: I kept thinking this would be “work…work…work”, you know – slow – instead of “work, work, work”.
GC: Yeah, Al, I don’t write poetry to be read aloud. I’m not that man, you are, so you’re an oral poet. Me, I write it out of my head, man, I get that fucker down there. I don’t bother how it’s all written down. See, they don’t read Thomas Hood now, nobody reads Thomas Hood here.
AG: (Bob) Dylan, a little. There’s a little Dylan, there’s a little bit of Dylan in Thomas Hood (or a little bit of Thomas Hood in Dylan).
GC: Well, I would like to think so – that everything’s connected.
GC: But I ain’t Tom Hood. I’m just saying, revive the fucker. Now you know that he’s musical in that. How would you read his music? You would read it differently than I would.
AG: I’d probably sing it.
GC: You could sing? well, sing it
AG: Well, I don’t have the instruments. It’s “The Song of the Shirt”. I bet, at the time, there was music.
GC: It’s a song
AG: I’ll bet, at the time, there was music. You could probably look it up.
GC: Alright, so that thing should be sung.
AG: Do you know anything about this? Do you know if there was any music available for “The Song of the Shirt” (at the time)?
GC: Fuck! I’m not a singer here! I’ll do the best I can with the numbers. I’ll lay it on people to check it out.
GC: I can sing ya, I can sing one song.
GC: I can sing the song that Nero sang when Rome burned. Does anybody know the song? Let me see the hands up. Alright, what’s the song?
Student (O’Brien (sic) ): (indecipherable)
GC: I love you O’Brien, but that ain’t it. Fuck you, O’Brien, that ain’t the song. Your hair is so red. What did you do? get in the sun? Okay. Here we go..
GC [singing]: “Oh-ho omnipotent power, oh-ho, oh joy divine, oh ho, oh lambent flame, oh-ho” – I like that “lambent flame” in that. You know what Nero did? People put Nero down, but I’ll tell you what he did. When he was, you know, the Emperor and all that, he ripped off supermarkets at night, and the food that he stole, he’d sell it, for double price, in the palace the next day. This is a fact of life. You read your Herodotus, you’ll find out..
GC: It’s time to go
GC: Good deal. Goodbye folks.
AG: I have one brief announcement. Chogyam (Trungpa Rinpoche) will be lecturing in ten minutes or so…
Audio for this (including renditions of Shelley by Corso, W.S.Merwin, Anne Waldman and Allen Ginsberg, and reading from Thomas Hood by Corso) can be found at
beginning approximately twenty-six-and-a-half minutes in and continuing to the end.