Mind, Mouth and Page – (Tones)


AG:  (reading from (Ezra) Pound’s “A Retrospect”) – “3) As regarding rhythm – to compose in the sequence of the musical phrase, not in the sequence of a metronome” – (The metronome would be the practice of accentual prosody. Duh-dah, duh-dah, duh-dah, duh-dah, duh-dah. Duh-dah, duh-dah, duh-dah, duh-dah. prosody – Duh-dah, duh-dah, duh-dah, duh-dah, duh-dah. Duh-dah, duh-dah, duh-dah, duh-dah. So this would be “in sequence of the musical phrase”. And what he means by “musical phrase”, you can get by reading on, but, basically, it’s following the tones, high and low, and the length of the vowels, high and low, the tones of the vowels, as you pronounce them. So there’s lots of different tones and speech rhythms, as you attend your speech rhythms, as you signify, as you use your rhythm and your vowels to signify, to carry the color of the way you want to talk, and to carry the color of your intention, to follow the sequence, to compose – to compose – “in the sequence of the musical phrase, not in the sequence of a metronome” – For an understanding of that sentence, you’d (I think) have to understand the difference between accentual and quantitative verseand… yes?

Student: Do people really talk that way, in quant-? acc-?, I dunno, whichever one?

AG: Don’t be so dumb – Quantitative.

Student: Quantitative.

AG: Quantitative. Quantity of the vowel. The length of the vowel. There’s no need…

Student: Do people, like…

AG: Don’t resist it! It’s as old as Greece! It’s ancient. It’s been around longer than… Duh-dum, duh-dum, duh-dum, duh-dum. I’m sorry, ok?

Student: Yeah, but.. do people naturally talk in tone?

AG: Yeah. All the time. Including…

Student: Everything that we hear?.. And when we don’t try to put things out…

AG: Neurotic people tend to talk in monotones, I find. [Allen to Student] – You talk in tones. I’ve heard you talk in tones

(Another) Student: Are you saying that he’s not neurotic?

AG: Right. He’s not neurotic. That’s what I’m saying. Don’t be so dumb. He’s not neurotic. He doesn’t have to be dumb.
Well just listen to people talk when you get out in the hall. You’ll find some people talk in tones, some people don’t, but most people talk in tones. (Particularly) when they’re excited. Particularly when they’re excited, they get into many varied tones. Formal occasions tend to flatten out the voice (like a Presidential speech in the Oval Room, with the President’s face turned orange, on t.v., it’s all one…)

Student: Sort of limits the tone, I mean..

AG: Tends to limit the tone, yeah. Students in class sometimes get into a monotone, and the people who ask questions of (Chogyam) Trungpa, (Rinpoche) seem to get into a monotone (except a few excited souls (who) occasionally produce a certain amount of vivacity in the room). But people talk in tones. But there’s no measure of tones, usually, in the English language prosodies. In English language prosodies, there’s usually no accounting of tones, tho’ in Ancient Greek, there were fixed values to different tones, fixed valuations of different tones, fixed labels for them – and poets would write not only in rhythms but in tones.

Student: Like? Ranging?

AG: High and low. High and low tones – and mediums. I’m not a classicist, so I can’t present the (requisite examples). I have to refer to it, because I can’t present the actual tonal diagnosis that a good Greek prosodist would know (though, unfortunately, since classical spoken Greek was lost somewhere, there is no living transmission of that art). (And) (Ezra) Pound was always interested in that..researching and investigating what were the actual systems of tone values in Greek, and how did they apply?. He even wrote a long, very interesting, poem, called “Homage to Sextus Propertius” – because Sextus Propertius was the one poet who brought, transmitted, the Greek tonal system to Italy, and wrote in the Latin, making use of the Greek tonal system. So if you check Pound’s “Personae”, you’ll find this great “Homage to Sextus Propertius” (Pound was so hung (up) on him because he was, (like Pound himself), he was the one literate, tonally literate, Latin writer who had been trained in Greece and then brought the dance out of Greece into Italy, or.. I don’t know the exact words..

Student: I think Gregory (Corso) does that a lot too. When you just listen to him talk..

AG: Yeah? Yes. Any vivacious person does. That’s almost the meaning of vivacity, a certain color in the tone of the voice

Student: I didn’t hear (William) Burroughs when he was here, but at the reunion you had at Columbia [New York, April 17 1975].. I never heard him speak before and I was really struck by how he read his works.

AG: Well, how was it? – Don’t refer, present

Student: Maybe it was because of the way..

AG: What? What was it?

Student: It was the one about the parts of the body that…

AG: I know. What was “the way”?, I mean, that you were referring to?

Student: I felt I was listening to a newscast.

AG: Toneless, you mean?

Student: Yeah

AG: Yeah, but he still cuts you under the surface, you know. He still… Well, I’ll tell you what I found. I went in a reading-tour with him, in Chicago, in March. When he’s got a poor sound-system, he sounds like T.S.Eliot (which is somewhat toneless) – but great! – newscaster-banker personae, or role-actor, great actor, like W.C.Fields playing the banker, the invisible man. When he has a great loudspeaker system that can pick up all his vocal tones (he has many, many voices)..he sounds like.. God. But it depends. The only place we had a perfect system was at Northwestern University, and it was just an absolutely great reading, because every nuance in Burroughs’ voice could be heard (at Columbia the system wasn’t that good). Because he plays on that. He has a conscious play on the toneless – impersonal – toneless impersonal – almost the weary doctor. But, of course, he’s conscious of tones. But he’s doing that purposely. There’s a difference between somebody who doesn’t know the difference and always talks that way (because he thinks poetry’s supposed to be sounding that way, with a dying fall at the end of the line) and somebody who is consciously using it to get an effect.

Student: The people who are reading their poems that don’t know how to read.. (and) their poems are all over the place (and) their voice is straight…

AG: Very often you’ll find people who write very variable poetry, very interesting variable poetry, have a tendency to read every line the same, with the same flat voice, or the same-toned voice (what they think is a poetic voice). You could read Williams that way. Any line..[Allen reads the following line (from Williams’ poem “Virtue”) in an exaggerated monotone] – “Come! here are/ cross-eyed men, a boy/with a patch, men walking/ in their shirts, men in hats/dark men, a pale man/ with little black moustaches/and a dirty white coat,/fat men with pudgy faces/thin faces, crooked faces..” You could like that, instead of [Allen reads the lines again with proper tonality] – “Come! here are/ cross-eyed men, a boy/with a patch, men walking/ in their shirts, men in hats/dark men, a pale man/ with little black moustaches/and a dirty white coat,/fat men with pudgy faces/thin faces, crooked faces..”. In other words, you can read it as you talk it.

I’m over-exaggerating the talk-color qualities, talk-color tones. When I read here in class or when I read aloud, I slightly exaggerate that, simply to get that across – that there is that variability. Based on speech-tones and speech-rhythms and speech-diction, there is all that great color and variation that you can project a little. Yeah?

Student: Pound made the statement that (in) the Iliad virtually every verbal mechanic known is employed. There are so many. The variations are so much..

AG: In the Iliad?

Student: Yeah

AG: Commenting on the Iliad?

Student: Yeah

AG: That every verbal mechanic is employed in the Iliad?

Student: When you read it in the Greek it comes through.

AG: A generalization that you couldn’t prove. Because the big thing about Pound’s search was to find somebody who knew classical Greek and could read the Iliad aloud. And (But) all they could find were approximations, because, actually, that scholarship is only scholarship, (and) there’s no living Greek spoken, there’s no intact unbroken transmission. That’s one of the great difficulties of modern prosody, as one of the great difficulties of modern Buddhist studies is that there’s no living transmission of the vocal chanting of the Pali or Sanskrit, Prajnaparamita Sutra, “Gate gate paragate parasamgate bodhi svaha”. We only know it in Chinese and Sino-Japanese and in Tibetan, but there’s no living Buddhist tradition in India that (makes) use of Sanskrit that can give us an accurate sense of how the Prajnaparamita might have been originally chanted. Because it’s one of the most powerful mantras in the whole canon of mantra, in translating it, one has to figure out how to break the syllables up so (that) it can be (effectively) chanted in English. (Gary) Snyder and I, one time, tried to do a poet’s translation for chanting – and so we said, “ok, let’s find the original Pali or Sanskrit version, and find some scholar who knows how to chant it” – and we looked around, and (but) nobody knows how to do it. The scholars that know, like (Edward) Conze or others, only know it from their knowledge of Sanskrit and some Sanskrit chanting, but there’s no tradition (as Philip Whalen knows the tradition of Sino-Chinese chanting of the Prajnaparamita). So there’s no unbroken tradition of…

8th Century Japanese Prajaparamita Sutra in Chinese script from the Schoyen Collection

Student: Don’t the monks know?

AG: The monks know it for Sino-Japanese.

Student: The words, the words are… Are the words transliterations, or whatever it is, into Japanese of the straight Sanskrit words?

AG: No

Student: Not the same words?

AG: I think it’s the Chinese adapted the Sanskrit to Chinese tongue, and the Japanese adapted the Chinese tongue, so that by the time you get at the end, “Prajnaparamita” in Japanese, it’s ‘hannya haramita”.

Student: If you read it like a Zen… There’s a Suzuki book, and the mantra out of this thing in Japanese is the same as the one evidentially out of the Tibetan one that appears around the…

AG: Well, yes and no. See, because the Sanskrit translation of “Gate gate paragate parasamgate bodhi svaha” in Japanese is “Gyatei, gyatei, haragyatei, harasogyatei, boji, sowaka”. So we thought we’d go back to the original and see if we’d get something that would really zap through American consciousness by making use of the same exact rhythms and vocal tones (thinking there might be (perhaps) some magical quality, or high poetic quality, in the original) but we never could find a source.

And that reminds me of another note I had here (that) I wanted to lay out. A little perception pointing out the importance of getting the tone straight, whether in music or poetics, by Antonin Artaud, in “The Theater And Its Double” – “Our nervous system, after a certain period, absorbs the vibrations of the subtlest music, and, in a sense, is modified by it in a lasting way.” In other words, certain rhythms, certain tones particularly, are physical vibrations that enter into the nervous system and actually, perhaps, alter slightly the RNA tissue arrangements. Is that right? Yes?

Student: Can you read that one more time?

AG: Yes. “Our nervous system, after a certain period, absorbs the vibrations of the subtlest music, and, in a sense, is modified by it in a lasting way.” I took this note in 1955, as an example of “Ignu” schizoid perception, but, at this point, I take it as just common sense (and the translation is, “The Theater And Its Double“, by M.C.Richards, M.C.Richards (M.C. Richards was one of the original people teaching at Black Mountain College, by the way. I think I mentioned Black Mountain last time)). Yeah, Robin? [pointing to student]

Student (“Robin”) : Couldn’t you say that statement about all experience?

AG: “All experience enters the nervous system and modifies it slightly..” But nobody thinks that poetry has that effect, or music. They may think (that) a car crash has, or bad pork, or your mother yelling at you, or the darshan with the guru might – but it’s also a function of poetry and music [turning to another student] – Wait a minute, you’ve spoken. Yes?

Student: I was struck by how toneless John Ashbery‘s reading is usually.

AG: Yeah, there’s an element of tonelessness in Ashbery, but, again, it’s an intentional thing. You see, it’s a question of how conscious you are of what you’re doing, (or whether you’re doing a hand-me-down job, because you think that’s the way it’s supposed to be). Ashbery’s mind is so lightning fast, and his sentences so vast, in jumping from word to word, and creating universes and situations, and constantly contradicting himself, in the best French style, so that, as a sort of underplaying of it, he reads in a very casual toneless way, as if it happens to everybody any day. So it takes on a kind of double humor that way, he doesn’t need to bulk it up by dramatizing it, just to be understood a little better by the audience who (perhaps) might not understand. That’s why when he read (here at Naropa) I gave this little speech-let about comparing the voices.

And the opposite was the grandeur and strength of (W.S.) Merwin (but then the grandeur and strength was a Shakesperean grandeur and strength rather than a provincial-Merwin grandeur and strength!)

Student: His poetry seemed a little over-stated to some people.

AG: (And) strong and beautiful to others.

Student: Yeah, right – Or both.

AG: Yeah – Tom (Allen points to Tom Savage):

Student (Tom Savage): It seems like ten years ago at the moment, but, there is an unbroken tradition with Pali texts of monks chanting..

AG: Prajnaparamita?

Student (Tom Savage): I don’t know if there is…

AG: Where is it?

Student (Tom Savage) .. of the Prajnaparamita

AG: It’s the Mahayana. See, there may be a transmission of the Hinayana texts, but the Prajnanparamita is 2nd or 3rd Century Nargarjuna Tantric,or Mahayana, and that’s what we were looking for. There was no Mahayana Sanskrit or Pali unbroken monkish tradition in India. It all went to Tibet or China. That was our problem. It was a very specific text. If you could turn up a monk who learned from his teacher, who learned from his teacher, how to chant the Prajnaparamita in Sanskrit or Pali, let us know. (Chogyam) Trungpa didn’t know of any. Neither did Edward Conze (we had checked it out with them). Nor did Herbert Gunther.

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