Allen Ginsberg on Mind, Mouth and Page continues from here
Student: You once said something about (Jack) Kerouac, that he was trying to write like a person spoke, not a person who went to Columbia (University) but just a person..
Student: But he did go to Columbia!
AG: For one year. He never got really infected by it. He wrote like a person who went to Columbia for one year, and really studied Shakespeare. But also he was interested in American“Okie” speech, and black speech, and Canuck speech. Remember Kerouac’s American was Canuck talk, which is a very distinct sound and rhythm. If you hear French-Canadian American dialects, there’s a funny kind of “awk” sound in them (like Kero-awk!) – there’s that funny (vowel) – that’s a little deeper in the thought – it’s a funny vowel involved, and “awk”-“ack” consonants – like, for instance, there’s a genre of American-newspaperman speech in bar rooms – “You-whar-knows- the-ziz-rah-zon-dur-ass-rah” – There’s a whole genre of American speech. You hear that from hanging around in a bar, and so, there are many many varieties of speech (including Pound’s elevated intellectual and Williams’ real simple straightforward)…
Student: I wanted to know what some of the conclusions, or what he (what Pound) extrapolated from the transition periods, you know, that was, say, similar to our (modern) time, what kind of.. pulse of the times..what kind…
AG: Well, one thing, one very simple sensible thing. He realized that the verse forms that had been used in English, the lyric forms particularly, were originally connected with the use of the lyre, or the mandolin, or instruments, and that people weren’t singing them anymore, and so the meters they were using were just imitations of old sung meters. So it’s (like) trying to write a blues without singing it. So when you write a blues without singing it, it gets a little bit too rigid. Whereas if you sing it, you realize (that) there’s room for putting up improvisation and playing of extra syllables and double-time and funny syncopations. So the verse-forms of the late 19th Century that he was brought up with lacked the subtlety of variation of sung songs. And another thing he realized was that one of the great transitions was from song to speech and from speech to page – From dance.
Student: Was the music.. the further the music got from dance.. the further words got from music..
AG: The more, well, the more flaccid they became. More and more muscle was lost. And more and more variety of tone, more subtlety, was lost. Until, finally, it was (just) the eye to the page, with no voice at all! (and, at that point, there was no real way of physically measuring it).
It’s like doing practice without sitting down, it’s like trying to meditate without sitting down, without putting your ass on the ground, or like trying to play baseball in your head (you can do it)
Student: Isn’t that what Kerouac did for a while?
AG: Yeah, but then he went out and played too
AG: Well, just the idea that they broke through was the big thing. The idea that they had tomake a break, that they had to break off from a classical tradition, and then, according to their genius, how they invented out of their language.
If you want to follow his history, he’s got it written down in his critical essays, but the ABC of Reading is a good survey of English lit. from the point of view of the inventors of new forms in transition periods. That’s a syllabus for a course like this. According to Pound, what were the really important changes, and who were the really striking changers? – It takes in a little bit of European verse too (where it influences the English). He has a book called Pavannes and Divisions, which, I guess, examines.. let’s see.. what are the books on the Troubadours, do you know?
Student: The Spirit of Romance?
AG: “The Spirit of Romance” – The Spirit of Romance is a whole study of all the different major troubadours and what they particularly accomplished and what changes they made. And he was particularly hung up on the idea of “mots et sons”, (words and sound, words and music, words fitted to the music). And then he was really amazed by the weird stanza forms (nothing like a little English quatrain, but really complicated stanza forms that the Troubadour’s invented). And (then) he tried to imitate those in English. He took their prosody, took their stanza forms, and tried to do an English equivalent, so people, in English, could see how complicated and curious and subtle that transitional form was. So his book Personae is full of those examples.
Student: Aren’t troubadours (literally) going around, playing music, though?
AG: Yeah, yeah. They went around with… lutes? what did they go around with? what did they carry around?
Larry Fagin [poet Larry Fagin is sitting-in on the class]: – I’m doing this (class) on imitation, and he (Pound) created that very wacky (tone)…
Larry Fagin: ..in (the) American tongue..
Larry Fagin: And it’s so difficult for a lot of people to get to, because of the rhythm…
Larry Fagin: …the variegations, the rhythms. That’s why, (later on, in) a book, they’ll see (William) Blake, and..
Larry Fagin: …and then have to think about the rhythm.
AG: It’s just hymn rhythms (with Blake), the hymn-song rhythms
So the point is, Pound is a little bit difficult if you’re worried, but if you’re curious about this whole point about this transitional period in American Literature, then Pound is the great study, the great innovator, and full of tricks, and full of ideas, and full of inventions, some of which you can use, some of which you can’t use.
Then, at the end of his life, (or, not at the end, but later in his life), Pound did write one book in which he sort of embodied all the tricks he learned, all the different forms, verse forms for short poems, which were his translations from the Chinese Book of Odes, which is almost like a handbook in all the different variations in modern American prosody (I know the book pretty well but I’ve never analyzed it down to which forms are being used where, but, (at) the time I read it, when it first came out, I was amazed that every poem was different – every poem had a different form, and it wasn’t just sort of splashy, all-over-the-page, free-verse, there were weird rhymed poems, there were unrhymed poems, there were poems that were like sonnets, but were not…).
Student: Which poems did he translate?
AG: Chinese poems. He called them.. The Confucian collection of the “Book of Odes” (published by New Directions)
Student: And they weren’t that way in the Chinese? This was more (of) his experimentations?
AG: Apparently they were very variable and various in the Chinese, but, of course, his Chinese was second-hand. And Chinese scholars are always criticizing him for misinterpreting the intention, or the form, of the translation . But the point was he made in English something very interesting and original. He made a lot of, in English, weird troubadour songs.
Student: Wasn’t all his translations in the book of Translations – he has that long introduction, where he talks about getting into the new translations and.. and (the urgency) of it..of..not necessarily at all keeping to the old (forms)… You know they culd (just as easily) be called Ezra Pound poems, you just have to..get the idea.
AG: And they’ve had enormous influence on American translations since then. Like Paul Blackburn went back and translated the troubadours into sort of 1950’s, ’60’s hippie language, practically..Black Mountain...
Student: Gary Snyder‘s poems?
AG: Snyder’s Han Shan was done sort of on the basis of what he learned from Pound..(and Williams).
AG: Catullus? Well, he’s influenced an enormous number of translators to get them to liven up and to get them to write it in their actual tongue. (And) Laurence Binyon’s translation of Dante, I guess. There are translations of Homer. Pound’s correspondence (if you read his Selected Letters) is full of letters to different translators giving them advice and telling them what he found out about Latin translations from his translating Catullus or (Sextus) Propertius. He was a one-man factory of ideas about how you could… see, you’d have to compare the post-Pound translations with what was done before him, where everything was being translated into 19th Century, post-Tennyson-ian, verse. And it was really dull and unreadable, because everything was in rhymed couplets, or…
Student: Did he see (his) translations as the same kind of breakthrough in language as the transition of, you know.. (the old way) into a common tongue? In other words, expressing it (uniquely) in one’s own words.. whether it was a foreign language or…a classical language, or..
AG: Yeah. That – and also one other thing – that he thought that certain writers, at certain times, in different language, had certain, very specific, perceptions (optical, or “mindfulness:, as we know it), yogic, or auditory, perceptions that were breakthroughs and innovations that nobody had ever done before, just like a science, just like the progress of a science. So he was also interested in translating those key moments, those key authors, key poems, saying that it wasn’t necessary to study all the world’s literature and read all of the immense flood of world literature, that you could actually pick out the pressure points…and so the ABC of Reading is all the pressure points in the nervous system of English Literature.
AG: Yeah. I don’t know enough about them so I’ll go read up on it and find out and report back. In fact, it might be a good idea to teach some (more) Pound in this class, because, in the (answers to) the questionnaire that I handed out, a lot of people had read (T.S.) Eliot, and some had read (William Carlos) Williams, and everybody (had) read (William) Blake and (Arthur) Rimbaud and (Jack) Kerouac – but nobody had read (Sir Thomas) Wyatt, and nobody had read Pound, hardly (or, there’s few people having read Pound here). So Pound, apparently, is a great glittering obscure mystery, but he was such a workman, and so interesting, it would be great for you to dig into him a little bit, because he’s a big hero.
Student: Because of that line from Bob Dylan…
Student: … I got turned on to him.
AG: Well, at least you’ll (properly) understand the line from Dylan if you read Pound.
[class and tape end here]