Allen 1978 in Stony Brook (Poetry and Music)

Announcing a wonderful treasure. Allen, from 1978, in a seminar at SUNY Stony Brook, discussing poetry and music, William Blake and Bob Dylan, and explaining, in detail, his practice and intention in his Blake settings. He performs, in the course of this seminar, Blake’s “The Tyger” and “The Lamb” (as well as his own “The Rune”), accompanied by a young Arthur Russell, standing quietly in the background, on cello. The quality of the video is crude (it was 1978 after all!) and the sound cuts out about one-and-three-quarter-minutes in (in the rendition of “Tyger, Tyger..”), only to return, approximately three-and-a-half-minutes in (catching in media res Allen’s comments on the song). There is also some problems with synch-sound, but, for all that, it is still eminently watchable (and remarkably instructive).
Here follows a transcript:

AG: ..occasion in the poem.. so the tiger of existence, in a way, depends on the heart-beat. Then there’s.. (the meter) that’s just classical trochaic..

Student: “Symmetry” nicely varies (it) at that point.

AG: Yeah that was the hardest thing to figure out, because what it was was.. for years I said, [Allen sings] “What immortal hand or eye/ could frame thy fearful symme-try”, but you’d never say “fearful symme-try” if you were talking, so that the principal there was trying to figure out how you would pronounce Blake if you were talking it to make sense – “could frame thy fearful symmetry” – so then, then you suddenly get this heartbeat “symmetry” – “could frame thy fearful symmetry/ In what..” [Allen claps along to emphasize the heartbeat] – so just works out perfectly. I figured it out as heartbeat about ten years ago, but I couldn’t get..couldn’t get it, that “symmetry” is what stuck, stuck in my throat, symme-try”.

It’s amazing that “(and) When the stars threw down their spears,/ and water’d heaven” – and his “water’d” is w-a-t-e-r-apostrophe-d – “and water’d” – so he’s got it somewhat complicated for the pronunciation. I think what I found in working in, working with, Blake, Songs of Innocence and Experience, setting them to music, is that every syllable counts, that he means every syllable he’s got there, that there’s no wasted.. no unmindful syllable. And a sort of key, a road to that discovery, was, in setting it to music, trying to pronounce it as if it made sense, instead of pronouncing it like sing-song.
But..there was another example with “The Schoolboy” which is in Songs of Innocence, I guess, where he says.. er..the lion…(no, it’s) “Night”, the old song of Night “The sun descending in the west/ The evening star does shine/ The birds are silent in their nest/ And I must seek for mine/ The moon like flower/ In heaven’s high bower,/ With silent delight,/ Sits and smiles on the night”. But, towards the end of that poem, there’s a little syncopated moment that baffled me since I was ten years old – there’s “And there the lion’s ruddy eyes/ Shall flow with tears of gold/ And pitying the tender cries,/ And walking round the fold/ Saying: “Wrath by his meekness,/ And by his health sickness,/ is driven away/ From our immortal day” – But when I was a kid I used to say “and by his health/ sickness,/Is driven away” – until I started trying to pronounce it, saying, “Wrath”, “by his meekness, and his heath, sickness is driven away, from our immortal day” – “Sickness is driven away from our immortal day” – then it takes on a syncopation that’s accurate to speech, that fits the rhythm set-up

Well, I just began with that. That was a concern to get the balance of sound. So that’s yours now. The floor is yours.

Student: Could the same thing conceivably be done with Walt Whitman, say, despite the long line? I’m thinking of something like “Out Of the Cradle, Endlessly Rocking”..

AG: Well, probably, then you’d have a.. see, the lyric form, or the song form, has rhymes and has a recurrent melodic.. like “tyger, tyger”, “da-da, da-da da-da-da da-da da-da- da-da-da” and the whole point of a tune is that it.. to rhymed verse.. is that it goes in a cycle, as a tune, so the old lyric verse form fits for singing. Once you stop singing, once you no longer have the music, then you lose it, then the verse form loses some of its function, and that’s why when people stopped singing rhymes, poems, and just spoke them, and then stopped speaking them and just read them on a page, as was the condition when I was a kid studying poetry, when my father was writing, and teaching me those lyric forms, then the.. it loses it’s muscle, that form loses its muscle if you’re not singing it, becomes more of an intellectual exercise, and, you know, filling-in the rhymes, but without the muscular strength of breath, of song.

Louis Simpson [the poet Louis Simpson was teaching at Stony Brook at the time and was the one who convened the symposium]: The difference between the literary ballad and the ballad sung.

AG: Yeah. Precisely, precisely. Now with Whitman, you wouldn’t… you’d have a long line, but each line would be different, so you’d have to have a different kind of music, you couldn’t have a tune anymore, you could have something like a… what’s the second line of that? – “Out of the cradle endlessly rocking …” Does anybody know?

Student: Out of the mocking-bird’s throat, out of..

AG: Out of the? – Out of the mocking-bird’s throat? – ok, so maybe you could start then.. [Allen starts to accompany himself on the harmonium]

Student: Could it be waltz tempo? one-two-three?

AG: Well.. it would be.. well..I know.. but then you would never be able to pronounce it – “Out of the cradle/ endlessly rock-ing/ Out of the mocking-bird’s throat/ the musical shuttle..” – nah, nah, so you couldn’t do that. Well, you wouldn’t want to, I don’t think, anyway, so you’d have to have something looser [ Allen tries a different tempo] – “Out of the cradle, endlessly rocking,/ Out of the mocking-bird’s throat, the musical shuttle” – What’s the next line?

Student(s): Oh Jesus!

AG: Well, you have to be able to remember them to begin with.

Student: What makes you decide to play a minor chord there. I was just wondering about the chords you put around…

AG: Well, I would have.. it was beginning to sound like a country n’ western there. Because, also, with minor chords, sometimes you can get some kind of harmonious murmuring, you just use the vowels, stretch out the vowels, but I thought of.. a similar verse-form would be.. [Allen sings the first lines of “Howl”] – “but this way it sounds like some old-fashioned nyi-nyi-nyi-nyi-nyi oi-oi-oi gevalt…, some old rabbinical chanting (which is probably my original ear!) – but it could be done then, just tak(ing) a chord and chanting along the chord. I wonder how it was done, actually, some archaic bardic work, probably, that had the..plectrum?.. the pick? with the lyre or harp..and so what would be.. bowm! [Allen mimics the first plectrum strum], and then Achilles would “sing of the wrath of Achilles that brought down ruinous woe” [Allen quotes from a translation of the opening line of the Iliad] – So it might have been something like that – “bowm! – da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da, bowm! – da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da”

Student: Robert Bly was doing that with some (W.B.) Yeats poems, same kind of thing, just the strum on a dulcimer.

AG: Yes I’ve heard him. Mad as the Mist and Snow.

Student: Right. Exactly that.

AG: Actually Ed Sanders began setting Blake in the early ‘60’s. He did a country ‘n western version of “How sweet I roamed from field to field/ And tasted all the summers’ pride/ Till I the prince of love beheld/ Who in the summer beams did glide”. Are you familiar with that early Fugs record? – 1960’s. That’s what turned me on to setting Blake.

Music and poetry’s a really interesting.. notion. It hasn’t been.. neglected actually, in America. There are poets that sing, (Bob) Dylan…

Louis Simpson: Ah but you’re taking it from the other side, you’re taking the lyric which has proved itself and putting the music under it.


Louis Simpson: I’m not sure if we’re doing anything when we go the other way, taking the presumed music and then calling it poetry.

AG: Well, I’m not quite sure what you mean. What I’m interested in is primarily the lyrics and the sounds and then, from the spoken word, from the word as it would be spoken like “Little lamb, who made thee?”, say – “Little lamb, who made thee?”, “Little lamb, who made thee?”, [Allen gives the line different emphases], say

Louis Simpson: Mary did!

AG: I guess! – Well, lets get back to the actual sounds.

I mean, If you want to.. What I’m thinking of …. the problem is of.. if you have the problem of (clothing it), If you have the words, how would you say them? if you were just saying them, to begin with, how do you get back to saying them? So you might hear it as “Little lamb/ who made thee?” and then that’s repeated, as you know, so that would be “Little lamb /who made thee”, (so it’ll be a slightly different, right?, lilt maybe). So then..But then, there are certain tones you use when you say that – “Little lamb, who made thee?”. So you can derive, you can extrapolate a tune from them – da-da-da da da-da. So if you actually speak it with feeling, the feeling will provide affective tones in the vowels, the vowels will then suggest notes, or the direction whether the melody goes up or down or up and down.

LS: Ah, but the serious remark that I had to make was that some of the poems are….some of those lyrics, (for instance Dylan’s, who you referred to), that are then called poems, I see as, at best, word-music but not poetry, but perhaps you make no distinction between the two?

AG: Well, it’s best to think of one thing at a time. I was trying to would you derive.. what I was really proposing was, how could you derive a melody from Blake’s words, “Little Lamb”, and I’m thinking (what) you’re proposing is that you don’t feel Dylan is a good enough poet, that it’s mostly music. I think he says so himself, he’s not a poet, he’s a musician – primarily – He probably does begin from music, but he often does begin from words, actually. His practice as he..I’ve asked him that..his practice is, sometimes he writes the music first and sometimes he writes the words first and sometimes he does it simultaneously. So. well that’s actually interesting because I think his poetics is interesting, I think the line is interesting very, often, or at least one line in four is a line of genius, as far as words.

(But) I was just trying to go back to if you had a lyric form, if you had old poems like Blake’s, how would you derive the tune and I was trying to demonstrate how to derive the tune

Student: Do you put a ballad on a scale? You were talking about something about the ballad before, sort of signifying a certain note, would you, would you…

AG: Well, yeah, say, “The Lamb”, let’s sing “The Lamb”. I’ll try and answer but let’s sing it also.. [to Arthur Russell] – did we work on that? – ok.. and so, my idea was..let’s see if we’re doing..yeah.. So it would be “Little lamb, who made thee? Little.. how would you say it if you’re actually talking to someone, [different intonation] “Little lamb, who made thee?” Little lamb who made thee? Dost thou know who made thee? (Dost thou know who made thee?) “Dost thou know who made thee/ Gave thee life and bid thee feed/ By the stream and o’er the mead/Gave thee clothing of delight.. “ – so “delight” would go off – “gave thee clothing of delight (well, you could say, “gave thee clothing of delight” – more normal, ”gave thee clothing of delight”). So, “gave thee clothing of delight”, so you could get a tune as… [Allen then performs Blake’s “The Lamb” in its entirety] – So I got into that because I was trying to figure out how you pronounce “Little lamb.. little lamb, god bless thee”, because it’s “I a child, (and)/ thou a lamb/We are called by his name”/ Little lamb God bless thee..” [Allen emphasizes workman-like rhythm], or something like that, when I was a kid that’s how I kept hearing it – like “fearful symmetry”, “little lamb god bless thee”. It wasn’t until I tried to pronounce it in order to sing it that I figured out what “Little lamb, God /bless/ thee”, like you’d say, “god bless thee” (dad a da – god bless thee) – instead of “god bless thee” – the accent would be on the “bless” as well as the “god”. So it’s only if you get back to the pronunciation of the singing that you might be able to figure the music or the rhythmic intention, you might reconstruct Blake’s rhythmic intention (he actually tried to vocalize it) either from speech or song – Actually, that was the point I was trying to make. So if you begin from the words and make a music which is an extension of the vocal tones of the emotional intention in speaking the words as if they were to make sense and communicate, then you’d have a great number of varying tones and some indication toward melody. And in that sense, Dylan is very interesting, because he’s so totally conscious of vowels and consonants, of the speech-rhythms involved in his rhymes, that, you know, the way he pronounces, is a form of oratory which I think poets can learn from. I think Dylan’s a great orator, actually, visible on his face when he’s trying to pronounce his “t’’s, drawing back his lips to what looks like a sneer, but he’s actually just working very hard to pronounce things clearly, you know, pronounce his “p”s and “t”s so that they can be heard over vast microphonic systems.

Student: Do you feel that the sound of your music-box is limited for working sounds out of the poem?

AG: Oh yeah..well I don’t know music, so.. this is a harmonium, which is a child’s instrument, which kids learn music on, it’s got 25 keys and a it’s a portable organ, probably not very far away from what Blake originally used when he went to his friends’ houses to sing his Songs of Innocence and Experience

Student: Have you tried some poems with the harmonium and found that (the) music and sounds just don’t make any sense…?

AG: Not of Blake. Not with Blake. It’s always useful. Actually, I started with a large pump-organ, which was probably more like instruments he had in his own day (he probably had that or some sort of early piano clavichord) – and there is a book on Blake’s music called Hymns Unbidden, of Blake songs, saying that its likely that his songs are similar to (the) English church hymns of Isaac Watts, who was his contemporary, this kind of stuff, the rhythms fit effectively, you could analyze some of his rhythms and put them next to certain Isaac Watts lyrics and they were almost identical, so Blake seemed to have learnt from that. And those were done on very simple chords, like church hymn chords, C, F, G, and so forth. So, apparently, for that.. (for Songs of Innocence and Experience), (he) couldn’t do that with the Prophetic books.

Student: Did you try other poems with this, this..

AG: Other poems besides Blake? Besides Blake? Yeah, let’s see, you know..

Student: Have you ever tried (Ezra) Pound’s “Usura” (Canto)?

AG: Actually I did at one time. I started with,, I began listening to..actually, I began listening to, I started with some (Thomas) Campion and (Thomas) Nashe and things like that, but they were songs. The one that particularly I was always interested was.. [Allen turns to the harmonium for accompaniment]..I forgot how it begins.. (when) “brightness falls from the air”I am sick, I must die -/ Lord have mercy on me” – You remember that? Nash? – “brightness falls from the air” [ Allen is actually quoting from Nash’s “Litany in Time of Plague” in “Summer’s Last Will and Testament] What I liked about that was (the line) “Queens have died young and fair” – and I used to read it and say “Queens have died young and fair” but it was “Queens have died – caesura – young and fair”. And so when you actually have to pronounce those things aloud, you, all of a sudden, hear the great rests and silences and rhythms in them. Then I began listening to Campion quite a bit and hearing his rests. I always.. line of Waller which for a song I always dug was “Go..”

Student: “Go lovely rose”?

AG: Well I was hearing it as “Go, lovely rose”, and so to sing it, (it) would be “Go, lovely rose”, instead of “Go lovely rose”, which, all through grammar school I kept reading, “Go lovely rose” – it was actually, “Go, lovely rose”. So, if you were singing it, whatever.. [Allen attempts to sing it – “Go, lovely rose”.. or whatever..” then breaks off] – to a country ‘n western (rhythm)

Student: That lyric in particular, I was thinking.

AG: I recently tried a similar..doing a lot of..going backward from Dylan to Campion, literally, studying first with Dylan, and then extending that to Campion, I tried writing a Campion-esque rhymed lyric which was..( I guess we can do that in a moment).. which consists in stanzas of five syllable, five syllable, lines 1-2-3-4-5, 1-2-3-4-5, 1-2-3-4-5, 1-2-3, 1-2-3-4-5 – so, six stanzas with exactly that same 5-5-5-3-5 and rests in-between. 1-2-3-4-5 [Allen indicates the rest with an inward breath] – lines 1-2-3-4-5, 1-2-3-4-5, 1-2-3-4-5, 1-2-3, 1-2-3-4-5 – That’s a thing called “The Rune” from a long poem, “Contest of Bards” [Allen and Arthur Russell then proceed to perform “The Rune” in its entirety]

That was getting more sophisticated than the earlier songs that I had done, had more chords, four chords, finally. It took me from 1968 to ’78, ten years, to build from one chord to two chords because“The Lamb” I did in mostly one chord.

Student: .. Internal rhyme puts a pressure on the bellows?

AG: Well I don’t know if I was playing too loud and it over-rides the voice, but, yes it goes from this [Allen plays quieter] to this [Allen plays louder]..or you could play that with…[Allen plays the melody]..In India they use it as a solo, for a melodic solo, I just use it as an instrument to play chords as my beginning (I learnt) how to play blues, actually mantra, I began with Hare Krishna, Hare Krishma, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare, and then worked my way up to two chords and (then) three chords.

Student: How does the Snail Blues sound?

AG: Snail blues ?

Student: It’s the third part of Rolling Thunder Stones

AG: Oh. There’s a set of poems called “Rolling Thunder Stones” that I wrote on the Rolling Thunder tour with Dylan, when everyone was taking too much cocaine and…

Student: The nose. A cold in the nose…

AG: So..[turning to Arthur Russell] – C – It was a classical 12-bar blues, three chords – C – [Allen and Arthur Russell perform Snail Blues in its entirety] – “Nobody sees America by sniffin’ cocaine/ jiggling your knees/ blank-eyed in the rain/ When it snows in your nose/ You catch cold in your brain” – Sort of like one blues stanza like a haiku

Student: Blues stanza like a haiku is wonderful

AG: That fast. Three lines. Like a whole blues in three lines. It was just sort of a fragment, a parody.. the blues (itself), I did get into..

Student: Did they enjoy your judgment on their habits?

AG: No. No, I was a moralist. I was running around trying to tell everyone to learn how to meditate!

Student: May I ask you a question about the tour. One – you wanted to go on it, obviously, right?

AG: Oh yes, totally eager. In fact (I was) a total groupie!

Student: As part of wanting experience the whole Dylan entourage, say?, or did you feel..

AG: I wanted to be famous, probably. I wanted to be a rock n roll star.

Student: What I’m trying to say is, because of your whole concern with music, is it wanting to change the world through music, as well? That seems.. .

AG: That was my cover-story, yeah! – No, actually, I was totally fascinated by Dylan’s oratory. The word “oratory” is used at the beginning of Milton’s Paradise Lost and then Blake again borrows it for Jerusalem, or Milton, I guess,what does he say? The first page of..

Student: “Rouse up O Young Men of the New Age…”

AG: Yeah I think it is..see what he does say..

Student: About the ignorant..

AG: Well, it’s a question of when he speaks of the verse form or his versification as a form of oratory in the..I think..first prefatory note that Milton has for his own Paradise Lost, some notice about considering it a form of oratory, which is public speech, I guess..let’s say, let’s see where it is..[Allen searches and finds the citation] – yeah, it’s a preface to Jerusalem, from Blake – “When this verse was first dictated to me I considered a monotonous cadence like that used by Milton and Shakespeare & all writers of English blank verse, derived from the modern bondage of rhyming, to be a necessary and indispensible part of verse. But I soon found that in the mouth of a true orator such monotony was not only awkward, but as much a bondage as rhyme itself.” There’s “the mouth of a true orator”. Dylan’s sort of a “true orator”.

One comment

  1. Among the “students,” poet David B. Axelrod–self-identifying–in the “safari cloths. Also professor Jonathan Cohen, the other bearded fellow. Ginsberg arrived in a three-piece suit and wanted an academic discussion, and mentioning his own father teaching him to be mindful of rhyme and meter, Ginsberg was the most serious and academic of the times I worked with him–as if wanting to please his father!

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