Allen Ginsberg on William Carlos Williams continues from here
AG: What I wanted to do, also, today (as well as going aside contemporaneously to D.H.Lawrence) was go backwards to see some of the elements, what elements, (William Carlos) Williams got out of (Walt) Whitman, and carried forward from Whitman and improved on, but what they had in common. And we’ve got about ten minutes, so I’ll begin that, and maybe continue that, but, first, as background – Whitman demanding from future poets, making the prescription, saying what he was going to do, what Whitman was going to do, and then asking what we should do (or what Williams and we should do). [Allen then reads Whitman’s “Poets to Come” ] – “Poets to come! orators, singers, musicians to come!/ Not today is to justify me and answer what I am for,/ But you, a new brood, native, athletic, continental, greater than/ before known,/ Arouse! for you must justify me/ I myself but write one or two indicative words for the future,/ I but advance a moment only to wheel and hurry back in the darkness/ I am a man who, sauntering along without fully stopping,/ turns a casual look upon you and then averts his face/ Leaving it to you to prove and define it,/Expecting the man things from you” – Well, that’s an odd thing, because it’s very breezy and its vague in a sense, except that the observation, “I am a man who, sauntering along without fully stopping,/ turns a casual look upon you and then averts his face” is actually very perceptive. He’s found a natural movie, a natural object, to express his relationship to the future. But then he says it even more directly – “a casual look upon you and then averts his face” – [in the poem, “To You”] – “Stranger, if you passing meet me and desire to speak to me, why should/ you not speak to me?/ And why should I not speak to you?” – This is like a modern thought, also. Almost everybody (or every acid-head!) has had that one.
A little element of description that I like in Whitman, his accurate description, is actually a famous passage (Whitman was gay, or homosexual, or Whitman loved men, Whitman liked men’s bodies). He didn’t make a generalization out of it but there’s a very good description of seeing through his eyes what he saw in men’s bodies. A perfect description here [Allen begins reading from “Song of Myself” section 11] – “Twenty-eight young men bathe by the shore/ Twenty-eight young men and all so friendly…”…”They do not know who puffs and declines with pendant and bending/ arch,/ They do not think who they souse with spray” – Well what I liked about that is it’s such a funny accurate description of the very delicate sensual body-knowledge that we all have – “The beards of the young men glisten’d with wet…/Little streams pass’d all over their bodies…./ It descended tremblingly from their temples and ribs”. It’s as accurate as anything in Williams, actually, for a description of body-play. It’s a famous passage. Bespeaking more than the practice of Imagism, obviously.. Speaking a whole other(depth), emotionally – but it’s also a package of very accurate description there – and there’s a lot of it in Whitman – even in the form, say, section 15, of “Song of Myself”, there’s a whole series of little isolate lists of descriptions of people at their tasks and occupations, which I’m not going to read but, occasionally some very funny ones, but (and) all with observation, all with naturalistic detail –
“The carpenter dresses his plank, the tongue of his foreplane whistles its wild ascending/ lisp…”…”The regatta is spread on the bay – the race is begun – how the white sails sparkle!” – It’s all direct visual observation – [Allen continues quoting from section 15 of the poem] – “The President, holding a cabinet council, is surrounded by the Great Secretaries” – And of these one and all I weave the Song of Myself – Of all the details, I weave the Song of Myself.
Then, what is his comment of this practice of himself and Williams? [section 17] – “These are (really) the thoughts of all men in all ages and lands – they are not original with me,/ If they are not yours as much as mine they are nothing, or next to nothing.” – That’s the whole key to Williams and the key to Whitman – [Allen repeats the lines for emphasis] – “These are (really) the thoughts of all men in all ages and lands – they are not original with me,/ If they are not yours as much as mine they are nothing, or next to nothing.” – Which is why Whitman can begin with saying [section 1] – “I celebrate myself, (and sing myself),/ And what I shall assume you shall assume,/ For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you” – The thought-stuff he’s observing, the thought-stuff Williams is observing, or Whitman is observing, is thought-stuff equal everywhere. So, [section 19] – “This is the meal equally set, this the meat for natural hunger/ It is for the wicked just the same as the righteous, I make/ appointments with all…”
I’ll go on to more of that particular Whitman later on, but having given that common, (or) having discovered that common, mind, or the common remembrance of what’s going on in the mind, (as Williams, as Whitman), therefore – “I speak the pass-word primeval – I give the sign of democracy,/ By God! I will accept nothing which all cannot have their counterpart of on the same/ terms.” – So it’s for this classroom as (much as) for his own private glory, the mind-stuff that is our actual recollection, the reality that we share in common, the perceptions we share in common, but can only share in common if they are grounded, and here. If they’re not private, but if they’re the things that everyone can see together – which means that we all have to look out of our skulls and be willing to stick to the particulars of what we’ve got here, or looking inside our skulls, stick realistically, and accurately, and frankly, to what we see in terms of fantasy or recollection. But it’s got to be nailed down to earth, with shoes on.
So from that point of view, Whitman can finally come to [still from section 24] – “Through me forbidden voices,/ Voices of sexes and lusts, voice veil’d and I remove the veil,/ Voices indecent by me clarified and transfigur’d” – As in a sense, Williams’ line about I see my children and my heart is crushed (“I am greeted by/ the happy shrieks of my children/ and my heart sinks/ I am crushed”) – “Voices indecent by me clarified and transfigur’d” – Detail [Allen reads from section 33] – “Looking in at the shop-windows of Broadway, the whole forenoon/ flatting the flesh of/ my nose on the thick plate-glass” – Really nice (detail) for New Yorkers! – “Looking in at the shop-windows of Broadway, the whole forenoon/ flatting the flesh of/ my nose on the thick plate-glass” – I wrote a whole poem after that [City Midnight Junk Strains], which is an elegy for Frank O’Hara, a little bit of subjective inside-his-head fantasy – [Allen turns to further on section 33]
“I turn the bridegroom out of bed and stay with the bride myself” – I have a poem on a line by Walt Whitman which is “I will go in and lie down between the bridegroom and the bride” which started from that line. Just little fragmentary lines.
The most beautiful fragment in Whitman is, he’s describing a line-up in jail – Attica – [Allen reads from section 37] – “For me the keepers of convicts shoulder their carbines and keep watch./ It is I let out in the morning and barred at night./ Not a mutineer walks handcuff’d to jail but I am handcuff’d to him and walk by his side./ (I am less the jolly one there and more the silent one with sweat on my twitching lips.)” – Now, that’s really something to admit. That’s like Lawrence, “I have something to expiate/ A pettiness.”, or Williams, saying “I am lonely, lonely/ I was born to be lonely,/I am best so!/… “Who shall say I am not the happy genius of my household?” -“I am less the jolly one there and more the silent one with sweat on my twitching lips.” – Who shall say he’s not the happy genius of America? Walt Whitman with sweat on his twitching lips! That he’s able to notice that detail and really well-rendered detail, but also accept that particular negative image as one of his own incarnations is what makes it so interesting, that he can accomplish that much of a range of his own feelings.
So, finally, one of the great lines in Whitman, similar to the great haiku of Issa. (I was talking about it this morning with a group of psychiatrists as being the actual statement of real mind) – “the autumn moon shines kindly on the flower thief” – the haiku – equated with Whitman’s description of the operation of a totally tolerant universal noticing observation of the mind – “To A Common Prostitute” – “Not till the sun excludes you do I exclude you” – The sun shines continuously. It’s of its nature to shine. The mind observes with benevolent indifferent attention, as is its nature, or with choiceless awareness, as is its nature. Choiceless awareness, “and more the silent one with swear on my twitching lips”.