Allen Ginsberg’s Mind, Mouth and Page Naropa lecture series continue from here. The focus is on William Carlos Williams
AG: I want to continue with (William Carlos) Williams and today run through the Collected Later Poems. (Does anybody have my copy of Pictures from Brueghal? If they do, please return it). Meanwhile, what’s of interest in the Collected Later Poems is the author’s “Introduction”, (written) in the middle of World War II, 1944, in which he makes some spectacular statements about his method of writing, and some generalizations that have stood up as some of the essence of Williams’ practice. So everything that we were covering before in the Collected Earlier Poems, and was up to this statement of 1944, now he sums up, in a little three-page “Introduction” to a little tiny book put out by the Cummington Press during that year , “44, called The Wedge (like a wedge to open up a log – you stick a wedge in, and then hit it with a heavier hammer, a sledgehammer – but you need a little wedge to start the split of the rock, or the split of the log. So the introduction begins, “Let the metaphysical take care of itself..”
“Let the metaphysical take care of itself, the arts have nothing to do with it. They will concern themselves with it if they please, among other thinhs. To make two bald statements: There’s nothing sentimental about a machine, and: A poem is a small (or large) machine made of words. When I say there’s nothing sentimental about a poem, I mean that there can be no part, as in any other machine, that is redundant “
In other words, you don’t need extra cogs or wheels or pieces of iron sticking out unless it’s a Rube Goldberg cartoon machine (and, in that sense, a Rube Goldberg cartoon machine is the nature of much modern poetry. You could say that, in certain respects, some of my poetry, or Gregory Corso’s, or John Ashbery’s, or Kenneth Koch’s especially, is very sophisticated Rube Goldberg creations of machines that aren’t intended to do any kind of work, except flash, sparkle, dazzle , and revolve in space without any foundation. But here he’s talking about this kind of poetry which is Imagistic, Objective – >“When I say there’s nothing sentimental about a poem, I mean that there can be no part, as in any other machine, that is redundant “ – You all know what that word “redundant” means?….Extra, too much, extra, saying the same thing twice, repetitive – saying the same thing that’s already been said but saying it not so well another way – “The big vast tree”, “The big vast tree”, “The big vast giant huge tree” – “I was sitting under a big vast giant huge tree when a bird dropped a load on me” – So:
As in machines its movement is intrinsic, undulant, a physical more than a literary character. In a poem this movement is distinguished in each case by the character of the speech from which it arises.
Therefore each speech having its own character, the poetry it engenders will be peculiar to that speech also in its own intrinsic form
When he says “Therefore each speech having its own character”, he means every mouth here will speak a different way – “each speech having its own character”, Of course, every state, every city will have its own accent and tongue and rhythm, but every individual will have his own voice, every girl will have her own particular lilt, every boy his own variety of macho – “Therefore each speech having its own character, the poetry it engenders will be peculiar to that speech also in its own intrinsic form.” – This is addressed to the problem that was raised a few times: “Well, what if everybody wrote like Williams wouldn’t it all sound the same?” – “Each speech having its own character, the poetry it engenders will be peculiar to that speech also in its own intrinsic form” – that is, it will all look different on the page too if you score it as your own speech.
My own interest in the arts has been extracurricular – He’s a doctor – Up from the gutter, so to speak. Of necessity. Each age and place to its own. But in the U.S. the necessity for recognizing this intrinsic character has largely been ignored by the various English Departments of the academies – So finally here (at NAROPA) we have an English department of an academy which is not ignoring Williams’ main point (which means Williams has finally triumphed in eternity) .
When a man makes a poem, makes it, mind you, he takes words as he finds them interrelated about him and composes them… When a man makes a poem, makes it, mind you, he takes words as he finds them interrelated about him and composes them – without distortion which would mar their exact significances… – “Atta boy! Atta boy!” – takes words which he finds around him and composes without distortion – …into an intense expression of his perceptions and ardors that they may constitute a revelation in the speech that he uses – “This is just to say that I have eaten the plums that you left in the ice-box and which you were probably saving for breakfast forgive me they were delicious so sweet and so cold”. “composes them.. into an intense expression of his perceptions and ardors that they may constitute a revelation in the speech that he uses” (The reason I quoted the little note he left his wife on the ice-box – “I have eaten the plums..” – is because that little poem “constitutes a revelation of his ardors” in the speech that he uses normally – It isn’t what he says that counts as a work of art, it’s what he makes, with such an intensity of perception that it lives with an intrinsic movement of its own to verify its authenticity. Your attention is called now and then to some beautiful line or sonnet sequence because of what is said there. So be it. To me all sonnets say the same thing of no importance. What does it matter what the line “says”? – Does everybody understand that? – “To me all sonnets say the same thing of no importance” – What he means there, basically, is that the form that’s chosen fits a certain emotion that is prefabricated along with the sonnet form so that it isn’t a revelation of the immediate feeling, perception and ardor of the movement expressed in the speech natural to that moment. Is that a clear point or am I speaking obscurely? or is anybody daydreaming and missing this exact exquisite moment? Is there anybody that’s lost and doesn’t understand what I’m talking about? Yes? (What I’m doing (here) is reading the Introduction of Williams’ poems of 1944, (in) a book called The Wedge).
Student: Would you say the same thing about rhyme?
AG: Yes. He used it occasionally, but he would say basically the same thing about rhyme as rhyme was used in 1944, in the academic style, fostered by the English departments of the academies that he had just attacked. Remember this is 1944, so he would say that about most rhyme (though, say, (a) year, or soon after, he wrote an intelligent review of Robert Lowell‘s rhymed poems, The Mills of Kavanaughs, and approved them, and talked about Lowell’s rhymes being like Inca stonework, like solid, and coming out of the subject in a righteous way..I remember his phrase, that the regular forms and rhymes (there were) like Inca stonework). But he’s making a generalization about the sonnet which would apply to rhyme to the extent that both the rhyme or the form was (were) imitative form, that didn’t express the poignance or the peculiarities of the American moment. And it’s a strictly American shot he’s on. Yeah?
Student: Do you think he’s just talking about the sonnet as used in his time, as opposed to the sonnet as it was used earlier?
AG: No, no. He digs the sonnet as it was used earlier – for its time – Actually, the sonnet was a song-form for the Italian vulgar tongue spoken in its time (I think Petrarch stopped writing in Latin and started writing Italian songs in the form of sonnets, which was a sonnet to be sung). But that was then, and it was to be sung, and now people were writing sonnets not to be sung, but to imitate the Aristotelian form of a statement, counter-statement, statement, counter-statement, conclusion, or (maintaining) a musical form that is not sung but is just a mind-idea. So he’s saying, therefore, because it’s an imitation of another form, “to me all sonnets say the same thing of no importance”. Because what he’s saying is, what’s really important is that we compose our poems taking words as we find them, interrelated about ourselves and compose them into intense expressions of perceptions and ardors – “perceptions and ardors that they may constitute a revelation in the speech that he uses” – that they constitute a revelation in our own talk, in our own speech, rather than in Petrarch-ian-styled speech, or Elizabethan-, or English-style speech. In this he’s agreeing with Walt Whitman, who made a similar prescription, calling for an American muse – for a style of muse that was strictly American, so that we could include the machine, include the stock market, include our own streets, include our own ardors, particularly.
It could be that my interests as expressed here are pre-art – Dig that! – “It could be that my interests as expressed here are pre-art” (which is what (Ezra) Pound had been telling him all along – “All you’re interested in is the raw material, I’m interested in the finished product” – and Williams said, “Yeah, exactly.”). It could be that my interests as expressed here are pre-art. If so, I look for a development along these lines and will be satisfied with nothing else (which is Williams saying, like (Vladimir) Mayakovsky, “then die my verse, die like the rank and file” – that line in Mayakovsky’s famous poem, “At the Top of My Voice”, where he’s saying he wants his poetry to serve the cause of solidarity of Communism – but he says it so beautifully – “then die my verse” – It’s Williams saying, “Oh yes, then be pre-art, my verse!” – “Pre-art” meaning not a finished product but experiments towards a finished product, experiments in notation of American speech. Who cares if it’s poetry or not, as long as it’s exact to our own ardors and the language we would use normally for those). So that’s like a great statement, and it takes a tremendous amount of patience for a guy like Williams to accumulate enough samples of his own talk over decades to create a body of work that’s finally coherent enough for people to see it as the basis of a practice that they can themselves so, adapting their own art to his.