Mind Mouth and Page – 54 (Whalen and Williams)

William Carlos Williams, 1948 courtesy, Beineke Library, Yale

Philip Whalen, Boulder, Colorado, July 1991. c. Ginsberg Estate

Allen Ginsberg class on William Carlos Williams continues from here

Student: With this concern for the workings of the mind, which you can find evidence of earlier in the poems, particularly in “The Injury”…

AG: “The Injury”?

Student: ..in “The Injury”, particularly that..

AG: What was that? I’ve forgotten

Student: You read that (to us) last time It’s the one with, “from my hospital bed I hear an engine breathing”

AG: I hear what?

Student: I hear an engine breathing

AG: Yeah, “soft coal, soft coal, soft coal”

Student: Why did you then contrast Williams with (Philip) Whalen by saying that Williams was concerned with the syntax of speech, while Whalen was concerned with the syntax of the mind?

AG: Well, Williams is traditional. Well, partly, because that’s what Whalen told me he was concerned with, as distinct from Williams – “syntax of the mind” – very specifically. Whalen was a student of Gertrude Stein, especially. (He) modeled his writing on Gertrude Stein and was interested in the sequence of thoughts in his mind, in the way they occurred, and in a funny kind of abrupt way they might occur and shift. Williams all along had been more interested in the sequence of (the) spoken word – Rutherford speech, naturally, with some study of the mind’s jumps (the mind jumps, or the mind’s changes, and mental changes). Naturally, there’s some study of mental changes involved in that, as part of Imagism, as part of objective study of phenomena, but Williams’ basic thing was speech. Whalen’s, I think, more and more, is mind changes, because Whalen is an experienced sitter – he does a lot of sitting and so is observing the changes of his mind. Whalen is a shaven-headed priest (who was around here last term, actually), a long sitter – he sits Zen sesshins – sitting seven days or thirty days at a time observing his mind – and so the subject-matter is the changes of his consciousness – different picture – and the oddity of the way his mind works. The subject is almost the irrelevance and irrationality of all of his thoughts (as well as the beauty of them). So Whalen is writing down more his thoughts, Williams is writing down more his speech, I’d say, (or thoughts-in-the-form-of-speech, and Whalen more interested in the thoughts-in-the-form-of-thoughts).

Student: (Yes), with Williams, it’s more a refined portrayal of his thoughts

AG: Well, refined with the idea of speech in mind. With all these exercises, like “Atta boy, Atta boy“, or “I GOTTA/ wig-/gle for this/ (you pig)”, that’s all, like people talking. I would say Whalen takes off from the solid base of speech that Williams begins (with) but then includes mind processes as his subject matter. Actually, Whalen’s own statement is, “This poetry is a graph of the mind moving” (which is a statement he wrote out for a poetry reading) – “(My) poetry is a graph of the mind moving, not the mouth, moving..

Student: That’s what I think Williams does in “The Injury”

AG: It may be so. Maybe he does that, but I’m saying that’s Whalen’s main practice..

Student: Yes

AG: Whereas Williams main practice was the speech.

Then, in a poem like this, where he’s talking about the Imagination, or refining the speech to make a poem, of course he’s not talking about the same thing as Whalen now. Here Williams is almost idealizing, and will later idealize, the poem. He’ll talk about the poem as a land, almost, as a land of Imagination (which actually affected me in those years – ’53, ’54 – as I began thinking about the land of Imagination the poem – the poem exists, blessedness exists in the Imagination – The land of blessedness exists in the Imagination, not here. But Williams was pointing out that we can imagine, or what we could imagine, what we could make up with our own minds, would be more endurable than the transient matters here. Which is a different matter from Whalen saying, “I’m interested in the changes of my mind”. It’s a different use of mind there. Am I talking about the same thing you are?

Student: Yeah.. Somewhat

AG: I’m just making a footnote now saying that this poem ain’t got nothing to do with Whalen’s practice, this particular poem, I don’t think, because this is just about how the poem is the mind and how you can make a changeless mind by making a poem.
You had a question? Bill (sic)?

Student: Yeah..One thing with Whalen..the big difference that I’ve noticed (I’ve been really influenced by Whalen myself) is this self-consciousness. Williams?..Williams?..there’s very little of it in his work, I mean, it’s, like.. going out.. like Whalen has all this trouble between being alone and… and his public existence ..like Whalen is just so.. while Williams, he lives in the.. well, he’s a doctor and that’s his way of thinking. Like there’s this (absolute) connection between himself and other people it seems…

AG: The word you said was “self-conscious” in Whalen, and that is true. Whalen’s poems are very self-conscious.

Student: Whalen talks self-consciously about his body, and his weight, and…

AG: And also self-conscious about writing

Student: Yeah, right.

AG: So a lot of the subject of his poetry is that sort of intersection moment of, “Here I am, writing a poem on a piece of paper”.

Student: Yes

AG: Except Whalen’s one of the few people who does that charmingly. Most people when they do that (are) really annoying and obnoxious. You know, “Why don’t they get off that and get on to something?” But Whalen somehow has been able to make that particular hang-up of self-consciousness about writing one of his major subjects, without making it a drag. It’s a drag with most amateur writers.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *