AG: That’s really terrific for direct perception, for first perceptions, direct perceptions, transfered physically to the page, word by word. [Allen’s been glancing at the poems of paraplegic poet, Larry Eigner] In the same place, you have this problem with perception, or the situation of perceptions transfered physically to the page, word by word, (likewise) with the stricken Williams. [Allen quotes Williams] – “Oh/ the sumac/ died/ it’s/ the first time/I/noticed it”
– So you see where it comes from. He’s almost dying, he’s got one foot in the grave (at that time, actually, he was saying, “I’ve got one foot in the grave”). And he thought he had cancer of the anus, actually, at that point. He was very sick, and he was also morbidly fantasizing, and he thought he didn’t have much to write about. (Around that time, I went to see him and he said he had nothing to write about – what can he write about? the cancer of his behind? – I think I mentioned this before). And I said, “Oh, there’s hundreds of young poets in America who would be interested in your behind! – Yes, of course, write about cancer in your behind, anything you can”.
Student: How much longer did he live?
AG: Another ten years. He wrote an epic, Paterson, but he went through this dark night first.
Student: You said it became difficult for him to revise. Certainly, he must have revised the longer things, “Asphodel, that Greeny Flower”, for instance, he must have…
AG: I think “Asphodel” he maybe started before but there was not too much extra heavy work on that, because it was simply too hard physically to do. His wife helped him. He probably had some typist in by then. I think he probably revised in his mind.
Student: Written in the ’40’s..
AG: Well, no, what year was this published? [Allen is referring here to “Pictures From Brueghel”] Well, I don’t know. I would gather.. I would guess.. early ’50’s, but I don’t know when these are. Let me see.. These are “Pictures From Brueghel” and the earliest (poem) is
(dated) ’49 here, so I guess between ’49 and ’53.
“A Salad for the Soul” – See, it’s interesting that, since his practice is so physical, it, literally, when his body changes, his poetic practice is slightly affected and slightly altered. [Allen reads “A Salad for the Soul” in its entirety] – “My pleasant soul/ we might not be destined to/ survive our guts/ lets celebrate/ what we eject/ sometimes/ with greatest fervor/ I hear it/ also from the ladies’ room/ what ho!/ the source/ of all delicious salads/ My pleasant soul”
[Allen to student, returning with Emily Dickinson volume] – Could you find that “I heard a Fly buzz – when I died“? (There’s) probably an index of first-lines. I want to find out what Emily (Dickinson) had to say about that
“The Stolen Peonies” – [Allen continues reading Williams, reading this poem in its entirety”] – “What I got out of women/ was difficult/ to assess Flossie/ not you/ you lived with me/ many years you remember/ that year/ we had the magnificent/ stand of peonies/ how happy we were/ with them/ but one night/ they were stolen/ we shared the/ loss together thinking/ of nothing else for/ a whole day/ nothing could have/ brought us closer/ we had been/ married ten years.”
[Allen returns to the Dickinson student] – Able to find it?
AG: Ah. Her method is really amazing actually. Because she was just writing to herself and making notations, so all of her punctuation is just dashes in these poems – which is, actually, where I get a lot of my punctuation (from). I just saw her. “Oh, that’s the way she did (it) – of course!”). It wasn’t for magazine editors to see. 1862, published 1866.. [Allen reads, in its entirety, “I heard a Fly buzz – when I died” – “I heard a Fly buzz – when I died/ The Stillness in the Room/ was like the Stillness in the Air -/ Between the Heaves of Storm -/ The Eyes around had wrung them dry -/ And Breaths were gathering frm -/ For that Last Onset – When the King/ Be witnessed – in the Room -/ I willed my Keepsakes – Signed away/ What portion of me be/ Assignable – and then it was/ There interposed a Fly -/ With Blue – Uncertain stumbling Buzz -/ Between the light – and me -/ And then the Windows failed – and then – / I could not see to see -” – “and then it was/ There interposed a Fly -/ With Blue – Uncertain stumbling Buzz -/ Between the light – and me” – So it’s a really good reduction of a whole field of consciousness to that one little fly. That’s one of my favorite poems, “I heard a Fly buzz – when I died”, because it’s so opposite (instead of “majestical Kings”, “”I heard a Fly buzz – when I died”, but it’s so real)
There’s a great scene in (Tolstoy’s) War and Peace, where Prince Bolkonsky is lying on the battlefield and Napoleon rides by on a big horse and this horse with his rump is standing above Prince Bolkonsky who’s lying wounded on the field, eyes open, staring into the sky, totally indifferent to Napoleon, totally indifferent to the horse’s rump, just a vast sky, with all these generals hanging around, riding up with messages, Napoleon and everyone involved in their thoughts and their battle, but this guy at the edge of death is looking straight up, and looking straight up into infinite space and suddenly appreciating the infinite space for the first time. Those moments of total perception are interesting. It’s amazing that that moment of total perception would be “bzzzzz”. I was thinking, in the stillness.. I was waiting for the stillness and he was turning his pages and I could say, “I heard a page turn when I died” I heard the pages turn.
Student: How old was she when she wrote that?
AG: I don’t know. This is 1862. She’s also a very important American crank (like Williams).
Student: Was she (herself, perhaps) near dying?
AG: No, I don’t think so. That was 1862 (and) the later poems are 1884, so, no – by “die”, I think she meant the death of the ego, or the death of self-consciousness, opening up to a total clear moment when language stopped in the mind and it was nothing but total silence, and then observation of what’s going on outside without obstruction. So death of self-consciousness, or death of ego.
In fact, I’d like to take a little side-trip, while we’ve got her around, to show Emily Dickinson’s practice of particulars. (A) famous poem (that) my father was pointing out to me when he was in town a month ago (is)..“A bird came down the walk” [Allen reads this Emily Dickinson poem in its entirety] – “A bird came down the walk -/ He didn’t know I saw -/ He bit an Angleworm in halves/ And ate the fellow, raw,/ and then he drank a Dew/ From a convenient Grass -/ And then hopped sideways to the Wall/ To let a Beetle pass -/ He glanced with rapid eyes/ That hurried all around -/ They looked like frightened Beads, I thought -/ He stirred his Velvet Head/ Like one in danger, Cautious,/ I offered him a Crumb/And he unrolled his feathers/ And rowed him softer home – / Than Oars divide the Ocean,/ Too silver for a seam -/ Or Butterflies, off Banks of Noon/ Leap, plashless as they swim” – That’s totally absorbed into the silence and “plashless-ness” of the vast space in which the butterfly leaps off wherever it leaps off at noontime into the supporting air, without a splash. So she was so observant. Here’s a whole scenario (including the bird that bites the angleworm in halves – she noticed that naturally he ate it raw – “drank a Dew” – it says “a” and capital D-E-W – “and then he drank a Dew” – one dew-drop -“From a convenient Grass -/ And then hopped sideways to the Wall/ To let a Beetle pass -/ He glanced with rapid eyes/ That hurried all around -/ They looked like frightened Beads, I thought -/ He stirred his Velvet Head/ Like one in danger, Cautious,/ I offered him a Crumb/And he unrolled his feathers/ And rowed him softer home – / Than Oars divide the Ocean,/ Too silver for a seam..” – That’s pretty good. Not only observing the bird, but also remembering observing oars in water, and how the oar does not create a seam when it dips into the water – ” Too silver for a seam” – or even better, butterflies – So softly.. – “rowed him softer home” – so soft. She also remembers how a butterfly jumps off into the air, “plashless”, “off Banks of Noon” – So this really weird mystical poem is composed of a lot of concrete direct perceptions, weirdly put, but coming from looking outside of her skull into water, noon, observing the bird. Oddly enough, I was reading that last night and amazed at her accuracy.