Spontaneous Poetics – 18 (Thomas Wyatt – 3)

Sir Thomas Wyatt (1498-1543) – woodcut by Hans Holbein the Younger, drawn c.1540 (published in John Leland‘s Naenia, a poetic elegy in Latin, composed in praise of Wyatt and published on the occasion of his death

AG: (So) You see how terrific (Sir Thomas) Wyatt is, actually. As I say it’s sort of a shame that, (according to a class survey), only seven people (here have ever) read Wyatt. Actually, I have a book of poems called The Gates of Wrath, which were the earliest poems I wrote, and the rhythms of that book were straight out of Wyatt. I found him the most candy-like model. His rhythms were like sweet candy. So strong that it had an early influence on me.

Student: Were you influenced by “My Lute Awake..” and “Forget Not Yet..” and..?

AG: Yeah, those. Yeah. The ones that I read, naturally.

Student: No, I mean in your book, influenced by..

AG: (Well,) in particular, what?

Student: The two sonnets in the beginning..

AG: No, that’s not so much Wyatt. The Wyatt influence is on “Stanzas Written At Night in Radio City”. Okay, let me show you how I transferred that, actually. Might as well. From “Forget Not Yet..” – that sound of “Forget Not Yet”.. [Allen proceeds to read, in its entirety, the three stanzas of his early poem, “Stanzas Written At Night in Radio City” – “If money made the mind more sane/ Or money mellowed in the bowel/The hunger beyond hunger’s pain,/ Or money choked the mortal growl/ And made the groaner grin again…,” – I’m reading it sing-song, it doesn’t mean anything that way, but just to show you I got that sing-song speedy cadence from Wyatt into my brain and then, after a while, could churn (it) out. You can hear it in your inner ear with the same speed, then you can write it more slowly and it breaks down so you can recite it with more sense, like…[Allen re-reads the first stanza with the proper intonation] – (“If money made the mind more sane/ Or money mellowed in the bowel/The hunger beyond hunger’s pain,/ Or money choked the mortal growl/ And made the groaner grin again/Or did the laughing lamb embolden/To loll where has the lion lain/ I’d go make money and be golden”)  –So you can read it as sense too. – as I was reading the Wyatt as sense. Or you can also get that rhythmic speedy paradigm. I guess Wyatt stuck in my nervous system, so I’m recommending a dose of Wyatt. While we’re..  yeah?

Student: Do you think it is important to work through and beyond these voices that you hear of other poets, or just to absorb them?

AG: I was just responding to… what’s your name?…

Student: Natalie

AG: Natalie’s situation, in which she wasn’t able to write spontaneously in that song form, because she wasn’t used enough to the form, so I was just trying to figure out a way of how you could get a fast dose of that form. To get a fast dose of that form, I would say take Wyatt’s poems, (“My Lute Awake..” and “Forget Not Yet..”, among others) and read them aloud about 25 times, fast, digging that funny, fast syncopation, Not worrying about the sense. You get the flashes of sense, anyway, while you’re doing it, but if  you read them aloud, fast, just for the fun of that. [Allen illustrates, reading the first two stanzas of “Forget Not Yet..”] – If you do that, just fast, there’s a funny…

Student: Okay, that has the iambic, right?..

AG: Actually, what is that? I think..

Student: Not the ballad form.

AG: No, it’s not the ballad form, no. I drifted off. We were dealing with (the) ballad, but then I got off into “The Morpethshire Farmer”,and then.. I got on to Wyatt, and then I thought it would be a good idea to read a couple of poems of Wyatt, because they’re songs, so they’re somewhat  related to the ballad, and they’re back in that period, (and because nobody (had apparently) read them and they were right here). I wouldn’t take (the term), “ballad” too seriously. For ballad meter, one of the best examples that can stick in the mind, if you want to get it in your nervous system.. some of the ballads that…

Student: “Lord Randal”

AG: Yeah..some of the ballads that Helen (Adam) mentioned would be a good idea – “The Ballad of Sir Patrick Spens”..  but they’re a little archaic. I would say “Jerusalem..” (there’s one called “Jerusalem..”, which I’ll get to in a moment), one called “As You Came From The Holy Land of Walsingham”(I’ll get back to ballads in a minute or two). “Jerusalem, My Happy Home” – but, jumping ahead in time to (Samuel Taylor) Coleridge’s “The Ancient Mariner” – “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” – (that) is in a ballad meter. You know that poem already, don’t you? That’s classic ballad meter. He’s combined all the echoes of the earlier ballads..

The other poem, while we’re on Wyatt, before we get away from Wyatt, while we’re still into his ear (is) “They flee from me, that sometime did me seek..” [Allen reads Wyatt’s poem in its entirety –]  (“They flee from me, that sometime did me seek,/ With naked foot stalking my chamber..”) – This poem is famous for a lot of reasons, and worth digging for a lot of reasons – but two, one – the whole situation is really mysterious, what his relation to her [the subject of the poem] is, and whether it’s a mystical Madonna, or an actual mistress, or somebody he once made it with – or somebody that was once dependent on him for bread and now ranges “busily seeking.”…”with.continual change”, away from his chamber. There’s a lot of brilliant phrases – “With naked foot stalking in my chamber” – and there’s a sort of weird comparison between the girl [subject] and some wild beast (“I have seen them gentle, tame, and meek,/ That now are wild…”) – But, also, rhythmically, it’s real rough and strange, and apparently broken. It’s very difficult to read this particular one in total sing-song without tripping and getting lost, without breaking the reading, without losing the rhythm. It has an echo of that perfection of sing-song in it. [Allen attempts to read the poem again] – “They flee from me, that sometime did me seek,/ With naked foot stalking in my chamber,/ I have seen them , gentle, tame and meek,/ That now are wild, and do not remember/That sometime they put themselves in danger/ To take bread at my hand, and now they range,/ Busily seeking with a continual change.” – It’s almost.. But, then, unlike the other little poems that I was reading, it breaks, and I’ve never successfully been able to make a run-on reading, like that, fast  – {Allen continues] – “Thanked by Fortune it hath been otherwise,/ Twenty times better, but once in special,/ In thin array, after a pleasant guise,/ When her loose gown from her shoulders did fall,/ And she me caught in her arms long and small./ And therewith all sweetly did me kiss/ And softly said, “Dear heart,  how like you this?” – Well, so far you can, I guess – “It was no dream, I lay broad waking/ But all is turned, thorough my gentleness..” – And (so) there’s (that) word, “thorough”, (which sounds like it should be “through”, “But all is turned, through my gentleness?”), and nobody has ever understood why “through” is spelt “thorough” there – T-H-O-R-O-U-G-H (unless, in that century, ”through” was pronounced and spelt “thorough”). So, this has always hung (up) scholars, like Lionel Trilling, or..

Student: Critics?

AG: Well, scholars and critics, trying to figure out what was the original rhythm, and was it a song, and, if a song, how was it sung? – “And she also to use newfangleness/ But since that I so kindely am served/ I fain would know what she hath deserved.” – Nobody has been able to figure out the exact meter, and, in the early anthologies, they used to cut various words out (of them) to try to make it sound even, to try and make it sound sing-song like the rest.  “Kindely”, also – K-I-N-D-E-L-Y – “But since that I so kindely am served”, is the way it’s spelled in this book and probably in the original spelling.   So, “They flee from me…” is another thing you might check out. I had a teacher at Columbia, named Raymond Weaver, who was the best college teacher I ever had, who was s sort of innovative mystic, the only one around Columbia College who had been in Japan and actually sat in Zen, and knew Zen koans,and used koans and strange methods of teaching, (who was also reputed to be gay, and a friend of Wanda Landowska), who had had taught in Japan and was also a great scholar, who was the first person to write a book about Herman Melville (and who actually discovered Melville’s manuscript, “Billy Budd” in a trunk in an attic in New York). So Weaver was teaching at Columbia and he used to use this poem, “They Flee From Me..”, mimeographing it up without Wyatt’s name on it and handing it out, as a sort of mysterious document, to the football-team members who took his famous course, “Communications 13” (which was actually a course in poetry, but which was called “Communications”), in which he taught very odd things, like koans, haiku, some of Hart Crane, and a few, rare, special, poems (of which this was one). That was the standard fare in college in the (19)40’s – Sir Thomas Wyatt. I don’t know how anybody who went to college could have escaped Wyatt. Actually, there’s one very funny sonnet of his, “Whoso list to hunt, I know where is an hind…” It’s a pun on “be-hind”, actually! It’s an old, funny, sex poem – mystical sex poem. “Hind”? What’s a hind? I forgot.

Student: A deer

AG: A deer, yeah. A mystical deer. Usually you’re chasing a hind! “Whoso list to hunt..”  – “Whoso list” – who has the desire to hunt. [Allen begins reading Wyatt’s “Whoso list..” – “Whoso list to hunt, I know where there is an hind,/ But as for me, alas, I may no more,/ The vain travail hath wearied me so sore,/ I am of them that furthest come behind..”] – It’s always been considered to be a double-entendre, this sonnet, actually, if you can follow it. [Allen continues] – “Yet may I by no means my wearied mind/ Draw from the deer, but as she fleeth afore/ Fainting I follow, I leave off therefore,/ Since in a net I seek to hold the wind..” – A very famous line (that) – “Since in a net I seek to hold the wind”. Is that his original? – “Since in a net I seek to hold the wind” – or is he using that from somebody else? – because that’s a classic line – “Who list her hunt, I put him out of dount,/ As well as I, may spend his time in vain./ And graven with diamonds in letters plain,/ There is written her fair neck round about, “Noli me tangere, for Caesar’s I am,/ And wild for to hold, though I seem tame”..” – These are all poems that students of English poetry consider great classics, all these little Wyatt sonnets and songs. They are actually pretty good for your ear. There are some anthologies in the library, and I’ll leave this Norton Anthology there on and off, so you can check out Wyatt, and then I think there are probably (also) cheap anthologies of his work. He’s worth reading in detail. He’s worth reading a lot of poems just for that real perfect sound. There’’s a lot of poems that have that great, impeccable, iron-like sing-song, if you want to read him that way, as well as tremendous humor and mysteriousness. I think there used to be a volume in the Everyman series called Silver Poets of the 16th Century, was there not? – That had a lot of Wyatt.

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