Spontaneous Poetics (Ballads) – Helen Adam – 6

Allen Ginsberg’s 1976 Spontaneous Poetics class at NAROPA Institute on ballads (with guest-lecturer Helen Adam) continues

Student: Are the old ballads conforming to the old speech?

AG: “Why does your brand sae drap wi’ bluid, Edward, Edward?” . Sure. Just like Kerouac conformed to Okie speech, the old ballads confirmed to their speech. Probably a certain amount of inversion, but, I think, when you hear them pronounced vigorously, they sound about right for talk. In other words, if you keep your ear into talk, too, when you’re rhyming, you get something interesting.

Student; Wasn’t there sometimes, though, more choices on how a word could be pronounced?

HA: Yes, yes

AG: You could do it.

Student: (“Why doth yon brand so droppe wi’ bloode?”)

AG: Sure

HA: Well, there really are quite a lot of different ways to pronounce them. I just myself do the one that seems bes t to me, but it probably isn’t  always correct. They really should be sung by, or spoken by, someone that can speak broad Scotch well.

Student: Well, I mean in the time (that) they were written

HA: Oh, in the time they were written

Student (I’m talking more about the) pronunciation

HA: Oh, I see. Well, it may have varied by.. you know, usually, speech does change, or the words, the meaning of the words, sometimes meant.. like (Robert) Duncan was talking about (the word), “silly” yesterday, you know, and all the different meanings for “silly”. “Silly” is not really at all what it means now. I hadn’t really thought of that. It’s interesting, but I don’t actually…

AG: There was a change from shire to shire, just like it does now

HA: Yes, it probably did

AG: Spelling changed, spelling, or orthography, they call it. Spelling was variable, I think..

AG: Did we do “Sir Patrick Spens”?

HA: No, How long have we?

AG: I’ve got five after, so we (still) have half an hour.

HA: Oh great. Yeah.

AG: What are the great classics that they (the students) wouldn’t have heard of?, is what I’ve been thinking of.

HA: They’re not in these books.

AG: “Sir Patrick Spens” is obviously.

HA: The ones I like best are “May Colvin” and  “Young Tam Lin”..

AG: Okay.. what are your… can you give us an assignment?

HA: .. (and) “Thomas the Rhymer”

AG: Okay.

HA: “May Colvin”

AG: How do you spell that?


AG: And Tamblin?

HA: Tam Lin – T-A-M-L-I-N – “Young Tam Lin”

AG: Yeah.

HA: They’re all very long ballads actually, but they’ve got gorgeous things in them, especially “Young Tam Lin:, which is a pure fairy-tale thing, and “May Colvin” again says so much in so little – and it’s completely ruthless. You know, he’s…

AG: Ruthless?

HA: Yeah

AG: That was the word you used – “ruthless”?… Ruthless.?. The.. what do you call those things again, the jumps?

Student: “The jump cut”

AG: “Ruthless jump cuts”

HA: Uh-huh – I’d never heard “jump cuts” before. It’s lovely, I must say.

AG: Ruthless jump cuts. So the whole point is to write a ballad in your own language with ruthless jump cuts.

HA: Yes, that would be (will be) so exciting to hear them!

AG: Yeah.

HA: Will they have written ballads by next week, or something?

AG: By tonight.

HA: Oh.

AG: I’ll have mine ready tonight. With ruthless jump cuts!

HA: Ah, it’s marvelous

Student: Jump cuts? What exactly..? Can you give an example of jump cuts?

AG: Juxtapositions. The jump cut example I gave when I was singing was “Merry Christmas, don’t hang yourself with a rope/ Happy New Year, don’t take too much hard dope/ Manhattan reborn after we all gave up hope/ Radiator cockroach waving your horn at the wall/ What’ll I eat when I don’t eat meat at all/ Go tell the bedbug he better stay out in the hall” – It’s just a total cut from the Christmas thing to something that happens in New York, or right in the middle of New York- “radiator cockroach waving your hands at the wall”

HA: Um-hmm. Happens all the time in New York.

AG: While I was writing the song, when I got to “after we gave up all hope” and I was thinking..actually, it’s connected – the whole city is like a mess, cockroaches and bed-bugs in every direction…and, (then), suddenly I saw a cockroach on the radiator next to my desk, waving his.

HA: Waving his..?

AG: ..antannae at the wall

HA: Ah-hah

AG: So I immediately jumped to that. The camera eye goes from the idea of  “Merry Christmas”  immediately to the factual detail of what’s going on in New York, because the last line is “After we gave up all hope” – so there’s actually a real, logical connection, because it’s even better than logical because when it is going from the generalization about “Merry Christmas” and all that, suddenly (it’s) right focused on a specific cockroach..

HA: Waving its horns.

AG: …December 23, 1971, in my room, in New York, next to my desk. So it’s actually an exemplification of what was all hope given up about.

HA: Well, a cockroach did something worse to me, once. We had guests for dinner..

AG: A cockroach was inspiration, my muse.

HA: ..and one of the girls had put down her wine glass, and there was this cockroach poised on the edge of the wine glass, taking little slips, you know.

AG: And that happened to a guest in your house, how awful

Student: Can you give an example of a jump cut in the ballad?

AG:  Do we have one here? Well, let’s see..(from) the ones that we did already.

HA: There are lots of them

AG: Yeah, okay, a funny kind of jump cut in “Lord Randal” was.. they’ve got the stanza – “O I fear you are poisoned, Lord Randal, my son!/ I fear you are poisoned, my handsome young man!/ O yes, I am poisoned, mother, mak my bed soon,/ For I’m sick at the heart, and fain wad lie down”. And you’d think she was going to ask, “Well, what happened?” or “Who did this?” (but instead she says) “ What d’ye leave to your mother, Lord Randal, my son?”. That’s like a big gap.

HA: What’s he thinking…?

AG: .. while listening to your mother.

Student: I’ve seen versions where she does ask him what happened, and he talks about his love poisoning him.

HA: In a different version, you know, sometimes…

AG:  There’s a big..  In “Mary Hamilton” that I read the other day, there are a lot of jumps.  And “Sir Patrick Spens” is actually like a movie, speeded up or with fast still shots. Why don’t we do “Sir Patrick Spens because I think there are jump-cuts in that..

HA: Uh-huh

AG: ..and I’ll raise my hand every time I hear a jump cut,

[Helen Adam reads/sings/recites the first seven stanzas of “Sir Patrick Spens”“The King sits in Dumferline town/Drinking the blude-red wine/ “O whare will I get a skeely skipper/ To sail this new ship o’ mine…” – and then stops – oh, they’ve left out a very good verse here, I must say – “To Noroway, to Noroway/ To Noroway o’er the foam/ The king’s daughter on Noroway/ To we men bring her home” – then continues with the remaining four stanzas]

AG: That was the most ruthless jump cut of all, right at the very end. It’s just like movie cinema, the cinematic quality there. A jump cut is really very good, because there is a cinematic quality from…in jumping from the King’s writing a letter, the next thing Sir Patrick Spens is on the sands reading the letter, the next thing he laughs at the first line and then all of a sudden he realizes that it means his death, and the next line is a tear, the next line he’s gathering his sailors and he’s complaining – “Who dare,who put me up, who did this to me?”  The next thing, after first complaining, “Who put me up to sailing on the sea this time of year?’, the very next stanza he’s already ordering the sailors on the boat. That’s a real jump. He’s standing on the strand, reading the letter, realizing it’s his doom, and you’d think logically he’d refuse, and then the real poignant thing is “Mak ready, mak ready, my merry men a’”. He’s obeying. He’s doing it. And then the big jump of the maid talking about the evil, the ill moon prophecy, the next stanza, the noble Scots were not eager to wet their shoes. The next thing their hats are swimming on the ocean (within the same stanza). And then the next stanza, the ladies are sitting with their fans and the author is saying, “They’re going to sit there forever before those guys come back”. And the next stanza is “fifty fathoms deep”. So there’s jump, jump, jump – very fast, very swift (which is like my blues thing – “Manhattan, after we gave up hope” – and then a waving cockroach – totally (some place) else).

Leave a Reply

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