Spontaneous Poetics (Ballads) – (AG & Students)

We pick up again on Allen’s Spontaneous Poetry (Ballad) lectures (see earlier examples   here here and here) delivered at the Naropa Institute,Boulder, Colorado in July and August of 1976. This particular section dates from a June 16 class. Allen selects various fragments, ”mots justes”, ”cooked diamonds”, “active” lines, drawing on student examples)

AG: I have a stack of poems that people gave me, the ballads and other little poems, that I want to read from – what I got, just little fragments, just the stuff I liked. One method of criticism that I always found useful is just extract what is active. I think I spoke of this the other day to one class or another – extract whatever is active from a poem and feed it back to the author. That’s what (William Carlos) Williams did with me, when I brought him poems from an early book, Gates of Wrath. He pointed out one or two good lines but said, “In this mode, perfection is basic, and these poems are not perfect”. And then, when I sent him another pack of poems that were more in a  modern, direct, focused style, what he did was separated out what he called the active language or active lines, and said, “One active line, or fragment, or even piece of (a) phrase, or even one piece of mouth-phrasing – he didn’t say that, but –  “one phrase of “active language” is worth pages and pages of unreadable and unspeakable material.” “So it’s better, if you’re preparing material to publish”, he said, “just everything out except what’s active”. And by active, he meant, I guess, what we’ve been talking about – focused concrete particular natural objects which are adequate symbols

I also had a very interesting conversation with another teacher years ago, Mark Van Doren, whose sister, Irita Van Doren ran the New York Herald Tribune Weekly Book Review– now defunct . And her brother was an interesting minor poet and sort of major mystic around New York in the (19)40’s and (19)50’s, who would write articles, reviews, and everything he wrote was always very sympathetic (unlike nasty little magazines who are always attacking each other for not being as good as Bukowski, or not being honest, or not being as young as Rimbaud or something. Actually I saw a review of my own poetry, written by Mark Campbell here, accusing me of not being eighteen-years-old like Rimbaud – or accusing Rimbaud of not being eighteen – he forgot to accuse Rimbaud of no longer being eighteen years old) [editor’s note: Mark Campbell -“Means and Meditation”, Colorado Daily, April 14, 1976 – The Colorado Daily is the small free paper for UC Boulder, mostly written by and for UC Boulder students]…

So, anyway, I said to Van Doren, “How come everything you write is always so sympathetic? What do you do about stuff that you don’t like? What do you do about stuff that doesn’t interest you? And he said, “Well, why would I write about anything that doesn’t interest me? I only write about things that I like, so I save a lot of time.  I don’t waste time”, he said. And those two examples, Williams and Van Doren’s always served as an excellent guide for how not to waste energy as a famous poet (or how not to waste energy as an unfamous poet). Just stick with what you’re interested in and (write about) what you’re interested in.  Don’t get hung up. Don’t feed energy into what you’re notinterested in. There’s very rarely a need, I find, as a teacher to sit down with something that I think is bad and attack, or analyze it, even. The best analysis of what’s bad is a presentation of what’s good. In other words, just take out of a poem, just isolate a few active phrase and stanzas

So, out of (one student) (MF)’s ballad – “I’ve loved a lot of waitresses/ It’s my specialty/ I guess a woman serving food brings out the best in me” –  was the best stanza of the lot of them, (in a ballad) which began – “I was sitting in the deli/ She was waiting on my table/ I was wondering why she was willing/ I assumed that she was able” – But, “I’ve loved a lot of waitresses/ It’s my specialty/ I guess a woman serving food brings out the best in me”

(Another student) – Sue? (SC) had an interesting Buddhist ballad. Would you like to read it?

Student (SC): You, you can read it

AG: No, come on. Out of the mouth of girls. We can hear your rhythm better that way. It’s good enough to read. Come on. You’ve got to be a bodhisattva, you might as well. Can you pass it on please?.  A more or less good solid ballad, sensible, straightforward, (it) has a point.

AG: Could you do it really loudly? So we can hear it.

Student (SC): Um, it’s about a guy named “Fast Eddie”. [Student reads (in entirety) her classroom assignment] – “Fast Eddie was born in Arkansas, /left home when he was three/ to make his mark in the open West/ where things were loose and free…”…”..When he got bored with money and girls/ and tired of trying to win/ the only way he could relax/ was by drinking pints of gin/”…“Then Buddha walked in and took a seat/ at the Sunday rodeo/ right in front of Eddie’s place/ so he’d be sure to know/”..” Said “You ain’t a real cowboy, man,/ the Indians are gone./ they killed ‘em all off years ago/ before you was even born…”… “Then Buddha turned around and left/ as quickly as he came/ and then he (Eddie) started thinking/ and he never was the same”… “Now Eddie’s got his boots/ and he’s concentrating on death/ and his gun is getting rusty/ because he’s thinking about his breath”.

AG: I thought that was terrific. Actually, listening to it (in its entirety) it’s a little long-winded, I admit. But when Buddha gets in there and sits down in front of him, that’s really great. At least you took from what you were thinking about, drew from what you were thinking about in your present preoccupations and laid it out in a common-sense, straightforward way, I guess. More than most people did, actually, who were just sort of letting their minds wander

Let’s see what else we have here – “She said I made a great mistake/ I told her that’s one chance I’ll take/ Sitting ‘round, not feeling good/ Don’t think I will, don’t think I should.”…”My friend I saw him yesterday/ We talked of things that we both knew/ Apparently he liked my song/ Apparently I like him too” – There’s something real sweet and straight about that. It’s the middle of (one student’s) ballad..

There was one thing in..yeah, (a) kind of weird thing by (student,) (JS) .Yeah. Let me read that. It’s really bad – but at  the same time the subject of a terrific ballad – [Allen begins to read] – “Young John Snyder stood by his car, a well-waxed ’53 Chevy,/ with 27 coats of chrome-flake paint, waiting for his girlfriend, Mary./  She came out of the high-school gym, pony-tail bouncing so gaily/. He took her for some soft ice-cream and told her she looked pretty/. He drove her out to Lovers Lane, chugged two beers down quickly/, then he reached for her Maidenform breast and asked her to go steady./ She pushed him away and started to cry, “I thought you really loved me/. But now I see that you’re just like the rest and only want my body”/  –  So this is just sort of normal cornball” –  “I love you, I love you, I really do. And if you really love me”/ “Oh no, oh no, oh no”, she cried, “not until we’re married”.” “Johnny reached up under the sear and pulled out a tire iron..” – This is where it gets to be an authentic ballad – When I got to that I thought it was pretty good there – “Johnny reached up under the seat and pulled out a tire iron he kept handy/ (just in case)/ and clubbed her over and over, in the light of the barking neon sign which flickered oh so gaily/, the sugar cone..stood upon her nose,/ vanilla turned to strawberry…” –  So that was a funny and unexpected piece of intelligence and (a) jump. [to JS] -Were you doing that deliberately? Parodying the old..? What was interesting was.. it was a..  the maniacal behavior of some of the early ballad heroes. What he did was quite interesting – an imaginative jump in making it up into a (tabloid) newspaper-mania hero of nowadays, and (in so doing) actually casting a little hindsight light on ancient ballads. Maybe that’s what they were like, just sort of like (stories about) the local axe-murderer

(GS) (another student) – there was one really interesting strange paragraph – “Barber shops closed and gone,/ No one is left in town/ Squad cars are hanging around dead poetry” – That’s odd. (And for) the rhyme (it) would be – “Hearing dogs bark on country roads,/ Children on momma’s knee/ Sleeping so tranquil-ly/, Far from the pain,/ Barber shops closed and gone,/ No one is left in town / Squad cars are hanging around dead poetry”  – That’s sort of Surrealist, almost – “Squad cars hanging around dead poetry” – How’d you get to that? – “Squad cars hanging around dead poetry”?

Student (GS): Yeah, well, that was like the town. The town was like a poem. This town that I was thinking of, it was just a dead, small Southern town and I was just thinking about it.

AG: Well, anyway, I like that – that one. Also – “Spermy wet streets in the blind mossy delta” – “Spermy wet streets” is pretty interesting – “Man, do you need me? I play Satan’s trombone/ Try over there at the Green Castle Bar/ Spermy wet streets in the blind mossy delta/ Cursing alone in the fog, Smashing his horn calling God” – You can sing these, I guess,

Student (GS); Yes

AG: I’m just picking out the mot juste or whatever it is, the little “cooked diamond” –“cooked diamond” – So do you now where (the phrase) “cooked diamonds” comes from?  I should have brought it in.  There’s a 14th century Indian saint-poet… ”Cooked diamonds” is a phrase I used in the (NAROPA) catalog to describe th(is) course – exaggeration, just advertising (but) apparently, it worked!  – Swami Muktananda, who’s a present-day kundaliniswami, wandering around (his lineage goes back to Jnaneshwar, a medieval 14th Century, 13th-14th Century Indian poet). There’s a famous quatrain about Muktananda’s lineage and the poet-saints of the era, which is Nivrutanath(the name of the earlier teacher) wove a garland of smells… Nivrutanath presented a garland of smells, his disciple boiled up the odor of pearls. Muktabaifed herself on cooked diamonds. The secret of all three has come into my hands. So says Changdev” – which is sort of his poetic lineage or his yogi lineage – but I liked that Muktabai “fed herself on cooked diamonds”.

KVS (another student)  had a weird semi-political ballad that had one interesting stanza – “The hungry came, they weren’t afraid./ They swallowed both line and string./ Shit was nothing to them after Nixon and Stans./ They could stomach almost anything.”  – Of course it makes more sense in context but just “Shit was nothing to them after Nixon and Stans./ They could stomach almost anything”, actually, is more trippingly…

MC (another student) had a ballad of  John Dillinger. I guess picking up from the outlaw ballads.. Was that after Ramblin’ Jack Elliott’s thing?

Student (MC): Yes

AG: [begins reading] – “John Dillinger, John Dillinger, potatoes and iodine” – Pretty strange! – “John Dillinger, John Dillinger, potatoes and iodine./ The states roll by, the Feds are near, they cross the Arkansas line./ John Dillinger, John Dillinger laid him down with a gun/ for a depressed bank in Oh-hi-oh, for every ass to run./ The dust bowl blows the weeds away/ feeding the dirty rich/ The farmers’ love and Hoover’s hate/ They’ll find you in a ditch./  John Dillinger, John Dillinger, beware the biograph/ the money’s gone, the friends are few/ beware a woman’s wrath”…”John Dillinger, John Dillinger, the men line up for bread/ drunk and in love in i-Oh-Way/ soon you will be dead” – Actually, I left some stanzas out, but I thought those were the good stanzas there.

CG (another student) – “Burlap to cover the head of this child” is a funny line in the middle of the poem. “Injurious thoughts from his forehead so mild/Burlap to cover the head of this child/But among the street’s darkness and the blue hunter’s call/ I’ll be with the masons and the travelers all” – I thought that was the “cooked diamond” from that poem, a ballad.

CM (another student) – I re-wrote a couple of lines – “Fire raging up in high forest” – “Fire raging up in high forest” instead of “Fire up in raging forest high”. No need. You can just say “Fire raging up in high forest” in the normal order of speech. “Up back the mountain crest./ full moon arise,/ wind blows hard,/ we try to get our rest.” What I did was simply cut out some extra syllables, that made sense. Instead of “of “Fire up in raging forest high”, “Fire raging up in high forest”, the way you’d say it. – “Try to get our rest tonight,/ howling wind blows,/ forest fire moon’s bright,/ where my shadow goes” – instead of “we are pacing to and fro”.. We’ll go over it sometime. I (actually) re-wrote a whole bunch of this.

ML (yet another student) had “a vulgar Marxist ballad” (it was called “Vulgar Marxist Ballad”!), which had, I thought, a couple of good lines in it, but the best lines I thought were – “Your terms and definitions give the working man a thrill,/ Bestow your pamphlets on him and he’ll be working still.” The rest of it is not bad but that one little thing, “Bestow your pamphlets on him”, is pretty funny, because everybody is handing out pamphlets. It’s really just the archaic, “Bestow your pamphlets on him” -“Your terms and definitions give the working man a thrill/ Bestow your pamphlets on him and he’ll be working still.”

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