Spontaneous Poetics – (Ballads)

Walter Ralegh (1554-1618) aged 34 – portrait via National Portrait Gallery

Allen’s Spontaneous Poetry (Ballads) lectures, given at the Naropa Institute, Boulder, Colorado, in July and August of 1976, continue. This particular section continues the June 16 class.

AG:  “The Lie” by Sir Walter Ralegh – Moving now from ballad to song, staying around the same time. We’re still before and after Shakespeare. There are a number of classical pieces of rhythm and imagery that those of you who are interested in poetry  just as beaming mind-eye movies should know. And those of you who are writing songs (and there (are), apparently, a couple of people here who are involved in song-making and playing music, should know. You know all the modern material – the Dylan and Donovan, or (and) actually some great Beatles lyrics, because I think the “Day in the Life” of.. by (John) Lennon and (Paul) McCartney (I guess they both composed that) is a great poem, I think, in the line of Apollinaire’s “Zone”. If any of you don’t know Apollinaire’s “Zone” you might check that out in the library – (seminal) twentieth-century poem. But back to Walter Ralegh  [Allen reads the whole of Sir Walter Ralegh’s poem, “The Lie”] – “Go soul, the body’s guest,/ Upon a thankless errand;/ Fear not to touch the best;/ The truth shall be thy warrant/ Go, since I needs must die,/ And give the world the lie..”… “So when thou hast, as I/ Commanded thee, done blabbing -/ Although to give the lie/ Deserves no less than stabbing -/ Stab at thee he that will,/ No stab the soul can kill” – That’s pretty good music, actually, that refrain.

Student: What’s the metric structure of that, those lines?

AG: God. Well, let’s see. Sir Walter Ralegh  – what would he have done? The one that’s most interesting to me. Let’s see. What’s the archetypal one here – “Tell zeal it wants devotion” – well, you could say “tell ZEAL it WANTS deVO-TION. Tell LOVE it IS but LUST. tell TIME it IS but MOTION. tell FLESH it IS but DUST.” You all know how to make those little marks? (stresses)? Does everyone here know how to make light and sharp? Does anybody here not know how to make a paradigm of a line, how to make those light and heavy accent marks? Does anybody here not know that? How many? Come on, raise your hands if you don’t. I mean, I don’t know how. And how many do know all that? [show of hands] – Yeah. So most do. Well, if we were.. did we ever get  (to) any of that? Yeah. It’s just like beating time. [Allen reads a stanza from the poem, (again) emphasizing the stresses] – “Tell zeal it wants devotion;/ Tell love it is but lust/ Tell time it is but motion;/ Tell flesh it is but dust/ And wish them not reply/ For thou must give the lie.” – So these are the light..heavy. So it varies. Duh-dah, duh-dah duh-dah-dah, duh-dah, duh-dah duh dah duh-dah-dah; duh-dah, duh-dah duh-dah; duh-dah, duh-dah, duh-dah. Duh-dah, duh-dah, duh-dah

Student: Like eighth notes. Like eighth notes joined together. Bebop.

Sidney Lanier (1842-1881)

AG: Actually, I don’t know the equivalence in music, but there’s an interesting essay by Sidney Lanier, (who was a flutist, a great flutist), called “The Science of Poetry”… by Sidney Lanier.. [perhaps Allen is referring here to his 1880 “The Science of English Verse”? – editor’s note]  I forgot. [or perhaps (more likely? to the posthumously-published “Music and Poetry: Essays Upon Some Aspects and Inter-Relations of the Two Arts” (1898)?]    He was a 19th century American classical musician, a great poet, a great ear, and in fact I think I have some of his stuff around in the library, Lanier..

Student: What was the book called again?

AG: The Science of Poetry, is it? I got a book in the library that.. is it The Science of Poetry by Lanier?  How do you know Lanier?

Student: Someone else mentioned that book to me recently, that’s all I know. And I’ve seen some of his poems.

AG: “The Song of The Chattahoochee”. Maybe I’ll get that out. He’s such a musician. I think he’s written a long essay on music in poetry and the equivalent – trying to find the equivalencies between the accentual markings and musical timing.

Student: So would “The Lie” be sung like the one and four or five type chord-trip, like you were saying?

AG: Well. You could. You could sing it, actually. You could probably do a three-chord shot. Let’s see. The only thing to remember is that in those days they were still aware of quantitative time – the length of the vowel – and there was a little element of vowel-length in their ears too, which is something we haven’t discussed, (but) which some people here know. How many here know quantitative prosody? And how many do not? [meager show of hands] So most don’t. So we’ve got to talk about it, even if… is that a bore? – quantitative – to talk about.? I don’t know. We’ll get to it. I don’t know. Do you know anything about it? Does anybody here know it well? Know it down? Where is (GT – one student)?

GT:  Here

AG: Could you please recite some Homer in Greek? Maybe over here so it goes over the microphone. Homer is quantitative – that is, the length of vowels and the vowel tones. The length of vowels is what’s (being measured), instead of accents being counted, it’s the vowel-length and vowel tones. This is what (Ezra) Pound was into. He was a Homer freak. [GT then begins to read the opening lines of The Iliad in the original Greek] –

AG: Okay, now slower.

[GT continues and is met with rapturous applause!]

AG: You don’t need to applaud when somebody recites a poem, it’s a class! – It’s encouraging, it’s encouraging, but I get embarrassed that sometime it’ll turn into a trained-dog, or trained-seal, act!

GT: You can do it a lot of different ways.

AG: No, wait, wait, wait. First line is what?

GT: “Menin aeide, thea, Peleiadeo Achileos” [sounds it out phonetically]:  “Main-in-Ide-uh Thay-ah, Pay-lay-ee-ah-de-oh Ach-ee-lay-os”

AG: Okay, now wait a minute.

[AG & GT sound it out together] –  “Main-in – Ide-uh Thay-ah, Pay-lay-ee-ah-de-oh Ach-ee-lay-os”

AG: Okay, now if you can pronounce the thing slowly, emphasizing the vowels. Not just.. In other words, don’t emphasize necessarily the accents, but dwell on the mouth, the vowels.

GT [attempting to follow Allen’s advice]: “Main-in- Ide-uh Thay-ah, Pay-lay-ee-ah-de-oh Ach-ee-layos – Is that what you mean?

AG: Yeah. I think that’s more like it’s supposed to be, isn’t it? Probably it was chanted to begin with.

GT: Yeah

[AG sings/chants “Menin aeide, thea, Peleiadeo Achileos“]

GT: You can do it. Nobody knows how it was supposed to be.

AG: Yeah

GT: So I just felt like doing it that way. I could also do it totally different.

AG: Well, I wanted it slowed down.

George: Oh, okay. I can do that.

AG: But the whole point was (the) vowels. Well, hang around. As (GT) said, nobody knows how ancient Greek was pronounced (and that’s been a big argument among classical scholars). An interesting problem, because these marks that we have here, for light and heavy accents, are originally adopted by the classically-trained British-English poets and scholars. They were adapted from Greek and Latin quantitative vowel-length-measured markings for lines. So we took over the structure of count, the marking structure and the names of the feet, I believe, but we changed it from counting vowel-lengths to [Allen emphasizes through stress] – count-ing vow-el length. Counting the stress. Change(d) it from counting vowels to counting stress and things got kinda fucked up from then on, according to Ezra Pound. Because, once we began counting just stress, we lost the subtlety of (the) music for one thing. We lost the subtlety of tones of the vowels, which is (a) recurring footnote (to) what I said about Pound’s preface to Basil Bunting – that a modern American poet should follow the tone-leading of the vowels too. (They) should be conscious of the musical tones of the vowels, so that you can compose with music in your ear, a bit, conscious of dwelling on vowel-length. What is Homer, six?

GT: Dactylic hexameter

AG: Dactylic is six?

GT: Yeah

AG: Hexameter is six, Dactylic is..?

GT: I don’t know. Someone told me..

AG: What was Dactylic again?

Student: Like either three shorts and a long, or two longs.

AG: Ah

Student: Yeah, that’s right. Yeah you got it. It has a certain thing it can go..He has a thing like dah-duh-duh-dah dah dah – like “Main-in – Ide-uh Thay-ah, Pay-lay-ee-ah-de-oh Ach-ee-lay-os”  – See, it’s just like playing (raga music), you just hear the note underneath going all the time. The last one can be short or long. It doesn’t matter too much.

AG: Do you know Greek also?

Student: I studied it for a while. There’s also a theory…

AG: Can you recite a little Homer?

Student: Well mainly all I can recite is what he just recited.

AG: Well, I’d rather hear (it in) a different voice. I mean he’s (GT’s) so young and eager and over-nervous about it that you couldn’t tell anything actually, except you get some sense, but you sound more stable with your vowels. Could you record it? Could you come over (here) and record it for the mike?

Student: Well..

AG: I know a smidgen of Latin quantity. Stick around.

Student: I wish we had the book!

AG: What are you reciting from? Homer?

Student: It’s the first line in The Iliad – “Sing wrath, Goddess, the baleful wrath of Achilles, Peleus’ son, etcetera, etcetera..   and Leda‘s in there…all sorts of stuff..

AG: “Sing, O Muse..”

Student: “Menin” is wrath. It’s really important where the words are. [he continues] –
“Main-in – Ide-uh Thay-ah, Pay-lay-ee-ah-de-oh Ach-ee-lay-os”.

GT: “Of Achilles’ wrath sing through me, Goddess, Muse” –  Pay-lay-ee-ah-do-ah Ach-ee-lay-os” – “Achilles, the son of Peleus..”  wait a minute.. [Student & GT together work out the first several lines in Greek]

GT: “Aidi proiapsen/heroon” – “were thrown down into Hades” – See, the way the words…

Student: “And eaten by dogs” (“heloria teuche kunessin”)  – It’d be like…

AG: But the sound, just the sound. We’re after the sound.

Student: There’s also a theory that the individual accent marks (like, it’s disputed, but), that each individual accent mark on the vowels had a tonal value..

AG: Yes! That’s what we’re talking about. The tone leading to…

Student: So this was unrelated to how long the thing was, but..

AG: Yeah.

Student: ..so that it would actually..  be sung then?

AG: Yes. It was both a musical..  the tonal and the length of the vowels that were being used as some measure of the line.. No the tones, certain tonal patterns, would be repeated, as well as length patterns. Pound, in 1910 0r so, realizing that this quality of measurement in poetry had been lost, that people had lost their ear for this, through so much practice of accent, said that he thought that ultimately the American poetics would have to develop into an approximation of classical quantity. In other words, that poets should be working in the direction of getting more and more sensitive to hearing the length of vowels. (And) I would say Bob Dylan is actually doing that (not because of Pound, simply because he’s got a great ear and he knows – “How does it fEEEEEl !” – the extension of the vowel-length in Dylan’s singing is amazing). And his consciousness of vowel pronunciation is terrific, as well as his awareness of consonants. He pronounces to a “t” (that’s the secret to his oratory, that he actually does pronounce for 27,000 people to hear at once – so you have to pronounce it with each vowel spoken and each “k” clucked). Pound’s favorite main-man for  vowel-length was Catullus. We have some Catullus in the library. Does anybody know Latin here? Does anybody know a little bit of Latin around (here)?

Student: Pig Latin?

AG: No Catullan Latin. Let’s see – “Malest Cornifici, tuo Catullo/malest, me hercule, et laboriose/ et magis magis in dies et horas./ quem tu quod minimum facillimumque est,/ qua solatus es allocutione?/ irascor tibi. sic meos amores?/ paulum quid  lubet allocutiones,/ maestius lacrimis Simonideis.” – It’s a little Catallus poem about his friend Simonides – “I’m sick, Cornificus, your old friend Catullus is sick and worse and worse by day by hour – “et magis magis” – worse, worse – magis magis in dies et horas” – worse and worse in days and hours – magis magis in dies et horas” – So the ear there is hearing maestius lacrimis Simonideis” – it’s the equivalent of magis magis in dies et horas” or  “Malest Cornifici, tuo Catullo”magis magis in dies et horas” – What’s being neasured is the vowel-lengths. A couple of short vowels can make up and be one long one. In other words, “how does it fEEEEl!” – if you say “feel” long enough, then you could.. “What d’ya think?” – “Whatta ya think about that?” – “”how does it fEEEEl!” – They are roughly equivalent. “How….does….it…feel?”..”Whattayagoodboysand girlsthinkaboutthat?”- Well, I don’t know how many syllables but I you could say “What do you guys and gals think about that?”..”How does it feel?” – They are relatively equal. The measure there is relatively equal. You are substituting a lot of short vowels for three or four long ones. – That’s so imprecise it’s laughable, but anyway, it’ll suggest another direction of count. And if you’re a musician, you’ve got to listen.

Student: Can two people read/analyze a poem and come out with a whole different spec?

AG: Yeah. Some scholars do. But yeah..But, basically, it’s not that hard though. This kind of stuff is (actually) very easy.

Student: Allen?

AG: Yeah.. Oh, the reason I got onto this.. I’m sorry.. the reason..one moment..the reason I got into this was because the very first line of this poem, “The Lie”, is “Go, soul, the body’s guest”. It isn’t “Go soul the body’s guest”, it’s “Go, soul, the body’s guest”. So what I began by saying is that, in these days (those days) there still was an admixture of tension to the vowel-length in the ear. These people could all read Greek and Latin. Ralegh could read Greek and Latin. They were trained on it and they were trained on that hearing – and (Thomas) Campion, the musician, most of all, the lyricist Campion wrote exclusively by measuring vowel-length.

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