AG: We were onto the subject of time and breath and (now) I want to skip a couple of centuries and shift to (Percy Bysshe) Shelley, to hear another kind of breath. (Also, I should say, as far as I know, I will be staying here until the end of the session. I won’t be here in the second session, (or I certainly won’t be teaching in the second session, because I’ll be called home. My father isn’t in such good shape, but I don’t have to rush home now, so I’ll be here teaching). [Allen, as it happened, was indeed called away. He was at Naropa, teaching, when his father passed away, on July 8, 1976 – On his flight back to New Jersey, he wrote the immortal “Father Death Blues” – “Hey Father Death, I’m flying home/ Hey poor man, you’re all alone/Hey old daddy, I know where I’m going..” ]
So now I want to get into some longer breath (since I’m established here and not running away). There are a couple of poems of Shelley’s that I’d like to lay out. Now how many have read Shelley here? Lets see, we have, it says, in the class, forty. Forty have read Shelley. How many have not read Shelley? – Great – As long as there’s some new ears that’s the best. How many here (of the 40) have read The “Hymn To Intellectual Beauty“? – How many have not read that? — “Hymn To Intellectual Beauty”? – Okay – And how many have read the “Ode To The West Wind”? – So that’s the most famous poem around. How many have heard the “Ode To The West Wind” read aloud? vocalized? Who did it? Who’s reading all that (aside from me)?
Student: Didn’t we read it here last year?
AG: Yeah. Well, in the class we did, I read it, Gregory Corso read it, W.S.Merwin read it, and Anne Waldman read it, in one classroom..
So..yeah..we’re dealing with time and the rests, which have an emotional quality, because they relate to the breath and the halts in the breath, and the sudden stoppings of breath, or impulses of breath – the tones which are carried on the breath, where they’re sincere syllables to intone, where they’re sincere syllables to intone. We were dealing with the smaller pieces, smaller constructions of breath, but then with the Romantics, we have a longer, or a more dazzling or longer inspiration, (meaning breath). So poetic inspiration has to do, literally, with breathing. That old hackneyed word – inspiration. There are a few poets who have that ecstatic inspiration articulated in their poems (and manifest-able, in the sense that anybody who will pronounce the sentences that they’ve written down, following their own score of time – by punctuation – commas, periods, exclamation points – following their punctuation, anybody who’s willing to open themselves up and vocalize it, can get into that, or a similar state, of ecstasy. So it’s like an ecstasy-machine of language, because it works on the nervous system, through the breath. What you’re doing is reproducing the breathing of the poet in his state of ecstasy, as he’s arranged his breathing for you to breathe it. So, in a sense, his spirit (breath – spirit, somewhere in its Indo-European root, has something to do with breath, the poet’s breath)..
Student: Spirit – to inspire.
AG: Yeah, inspire, spirit. The poet’s spirit is actually then, in a way, if not eternal, immortal (in the sense of it passing from body-to-body), it can be passed from body-to-body – that spirit, or that breath, or that inspiration, or spirit, that exact spirit, that measured spirit, that spirit measured to ecstasy, can be passed body-to-body.
There are a few poems that exemplify that out of Shelley. It’s a quality you get a little bit in (Edgar Allan) Poe, you get a little bit of it in Hart Crane, there’s some in (William) Wordsworth, there’s some in some of the earlier poets that I’ve skipped over, like (Henry) Vaughan and (Thomas) Traherne, a little in (John) Milton. Actually, almost any poet has a little of it and you can get it in a little form, like that really mournful “Go, lovely rose!” – that’s really a terrific thing if it can (be) put into a small form. Sometimes it needs a little more breathing, like hyperventilation. “Hymn To Intellectual Beauty” – “Beauty perceived not by the senses but by spiritual illumination”, says the footnote. [Allen proceeds to read all seven stanzas of Shelley’s “Hymn To Intellectual Beauty” – “The awful shadow of some unseen Power..”…”Whom Spirit fair, thy spells did bind/ To fear himself and love all human kind”] – That’s Shelley in 1817, at the age of 25. And at the age of 28, (let’s see, born 1792, so at the age of 28, he died at 30, so, two years before he died) is the “Ode To The West Wind”, which is in a later tradition of (Arthur) Rimbaud, Jimmy Dean, self-dissolution, suicide-rhapsody, suicide-prophecy, at the same time, triumphant penetration through time with his intellect and with his rhythm and breath, or spirit, or inspiration. [Allen begins by surveying the notes] – Let’s see, a “clarion” (“Her clarion o’er the dreaming earth”) is a melodious trumpet-call, as in a battle, “Maenad” (“Of some fierce Maenad”), for those who don’t know, they’re frenzied dancers, worshippers of the drunken drinking god Dionysus, god of wine and fertility – “maenads” are mentioned, “Baiae” – B-A-I-A-E (“Beside a pumice isle in Baiae’s bay”) – Baiae Bay is a bay outside of Naples – very pure blue water – the Cumaean Sibyl, the Sibyl of Cumae, had her cave near Baiae’s Bay. It’s outside of Naples, a little north of Naples, very blue water. Near Capri, the island of Capri is nearby. And he mentions a “lyre” (“Make me thy lyre..”) which is a small harp, traditionally used to accompany songs and recited poems and poems which are recited. So it ends with a lyre. The “Ode To The West Wind” has always been considered, like, the (best) apologia for poetry, or a romantically perfect demonstration of inspiration. So this is an “Ode To The West Wind”. [Allen begins with the opening line] – “O wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn’s being” – So he begins with breath, notice. And it’s about breath, so it’s about inspiration. The poem is, in itself, about itself – Or the speaker is writing about his own spirit, or it is spirit writing about spirit, or it is breath on the subject of breath, or inspiration on the subject of inspiration. The “West Wind”, wind of change, of Autumn, beginning of decay and Winter, wind coming from the West, from autumnal cold. [Allen then proceeds to recite the whole poem, all five sections, in its entirety – “O wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn’s being”...”The trumpet of prophecy! O Wind,/ If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?”] – I think he made it. Because there have been so many voices after him who walked underneath the Tower of London, or the Brooklyn Bridge, or at Stonehenge, saying “Make me thy lyre, even as the forest is”, that self-immolation into the breath, that actually his voice has re-echoed over and over again and that particular ecstatic entry into inspiration has repeated itself over and over wherever the poem is read aloud with any kind of breathing equivalent to the lines. It’s a little bit different each time you read it, but it’s worth going (to) a solitary place, on a bridge, or on a beach, where you can’t be heard, and trying to read that, and get(ting) to that line, “Make me thy lyre, even as the forest is/ What if my leaves are falling like its own”, and you’ll be the forest!
His best-known poem is “Adonais”. Well, maybe not his best-known, but the solidest, the most solidly-known poem is “Adonais”, and, actually, it would be worth reading the entire text of “Adonais”, but it takes about twenty minutes and we don’t have that time. (But) it would be an interesting thing to do. I’ve done it a few times, and what I’d like to do is just read a piece of it, toward the end, and then compare it with one other American writer from the (19)20’s/(19)30’s, who is one of the rare Americans who could also build a mighty organ-like, doom-like, choir-ing stanza, like Shelley, Hart Crane. “Adonais: is Shelley’s elegy for John Keats, a younger friend, poet. So I’ll read the 47th to the 55th verses. Well, it’s too good to skip, actually.. Maybe I’ll start it from the 41st..I could go back to the 39th – “Peace, peace! he is not dead, he doth not sleep..” – 40th – “He has outsoared the shadow of our night” – 41st verse – “He lives, he wakes – ’tis Death is dead, not he/ Mourn not for Adonais..” – 42 [Allen, at this point, picks up Shelley’s “Adonais” and reads it through to the end – “The soul of Adonais, like a star/ Beacons from the abode where the Eternal are”] – Do you have the Hart Crane? Does somebody have a copy of Crane? Well, we could examine references and the ideas, like the young kid Thomas Chatterton, who was a poet-suicide. But what I want to do, while we’re in this field of inspiration, (is to) read from Hart Crane. If you have time, we’ll run over, maybe five minutes, the last stanzas of his long poem, “The Bridge”, called “Atlantis” (The whole poem, “The Bridge”, begins with a quote from Shelley, actually – so Hart Crane was turned on to Percy Bysshe Shelley also). To make it clear – you don’t have to follow the meaning here. just the sound and the ecstasy, because it’s a very complicated poem (complicated, in the sense that he was really hung up on it, and he put into (it) everything he could think of, and made all the words totally dense, so it would be like iron ringing on iron from vowel to vowel). It’s called “Atlantis”, so it’s like an ideal land, or a vision of a universal harmony force-field. The image that he uses to locate it is Brooklyn Bridge, which looks like a harp, because of all the strings, or like an altar, to him (and those are the main images). The whole section of the poem is building, superimposing different images of perfection, music, natural seasons, cycles of seasons, prayers, harps and altars, on the image of the Brooklyn Bridge, which is supposed to bridge, (to) be the bridge between the past and the future in this industrial age, the bridge to some divine idealistic Whitmanic futurity. Mainly, actually, finally, music is the answer here. And he has a quotation from Plato at the beginning – “Music is then the knowledge of that which relates to love in harmony and system”. [Allen proceeds to read from Hart Crane – “Through the bound cable strands, the arching path/Upward, veering with light, the flight of strings – /Taut miles of shuttling moonlight syncopate/The whispered rush, telepathy of wires..”…”Now pity steeps the grass and rainbows ring/ The serpent with the eagle in the leaves…?/ Whispers antiphonal in azure swing”.