Allen Ginsberg on William Carlos Williams continues from here
AG: I would just like to read two short poems of (William Carlos) Williams that I think are crucial to this (discussion of “No ideas but in things”), and also intersect with Buddhist practice of sunyata breath, which the upstairs guru (Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche) discoursed on the other night. [Allen begins by reading Williams’ poem “Good Night“]
In brilliant gas light
I turn the kitchen spigot
and watch the water plash
into the clean white sink,
On the grooved drain-board
to one side is
a glass filled with parsley –
for the water to freshen –
I glance at the spotless floor – :
A pair of rubber sandals
lie side by side
under the wall-table
all is in order for the night.
Waiting, with a glass in my hand
– three girls in crimson satin
pass close before me on
the murmurous background of
the crowded opera –
memory playing the clown –
three vague, meaningless girls
full of smells and
the rustling sounds of
cloth rubbing on cloth and
little slippers on carpet –
spoken in a loud voice!
Parsley in a glass,
still and shining,
brings me back. I take a drink
and yawn deliciously
I am ready for bed.
AG: So he’s explained the whole process actually, there. He demonstrated the process of focusing where the eye hits, on the object that the eye hits, locating himself, daydreaming off, coming back, recognizing the daydream, coming back with some humor, realizing what he’s done – “Parsley in a glass,/still and shining,/brings me back. I take a drink…” Now the greatest thing about this poem, I’ve found, is that ever since I read it and understood it I’ve never gone to the kitchen sink and turned on the water and waited for the water to freshen without being aware of waiting for the water to freshen. And I had done that all through my childhood and youth without noticing it, and almost everybody who ever hears this poem becomes more mindful, like a Zen master, of what he’s doing when he turns on the water.
Student: What’s the name of that?
AG: It’s called “Good Night” – Good night, Good night. Yeah
Student: Do you have any.. can you explain why the mundaneness is interesting in that and not (just tedious and boring)?
AG: The mundaneness is interesting, to me, because it’s seen so clearly that it becomes.. “crisped green” (and) “still and shining”. The water glass suddenly becomes a totemic object. It becomes a symbol of itself, or, it becomes a symbol of his investment of attention into that object (your language, H. – [Allen alludes here to an earlier student question]) – The water glass becomes a symbol of the investment of his attention into that object, or it becomes a symbol of itself also. But it’s also just demonstrating the process. It’s just that it’s such a great demonstration of the process of someone being really right where he is and seeing something outside of himself objectively, really there, and because he sees it so clearly, because he’s not daydreaming while he’s looking, he notices what about the object shines, what’s particular about the object that can be written down in a word that would represent the object in the mind’s eye to the reader. In other words, seeing so clearly (not seeing it as “that’s a dirty old water glass that was manufactured by Hawkins Glass Company in Capitalism”, or something), he sees the object without associations, so to speak. He sees the object without associations. Like as if he’s just born. There’s the object, and he sees how peculiarly, particularly, itself the object is. And, actually, of course, that’s characteristic of visionary moments, really. You actually get visions this way by giving it up. You get supernatural vision by giving up supernatural vision and just looking at what’s in front of you. That’s the whole point. There’s no ideational screen, there’s no projection in front of you, you’re not projecting another (reality), you’re not superimposing another idea or other image on the image that’s already there. You’re actually seeing what’s there. That makes sense somewhat in Buddhist terms, I think – in Zen Buddhist terms. But to make sure that he is really a Buddhist, there is a poem, “Thursday”, which I’ll end this class on.
It’s 1924 or ‘(2)5.
[Allen reads William Carlos Williams’ “Thursday‘]:
I have had my dream – like others –
and it has come to nothing, so that
I remain now carelessly
with feet planted on the ground
and look up at the sky –
feeling my clothes about me,
the weight of my body in my shoes,
the rim of my hat, air passing in and out
at my nose – and decide to dream no more
So he finally got where the ancients got, which is close to the nose. I discovered this poem when I was trying to teach poetics in 1973 at the Naropa seminary, which was a totally Buddhist situation, and I always thought that Williams was somewhat Zen in his carefulness of attention, but when I came to that – “the rim of my hat, air passing in and out/ at my nose – and decide to dream no more.” – I realized that, in a sense, the theoretic Buddhism and practice we were doing and the American pragmatic practice had intersected, finally, and there was common ground. And that Williams, like the great simple-minded, home-spun, self-made “Murican [sic], had arrived at the same place that everybody else was studying, and had got there early and on his own, and so it reconfirmed my feeling that he was like some kind of saint of perception.
Student: Don’t you think you can also bring that mindfulness to the daydreams?
AG: Yes. Yes, you can bring mindfulness to daydream. You can bring mindfulness to philosophical abstraction. You can bring mindfulness to anger. You can bring mindfulness to rhapsody (you can bring mindfulness to suicide rhapsody even – but, say, for beginner’s practice, shunyata, as they call it, for beginner’s practice, it’s probably best to begin with the easiest exercise in the easiest place, which is right in front of us, right here.
Student: Did Williams impress you that way personally?
AG: Yeah. Personally, very much so. Very much so…
Yeah, I think.. It’s just that.. I think.. It’s rarely recognized where he begins, anyway. It’s rarely recognized how much he focuses, and where he begins, and I think it’s worthwhile just isolating it as totally mundane – and working with the mundane, working with just fact, just as a beginning, to understand his basic principle – and then extending it (as we have) – Well, you can be mindful about generalizations if you’re mindful about the particulars out of which you can roll up a sum of generalizations. I think that’s his phrase. The phrase comes in Paterson. [Allen reads the relevant lines – “Say it, no ideas but in things – / and factories crystallized from its force/ like ice from spray upon the chimney rocks.”/….”Say it! No ideas but in things. Mr/ Paterson has gone away/ to rest and write. Inside the bus one sees/ his thoughts sitting and standing.”] – “Say it, no ideas but in things – / and factories crystallized from its force/ like ice from spray upon the chimney rocks.” – “Say it! No ideas but in things. Mr/ Paterson has gone away/ to rest and write. Inside the bus one sees/ his thoughts sitting and standing. Say it no ideas besides the facts” – I mean he put it down really baldly, blatantly – “No ideas besides the facts”. He left out the word “things” finally – said “No ideas but the facts” – He did that repeatedly just to get the idea across. He meant something really simple finally, and I think it ought to be started on a simple level.
Student: Your suggestion is that the beginning meditator and the beginning poet concentrate on what’s there at (his/her) nose and maybe later something else?
(John) Ashbery is reading at the library now, so I’m going to go over there and dig his reading. Boulder Public Library, which is across the river and into the trees, Ninth and Canyon
[tape ends here]
to be continued