Spontaneous Poetics – (Universal and Particular)

William Blake – Albion Rose from “A Large Book of Designs” (1793-6)

“..everyone has language moving within them, everybody has secret thoughts and direct, absolute, perceptions, big as any Buddha. It’s simply that the mind becomes limited to thinking that the proper mode of discourse, or the form that is socially appreciable, is “Jack and Jill went up the hill..”

AG: So, from this point of view, everyone is, as (William) Blake says), a vast world of thought-forms, everybody’s a poet, that is, everybody has a consciousness, a Buddha-mind, everyone has a Buddha-nature, everyone has all the insights of a living mammal, with language and picture-senses and smell. That’s why I kind of like crude poets, accidental poets, primitive poets. Marsden Hartley, a friend of William Carlos Williams – a painter, really, but he wrote down his ideas and thoughts and they’re really pretty, and they’re solid, and they’re as good as anyone else’s poetry. That’s why everyone admires children’s poetry, because it’s so magical. The question is really, more, how can you teach people to observe their own mind? – or respect their own mind (rather than respecting a form imposed on the mind as being the only proper form that they can show)?. But also, how to get people to see their own mind clearly, without the intervention of self-consciousness – and “I am writing a poem about a poem. Here I am, writing a poem” – but actually reflect on the page, or in speech, the inner thoughts that they have, the secret thoughts, often shameful, often embarrassing, the raw perceptions (what Shakespeare‘s composed of is all raw perceptions) – Vast.

So everybody’s a poet, really. And the teaching of poetics, then, converges on the teaching of mindfulness and observation of one’s own original mind, going through all the layers of appearance and getting back to first thoughts, then getting beyond even first thoughts to states of consciousness which are outside of concepts and thought. And then formulating words to refer to those states of consciousness. So, in a funny way, the arrival of Williams on the scene, Gertrude Stein, and other 20th Century poets who had a relativistic notion of the mind (rather than an old, square, fixed, rigid, authoritarian, absolute, notion), was the introduction of democratic poetics (following Whitman), because it was a recognition that mind everywhere is a vast and fit subject.

Student: (You’ve been stressing) the notion of how universal poetry tends to be, but I was thinking that, does not the imagery that goes with human words change with every generation and the years?

AG: Yeah, out of our environment, out of our loves, out of television, or radio, or movies (whichever you’re exposed to), or nature.

Student: So, in a sense, isn’t it rather difficult to capture universality, or the universe as it should be, a key point of a great poem?

AG: Well, that’s introducing a whole other theoretical problem – What’s universal and what’s particular?

Student: Yeah.

AG: Well, we might as well get onto it. It’s certainly a divigation, a little digression, but it fits. There is a way of seeing the particular as universal. “To hold infinity in the palm of (the) hand” – what’s the Blake line?

Student: “To see a world in a grain of sand.. infinity.. in an hour”

AG: What is it again? “To hold..”?

Student: “To see infinity in a grain of sand.. “, something like that.

AG: “To hold “something” in the palm of your hand..”

Student: “To see the world in a grain of sand, eternity in an hour/A universe in the palm of your hand..” – that’s two lines. [Editorial note: the correct lines are a quatrain, the opening of “Auguries of Innocence” – “To see a World in a Grain of Sand/ And a Heaven in a Wild Flower/Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand/And Eternity in an hour.”]

G: What Blakeans we are! – Well, ok – do you know that line from Blake?.. do you know those lines from Blake?.. They’re interesting. They refer to this. There’s a school of thought which says that each event in the universe is unique, individual and, only if reproduced artfully, with its own freshness, can it be universal – that if you try to generalize from the beginning, you’ll wind up with a lot of vapid, airy, generalizations. And you can’t write about “the stars”. You can go out one night and see a glitter in Orion’s belt, or see a constellation hanging over Nebraska, and that’s universal. But it’s got to be – over Nebraska – particular, otherwise it isn’t universal. If it’s just the stars in the abstract you don’t even see them, so it’s not a living experience, it’s not an instance in time actually observed. Only instances in time actually observed are universal, if you want to say so (if you don’t want to say so, you can argue forever, but you’ll be arguing in a world of abstractions). So Williams tried to make his poetics out of particular details. Blake also spoke of “minute particulars” as being the necessary parts, (the) units of poetics. (Labour well the Minute Particulars: attend to the Little Ones) “Minute particulars” – meaning, directly observable things, things that he actually saw (there) – “The grass spears, cradling a white-walled dewdrop” – [Editorial note – this Blakean, Whitmanian construction appears to be Ginsberg’s own] – “a white-walled dewdrop”? – now, you wouldn’t know about that unless you actually looked at one single, specific dewdrop and saw that it had white walls in certain light. It’s no point talking about dewdrops if you can’t talk about a “white-walled” dewdrop. And that’s very specific. But, at the same time, it’s universal. Right? Wrong? In other words, totally subjective is totally objective, total subjectivity is total objectivity. Or I should say, actual subjectivity (where a subject you actually see and think (is) inside you). That’s not a circular reasoning abstraction. Something you notice is universal once you lay it out. Some thing (sic) is universal. As long as there’s a real thing out there.

There’s another phrase (by (Charles) Olson) – “Private is public. Public is how we behave”. [Editorial note – Allen, perhaps?, is here alluding to the opening of “Projective Verse” – Olson’s “the-private-soul-at-any-public-wall”?] I don’t know how you make that connection, but.. as opposed to the abstract hypocrisy of television politics, where everything is first determined by market-research analysis to what the public wants, what images are wanted by the public, and then packaged together by advertising speech-writers to present (to) the public what it wants to hear – (Richard) Nixon talking about his big toe! – I think it’s primarily a verbal problem rather than an actual problem. Once you get the word “universal” set up in your brain – and the word… what was the alternative?.. “particular”? set up in your brain, and see them as polarities, (then), naturally, you set up a division. But in any great poem (as in Wordsworthwhere you have him seeing a star-shaped shadow of a blossom cast on stone – that’s one particular flower he looked at so closely (that) he saw its shadow, star-shaped, cast on a stone. And that also feels universal, because you’ve created the whole field – the man walking in the field, the man looking with microscopic observation at the tiny shadow of a flower on the stone, the vast space of the sky, the clarity of the sky, and the clear sun, which, shining on so small a thing as a flower, makes a very definite-shaped shadow, star-shaped, which the guy notices with his eyeball. So he’s created the whole universe of space by implication, that is, the field, the sun, the cloudless sky, with a clear sun, casting a specific shadow on a specific flower). Well, that’s just Wordsworth, one time, one moment, walking in a field and he saw that one thing. What was he going to do? Say, “Well, I just saw this once now. It’s real private to me and it’s not universal. I think I’ll write about the Flowers (with a capital “F”) and make it universal”. There’s a whole school of poets that wrote about the Flowers, up until the 19th Century, until everyone began vomiting, they couldn’t take it anymore!

The same thing applies to specific rhythms or divisions of thought, or divisions of speech, on the page. The peculiarities, “counter-spare, original and strange” of the speech, or the way thoughts arrive in the mind, the sequence that they arrive in the mind, which, when put down on the page, though they are specific to that moment, particular to that person’s body and operations of his mind, and the operations of his life, nevertheless, because they’re solid facts of physiology and mind-consciousness, because they are solid events in time, they are also universal, because they’re as universal as any single leaf from any tree (and you can’t say “that leaf there is that shape, that form of that leaf is particular, and so it’s not universal, and that leaf over there is universal”). So a thought is no different to a leaf , and a phrase is no different from a branch. It’s the growth of the moment of the season, but it exists completely, so there is no question of “particular” or “universal”. It’s there in the universe. And if it’s there in the universe, it’s there in the universe.. I.. I’m sorry..

Student: Yeah, I was going to say (that) it (is) still something that has something to do with the way Wordsworth’s mind saw that flower and stone, because, if you read a newspaper, it’s nothing but particulars, day after day after day, and it’s very non-universal.

AG: Oddly enough, newspaper writing is very, very generalized and abstracted (and that’s what’s wrong with it, actually). I used to be a newspaper writer, and, first of all, it’s not particular, in the sense that the news-man writes what occurs to his mind, as it occurs, in the order of importance that it may occur to him. I’ll read stories about the CIA, full of facts, by Seymour Hersch in the New York Times. Generally, the most important information is in the last paragraph – i.e, as I remember, one of the biggest stories.. the responsible agencies within the CIA.. agreed that the analysis of the CIA (drug traffic) in Indo-China.. as presented by the book, The Politics of Heroin in Indo-China, Harper and Row [Allen is referring to Alfred McCoy’s 1972 book, The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia here] inside sources agreed that it was essentially correct. The headline and the lead paragraph (in the New York Times) was “CIA Denies Involved In Dope Smuggling”. So the very nature of news writing tends to put it into sub-head and then lead paragraph and then subsidiary paragraphs, and there’s a stereotyping in style. Then, once in a while, you get a real drunken macho breakthrough writer who’ll start off the story with some real facts –
“A grey-haired woman escaping from the burning red flames screamed “ouch” today, as..” And everybody the City Desk will say, “Great writing! We need some more poetry like that around here” And it’s refreshing when they do do that, but it’s an exception to the rule when you get a really good writer who actually lays down some facts in his news story. They’re not facts, they’re generalizations, generally, in news stories, I would say. I don’t have any newspapers around to do an instant analysis, but I thought about it a lot when I was a newsman, or when I was working on newspapers, and the facts are the facts – like “1416 Milvia Street”, (1624 Milvia?), rather than “the bushy-sprouted front-lawn house with the cracked window and candle in the upper-balcony attic”. They’re not the visual facts that strike the human observer, they’re the facts as processed by certain conventions – name, date.. Just the very idea of “how? what? why?”, or, “what (are) the first facts?” – the newspaper-man’s formula..

Student: “Who?, what?, where?, when?, why?”

AG: “Who?, what?, where?, when?, why?” – that already gets into a rigid stream of thought, which may be totally different from the crazy jagged impressions of the reporter when he’s on the murder-scene. He may be startled by the sparrows singing on the bough above the body of the dead man, but that’s not in the head-line. Excerpt from the Daily News, with a special reporter – “Sparrows were singing on the bough above the body of the dead man when police arrived at 4 a.m. to find the body of William Colby Jr [sic] in his out-house in Lexington, Virginia”, or whatever… [Editorial note, Allen might have been curiously prescient in his choice of the death of CIA chief, Colby, as his faux-journalist example here. Colby’s death, twenty years later, in what was officially put down as a boating accident, was indeed the subject of considerable journalistic interest, speculation and investigation].

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