Spontaneous Poetics – (“This Is Just To Say”)

William Carlos Williams’ poem, “This Is Just To Say”, displayed as a tattoo

July 2, 1976, Allen’s summer lecture at Naropa continues 

AG: I’m going to continue with the different considerations of mindful arrangement of open verse forms, the original subject I was on before, which is how you arrange your mind on he page. We have covered the echo of syllabic count the impulse of accents, the tone-leading of the vowel, the breath-stop as a measurement of the line, measurement of units of phrasing from the mouth as a division of line, divisions of mental ideas (as parts of mental ideas or sub-vocal phrasing), sub-vocal phrasing in the mind as another standard of measure. You had your hand raised?

Student: Yeah, “units of phrasing”. Do you still.. Let’s say, if there’s a few phrases, and then a period down maybe five lines, is that all said in one breath?

AG: It depends on how you want to score it as a musician. You can take advantage of the line to score it to bre read in one or many breaths by indicating its space on the page, by, for instance, if it’d just one long thought with a period at the end, if you skip two lines, it means, obviously, you’ve got to have a pause. So you’re likely to take a breath. If you make it a run-on line, you can just make it run-on one single line and indent it, but if you’re dividing it at all, it’s a long line. If it’s a long phrase that’s divided into short pieces on a page, ending with a period, it’s a little ambiguous how you want it to be done, so we might, in America, begin developing standards for scoring the poems on the page by doing it mindfully.

Student: For instance, that poem by Williams about the plums and the ice-box..

AG: Yeah

Student: ..how do you do that, as far as breath?.. do you just..

AG: [Quoting, but slightly mis-remembering the poem] – “I have eaten..the plums..which you left in the icebox and were probably saving for breakfast. Forgive me. They were delicious. So sweet and so cold.” Do you remember the title of it? [“This Is Just To Say”] – I’ll see how he laid it out on the page – [consulting the book] – It’s in short lines..

Student: Yeah

AG: It can (conceivably) be done in one breath – “I have eaten the plums which you left in the icebox and were probably saving for breakfast. Forgive me. They were delicious. So sweet and so cold.” – (But) so it’s probably three breaths (if you were speaking it naturally)

Student: It’s called “This Is Just To Say”

AG: Ah, thank you – “This Is Just To Say..” – that’s the first line – “This Is Just To Say” – So let’s see how he did it – [Allen reads Williams’ poem, pausing, briefly, at the end of each line] – “I have eaten/ the plums/that were in/ the icebox and were probably saving for breakfast. Forgive me. They were delicious. So sweet and so cold.” – Now, I made slight hesitations at the end of each line, as he has it, and it seems to work out as speech – [Allen reads the poem again] – He’s divided it into four lines – four-line stanzas, four-line verses – and they seem generally to run long-short, long-short, long-short, long-short – [Allen reads the poem through a third time] – It seems some sort of opposition of slightly-longer/slightly-shorter, slightly-longer lines against slightly shorter, two long lines in each stanza against two shorter lines in each stanza. “I have eaten”, “that were in”, “you were probably”, “forgive me”, “for breakfast/they were delicious”, would be the long ones, “the plums”, “the icebox”, “and which”, “saving”, “so sweet/and so cold”, the short-ish lines. So there seems some consciousness of slightly-longer and slightly-shorter lines in the arrangement. There’s no punctuation at all. I think that was actually a note that he left to his wife, found in the morning, and decided it was a poem.

And he may have kept the original arrangement on a little piece of note-paper and just laid it out as a poem on the typewriter. It’s divided into three speech phrases – “I have eaten/the plums/that were in/the icebox”, “and which/you were probably/saving/for breakfast”, “Forgive me/they were delicious/so sweet/and so cold” – So it’s divided into three possible speech phrases. Each stanza is like one…

Student: Would that be..

AG: Three units of speech. Each stanza seems to correspond to separate mental ideas. [Allen reads the poem again to highlight this] – Really logical that way. So there’s a logical division into the mental units. There’s somewhat a sense of division into speech phrasing. The lines themselves are broken down into long and short pretty much by refinements of mental idea [Allen reads the poem for a fifth time] – So you could say there’s an element of dividing it up into the parts of the mental thought

Student: And could you say, then, too, that it would be three breaths ? (or, it’s not as simple as that?)

AG: Well, I got three breaths out of it, reciting it from memory. I forgot how I did it. I think [Allen emphasizes the breath-pauses] – “I have eaten/the plums/that were in/the icebox” [breath-pause] “and which/you were probably/saving/for breakfast” [breath-pause] “Forgive me/they were delicious [breath-pause]/so sweet/and so cold” – So that last stanza is probably three breaths – “Forgive me [breath] they were delicious”, or you could have, “Forgive me/they were delicious [breath]/ so sweet and so cold” – You could have it three breaths, two breaths, or.. “Forgive me/they were delicious/so sweet and/so cold” – not likely, though, more likely, you’d pause and think it out. “Forgive me – they were so delicious” (like with a dash) “so sweet/and so cold”

Student: So there isn’t any standard indication for breath

AG: It depends actually. No, there’s no standard indication for breath, because many people could take the same sentence and pronounce it differently, depending on their intentions and their emotions at the moment. So the advantage of being mindful of arranging the lines on the page into line-breaks and stanza-breaks is that you can indicate yourself where you want it breathed Just as if you were a musician making the breath-notation on the score, by your arrangement of the spacing, by the way that you break it up into lines and how you space it out. There’s no standard practice in America, because we’re just beginning to discover an American measure (“an American measure” – that’s Williams’ phrase) – we’re developing an American measure – or, there is a notion, on the part of a lot of poets, of developing an American measure, which Williams started, which Pound contributed to, (and) which most of the poets of 1907 began working on, thinking that Whitman’s form wasn’t satisfactory – it was too Biblical and too English-archaic – (that) it didn’t measure the breath-units well enough and it wasn’t enough of an accurate measure – That’s why Pound always had it in for Whitman. He thought he was too sloppy, technically. He thought that what was necessary for a real break-through.. (that Whitman was a break-through artist in terms of the content, in terms of his own spirit, in terms of his individuality, but (that) he didn’t stamp his individuality on his verse-forms. He appropriated verse-forms (from the King James Bible – or from prose, English prose.

Student: Allen, he also got his breath from hearing Italian opera being sung.

AG: Ah. That’s interesting. Yeah. That’s true. He was a music critic and preoccupied with the (operatic rhythms) .. did he apply that to his writing?

Student: He said he did

AG: Yeah. How did he do that? or what was his.. (do you know?)

Student: I haven’t looked into it that far, but in Gay Wilson Allen’s book on Whitman, he says that he (Whitman) says at one point that he would never have been able to write Leaves of Grass had he not heard Italian opera sung by so-and-so in such-and-such place.

AG: Did he mention breath, specifically?

Student: I think it must be related.

AG: Yeah, it’s not the emotional…

Student: You have to take a long breath

AG: It’s not the romantic emotional impulses of the Italian opera, it’s the actual breathing? I mean, that sounds logical, I’d buy that. It’s delightful to hear that he was working out of consciousness of breath and drawing from opera. But Pound objected that it was still a European breath, a Continental breath rather than an American breath (and Williams would have objected that Pound himself used a European breath). Pound objected to Whitman not dividing up the phrases scientifically enough. Pound had wanted real science. Williams wanted a raw science, a home-made science, a pragmatic science, (an) American science (so, in fact, he used that phrase, “an American measure”) – and he arrived on the idea of “a variable foot” (variable, because you could divide the phrases up into, say, vocal-phrased units, breath-units, mental-idea units – they would all be roughly equivalent, they would all have the same weight, one phrase and then another phrase, but they’d be variable in the sense that some are longer and some are shorter). A single word with an intense emphasis, “Forgive me” is just as heavy as “they were delicious” – “For/give/me” (three syllables) “they/were/de/li/cious (five syllables) – “Forgive me/they were delicious” – they are relatively equal, if you think so. Yeah, I know, if you begin thinking about it that way, then they become relatively equal, but it gives you some kind of standard of measurement, some kind of standard, some kind of measure. He would settle for anything, just something that people could work with, so that they could actually be… (I’ll continue this sentence later on, because there’s a very definite set of words I have in mind to finish the sentence, but I want to end the discourse with that).

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