Spontaneous Poetics – (Methods and Materials)

Walt Whitman – selection from an original ms for “Song of Myself” from Leaves of Grass, courtesy the Humanities Research Center, University of Texas

Allen Ginsberg, Summer 1976, on “Spontaneous Poetics”, continues.

So there is an element of the writing material that determines your poetry shape. For study of short notebook forms, I would recommend (Jack) Kerouac’s Mexico City Blues and a few texts of my own, particularly a poem called “Laughing Gas” (in Reality Sandwiches, I think), because that was written, while taking nitrous oxide in a dentist’s chair, with a small pocket notebook, and the condition of the line reflects (the fact that) especially (with) the hyper-sensitized consciousness of laughing gas, the length of the page seems to be the universe itself, or a universe itself in which one line will fit. So the mental condition and corresponding external condition do have a big influence, so you’ve got to take that into account.
The question before was what sort of page did (Walt) Whitman write on? or what ledger did he write on? – and I don’t know that. Has anyone seen (any) Whitman manuscripts or reproductions? Well, let’s check it out.

Student: I think they were big ledgers

AG: Um-hmm. Likely enough, he would keep ledgers. Great huge National ledgers – because he was accounting the State, so to speak..

Jack Kerouac – page from a 1953 notebook – “Ginsberg – intelligent and interested in the outward appearance and pose of great things, intelligent enuf to know where to find them…”

Student: So is that all the methods that you’re going to tell us about?

AG: No, no, we’re going on

Student: Good

AG: Going on, going on. The next element is no element – total arbitrariness and chance. That has to be included too as part of the humor of the line (because there’s a humor in these arrangements, because there is intelligence). Wherever there’s intelligence, there’s a certain amount of playfulness. Wherever there’s playfulness, there’s humor, and wherever there’s humor, chance is allowed to enter in too – total accident. I (You) didn’t have time to finish the breath-unit on one line, so you drop the subsidiary phrase to the next line. Like that..So..to the next line. So you drop down the subsidiary phrase to the next line, and you can hang that “under-sidiary” [sic] to the next line – got it? – if you’re adding alluvials, as Kerouac said, adding the extra thoughts in the mind while you’ve still got a breath and (while) the mind is still cranking out babble – “Cranking out babble” – so you might want to write (it) out – “cranking out/babble” (and you want to leave that surprise thought by itself (even) though it belongs to the original phrase) – then you might want to drop it down and hang it on the end of the line, or, if it’s a very long line and you want it standardized, you can then carry the line over and indent four, six, seven, eight, typed spaces from the margin.

For long line poetry, incidentally (trade secrets!), it’s useful to realize that what you type up on the page will be transferred to the printed page by the typographer exactly as you’ve put it, granted that the page is long enough to fit your line, unless you indicate that all lines that lay over should be carried out to the right-hand margin before laying over indented – Is that terminology clear? – otherwise you get a ragged right-hand margin and what seems to be an arbitrary division of long lines. If you conceive of the long line as a single breath,, which is to be pronounced as a single breath (“I saw the best minds of my generation starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the Negro streets..looking for an angry fix– that’s one line) – if you want that to be pronounced as one line and one breath, then you have to indicate to the reader, by carrying it out to the right-hand margin, not just letting the printer print it up as you typed it out, because printed-print, and printed-page and typewritten page are two different things (because the “m’s” are different – the letters have different sizes in the type-out than on your typewriter) – Is that clear? Is there anybody (here) that does not understand what I’ve just said.

Student: I don’t (understand)

AG: Okay, if you want to make sure that the long line will be one integral long line, you have to treat it as prose. Tell the printer to treat it as prose and carry it out to the right-hand margin before continuing it on the next line, indented, a little. Is that clear?

Student: Indented on the second line?

AG: Indented on the second.. or, I should say, “strophe” – what is called a “strophe” – instead of a line. If you have a strophe that’s one breath, you have to carry the strophe out, as many words as you need to, to the margin, before continuing the strophe indented on the next line. It would be.. [Allen moves to the blackboard] – Do we have any chalk? – Oh. No chalk

Student: I can get you some chalk, Allen

AG: A common amateur mistake, by people who haven’t got the experience of struggling with printers, or aren’t conscious of the fact that what the page displays, is the indication for reading… and people treat poetry with such respect that they think that (if) you lay it out on the page on your typewriter, and you come to the end of the line, then you better follow that on the page, when you’re printing it up. Not realizing that you ended your line there because you have big typewriter letters or little typewriter letters. If you have a little typewriter that has the tiny letters, it means you get more words on the line – but you didn’t mean to have just more words on the line..

[The student arrives with chalk. Allen begins illustrating his ideas on the blackboard] – Margin(s). Those of you who keep your poems in springboard binders, or in little metallic binders, always remember, if this is your page [indicates on the board], to leave a margin large enough so that somebody reading it can actually see the poem and it isn’t swallowed up by the springboard binder. That’s really important, actually, because otherwise you’ll have to re-type all your poems. It’s just sort of like “trade-secret” notes. So this is your margin [again, indicating on the board] , leave at least an-inch-and-a-quarter so that the poem has a margin and can be visible. (So) they don’t have to tear your book apart!

Secondly, if you ‘ve got a long line that begins, “I saw the biggest grapefruits of the nation [sic] eaten under dark bridges, juicy, pink, amorous, full of industrial flavor”. Now what you’re wanting to say, I guess, is.. [Allen writes it out on the board] – “I saw the biggest grapefruits of the nation [sic] eaten under dark bridges, juicy, pink, amorous, full of industrial flavor” – so those are single-breath lines, because you want them to be. If you send it to the printer and you write it out like that, he’ll print it up [Allen shows the design] – “I saw the biggest grapefruits of the/ nation [sic] eaten under dark bridges…” – and the reader will think that it’s two lines because the “the” will actually fall on the printed-page somewhere here [Allen indicates location] – The “dark bridges” might be a little longer. Dig? So if you want it to be known as a long line, just tell him to carry it through the margins before indenting.

So the question is, how much do you indent? That’s another interesting question. Indentation of (one or two spaces) isn’t much of an indentation. The eyeball doesn’t pick it up too easy. An indentation of eight is interesting and clear – if you’re writing long lines. And you’ll be amazed how the neatness on the page that you arrange begins to rearrange your mind so that your thought is clearer….
The printer is a literalist and, unless you indicate to him what you are doing and how he should handle it, it will be left to chance. You want your page not to be left to chance, if you’re writing long lines, and, after, you’re mindful of the consequence of your typescript in the printer’s hands.

But what I was talking about, actually, before I got onto that, was chance, arbitrariness. That’s another element you’ve got to consider among many others – the chance that arises from the materials of writing – the chance that arises from the tape-machine that you are talking into (for instance), because, I forgot to say that, in addition to (the) typewriter, (there’s) the tape-machine – this would be going back to the consequence of the materials. With a tape-machine, you have a stop-start button on your microphone, and every time you stop-and-start it, there’s a click, or every time you stop it, there’s a click, which means that, if you’re dictating poems on a machine, you’ll always have a click to remind you where your mind-phrase stopped (and therefore where the line ends). So that, transcribing from a tape (if you’re a poet using tape).. you turn the on-off switch every time you have a new line (because most poetry on tape is not written with the tape running continuously, because you can’t think of things that fast, generally), so you might as well use a click on-and-off – unless you’re trying for a speed-freak, meth-head babble, or unless you’ve got a natural silver tongue that can talk continuously for ten minutes without pause, you might as well use the on-and-off switch on the microphone. That’ll make a little click. And then when you’re transcribing, those clicks (will) indicate lines.

Then there’s the question of if you have a long phrasing – click – but further thoughts – click – continue, with interesting vegetable gardens – click – then in transcribing – click – you’ll still have the problem – click, though you know how to arrange the lines according to the clicks – click – what do you do with the little pieces of phrasing – click, that are left over – click – so how do you arrange those? – One way you can do it (which is a combination of units of phrasing and divisions of mental thought), when you’re transcribing onto the page, what I do (and I think its gotten to be more or less common practice) is, when you begin a thought-speech, start at your margin, as far as the first one goes, like… [Allen turns to the blackboard]..but, since it continues, indent. However, you might not want to continue with that particular thought, logically.. but it’s still under that thought. You have no room there. However, you might not want to continue with that particular thought logically, but it’s still the same thought. What I’m doing is dividing the spaces on the blackboard, or indicating the lines on the blackboard, to indicate where in the balloon of the mind these phrases are floating, if you were to visualize them in relation to each other – some sub-head after-thoughts to first-thought – after-thoughts to first setting out into a thought. If it were a thought, that might begin at the margin [Allen indicates on the blackboard] – a new thought, so I’ve just begun a new thought, so I’m beginning back to the margin, just begun a new thought, so I’m beginning back at the margin, and I want to continue that thought, adding more and more information, as I’m going along, finally ending. You have a natural way of squaring it on the page for continuation of thought-breath. Then (that way) your reader actually gets some indication of what the relation of the different fragments of phrasing are to each other. But if you put it down in that way, where there is either a single continuum going across the page, or a broken continuum that might be irregular (depending on how the thoughts arrive and what relation they have to each other), you have a great deal of space to play with, and there’s a lot of variety of arrangement that you can practice.

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