Spontaneous Poetics – (Christopher Smart)

Christopher Smart (1722-1771)

AG: Then there was another set of details that I thought I’d go into today having to do, somewhat, with this sense of arrangement, with this interpretation of arrangement of words on a page. So far, what we’ve got here, is this clear in relation to what I’ve been saying before? is this something you could all do if you were writing that sort of form? I was hoping to present something practical and helpful. For those of you who write just along the margin, I was hoping that this would suggest a different way of treating the continuation of your thoughts on the page.

This [Allen is referring here to Edward Marshall’s “Leave The Word Alone”] is, I think, (all one) first draft, probably, or very-near (a) first draft. I think this is the original composition, which is why it’s kind of interesting, because it has all the gesture of first composition and first spurts of thought out on the page. You can see how he was thinking, or how he was composing. The evidence of his mental activity is left, in a clear form, on the page, for you to follow the sequence of his thought and the divisions of his thought, or how he might have imagined it as speech.

But then if you are writing spontaneously, or writing like that first draft scattering of the mind on the page, there is a tendency, especially among us beginners, to be too discursive and to surround all the mind-meat with a lot of syntactical fat, and to be too long-winded, or not to zero in on the facts and combine them in a fast way (as fast as the mind possibly does, originally) (This is) especially in any kind of poetry, but a particularly easy style to examine is long-lined Whitmanic poetry, or poetry in the style of Christopher Smart (Smart was one of the poets that I recommended you reading -and, have I read any Smart in class? Does anybody have Smart’s “Rejoice In The Lamb” here? – Well, there’s a little fragment here (in this anthology)). I don’t think the library’s open yet.

Student: It is

AG: Can we get the Smart. Okay, I’ll read a few lines of Smart

Student: Allen [pointing to Allen’s book] – Is that book in the library?

AG: This? no. This book I’ve been using, the Norton Anthology, I picked up the day I left my house because it had a lot of poems in it, and I suppose it’s a standard sort of thing for college classes. I figure you can get your own anthology..

So, Smart. Smart writes long-line poetry, much parallel to the poetry that Walt Whitman writes, and I imitated Smart’s “Rejoice in The Lamb” (or “Jubilate Agno”) in formations of the poem, “Howl and also another poem called “Kral Majales” (The King of May). I’m reading this just to illustrate that long-lined form and its beginnings. The origin of that form is Biblical.. what do they call it, the statement-and-response in the Bible? in the Psalms? – “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want” – the two-part line?

Student: Litany?

AG: I don’t think it’s litany. Litany would be a repeated… but the Bible does have litany, and this is litany (the first lines of each verse will be the same). [Allen begins reading from Christopher Smart’s famous linesFor I will consider my cat Jeoffry – “For I will consider my cat Jeoffry/ For he is the servant of the Living God duly and daily serving him/ For at the first glance of the glory of God in the East he worships in his way/ For this is done by wreathing his body seven times round with elegant quickness”….”For God has blessed him in the variety of his movements/ For, though he cannot fly, he is an excellent clamberer/ For his motions on the face of the earth are more than any other quadruped/ For he can tread to all the measures upon the music/ For he can swim for life/ For he can creep,” –  That’s a little fragment of an 80-page antiphonal rhapsody – “For” and “Let” – did we get the book?

Student: I didn’t hear “Let”

AG:  Not about the cat, no (but) of the same form, though, (where each line that says “For” is echoed by an antiphonal line, “Let”) – “For every house is incomplete without him and a blessing is lacking in the spirit./ Let the rhapsody empire gaze out in amaze and the scourge of their holes before Jeoffry comes quickly (I’m making it up, but that would be the form).

Anyway, it’s a long line, a long and short, varied, actually. So this is the form I used, basically, in America” – in a poem, “America”. It’s an easy form to work with because you start off with a theme.

[to Student, returning from library] – All out? I think somebody stole the Christopher Smart from the library!

Student: I think (GS) has it.

AG: Ah, (GS) has it.   

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