AG: Phil Whalen began with some basic poetics, as far as I understand. I looked over his notes. [Allen had been called away and had handed his class over to Philip Whalen & others – He returns here, to continue with the class, July 23, 1976]
[A brief excerpt from the following transcription has already appeared on The Allen Ginsberg Project – see here]
[Original transcriber’s note – “This lecture is recorded at a great distance from the speaker, resulting in some difficulty obtaining a correct transcription”]
AG: Can you hear me? Raise your hand if you can’t hear me. Come sit up front. If you can’t hear me, come sit up a little closer please.
What Phil was dealing with, as far as I can understand, (was) some element of nursery rhyme, poetry-as-communal-sacred-dance, and epic – communal consciousness functioning in poetry – and I want to pick up on that to expound on something that I specialize in slightly, which is not well-known, but which I’ve been exploring a lot lately, as sort of a basis for prosody, or a basic approach to measuring lines of poetry. My own preoccupation has been increasingly with spontaneous utterances, or spontaneous forms, and so I’ve been experimenting around with that a lot.
One really interesting and very ancient form of poetics, which is maybe the oldest, is Australian Aborigine practice. They have epic material – that is, it takes sometimes forty years to become a songman in Pitjantiatiara, which is in Central Australia, or (in) the Arnhem Land, among the Yirrkala tribes, involves memorizing epic material that covers a cycle of migration that the tribe takes over anywhere from twenty to forty years. And that’s why it might take that long to become a songman. There are many kinds of epics but one main form is a long song, which is sung continuously over a cycle of twenty years, (and) involves travel instructions on a circular migration pattern. In other words – eat grubs, insects, sleepy lizards.. And you have to have directions – if you arrive at a camp-site which has been traditionally used before over millennia! – The last time the tribe was there all the witchetty grubs and the sleepy lizards [Metalungana – sic] (were) eaten up, so it may take twenty, thirty, years to replenish the natural foodstuffs – so that would be the length of the cycle of traveling. So, an epic, a wandering epic, might involve .. the total botany of the terrain that the tribe is going to circumambulate, where you can find water-holes, what kind of vegetation is around, what kind of food is around, where you can find fire-wood (if you build any sort of fire), what are the local landmarks, how they are connected in eternal Dreamtime to the origin of the Earth and of the tribe, where’s the best place for sports and games, what’s the history of the place (etc, etc)..
The songman uses a very simple form. – (a) line (of) verse, which is then repeated by the entire tribe (which might be from anywhere from five, to fifty, to a hundred, people) – Not very many people could travel like that. You’d have to have small groups moving, and, say, stopping, for a couple of weeks, in one spot, in a continuously nomadic existence. So the songmen use songsticks along with their verses to mark time and to lead the rest of the village chanting. The songman is the only one who has in his head the entire stock of words and information – like, what birds are around in what season, (and), where the stars will be at a certain point, where the moon will rise, and where the sun will rise, where the moon will set, and where the sun will set. A lot of the older villagers can remember fragments of it, (but) the songman’s profession is to keep track of everything. So that the entire village, actually, is dependent (up)on a poet. In that case (this case), the poet has the Encyclopedia Brittanica in his head, and is the only one who knows, actually, how to survive (or, at least, has specific instructions (about) how to survive in specific places)
These – [Allen presents a show-and-tell for the class] are Australian Aboriginal songsticks – and they’re used for keeping time. Almost every elder will have songsticks (sometimes carved with maps, geographical directions, sometimes carved with messages). Those who don’t have songsticks will pick up twigs or anything (in other words, a songstick can be anything, from a couple of pencils pounded together, to bottles, but, generally, little sticks, branches, or twigs).
And so a whole forest chanting together makes quite a musical din! – a good racket! (like, (with) everyone on time). Those who don’t know the verse will pick up on the verse as the songman begins it. And so, they’ll chant the verse, ten or twelve times, (and there are (also) little dances that may go along with it – to indicate kangaroo, or other animals). [Allen gets up to demonstrate – presumably hopping] – “The Kangaroo Dance” would be like that, going along with the songsticks..
Children’s songs are taught to begin with, just so the kids get trained. They’re used for teaching simple children’s games as a beginning. I ran into songmen in Australia in the University of Adelaide, when a group of very old, gorilla-faced-looking, songmen (who had never been out of the Central Australian desert) were brought down (four of them) in trucks, to an Anthropology class, and asked to put on children’s songs, (in an attempt) to relate to some autistic children (in other words, the anthropologists brought in some kids, that were not communicating very much, and they wanted to see whether the songmen’s rhythmic sticks and chants would rouse any response in (the) kids.)
So I sat in on the class, made friends with some of the songmen, and found that they had (a) fantastic auditory imagination. They don’t have a written language, so that anything that enters their ear they can remember it, or, they can pick up anything rhythmical, anything poetical, that they hear, they can reproduce almost instantly. We were trading songs. So I did one verse of “Hare Krishna”, and they were able to pick up on “Hare Krishna” instantly, and sing it right back, after one verse!
So one interesting thing is that their auditory imagination is encyclopedic (unlike our own culture, where everything is relegated to print, so it doesn’t have to be remembered) –
Anything you have to remember there, you gotta remember fast! So, as in the development of any kind of muscle, or any kind of exercise, continuous exercise of that faculty develops it fantastically, and the capacity for people to remember is almost unlimited.. (from our point of view)..
The song cycle will not only be the migration-map route, and all the gas-stations and all the water-holes on the way, it’ll also be for death ceremonies. Corpses are laid out, and the songman will lead a three- or four- day, or even a week-long, recitation of the path of the soul of the dead person from the particular spot where he died (so, if it’s in Arnhem Land, over the geography of Arnhem Land, naming all the flowers, and the birds in the air, the color of the ocean, islands in the ocean toward New Guinea, going straight north (where, apparently, the souls went – to New Guinea, apparently, or were considered to go north, up to New Guinea, for (the) afterlife). So there’s a complete geographic and theological encyclopedia of everything the soul is likely to meet on its trip to New Guinea
I don’t know what the structure of other ceremonial songs would be. I just heard migration songs and funerary chanting, and children’s chanting.
[Audio for this class is available here (starting at the beginning and running through to approximately eleven-and-three-quarter minutes in]