Spontaneous Poetics – 99 – ( “Signifying Monkey”, Lindsay & Poe)

AG: I began reading a book called Deep Down In The Jungle. Does anybody know that? It’s a compilation of street poetics in the United States, used by black people. Particularly, there’s one song.. one chant called “The Signifying Monkey”, Anybody know that ?

Student: Yeah

AG: Do you remember the original? – “Said the Monkey to the Lion one bright sunny day” (- (that)’s the beginning..) – [Allen begins to improvise] – “Said the Lion to the Lamb one bright Cambodian day/ Jesus Christ, tell Uncle Sam to take those robot bombs away/ Said the Lion to the Donkey, “A few thousand tons a day!”/”Put McGovern in The White House ’72 Election Day!”… ( – obviously, none of these magical charms worked!)”.

So, that made me think of another rhythmic chant. Obviously, in the United States, we have a tremendous tradition of that (those) Afric sources – as in “Signifying Monkey” – “Said the Monkey to the Lion one bright sunny day/ Tell all you muthafuckers to get yourselves away”.. or, something (like that)..

Student: Isn’t it (by definition) a form of insult?

AG: Yeah. It usually insults your mother, or members of the family – rhymed (all rhymed) but with, like, a definite strong rhythm.


Student: “Toasts”. I believe they’re known as “toasts”.

AG: (“Toasts”, yes,). Terrific. (Do) you know America, A Prophecy“, the book? – (I think it’s in there.) It’s in the library – That Deep Down In the Jungle book, that I mentioned, (which is) byRoger Abrahams, has a little description of that – (“Toasting”), so I’ll read it (out of there):

“The toast” – writes Roger D Abrahams, (who, in recent years, has been the main collector of such forms of Black oral poetry) – “is a narrative poem that is recited, often in the theatrical manner. Toasts are not sung, and it is, perhaps, this lack of reliance on a structure of the tune that allows that freedom of form. But toasts do have a structure. Like so many other forms of oral narrative, they are organized by conventions, ones that Albert Lord ( – I guess, another archivist – [ (a) specialist in epic form]) would consider epic. The subject treated is freedom of the body, through super-human feats, and of the spirit, through acts that are free of restrictive social mores, or in direct violation of them, especially in respect to crime and violence. The heroes of most of these stories are hard men, criminals, men capable of prodigious sexual feats, bad men, and very clever men, or animals, who have the amorality of a trickster.”

So, actually, this tradition merges with the earlier American tradition of Coyote and the Trickster heros.
[Allen reads on] –
Signifying Monkey” is a well-known toast, and exists in many closely-related versions. Abrahams, who compiled the material in Deep Down In the Jungle defines “signify” as “to imply, goad, beg, boast, by indirect verbal or gestural means” – (a) language of implication.
This is “The Signifying Monkey and the Lion” [Allen proceeds to read/recite the whole of “The Signifying Monkey and the Lion” – (beginning with) “It was deep down in the jungle where the big coconuts grow…” (and concluding with) “You can bet your life even from that day/ The Lion still wonders how that jive mutha got away”.. “recorded in Austin, Texas October 1960 by Jimmy Bell”]
– I was reading it, trying to decipher it rhythmically as I went along, so it was very halting, too many caesuras and had to throw in a couple of words to scan it occasionally – “Signifying Monkey” – “the Signifying Monkey”.

[Allen’s recitation of “The Signifying Monkey and the Lion” can be found here (beginning approximately two minutes in, and concluding approximately six-and-a-half minutes in)]

(Now) the reason I read the (Vachel) Lindsay (back then) is, it’s one of the earliest poems I ever heard around the house, actually. My father recited it a lot. He taught it in high schools. [Allen pauses – Anybody got a cigarette? (sic)] – The Lindsay pattern(s) just got built into my bone-structure, (one way or other), so that, probably, there are elements of “The Congo” in the “Moloch” section of “Howl”. There’s some kind of body-rhythm involved in Lindsay that I find (gets) put out whenever I get into some sort of dithyrambic or ecstatic versification in my own body.

So, I would recommend that everybody pick up on some of these classics of rhythmic power, whether or not you use them in your (own) free-verse form (if you’re using free-verse forms). There still is some kind of echo that corrects the ear (particularly if you’re writing a loose line). There still is a rhythmic center to the line of some sort. There’s still some kind of rhythmic beginning and and end in free-verse lines. It’s a very subtle matter that I don’t think too many people recognize when they’re writing open-form verse. There’s still some element of a definite beginning and a definite end – (a) paradigm in the mind. Whether familiarity with something like “The Congo” (or Elizabethan lyrics) is a help, I don’t know. Actually, it’s a stumbling-block, in the sense (of) the automatic repetition of those forms when you write jejune poetry to begin with. But, after you find your own body-rhythm, and your own natural speaking-voice, and begin writing in that voice, there is still some useful residue left from, say, memorizing pages of Yeats or Blake or Lindsay – or Poe
Another bravura piece like that.. We’ve all read Poe.. Has everybody read To Helen? – How many have not read “To Helen”? [show of hands] – Really? – That was a sort of standard… not “To Helen”, I mean “Annabel Lee”. How many have not read “Annabel Lee”? – [further show of hands] – So everybody knows that. Everybody here knows “Annabel Lee”, (so there’s no real need to) go through that – (Jack) Kerouac‘s favorite was “Annabel Lee” – “And so all the night-tide, I lie down by the side/ Of my darling – my darling – my life and my bride/In a tomb by the sounding sea.”

[AG to, (presumably), Philip Whalen, there in attendance] – Do you remember him (Kerouac) in New York, in New York, under the Brooklyn Bridge? – “And so all the night-tide, I lie down by the side/ Of my darling – my darling – my life and my bride” – There’s a possibility of opening up the body and the voice – “my darling – my darling..” – that second “darling” – that you could shout – (or you could vocalize, like an opera-singer – particularly under the Brooklyn Bridge, where there’s noise)…

[Audio for this section, can be found here, beginning at the beginning, and for the first seven-and-a-half minutes, and then taking up again at, approximately twelve minutes in, through to the sixteen minutes mark]

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