Allen Ginsberg’s “Expansive Poetics” lecture continues – “Ode to the West Wind”
AG: The other thing is (Shelley’s) the “Ode to the West Wind”. How many know that? How many have read that? How many have not read the “Ode to the West Wind” by Percy Bysshe Shelley? Never? Well, that’s an example, I must say of TV generation.
Student: TV generation?
AG: Television generation. [Allen addresses individual student] Have you read that? – Shelley? – “Ode to the West Wind”? Who has read it now? Put up your hand(s) again – [again, to individual student] – Where did you read it?
Student: In class
AG: Here? – And yourself? [pointing to another student]
Student (2): Class
AG: And who else? Who else raised his hand?
Student (3): I did
AG: Anybody else here raise their hand? Who else? You? [pointing to another student] Where did you read it?
Student (4): Um…
AG: Do you remember?
Student (4): It’s sort of.. I think it’s sort of part of that European intellectual poems that you read….
AG: Yes. Where are you from?
Student (4): I’m Italian
AG: Uh-huh. What city?
Student (4): Verona
AG: Is that where you went to school?
Student (4): Uh, no, I went to school, well, partly in Verona, and then in Milan, and…
Student (4): …London
AG: So, a European education would include the “Ode to the West Wind” ?
Student (4); Yeah
AG: I mean, anybody who was well-educated would know that as a matter of course – [Allen addresses a new student] – You read it where?
Student (5): I read it when I was a student
AG: Here (in the US)?
Student (5): Yeah
AG: What school?
Student: San Francisco State (University)
AG: [turns to his student, Sam Kashner] – Yeah, I guess, Sam, you know it. From where?
Sam Kashner: Well, originally, I was here.
AG: First time?
Sam Kashner: (Robert) Duncan read it, as a.. one of the poems in his…
AG: But you had read it before hadn’t you? Where? (I’m trying to figure out where did you pick up on it ordinarily, in the earliest…)
Sam Kashner: Hamilton College.
AG: So it was in college only?
Sam Kashner: Oh yeah.
AG: See, I got it.. my father was a high school teacher and they had it in high school in Paterson, New Jersey in the (19)30’s – you’d get that as part of just.. Edgar Allan Poe and a few other things, (Walt) Whitman, you’d get in high school. Anybody else here?
Student (6): I got it in high school
AG: Yeah. Where?
Student (7): (Ordinary) high school
Student (8); Texas A & M, 1974
AG: So that’d be college then. And where? [to another student]
Student (9): High school
AG: Oh. Around here?
Student (9); Yeah
AG: That’s pretty good. Anybody else? Did you ever..?
Student (10): I got it at the University of Colorado.
AG: So now, maybe, between high school and college (you heard this poem), but (for the) most, no, the majority haven’t heard it. That’s just astounding.
Well, the reason it’s astounding is Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind” is considered the traditional great Romantic poem. That is, if you think of a poet writing a poem, that’s Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind”, the inspired poem. “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty” is a little bit specialized caviar, and poets or scholars might know (it), but “Ode to the West Wind” is supposed to be the traditional poem, if you think about poetry. And here’s a whole class of people that are into a specialized poetry (and are all writing poetry, I presume, or (are) close students), and I guess the majority have not heard or read this particular poem (which, actually, for me, is a pleasure, because it leaves it wide open for me to have a ball, because it’s such an obviously great thing to teach – but, on the other hand, it means that, if you write poetry, you don’t have these cadences in your veins or in your bones already, and it’s useful). The reason I’m reading them aloud is that once you hear certain cadences, they enter your nervous system and permanently alter it. That is to say, they break through new ground, or they open up new neural patterns and new rhythmic connections, so that you’re familiar with that particular ecstatic emotion, or inspired emotion. And it could then, maybe, enlarge the capacity of your own breathing and rhythmic expansiveness when you’re writing yourself, so that you can start and continue a cadence that goes on as long as this (does), once you see that it can be done.
So, “Ode to the West Wind”. And the end is interesting, because finally the subject of the poem is the immortality of the cadence, that is that the rhythm itself will go on and on throughout history – that once he’s created this rhythm it’s going to be heard forever, people are going to recognize it. Once they hear it, it’s going to go on because it’s such a great powerful rhythm it’s going to turn people on so much. And that, in this way, his very breath, the cadences of his breath, or the sequences of his breathing, is going to become historically immortal. So Shelley’s own body, (or) a piece of Shelley’s body, is going out into the world to persist in other people’s bodies. So he created a machine which, when introduced into our bodies, will recreate itself over and over again. And that means that particular emotion he’s feeling, the breath or the emotion, the cadence of the breath of the emotion will then be felt by other people. So he’s really projected a piece of his body out permanently. Louis Zukofsky has a phrase, “Only objectified emotion endures”. That is to say, you have an emotion, then you make an object out of it like this cadent breath, and then it will endure. If you don’t solidify it or objectify it into an artifact that can be used by other people, the the emotion won’t persist and endure. But if you are able to transform your emotion into a set of breathings and a set of sounds and vowels and consonants and maybe some ideas, you create an object that will endure.
Student: Having like.. making it concrete.
AG: Concretizing it in a physical poem, concretizing it physically in the cadences and sounds of a poem.
It’s an interesting phrase – “Only emotion objectified…” “Only objectified emotion endures”. And (Ezra) Pound, in the Cantos, repeats it in another form, “Only emotion endures”. But he may have gotten the phrase from Zukofsky (or Zukofsky got it from him, saying “Only objectified emotion endures”). In other words, your emotion can endure, you can make it permanent, but if you want it, if you want to be stuck with it throughout eternity – “I want love” – throughout eternity, longing, painful longing, for the rest of history – you could do it, but you have to make an artifact, you’ve got to concretize it.
Student: How about the fact that (the) air molecules actually (that) we expire are randomly moved about by Brownian motion and that they will…
AG: That’ll penetrate throughout the furthest reaches of the universe.
AG: Of course
Student: ..and that every person will, everlasting(ly), be breathing, at this moment, one molecule..
AG: A certain vibration.
Student: ( Actually?)
AG: Yes, I mean, that’s the whole principle of mantra and chanting, anyway
AG: Or of the I Ching – that any moment in the universe – that is, any moment in the great hanging myriad balance of the universe, any dropping of a leaf, or a sparrow-cry, vibrates and influences every other molecule in the great hanging mobile of the universe.
AG: However, on a simpler level, and without getting into invisible Brownian movements, you can get into apprehensible breaths and auditory kicks.
So what time are we supposed to quit? Twelve?
AG: Okay, so I’ll try the “Ode to the West Wind”. I’ll maybe xerox this, because I think it may be interesting.. I tried it once before in class. Later on, to make this point, I’ll xerox this so we all have a copy. And we might do it as a choral chant
AG: I’ve done it before and it’s great. The reason it’s not done more often is that nobody can keep time! – people are saying different words at different times! – But if you follow the punctuation, follow the breaths, then it’s possible for everybody to stay on the same breath, and it makes it easy to do it choral
[Allen begins a solo reading, an enthusiastic reading, of Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind” ] – “O wild west wind, thou breath of Autumn’s being..”…”..O Wind/If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?”]
AG: Well that’s really “wow!”. It really totally makes it.
Student (2): Yeah, that’s wonderful
AG: Because what he does is that the breath that he’s talking about finally is the subject of the poem and the mighty breath that he’s talking about is exemplified and manifested in the poem, outlined in the poem. The breathing is outlined by the punctuation so that you know where to take a brief breath, and, at certain points, he gives you the chance to take a brief strong breath for one word and then a real deep breath to knock out the next one (like “Drive my dead thoughts over the universe/Like withered leaves to quicken a new birth!” – that’s two lines for one breath and that’s a real solid piece of breathing, mouthing. Then he wants to get even higher, so he gives you “And” – “And” – comma – by the incantation of this verse”, so that you have enough air in your lungs to go dah-dah-dah-dah-dah-dah-dah-dah. Then, again, “Scatter – comma”. Then he has one of his great lines that you want lots of air for that one – “as from an unextinguished hearth/Ashes and sparks” – not “Scatter as from an unextinguished hearth [pause – Allen takes a breath] – Ashes and sparks” but “as from an unextinguished hearth/Ashes and sparks” in one. And then another breath so you can get “my words among mankind!” And then another long one – “Be through my lips to unawakened earth/The trumpet of a prophecy!” – ah-duh-duh-dah-dah-datta-datta-dah-duh-dah-dah-duh-duh-dah-dah-dah. And then “O Wind, if Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?” – “if Winter comes – comma – can Spring be far behind?
Well, how many have never heard that before or read that before?
Student: Now I’ve heard it
AG: It’s just amazing. It’s after all.. well, actually, then, more than half the class had heard it. Yeah, well, I think that “Ode to the West Wind” and “Adonais”.. “..Intellectual Beauty”, “Ode to the West Wind” and “Adonais” are his high points, his most powerful breaths, his most powerful breathings. I know these pretty well because my father taught them in high school, so he used to go stomping around the house actually reciting these aloud! And then I developed a dislike for them for a while, because he didn’t pay (proper) attention to the commas!
AG: He just did it like in one voice, one monotone – but he had the inspired cadence – (but he didn’t have the stops right, so it was just, like, a blind cadence, without the delicacy of being able to stop for breath)
Student: Well I.. I kind of think that’s the problem with most high-school teachers.
Student: You know, the only poem that I ever remember was “The highwayman came riding, riding..” You know, the way the teacher would read it and the class would read it was so..boring!
AG: Yeah, well, in every American high school there’s usually one strange genius weirdo teacher who turns everybody on to (Walt) Whitman or somebody. I had one doing Whitman
(A footnote here – those of you who are in my apprentice class? who is it? just two? – okay, so we’ve already got that for three o’clock).
[Audio for the above may be found here, beginning at approximately fifty-three-and-three quarter minutes in (the reading of “Ode to the West Wind” begins at approximately sixty-two-and-a-half minutes in) and concluding approximately seventy-and-three-quarter minutes in – It may also be accessed via the Internet Archive here, and here via Open Culture]
[In addition here‘s Gregory Corso reading “Ode to the West Wind” – from a 1975 class at Naropa, (beginning, approximately thirty minutes in, and concluding approximately thirty-four minutes in). Later in the class, W.S.Merwin attempts a complete reading of the poem (beginning at approximately fifty-one-and-a-quarter minutes in, and concluding approximately fifty-four-and-a-half minutes in). Anne Waldman also attempts the poem (beginning approximately fifty-five minutes in). A transcription from that class (with the readings and the conversation around it) is available here]
[Actors, actors – here’s Sir John Gielgud (introduced by fellow actor Sir Ralph Richardson) – Gielgud’s recitation begins, after some prefatory recollections by Richardson about a minute-and-ten-seconds in). Here’s Vincent Price‘s 1956 recording (and, while we’re at it, his equally orotund rendition of Shelley’s “Ozymandias”)