“Once a toothless woman opened her door,/chewing a slice of bacon that hung from her mouth like a tongue”
– The most hideous image in American… and the most memorable (it’s one of the most memorable things I’ve ever read) – “Once a toothless woman opened her door,/chewing a slice of bacon that hung from her mouth like a tongue” – You can really see it – And then his comment – “This is where I walked night after night;/this is where I walked away many years.”
That was his [Charles Reznikoff’s] life – but a life so full of fine perception of what was there that when we read it now (this is, like, fifty years later, or fifty-five years later [or more]) it’s totally present. His perception is totally present. His emotion is totally present. The emotion.. Imagine the emotion in relation to that kitten [“Kitten, pressed into a rude shape by cart wheels/ an end to your slinking away and trying to hide behind/ash-cans”], the emotion in relation to the dog with the swollen udder [“A bitch, backbone and ribs…her swollen udder nearly rubbing along the pavement”], the horror and disgust of the toothless woman with the slice of bacon. Those are emotions, and everybody’s yakking about how they want to show emotions in their poetry. The way he’s done it is simply by being totally accurate to what stimulated the emotion in him, by observing so completely clearly – or by being so present – or by not trying to generalize it, but (by) trying to recall, or reconstitute, the sensation. By gathering the data that caused the sensation, the objective external data that caused the sensation, he’s been able to reconstitute that sensation in us. It’s like (Paul) Cezanne trying to reconstitute the sensation of space in his canvases. Here, by reconstituting the data, the primary sensory data, he’s been able to transfer that emotional affective blood-gush into our bodies.. Yeah?
Student: In a way, he suggests that you have these emotions. In a way, he says, you should have these emotions..
AG: Well, he’s not really asking. He’s presenting it with such clarity that you can’t help but have it – like him
Student: But there’s some ways (that he’s using ) sentimental language. He’s kind of forcing…
AG: Any other way would be forcing it. Here, the astounding thing is that the precision or objectivity – the objectivity of his approach – strangely results in a totally subjective fountain of tears. When I was reading that poem about the kitten, when I realized that thing again, I could hardly get through it. And I’ve wept over him any number of times. Alone, or reading it aloud, because the emotions are so.. not so strong (but) so clear. That’s what so tragic – that it’s all so clear – the truth is so obvious – that there is a truth so obvious, that relationships are so true, so visible, that the tragedy is so unobstructedly seen, that there’s no wash of sentimentality over it, or no wash of excuse, or no attempt to deform it, or no attempt to egotize it and make it romantic. It’s just there where it is, and where it is is just so pure and beautifully so, you can’t help but cry, because it’s life. And it’s just like your life or anybody’s life. Instead of him trying to gild the lily. He’s not trying to gild the lily. So it’s a kind of anti-poetry, not trying to gild the lily, but had it ever been tried before, I wonder? I don’t think before the twentieth-century it had ever been tried – a writing of poetry which didn’t try to gild the lily, which actually just tried to present relationships as they are – objectively, with the images – objectively.
The reason I’m talking like this is here (particularly, say, Naropa, but anywhere), we run into all sorts of younger poets, or older poets, who insist on forcing emotion, who insist that the way to emotion is by getting drunk and beating you over the head with their wine bottle, or by insisting that the only way you can do it is to gild the lily with so much heavy gold that there’s no lily left but there’s a lot of gold, or that things are so important that you’ve got to deal with them as (if) they were universal abstractions, and you can’t tell about your toe-nail! You are not important but the emotion is somehow so important.
Well, I haven’t really defined it but I think you all know what I’m talking about, so I will try to define it. That is to say, (that) there is an idea that, I am a poet, and poetry is hard, because beauty is difficult, because you’ve got to make it up, because only a poet can make it up, so therefore you’ve got to take all the shit I lay on you and, I got to get drunk to make it up so it’ll be really beautiful, and it can’t be seen except through the eyes of the poet, and, anyway, it can’t be seen, so what the fuck, so therefore you’ve got to use curse words and abstractions to transfer the emotion over to the other side, to the other reader, and the emotion is generally aggression, really, against the language, against the reader, against everybody, instead of non-aggressive description of what actually was there, so, like, a more humble approach of what’s there, in detail.
I keep running into younger poets here (like those two guys that were here the first day that had their (Jack) Kerouac wine bottles) whose conception was an abstraction, whose conception of what the scene was here was an abstraction. The second and third days they came down, actually. They were recognized. They came down, got a little more grounded, were actually interested in what was going on. But their approach originally was that it was all fantasy rather than real. And so the approach of certain poets is that poetry is a fantasy, rather than something real – real, in the sense of… Yeah?
Student: But, say something like, for example, (the poetry of) Philip Lamantia, where it gets way out there and is something that’s not real. Would that be..
Student: … a comparable quality to this?
AG: I think this is even better than Lamantia maybe – but Lamantia is a great poet – Hart Crane is crazed language.
Yeah, there is that. We’ll get to that in the Mahayana and Vajrayana portions. But what I’m trying to establish is the ground. And, in a way, the ground is as good as the end, the path or the fruition. The ground is as good as the crazy stuff. Because, actually, the real answer is that Lamantia couldn’t be crazy without being grounded first. That is, his craziness wouldn’t be interesting unless it was based upon real apprehension of the rhythms of his own speech, real mastery of that, on the use of American speech and slang mixed up with classical references, so that the Surrealism comes with that juxtaposition and with the basic down, hip attitudes and basic realism of his intellectual playfulness. He’s already grounded so therefore he can get up there and play around. It isn’t egotism on his part, or let us say, it isn’t trying to force it so much. It isn’t trying to force it on the basis of ignorance of the ground. So, basically, when I said Hinayana-Mahayana-Vajrayana poetry, I was saying, “Let’s start on the ground” (and for “ground”, I’m pointing to (William Carlos) Williams and (Charles) Reznikoff – and getting through Reznikoff real slowly)
“Howl” is basically based on (William Carlos Williams) and yet you get “hydrogen jukebox(es)” – But it’s “hydrogen” and “jukeboxes”. It’s a hydrogen bomb and actual jukeboxes observed, so I abstract the elements from the real things. So the real interesting Surrealism is, simply, you abstract from something and you take elements from here and there but you take elements from real scenes. You don’t make it up in your head or out of other words. Well, you make it up in your head, obviously, but I mean you don’t imitate somebody else’s craziness. You draw your craziness from your own ground – or you draw your complicatedness, or you draw your exuberance, (exuberant complications with exuberance and with complication), from a real solid ground, rather than. .just having trained in the ground (or not even trained but acknowledged the ground, with a sense of humor).
First you acknowledge the ground with a sense of humor, then you can go anywhere, as long as you know what’s there. Because then everybody knows you’re sane. Then you’re playing on the basis of , “Okay, we acknowledge the ground, the ground is there, now let’s make-believe it’s not there and write about angels”. Okay. Then it’s pure play. And it’s trustworthy. But there’s the other guys where the ground is not there – “There’s only me and I’m an angel and I’m going to write about angels and fuck you if you don’t listen to my poetry!”. So then you say, “Ah, well, fuck him. He’s just another bullshit artist, instead of somebody who’s actually making a pretty thing”
[Audio for the above can be heard here, beginning at approximately forty-six-and-a-half minutes in and concluding at approximately fifty-six-and-three-quarter minutes in]