More Ginsberg on Kerouac – 1982 at The Kerouac Conference

“Portrait of Jack Kerouac w/ Brakeman’s Manual in Pocket, 1953” – Photograph by Allen Ginsberg c. The Estate of Allen Ginsberg

We’ve been featuring transcripts this past week from Allen Ginsberg’s 1982 Naropa poetry workshop at the gathering there that year celebrating the twenty-fifth anniversary of the publication of Jack Kerouac’s On The Road. We continue with the follow-up class, July 25th. Beginning in media res, Allen is presenting (as he was here), several pithy slogans (later, gathered together and codified as Mindwriting Slogans)

AG: “No ideas but in..facts”, “The natural object is always the adequate symbol”, “Things are symbols of themselves” “Pay attention to minute particulars, take care of the little ones”, “Close to the nose” (William Carlos Williams), “Only objectified emotion endures” (Louis Zukofsky), “Only objectified emotion endures”. So if you have a big freak-out and say, “Agh! I saw the light! , I saw the light! – and it’s all over me! – I saw the light!”, rather than  “tin flash of sun dazzle on the waters” [Editorial note – from Canto II of Ezra Pound’s Cantos] or, “the church’s towers crooked mirrored on the glassy surface of the Venetian canals” – “The church’s towers crooked mirrored on the glassy surface of the Venetian canals”, or “tin flash of sun dazzle” (the “tin flash of sun dazzle” is Ezra Pound‘s description of the flash of light on water in the Mediterranean – “tin flash of sun dazzle”. So, whatever charge he got out of that, he was able to objectify (objectify, in this sense of making little objects out of it of words) – “Crooked mirrored on the glassy surface” was my own attempt at an imitation of the description of light on water in Venice (which I presented to Pound as a sample of following his method of direct treatment of the object, quote, unquote – a direct treatment of the thing – or, to paraphrase Pound – direct treatment of the object).   So all these are basic grounding that I was talking about, in terms of where you begin if you don’t know how to write. At least you begin with real things, or with something that is objective  (objective, in the sense of something you can see, smell, taste, touch, hear – or think). Think is another… I mean, thought is another sense – of the six senses – sight smell, sound taste, touch – and thought (because there is the mind). So, if you quote your own thoughts, those are objects also. If you get lost in your thoughts, well, then you’re just lost in your thoughts, in that sort of watery, imprecise abstraction, but if you quote your own thought, that’s alright. Like, “Yesterday, I was walking down the street, and, as the sun glinted off the car, I thought, “tin flash of sun dazzle” – So you can quote your thought. If you stand outside of your thought and quote it, it becomes another object. So you don’t have to worry about whether or not you can include your subjective thoughts, you sure can, as long as you treat them as objects.

So all this is pretty abstract, but I’m presenting basic slogans, useful to beginners, middle practitioners and advanced practitioners of poetry. All need and begin with a basic grounding in some sense of reality (and it’s not very far from journalism, actually – who, what,where, when, why, or whatever, whatever sequence of facts that a journalist will have to do for reporting (because he’s not really allowed to editorialize, theoretically, but he is allowed to present the details that lead to a conclusion, rather than just refer to them and give the conclusion. And so Pound also has a term – reference and presentation – how many have heard of that? – in Pound, reference versus presentation? – In conversation with Pound in 1967 in Venice, he said, The Cantos are a mess”. And I said, “What’s the matter?”. And he said, “Too much reference, not enough presentation”. And “reference” means, “It’s a lovely day”, “presentation” is “…No cloud in the sky, sun over green flatirons of heat shimmering from the sidewalk”, or whatever –  So, in other words, you present the facts of the situation rather than a generalization. So, the poetic exercise we’ve been doing was grounded on the idea of  waking up where you are in space, to recapitulate – where we left off, waking up where you are in space, noticing it, noticing the place,place-name, or the idea, or the conception, or te map, or the street, or the name of the building, or the fact that  you’re a human being, or the fact that you’re panting tired, or, just had lunch, or… And then,  having given name and form to the immensity of the space, and name and form to the spot you are in the space, you then have your emotional reaction, so to speak, or your comment, or your after-thought. In a way, it’s like that famous Basho haiku an Old Pond…the sound of the frog jumping..and then the after-thought, or commen,t or after ripple of thought – Splash!

(Jack) Kerouac has got a lot of good haiku. Someone brought me a copy of Scattered Poems to suggest that I read some and that’s a great idea. He said “Some Western haikus” and they’re based on flash-moment perceptions. So.. What I was saying..when I was talking about the three stages, of space, recognition and comment, I was trying to analyze, “What is a thought?”. Actually, bring it down to that. What is, actually, a thought? What does a thought consist in? If you were trying to define the structure of a thought, what is it? – Or how.. the best is “How can a thought be remembered?” or “How is a thought remembered?”, or “In what form does a thought arrive in the mind?. So I was thinking in..I was describing picture and I was describing word, but also I was trying to give a skeleton of the thought. So I am suggesting this is the skeleton of a thought-form – flash-recognition-and-after-comment. Or its flash-recognition-and then you suddenly realize you had the thought. In other words, you have a thought and then you realize you had the thought. You have a thought, recognize it, and then you realize you’ve just had it, and then all of a sudden you have another thought and you recognize it and you realize you had that! – And that actually is probably is the way the mind works. And it probably could happen..I think the fastest synaptic reaction is.. a synaptic reaction is one fifty-two asecond – fifty two times a second. Anybody know?  It’s as swift as synapses give messages across the nerve patterns, nerve junctures. So you can probably have fifty two thoughts a second..and, broken up into that form

So Kerouac’s haiku are just a little..things that he noticed, things that he just noticed he noticed, things that he noticed and then he noticed he noticed them and wrote them down. So it wasn’t that he invented anything. It’s just that he noticed something and then he noticed he noticed it, and then he wrote it down. So it’s the same thing you notice, you notice you notice, and then your comment is writing it down.

“Arms folded/ to the moon,/ Among the cows” –  “Birds singing in the dark/In the rainy dawn” – “Elephants munching/ on grass – loving /Heads side by side” – Its..the funny thing of that, it just seems to be big heads, big loving heads, side by side, munching on the grass – The one I like the best, actually, one of  the best  – “Missing a kick/ at the icebox door/.It closes anyway” – He’s really funny! – His own anger he’s got there, as well as the uselessness of it, in a way.  “Perfect moonlit night/ marred/By family squabbles” – “This July evening,/ A large frog/ On my doorsill” – (actually, haiku is very often seventeen syllables and he very often does it that way – that’s only twelve actually – “Catfish fighting for his life,/ and winning,/Splashing us all” – “Shall I say no?/- fly rubbing/ its back legs – &   This is my favorite, actually – “Unencouraging sign/ – the fish-store/Is closed” – that’s pretty funny ’cause, you know, it’s like unencouraging sign, drugstore is closed or the liquor store is closed – and the way he says “Unencouraging sign” – sort of like out of the I Ching, a very, a sort of Daoist discouragement. “Straining at the padlock/the garage doors/ At noon” – One of the things I liked about that is, it’s the wind that he’s talking about. He doesn’t have to mention the wind because he’s got the garage doors straining at the padlock, which is like that frog haiku of Basho, I think – (actually, the original haiku was just the old pond and then the sound of water splashing and then “kerplunk”, I’m not sure that the frog is even mentioned in the original Basho haiku about the frog splash) – “Straining at the padlock/the garage doors/ At noon” – Kerouac is here presenting the wind, by presenting the effects of the wind on the garage door, without having to say “wind” and without having to say, “It’s a windy day”. Instead of saying “It’s a windy day”, he says  “Straining at the padlock/the garage doors/ At noon”. That’s one of the most perfect, because he’s conjured up the wind by the effect of the wind passing through the universe, or passing through the scene – “And the quiet cat/ sitting by the post/Perceives the  moon” – “Juju beads on the/ Zen Manual:/ My knees are cold”  –  “The bottoms of my shoes/ are wet/from walking in the rain” – [to Students] – Do you all know these by any chance? – How many here don’t know these haiku? Never heard? – How many have? – About half and half. Well, Kerouac is probably the greatest American haiku maker, just by accident, simply because his mind flashed and he could write it down fast, and he wasn’t worried about literature, he was just going direct to the perception – “The bottoms of my shoes/are wet/ from walking in the rain” – Now how.. so the question is, “How come he would notice the bottoms of his shoes anyway?” Well, doesn’t everybody notice the bottom of their shoes? – but nobody pays attention to the bottoms of their shoes, and nobody notices that they notice the bottom of their shoes. Everybody notices it, but nobody notices that they noticed it. So, it’s sort of like the first thought that you have, but then you’re not sure that you had it, because you didn’t think you could use it, or it didn’t seem to have any function, it was just another, like, “look at the wall”, “look at the ceiling”, “(look at) the bottom of your shoes”. Except he was constantly noticing the wall, the ceiling and the bottom of the shoes –  and “the inside of the medicine cabinet”.

So from that comes another phrase, “First thought, best thought”. Did we use that yesterday? Did I mention that?..Yeah…and was that understood, what “First thought, best thought” means? It doesn’t mean first cheap remark, it doesn’t mean first self-conscious talk-babble to the self, it doesn’t mean first shallow self-conscious snide remark, it means the first inadvertent thought, the first undirected thought, the first unborn thought, that is the thought you can’t trace how you got to it, the first thought that just came up by itself, without your straining and without your being self-conscious. Like “the bottoms of my shoe are wet”. That kind of thought is a first thought. That’s (Chogyam) Trungpa’s phrase – “First thought, best thought”. And a corollary with that (which I don’t think I did get to yesterday) is “If the mind is shapely..” (which is to say unembarrassed, unselfconscious, unstrained) – “If the mind is shapely, the art will be shapely”. Did we get that one yesterday? So, Lucien Carr reduced that to “Mind is shapely – comma – Art is shapely” – he shaped that up – “Mind is shapely, art is shapely” (mainly, because the mind itself is one mind and is shapely and notices the bottom of the shoes, wet from walking in the rain, therefore any poem which depends just on straightforward mind will be shapely. You don’t have to worry about shaping it up. You have to worry about shaping up your mind not shaping up the poem. You don’t have to worry about shaping up your mind if you just look at your mind, because the mind is already in shape. You may not be in shape but your mind’s in shape. So.. Just look at your mind and you’ll find it’s in shape, because what is..  the shape of the mind is what is..what it notices. So what the mind notices is the shape of the mind. What the mind notices is the object, so to speak. When (Louis) Zukofsky said, “Only emotion objectified endures”, he means only what the mind notices in a state of emotion can be written down to express what that emotion was. Only what the mind notices outside of itself, in a state of high emotion, can be written down, and so that will serve as an objective co-relative (objective correlative) to give a picture of the mind itself. Or, the mind is the pictures it perceives, really, (because the mind is empty, actually, it just has flashes and then empties, and has flashes and empties). And so if you wanted to describe the state of your mind or emotions then you describe what you see outside of your  eyeballs, outside of your skull.

“In my medicine cabinet/the winter fly/ has died of old age” – And this is a really subtle piece of noticing – “November – how nasal/ the drunken/ Conductor’s call” – on the railroad – (have you ever heard that (one)? – [Allen mimics the railroad man – “Paolo Alto!”) – “how nasal/ the drunken/ Conductor’s call” – He has a lot in that – “nasal”, “November”, nasal sounds, you know – we all know what that is – “drunken nasal sound” – the “drunken Conductor” – it’s a whole railroad he’s got going there, calling the stations. So it’s a whole lifetime, or a whole novel packed up into those  “November – how nasal/ the drunken/ Conductor’s call” – thirteen syllables?. Thirteen syllables, it’s amazing. “A big fat flake/ of snow/ Falling all alone” – Everybody’s seen one big fat flake of snow falling all alone,except he noticed he noticed it, “The summer chair/ rocking by itself/ In the blizzard” – That’s a little bit like (the one about) the padlocks and the garage door – “Straining at the padlock,/ the garage doors/ At noon” – You get the  wind of the blizzard rocking  the chair – (the) “summer chair rocking by itself in the blizzard”. So it’s kind of inadvertent (like I say, that’s the only way you can define it), it’s like inadvertent noticings. Now that’s ordinary mind, basically. It’s not super-mind, supernatural mind, it’s not crazy mind, it’s not insane mind, it’s not supreme poetic mind, it’s not transcendental mind, it’s everyday mind, every day ordinary mind. And those of you who are big subtle philosophers will recognize that phrase, “ordinary mind”, as being the classic traditional description of the highest state in Zen Buddhist practice. Ordinary mind – in other words, getting rid of projections of transcendental weirdo apocalypse light-blast flashes and getting grounded in what is already there visible but unnoticed. So the way you would widen the area of consciousness is to notice what you’re not noticing, or be aware of what you hadn’t noticed you ‘d noticed. Or the description of the state of ordinary mind is to notice what you hadn’t noticed you’d noticed. You begin in meditation practice with the breath. In poetry, you begin by noticing the thoughts you had, just like in meditation you begin with noticing your breath, the poetic yoga (yoking together of  body and mind) is noticing the thought that you had. So that’s the beginning of poetry. And the simplest form is the first flash, So you call it haiku because the Japs [sic] were smart at it, and got it there, like, in one little fire-cracker. So the three-line poem assignment that we had was to get us involved in that particular practice of  noticing, noticing that we noticed and then writing it down.

[Audio for the above can be heard here, beginning at the beginning of the tape and concluding at approximately eighteen-and-three-quarter minutes in] 

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