Q & A – 2 – (Poetry and Revision)

Cover for First Thought Best Thought “Chögyam Trungpa’s book of poems, published in 1983 by Shambhala

AG: Yeah?

Student: ( I had some difficulty with your statement about poetry when you said (you advised not to) repeat again (that) you can’t go back and review)

AG: Yes. (I’m just repeating for the mic), you had difficulty with my statement last time when I said that.. “just write what comes down into your mind, you can’t go back and revise”.
Student: Right

AG: What was….

Student: I had difficulty with that, because I felt that maybe somebody who writes, they’ve reached the point of spontaneity where it came out…

AG: Yes

Student:  … but not necessarily someone who (just) started writing poetry yesterday.

AG: That you felt that might be useful for someone who has been writing a long time, but not for someone who just started.

My own experience is that the poems that I wrote and (reviewed and revised) and…(worked over) were much less communicative and much less fresh than the ones which.. (William Carlos) Williams, having rejected the Gates of Wrath poems, (he) suddenly saw something in (those) which were in the book Empty Mirror (an early book of mine), which were little prose fragments that I’d taken and set out and arranged in lines, unrevised, to look like poems.

I suddenly realized that what I has been writing naturally was a lot more alive than what I had been composing. That was when I was twenty-one or (twenty)-two. And then I got a further lesson in that.. when… (Jack Kerouac) kept pushing me and insisting  that I should actually reveal myself and actually write what I was talking about with my natural voice, instead of trying to be a big greedy poet and write big greedy poems, or big ambitious poems, with a craft gleam. And he insisted I sit down at the typewriter and type out just whatever I had scribbled in my notebooks, just as it was, in the form that it was. It was a poem, that wasn’t very good, about the Statue of Liberty, but I was so amazed how good it looked, when I got it down typed, that I got a lesson out of that, that there was something in what he was saying, But the condition is that, if you throw yourself off that cliff and accept the fate that comes, the writing then become utter, complete and final, and so there’s a seriousness that comes to your heart when writing, because you know you can never change it, so that you really have to say, once and forever, in this mortal time, whatever you can say. It’s like, if you burn your bridges behind you, you’ve got to stay on that shore, you’ve got to stay on that other shore of complete raw awareness, pain, fear, trembling, but, at the same time, nowhere to go but  forward.

Student: It seemed to me that you contradicted that in the beginning of the class with your statement that you wrote a haiku,  and then, after what (Chogyam) Trungpa said about haiku, you went back and added a line.

AG: Yes

Student: You went back and put something else on purpose.

AG: Added – Added. I think one problem was I was hung on writing a poem. There’s a hangover of wanting to write a poem. And so I picked on the flashiest and easiest object in the blue sky – cumulus clouds piled up above the white plutonium plant – and so pleased with myself for having at least seen something, I forgot my real thought, which was – “How am I going to change that?” – See? – which was actually my thought at the time. So there was a question of inattention The idea of “Don’t revise” is not necessarily a military regulaton that you can’t revise (because you can certainly revise). It’s just the attitude of mind of approaching the poem as the fresh thoughts of consciousness at the time of writing, rather than with the idea that you got more money in the bank, so you don’t have to spend your money now, or you got more money in the bank so you don’t have to carry a lot of money with you, that you don’t have to give it all at one moment, that there’s something in reserve. See, if you start with the supposition that you’re going to revise, you won’t give all to the moment, you won’t give everything  to the moment. If you start with the supposition that you’re going to die in a minute, you better say it completely then and there, or that you’ll never be able to change it, or that it would be, say, “wrong” to change it, you’re more likely to bring your full heart to the moment.
I revise all the time.

Student: (Well…) that’s what I saw. I saw that somebody can sit and meditate for twenty years and have a sudden insight of enlightenment, which is sudden and spontaneous in itself…

AG: Yes

Student:  …but it came after twenty years of sitting, whereas the same thing might (not) be true of somone who sits and writes spontaneous..

AG: Yes

Student: …(spontaneously) for twenty years and then suddenly…

AG: I think the learning how to write is actually the realization that the ordinary mind is sufficient already, and all you have to do is be true to that, be true to your mind of the moment. What I’m saying is it’s an attitude toward art, rather than rules, a minute-by-minute practice. As I said, I revise, but by this time the attitude is , “This is it, right now.

If I can’t do it now, I can’t really (do it later any) better”. So, if you start on that basis, you cultivate an attitude of presence all the time (and also cultivate an attitude of trust to your own mind, and playfulness with your own mind, and…(acceptance) of thoughts which are embarrassing, or shameful, or which seem wicked, which you might reject if you were thinking that you could choose what you are). So you have to accept what you are to work on that basis. And to accept what you are, having made a decision to accept what you are, you find (that) what it is (that) you are is more accessible than if you “postpone the acceptation” (that’s (Walt) Whitman‘s line (from “Song of Myself”  – “Shall I postpone the acceptation (and realization) and scream at my own eyes?) – [Editoral note – this was one of the lines he considered using as an epigraph to “Howl”]
Let us say, this is not so much.. to make it easy, this is not so much rules, as it is suggestions towards a tendency, or an attitude of mind, or cultivation of an attitude, not only towards the writing but towards the universe.

Student: I can understand the attitude better than..

AG: The practice?

Student: …than) expressing (it as) a discipline.

AG: Well, I would take it on as a discipline for a while, go through a period of experimentation, of cutting yourself off from the past, so to speak, or cutting yourself off from the future, and simply having to write in the moment of now, as if this were eternity and there were were to be no change. It’s an interesting experiment.

Student: When you reopen (that moment now) (in the poem) (or the practice)  is that any less….

AG: Well, from a practical point of view, you’d be better off starting a new poem, I’ve found. Otherwise, you get entangled in trying to cross-hatch your times and your thoughts of different times

Another problem is people disapprove of what they thought one time and want to revise it and hide it, and then, ten years later, they realize, “Well, my first impulse was kind of nice, actually. I was just being too moral the second time around.” It’s a question of trust, cultivating trust, cultivating confidence, self-confidence, cultivating proclamation, cultivating reliance on the universe as it is.

I revise.  Now, “Plutonian Ode“, a long poem written this summer [1978], is basically intact as first composed, but (with) a tremendous amount of tinkering. In fact, I even passed it around to physicists for technical advice on where my language was correct or incorrect,and (to) astronomers (because I had a lot of astronomical information that I had mytholologically gobbledegooked from Gregory Corso’s mouth and… )

[Audio for the above can be heard here, beginning at approximately thirty-seven minutes in,  and concluding at approximately forty-six-and-three-quarter minutes in]

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