Allen’s 1980 Naropa Basic Poetics continues
Student: Is that the only valid poetry then, citing particulars?
AG: Well, that’s a generalization.
AG: All I’m saying is there’s lots of poetry like that, you know, an enormous amount of poetry is like that. For us beginning students (including me), let’s begin in somewhere real where we can begin, instead of somewhere up in the air where we can’t begin at all. Because, if we have nowhere we can stand, then there’s no point in my standing here. I mean, if there’s no place, with specific.. if there’s no place, with feet on the floor and carpets and senses, then it’s hardly possible to talk.
AG: Give me a for instance?
Student; For instance, when he’s having the d-t’s, and he’s tripping through sort of a Dantean level of Hell, and he’s writing…
AG: You’d have to be.. No, you’d have to get the text and bring up the text, because you’ll find, especially in Kerouac..
Oh, the other.. the other… axiom – Kerouac – quote – “Details are the life of the novel” – unquote. “Details are the life of the novel” (and he means just “details”, like we’ve been talking about). You’ll probably find that in the more hallucinatory parts of Big Sur there are hallucinations made of very specific details (like the giant terrific hard-on on the mule, or something like that, which is very clearly described and made you know, in such reddened… such red..
Student: He’s describing a vividly slow grinding sex act, back in the…
AG: Get the text, and we’ll look, word-by-word, whether it’s something way up in the air, or whether this hallucinatory vision is composed of little specific noticings
Student: Oh yes, it’s really specific and concrete, you know, as if..
AG: That’s what I’m talking about. That’s all I’m talking about. That’s all I’m talking about, that, even if you’re going to have a vision, you have to present it in concrete terms, with “minute particulars”, details, specifics, recombinations of sensory.. ok? You had your hand up?
AG: Something? You were saying something?
Student: Well, it did include our minds (as well)….
AG: I didn’t mean your mind, (but), (well,) go ahead, and say it..
Student: …(No), I was confused about what you were saying, but, you’ve cleared it up (now) by what you said.
AG: Oh, yeah, I said it before. Mind, the crystal ball, will recombine all the colors of the other senses. You make combinations. Mind is an immense computer. Anyone who can take down all those details and break them down into units and bits, and reconstruct them like cut-ups make all sorts of amazing things, but, just for sanity’s sake, and for good poetry’s sake.. .See, the purpose of this course is not to study literature, but.. I mean, not to study literature for a literature course, but to provide you with some useable insight into your own writing . So that’s why I’m beginning to lay down at the very beginning – be.. stay real, stick with reality if you want to write some unreal poetry, start off with some reality, because there’s always the.. I’ve found, here in Naropa, and all over, in dealing with younger poets, and older poets, (that) mediocrity is generally lack of specificity, lack of minute particular detail, lack of outline (as (William) Blake would say), outline, definite outline
So, that was Shakespeare (Shakespeare’s “minute particulars”), and we’ll get back to that later. Not that all poetry’s got to be just that. It’s just that there’s got to be that ground to begin with. Or that should be borne in mind, that basic direction, for your own writing.
Now in modern days, there was a theory of Imagism, as it was called (it was a theory called “Imagism”, and (an)other, “Objectivism” American poetics, an American poetry development, that tried to get down to specifics, and tried to follow up the theories that I just mentioned). So I’ll read a couple of little samples of famous, or well-known, modern poets who’ve written in this way, not with rhyme, just direct treatment of the object
“The wind blows the rain into our faces as we go down the hillside upon rusted cans and old newspapers past the tree on whose bare branches the boys have hung iron hoops until we reach at last the crushed earthworms stretched and stretching on the wet sidewalk”
– What is unusual about that is that..well, it’s a good enough description of an old lot in a rain – “rusted cans and old newspapers” – pretty nearly anybody can write that..(though this was written in nineteen.. probably nineteen twenty, probably, when it was unusual to allow your mind to think about rusty cans as part of poetry. That was a big discovery). But, beyond the rusty cans, “past the tree on whose bare branches the boys have hung iron hoops” – That’s pretty interesting – like a haiku – I mean, some stretch.. exercise of poetic imagination on the part of the..
[(to Student) you might go, please, get some chairs – Student – Get some chairs? – AG: Yes, go get some chairs..settle in, it would be easier..]
Student: Who’s that poem by?
AG: Charles Reznikoff – Poems 1918-1936 – Volume 1 – The Complete Poems of Charles Reznikoff, Black Sparrow Press
Student: Would that be required text for the course?
AG: Well, if you want to learn how to write poetry I would say so, not for the course . But I would say it’s one of the best handbooks you could… I would say it’s one of the best handbooks you could check out. In a previous term’s courses, I’ve used this and William Carlos Williams‘Collected Earlier Poems just as grounding for beginners and for advanced students. It’s really worth reading. (If you can’t find itm it’s in the library).
So, so you’ve got the “bare branches (where) the boys have hung iron hoops”, which is like a little stretch of imaginative noticing, it’s a little beyond just “rusty cans” it’s, actually, a little like a haiku, some magical little action by the kids, where they’ve hung iron hoops on the bare branches and left them, and a guy walks by on the empty lot and sees them – so there’s some kind of athletic poeticism there – “until we reach at last” – what? – the crushed earthworms stretched and stretching on the wet sidewalk” – and that’s really uncanny, because, we’ve all seen that, after the rain (because you remember it began “The wind blows the rain into our faces”), we’ve all seen that after the rain, but hardly anybody has had the poetic presence of mind to write that down, although it’s (so) elemental, and it’s also..it’s as big as the atom bomb in terms of ecological weirdness, because, you know, this particular phenomena of earthworms on sidewalk “stretched and stretching on the wet sidewalk” is a wholly new.. a wholly new phenomena, you know.. only in the last two thousand years have people noticed that. Usually the earthworms are in their earth, or in their natural place, but there’s lawns, and then there’s sidewalks, and then there’s (a) little grass margin by the roadside, and then there’s worms lost on this path (he might have had them among precipices and rocks.. Yellowstone… but this particular, very urban, or sub-urban..haiku ..or suburban event, miracle, whatever, poetic freak, this suburban freak of nature – “earthworms stretched and stretching on the wet sidewalk” – crushed earthworms – that’s pretty.. it tells you all the story of the earthworm and of life itself, but it’s also this whole..this particular civilization that’s sketched, (like a fast Cezanne sketch – you know, like when he’s got Mount Sainte Victoire in just a couple of lines, a couple of colors, Cezanne watercolors , late late late Cezanne where it’s all reduced to just the… “By what particulars is this mountain significant?” “By what particulars is he significant? – Do you follow me? -By what particular stand-out optical angles, colors…. ?
These days.. the papers in the street/ leap into the air or burst across the lawns – / not a scrap but has the breath of life:/ These and a gust of wind/ play about./Those, for a moment, lie still and sun themselves (The first line was “These days the papers in the street/ leap in the air or burst across the lawns” (it’s also a very modern noticing)
William Carlos Williams has a very similar poem.. does anybody know that? – “The Term”, it’ called – “The Term” – “A rumpled sheet/of brown…” – Did everybody get the last poem? – Did anybody space out on it and miss it?.. It’s about wind – I’ll read it again – “These days the papers in the street/ leap into the air or burst across the lawns -/ not a scrap but has the breath of life:/ These and a gust of wind/ play about./ Those, for a moment, lie still and sun themselves” – There’s a little anthropomorphic projection on it but it’s a good description – (And) “The Term” (probably written around the same year, because they were friends, Charles Reznikoff and Williams, William Carlos Wlliams) – “A rumpled sheet/ of brown paper/about the length/ and apparent bulk/of a man was/rolling with the/wind slowly over/ and over in the street as/a car drove down/upon it and/ crushed it to/the ground.Unlike/a man it rose/again rolling/with the wind over/and over to be as/it was before. – Pretty funny – so there were two.. but – “those for a moment, lie still and sun themselves” – The two guys were like scientists, observing phenomena, the same phenomena (but very particular phenomena, phenomena from the descriptions)
So more Reznikoff, some more – “Walk about a subway station/ in a grove of steel pillars/how their knobs, the rivet-heads -/unlike those of oaks -/ are regularly placed/how barren the ground is/except here and there on the platform/ a fat black fungus/that was chewing-gum” – Has everybody seen that on pavements – the “fat black fungus/that was chewing-gum”? Has anybody here ever written about it? – or has anybody here ever read a poem about it? – And how many times have you seen that.. in your twentieth-century existence? – you know, just part of our ordinary, everyday experience, every day we see it
Somebody did write a poem about snot under the desk! I have seen a poem like that. One student did last year..
Well, “Coming up the subway stairs I thought the moon /only another streetlight,/ a little crooked.” – “The white gulls hover above the glistening river where the sewers empty their slow ripples” – that’s pretty good, because the gulls are (after) the detritus from the sewers.
Student: Can you read that one again?
AG:”The white gulls hover above the glistening river” – that’s real pretty, that – “where the sewers empty their slow ripples” – “After Rain” – “The motor cars on the shining street move in semi-circles of spray/semi-circles of spray” – (he liked it so much he repeated it) – (Has) everybody seen that at some time or other? – “The motor cars on the shining street move in semi-circles of spray/semi-circles of spray” – “After Rain” (so the street’s flooded) – “Suburb” – If a naturalist came to this hillside,/ he’d find many old newspapers among the weeds/to study.” – “This smoky winter morning – /do not despize the green jewel shining among the twigs/because it is a traffic light” – “About the railway station as the taxi cabs leave/ the smoke from their exhaust pipes is murky blue./ stinking flowers, budding, unfolding over the ruts in the snow” – This may be the best, actually – “If there is a scheme/perhaps this too is in the scheme/as when a subway car turns on a switch/the wheels screeching against the rails/and the lights go out/but are on again in a moment” – Has everybody been in the subwat and had that happen? Anybody not been in a subway? Well, it happens at subways – “If there is a scheme/perhaps this too is in the scheme/as when a subway car turns on a switch/the wheels screeching against the rails/and the lights go out/but are on again in a moment” – that’s so archetypal of an experience in New York that it’s amazing it’s not written about more, but this was, I guess, first notated in the (19)20’s – “When the sky is blue the water over the sandy bottom is/ green/They have dropped newspapers on it, cans, a bedspring, sticks/ and stones/but these the/ patient waters corrode, those a patient moss/ covers” – that’s a pretty picture of the “patient moss” – Okay, so that’s a little touch of Reznikoff “clamping his mind down” on objects, being actual.
And then a little, a few samples of William Carlos Williams doing more or less the same – actually, doing more or less the same as Shakespeare, here – “New books of poetry…” – It’s called “A Coronal” – “New books of poetry will be written/New books and unheard of manuscripts/will come wrapped in brown paper/and many and many a time/the postman will bow/and sidle down the leaf-plastered steps/thumbing over other men’s business/ But we..” – (meaning poets of his time) – “we ran ahead of it all/One coming after/could have seen her footprints/in the wet and followed us/among the stark chestnuts..” – (“her”‘s Spring, the Goddess of Spring, I think – It’s like the Shakespeare line) – “Anemones sprang where she pressed/and cresses/ stood green in the slender source-/ And new books of poetry/will be written, leather-colored oak leaves/many and many a time.” – (he’s just saying, “Spring will come – and people will be writing. People also will be Springing. People also will have their mental, emotional, literary Spring)
Student: What was the title of that poem?
AG: “A Coronal” – C-O-R-O-N-A-L – I sent him a (little) book of poems wrapped in a brown manuscript too. That’s why I noticed this poem years later (when I was thinking hard!) – “New books of poetry will be written/New books and unheard of manuscripts/will come wrapped in brown…”
So, just a couple of things to those who… “To A Poor Old Woman” – “Munching on a plum on/ the street a paper bag/ of them in her hand/ They taste good to her/ They taste good/ to her. They taste/ good to her/ You can see it by/ the way she gives herself/ to the one half/ sucked out of her hand./ Comforted/ a solace of ripe plums/seeming to fill the air/They taste good to her.”
“Late For Summer Weather” – He has on/ an old light grey Fedora/She a black beret/ He a dirty sweater/She an old blue coat/that fits her tight/ Grey flapping pants/Red skirt and/broken-down black pumps/ Fat Lost Ambling/ nowhere through/the upper town they kick/ their way through/ heaps of/ fallen maple leaves/ still green – and/ crisp as dollar bills/ Nothing to do. Hot cha!”
“Proletarian Portrait” – “A big young bareheaded woman/ in an apron/ Her hair slicked back standing/on the street/ One stockinged foot toeing/the sidewalk./ Her shoe in her hand. Looking/intently into it./ She pulls out the paper insole/ to find the nail./ That has been hurting her.”
So, okay, that’s (William Carlos) Williams.
[Audio for the above can be found here, beginning at approximately eleven-and-a-half minutes and concluding at approximately thirty-one-and-three-quarter minutes in]