Allen Ginsberg Reading in Baltimore – 1978 – 3 (Contest of Bards)


Väinämöinen in the Kalevala, the model for the Old Bard in Allen Ginsberg’s “Contest of Bards”

continuing from last weekend

Allen presents, as the last part of his reading at the Maryland Institute College of Art, February 16. 1978, a complete reading of his recently-completed epic poem,  “Contest of Bards”

AG: (The poem was written in), just about a year and.. a year and a month ago, here in town. (in Baltimore) – -[Editorial note – Ginsberg also elsewhere noted that sections were written in Washington DC] It’s divided into three parts. and I had been reading all through William Blake’s complete writings, and had been reading aloud Milton, Milton’s Paradise Lost, so the line is a long line like in “Howl” or “Kaddish”, a long oratorical line (so the word “oratory” is what Milton used in his Preface to Paradise Lost, and what Blake picked up on in his preface to Jerusalem, his big Prophetic book. So it’s oratory, which means it isn’t… It was written after those poems about my father (“Don’t Grow Old”), which are in spoken Americanese, in Paterson, New Jersey speech, and this is more like heroic epic style, high style oratory (but it’s mixed with demotic talk). It’s for oratory, chanting or reading aloud, and as with longer poems, each section (one of three sections. one short, the Preface, that sets the scene up, one long narrative section with the young bard and the old bard arguing, and then a little epilogue that’s short).Each section begins with an Argument, or an explanation of what’s going to happen in the section (so you can follow the plot, so it doesn’t get too confusing

[Beginning at approximately two minutes in (on tape two – side one) Allen begins reading (in its entirety) his long poem “Contest of Bards“, beginning with the opening “Argument”] –

Contest of Bards – Part 1 – the Argument – Old Bard lived in solitary stone house at ocean edge three decades retired from the world. Young poet arrives naked interrupting his studies & announces his own prophetic dreams to replace rhe old Bard’s boring verities. Young poet had dreamed of old poet’s scene & its hidden secret , on Eternal Rune cut in stone at the hearth-front hidden under porphyry bard-thone. Young bard tries to seduce old Boner with his energy & insight, & makes him crawl down on the floor to read the secret riddle Rhyme.” –

[ At approximately twelve minutes in, he reaches “the secret riddle Rhyme” – “Now The Rune –So, following, at the center of the poem, is a riddle song” – [From approximately twelve-and-a-quarter minutes in to approximately twenty-and-three-quarter minutes in, Allen performs “The Rune” – then continues]


Part 2 –The Contest of Bards – “The Argument – “The Rune having been discovered by the Boy to the Man, the messenger commands the Hermit Sage to go out into the world with him, seek the ancient unearthly Beauty the riddle indicated. The Oold man gets mad, says he’s near death, has lost Desire. the boy reads his mind and lays down with the sage to make love. At dawn, he gets up says he’s disgusted with the body, condemns the Sage to Chastity, demands the hermit leave his cell forever and promises to lead him to the land of Poetry in the Sky. Exasperated, the old bard reveals the secret of the mysterious riddle.”

and [at approximately eleven-and-three-quarter minutes in (tape 2 side B)] – Part 3 – The Argument – Last words spoken by the bard to the boy on a train between Washington and N.Y. – (including, from approximately fifteen-and-a-quarter minutes in to approximately seventeen-and-a-quarter minutes in, a reprise of  “The Rune”)

Thank you for hanging on so long . Thank you for hanging on so long. That was fun to read and your, like, listening  well enough, . and  (it was) very long and hard to orate through but, thank you, a pleasure – good evening..

[Audio for the above can be heard here, beginning at the beginning of Tape 2 Side A., and continuing until the end of Tape 2 Side B]  


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