Sapphic Concision (“On Neal Cassady’s Ashes”)

Allen Ginsberg’s 1980 Naropa “Basic Poetics” class continues from here

AG: I took a poem that I had written, that was in an almost-Sapphic style, in 1968, “On Neal Cassady’s Ashes”, (which is a little classic, which is in some anthologies already. I don’t know if any of you are familiar with it) …Yeah…and I re-wrote it last night, also, so it would fit (the) Sapphic form. I had to take out about six words and it all fit, so it goes… And I found it..  I had done it unconsciously already, because the original first line was “Delicate eyes that blinked blue Rockies all ash” – “Delicate eyes..” – that’s an eleven-syllable line –

“Delicate eyes that blinked blue Rockies, all ash/Nipples, ribs I touched w/my thumb are ash/Mouth my tongue touched once or twice all ash/bony cheeks soft on my belly are Cinder, ash/earlobes & eyelids, youthful cock-tip, curly pubis/breast warmth,  high school thigh,/, asshole anneal’d to/silken skin all ashes, all ashes again”

So the “soft on my belly” and “all ashes again”, which were built into the original poem, form proper adonics.. But I was surprised to find that I really…I had some idea of the form in my mind but I hadn’t counted it out ever, as we should have done in the class.

Student: Could we hear  it again with the line-breaks?

AG: Okay with the line breaks, or without ? – “Delicate eyes that blinked blue Rockies, all ash/Nipples, ribs I touched w/my thumb are ash/Mouth my tongue touched once or twice all ash/bony cheeks soft on my belly are Cinder, ash/earlobes & eyelids, youthful cock-tip, curly pubis/breast warmth,  high school thigh,/, asshole anneal’d to/silken skin all ashes, all ashes again”

So I just took out a couple of words. I think “man palm” – I had the phrase “man palm” and one other little phrase – “baseball bicept arm” – “man palm”,  baseball bicept arm”  I took those two phrases out and  then everything fitted into place, or squoze into place,.  It was, sort of, built-in, a little bit, not totally.

It may be that trying to do it too exactly is just a drag because it might… I thought of..  What’s the use of  learning ancient meters? – You get it in your bones, I keep saying, so that you ….it comes out another way than any literal application, you just have to develop an ear for music so that anything you write will carry the subtlety of everything you’ve learned (learned with your body, at any rate – it’s not the mind, it’s learned in your body, in terms of rhythmic..rhythmics) – (now we’ve been on the Sapphic hendecasyllables so long I feel I hear it walking the street da-da da-da da-da da da da da-da da da, like, you know, like (I could) compose songs in it actually. So I hear it all the time and, naturally, any writing I do will probably sooner or later reflect that. And then staying up last night for..  just working continuously for twelve solid hours, completely absorbed  (you know,like, doing nothing but drinking Ovaltine, malted milk, drinking malted milk all night, and just staying in one chair, at one place, under one lamp with, like, ten pieces of paper, just working over and over  again, focused on one thing – like meditation practice where you just stay on your breath – in this case, just staying on the sequence of the lines), you get into a funny trance state. So, about four in the morning, I noticed my mind was beginning to disperse a little and I.. and it would take me an hour or two hours a stanza rather than five minutes. So the question I was wondering is,  What is the point of teaching ancient forms, whether (from) English or other languages? – (Ezra) Pound always recommended it, saying that you should get as many rhythms into your head as possible from as many languages. Well, in general, that’s good, but then what about the actual intellectual effort of studying and knowing a form and then winding up writing in it?  I always myself opposed that and didn’t think it was a good idea because I think that the form itself would begin to dictate – the form which is accompanying, or concomitant rhythmic pulsation, or cadence, will (would) begin to dictate the cadence of your heart thought, and so perhaps distort some original spirit of perception and emotional upsurge that might lead to, that might be built into, a poem. And I’m not sure, actually. I’m  just posing the question, whether the continuous repetition of a fixed structure and memorization of it will then begin to collect emotions around it, and whether you’ll begin casting your own personal emotions into that slightly different emotional cadence, as in a Sapphic – or is it possible that a stanza such as the Sapphic is so archetypal as far as breathing and emotional spurt, that anybody might breathe , or think , or sing in those forms.  Yeah?

[Audio for the above can be heard here, beginning at approximately four-and-a-half minutes in and concluding at approximately ten-and-three-quarter minutes in] 

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