Compositional Practice – (Sustained Attention – 1)

Allen Ginsberg, at Naropa, from 1980, continuing with his lecture on Basic Poetics

AG: So, working last night reminded me of something that I hadn’t tried formulating, or vocalizing, which is that to write a work of genius, of any density and thickness and length (except for the little ditties and brilliant pieces that you can write right off, spontaneously, little short poignant things like that “On Neal’s Ashes”, which are, little poignant poems, which everybody has written of their own), the situation arising where you actually get involved in a work and sit continuously at it for twelve, fifteen hours at a time, or days at a time, without moving from a room, where you really get absorbed in a trance (not a trance, but just really get absorbed, you might say, in a meditation, or a trance, or a contemplation), where you actually do focus your attention one hundred percent, and sit for, at least an hour at a time, you know, working, and then maybe getting up and going to piss – or what? answering the phone? – or looking at the dawn and taking.. smelling, you know, going out in the back yard for a minute or two to see the sky, because you get in a funny state where you’re not…  (It’s) a little bit like amphetamine. in a sense. Some of the kind of natural metabolism takes over, where you get into a sort of a white aura around you (like the dawn, actually) It’s a really good thing to do if you really want to accomplish some work – but it’s exhausting, and I find myself more and more hesitant to get into that. Like, I’ve got to get up and I’ve got to prepare the tests, or whatever, read the homework. I’ve got to go to the faculty meeting. I’ve got to do this and that and the other thing.  So everything in the world will conspire (especially as you get older) to prevent you from indulging yourself in the thing that you love most dearly to do, which is enter your own imagination and manifest it, and write. There’s that kind of writing, which is really important, and which is not done enough. To do it you do have to have some fixed theme (so) that you know what you’re doing. Otherwise, you’re just sitting there, writing a lot of old scraps. But to work on one single project, one single poem, for a day, or two or three days, at a time, is really a marvelous thing to do, to do it in that way, where you get into the room of your mind, into a room, literally staying in that room and, you know, like, having food intermittently, simply…  (you know, not stopping to eat a lot), (it’s) a great thing to do. I don’t know..

Has anybody ever done that? – (aside from taking amphetamine), has anybody ever done that? –  did anybody ever come up with anything? –  any good?  long poems? I had do that for… I did that for “Howl” – several times for each section, and for “Kaddish”  I spent.. I don’t know, it must have been from Saturday, four a.m, five a.m. Saturday morning to Sunday afternoon, continuously awake at a desk, Peter (Orlovsky) bringing me food every once in a while, (every five or six hours he’d bring me some tea or some coffee or a sandwich, or ask me if I wanted anything). It’s nice if you’ve got somebody to feed you in your cage. It’s like that though.  

Student:  What is it (like) on acid? Is it like that?

AG: Well, yeah, everybody else in the world, in the outside world, seems like.. you know, you realize…  It’s like somebody’s been sitting and meditating.. or.. (for) someone on acid, you realize that everybody in the outside world is, like, caught up in the latest radio-broadcast, you know. The depth of the brain isn’t very deep, outside, and you realize your own brain is getting deeper and deeper into some… if you’re contemplating one thing, getting deeper and deeper into one subject, until you really know it. You become like the PhD scholar of that one rhythm you’re working on, through your own brain. It’s a great experience.. (you) just set yourself up.

AG (to Student): When you were writing your poem about your family, that was several sittings?

Student: Yeah.

AG: What was the longest?

Student: I think the longest was maybe about half an hour.

AG: Just continously, right there?

Student: Pretty much.

AG: Yeah, there’s really much.. several  hours is good. Every once in a while I do that. I don’t do that enough, actually.  I should..  One should do it, you know, because, if you did it every week, or every month at least, of your life, (you’d) come up with something.

Gregory does in a funny way. Corso does, but he shoots junk and then he sits..or amphetamine, and then he can sit for hours. Kerouac did that to write his novels. He would, though early.. What he would do was take amphetamine, and then he would sit for two weeks and just do nothing but write and write and write. And then maybe, say, sleep over a weekend, and then get back.. Or maybe write for twenty-four hours. then sleep for twenty-four hours, then write for twenty-four hours, and sleep for twenty-four hours, and just enter the world of his composition and shut out the rest of the world. It’s hard to do if you’ve go to get up on an alarm-clock, and it’s even..  And it’s hard to do if you get famous (because then you’ve got to answer letters and the telephone call, you know.)  So if you get to be Goethe, you’re never going to be able to write Faust again, maybe, I don’t know. I haven’t solved the problem of how to do it.

[Audio for the above can be heard here, beginning at approximately eighteen minutes in and concluding at approximately twenty-three-and-a-half minutes in}

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