1994 Hot Springs workshop – 5

[William Carlos Williams, (1883-1963) – c.1920, coutesy the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University]

Allen Ginsberg Hot Springs workshop continues and concludes

AG: Yes sir, you had a question?

Student: Should I raise the question now or hold it?

AG: Well, yeah, you can interrupt me with a question, sure, just lift up your hand, tho’. But there is..the problem is there is a microphone there, (but if you say it, I’ll repeat it)

Student; You’re saying write down the sequence of our thoughts, and then you make the interesting statement, “Surprise Mind” – How do I surprise the mind while observing and writing down its thoughts?

A: Well, you do with introspection. Well, first of all, by “Surprise Mind”, it’s not.. it’s not a verb, “Surprise”, it’s an adjective.

Student: Ok

AG:  “Surprise Mind”  – It’s just a phrase. You notice its surprise. “Surprise” –  “surprising the mind”, how surprising the mind is because it comes up with all sorts of things you couldn’t plan. So it’s a big surprise, whatever thought you have. And that leads to the idea of appreciating the surprise, (rather than rejecting it and saying, “No, no, I want total control of a linear, logical, thought-stream continuation that I can build like a brick shot-house, (and) make a beautiful Dantean Inferno Purgatory Heaven leading completely to the top.”)  But, on the other hand, our minds are probably much more chaotic than that (at least in this late-millenial imperial nuclear world). So I would say it may be possible to create great logical structures, but certainly you’d have to begin by observing the logical, (or illogical), structure of the nature of your own thoughts-forms as they pass. And perhaps even a..  kind of see the pattern in that.

As in another poem by William Carlos Williams, where the subject-mattter, or the plan, is actually the movement of the mind itself. ”Good Night” is the title, and this is 1917 (so you can tell it from the décor in the kitchen)- [Allen reads William Carlos Williams’ “Good Night” in its entirety]–  (“In brilliant gas light…”…”I am ready for bed”) – Okay, so the whole plot is – he comes down, everything is quite clear, brilliant, and that vipassana sense of the clear-seeing,  “crisped green” parsley – so it’s quite a vivid image, a clear presence, he’s present, quite awake, standing waiting for the water to “freshen” (which is kind of a nice old-fashioned word), waiting, you know, for the bubbles, the white mist bubbles in the water to clear, he begins daydreaming. He follows the daydream out – “three girls in crimson satin pass close before me on/ the murmurous background of/ the crowded opera”. Then he notices his mind is wandering. It’s memory playing the clown, something that he saw, maybe his daughters or his granddaughters studied ballet in grammar-school or high- school. And then he goes back to the daydream slightly eroticized  – “the rubbing sound of/ cloth rubbing on cloth/ and little slippers (in the closet) on (the) carpet -/ high-school French/ spoken in a loud voice!”. And then, suddenly, he comes back to himself, back to the room, the fantasy drops, he catches himself thinking, “Parsley in a glass/ still and shining/ brings me back./ I take my drink/ and yawn deliciously,/ I’ am ready for bed”

So it’s sort of like he noticed what happened in his mind, or he noticed the drama of his own mind and the surprise movement from one place to another, spacing out, coming back, spacing out, coming back (I think that’s  the modern use – you know you space out (daydreaming) and then you, like, space in.

So actually many… this sort of relativistic structure for a poem, that the poem could be actually a model of the actual mind, or a model of consciousness, working, with all of the vagaries and charms and realities and vividnesses of your actual ordinary everyday mind as supplying the drama for poetry, is basically a twentieth-century innovation, I would say (though there have always been the traditional forms or structures that place for improvisation and for surprising thoughts of the moment, the..  probably the old Homeric Hymns as sung had formulas, formulaic progression, but there was room for improvisation and for thoughts to enter, or the minstrels and Minnesingers and wandering Provencal troubadors, or, even in our own century, calypso, or blues, were forms where you could improvise, according to what was going through your mind at the time of the singing. In fact, probably, the blues is a major American form for Americans that does admit variations in the lyrics and which you can improvise and make up on the spot. (but the only way you can do that is to follow what thoughts rise in your mind, because if you hesitate, you get a different thought, you’re lost, you’ve missed the beat. So you really have to accept what goes on right spontaneously then and there).

So, another sample of a sort of basic first thought – “Thursday” – It’s an interesting thing because this is 1922 from a book called Sour Grapes ((19)21 or (19)22, (19)21) William Carlos Williams – and it’s one of the interesting specemins of an intersection between Western Yankee Americanist  Practicality and Esoteric Buddhist Meditation Practice, and it’s called “Thursday”  meaning “any old day”, ordinary day, Thursday – [Allen reads William Carlos Williams’ “Thursday] – (“I have had my dream..”…”and decide to dream no more”) – Well, I’m sure that’s a moment that’s occurred to everybody. You know, coming back to themselves, no thought, the realization that they’re sitting in space, or standing in space. Of course, when he says “and decide to dream no more”, that’s daydream! – that’s part of the sequence. You know, that’s the commentary, the daydream commentary – ”From now on, I won’t dream anymore”. Next minute, he’s dreaming, I’m sure.

So the body of modern poetry, actually, with Williams, Pound and many others actually, gives many examples of this kind of mentality, or approach to poetry, or this technique

“One perception must immediately and directly lead to a further perception” – Well we saw that happen with the waiting for the water to plash, little girls..

Philip Whalen is a very interesting poet from the West Coast (now a Zen teacher in the Hartford Street Zen Center in San Francisco) said many years ago, as a poet, “My writing is a picture of the mind moving” (“This poetry is a picture or graph of a mind moving”) – and I had that phrase “Surprise mind” and “The frog jumps in/kerplunk!”

Magic – the total appreciation of movements of the mind. Rather than resisting, but appreciating and enjoying the chaotic jump cuts (jump cuts for..this is a cinema festival too – everybody here knows what a “jump cut” is?, you know when you go from one..one picture to another fast, like the woman is tied to the railroad tracks and the villain is twiddling his moustache and laughing and the hero is coming up on a horse to rescue her , and the train is coming forward, and the camera moves from the lady, to the train coming forward threateningly, to the hero rushing to the rescue, to the villan twiddling his moustache, to.. jumping from one element to another. So that notion of “jump cut” is sort of basic to a poetry which actually reflects the movement of the mind. But then you find that.. what if you’resaying, “I am the King of the Universe, but maybe I stepped on a nail”  So, we have Whitman saying, that’s alright, that’s how the mind works, ”Do I contradict myself?/ Very well I contradict myself/I am large I contain multitudes”.  So it means you don’t have to have consistency in your jump-cuts, they can be absurd, surrealist, or just like yourself. (John) Keats has a very similar idea – “What quality went to form a man of achievement, especially in literature” (he was at a.. Keats was at a dinner with a bunch of academics and he got bored and began thinking what is it that made Shakespeare so interesting? and he said ‘Negative Capability”, (a phrase he coined for it), that is, that a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason – “I want it to be either A or not-A, it’s either black or white. I’m either a Bosnian or a Serbian [sic] – and I’ll kill anybody who’s not, and so forth (on the other hand, you know, there are Bosnians married to Serbians that are both – so “negative capability”, the ability to encompass several mulattos in your mind at the same time.   So that theory of “negative capability” – how many have heard that phrase? .  It’s very common in poetry, it’s a very important one, because it’s that quality of mind that allows suspension of judgment, suspension of disbelief and a friendly attitude toward the appearance of phenomena as it appears, without having to squeeze it into a corset, or squeeze it into the one single system. That was a phrase I once….

tape ends here in media res

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