Here’s Allen recorded in New York City, April 29, 1988, reading and discussing his poetry and discussing the intricacies of his craft. An invaluable document. Not only do we get to witness him giving spirited readings from his own work (notably a passionate reading from “Kaddish” and the “Don’t Grow Old” section on the passing of his father – not to mention “A Supermarket in California” and “Wales – Visitation”), but also readings from poets who have significantly influenced him – Garcia Lorca, William Carlos Williams, Kurt Schwitters (his sound poetry), and, most remarkable of all, as conclusion, a recitation of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Ode To The West Wind” (“If winter comes can spring be far behind”).
AG: “I had an encounter in my dreams with an old friend, a lady who was dead, who had been married to William Burroughs, the novelist and one of my teachers, and she had died in Mexico City and was buried there and I’d never seen her grave so I went to visit her in Mexico City in my dream. So this begins with a description of the scene in bed in San Francisco, goes back to Mexico, and then, surprise end! – “A Dream Record, June 8, 1955” – [Allen reads “A Dream Record, June 8, 1955”] -(“A drunken night in my house..”…'”…. under the gnarled branch of a small.tree in the wild grass/ of an unvisited garden in Mexico”) – (It’s like a big jump-cut, one minute she’s sitting, the next minute, when I ask her a question, “What do… what do the dead know?, bam! – a tombstone and a branch and rain in Mexico).
All-night grocery in Berkeley. (I guess University Avenue) – I went there shopping. I was alone, full of Walt Whitman, so wrote a poem when I got home called “A Supermarket In California” [Allen reads “A Supermarket in California“] (“What thoughts I have of you tonight Walt Whitman….”….” and you got out on a smoking bank and stood watching the boat disappear on the black waters of Lethe?”)
So, I mentioned Garcia Lorca, a great Spanish poet, of the century, who had written an “Ode to Walt Whitman” (“Oda a Walt Whitman“) (and that’s I why I say, “hey, you, Garcia Lorca, what you doing down there by the water melons?”) [Editorial note – “and you, Garcia Lorca, what were you doing down by the watermelons”]
And I thought it maybe it would be a good idea then in this situation to read a poem by Lorca, the”Ode to Whitman”, or the beginning, some parts of it, (which are, for my money, one of the most amazing and open and sweet poems of the century, devotional, because he loved Whitman). So I’ll start in English. (“Along the East River and the Bronx,/ the boys were singing, showing their waists…”…” with that comrade who would place in your breast the small pain of an ignorant leopard“)
A poem that’s influenced by that – Lorca – (the Lorca has a kind of funny, Surrealist, mix-up of things like, “your beard full of butterflies”, Walt Whitman, or “your corduroy shoulders worn down by the moon’, where you get these juxtaposed, (the moon and the shoulders worn down), like a… like a Japanese haiku – like – the moon/a branch/a nice fan – and you put those things together, separate opposite things, like – “O ant/, climb up Mount Fujiyama /but slowly, slowly” – (so) you have a little tiny ant and you have the slope of Mount Fuji, both in one eye-blink snapshot of the mind. That’s a haiku by the Japanese poet, Issa)
So, you get this kind of quick juxtaposition in Surrealism, quick put-together of opposite things, as in in my poem “Howl” I have a very interesting phrase…”the roar of doom..”.”.listening to the roar of doom on the ‘hydrogen jukebox” – “hydrogen jukebox. And William Butler Yeats has an interesting line about his daughter (and) “A Prayer for His Daughter” is the name of his poem (“A Prayer For My Daughter”) – “Out of the murderous innocence of the sea”. He put “murderous” and “innocence” together. Wow!, who could put that together? – The ocean. Naturally the ocean is innocent, and the ocean grounds ships, so it’s murderous – didn’t mean to, just the implacable vastness of silence.
We’ll go on to litany then, something more personal. My mother, Naomi Ginsberg died in a mental hospital in 1956 and I wrote a long poem several years later, a kind of elegy, using the Hebrew word “kaddish”, or, let’s see, (a) ceremony for the dead (Were there) a minyan, a group of ten elders, you can say a memorial prayer to the dead, the sound of which is as follows.. this firms the rhythmic substrate of the poem – Yitbarakh veyishtabbaḥ veyitpa’ar veyitromam/veyitnasse veyithaddar veyitʻalleh veyithallal/shmeh dequdsha berikh hu. So it’s that rolling dovening, as they say, as you go back and forth – Yitbarakh veyishtabbaḥ veyitpa’ar veyitromam/veyitnasse veyithaddar veyitʻalleh veyithallal/shmeh dequdsha berikh hu. – So that’s like the basic rhythm of the whole poem. And I’m reading from the narrative section of this poem which describes this last visit to my mother in Pilgrim State Hospital, Long Island, where she died after lobotomy, many electro-shock..a vision here of son and the mother, this would be 1953 or so, the writing, however, 1959-60. (“Two years after a trip to Mexico…” … oh the horror”)…then Part V of “Kaddish” – a fugue – going back and forth between the sound of the birds in the graveyard and the prayer of the son singing to the mother (“Caw caw caw crows shriek in the white sun over grave stones in Long Island..”….'”Lord Lord Lord caw caw caw Lord Lord Lord caw caw caw Lord”
My father, Louis Ginsberg, was a poet and a schoolteacher in Paterson, New Jersey. high school. He got to be real old and was ill in 1976 and so I helped take care of him with my friend Peter Orlovsky, and there are little descriptions of there last month of his life. Then he died when I was in Boulder, Colorado at there Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, at a Buddhist institute, the first Buddhist University in the western world, where East meets West in the mind. So I flew back and wrote a song about his death, for the funeral. So, beginning with a couple of, like, notes or poems while he was declining. One of his favorite poems that he taught in high school was a poem by William Wordsworth, which all high school students used to know, called ‘Intimations of Immortality from Early Childhood – An Ode”, which has the line “the rainbow comes and goes andt lovely is the rose the moon doth with delight look round her while heavens are bare. and.. what oceans on a starry night… I forgot…clear, anyway. It had, sort of like, an old-fashioned recollection of eternity feeling, of childhood visions of the sky and universe and it was one of his favorite poems, and while my father was on his sick-bed h’d ask me to read it . So this describes that – [“Wasted arms, feeble knees…”..”it was a glue factory”) – Then, I thought of this one day when I was watching my father sicken – “Will that happened to me?… ” there’ll get mixed up with stones”). Then my father died and I flew back to the funeral, “Father Death Blues”, written on an airplane coming back to New Jersey [ Editorial note – performance of song is edited out]. –
Right on.. So you get the point? – from the personal calm to the governmental calm to the international calm. So the calm starts in your own breast, and calmed breast.
This is 1958, a recollection of an old aunt that I had who was, like, a great lady in the family, who died in 1940. So eighteen years later in Paris, thinking back on my childhood family affairs, a little poem called “To Aunt Rose” . And the way of writing, see, was that you just write down what you think as you’re thinking it, so the the slogan there would be “First thought, best thought”. William Blake said, “First thought is best in art, second thought in other matters.” And (Jack) Kerouac was in favor of spontaneous improvisation, like in jazz, and here it’s a kind of spontaneous improvisation, one word after another, as it came, thinking about my Aunt Rose who had died eighteen years ago and here I am on a different continent, a world away, and a world away in time too – “To Aunt Rose” (“Aunt Rose, now might I see you..”.. ” the way in Spain has ended long ago, Aunt Rose”) – Then we go onto.. that was 1950.. 1957 or so , ’58 in Paris.
Let’s jump ahead to the psychedelic era of the ‘Sixties. the “Wales..” – a poem called “Wales – A Visitation” – that’s a kind of odd one because it was actually written (with the) psychedelic intensity experience but trying to make it an intermediary between ordinary mind and visionary mind, so there’s a lot of minute particular details, common objects that the reader’s eye can see and my eye picked out. The site is Wales in Great Britain, the valley, Llanthony Valley, a rainy day, green green declivity, farmhouses along the sides of the valley, Lord Hereford’s Knob, a big mountain on the right-hand side, Capel-Y Fin, an old ruined chapel, where artists used to have a bohemian printing house in the ’20’s, a commune-like place. I was visiting my editor, publisher [Editorial note – Tom Maschler] And I call it a “Visitation” because in the old days. the bards, the Welsh bards or traveling poets, used to go on what they called “visitations” from town to town, rhyming the gossip. So this is like the gossip of my own mind, on a foggy day high in a valley in Wales [Allen reads”Wales Visitation“] – (‘White fog lifting and falling on mountain brow…”…”The night, still wet & moody black heaven/ starless/ upward in motion with wet wind.”)
So that’s an account of a visionary experience composed of natural objects seen through the natural eye and describable, palpable, sensory – “lamb-hair hung gossamer rain beaded in the grass”, “sheep speckle the mountainside, revolving their jaws with empty eyes’ – Those were sort of like the focus, a focused eye, focusing on detail, because what William Blake says is that the key to poetry is in the detail. He says, “Labor well the minute particulars. Take care of the little ones” “Generalization and abstraction are the plea of the hypocrite, knave and scoundrel” -[Editorial note – “General good is the plea of the hypocrite, knave and scoundrel“] – (like Presidential candidates, generalization and abstraction, that’s all you hear out of them, out of poets you might get “lamb-hair hung gossamer rain beaded in the grass’, you can actually see it, being there)..
First I’d like to begin with a twentieth-century pure sound poem by Kurt Schwitters, born in 1887, a Dada, Futurist, famous collage artist (if you go to the museums of the world, like the Museum of Modern Art in New York, probably in Philadelphia (sic)), you’ll find collages by Schwitters, some of the best and prettiest and brightest and most spacious little tiny collages that anyone ever made. And this is a little sound collage called “Priimiitittiii“ – P–R-I-I-M-I-I-T-I-T-T-I-I-I [Allen reads Kurt Schwitters’“Priimiitittiii“] – So that little pyramidal litany (it’s like a little pyramid, it gets bigger and bigger) is very similar to.. I used it basically as the form for that.. for certain sections of “Howl” or “Kaddish” (like “O mother, what have I forgotten?/O mother what have I left out?””)
Well I have an interesting poem that’s half song, half poem “Hum Bom!” – so we’ll do that and then we’ll figure a song . [Allen reads /performs “Hum Bom!]”. (“Whom Bomb?/We bomb them..”….”..We don’t bomb”)
My old poetry mentor, teacher, acquaintance, William Carlos Williams, one of the great American poets of this century, who taught us all to write the way we talk. Idiomatic diction, idiomatic rhythms, vernacular pronunciation, using tones of voice just like when you’re talking to a little baby or your grandmother or to yourself or a class full of pupils from high school. So, how did you sound? You sound like you’re talking. So he said write the way you’re talking, from the living language. And I was in China in 1984 and went sleep in a little town of Baoding (B-A-O-D-I-N-G) on November 23rd , and slept, and saw Williams and he started writing me a poem, or actually giving me instructions how to continue as a poet. So this is called therefore – put in quotations, the whole text is in quotation marks because it’s what he said in the dream and it’s called “Written In My Dream By William Carlos Willams” (obviously it’s a joke, I wrote it because I dreamed it up, but on the other hand, that’s part of the dream, he said it, so.. [Allen reads “Written In My Dream by William Carlos Williams“] (“What began as desire..”…“will end wiser”) . So that’s kind of nice. The key is take your chances on your accuracy, In other words, be truthful, don’t distort what’s not standard just to appeal to the mob and be understandable – “take your chances on your accuracy, and others will see themselves in your own accurate reflection of your own consciousness. There is a very beautiful poem by William Carlos Williams that I took from, inspired by, It’s called “To Elsie” – and it begins with a one like the first line of ‘Howl” (the first line of “Howl” is -“I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical, naked..” and Williams, (born in 1883,died, I think 1962 or ‘(63)) – “To Elsie” – Actually, this is the first poem of Williams I dug. I heard him read it aloud and I suddenly realized, “Oh, he’s just talking” (“The pure products of America go crazy”…”No one to drive the car”) – So that’s vernacular alright, that’s somebody talking – “No one to drive the car”, at the end of the poem
On an opposite side of that, far away, the great formal terza rima, a three-line rhymed verse that Dante used, that Percy Bysshe Shelley used, for one of the greatest Romantic poems in the English language , “Ode to the West Wind”.My father used to recite that in high school and go around the house reciting it so I learned a lot of it when I was a kid. The theme is the West Wind, you know, winter’s comes and the West Wind comes with its chill and blows everything apart, the decline of civilizations perhaps, the fall of America or the fall of Rome, or.. creation and destruction at once – but also it’s the wind through the world, like the wind through our mouths, like in (Bob) Dylan’s Idiot Wind, the wind “blowing through the buttons of our clothes (coats)”.. the wonder we can even breathe” (“it’s a wonder that you still know how to breathe”) – the breath, the wind of our own breath – and Shelley is identifying the breath of his own poetry with the breath of the great world wind, the Western wind. .It’s interesting to know that the word “spiritual” (because this is a really spiritual poem) comes from the Latin, “spiritus” for breathing, so when you speak of spiritual you’re talking about unobstructed breath, a big breath, and this is a poem of big breath, inward and outward – inspiration, taking in the breath, exhalation, exhaling the breath. So he’s really talking about his own spirit, his own breath, identifying his breath with the grand breath of the world, (because everybody has that big ambition to be the king of the universe, to possess the universe, in a sacred world and to make his own talk the sacred pronouncement of the majesty of cosmos). So this is how Shelley actually went ahead and did it, and as you yourselves (would) pick up a copy of this poem “Ode to the West Wind” by Shelley and recite it aloud, taking a breath wherever you see he had a punctuation mark, or a period, or parenthesis, you too can get as high as Shelley on the majesty of there breath of the West Wind! now – So, Shelley’s “Ode To The Wet Wind” . You should here know that.. let’s see now.. – a “Maenad” was a crazy lady dancing with snakes in her hair maybe, that, (no not snakes in her hair, but crazy hair, you know, Mohawk, dancing, in Greek times after the god of wine, Bacchus, Dionysian processions (everybody drunk and everybody ecstatic . “Baiae”. is the bay around Naples where you have Capri and Ischia, the islands, and where the Sibyll of Cumae, the ancient sibyl, prophetess, had her caves, very beautiful blue Mediterranean waters there …yeah, that’s about all you need to know. He’s writing it, probably.. he’s writing in Italy, I think 1820, 1829 or something like that, but early – he was born in 1792 and died at the age of 28 so it would be written in the early 1820s.
So, Percy Bysshe Shelley “Ode to theWest Wind” [ (approximately forty-six-and-a-half minutes in), Allen reads Shelley’s Ode To The West Wind) } (“O wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn’s being…”….”if winter comes can spring be far behind”).
Well, you see, there is unobstructed breath, unobstructed enthusiasm, unobstructed projection into the future and Shelley remembered the future, remembered that others would have lungs that could pronounce his own breaths and phrasings and cadences aloud and get to that exhaltation and high of realizing that throughout time – from 18th century to 19th century, to 21st Century to 26th Century, there’s always going to be some spiritual breath that’s going to blow out all the police states and economic miserly walls of Western Civilization (and Eastern) and bring mankind to one common sigh of understanding, coming out of the heart. It’s sort of like the lung-heart-breath-body-intuition breakthrough all the claustrophobic hyper-rationalistic mind politics that closes earth under a shroud of caesium, plutonium and acid rain – that one breath blows it all away.
So, the reason I read the Shelley in relation to my own poetry is that, you notice, in “Kaddish”or “Howl”or “Sunflower Sutra” there is the attempt too reach the same unobstructed breath or what they speak of as poetic inspiration and the mark of it physically is that straight spine, the body a hollow column in the air, and a sense of majesty and certainty in the pronunciation. No obstruction, no hesitation, an unhesitated-ness and an improvisation of clear a trumpet-like vowels and consonants going out into space, through time and space, to waken other minds up. So that’s the function of poetry. And certainly Shelley, the big Romantic, is one of the best blowers of the trumpet of wakefulness of all times.