Allen Ginsberg’s 1979 Naropa class on William Blake (with a detour into classical scansion) continues from here
AG (to Student): What was your proposition?
Student: Well, I think it’s basically the iambic and the choriambus in the first place.. in those first few lines..
AG: Well, “On Ida’s shady brow.” “On Ida’s shady brow” is iambic.
Student: Yeah (but).. How do you know whether to call them, given (that)…
AG: “The chambers of the East” is iambic if you want.
Student: You could make that whole line iambic by switching the …
AG: “Or in.”
Student: … “Or in the chambers of the East.”
AG: Okay, “Or in the chambers of the East.”
Student: It depends on how….
AG: “The chambers of the sun.” The chambers … if you want, you could also say, “The CHAMbers OF the SUN, that NOW” if you want.
Student: You don’t have to. You could put a….
AG: “From ANtient MELoDY has CEAS’D.” If you want. But then you get … well, basically you’d have to tend toward … “Whether on Ida’s shady brow/Or in the chambers of the East,” and actually you’d have to put a slight accent on “in”, but actually it’s “OR in the CHAMbers of the EAST.” Dah-duh-duh dah-duh-duh duh-dah. To reduce it to iambic, I think would….
Student: I don’t think you want to reduce it to iambic when you read it, but I’m just observing that the poem is basically in iambic meter and then varied…
AG: Well, (William) Blake had a very delicate ear, an extraordinarily delicate ear. And I think to attempt to say that it is basically iambic would teach a wooden ear to budding poets.
Student: (I can see, right, but) I had real difficulty with this measure of….
AG: Yeah. I’m really interested in this measure, actually. Especially. I’ve been over this particular one. But when you call it iambic and say it is basically iambic, you’re saying, look for the basic pulsation of duh-dah duh-dah duh-dah.
Student: That’s not what I’m saying.
AG: When one calls it iambic …
Student: But I can … I can…
AG: … one points to the ear for a student to look basically for a pulsation of duh-dah duh-dah duh-dah, and I would rather have any ear here hear dah-duh-duh dah-duh-duh duh-dah. “Whether on Ida’s shady brow.” – “Whether on Ida’s shady brow/ Or in the chambers of the East,/ The chambers of the sun, that now/ From antient melody have ceas’d..” – There’s a much more variable and subtle ear possible to develop that (has been) rigidified by the constant reduction of very variable meters to the simplest ones possible.
Student: That’s what the subject of the poem is, too.
AG: Yes. That’s the subject of the poem.
Student: Interestingly, because the poem otherwise is a very, very formal structure, and he’s talking about the lack of vitality in formal structures. in his days.
Student: And his both having a formal overlaid structure in .. his rhetoric. Like, it starts out with this series of questions, in each of the first stanzas are rhetorical questions, and then it’s answered. He’s following, really, a lot of 18th century and 17th century poetic structures, and then breaking it by, I think, this liveliness of his meter. And by the meters of the poem itself.
AG: So he’s deliberately broken up and made a … what do they call that? A mixed meter, which is … what is it in Greek when you have mixed meters? catalectic? hypercatalectic?, something like that, I’ve forgotten. There’s a Greek word for it. -when you actually do mix as much as possible.
I’ve noticed (in) this poem – when I first started reading it and then later starting teaching it – the delicacy and the subtlety of the accents moving back and forth, especially if you attempt to read it the way I would read it, (and) then begin to read it as actual speech – (as) someone saying, “Whether on Ida’s shady brow”, or however you would say it. “Whether on Ida’s shady brow.” You don’t have to say “shady.” Like, “whether on the Flatirons shady rocks”. “Whether on the Flatirons shady rocks”. Ida – Flatirons. I-da. “Whether on Rocky’s shady rocks”. “Whether on Rocky’s shady rocks”. How would you say that? “Whether on Rocky’s shadow rock”s.
Student: That’s not a bad line.
Student: That’s not a bad line.
AG: Well, whether on rocky’s shady side. “Whether on rocky’s shady side”. Or whether on rocky’s eastern side. “Whether on rocky’s eastern side”. How would you say, “Whether on rocky’s eastern side,” or you take a trip to the right. “Whether on Rocky’s eastern side” – “Whether on Ida’s shady brow.” “Whether on Ida’s shady brow, or in the chambers of the East?” Because he’s asking a question. So you would have to hop it up a little bit or maybe push it a little toward vocalization, toward actual conversation,(as an) actual question, in order to hear the rhythms. You’d have to speak it as if it were meant to say sensibly to somebody asking a question.
Peter Orlovsky: Who is Ida?
AG: Mount Ida. The mountain where the Muses dwelled.
AG: The Nine Muses dwelled.
Student: In Crete.
Student: In Greece.
AG: Yeah. You just missed it. Where is it? Does anybody know where Ida is?
Student: It’s a mountain in Crete somewhere, isn’t it?
AG: Crete, no.
Student: Crete, I believe.
Student: Um-hmm. Isn’t it?
AG: Ah. I missed it. I was in Crete. Didn’t notice.
Student: You have to take a long bus to it.
AG: Yeah. Okay. Well, that’s kind of interesting.
Do we want to go on to the four-beat meters? It might be interesting. No?
AG: No? I have a scheme – a complete diagram of them – and I’ll bring it in next time. And we’ll continue with the four-beat meters next time.
What I want to do maybe write down one or two of his long lines and see what they sound like.
to be continued
Audio for the above can be heard here, beginning at approximately forty-one-and-a-quarter minutes in and concluding at approximately forty-seven minutes in