Ginsberg on Blake 1979 (Metrics – 5)

“Whether on Ida’s shady brow,/or in the chambers of the East,/The chambers of the sun, that now/From ancient melody have ceas’d/. Whether in Heav’n ye wander fair, Or the green corners of the earth, Or the blue region of the air…” (William Blake from  “To The Muses”)  – illustration:  “Hesiod and The Muses” (1817) – John Flaxman (engraved by William Blake )

Allen Ginsberg’s Naropa class on Blake and metrics (focusing on lines from Blake’s early poem, “To The Muses”) continues from here

Student:  I have a question.  How do you know where to end a foot.  Like, how do you know if it’s like one iamb and … I don’t know meters.

AG:  What do you mean by end?  When you’re counting or when you’re writing?

Student:  When you’re trying … when you’re trying to say (what you’re trying today)

AG:  Well, we were just having this question.  There is no fixed answer, you see.  It could be both ways.  You could measure both ways.  You could say, this is a dactyl, or this is basically iambic. Dah-duh dah-duh dah-duh dah-duh, or dah-duh dah-duh dah-dud dah-duh.  Duh-dah duh-dah duh-dah.

Student:  That’s what I wanted to say, that it’s basically iambic.  I’d read it just about the same way you would.  I think I’d say … I don’t even think I’d put….

AG:  Well, as an old practitioner of writing, I’ve found that it’s necessary to loosen the mind from thinking in terms of basic iambic in order to get enough variation to make it approximate actual speech.

Student:  But….

AG:  Otherwise there’s a mind-drag and a rhythmic-drag toward a simplification.  And in teaching it I wouldn’t….

Student:  But if you wanted to say that this is more of an iambic pentrameter you could.

AG:  I think, sir, that it would be a mistake to do so.  When there’s so much of the dactyl in it, it would probably be better to point out the dactylic element.  At least that would be my tendency as a practicing poet.  However, it’s up to you.  It’s pretty much anyone’s choice.  But to develop the ear I would suggest more emphasis on the dactyl than the iamb in this. Probably because you see you have “Whether on” – “Or in the chambers of” –  “chambers of” …

Student:  Yeah.  I don’t think we really disagree …

AG:  … “melody have.”

Student:  … as much as you think we do.

AG:  No, what I’m saying is that in teaching it, it is necessary to point out the variation, rather than what seems to be (the) traditional (meters).  It’s been the curse of poetry for the last one hundred years that people have reduced (poetry) to a type of homogenized iamb or trochee.  That’s been the problem of poetry. (To) quote Ezra Pound, “To break the pentameter, that was the first heave.”  Or an iambic pentameter.  And (in) training the ear of people to listen to poetry, the iamb has been just simply over-taught and rhythmic structures have been too easily reduced to the simplest to understand iambic.  It tends to mess up people’s ears and give them automatic wooden ears so they begin thinking in terms of “or IN the CHAMbers OF the East.”  When “in” simply does not take an accent, ever.  “Or” is interesting.  “Or” – it takes an accent.  And if you teach it as iambic people will tend to think of it as “or IN”.  And pretty soon you’ll have “Thou TOO sail ON oh SHIP of STATE.”  You know that line?  “Thou TOO sail ON … Thou TOO.  This is where it leads – my favorite. “Thou TOO sail ON oh SHIP of STATE.”  That’s an iambic line.  It was counted as one of the great iambic lines of the 19th century. And what it wound up doing is people wound up using the exclamatory “Oh” or counting the exclamatory “Oh” as an unaccented syllable.  But it was considered in the….

Student:  You can use it as an argument against the use.

AG:  All I’m saying is that … no.  All I’m saying is (that) the tendency to reduce (and) teach variable lines too rigidly and to think in terms of iambic as being a basic thing, wound up perverting the ear completely so that one could suggest “in” having an accent or “oh” not having an accent.  So my tendency would be to forget about iambic almost and think of it in terms of dactylic and you’ll hear it better.  You’ll be able to pronounce it better.  Because, see, the problem is that most people don’t know how to read poetry as if it is speech.  They read it as if it is monotone in tone and monotonous in accent, and tend to distort the actual speech variability of accent to reduce it to the basic plan they think it is, as it’s taught.  So that’s why I hate to put it as this, particularly.  This delicate verse I hate to teach as basically iambic, and would rather emphasize the other.  But that’s my (choice).

Particularly then the second stanza:  “Or the green corners of the earth” –  duh-dah-dah-dah-duh-duh-duh-dah.  It’s such a pretty line.  But you could have it “OR the GREEN corNERS of THE earth.”

Student:  No, I’m not saying that.
AG:  Yeah.
Student:  Please don’t put that one on me.

Student:  Would you accent the “or” all the way in there?

AG:  It would be different.  You’d have to choose.
Student:  Yeah.
AG:  You’d have to do it rhetorically.  (You’d have to) see what it’s rhetorically like in each (case).  “Whether in Heav’n ye wander fair” –  “Whether in Heav’n ye wander fair.”  It depends what “fair” means” – “Whether in Heav’n ye wander FAIR”.  “Or the green corners of the earth.”  That’s a very funny line. Actually, we won’t … “OR the GREEN COR” is a a pyrrhic and a spondee.  “OR the GREEN COR” – “OR the GREEN CORners of the EARTH.”  You may wonder where would you ever get one of those, or either of them.  Or you could say, “OR the GREEN cor” but… “or the GREEN COR” – but’s it’s “OR the” –  “OR the GREEN COR.”  I would make that unaccented.  “Whether in Heav’n ye wander fair,/Or the green” – so there I wouldn’t accent the “or”.
Student:  But the first time you would.  I think.
AG:  Yes.
Student:  Yeah.
AG:  Because you’re saying, “Whether or”.
Student:  (Blake) has a list of “or”‘s …
AG:  Yeah.
Student:  … so you don’t need an accent so much.
AG:  Yeah.
Student:  “Or the green” –  “Or the green corners of the earth.”
AG:  Yeah.  And also, you see, when you have “Whether on Ida’s shady brow” then the next thing is “Or” and then you have two unaccented – “in the”.  So you have to lay the accent somewhere there. Otherwise you’d have to say “WHETH-er on I-da’s shady BROW/or in the chambers.”

Student:  You would in speech, wouldn’t you?  “Or in the CHAM-bers.”
AG:  “Whether on Ida’s shady brow or in the chambers.”  You might, you might, you might.  Depending on how you wanted it to be.
Student:  Depending on what you wanted to emphasize, right?
AG:  It’s sort of what kind of an actor you are.
Student:  Yeah.
AG:  How you want to act that out.

Student:  Like you have “Whether on Ida”, “Or in the chambers” – the structure is parallel, too:  “On Ida”  –  “in chambers.”  And then below you also have parallel structures:
AG:  Um-hmm.
Student:  “Or the green corners” – “Or the blue regions”.
AG:  Yeah.
Student:  So.  So maybe then you’d follow the….
AG:  Well, but see, it’s very variable.  The other, third line, I would say “OR the BLUE RE-”  Dah-duh-dah-dah.  Dah-duh-dah-dah.  So that would be dah-duh-dah-dah.  Actually I went over it once before.  “FOR the BLUE RE-gions of the EARTH.”  That’s a funny line – so it would be three unaccented in a row.  It’s such a variable (line).  It’s really a variable (line).  It’s a really variable thing.  But it could be “OR the BLUE reGIONS of THE air.”  See, if you did, in that case – in that case,  “OR the BLUE reGIONS of THE air”  –  you’d have more emphasis on unaccented syllables then you’d ever want.

Is this boring people?

Student:  No, it’s great.
AG:  Yes?
Student:  Can I say something …
AG: Yeah.
Student:  … about those two lines?
AG:  Yes.
Student:  It’s really interesting that he … in three pulses basically in those two little lines of that stanza he creates such a feeling of space by manipulating pulse …
AG:  Yes.
Student:  … and the echo of pulse, because basically what those rhymes do is go Oom Boom Bah Boom Oom Boom Bah Boom.  That’s what you really hear if you’re unaccenting the “Or the”.
AG:  Yeah.
Student:  “Or the.”
AG:  “(G)reen corners of the earth.”  Boom boom bah dah boom.
Student:  (a nice rhythm…)
AG:  Yeah.
Student:  … with pulse.
AG:  Duh-duh-dah-dah.  “Or the blue regions of the air.”  Duh-dah-dah-duh-duh-duh-dah.
Student:  It’s like fireworks, almost, the way you hear the explosions (the lightning and then you get the explosion twice) the concussion and then the actual sound.
AG:  Duh-duh-duh-dah-duh-duh-dah-duh-dah.  “Where the melodious” – “Where the melodious” – duh-duh-dah-duh-duh.  Dah-duh-dah. Well.  So be it.

to be continued

Audio for the above can be heard here, beginning at approximately forty-seven minutes in and concluding at approximately fifty-six-and-three-quarter minutes in

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