Allen Ginsberg at Canton High School

Grateful to post this weekend, and give wider berth to, this videotape (uploaded to You Tube recently) – Allen, circa 1985, reading and talking to high-school students  (recorded at Canton High School, Michigan).

He explains here the lineage and historical interrelationship of poetry and song and his method of composition, going back to Ezra Pound, reads, (in its entirety and inspiringly), Shelley’s “Ode To The West Wind”, presents sitting instruction (a five-minute experiment) and further basic Buddhist teachings (performing “Gospel Noble Truths”), answers student’s questions, defends (absurd to have to do so!) “candor” and unobstructed attention, and sings the praises of Jack Kerouac (“the primary seminal genius of American poetry and prose in the latter half of this century’”) and his “spontaneous mind”.

and he concludes with, in answer to a request for it, a little “advice for the young”

The transcript will appear in two sections – here and here

AG:  Any gesture taken in anger only creates more anger, any gesture taken in anxiety just recirculates the anxiety.  It seems basic. The (William) Blake line was…that I kept hearing – it was sort like a little bodyless tuneful teenager in my heart singing  “But vain the sword and vain the bow/They never can work War’s overthrow” (from “The Grey Monk”) “The hermit’s prayer and the widow’s tear/Alone can free the world from fear/ For a tear is an intellectual thing/And a sigh is the sword of an Angel King”.  I kept hearing that. And then I kept thinking about how would you..  when I was in high school they taught Little Lamb who made thee/ Dost thou know who made thee”, but it’s really “Little Lamb Who made thee?/ Dost thou know who made thee?” because if you’re really asking a lamb – “Do you know who made ya?

So I realized that could have a tune that way, so I started “Little lamb who made thee,/Dost thou know who made thee?/Gave thee life & bid thee feed/ By the stream and o’er the mead/ gave thee clothing of delight..” – (“gave thee clothing of delight”) – “Softest clothing woolly bright”.  So the speech of it, the talk of it, imperceptibly moves over into melody. So I just spoke the poems aloud to myself on a tape machine and then noticed whether the tune went up, the tone pitch of the syllables, went up, or went down. And then just worked out tune from.. almost intuitively from that, dig?  It’s really simple. It‘s really very easy and simple. You can take almost any.. any piece of talk that has some kind of feeling in it, the feeling will come out in different tones, in the different tone of voice that you use to emphasize different words, so that any talk that has any real feeling in it, that has different tones in it, it can then be made into a tune or melody.  So, then, you’re just simple-mindedly following the literal emotions in the syllables. Syllables have emotions (Syllables have emotions) and emotions are manifested in the tone when you pronounce them aloud. Does that make sense?

Anybody not understand that?  (especially if you’re writing rock ‘n roll – or any kind of new wave or punk – or anything like that, it’s a useful trick) . I think probably (Bob) Dylan and other people worked with that intuitively,  People who got influenced in the new wave, by William Burroughs, like Laurie Anderson or Patti Smith, have a genuine beginning in poetry. Jim Carroll and Patti Smith and Lou Reed all used to work around New York’s St Marks Poetry Project, you know, were regular poets before they got out into music.  The first individual freak poet, you know, individual, individual, poet was Sappho, who… 650 BC.  in the Western world .. and she.. oh, all her poetry was song, and she taught some girls to sing hymns to the goddess and love songs  And.. there’s always been poetry connected with, or music connected with poetry, in the Greek plays. For instance, Sophocles and Aeschylus. There was a chorus that chanted – and danced! – (like Mick Jagger sort of), chanted and danced and pronounced the words. That goes back to Greek plays, the chorus. And you know the phrase, “the poetic foot” – anybody knows that? –  five-foot line, iambic pentameter? – “how many feet in this line?”- you know, that world of the foot, that comes from the old Greek measurement of the chorus dancing – that’s why they used the word “foot” in the measurement of the verse line of poetry, all the way back, that’s the etymological root of the use of that word “foot”.

So poetry and dance and music have always been together until maybe the invention of the printing press, which began seperating the words from the body . And then, at the turn of the century, one great poet, Ezra Pound pointed out that originally poetry and music were together (and) that it was important to follow the tones of the vowels (that’s Ezra Pound’s word – “Follow the tone-leading of the vowels” (where the tones go in the vowels, you can then extrapolate tunes). That’s Pound’s slogan – “Follow the tone-leading of the vowels”. “Tone-leading of the vowels”, do you understand the phrase? – whether the tones go up or down as a vowel when you’re talking it. It’s not that technical. You just listen to yourself talk. Basically, it means listen to the sound of your own voice and hear the melodic variations. And don’t talk in a monotone. If you’re reading poetry, don’t say – blah blah blah Little-lamb-who-made-thee-Dost-thou-know-who-made thee-Gave-thee-life-and-bid-thee-feed..”. It’s “Little lamb, who made thee?”  It’s like. as if you were really talking to someone. So then the poetry is actually really talking something real to somebody. It’s no more dopey than regular conversation.

So Pound was the one who tried to bring music and poetry back together again,. and white intellectual rock n roll of this generation is…partly.. comes out of Ezra Pound, oddly enough. You could trace a line from Pound through Kerouac or Pound-Williams-through Kerouac-through Bob Dylan through Bruce Springsteen, and they’re in one lineage, with the original insight and impulse of Pound, the in-put of Pound to return poetry and music together that influenced Kerouac, then Kerouac’s poetry blew Bob Dylan’s mind, according to Dylan, and Dylan the United States mind, with poetry and music. So, you know, it’s like an interesting history if you know the gossip history of it   Yeah?

Student: You mentioned that, like when you were talking about music that it came through instinctively to you and everything
AG: Yeah
Student; And I know that you…
AG: I think that happens to everybody rally
Student: Yeah, I notice..I mean, I know that you practice Buddhism, do you think that helps you get more in touch with your instinctive stuff (do you know what I mean?)

AG: It doesn’t quite help me get more in touch with my instinctive stuff but it makes me notice that I’m in touch already. Buddhism… Buddhist meditation leads to noticing what you notice already. So you notice what you notice, or you see what you see. That brings up the subject of “what is Buddhism, anyway?” – and, basically, the whole Buddhist shot is the sitting practice of meditation. That’s the most important aspect of it, rather than the idea or theory or philosophy (tho’ there is quite a bit of philosophy involved).  I’ve been thinking of this because there’s lots of talk about Buddhism, or question, but nobody knows what that’s all about

So we’ll do an experiment for five minutes in actual sitting. Is that ok?

So, first of all, if you just sit up straight on the edge of your seat, forward, you’ll notice that at least you can sit with your back straight, if you’re sitting in the back, you’ll tend to slump or lean and so it’s a more athletic, majestic way of sitting, as if you’re awake. For certain… There are different varieties of sitting but they’re all more or less centered on the breath but basically you’re sitting up straight so that your spine supports your body rather than your muscles supporting your spine because if you’re slumped and the muscles are supporting your spine there’ll be a tendency to ache, whereas if you just “hang” from the tree of your spine, hang your muscles and meat and flesh from the tree of the spine, it’s actually easy to sit, comfortably relaxed, relaxing your belly, letting it fall out, letting it all hang out, relaxing your shoulders and your anus and the muscles on the sides, eyeballs relaxed, not focused on anything particular, not fixed on me or on a point, not trying to bring an image into the brain but letting the optical field rest outside. So the next thing is what do you do with your mind? Then we get to the point, which is – pay attention to your breath – or, particularly to the outbreath, from your nose, out into space as the breath flows out – and follow the outbreath from the tip of your nose, where it comes out of your body to where it dissolves – or flow out with the breath – or identify with the breath – or notice the breath – and then let go – and I’ll ring a bell after three minutes….

So the process of samatha, or quietening the mind leads to more precise observation of the phenomenal world  around you and inside, including some profile of the rising of thought forms, their flowering, and their disappearing as you let them go. So you may have more of a profile of the procedure of your own mind from that practice, or some glimpse maybe into the mechanical nature of thinking, and a realization that the thoughts in your mind are not your whole mind but there is also that space in which you can observe the thoughts going through your mind, like clouds passing through the unobstructed blue open sky.

You also get… The main thing that you get more familiar with is the sense of your own equanimity, immovability, the fact that all these emotions are actually not really permanent but what is permanent is this very intelligent open amused civilized gentle generous observer, who is not tricked by his own mind. You get in touch with your ordinary mind, with the stainless azure sky of open mind, which is you. In other words, you get in touch with your Buddha nature, open, awake mind not fucked up by greed, lust, getting high, getting low, mind not stained by depression, just open mind. If you are interested any more in this, there are several texts, books and books of sitting, one very famous one by Suzuki Roshiit’s called Beginners Mind Zen Mind, (Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind) and another practical book on, like, posture, how to relate to your thoughts, by Chogyam Trungpa, who’s my teacher, called Meditation in Action, Shambhala Press, Boulder.  So those are two reference works if you want to take this little thread that I’ve laid out  and follow it out, unravel the whole sweater.

Then, regarding the notion of letting go of thought forms, or letting go, in a Buddhist context, I have a gospel song, or a sort of country and western song outlining the Buddhist theory, called “Gospel Noble Truths”. It’s basically just a simple-minded country and western “You are My Sunshine’, but it also has sort of a secret structure, which is the “Three Marks of Existence” according to Buddhist psychology, and then it goes on to other aspects, including the outline of the “Eightfold Noble Path” which is the eight-fold path to Realization, (which means right views, right ambition, right speech, right thought, right labor, right meditation, right awareness), and then the song goes through a review of sight, sound, smell, taste, touch, and mind (the six senses), and some general advice on sitting – “Sit when you sit/breathe when you breathe”

So “Gospel Noble Truths” (Allen performs “Gospel Noble Truths, starting at approximately fourteen minutes in and concluding approximately seventeen-and-three-quarter minutes in)

Unobstructed breath – inspiration – inspiration in poetry means ( Allen breathes in) – unobstructed breath, inspiration expiration for breath.  So the old of “poetic inspiration” is related to meditation somewhat in that it’s an awareness of unobstructed breath. And the classic examples are Shelley’s “Ode To The West Wind”. You know that poem? Is that taught here? Some must know it. It was sort of a standard classic, It’s like the greatest inspired Romantic poem by maybe the greatest inspired Romantic poet, Percy Shelley. You should check that out, because if you read that aloud, you can get high on it. If you read it aloud following the breathing as indicated by the punctuation, commas, periods, it’ll put you in a state of hyperventilation and you’ll get a buzz in your body – quite literally! – And Shelley’s  “Ode to the West Wind” is about breath, that wind.   How many know that poem?   how many don’t ? (Allen is confronted by a show of few hands) 

Good God! – well then, let’s go back to Shelley,  (takes off jacket) get to work. Well, let me read “Ode The West Wind” then. It’s sort of like a symphonic piece in that it begins, rises like the wind, like a wind, into some kind of unobstructed breath, and goes down again, a little quieter, and then rises again, and then finally bursts out into a kind of climactic series of utterances and fast breaths (like coming in a way)

So this would be.. he wrote this in 18..1817 or 1818  (Beginning at approximately nineteen-and-three-quarter minutes in and concluding at approximately twenty-four-and-a-quarter minute in, Allen reads “Ode To The West Wind” in its entirety)

– Well, that’s real powerful

Allen Ginsberg Canton High School reading/lecture continues here

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