We’re excited to reprint Elissa Schappell‘s essay, “The Craft of Poetry: A Semester with Allen Ginsberg.” The piece was first featured on the site in 2013 as a Longreads Member Pick, and originally appeared in the Summer 1995 issue of the Paris Review. It was later anthologized in the Paris Review’s 1999 collection Beat Writers at Work. Thanks to Schappell and the Paris Review for sharing it with the Longreads community:
Of all the literature classes I have ever taken in my life Allen Ginsberg’s “Craft of Poetry” was not only the most memorable and inspiring, but the most useful to me as a writer.
First thought, best thought.
It’s 1994 and I am getting my MFA in fiction at NYU. I’m sitting in the front row of a dingy classroom with a tape recorder and a notebook. The tape recorder is to record Allen Ginsberg, the big daddy of the Beat’s “Craft of Poetry” lectures for a feature I’m writing for The Paris Review. No. Lectures is the wrong word—Ginsberg’s thought operas, his spontaneous jet streams of brilliance, his earthy Dharma Lion roars—that’s what I’m there to capture. His teaching method is, as he explains it, “to improvise to some extent and it have it real rather than just a rote thing.”
It was very real.
The education Ginsberg provided me exceeds the bounds of the classroom, and far beyond the craft of poetry. Look inward and let go, he said. Pay attention to your world, read everything. For as he put it, “If the mind is shapely the art will be shapely.”—Elissa Schappell, 2013
The news that Allen Ginsberg was going to be teaching at New York University was passed around campus like a joint, making some people giddy and euphoric, others mildly confused, and still others paranoid—teachers and students alike. The waiting list to get into the class was extraordinary not only in length, but for the sheer number of times students eagerly checked to see if they had moved up. As a graduate student in the creative writing program I was given first dibs. I was curious to meet Ginsberg, curious to see how he would commandeer the Craft of Poetry class, which in the past had been taught by Galway Kinnell and William Matthews. The following excerpts were culled from a diary I kept during the semester.
It’s hard to think of Allen Ginsberg as “Professor Ginsberg.” His work, as well as his ubiquitous persona, breed a kind of familiarity, not only because you may have sat next to him as he ate pierogis at the Veselka Coffee Shop, or seen him at St. Mark’s Bookshop, but because he’s a pop icon and his work (and there’s a lot of it) is classically American.
Ginsberg is smaller and grayer and older than I expected, much more conservative looking, nay professorial in his gray flannel jacket and dark blue knife-creased trousers. His eyeglasses are clear plastic, his salt-and-pepper beard is neatly trimmed. He is wearing what seem to be thick-soled Rockport walking shoes, sensible shoes. Although he is sixty-nine he manifests few overt signs of old age. Perhaps it is the company he keeps—young attractive men who seem to be talismans against aging. I remember someone telling me that when Ginsberg was a mere youth he slept with someone who slept with Walt Whitman, the degree of sexual separation between those two bawdy bards was that dose.
The tiny classroom is cramped—full of people who have dropped in as if it were a coffee house. Those who can’t find a desk sit on the floor. I haven’t seen most of these students anywhere else on campus, not in Victorian Lit. or even the Derrida lectures. There are the ubiquitous poetesses in flowing gauze skirts who write in purple ink and the self-serious poets with their smudgy eyeglasses and ravel-sleeved blazers. There is also a sprinkling of pseudo-Beats in black berets and uniform goattes and kohl-eyed women in black stretch leggings, and though it’s cold outside, Diane Di Prima sandals.
Professor Ginsberg sits behind his wide desk frowning up at the low ceiling as though the harsh fluorescent light were assaulting him. Without further ado he begins to take roll. Somehow I thought it would be a hey, drop-in-drop-out-whenever-the-mood-suits-you kind of arrangement. As he calls off the names, I realize that half of the people crammed into this tiny room aren’t even enrolled in the class. They’re just here to catch a glimpse of Ginsberg, to get some kind of Beat benediction.
Then to confuse those of us who thought this class would be beating on bongos and barking haikus into the ether, he passes out the standard old literature class standby—a syllabus. In fact, there were two, one a “Survey of Historical Poetics from Pre-Literate Oral Traditions to Multiculti Poetics,” the other a “Conversational Syllabus” dated spring 1994, which surprisingly only lists the first seven weeks of classes—only half the classes scheduled. The “Conversational Syllabus” instructs the student to “Read as much as you can of book titles bibliographed above. Consult photocopied anthologies by Allen Ginsberg when you can’t find or finish books. Look up your English language anthologies for authors mentioned in passing. Use your research head for others not so obvious: Kalevala, Cavafy, Sappho, Cavalcanti, Bunting, Catullus, etc. Check out whatever you can, but take it easy. You can’t do everything.”
After passing out the papers Ginsberg lays out the nuts and bolts of the class. We are responsible for either a term paper (“I don’t want no academic jargon, just tell me what’s on your mind.”), plus five pages of our own poetry (“No more or I’ll never get through them.”) a bibliography of outside reading that relates to the class. Eyes flicker hungrily at the suggestion that Ginsberg will actually read our work.
Ginsberg announces his office hours: “My office is over in the English Department. Everyone should sign up for an interview. So, whenever you feel like it come by my office, we can talk poetry, we can rap, we can make love…” at this a few raised eyebrows and titters.
‘So,” he continues, “Gregory Corso will be teaching class on February 22. He is provocative, he might try to push your buttons.” He grins. Someone jokes that Corso, one of Ginsberg’s longtime chums, will try to get us to take our clothes off. Ginsberg enigmatically smiles, then says, “Bone up on Homer, and the Iliad.”
He continues: “Gregory Annuncia Corso…Annuncia or ‘the announcer of the way’ Corso. Poetry is the seeking of the answer….Let’s start with Corso’s theory of oxymorons—the yoking together of opposites. Corso takes very ordinary archetypes and plays with pop-art ideas, takes a one-word title and explores all the kinds of thoughts about it. He uses stereotypes and turns them inside out. He combines disparate ideas to make a little firecracker—he is not one of those high teacup poets.”
Ginsberg then reads aloud some of Corso’s work from The Happy Birthday Of Death. He tells us that the title poem was written from notes Corso took after blacking out from laughing gas. Thanks to a cousin who was a dentist, Ginsberg has also experimented with laughing gas. He then reads a poem he refers to as Corso’s most famous poem, “Marriage.”
“In this poem he takes a one word title and explores all the kid thoughts about it, you know—rice, lobby zombies, Niagara Falls—everybody knowing what’s going to happen on the honeymoon. This is a very anthologized poem, it’s an easy poem, it’s cornball, it’s like trenchmouth, one anthology passes it on to the next.”
Class breaks up; half the students file out into the hall. The other half, mostly attractive adolescent boys with wispy suggestions of facial hair, loiter and circle his desk, some in a rather proprietary way. Some hold out books to be signed, others just gaze as Ginsberg politely fields their attentions.
Tonight class meets in the same squalid little room. The ceiling is poked full of holes where kids have been whipping sharpened pencils up into the cork panels of the ceiling. I’ve brought my tape recorder; a few other students have done the same. Tonight he’s in a blue shirt, red necktie, and a dark blue wool blazer. He looks like a very tidy union organizer, or a podiatrist. There are fewer gawkers.
“Today we’ll continue with Corso and Creeley and more on oxymoronic poems, the notion of poetics as a poet’s magical ability to hypnotize people,” he says. He interrupts himself as a straggler tries to sneak quietly into the back row, “Are you in the class?
“Are you going to be late often?
“If you can make it, try and be on time. Otherwise there’s this constant interruption of people drifting in late, and I have to find them on the roster.”
He looks up to spot yet another latecomer. “What is your name?” he asks in irritation peering over the top of his glasses.
“Are you in the class?”
“Please try and come on time because I constantly have to interrupt the discourse to accommodate your lateness. It’s not like we’ve got that much time, it’s just a measly hour and a half.”
At this grouchy outburst, everyone sits staring down at their notebooks. Ginsberg sounds more like a high school gym teacher than the Dharma Lion.
He hands out a copy of “Mind Writing Slogans.” The subhead is a quote from William Blake, “First thought is best in Art, Second in other matters.” Then comes a wild array of aphorisms:
I. Ground (Situation or Primary Perception) “My writing is a picture of the mind moving.”—Philip Whalen “My mind is open to itself.”—Gelek Rinpoche “Catch yourself thinking.”—AG
II. Path (Method of Recognition) “The natural object is always the adequate symbol.”—Ezra Pound “Show not tell.”—Vernacular “Only emotion objectified endures.”—Louis Zukofsky
III. Fruition (Result of Appreciation) “What’s the face you had before you were born?” “The purpose of art is to stop time.”—Bob Dylan “Alone with the alone”—Plotinus
Ginsberg starts with Corso’s latest work, reminiscing about the notorious 1959 Columbia University poetry reading where Corso, Orlovsky and Ginsberg were put down rather condescendingly in a long essay by Diana Trilling in the Partisan Review. They were invited back sixteen years later, and Corso wrote a poem about it, called “Columbia U Poesy Reading 1975” which Ginsberg describes as “a sort of retrospective of the Beat Generation that presents its own personal and medical history.”
“What a sixteen years it’s been since last sat I here with the Trillings…sixteen years ago we were put down for being filthy beatnick sex commie dope fiends…Well I guess I’ll skip ahead—there is laughter—Bill’s ever Bill even though he stopped drugging…Dopey-poo, it be a poet’s perogative…”
“A lot of Corso’s poems are pieces of mind candy, a jawbreaker; you really can’t figure them out any more than you can figure out Einstein’s theory of relativity—is it inside or outside? Is the external phenomenal world inside or outside? It’s the classic proposition. It goes back thousands of years and is a subject of Buddhist discourse.”
A student pokes her hand up, then seeming to think the gesture too formal, slowly lowers it, her ears pinkening in embarrassment. “So, what is Corso’s method? How does he work?”
“Corso’s method is to write on a typewriter with two fingers, one phrase at a time, breath-stop in the lines, a mental or physical breath. Spontaneous composition, little revision. It makes incremental sense verse to verse, so there are surprises to the reader as well as to him. You can see his mind working line by line. Corso composes out of an idea or a conception turned inside out.”
He goes on, “He stays a lot at home, and thinks. He tends to critique a convention and refine the idea over and over again until he finds exactly the right formulation of it. He had this idea that he worked with for about ten years, ‘I’ll never die, because when I’m dead I won’t know it. Only other people die but I’ll never die.’ It’s built on the paradox of subject-object again, external or internal, phenomenal or whatever. He then works on them, again taking classic abstractions and turning them on their heads like the thing Heracleitus did—‘Everything is flowing. You can’t step in the same river twice.’ Right? Corso altered it to, ‘You can’t step in the same river once.’” He pauses for a moment to let this sink in.
“What Corso tries to do is to bring abstraction down to an idiom comprehensible to the man in the street…living language rather than a literary language. Most contemporary poetry is under the spell of the more elegant—and in some respects inauthentic—living speech of Wallace Stevens rather than William Carlos Williams’s spoken vernacular. So in Corso there’s an element of street wisdom mixed with classical references and philosophy and common sense.”
The door opens and a face peers in briefly. Wrong class.
“There’s an old American tradition from Thoreau saying, Most men lead lives of quiet desperation. Well there are millions of poems of quiet desperation and they are all published in The New Yorker.” Ginsberg chuckles derisively. “So, onto Creeley.”
Then out of the blue he says, “Let’s take five breaths.”
What’s this about? Weren’t we all in fact just breathing? One person is even sleeping and actually breathing rather deeply. Ginsberg closes his eyes and instructs us, “Follow your breath from the tip of your nose until it dissolves for five breaths.”
The thought crosses my mind that this deep-breathing exercise is like a metaphysical sorbet, a brain palate cleanser. I shut my eyes, then open them as I hear Ginsberg draw his first deep inhalation through his nose. Most of the class have their eyes shut, the rest are, like me, furtively peeking out from under their lashes, looking away in embarrassment when our eyes meet.
Ginsberg finally breaks the uneasy silence. “Robert Creeley was born in 1926. He was a northeastern poet; his style is kind of minimal, in short verse lines, haltingly slow. He was very much influenced by Miles Davis’s phrasings on the trumpet, early Davis of the forties. He’s from New England so there’s a kind of reticence like in Emily Dickinson, not wanting to overstate his case…minimalism not my bullshit.”
“The other influence on Creeley was Thomas Campion; he was the Bob Dylan of poetry, of the Renaissance. Performing lyric poems on his tortoiseshell lyre, he created a renaissance all over Europe. Lyric poems should be performed with a musical instrument, or else they lose their muscle. They become lax without that kind of exquisite, delicate hovering accent.”
Ginsberg recites some Campion from heart. “All Whitman is ‘I celebrate myself, and sing myself.’ It’s self-empowerment. He’s not scared of his own body there in the midst of nature. Campion does the same thing.”
“There’s an undercurrent of abrasiveness, a kind of turn-the-apple-cart-over in Creeley’s work. Generally he types the figure a phrase at a time, until the next phrase comes to him, so there’s a kind of break in the line or breath stop as he calls it. Like Corso, each line he writes modifies or alters the previous line, so he doesn’t know what he’s going to say until he’s said it. His method, like Kerouac’s, is that of spontaneous composition, and relatively little rearrangement or revision.”
Wrapping up class, Ginsberg reminds us that next week he is reading at the DIA Center downtown and that he’s gotten free tickets for the class. He also reminds us, “If you don’t have, or can’t find any of the writers on the syllabus, or any of these books, let me know and I’ll lend you my own books.” There is a pervading sense that he is a kind of poetry pusher, the intellectual candy man.
The DIA Center Reading
Allen reads a poem that includes a line about getting out of bed after having sex with a young man who has turned his body to face the wall. There are two attractive guys sitting in front of me, neither of whom I’ve ever seen in class. One turns to the other: “Is that Billy he was talking about?”
“No,” the guy proudly replies, “that’s me.”
Tonight we are liberated from our dinky classroom, upgraded to a small amphitheater in the Main Building. Once again a bunch of odd people have turned up in the class; perhaps they’ve heard through the groovy grapevine that Corso is at the helm tonight. Corso slouches into class with the quick anxious step of the hunted man, a man unhappy to have left his apartment. His long snaggly gray hair is pulled back in a low ponytail. He sits down, and hunching over the desk, nervously tugs and strokes his little beard. He’s wearing a blue denim work shirt, khakis and a ratty black jacket. He looks like a Beat poet. One of the boys perpetually buzzing around Ginsberg passes around an attendance sheet.
By way of introduction Corso begins with a question, “Does anyone know where the Trojan horse is from? The Cassandra myth?”
No one says a word.
“Big big man Mr. Homer. Homer is the daddy of all mythology. You should have read Homer, there is no excuse for it, if you haven’t. No excuse for not embracing Homer. If you haven’t gone through Homer…” he throws up his hands in dismay.
“Homer wrote the Odyssey at the base of Mt. Olympus. He wrote the Iliad right on top. He wrote about the bickering of men, like the bickering of gods. Here was a man who dealt with the gods, who put his own voice in the mouth of gods—quite fantastic. Big big man Mr. Homer. Hindu gods don’t bicker.” Corso strokes his chin and fidgets in his chair. I have the feeling he isn’t accustomed to lecturing. “What do you want to talk about?” he asks, nervously drumming his fingers upon the desktop.
The room is silent.
In a heartbeat he launches back in on Homer. “It is just basic knowledge for a writer; you should all know your Homer.”
No one says a word.
“I find somebody dumb who doesn’t know Homer—that’s how I feel. Check him out; he brought the Greek gods on the scene, that is for sure. But then again I just happened to be reading that book that afternoon when Ginsberg called. We don’t have to be stuck with the Iliad. There are insights in that book that are stupendous.” He rocks in his chair and checks his wrist for a non-existent watch, “How long have I been here?”
“That’s a long time man!” he sighs in exasperation, “Let’s get on to something else.”
There is an uneasy silence in the room. Nervous giggling. No one knows what to do, least of all Corso. “Take a look at the Greeks and their hell,” he says desperately. “Their hell was like their weather. Their weather was not too cold, not too warm, it was moderate. Look at the Gilgamesh hell—that was a funny hell. That hell is a desert. Different kinds of hells for different seasons.”
“Where is your hell?” someone calls out from the crowd.
“Right here, believe me,” he laughs uncomfortably. The class laughs along with him.
“I always figured a guy who is a philosopher would never go and tell people he was a philosopher,” he says lighting on a new topic. “Others had to tell him he was a philosopher. But a poet has to tell people he’s a poet. If you don’t, they don’t know. It’s like Anne Waldman, whom I love, who made the mistake once of showing me a poem. She asked, ‘Is this a poem?’ And I said, ‘Hell no.’ She hasn’t forgiven me for 10 years. I don’t want her wrath on me. I never expected poets to be that sensitive,” he says rolling his eyes. “I thought you could screw around with them. My god. I made it worse by trying to apologize. I tried, and oh, I was so embarrassed. I didn’t mean it, really. One day she will see. That shows you how careful you have to be of what you say.
“I think as a poet you have to have certain things under your belt—the Cassandra myth, the Trojan horse. You’ve got to have the essentials in your head; even if they aren’t essential, they’re at least beautiful. I’d rather have a little bit of knowledge than a whole lot of faith. I’d rather have knowledge, an encyclopedic head. Of course to be a poet you don’t have to know nada.”
This seems to cheer the class.
“You’ve said poetry was a saving grace to you, how so?” a student asks.
“Because it educated me. Poetry is a study of the head. You use your head for pondering and worrying, working things out. I was alone. I didn’t have some of the people others have, like parents—so I worked it out for myself. Then poetry came along.”
Corso seems noticeably more at ease answering questions than lecturing.
“When did you realize you were a poet?” someone inquires.
“I realized I was a poet around fourteen, fifteen. I never got a chance to be rejected. I said I was a poet—so I was. First poem I wrote was about my mother. I used to ask people what happened to her. Sometimes they said she had died, other times they told me she was a whore, or that she just disappeared. To this day I don’t know. So I took the disappearance, and figured she went back to Italy, a shepherdess in Calabria, tending sheep around the lemon trees. That was my mother. The poem was called ‘Sea Chanty.’” He recites it, “My mother hates the sea, my sea especially. I warned not to, it was all I could do…Upon the shore I found a strange yet beautiful food, I asked the sea if I could eat it, and the sea said I could…’
“You know it would be easier to be a painter,” he laments. “You have to show your ass in writing. It is embarrassing when you have to face people and read poems; they see how you look, they see you—oh my god,” he raises his hand to his cheek in mock horror. “Whereas a painter just puts his stuff in a gallery and walks away.”
“How do you work?”
“I get a certain poem-feeling in my gut. I watched Tennessee Williams once in Greece when I was staying at his house. He’d get up every morning at seven and pull down the shades and play schmaltzy music on tapes he had from America and start typing away. The time I usually work is when people are sleeping; it is always in the middle of the night, the hour of the wolf, while the world is asleep. Not that I do it every night, but I like the dark, I don’t like the bright sunlight. I’d rather be in the shade.”
“How do you feel about rewriting?”
“At the time of writing I don’t rewrite. First thought best thought. We were always into that. You know, first words that are down, best words that are down. The first thought is the purest thought. The purest stuff is spontaneous. But sometimes I do rewrite. Why not make it better? Why not?”
“Do you share work with other writers?”
“I’ve read poems on the phone to Ginsberg. He read me ‘Howl.’ Sharing the work is good. Why hoard your words? Poetry is hard,” he says with a grimace.
“Do you like to read work aloud?” someone in the back calls out.
“You get more out of reading a poem than from hearing it read to you. You get more out of me in print than in a reading, yeah. Because usually I don’t read the heavyweight stuff that I write. I just can’t bear it. It would take too much out of me. So I read the light stuff, the funny stuff. To make them laugh. Oh boy, they love you when you make them laugh. I’ve got to have a couple of drinks before I do it. To face this horde, this is like death, this is the darkest nights of our souls, it is horrific, and then there is Ginsberg up there like it’s a great come-on. Oh boy, he can be like a clown up there.” He pauses, “It diminishes poetry, I think. It diminishes poetry by reading it and playing the clown, or entertainer. But I’ve done it to make money. I prefer the nice quietude of poetry. For me poetry comes from here,” he points to his sternum. “If not, it doesn’t mean anything—it don’t mean nada. You can’t sneak the miracle. There is no way that you’re going to write a better poem just because you want to be remembered for it.
“As a kid I knew when I grew old I’d always have poetry. Old age didn’t bother me because I’d always have poetry to go to—it was a standby. Whenever you have pain, or trouble, or things upsetting you, try to write poetry, it will be your greatest friend. In many ways poetry benefits you, and it could benefit others. It’s a good thing. It doesn’t hurt anybody en masse.”
Having made this proclamation Corso rises to his feet as if to leave. A clock watcher calls out, “Uh, you’ve got forty-five minutes left.”
Corso groans and sinks back in his seat. “I can’t get out of here!”
The class cracks up. No one wants him to stop talking.
An addled-looking blond woman stands up in the back, “Do you ever have anybody else read your poetry out loud?”
“No. I never have, but I bet they have. Why, you wanna read one?”
“I want to do the one about the stains. The stains. I really like the thing about stains, you know that one?”
Corso knits his brow and rubs his forehead in contemplation.
“Do you know the one I’m taking about?”
Corso shrugs. “You don’t know the poem you’re talking about?” He laughs.
“I remember the concept,” she says. “I don’t remember the words. You don’t remember it?”
“I don’t remember my poetry that well, other than that sea chant. Who recites American poetry by memory? No one does that anymore,” he says.
“Do you read criticism of your work?” a man with a shaved head asks, as the blond woman slides, as if in slow motion, back down into her chair.
“I don’t see much of it. The message is either going to be heavily down, or all the way for it. They don’t know how to handle it. But I have no doubts, I mean if I died now, I wouldn’t feel that I wasn’t accomplished.
“I could write a volume of poetry in a week—if it hit me. But I don’t want to throw out poetry like that, one after another. People say, ‘People are going to forget you.’ I don’t give a damn, I’m not a movie star. I’m a poet. Today poets have all got to be famous. It’s all changed, the ball game has changed. It is only a new thing that’s happened with poetry that poets are known while they are alive. Allen Ginsberg got it, nailed it so well. He knows how to handle it and put it to good use. Check it out. The man has been beneficial to people. If I look at history, I can’t see where poets have caused any hurt en masse—I can’t see where a drop of blood’s been spilled, except among themselves. Verlaine with Rimbaud shooting him in the wrist, okay, Villon cutting the priest’s neck because the priest wanted to seduce him, well okay—family quarrels.
“I’m facing old age,” he says gently nodding his head, “I’m sixty-three. I hope poetry will stand by me. Look at Blake. Before he died, he was singing in his bed to his wife Kate, dying and just singing. The years they go like that. I saw my nine year-old kid the other day and I didn’t recognize him.
“Poetry is when you are all alone in a little room and you have to write the fucker down.” He pauses for emphasis. “It’s all there. Remember, it’s a game being a writer; you are taking a gamble there. I really admire people who do it, even hack writers, I admire them, because they can create attitudes, time spans.” He nods. Then, rising to his feet for the last time, he signs off, “I hope I gave you something.”
Corso left the class twenty minutes early. Nobody seemed to notice.
Tonight’s class is greatly diminished. The regular core plus one or two stalkers. Ginsberg unloads a pile of books from a tote bag. He seems anxious to hear about last week’s class. “Anybody take any notes?” he asks, rubbing his hands together gleefully. “I’d be curious to see what happened. What did he have to say?”
“He spoke about growing old and the Trojan horse,” a student in her seventies says.
“We talked about his craft,” murmurs a kohl-eyed woman in long dangly earrings.
“It was great!” says an eager note-taker in the front row. Ginsberg nods in satisfaction.
“Today I want to talk about Creeley, his growing older, middle-aged poems, and his realization of aging. So, we’ll begin with “Self-Portrait,” his realizations about himself:
He wants to be a brutal old man, an aggressive old man, as dull, as brutal as the emptiness around him.
He doesn’t want compromise nor to be ever nice to anyone. Just mean, and final in his brutal, his total, rejection of it all.
It’s a rare and brutal self-portrait, and it is very much him. It reflects his recollections of his earlier life, when he did drink quite a bit, and was quite mean to people when he got drunk. Some drunken people are very sweet, some are dopey, some are maudlin—some get really really mean. Fortunately, he never turned it on me, but I’ve seen him in that situation. He is actually alcohol-free now, I think.”
“Incrementally, almost monosyllabically, the meaning of a Creeley poem accumulates, changing everything that goes before it. His method of writing is to put paper in the typewriter and begin with whatever phrase or insight he started with, a retroactive small instance of feeling, and then accumulate detail and reach for common ground.”
Ginsberg reads aloud Creeley’s poem “Memories”:
Hello, duck in yellow
Cloth stuffed from inside out,
“That’s all there is,” he laughs, then reads it aloud again. “It’s very intimate poetry. Some people say its incomprehensible, but I don’t think so. If you look long enough it will make sense. The work couldn’t be more real or concrete. Like the duck—it’s a real baby cloth duck. It is a play of pure language, but there is always some substantive matter there.”
“What do you think when people call him abstract?” someone asks.
“Well, it is abstract. I wouldn’t want to write that way myself, so abstractly, except I really dig it when I read it. I’m almost crying it is so cool.
“‘Go’ is another minimal one,” Ginsberg says, then reads aloud:
Push that little thing up and the other right down. It’ll work.
“It sounds like instructions for a baby toy, doesn’t it? It is also slightly erotic; it might read as some suggestion about the whole process of creation, Push that little thing up.” He laughs uproariously. “It’s so beautiful! It is actually the memory of a child’s toy but it is also parallel to God, or a divine messenger telling man, Push that little thing up, it will work. He trembles with laughter. “It is your generic instructions for existence, or am I reading too much into it? It is there,” he insists. “If anybody here doesn’t get it, it’s all right. It took me forever to get them myself.”
Next we read “Age,” which is from Creeley’s collection Windows. It’s the most explicit poem we’ve read. Ginsberg begins to crack up over the line, “probe into your anus.” He has to stop at “roto-rooter-like device” to catch his breath, and by the time he reaches “like a worn out inner tube” his voice is a high-pitched squeak, and he’s laughing hysterically at the line “to snore not unattractively.” After he wipes the tears from his cheeks he continues, “I guess what I like about his poems is that they are a trip. It’s really the mind laid bare. He may do some tinkering, but I think his method is if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work and he throws it away. This poem is like a mind trap in a way. Creeley’s poems are like jokes that crack themselves.”
After he has composed himself Ginsberg adds, “Creeley takes from Campion the rhythmical subtlety, the musicality characteristic of English song and lyric poetry. The delicate cadence in Creeley comes from Campion. His care for the syllable is like the poets of the Black Mountain School, who composed their work conscious of every syllable and how it fits into the cadence.”
The subject of cadence and rhythm leads us to Sappho, whom Ginsberg refers to as “the first Rimbaud.” We listen to him read some of Sappho’s most famous poems like “Invocation to Aphrodite” and some other fragments.
“Sappho invented a number of stanza forms, like the sapphic stanza,” he says, then begins to chant, “Trochee trochee dactyl trochee trochee.” He waits for a second as if expecting us to jump in, but the class is speechless. The woman next to me whispers, “Is he having some kind of flashback?”
“Okay,” he says in his best patient Cub Scout leader voice, “Let’s do it together!” and leads the whole class in a chorus of sapphic stanza form. At first we are timorous and shy, then after a few rounds our voices become loud, even celebratory. This singing makes class seem more like day camp than a literature class.
“These are dance steps,” Ginsberg tells us. “Ed Sanders and The Fugs use these. These have a cadence so powerful and inevitable that they outlasted Troy—the monuments of marble, brass and iron and the Parthenon—and they’re good for love poetry—good for poems of yearning. They’re not far from the blues in terms of structure. Actually, they’re very similar to twelve-bar blues.”
“For next week,” he calls out as everyone gathers up their books, “I want you to write a sapphic poem!” As we file out of class I can hear people humming trochee trochee dactyl trochee trochee…
I’m early for class. Ginsberg hasn’t arrived yet. The woman next to me is visibly peeved. She’s riffling through some papers, and sighing in exasperation. I can see that they’re sheaves of poetry which have been corrected in cramped handwriting—I think it’s Ginsberg’s hand. She looks over at me and rolls her eyes.
“Have you had your meeting with him yet?” I ask.
“Oh, yeah…” she says, sucking in her breath and raising her eyebrows. “I got completely clobbered. He hated it. He was so critical—I don’t think he likes women. At least he sure doesn’t like my work, it’s too girly for him.”
I confess to her that I’m nervous about my meeting. She smirks, “You should be. I couldn’t wait to get out of there. I know these are good, I’ve workshopped one of them even,” she says, sliding the poems out of my sight and into a purple folder.
One on One with Ginsberg
I sit in the hall outside of Ginsberg’s office, along with several other students. A platinum-haired boy with a black goatee scribbles in his journal. A woman with long black Medusa locks twirls a snake of dark hair around her finger, looking pained as she reads a slender volume of Sappho. I can see, through the crack in the door, a boisterous fellow in cowboy boots sitting in the chair alongside Ginsberg’s desk. He is leaning across the desk jabbing his finger into what I suspect is his poem. In his lap is a large pile of papers, more poems I assume. I can’t hear the conversation, but as I watch I can see the man slowly deflating, his gestures becoming larger as he struggles to explain the intention behind his art. I feel sick. I read over my own poems, stumbling over obvious metaphors and silly turns of phrase. I want to flee. I can hear Ginsberg’s voice, “okay,” he says in a wrapping-it-up voice, “there are other people waiting.” My heart is pounding. The man bounds out of the office.
Ginsberg looks down at his sign-up sheet. “Schappell?” he asks, peering over the rims of his clear plastic glasses. I nod and shut the door tightly behind me, I don’t want anyone to witness my artistic evisceration. He waves me into the chair next to his desk. My heart is pounding as I hand over my work.
He reads silently, tipping back in his chair. Then he leans forward across the desk and smiles. To my surprise he is incredibly generous and complimentary. Perhaps my contemporaries have just worn him down so his critical faculties are muted. Perhaps he’s just in a good mood. He makes insightful comments, and does a quick edit that vastly improves my poem. He suggests a few writers for me to read and asks me questions about my poem, which is about my experiences with olfactory hallucinations. He’s curious about them and nods as I tell him about the strange and unsettling phenomena of smelling smoked meat and alcohol when none are in evidence. He writes down the name of a neurologist who might be interested in my case and suggests I stop by again. I leave his office feeling greatly relieved, and a bit elated.
When I show up for class, the amphitheater is full of strange faces. Another class has hijacked our room. Ginsberg looks annoyed. Tonight he’s wearing a hand-knitted dark blue, white and red cardigan with chunky hand-wrought silver buttons. It looks like a Tibetan Perry Como sweater.
“Just sit down and let’s get going,” he says in irritation, and gestures at the floor for us to sit down. “We have a lot to do.” At his bidding people sit cross-legged on the floor just outside the open door of the amphitheater as though in peaceful protest. The other class peers out the door at us. Just as Ginsberg starts to take roll, a uniformed security guard appears and sternly informs us that there are too many of us to sit in the hall. We’re a fire hazard. Ginsberg insists he has the paperwork needed for the room, and pats his pockets as though he carries the documents with him. The guard disappears, then reappears a few minutes later saying he has found another room for us. We move en masse to an auditorium on another floor. The new room is a lecture hall for the sciences, its main source of decoration being an enormous periodic table of elements.
Without waiting for the stragglers to find seats, Ginsberg plants himself on the edge of the stage and starts in on John Wieners. “Wieners is the great gay poet of America. He’s in hardly any anthologies, but he’s so emotional and truthful.” Ginsberg reads us “A Poem For Trapped Things” in a voice that is full of intense appreciation.
“Wieners is like Cavafy, a Greek modern poet of the twentieth century who died in the twenties or thirties. His work gives us glimpses into his love life, his homosexual bent…it’s a similar aesthetic to Whitman’s poetry.”
He quotes from Wieners’s tragic American poem “The Acts of Youth”: “I have always seen my life as drama, patterned after those who met with disaster or doom,” then reads the poem in its entirety. Ginsberg compares Wieners with Hart Crane, who he describes as “a doomed powerful poet whose low self-esteem led him to commit suicide.”
Ginsberg reads more Wieners, interjecting comments on his sexual infatuation with Robert Creeley and how this pissed off Creeley’s wife. He tells us of Wieners’s time spent in and out of various asylums, his shock treatments and awful nightmares, and how he experimented with peyote and “loco weed,” which makes you lose your memory and then your mind. “He had been over the abyss before,” Ginsberg says and pauses. “There’s a thread of Marlene Dietrich glamor in Wieners’s poetry.”
He describes Wieners’s trips to New York to do poetry readings. “Sometimes he would just read one,” Ginsberg recalls. “He’d read one, sit down and wait until they applauded and he was called back onto the stage. Then he’d get up and read another, then go sit back down. Sometimes he would read the gossip columns as poetry. He wrote some of his poetry under the nom de plume Jackie O.”
Class ends too soon. “For next week think about Kerouac and vowel delicacy, meditation and poetics,” he cries out.
Tonight we’re in yet another classroom—a cramped but bright little space with many more charts than students, so people are fanned out all over the room, mostly lingering in the back. This seems to annoy Ginsberg, who insists, “Come closer, come closer, I don’t want to yell.” We pull our chairs up in a circle and surround him like disciples.
“What was the face you had before you were born?” Ginsberg asks. “That question, the theme of a Zen poem, is the heart of Beat poetry. It could be called the ‘golden ash’ school, as Kerouac said, ‘A dream already ended, the golden ash of dream.’”
“Has anyone ever heard of the Paramita Sutra!” he asks. Everyone shakes their head no.
Someone jokes, “Isn’t that like the Kama Sutra?” The class giggles.
“This is the basis of much Eastern thought, particularly in the Buddhist world through Indo-China, Burma, Ceylon, Tibet and China itself. This is a translation by Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, a Zen master from San Francisco who was a big deal in the fifties and sixties. It was tinkered with by myself and a Tibetan lama to make it maybe a little clearer. Generally it’s chanted in a monotone, so I’ll chant it.”
Ginsberg chants the Paramita Sutra in a strangely pretty monotone.
“First time I ever heard anything about Buddhism was Kerouac crooning the Buddha refuge vows; he was singing these, crooning them like Frank Sinatra.” Ginsberg, with his eyes downcast sings the refuge vows, repeating them three times.
He describes the four vows of the bodhisattva then chants them for us. This is all to prepare us for Kerouac. Of the books On The Road, Visions of Cody and Dr. Sax, all published in a three-year period, Ginsberg believes that Visions Of Cody contains some of his best writing. “By then he had discovered his method of spontaneous writing. He’d written the huge novel On The Road and had rethought it. He decided he would do it even better and bigger, by going back over the same characters, same plot, not making it a chronological narrative, but according to epiphanous moments. He’d write a series of discrete epiphanous moments, then string them together. Different experiences and moments popping up in whatever order would be the structure of the book. It wouldn’t have the linear quality of a regular novel, with a beginning, middle, end. It would be as the mind sees a cubist painting. Cody Pomeray is Dean Moriarty is Neal Cassady, all based on a real person, all real happenings but fictionalized.
“His next book, Dr. Sax, was written on marijuana, so it has an elaborate marijuana openness. Dr. Sax was the Shadow, a bogeyman, the shrouded stranger, the figure you see through your window at night who follows you down the street and makes you want to run home fast after it gets dark. He even made a drawing of him, a comic strip. Like science fiction, he emerges out of the dots of the Brooklyn waterfront; he comes up out of the water with his hair long and glistening in a shroudy cape, and goes to the Pyramid club and dances on the bar. So here’s the situation, little Jacky Kerouacky from Lowell, Mass. at the age of twelve or thirteen is befriended by Dr. Sax, the bogeyman. In the daytime he’s a football coach, but at night he puts on his shrouded cape and goes around the city performing miracles, and the big plot of this is that the millennium is approaching, the apocalypse, or Armageddon, and at Snake Hill in Lowell, Mass. the great snake of the world is going to emerge and devour the planet. This is a recording of Jack reading Dr. Sax made in 1961 on an old tape recorder at his house.”
Ginsberg pushes down the play button and Kerouac’s voice booms out of the battered tape recorder as if possessed. Despite the scratchy static his voice is clear and mesmerizing, his nasal New England accent rattling the room, his cackle electric. The whole class is rapt. Ginsberg’s face softens and gets a little dreamy-looking.
“That’s beautiful isn’t it?” He repeats and savors Kerouac’s sentences, biting the consonants and mouthing the vowels, emphasizing the oral qualities and rhythms. “It has a subtlety of both language and ear that comes from a virginal, or rather somewhat youthful marijuana fantasy.”
“The writing of Visions of Cody was influenced by Thomas Wolfe, Thomas Mann, Proust’s madeleine and tea, and Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. It has the extended sentences, panoramic awareness and interesting narrative like On the Road.” Ginsberg then reads us bits of Visions of Cody. He thankfully doesn’t try to sound like Kerouac, or read like him.
“These are sort of Whitmanic descriptions aren’t they?” he points out. “This is an experimental, exuberant book. It’s broken down into sections like jazz sessions. It might mean one sentence, or it might mean pages. Each section is written in a session of writing like a jazz musician. It’s like blowing until the energy is gone. Gertrude Stein also did this. She’d write it all out in a focus of attention. Kerouac didn’t always write it all down. It was mostly babbling in bars or under the Brooklyn Bridge. We used to walk under the Brooklyn Bridge and improvise a lot, trading lines, riffing poetry. There are a couple specimens between me and Kerouac and Peter Orlovsky. They’re not all that interesting,” Ginsberg confesses, but he shares them anyway.“‘Oh my baby tip my cup all my thoughts are open, no? all my doors are open.’ Burroughs and Kerouac did a collaborative novel back in the forties, set in the St. Louis zoo. It was called And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks.”
This recollection gets Ginsberg on to the subject of Burroughs. “Burroughs thinks in pictures—he spends long sessions just sitting at the typewriter, seeing images moving against the dark. He sits with his hands hovering over the typewriter thinking about hands pulling in nets in the dark like in Interzone. He does cut-ups and revises a lot. He follows his dreams, follows them visually like a movie camera and writes the images down. His material often comes from dreams or visual daydreams, and are filed according to subject matter in manila folders. All writing is spontaneous, you don’t know what the next word is going to be until you write it, unless you’re like the Russians who work it all out in their heads.”
Ginsberg ends class by reading Kerouac’s mea culpa in Visions of Cody. In the middle of it he nearly begins to weep, “I never thought it would be published.”
Ginsberg is eager to start class today. “We’ll begin with a recording of blues and haiku done by Kerouac in 1959 with Al Cohn and Zoot Sims, two vanguard hard bop white saxophonists. Kerouac would pronounce the haiku and they would make up a little saxophone haiku. With the push of a button Kerouac is alive reciting haikus accompanied by slithery sax music that compliments the verse:
In my medicine cabinet
the winter fly
has died of old age.
“Nice huh?” Ginsberg nods appreciatively. “Did you notice his enunciation? It’s like real mature mouthing. I mentioned last week that the master of intonation and enunciation, Frank Sinatra, was actually an influence on Kerouac. Sinatra, I think, learned his technique from Billie Holiday. So the lineage is Billie Holiday through Sinatra to Kerouac.”
Drunk as a hoot owl
“I’ve a series of poems of my own, which instead of calling haiku I’ve called ‘American sentences.’” The trouble with most of the traditional haiku is the way they’re synthesized into English; they’re not a complete sentence. They sort of hang in the air. The advantage of ‘In my medicine cabinet the winter fly has died of old age’ is it’s a straightforward active sentence with a subject, verb and object. It just goes tight into your head without that arty sound of translationese.
“The next recording is 1959, a time when Steve Allen, then a popular television personality, somewhat literate, really dug Kerouac and understood that he was a little better than the beatnik image given in the press. He actually made friends with him. He asked him to come into the recording studio. It was lucky that Steve Allen had that intuition because there are not so many recordings of Kerouac. He made some on his own home machine like the Dr. Sax that I played you last week, but that’s quite rare and not issued. There’s another I have of him reading Mexico City Blues, but he’s really completely drunk and the timing is not good, though it’s still him.
Jack Kerouac reading on The Steve Allen Show from DERTV on Vimeo.
“At the time of Mexico City Blues Jack was reading a book called the Buddhist Bible. Did we ever do sitting practice and meditation here?” he suddenly ask us.
“That might be interesting to do that. So you know what Kerouac’s talking about when he talks about Buddhism and meditation and all that crap. So if you will sit forward in your seats with your hands on your knees, sit up straight. The reason I say sit forward is to keep your spine straight so that you’re not slumping over, you’re erect. Okay, top of the head supporting heaven (so to speak), so it’s not quite marine military; the chin is down, somewhat more relaxed, eyeballs relaxed, so you’re not staring at any specific point, but letting the optical field hang outside of your skull, looking through your skull at the outside. We are led to believe a lie when we see with not through the eye, says William Blake, so you’re looking through the eye, with perhaps awareness of the periphery of the optical field.”
“We’re not leaving the world, we’re here; we’re just resting within the phenomenal world and appreciating it. Shoulders relaxed, nose in line with belly button, ears in line with your shoulder blades. Sitting forward actually on the edge of the chair is best, balanced on your feet, hands resting on thighs. Mouth closed, putting the tongue toward the teeth and roof of your mouth, eliminating the air pocket so you won’t be disturbed by an accumulation of saliva forcing you to swallow. Gaze tending toward the horizon, resting in space, or, if it’s too bright, at a forty-five degree angle down in front of you toward the floor. So the basic classical practice is paying attention to the breath leaving the nostril and following the breath until it dissolves, not controlling the breath, just any regular old natural breath that comes along will do. What you are adding is your awareness of the breath rather than any control. On the in breath you can let go of your observation, maybe check your posture, if you’re slumped you will tend to be daydreaming, if you are upright you will tend to be alert. So, let’s try that. Ignore other parts of the mind. When you notice you are thinking, label it thinking and take a friendly attitude toward your thoughts. That is the nature of the mind to think thoughts, but when you become aware of it observe it, acknowledge it, notice it, then return your attention back to the breath, and it will restore your focus.”
We sit on the edge of our seats, hands on our knees. If someone were to peek through the window in the door, they would see what I am sure looks like an army of zombies awaiting instructions. The room hums with silence. A smoker begins to hack, everyone else sits still, drawing deep breaths.
“Okay” Ginsberg says, disturbing our pleasant revery. “Mexico City Blues. In Chorus 63 Kerouac’s commenting on his own poetics, ‘Rather gemmy, Said the King of Literature Sitting on a davenport at afternoon butler’s tea.’” Ginsberg guffaws, the class laughs too. Ginsberg’s reading it in a very funny high-tone sniffy British voice. “Rather gemmy hmmm…always thought these sonnets of mine were rather gemmy as you say, true perfect gems of lucid poetry, poetry being what it is today, rather gemmy…’
“It’s sort of like a midtown intellectual ninny or somebody reading The New Yorker,” he says. “Kerouac was really a master of camp. Very few people realize that a lot of Kerouac is campy voices, or getting into other people’s heads, very common archetypal people like a New Yorker reader, or Burroughs, or W. C. Fields, very often he goes into W. C. Fields mode.”
“Kerouac is often accused of being naive macho but this is very sophisticated camp he’s laying down.” Ginsberg then reads Chorus 74, which he recites in a lockjawed English accent he confesses is Gore Vidal’s.
“I think Jack had slept with Gore Vidal by this time, or so Gore Vidal said. Why, I don’t know. Kerouac wasn’t really gay, but on the other hand I think he dug Vidal as a sort of ultra-sophisticated person and wanted some of it to rub off, or maybe it was just drunken lust, but I think it was more a sort of envious inquisitiveness and curiosity and amusement.”
Ginsbeg starts the 64th Chorus, “‘I’d rather die than be famous,” he reads, then mutters, under his breath, “fat chance.”
He moves on to another point about Visions of Cody. “The first forty-two pages are a series of little sketches. A friend, Ed White, who studied architecture at Columbia when Kerouac was hanging around there in 1948-1949, told him what he ought to do is go out with a pencil, a sketch pad and make verbal sketches just like painters make sketches, little quick sketches, little salient lines, to capture the motif or subject, to capture the ephemera of the moment…sketch. It’s actually quite a good exercise. Sit in front of a window and sketch what you see within the frame of the window. It ain’t so easy, but it ain’t so hard either. So that’s your homework. Jack died, I believe, sitting in a chair verbally sketching the action on a TV quiz program. Making a little prose poem sketch of what was going on.”
Despite the overcast gray sky it feels like spring. The consensus is to have class out of doors. This evening there’s a journalist from The New Yorker in our class. She’s doing a piece for their upcoming fiction issue. Like some ragtag tribe following a prophet, we are led outside to the Leonard Stern business building. Ginsberg sits down in the lotus position on the walkway beneath an overhang and takes off his shoes. His socks are dark blue with no holes in the toes or heels. We sit around him on the pavement and grass. A few students try to imitate his pretzel-pose. He is the only one who looks remotely comfortable, especially when it begins to drizzle, forcing us all to huddle under the cement lip of the building where there’s a decidedly dank odor of urine and wet dog.
“This week or next I’d like to lay down the materials for Kerouac’s rules for writing—because that is essential to the writing aspect of the Beat Generation. It is so essential to understand in relation to earlier work like Gertrude Stein’s and see how it reflects back into Shakespeare.”
Ginsberg reads a few of Kerouac’s verses from Mexico City Blues, 104, “I’d rather be thin than famous,” and 110 and 111, which deal with Buddhism. “Is this making sense at all? Or is it gobbledygook? Is there anyone who feels this is totally unclear! I confess I don’t always know what the hell Kerouac is talking about in his poetry.”
“It seems like a totally different attitude than On the Road,” comments a guy in a baseball cap.
“Well this is five years later. In On the Road you’ll also find moments of perception of the whole phenomenal world as delusion also. In On the Road there’s one point were he’s coming out of Mexico or into Texas and he sees an old lonely shrouded stranger walking the road looking like death or God or a prophet and his prophetic word is, Wow. I am so glad we’re having this class out of the building so I have this vast space to point to—endless space, going beyond the sky, beyond what we can see, beyond the clouds, galaxies….Everybody has already accomplished their existing in vastness, or some form of eternity whether they know it or not; everybody is already a Buddha in infinity, already placed in the infinite, so it’s a question of whether they know they’re in the infinite, or they’re just stuck with their nose in a bank book, or somebody’s cunt or whatever….There’s no attainment because there’s no non-attainment. It’s already happened, it’s already here. The ordinary mind in the place of transcendental mind if you catch on, which is the purpose of sitting and the practice of meditation, to catch on to that. To catch on to the vastness of your own mind, to see that inside space is the same as outside space, so therefore everything is ignorant of it’s emptiness.”
As it continues to rain, Ginsberg discusses meditation at some length. Most of us are a bit befuddled.
“So when you meditate you’re trying not to think?” someone asks shyly.
“No. You’re observing the thought, you observe the breath. Let’s do that for just a moment now. I was going to do it inside, but now that we’ve got the open space….I don’t know how comfortable you can get. It doesn’t require a straight back. Just relax your mind, and maybe focus attention on the out breath, out through the nose if you can, unless you’ve got problems…Follow your breath if you can, then as you find yourself thinking, or conceptualizing, notice it, touch on it, like anger when you notice it; it dissolves, then you’re back here in the space where you are, and then latch onto your out breath again, which should keep your mind here in this space until it drifts again. So it’s a question of observing your thought, rather than stopping it. Trying to stop your thought is only another thought. You can go into an infinite regress of thought. The only way is to actually switch your attention to the breath, become conscious of breath and soon your mind is out there in space. The formula is mixing breath with space, mixing mind with breath, mixing mind with space. Let’s go for four minutes.”
We sit up straight. I remember to think of balancing heaven on the top of my head. We close our eyes, and breathe deeply through our noses, trying to filter out the yipping dogs and the chatter of sorority girls.
We sit and meditate, some of us more deeply than others. The journalist from The New Yorker falls deeply asleep, her mouth hanging gently agape. She doesn’t rouse herself until a good fifteen minutes have passed. Ginsberg looks amused and a little annoyed.
To wrap up Kerouac we look at a handout, composed by Kerouac in his own unique shorthand, perhaps intended as a letter.
Belief Technique For Modern Prose a List of Essentials
1. Scribbled secret notebooks, and wild typewritten pages, for yr own joy
2. Submissive to everything, open, listening
3. Try never get drunk outside yr own house
4. Be in love with yr life
5. Something that you feel will find its own form
6. Be crazy dumbsaint of the mind
7. Blow as deep as you want to blow
8. Write what you want bottomless from bottom of the mind
9. The unspeakable visions of the individual
10. No time for poetry but exactly what is
11. Visionary tics shivering in the chest
12. In tranced fixation dreaming upon object before you
13. Remove literary, grammatical and syntactical inhibition
14. Like Proust be an old teahead of time
15. Telling the true story of the world in interior monolog
16. The jewel center of interest is the eye within the eye
17. Write in recollection and amazement for yourself
18. Work from pithy middle eye out, swimming in language sea
19. Accept loss forever
20. Believe in the holy contour of life
21. Struggle to sketch the flow that already exists intact in mind
22. Dont think of words when you stop but to see picture better
23. Keep track of every day the date emblazoned in yr morning
24. No fear or shame in the dignity of yr experience, language & knowledge
25. Write for the world to read and see yr exact pictures of it
26. Bookmovie is the movie in words, the visual American form
27. In Praise of Character in the Bleak inhuman Loneliness
28. Composing wild, undisciplined, pure, coming in from under, crazier the better
29. You’re a Genius all the time
30. Writer-Director of Earthly movies Sponsored & Angeled in Heaven
As ever, Jack
“How many of you write some form of open verse? Most of you. Well, for you kids who want to write it there are some rules and regulations. Now, Robert Frost, he made one notorious comment that writing free verse is like playing tennis without a net. And I think T. S. Eliot was quoted as saying no verse is totally free. Ezra Pound has endless suggestions for experimenting with verse forms. William Carlos Williams’s effort was to find an ‘American measure’ as he called it, or a variable measure. Nobody seems to know what that is. So at one point or another I began toting up all the different considerations that might be weighted in the balance in laying out your verse lines on the page, and I’d like to go through some of them. Does anybody know Marianne Moore’s method of composition of the stanza? Well, you know her stanzas are kind of cute, like butterfly wings, or very irregular, but they all have some kind of shape when you look at them, like the famous poem ‘Poetry’ which begins, ‘I, too, dislike it….’ Let’s look at that poem.”
It becomes apparent no one in class has a Marianne Moore book with them. A few people are lugging their Norton anthologies of modem poetry, but most of the class is either empty-handed or have brought their Kerouac books. According to our “Survey of Historical Poetics” we are to be looking at Post-literate Oral Tradition: Preacher, Spirituals, Hymns, Blues, Calypso, improvisation; Signifying Monkey, Rap, African-American and Caribbean poetics, Bop. What book should one presume to bring to class for “Signifying Monkey?” The class has been proceeding organically, for want of a better word, growing and evolving along the ecstatic tributaries of Ginsberg’s passions and obsessions. There is no schedule. From week to week we have no idea what he is going to do, this free-associative format can be confusing, but it’s also exciting.
Ginsberg sighs in exasperation, “Oh man, how can I teach if you’re all spaced out.”
“You said this week we were doing Kerouac,” someone offers in our defense.
“We’re not doing Kerouac.”
“We just never know,” says a nervous-looking poet who gnaws his pencils.
“Okay…I just wish you would always bring your fucking books,” he says ruefully, “because I’m trying to improvise to some extent and have it real rather than just a rote thing.”
Ginsberg begins to discuss the ways Marianne Moore constructed her verse and laid it out on the page. “The basic principle is that each verse, stanza to stanza, maintains the same number of syllables, or can be divided arbitrarily into syllables with no particular significance to the count of the syllables line by line except to make an interesting look, like a butterfly’s wing on the page; or there may be some counter rhythm the way the line runs.”
Ginsberg then gives a long explanation of how various poets lay their work out on the page according to syllables, accents, breath stop, units of mouth phrasing and division of mental ideas. In a burst of inspiration Ginsberg springs to his feet and goes to the blackboard.
“You might begin a poem on, uh, hair. Let’s do that. Let’s write a poem on…bald heads.” He turns to the board and begins to compose on the board, improvising aloud. He first writes “Bald Heads.”
My own with a fringe of gray Corso’s mop of salt and pepper Eisenhower’s dome
“Now something just occurred to me relating to Eisenhower, so I’ll put it over here on the board. That will lead on to other skulls,
Alas Poor Yorick Nixon’s skull-to-be
“Do I want Yorick or first thought, best thought, or should I say alas poor Lincoln, or alas poor who?…Alas, poor Warren Harding!” He laughs as he scribbles it on the board. “And his girlfriend’s skull, or mistress. Harding was famous for having a mistress wasn’t he? Remember that? What was her name? I knew it once.”
and his Lilly’s skull Again my own
“You see, one thought comes from another thought, so that this opens up like a telescope along the line. What is the next thought I have? It is that movie star, Johnny Depp, has long hair, so I go back to the margin: Johnny Depp has long hair. You just diagram your thought out. So this is division of mental ideas.”
“No.” He scowls and erases the line about Johnny Depp, “That doesn’t work. Anyway these were the ideas that came to me while I was standing here at the blackboard. So I was laying them out, with a space in between each idea as it arose, maybe making a line. But if I had two thoughts coming together fast like Corso’s mop salt and pepper, I left them on one line. It is like diagramming your mind. But you have to focus your mind on the subject, exhausting all the variations that arise in your mind.” He turns to the board and reads his poem. “Not bad,” he shrugs. “So you can divide the lines the way they are spoken or the way you think them up. Sometimes it’s simultaneous and identical, sometimes it might not be.”
“When you changed Yorick to Warren Harding, do you think that you lost any of the sort of electricity of your natural thought process?” someone asks.
“Maybe, but I think it was an even trade. Yorick, it’s too formulaic…I was on Eisenhower: Nixon and Warren Harding made it more common, universalized it in a way, unexpected. You were fresh from the drama of Eisenhower, Nixon, and Warren Harding is not very dramatic at all; he’s very ordinary, but it brings it back to the ordinary skull; so does his Lilly’s skull, his girlfriend’s skull…it means it’s everybody’s skull and that leads again to my own.”
“So is it a combination of a natural thought process and control?” the student asks.
“Well, it’s a natural thought process and then something quick, shrewd, swift.” Ginsberg laughs. “Spontaneity. I mean how did I get to Warren Harding? He rose up. So it’s sort of a nimble skill during the time of composition in making substitutions and hopping it up a little bit.”
“Is this how it really happens with you?” someone else asks incredulously.
“Yeah. I wouldn’t mind copying that down and having a little poem out of it. Some little magazine asks me for a poem, I could send them that ‘Bald Heads’.” Everyone laughs. “A little meditation on bald heads,” he shrugs and grins. We believe him.
Towards the end of class—after we have discussed the aesthetics of laying work out according to typographical topography, original notation, and pure chance—someone asks about Ginsberg’s punctuation.
“There are some dashes here and there. The first person to get rid of punctuation, the first modern poet was Apollinaire, who went over the proofs of his book which included the poem ‘Zone’ and eliminated all the punctuation to get it a little closer to his stream of thought. I tend not to punctuate too much. One thing I really avoid for some reason or another is being too finicky. I rarely use a semicolon in a poem, sometimes a colon, but a semicolon? I don’t get it. It just sounds like a lot of extra spaghetti. I don’t know exactly what spoken idiom or cadence would require a semicolon in actual speech. That’s my own prejudice. George Bush doesn’t like broccoli, and I don’t like semicolons. Maybe semicolons are good for you. Maybe semicolons help you avoid radiation sickness.
“Another matter we should look into is how to revise poems written in the principle of absolutely spontaneous verse. How do you revise poems? A total contradiction in terms.” Ginsberg chuckles gleefully. He takes out the handout we received the first day. Things are actually coming full circle.
Fourteen Steps for Revising Poetry
3. Review it through several people’s eyes
4. Review it with eye to idiomatic speech
5. Review it with eye to the condensation of syntax (blue pencil and transpose)
6. Check out all articles and prepositions: are they necessary and functional?
7. Review it for abstraction and substitute particular facts for reference (for example: “walking down the avenue” to “walking down 2nd Avenue”)
8. Date the composition
9. Take a phrase from it and make up a title that’s unique or curious or interesting sounding but realistic
10. Put quotations around speeches or referential slang “so to speak” phrases.
11. Review it for weak spots you really don’t like, but just left there for inertial reasons.
12. Check for active versus inactive verbs (for example: “after the subway ride” instead of “after we rode the subway”)
13. Chop it up in lines according to the breath phrasing/ideas or units of thought within one breath, if any
Ginsberg explains, “Well, you have the conception of the poem, then the composition of the poem, which we just had. Then the next thing I generally do is read it through a lot of different people’s eyes. I have a new book out. I spent several times reading it once with Burroughs’s eyes, once with Bob Dylan’s eyes, once through my stepmother’s eyes, various people’s. I see what will hook them into the poems and see what flaws the poems have according to people’s intelligence I am familiar with and which have been imprinted on me. For instance, reading my own poetry through Burroughs’s eyes I get much more cynical and much less tolerant of sentimentality. Reading it through Dylan’s eyes I’m wondering if it’s surprising enough, or if it’s pedestrian. Looking through Corso’s eyes I wonder if it’s condensed enough and tailored interestingly so that I’m not prosaic. Reading it through the eyes of the editorialist at The New York Times, I wonder does it make some political sense….Intuitively I end up reading my work through several hundred people’s skulls. It’s a way of accumulating a lot more intelligence than your own, because what you are doing, to the extent that you are sensitive to other people’s swiftness, and intelligence and sensitivity, is empathizing with them as you’re reading your own poems to improve them and figure out where your poems are weak. Take the highest intelligences you know, the people you most admire and read it through their eyes. The people you really dig, the people you really want to please or communicate to, and then go through it with an eye to could you say this out loud to your mother or your fiend without sounding poetic, or arch, or literary or artificial? and without sounding like you are copping a poetic attitude of some sort. Review the whole thing through idiomatic speech. Can you say it without embarrassment either to an audience, or your best friend or to your mommy? Intense emotionally charged fragments of idiomatic speech people won’t question, but emotionally charged moments that sound highfalutin or literary or hand-me-down literary, people will suspect the genuineness and sincerity of it. So review it with an eye to idiomatic speech and that will correct the whole attitude of the poem. Then the next is condensation of syntax. Let’s look at my poem,” he says hopping up and going back to the blackboard, this time with an eraser. He snuffs out the words “with a” from the first line.
“‘My own gray fringed’—that’s better. I don’t need all those syllables.”
“‘Corso’s mop salt and pepper’ that’s impeccable, ‘Eisenhower’s dome,’ ‘Nixon’s skull to be’ that’s all right, ‘Alas, Poor Warren Harding’ do I need and there? Nah—comma his Lilly’s skull I don’t know that I need again? Maybe dash my own. So I would review it. Do I need all the articles, the conjunctions, connectives, the’s, them’s, of’s….Of particularly, you can often get rid of the of which is more French. You examine every single syllable, especially the small ones, the monosyllables that have no substantive information, and see if you can transpose and reconnect things a little more solidly without the extra articles and particles. Don’t reduce it to Chinese laundry talk where you eliminate all the articles, you don’t want to do that….”
“Next, I generally review for abstraction. Nailing the thing down, grounding the generalizations. Very often generalizations are like a blank in a form that you can fill in.”
“Okay, next week is our last class, we’ll do the other steps. And be prepared to do Shelley’s ‘Ode to the West Wind!’”
I wondered if class might start off with some acknowledgment that this is our final class, or perhaps some hash brownies and jug wine. Instead class begins in a pedestrian way with Ginsberg passing out copies of open form poems. He takes roll, of course, then launches into the texts.
A guy walks in late. Ginsberg in typical fashion asks the latecomer, “What’s your name? Are you in the class?” The guy has been in the class since the first day.
Ginsberg takes us through the process of how poets such as Philip Whalen, Gary Snyder, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and William Carlos Williams lay their poems on the page. He then eagerly passes out copies of Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind.”
“There was one other thing that I wanted to do that we hadn’t done, which was to do a choral recitation of this poem. My suggestion is that we read it together. Pay attention to the punctuation, so that where you have a comma, a colon, a parenthesis, an exclamation point, a period that indicates a pause, you take a pause and breathe so that we will all be doing it at the same time. We’ll do everything at the same time or it will be chaos…with some people stopping and some people going on. The run-on lines, where there’s no punctuation, read as run-on lines. But where there’s punctuation, please observe it as a sign of breath. This poem is about the subject of breath, or wind. He’s asking the west winds to enter him and let the spirit of the west wind be his spirit, meaning the breath of the west wind be his own breath, and that using the breath of that wind and his own breath make the poem immortal, so that other people after he’s dead can chant the same poem using the same periods of breath that he employs in the poem itself. The subject is spirit or breath, (spirit means breathing in Latin), his observation is of his breath, the means of vocalization is breath, and if you do that you can get high, you can get a little buzz out of this poem, quite literally if you follow his breaths. It’s like taking a pill…where you internalize the actual breathing that Shelley has set out for you. All you have to do is follow his notational instructions and you’ll get a hyperventilated buzz.” Ginsberg laughs. “So we’ll just do it all together. One two three…’O wild West wind, thou breath of Autumn’s being….’”
We start off in sync and go in and out of it as the poem progresses. I feel decidedly lightheaded, and a little giddy. It’s not exactly a party trick, but it is a pleasant experience. As soon as we finish people begin clapping.
“Well, I got a buzz!” He laughs. “It’s really a terrific piece. To get to, ‘Drive my dead thoughts over the universe/Like withered leaves to quicken a new birth!’ you have to do some abdominal breathing to get that whole line through, because that’s a long, long breath. How many have read Shelley?” A couple of students grudgingly raise their hands. “Well, how was it?” he asks the way one might ask a first time drug-user how the trip was. Judging by the laughter and murmurs the experiment was a success.
“Better late than never, I guess,” he sighs, “Shelley is supposed to be the acme of romantic expostulation in poetry.”
Seeing how turned on everybody is by the reading he launches in on Hart Crane’s The Bridge, focusing particularly on the “Atlantis” section, which he describes as “one of the great rhapsodies in the English language.” He reads it aloud with gusto. After he finishes, his face is flushed, his eyes gleaming.
“It tends to rise then come to a plateau, then drop a bit in tone, then rise again, then drop a bit in tone, then rise all the way up to a sort of prayer in ecstasy and then kind of come in an orgasmic series of breaths, then a coda, or postcoitus treatise, the end. Basically an iambic pentameter eight verse stanza.”
The class sits in amused shock. Did he say “come?” Perhaps we appear unconvinced or maybe Ginsberg is just enjoying himself, but he rereads what I imagine to be the “come” part with great drama—“white seizures!” he cries out, then says professorially, “So you get some kind of power breath there, like in the ‘Ode to the West Wind.’ It’s one of the best pieces of music of this century, I think, in terms of a machine that begins to levitate and finally take off. I think probably to some extent The Bridge is almost a substitute for Eros in a way…Ultimately, I think, this mouthing is a variety of cocksucking. It’s the same emotional devotional adorational impulse displaced into musical language. Crane was gay and also into sailors (like Genet, sort of), but this is almost the acme of sublimated eros into poetry. When this was published, his good friends, Yvor Winters and Allen Tate, both academic poets, objected that there was no object that could contain his emotions, that it was an idealism that had no location…so much adoration, so much emotion, so much buildup, so much orgasmic mouthing—so to speak—that they denounced the poem as a great failure. It kind of broke Crane’s heart. He found himself not only a pariah, but as a gay in a time when to be gay was to be somewhat of a pariah in those circles of academic poets who were all tending toward Eliotic conservatism and undemonstrative cool poetry. That general rejection of his feelings was one of the elements that I think led him to jump off the rear of an ocean liner and drown himself two years later. I also think the constriction of the form didn’t allow him full play of all of the emotions that he kept in a kind of emotional and mental prison. I think he would have survived better if he had opened up the form and taken in more detail like William Carlos Williams. He certainly was a great ear, a great poet, and I think that The Bridge is one of the great long poems of the century, certainly a big influence on my own work and Kerouac and other writers. One of the most exciting pieces of music in the first fifty to sixty years. Pound’s “Uzura” has some of that excitement, and so do the Cantos, and Dylan Thomas’s “Fern Hill.” You have to go back to when T. S. Eliot is kidding with ‘OOO, that Shakespeherian Rag—/It’s so elegant/So intelligent’…that has a little bit of the rhythmical excitement in it. You get it in other languages, you might get it in some blues, you might get it in Ma Rainey in that long extended spiritual breath, but it’s rare, and that is what Shelley is noted for particularly. You get it in Kerouac certainly, and I try to imitate it in the “Moloch” section of Howl.”
“It is an aspect of poetry that really people don’t pay too much attention to. Of course the sound poets do. You’ll find it in Dada poetry and in Bob Dylan. Actually “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall” has a buildup like that.” Ginsberg recites the song from memory.
“So this is, you know, our last meeting—I had started last time on the fourteen steps for revising and left midway at number seven, and so I’ll just say a few more things about that then leave some time open for conversation.”
“Wherever you find yourself generalizing or in abstraction, you can examine it for generalization. If you can tell the difference between particularity and generalization, if you can tell the difference between minute particulars and vague reference, it might do to check for elements that have no special pictorial value or special sound value, just general moo, moo, moo. Of some suggestion of smell, like Resnikoff’s ‘a pot of fish hissed and bubbled on the stove the smell of the fish filled the basement’ or some sort of tactile, sight, smell, sound, taste, touch anything palpable. You can find a lot of Latinate words that have no sensory suggestion. They’re like blanks in a bureaucratic form to be filled in with particulars. What were you really referring to when you spoke of being lonesome in the city? What city? On the roof? Where in your bedroom? Can you particularize a little?
“I myself date compositions so that I know where the origin was, when I first thought something up; if I work on it a long time, I’ll put a date showing the finish. If it’s your ambition to be a great poet, you’ll want to help your scholars and professors a hundred years from now. They’re all lazy. If you date it yourself, they won’t have to shuffle through all your papers. Dating your work means there’ll be a greater accumulation of term papers on your work, masters theses, graduate theses, which means that you’ll get more attention in the future. So, if you want to be immortal, date your mortality.”
The class laughs, not sure if he really means what he is saying.
“The question of getting a title. Usually I go through a poem and I find two interesting words that combined together might give the gist of the poem. The title actually begins to magnetize or get people into your poem.
“Then one interesting thing, I found really useful is that in reading my work aloud I’ll tend to hasten through parts that are not quite so interesting till I get to the meat of the poem, to the parts I really like. If you can detect that difference, you might examine the weaker parts and perhaps eliminate them altogether. If they bore you, they might bore other people too. It might be a little phrase, a whole sentence, or even a section of the poem that isn’t as good…so why not just eliminate that and get to the point fast? Williams’s phrase for that was ‘one active phrase is more valuable than pages of inert writing.’ Reading aloud is a good bullshit detector. I read poetry aloud a lot. I may read a poem a hundred times before it’s published in a book, and I found after many years that was a really good way of editing. So get rid of the cool parts and leave yourself a hot fragment, like in Sappho. Readers might never get to your great fragment because they got stuck with the first ten lines.
“So now the door is open—does anybody have anything they want to talk about, as we are in our last breaths here?”
“Why would you want to be immortal?” asks one of the boys who periodically shows up in class.
“Remember that line from Zukofsky,” Ginsberg replies. “‘Nothing is better for being eternal nor so white as white that dies in the day.’ Well, if the purpose of your poetry is to assuage your suffering or relieve the sufferings of others, then you want to build a machine which will operate after your death. In a way you could say that Poe did that by liberating consciousness once and for all to experience its own paranoia and feedback, and to experience guilt and conscience, to articulate it so clearly that everybody thereafter would have their minds opened up. What is the purpose of Christ laying down the Golden Rule, or the Sermon on the Mount, of Buddha or Allah? Their function is not so much that they are immortal but that their spirit, their gentility, generosity, openness can be more widespread. Poetry is not an ego trip that preserves your ego in the amber of the poem, but rather that you’ve made your own ego transparent, conquered it. Your battle against selfishness begins with yourself, to enlighten others to the techniques of liberating yourself from your ego.”
“In Yeats’s books it is really interesting to see the progression of his mind from beginning to end, and how he ends up with Crazy Jane and very spare things. His last poem actually turns out to be, ‘How can I…My attention Fix…on Russian or on Spanish politics?…But Oh that I were young again And held her in my arms.’ the final thought that he wanted to leave behind. It’s interesting to know that’s where he concluded and to see how he got there. It’s interesting to know in what part of Keats’s life, what sequence those poems came on, how he developed and at what point he got to that last little poem “This Living Hand.” Do you know that? It’s to Fanny Brawne, his girlfriend, and he knew he was dying. It’s really kind of uncanny. It’s one of Gregory Corso’s favorite poems. Well, when you know it’s the last poem it adds a dramatic flair, as well as a kind of ghoulish presence.”
Someone calls out, “How do you reconcile your mind-writing slogan—first thought best thought—with rewriting?”
“I don’t know. As I get older, I get more schizophrenic about it,” Ginsberg confesses, then quotes Whitman, “‘Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.’ The answer is embedded in what I said before about dating. If the poem, the original skeleton of the poem, retains it’s integrity, that’s it.”
“Kerouac allows for revision, for certain afterthoughts or mistakes. I don’t feel as sure of myself as Kerouac, and maybe his assurance came from his vow not to return to the poem. So that it pushed him to the limit during the time of writing, but I don’t feel the same absoluteness, or courage, and yet I like it in him. And what is the first thought? The first thought isn’t necessarily the first thought you notice, it’s the first thought you sub-notice. People edit their awareness of what is underneath their minds.”
“I remember when I was a boy in grammar school my brother and I had a chemistry set. One of the mysterious miracles of grammar school chemistry was sodium. If it’s pure, a little fragment of sodium in water fizzes, burns, gives off hydrogen which will pop, or explode if you put a match next to it. We had a whole pound of sodium which we kept in a bucket of kerosene. While cleaning the chemistry set, I got some water in the kerosene. My father had to carry the whole thing steaming and bubbling out of the house just before it exploded. Why that arose in my mind right now, I don’t know. I was looking for a first thought…an early significant thing that I remember at least once a month, maybe three times a month, because it was a moment that I got away with something. I was lucky. I could have blown the house apart.”
“If I wanted to write it as a poem I might want to recall how the water got into the bucket. I think it was some stupid attempt to clean up the whole pantry shelf where we kept all our chemicals. It would pertain to the first thought. Second thought would be, Young kids do foolish things around the house. Third or fourth would be the generalization: Parents are always there to rescue their kids who do foolish things around the house. Or something wittier like, Wise father puts out the son’s fire. First thought does not necessarily mean don’t correct at all, it just means that your model should be the interior form that you glimpse, rather than the superficial level of mind. If the mind is shapely the art will be shapely.”
With that final pronouncement the semester formally ends. There’s an awkwardness. No one knows what to do—everyone seems to be waiting for something else to happen. Finally someone calls out, “What about our paper, our poetry?”
“Oh yeah, yes,” Ginsberg answers loudly as though he had almost forgotten to collect them. “I’ll take them all now if you have them,” he says clearing a space on the edge of the cluttered desk for the proliferation of colored folders and slim sheaves of cream-colored paper. Students linger around the desk, hands extending books to be signed, notebooks to be autographed.
“Your name again?” Ginsberg asks with a hint of embarrassment, as he signs his name, then doodles inside the flyleaf, a sun and a crying hot dog. A few students dawdle, backs pressed up against the wall like they’re waiting to be asked to dance. Slowly the class filters out, and Ginsberg bundles up his books and papers. As he starts to shuffle out of class, one last student reaches out to touch his elbow.