Mind, Mouth and Page - Intro
AG: ...to begin with, the (William Carlos) Williams
.. I think I'll go on from Williams with (Jack) Kerouac
- this is just to let you know what I had in mind now - go on with Kerouac's "Mexico City Blues"
when I'm done with Williams, which might take a week or longer. So try and read through Mexico City Blues next week. I want to use Williams as a sort of pivot to go backwards from or go forwards from, but as a central place in the mind, where what Williams is doing is exercising bare attention to the facts of the world around him, noticing what he notices and registering it really precisely in a heartfelt way. We might go back to (Walt) Whitman
from Williams, and certainly go forward to Kerouac. Maybe touch on (Charles) Olson
and (Robert) Creeley
. Probably (the) third week, our basic text (will be) Gregory Corso
's poetry. I read one poem at the end of last term and realized that very few people realize the extent of his work and the quiddity of it, so I'll probably do a chronological survey of his poetry. That's all over in the library and it's available downtown. So, I guess, basically, what I'm suggesting is read through Williams, read Kerouac's "Mexico City Blues" and any prose you can find, particularly Visions of Cody
, which is a thick book but has a lot of really beautiful prose-poetry passages (there's also, in the library, a commentary on Visions of Cody that I wrote, called "Visions of the Great Rememberer"
, so you can check that out if you want to see why I'm focusing on that particular book). Some of Dr.Sax
is interesting, and some of Big Sur
is interesting. All of Kerouac is interesting, but these stand out in my mind as the things you can teach for purple passages.
Student: I've been reading Cor-SO
Student: Yeah. When he's doing the mind-jumps, is (he) leaving out parts?
AG: Very often. Leaving out the third, fourth and fifth thoughts, and jumping to the seventh conclusion. He's following definite visual association or sequence of thinks. (He) also revises a lot (particularly lately, he's been revising a tremendous amount), writing fragments, and then, maybe, putting fragments from different works together. The original early poems in Gasoline
and Happy Birthday of Death
(particularly the long poems with one-word titles, like "Power", "Army", "Police", "Hair", "Marriage" (and) "Bomb"), are generally written within the same week, and are continuous sequences.
Student: I've always wondered..are the jumps that he's taking a conscious flow? - or is he doing that unconsciously?
AG: He's doing it consciously.Yeah. Yeah, he's very sharp-witted. So sharp-witted that he cuts out half the thoughts because they're obvious (or should be obvious), or because he wants the mystery of how you get from one place to another (actually, sort of an aggressive attack on the reader, trying to mystify the reader with a series of very funny mind-jumps). It was implicit in his original method. I remember I bought a copy of Gasoline to Henri Michaux
, who was a great post-Surrealist French writer, and Michaux came to our room in Paris muttering, "Mad children of soda caps"? "mad children of soda caps" - very good poetry - "mad children of soda caps"" - which was obvious, actually, what it means - kids who grew up with bricks and soda caps or whatever, or put soda cap insignia on their hats! - They still have soda caps and I'm sure (that) if you were five-years-old you might make collections of soda caps. I don't know what poem that was in, but "The Last Warmth of Arnold" in Gasoline explains that whole culture.
So I'll try and go through Corso's work, and then what would you like to do? I have some very definite ideas what I'd like to do, and, last session, I did them, like a block-buster, without stopping. So..
AG: Yeah. If people are interested, yeah, sure. I'd like to go through Snyder. I know his poetry well so I'd be glad to get into that. So what we might do is a whole ting - Snyder, (Philip) Whalen
, Olson, Creeley, maybe a couple (of) early Denise Levertov
(poems). That's the middle-aged poets, because I'm more familiar with them. Then we have other people, like Larry Fagin
and Anne Waldman
, who can teach younger New York and San Francisco poetry (I'll probably deal with what, to you, would be my contemporaries. (Ezra) Pound
said that an older poet couldn't possibly keep up with younger generations, which is interesting because Pound was such a great and energetic man).
Can you hear me at the back?
Student: Not too well.
AG: Yeah, ok. Pound said that an older poet couldn't keep up with younger generation poets, and I'm finding that to be true, There's a lot of poets, that I know personally, around New York, like Dick Gallup
, who is here, whose work I didn't even know, but whose books I have, mimeographed, but I'm just too freaked out to spend time...I mean, I go out and get laid (instead of sitting) home reading, or something, or something intervenes. So it's hard for me to keep up with much (of the) younger work, but we have that covered - people of your own age (assuming you're under sixty) - Tom?
Student: Since you only spent ten minutes on (Walt) Whitman last time, could you...
AG: Yeah, so I'll probably work back to Whitman, but I wanted to start with Williams since my head is filled with him right now. And also Williams seems to me the poet of basic sanity, (which is a term used around here), for what?, for sunyata
or something (it's a Buddhist term used around here for the mode of consciousness arrived at through slowing down in meditation and detailed observation of phenomena.
How many here have read Williams? Some (heard) him last time. How many have read Williams on their own? - Ok - and how many have not? How many have read Williams extensively? - or how many have read through the Collected Earlier Poems
? Really raise your hands, because I'm really trying to take a pecker check and find out where we are, so it won't be useless to go through Williams.
Second thing - the last term I was new at teaching and didn't know about grading until the end, but I have to give grades, which means I'm going to have to familiarize myself with your poetic style. I'll try to grade not so much according to your learning but according to your brilliance - as poets. So, at the end of the term, a paper will be required, which is gists and piths of whatever either images or coherent ideas about poetics or fragments of poems that either you've composed or you liked, that turned you on definitely, but sharp fragments that turned you on, fragments of my language, or any language in the room. In other words, a short pithy summary of what went on or what was of interest to you that went on (in other words, you make a composition of that). It doesn't necessarily have to be a basic theme, just a collage of whatever entered your head and was rememberable. So you might get a notebook and keep a notebook for the course of your own writing. In fact, I assume you all have pencils and paper. If you're going to be involved in poetry the first thing you need is the materials of your trade. And my recommendation is you get a good solid notebook, not just a classbook. For the class, use a cheap old schoolbook, but for your own journals, or dream diaries, or perceptions, or pensees, or poems, or scribbled notes, or blues, or epic projects, the best thing I've found... well, I use a lot of different kinds and I didn't...yeah, I got it - always carry a notebook, a good one (but a bigger one than this [Allen shows his small-sized notebook] because this one reduces it to short lines, so I'd say slightly larger, if you can). These are called "record books" if you go into stationary stores - if you want them with lines (If you want them without lines, you figure out from an art store, there are those black cloth kind..the page (t)here is a little short, so if you have a longer breath, or if you're writing it in prose, it makes it a little difficult).
Actually, this is primary teaching - the materials. If you're going to practice writing, everybody's style is different but there is one practice which involves, like meditation, a continuous awareness, a continuous practice of poetry, which means that you always have to have a good pen, because pencil tends to get smudged. Unless, (for) the style of writing that you're doing, pencil is a little bit easier for you, if you want to wipe out a word. But I would propose an ink pen, because it's harder to erase, and so, once you write it down, you're stuck with it! (so you don't write anything frivolous and you don't let your attention lapse while writing, because you know it's always going to be there and you're going to go to your deathbed with that on your record, so therefore what you write has got to be true and non-bullshit and completely to the point, with your attention completely directed on the image, or subject. or tree, or foot, or big toe, that you're writing your big epic about. Yeah?
Student: Would you call (Corso's) "mad children of soda caps", "non-bullshit" writing?
AG: Well, it's "non-bullshit", because he was describing children of the Lower East Side (of New York), so I recommended that you look at the poem, "The Last Warmth of Arnold", to get the context of it. But if you'd like me
to explain what he was referring to, he was talking about young juvenile delinquents in the Lower East Side ("mad", in the sense of juvenile delinquents - "mad" also, because, with weird heads, thinking about the mysteries of (the) supernovae,
or Doctor Strange
, or Superman
, (in) whose environment the soda cap was perhaps one of the major aesthetic objects of contemplation, in other words, part of the environment, such a big part of the environment, it would be like "mad children of television" - "mad children of soda caps". So it's just straight-forward description, actually, with a little bit of a jump in-between. He doesn't explain it like I explained it, just because it's telegraph-ese - "mad children of soda caps". It sounds like bullshit. That's what's so good about it. It sounds like some sort of Surrealist made-up bullshit (and maybe arrived in the mind that way) but was actually a composite of several naturalistic elements straight out of Emile Zola
, who was a naturalistic writer in French prose in the 19th century. Is that alright? I mean, does that make sense?
AG: The materials are interesting, In Vancouver in 1965, I got into a dialogue in a seminar with Robert Creeley
about writing composition, and the whole hour was taken up with a discussion of what kind of notebooks we used. And, years later, we realized that (that) was the best seminar on writing that either of us had ever given, because we finally arrived at the primary place, the actual materials. Because most people - amateur poets, high-school poets, rock 'n roll-influenced- day-dream poets, poets who were fed on Khalil Gibran
and only Dylan
- have a tendency to write on little scraps of paper in pencil that you can't read (and (that) they can't read!), but which they cherish in their drawers for thousands of years! - but they never can get their shit together, because it's all scattered on different pieces of paper, all over the landscape, wherever they hitch-hiked. So, particularly if you're a Romantic poet, moving around the country, it's best to have one place where you'll always go back to for your meditation. Just like, if you're a meditator, it's always good in your house to have one little mandir
, a little altar, and one pillow, in one place which is cleared out just for that, one spot where you'll always return to, where the continuum is evident every time you come back, where you can look back at what you just did the last time, so you have a historical sense of your own consciousness as you articulate it, where you know where you're repeating yourself, where you can go back and read over what you did. Or you can always have it on hand to show other people, because it's really important. So you can accost strangers in the street and you've got your notebook with you, or (when you're) idling an hour, waiting for a course. In other words, you don't need to reserve your writing for a formal typewriter, a desk and incense, and a cup of tea, and a wife, and six children, and a snowy landscape in Connecticut. Do it on the spot.
That may require a shoulder-bag to carry it in [Allen points to his own]- So I've had this for years, actually, of one variety or another of this, for at least fourteen years, because that way I always have a place for a notebook. But a large notebook like this [Allen displays the one he's using] is a little bit of an impediment because it's already like getting into technology and a weight on your shoulder, so it might be a good idea then to also have a little tiny notebook you can slip in your back pocket, or bosom, or purse, something to scribble notes on. And on the back of it (as on the back of this) you can put addresses and recipes (non-literary material). The front, keep clean and reserve just for inspiration, and if you find you don't know what to write to begin with, you can try waking up in the middle of the night and grab(bing) your notebook (which is by your bed-stand, where there is a lamp always, or a flashlight, and several pens and paper) and (start) writ(ing) down a dream that's just woken you up. And continue writing (down) dreams, keeping a record of dreams, if you're really seriously interested in exploring your own consciousness with writing and probe. Writing as a probe of your own mental activity, or as a reproduction of it, or some graph of the movement of it, or a record. So, yeah, Tom?
Student: How do you get around the problem with those bags? You put a pen in there and you get an idea to write something (and) you might find yourself spending a few minutes looking for the pen!
AG: Well, I generally wear a shirt which has room for a pen, or two..
Student: (Do) you keep a wallet?
AG: Usually, you keep an ink pen, as I suggested, and ink is really a solid thing, because it's a classic. It makes you feel more classic. And also, the felt-tip pens.. if you're a serious writer and you'll be selling your manuscripts to libraries and museums in twenty years, remember that felt-tip pens eat through the page in ten years. So if you want your immortal original manuscripts to be preserved, don't use a felt-tip pen, which has acid in it. Ball-point tends to scratch into the page and begin the page's decay. So a regular old-fashioned (fountain) pen, with unwashable ink, is actually about the best, particularly if you've got your notebook in your knapsack and you're fording a stream! - In other words, if you're writing, take it seriously enough to make a sacred ink out of it, and get some good materials, so it'll be solid for you. However the danger of having too good a notebook is (that) you'll get afraid to write in it. So it's good to vary that. After you've filled one really good notebook, get a cheap school copybook which you don't have to write immortal works in, and those usually produce the best poems! If you've had enough practice running through several notebooks, then it might not make any difference what kind of notebook you use. You can write down whatever you want in any notebook. One good principle is not to scratch out anything you've written but go on and write something else instead (not as an absolute rule, but as a general tendency), like, don't depend on another minute or another hour for the completion of your thought-emotion, because if anything's there, it'll be there right now when you're writing. So there's really, in some sense, no need to scratch out, once your mind is focused (but that requires, then, revising your mind).
Student: How about locks for paranoid poets?
AG: Locks for paranoid poets? What, you're afraid somebody will steal your uncopyrighted poem?
Student: Read your notes, or..
AG: Oh well, my own experience of that is that if you're really writing well, then you won't want anyone to read it for at least 48 hours, or a week, or maybe a month at most - unless you have a family problem. My brother, actually, got into trouble this year, writing down about all his love affairs, apparently, and his wife found out because she read his notes. I usually am secretive about what's in my journals, but I got less and less secretive as time went on, and now, in the apprentice class that I have, I've been just sort of handing out my journals and people are writing down all my dirty dreams and most intimate secrets (which I've forgotten, since they're journals from 1968 so it doesn't matter anymore, they're old). But I'll be handing out my most recent notebook to one of the people in the apprentice class. I've thought about that, actually. Because of that temporary crisis (sic), I want to get all this stuff typed up that I'm working on, or that I just finished. This [Allen displays it] is a new notebook and I've got a great big one that I just finished about a week ago. And I thought (for) about three minutes - "do I really want to..?", "does it make any difference?". No, it doesn't make a difference. The one thing is, though, you'll find yourself a lot more free in writing if you do not keep it secret but have it secure so (that) people can't pry into it. And, at the same time, be generous, show it around, if it's interesting. But since most writing is raw and personal enough to be embarrassing in the immediate moment, even to the self, there is a difficulty to confessing to yourself or writing down to yourself what you're really thinking, frankly, because there's always a tendency to generalize, or to abstract, or to cover in one way or another, to censor it so that it does not pose a problem, actually. You've just got to use common sense, but keep it secret enough so that you can really put into it anything that comes into your head, without fear of the police. Yeah?
Student: Is there something in recording poetry, about maybe reading (out loud) something you've already written, or..
AG: Well, actually, I'm just beginning at the very beginning. We'll maybe get on. I've used tapes, cassette tapes, or Uher tape-machines (but only after years of practice on this, but there's no reason why one couldn't do that). The only trouble with the tape-machine is that you can't look at it immediately, and you can't check out what it looks like on the page, and it's ultimately.. unless there's the development of some kind of technological epic poetry, where the shaman-poet just utters and is played back before vast or tiny audiences. I think the standard thing wil probably (always) be writing down. Just because it's harder to check out a tape, harder to look it over and see what you just did or what you did last week. You've got to rummage among the tapes and find the spot, unless you're very prolific at indexing [Allen is, of course, referring to the old technologies here] - Have you used tapes?
Student: A little bit
AG: Yeah. It's a really good form, actually.
Student: It's a very embarrassing form!
AG: Yeah, "speak now or forever hold your peace"! [Allen continues] - So, I would keep a notebook for this class. Maybe just a school copybook finally, and keep your own.. because, what you'll be getting in this class is mostly other people's bullshit, or mine, but for your own secret golden scribblings, maybe get a good notebook and a good pen, or at least an ink pen (and a ball-point, in case you run out of ink - it's very handy to have both, because you'll always run out of ink at the greatest moment! - (This is) actually great practical instructions for how to be prepared to write instead of thinking about writing, and how to have the material handy, because it's just like jumping in the water. The inertial drag of not having paper and pen at hand is very often the reason that older writers don't write, much less people who are just playing around with it for the first ten years, or ten months, or ten days. So, obviously, what I was describing was my own practice, which is sort of a handy practice.
In that conversation, Creeley said that he couldn't write without a typewriter. And in the course of the conversation he discovered that the typewriter dictated the size and placement of his lines and the style of his writing, and becoming conscious of that, he actually started carrying a hand notebook, and the result was a whole book of Creeley's called "Notes", I think. Does anybody know that? Anybody know that? Does anybody know Creeley's writing?
AG: Day Book. The result of that conversation was the Day Book, oddly enough.. (it) loosened his style considerably from then on. Because, before, he was a poet who had written very tiny, short, minimal short-line poems for the most part. So, oddly, the material you use is very powerful, it's a very powerful suggestive mechanism. In other words, poetry doesn't come out of nowhere and arrive on nowhere - it arrives on a piece of paper, or tape, or some material form, if it's going to be written down (not that writing it down is the only way, because a more classic and more ancient tradition is not
writing it down, but just uttering it spontaneously and leaving it in the wind, or leaving it for disciples to record (as did Christ, or Buddha, or the mythical Socrates
, or Li Po
, who sometimes did brush-work and was supposed to have left his poems hanging on trees or (as) notes - or the Australian aborigines
, who have no written language but who have the most complex epic material, or epic poetry, in the history of the world, and the oldest tradition of poetics in the world, going back perhaps 12,000 years, older than Homer, and the most sophisticated prosody - but they have no writing, and they' ve developed so sophisticated a form of epic because everything is in their heads, so they've developed (an) innate auditory facility and mnemonic facility. They can remember (and) hear better than we can, at least as far as their epic material. I'll bring in some of that Australian aborigine epic material sooner or later before we're over, because it's actually the root of all poetry, and it's maybe the least-known in the academy, but it's older and wiser than Homer and the Bible and Buddha put together, because there's animals mentioned in Australian poetry that have not been on the planet, or have been extinct, according to zoologists, for 12,000 years. So that means they've been able (by) oral transmission to transmit information for that long, (in) verses, for that long. There's a book by T.G.H.Strehlow - Songs of Central Australia
, which I'll put on reserve in the library.