[Sir Thomas Wyatt (1503-1542) - medallic profile in oil after a lost drawing or painting by Hans Holbein the Younger, c.1540 via The National Portrait Gallery, London]
AG: As well as this other (poem of Sir Thomas Wyatt) – “Forget not yet the tried intent/ Of such a truth as I have meant” – I’m going to read it sing-song, just to get the sing-song out of it (because Wyatt is, actually, one of the greatest of all the writers of sing-song).
Student: Is it in the ballad form?
AG: No, this is just a different kind of song. Actually, it’s songs-with-refrains here, different from ballad form. It’s a lyric, for a lyre or a lute. (They probably were sung with lutes, as guitars, string(ed) instruments). [Allen then reads Wyatt’s “Forget not yet..” in its entirety – “Forget not yet the tried intent/ Of such a truth as I have meant,/ My great travail so gladly spent/ Forget not yet…” ‘ – I don’t know if you read things aloud to yourself like that. It’s the opposite of actual speech, but id you actually do hyper-, over- emphasize that kind of almost tongue-soothing rhythm, actually, it’s a very odd thing. I do that with a lot of poetry – read it in my mind in a way that so over-emphasizes the rhythmics, that it imprints a funny kind of rhythmic echo in the brain permanently. And then, when you get to write yourself, you find yourself echoing it very subtly. Then, it’s necessary to break that down into the actual spoken (cadence) when you’re actually reading it – to break it down to the actual spoken cadence, how you’d say it, with breathing taking part with the commas. I never thought about this before but I think it’’s a good practice to actually totally sing-song the thing in your mind, just to see the archetypal rhythmic structure of the poem, or the spiritual paradigm of the rhythm, or the idealized rhythm of it, exaggerated, then you can break it down and go back to the common-sense (not only the common-sense speech, but, then, what it would be for song, if you were singing, because if you were actually singing it, you’d slow it down all the way to, actually… [Allen demonstrates, singing, and then..] – Obviously, singing you’d slow everything down. (And so), speaking.. [Allen then reads the poem in a speaking voice] –I In a way, for these kind of poems (because we’re dealing with ballad songs or whatever), there’s three ways you could read them, actually. At the moment, I can think of three ways you can read them. One is the idealized rhythmic rush, which I think does something to the nervous system , like when you introduce so bold and speedy an absolute rhythm into your body and your nervous system, through your ears, it probably imprints on the whole subtle chemistry of the cells some kind of archetypal rock and roll.
Student: Would you say that would be really helpful..?
AG: It might be a stumbling-block. You might get into a sing-song and from then on in you might write, “duh-dah, duh-dah, duh-dah…”
Student: ..because I have a lot of trouble writing ballads..
Student: Words come to me and then I’d go back and think “duh-dah, duh-dah, duh-dah”..
Student: …and be counting it out., and…
AG: Oh, It’ll be a help. You know why? Okay..This would be a help, because what it does is (assist), if you’re not used to writing in meters, which most people aren’t. I’m used to it, because, (when) I grew up.. my father was a poet, and he wrote in meters, and so it was built into my nervous system, so I can do it sort of automatically. I can talk it, or I can make it up, or I can improvise it – more or less – not always. But I begin to realize that other people haven’t had that experience of imprinting in childhood – so that in writing they have to start counting it.
AG: And that means they have to revise the word because the word that came up to mind wasn’t in the same cadence as the meter is supposed to be, so that, actually, as medicine for that condition, it might be possible – I don’t know, I don’t know if any experiments have been done, but I bet if you tried.. taking a couple (of) sample classic rhythmic poems, like “Forget Not Yet”, or “My Lute, Awake..” or, the one (somebody) suggested, Donne – what’s the name of that Donne poem?
Student: “Hymn to God the Father”
AG: “Hymn to God the Father” on his illness – which has a really strong rhythm. Or Vachel Lindsay’s “Congo”, or (Edgar Allan) Poe’s “The Raven” or “The Bells” - which are strong poems. Or.. what else would there be in English literature – we’ll find some more – which are totally rhythmical
Student: The Rime of the Ancient Mariner?
AG: What we want are poems which are terrific in their numbers, really terrific in their numbers and of a high nature in their language. If you try to imprint yourself with those, maybe get to know one or two of them so you can do it speedily, it might actually set up a whole pattern that you could fill in with other words when you want to write your own ballad. It might be useful, I don’t know. Who knows? I think maybe, yeah, why not?... Yeah, the mind is a parrot that way, but certain of these rhythms are so basic, mathematically basic that, probably, if you actually do get them into your nervous system, they’ll stay.. Now, in the 20th century, people don’t use those rhythms very much for composition, so it may be a big mistake for the 20th century. You [Allen addresses the class] were all (of you) grown up in the 20th century so you don’t know the rhythms, so you might as well go back and do that. I had a long time fighting against it , to get out to a rhythm which reflected, not a metronomic meter or a regularized meter, but to get to a line of poetry that would reflect the variations that I heard in my actual speech when I was just talking, which was the principle that I got out of William Carlos Williams, Use the rhythms of your own everyday talk. Yeah? Tom?
Student (Tom Savage): Did Jack Kerouac like the old narrative ballad-style poem?
AG: Oh, sure, yeah. He knew all that very well, His favorite – “And so, all the night-tide, I lie down by the side/ Of my darling – my darling – my life and my bride/In her tomb by the sounding sea,/In her sepulcher by the sea” – (Edgar Allan Poe’s) “Annabel Lee” – do you know that?
AG: That was his favorite piece of trash for drunken Saturday-night under-the-bridge chanting,
Student: His (prose) writing is really..is, I don’t know, like the ocean or something. But a lot of his poetry is all bop and beat and jazz.
AG: Yeah, but there are echoes in his poetry. There are echoes of sing-song – “Here I go looking for Nirvana…” - No, “Here I go rowin/ on Innisfree/ Looking for Nirvana/Inside of me”. He has a lot of parody..not parodies, Just sort of naïve, trite rhythms sometimes emerge out of very wild boppy sequences in Mexico City Blues. He’ll sometimes revert to almost-childish sing-song. He knew that quite well. He was very learned. He knew Shakespeare particularly, but he knew “The Bells” – the great classics, the..what do call them?..the war-horses, the period-pieces, the great classics of noise of the 20th century, like “The Bells”, or (Sidney Lanier's "The Song of the Chattahoochee”, or Vachel Lindsay’s “General William Booth Enters Into Heaven” – all of those he knew quite well, (and) were in his head. Actually, the whole point of going back and reading all this stuff (to begin with, the ballad) is to imprint n your brain some of those rhythms which are quite sweet.