Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Spontaneous Poetics -103 - The Blues Intro - 1 (Blues & Ballads)

AG: Another current aspect of communal poetics that I also wanted to touch on ... is an American form, which began in improvisation, basically, I’m told, an iambic pentameter line. The rhyme scheme AAA, three rhymes in a row - so it’s a triplet, a three-line verse. Usually, the first line and the second line are repeated. The origin was in, probably, unaccompanied solo, or solo with very simple instrument(s), (it’s a musical form). Does anybody recognize the form I’m talking about?

Student: The Blues

AG: Yeah. American Blues. I’ve been studying Blues for some time now, and, not being a musician, I had difficulty, I had forty-six years of difficulty, trying to figure out what the actual form was. (altho’ it’s an obvious thing, for some reason or other, I couldn’t get any musicians to explain it to me, in a way that was simple enough for me to pick up on). I ran into... one book and one anthology of recordings that I found useful. The book (which I think we have in the library, or will have in there) is The Blues Line – A Collection of Blues Lyrics From Leadbelly to Muddy Waters. It’s in paperback now, Schirmer Books (Music Publishers) [update – now available from Da Capo] – compiled by Eric Sackheim. The dedication is “To The Memory of  Go Toba In (1180-1239), who had a vision of what an anthology might be’’ [Allen turns to Philip Whalen]. Do you know what (who) that is?

Philip Whalen: Go Toba was a Chinese Emperor. He is (who was) the guy who ordered what is now known as the ManyoshuManyoshu is a collection of.. - What was the date again?

AG:  1180 to 1239

PW: Yeah,  Manyo..  was done even a little earlier but he may..he may have been the guy that.. if he didn’t order the Manyoshu, he ordered the Kokinshu to be put together, which was the next Imperial anthology, There were about eleven anthologies of Japanese poetry..  - and that was Sackheim– Sackheim has lived many years in Tokyo..

AG: He still over there?

PW: He’s an old friend of Cid Corman and I had dinner with Cid and Eric in Kyoto, yeah – and Cid was trying to interest him in publishing a book of mine and Eric didn’t like it and that was the end of that, but, anyway, the book..he did The Blues book and then he did..he did another thing of  translations from Chinese and Japanese poetry  which is very interesting and I can’t think of the name of it, of the damned thing, but it’s one of the best translations of Oriental stuff that I’ve seen because Sackheim has a tremendous ear, he’s really got a good feeling for the way stuff moves and the way it sounds and so his.. I can’t think of the title now, but it’s published by the Grossman outfit [Grossman/Mushinsha] [The Silent Zero In search of Sound, Sackheim's anthology of early Chinese poetry, was published in 1968 - Silent Firefly - Japanese Songs, had been published five years earlier]

Student: In Japan or in America?

PW: Well, both. In this country, Grossman handled it. But he had his own thing, that Mushinsha imprint was his own invention, and he published Corman’s translation of the Back Roads to Far Towns that Basho travelled, a diary with poems ["Oku-No-Hosomichi"], (reprinted, in 2004, by White Pine Press), and, oh, several others, several other books, something Will Peterson and his wife translated also from a modern Japanese short story, who’s name escapes me..it’s quite beautiful)..

AG: The reason I’m recommending this book, particularly, is that there’s a great treasury of American oral (poetry) - as great as the treasuries of English folk song and Anonymous Ballads - that has never been taken into the canon of American Literature for teaching by the Academy (although some of the strongest poetry is there and some of the most interesting forms - that is, forms that are suitable for improvisation). Our poetry had become so deadened that it was no longer.. It was not only..  (It had become)sort of.. unsociable, by about 1940 - unsociable, in the sense that it was (a) somewhat elitist  practice, in the sense that it was for the eye and the page, it wasn’t vocalized, and it was, what we called in those days, academic, in a sense that it was.. the references were basically to other poems rather than to a common life. It wasn’t, certainly, for a  village group, or for a communal group, or for a family group, or for a gang of friends . The Blues were for a gang of friends. And so, I found myself evolving more and more toward making use of that form. Now that I find myself coming back to a definite forms (forms) and.. I find myself coming to Calypso forms and Blues and...sing-able Ballads, (rather than going back to an imitation of lyrics by A.E.Housman or..(Sir Thomas) Wyatt.. or Edward Arlington Robinson, which were the common standard verse forms taught when I was going to grammar schoolor high school and college). I don’t know what kind of verse forms were taught you when you went through high school (apparently, it was an enormous chaos, where people were teaching Howl, or not teaching anything, or had abandoned all classical forms). The first time I taught a class at Naropa, I found that over half the students had not read Shelley’s “Ode To The West Wind”, so I was taken aback, because I thought I was going to be teaching Corso and myself and Kerouac, and I found (that) I had to go back and start teaching The Seafarer.

The first term, for those of you who weren’t here, the first term, first session, I started with Ballads, English Ballads (well, actually, I started with Woody Guthrie because 
Ramblin' Jack Elliott was here and so he gave some account of his relations, his meetings with Guthrie and the first songs he learned) – and worked.. and then went back with Helen Adam, who was visiting, who was a great balladeer, went back to Twa Corbies”, and early Scottish and English Ballads.

Well, the reason I bring up this book is that it’s one of the first sophisticated, literary, literate (literate and literary) compilations of Blues forms, and they're written down in a.. some of them were published in Cid Corman’s magazine, Origin – which originally published a lot of early Olson and Projective-style verse. So, as you can see, if you can see the page, a page looks not like the square, squared-off, transcriptions of Blues that you might find in Sam Charters books, or earlier transcriptions of Blues, but they’re arranged according to breath-stop, that is, where you’d stop to breathe in the middle of a line  "Things ain’t now/ nothin’ like they used to be.." - [Allen begins vocalizing] - So it's "things ain't now/nothin like they used to be" I wanna put the first stanza up on the  board.  [moves toward the blackboard]

(You’ve all got the homework? Please write a poem about Patti Hearst? – I’ve got mine done already! – Homework due Monday! – I’ll read mine if you bring yours in – See, I’ll be teaching Monday 'cause Phil had two classes, so we’ll split the classes – I’ll be coming to his, also... ok)

[Audio for the above can be found here, beginning at approximately thirty minutes in, and concluding approximately thirty-seven-and-a-half minutes in]  


  1. Gotoba-in was not a Chinese Emperor...He was a Japanese...And he didn't order Manyoshu.

  2. Phil Whalen's momentary confusion preserved for posterity! - thanks for the clarifications Kazumaro