[Allen Ginsberg, aged 24, c.1950 - Walt Whitman, aged 35, c.1854]
[An early draft of Song of Myself]
AG: Actually, I have a poem called "Sather Gate Illumination" and it's simply an imitation of this method of notation [Carpenter's, in "From Turin to Paris"], if any of you know of that poem. I don't know if I had read this ["From Turin to Paris"] by then. In fact, I don't think I had. I had read (Walt) Whitman, I think, just before writing "Sather Gate Illumination", and was turned on by Whitman's static descriptions - that is, descriptions of one place. But there must be some very basic archetypal method proposed by Whitman in that it would affect me to get a style that's almost exactly the same as his. In other words, it just rises naturally, once you grasp Whitman's method of looking out and notating inclusively, without looking for a plot, but notating what he notices, in the order in which he notices it, I take it., once you get onto that method, then you have a style, actually. There is a whole style that proceeds from Whitman. It's very simple, based on nature, based on sketching from nature (also based on the nature of (the) long line - a single long line - or maybe one perception in a long line that might be a run-on line, with fragments hanging over. I think there's a line in "Sather Gate Illumination" - "a girl explains regarder is to look -/ the whole French language looks on the trees on the campus" (was my note).
Student: Where does that appear?
AG: In a book called Reality Sandwiches, I think
Student: Reality Sandwiches. A poem called "Sather Gate Illumination". It's an interesting poem to look up. A combination. I got it out of Whitman (reading into Whitman a lot) but also two years acquaintance with the sketches in (Jack) Kerouac's Visions of Cody and his method of sketching, which was similar. That is, just looking out through the windows of your eyes, looking out through the windows of your eye-balls as through the windows of a room, from the inside of your skull to the optical field outside, and sketching details of the phenomenal world viewed in the optical field - simple. Just taking the instant, taking the optical field of the instant as an instant in eternity, and then sketching eternity by just looking out through your skull, looking from behind, from the back of your skull outwards , as through a window, and then just taking down what you see.
[Allen continues with his reading and analysis of Edward Carpenter's poem, "From Turin to Paris" ] - "The group of laughing girls in/ one compartment are/talking three or four languages,/In another an Italian officer leans close in conver-/-sation to a yellow-haired young/woman, and touches her lightly every/now and then on the arm,/In a third sits a bedizened old/hag, purveyor of/human flesh - with great greedy/clever eyes (once beautiful/under their still long lashes), deep/wrinkles (yet not one of wisdom or/of sorrow), and thin cruel lips -/On a frequent errand from Italy/to London she/travels/ I hear her pious expressions as/ she talks talks to the lady/sitting opposite to her - I note her/habit of turning up her/ eyes as of one shocked,/And still the train rushes on,/and the fields fly past/ and the vineyards." -
[Allen continues, beginning the second section] - "Dusk closes down, and the train/ rushes on,/The mountains stand behind/rank, and valley beyond valley,/ Towering up and up over the/clouds even into broad day again/ Lo! the great measureless slopes/with receding dwindling perspective/of trees and habitations" - Now here's a real test of a sketcher - He's got a landscape. How do you sketch a landscape? - Is he going to be smart enough to pick out little details or depend on "Lo! the great measureless slopes/with receding dwindling perspective/of trees and habitations"? - I mean, that's a great general sweeping line, but a really great sketcher will get down (and) pick out by accident, passing through on the train, just grab the first thing that hits the eye - "Here at their foot the trellised/ gardens, and rivers roaring under/the stone bridges of towns" - That's pretty good! - "And there the far ledges where/the tumbled roofs of tiny hamlets/are perched - the terrace after/terrace of vine and wheat, the/meadows with grass and flowers,/ The zigzag path.." - He's actually getting a few little fast shots - "...the lonely chalet, the/patches of cultivation, almost/inaccessible,/ The chesnut woods, and again the pine woods, and beyond again, where/no trees are, the solitary/pasturages,/ (The hidden upper valleys bare of/ all but rocks and grass - they too/with their churches and villages)" -
And if you do take a train through Europe, you do get those glimpses - "And beyond the pasturages, aye/beyond the bare rocks, through the/great girdle of the clouds - high/high in the air -/The inaccessible world of ice,/scarce trodden of men" - That's pretty good. That's what it looks like going through Switzerland, Austria.. Taking what? - Turin to Paris? - so you go up (from) Turin to Paris. I think Peter (Orlovsky) and Gregory (Corso) took that train once. - [to Student] You've been on that..?
Student: ....Not that (particular) one
AG: If you go.. Yeah. You look up and you see.. what is it? - "inaccessible world of ice,/scarce trodden of men" (although, when you get there, actually, you find they've got ski-lifts and paths all the way up - for a hundred years they've had ski-lifts up to the most inaccessible places) - "There the rich sunlight dwells,/calm like an aureole of glory, over/a thousand..." - That "aureole of glory" is.. you can tell that nineteenth-century theosophical generalization a bit (t)here - "...over a thousand forms of snow/and rock clear-cut delaying./But below in the dusk along the/ mountain-bases the train climbs/painfully,/Crossing the putty-colored ice-/cold streams again and again with/tardy wheel.." - Now, that's a good line - "Crossing the putty-colored ice-/cold streams again and again with/tardy wheel.." - There's a lot of things in there, but the direct observation "putty-colored ice-cold" - "putty-colored ice-cold"
Student: ("Putty-colored" - is that the sound of the train?)
AG: Well, maybe, the sound of the train. But, actually, that's just what those..
Studen: They are....
AG: ...what those alpine streams look like. There is that putty color in them. I haven't seen it described as "putty-colored'" anywhere else but here, but it's just right.
But then "tardy wheel" - You've got the two things. I mean, you've got the stream and then you've got the train in there in the line - both of them at once - It's like a little haiku - "Till the great summit tunnel is/reached, then tilting forward,/With many a roar and rush and/whisle and scream from gallery to/gallery/ It flies - rolls like a terror-/stricken thing down the great slopes/into the darkness - and night falls/in the valleys." - "Here too then also, and without fail, as everywhere/else" - This is really Whitman there. It's trying to include everything - " "Here too then also, and without fail, as everywhere/else". Okay, so you've got this great line of inclusiveness..
AG: Tautology. But then what he comes up with out of that is pretty good - "The same old human face looking forth-/ Whether in the high secluded/valleys where all/winter comes no sound from the outer/ world, or whether by/ the side of the great iron road/where the plate-layer runs to/bring a passenger a cup of cold/water.." - Well, he stopped on that one, picked it up fast - [Allen continues reading, from "..or whether loafing in the/market-place of the fourth-rate/country town - the same.."] - "..or whether loafing in the/market-place of the fourth-rate/country town - the same/ Here too from the door of her/little wooden tene-/-ment the worn face looking forth -/fringed with grey hair/and cap - the old woman peering/anxiously down the road/for her old man/ (Saw you not how when he left her/in the morning/how anxiously, how lovingly, with/what strange transformation of/countenance- Death close behind her-/she prayed him early to reurn?)/ The little boy with big straw hat,/and short blouse/bringing the goats home at evening,/ the gape-mouthed/short-petticoated squaw that/accompanies him,/The peasant lying in the field/face downwards and/asleep, while his wife and children/finish the remainder of/his meal - the bullock-faced workers/on the roads or over/the lands -/ Ever the same human face, ever/the same brute men/and women - poignant with what divine obscure attractions!" - So he just takes a look at him and he wants to make out! - "divine obscure attractions" indeed! Yes.
Now, this (next line) is the nicest line in the poem - "And the dainty-handed Chinaman.." - I like that - "the dainty-handed Chinaman" - It's so delicate, and funny. Like, wherever did he get the idea to write a poem in 1889 about "dainty-handed Chinamen? It's such a modern idea, such a personal idea, such an oddly personal noticing, a personal piece of noticing. And the humor of it, I like- "And the dainty-handed Chinaman in/the first-class/carriage.." - [Again, Allen continues on, reading from the poem] - "And the dainty-handed Chinaman in/the first-class/carriage surveys them as he passes,/with mental com-/parisons,/And the string of mules waits at the railroad crossing"..."The faces seen within the cars,/hour after hour, with/ closed eyes - the changed equalized/expression of them, the/overshadowing humanity -/ (The great unconscious humanity/in each one!)/The old bedizened hag/overshadowed,/The young priest and his/recalcitrant opponent both/equally overshadowed - their/arguments so merely nothing/ at all, the beautiful artist-face overshadowed" - This is actually a great cadenza here, I think, where's he got the "overshadowing"? Precisely what that "overshadowed" is, I don't know if it's stated, we'll find out, but it's a funny rhetorical trick. He has to review them all again, to review all the faces again, to review all the personalities again, one-by-one, look in their faces, and see them under the aspect of eternity, "overshadowed" by a common humanity, I guess.
Student: (Was it the overshadowed...cities?)
AG: No, no, it's "the changed equalized/ expression of them, the/overshadowing humanity" - of course, you get the great cities, which would be, like, concentrations of "overshadowing humanity" also. But here it's "overshadowed".. they're all relaxed and at rest and (with) a blank expression (inward-turning faces, or in-turning thoughts, and sort of day-dreaming, silence and boredom in the car, and all of a sudden, or during that time, his mind wakes up to recognize the mutuality among all of them and his sympathies go out, and so it's an occasion for him to go through a great run, where he re-views every detail on their faces again and sees those details as through the sky, as from the sky, or under the aspect of eternity.
[Allen Ginsberg1955 photograph - caption: "Neal Cassady and Natalie Jackson, conscious of their roles in eternity..."]
Then - "The young priest and his/recalcitrant opponent both/equally overshadowed" - then, the turn of phrase is great - " their/arguments so merely nothing/ at all" (that's actually quite idiomatic for a poem of this time) - "so merely nothing/ at all" - Very intelligent, that turn of phrase. You'd think that an intelligent man would say something like that - "Your argument is merely so nothing at all". It's an odd assertion. Like you've got a character in it. - [Allen continues] - "...the beautiful artist-face/ overshadowed,/ The unsafe tunnel passed in the dead of the night,/the slow tentative movements of the/train, the forms and/faces of men within - visible by the/light of their own/lanterns, anxious with open mouths/looking upward at the/roof - all overshadowed,/ The little traveller asleep with/his head on the lap of/his instructor - the Persian boy -/travelling he too on a long/journey, farther than London or Paris.." - i.e. from Persia, or death, or birth - "The westward swing of the great/planets through the/night -" - So he's got the long journey, then a big panoramic glimpse of the planets themselves in space.. - "...the faint early dawn - the farms and fields flying/ past once more.." - My guess is that he started writing and then he fell asleep and woke up around here. The night wears on. He wrote late into the night. His eyes became heavy, he fell asleep, he woke, after a long gap of time, probably after three or four hours, around the (line).. - "The little traveller asleep with/his head on the lap of/his instructor - the Persian boy.." - (He) opened his eyes and saw that little picture, in the kind of eternity feeling you get when you wake up from a sleep on the train. You don't remember (or half-remember) where you are, and just suddenly see these pictures of strangers travelling through the universe. So you get the strangers travelling through the universe vision. And I imagine he woke up right then, because, by this time, "faint early dawn". And if you notice, if he was doing it in the car, he would have had time to write a lot more, if he'd stayed up all night. So he didn't stay up all night, obviously. After that junction, after "hour after hour with closed eyes", I guess (or I imagine) he must have written "all overshadoeed", and then fallen asleep. That is,"open mouths/looking upward at the/roof - all overshadowed", and then fell out, and then woke for the next note. Yes?
Student: Are those trains lit at all at night? It probably got really dark and it would be harder to write (What illumination would there be?)
AG: Gas lamps
AG: Gas lamps maybe
Student: "(V)isible by the/ light of their own/ lanterns"
AG: Yeah. Where is that?
Student: They bring their own lanterns?
AG: Yes.. Um-hmm - No, these are the train-men, I think
AG: Or "the forms and faces of men within" - "The unsafe tunnel" maybe? - They were "visible by the/ light of their own/ lanterns".
Anyway, he wakes up, and you know that feeling of waking up at dawn and seeing the universe? - and getting a sense of the space and extension of the universe? - He's got that here very nicely. It's rare. I haven't seen it described too often - "The great sad plains of Central France, the few trees,/ the innumerable cultivation - the peasants going out do/early/to work/ - The rising of the sun, for a new day - the great red /ball so bold rising unblemished on all the heart-ache and suffering, the plans, the schemes, the hopes, the desires, the despairs of millions -/ And the glitter and the roar already, and the rush of/the life of Paris." - That's pretty good. From "the draw of the great cities, Paris and London" - "And the glitter and the roar already, and the rush of/the life of Paris." - It's a pretty good description sketch.
So if you want to you can look ahead and compare this with (Blaise) Cendrars..There is a poem by Blaise Cendrars called "Trans-Siberian Express".... that's a week or longer, a couple of weeks, done around World War I, which was translated by John Dos Passos, which Kenneth Patchen lent me a copy of back in 1955 in San Francisco, so that was like a big influence from World War I on on the elite of ..avant-garde writers, the Cendrars, because what it is, it is, like, a twentieth-century..you've got twentieth-century trains an wireless and.. (..railway across America from the nineteenth-century on..)
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AG: ...by the beginning of the twentieth-century poets are beginning to register that by writing poems up in dirigibles, flying across continents, writing poems on airplanes, and on trains, and, finally, writing giant epics in automobiles like On The Road. It's a whole genre of anabasis (that is, a wandering) that was done more slowly in ancient times, on a ship, or on a camel, or on a horse, but now on an iron horse, or ship, or plane. There's a new form of poem which is invented, which is a poem between haiku-size and thirty pages, which is the complete account of a trip - and all the wakings, and flashes of eternity, and dawn moments, and sleepy babblings, and observations of passengers, with a background of travellers through time, travellers through eternity.
[Blaise Cendrars (1887-1961)]
And I think the archetype in the twentieth-century is Blaise Cendrars' "Voyage Transsiberian" ["La Prose du Transsiberian et de la Petite Jehanne de France"[. If you look it up.. I think we have a copy of it around in the library, or I have a copy somewhere. I had meant to put it in [our anthology] but "the Panama poem" by Cendrars [ "Le Panama ou les aventures de Mes Sept Oncles" ("Panama or the Adventures of My Seven Uncles"] is a little more lively, actually.
Student: You have the.. in Japan, the poetic travel diaries.
AG: Yeah.. Basho and everybody. Issa. Well, it's an old form, back to Xenophon, or earlier - The (Homer's) Odyssey.
AG: Or Anabasis, But what I'm saying is the nature of it is changed when, all of a sudden, you step in a train. You can sit down with your notebook and look around, and its accelerated.
AG: Also, twentieth-century poetry, the sign of twentieth-century poetry is when they started putting trains, garbage-pails, taxis, (in writing) - trains and taxis, in a way - (A) twentieth-century Parisian poem has taxi horns (and) automobile horns, beginning around World War I..
[Audio for the above is available here, beginning at approximately seventy-seven-and-a-quarter minutes in until the end of the tape, and from the beginning of the tape until approximately two-and-a-half minutes in]