["The List Poem", "Catalog Verse" - & from the ms. of Christopher Smart's "Jubilate Agno"]
August 4, Allen Ginsberg’s 1978 class at Naropa Institute, Meditation and Poetics, continues. Allen begins an examination of Whitman’s poetic enumerations (but, before he does, expresses some pedagogical frustration)
AG: We were going to do section 15 of (Whitman’s) “Song of Myself”, which is a catalog (like the “list poems” that have been taught, if you’ve taken Anne Waldman’s class).
The archetypal and exemplar of American list poems, and another list poem of great grandeur and immensity in imagination is Christopher Smart’s “Rejoice in the Lamb” (“Jubilate Agno”), which I put on the reading-list (copies of which are in the library), which I’ll maybe read a page or two of later on, but I recommend you go check it out (because) it wasn’t Whitman’s (conscious) precursor - because “Rejoice in the Lamb” was a mad poem written in Bedlam by Christopher Smart (during the) late eighteenth-century, and (but) the manuscript wasn’t fully deciphered, discovered and published until 1920) – (but) that is the grand European archetype of a poem of catalogues, or a modern poem of catalogues with quotidian details. There are ancient catalogues in the Bible and in Homer (a list of ships and warriors (in Homer), the list of families and their descendants in the Bible) - So those are probably the earliest expositions of one idea after another hung on a theme – a single theme, (and then you make all the variations you can) – The Whitman list is different, though, because it’s a seemingly random spontaneous list. It’s a list suspended in the mind, but not a list of ships or a list of occupations, nor a genealogical list. In this case, a list of what is commonest, cheapest, nearest, easiest (as at the end of section 4) - that is to say, commonest, cheapest, nearest , easiest to mind. Whatever is , commonest, cheapest, nearest , easiest to mind is me (whatever thoughts in his mind)
It’s maybe appropriate to go into this particular catalogue list, which is Whitman’s most famous list, probably, (since it’s the first giant list, first giant catalogue of observations in “Song of Myself”). Appropriate, because we’ve been going over all this time the notion of “minute particulars”, “no ideas but in things”, (the) natural object is always the adequate symbol”, “sight is where the eye strikes (or hits)”…, and I sort of assumed that that was pretty much understood, finally – that I’d been repeating the same things over and over and over again and reading examples so that something might have gotten through.
But I was looking over some of your poems (classroom assignments) and it’s like a balloon. It’s like all these balloons are flying around and none of them are tied down anywhere, hardly (except one line I saw about having to keep the sink running so the pipes won’t freeze in the winter, and another line about a bat (sic) which had asterisks (sic) at the end of its legs, a description of the legs of a bat like asterisks, which was observation, but the rest was just gas, or pretty much gas). Gaseous material, that’s another way of putting it – that’s Louis Zukofsky – that there was solid material, like ice, and then there was vapor (like the water melted and the water gone up in steam), there was vaporous material in poetry (you can’t get your hands on it) and then there was solid matter. There’s all mind (so it’s from water to ice to water to steam, but it’s all mind), and it’s all words (so it’s all made of basically the same alphabet), but some of it can be apprehended (some of it can be understood) and some of it is just too impalpable and intangible to get your hands on (or get your mind clamped down on)
So I keep thinking that this point is so basic and so clear that anybody could figure it out, even a baby, but apparently not. Maybe I’m just imposing my own notion of reality in poetry on other people? Well, okay, that’s what I’m here for. Because the only thing that I can teach is what I know, or the only reality about poetry that I can teach is what I thought was reality in poetry. I can’t teach another kind – theoretical. I can only teach what I practice. So if anybody objects to that direction of thought, there’s not much I can do other than hammer home the same direction over and over again. But even if someone objects to that direction of thought, they (at least) ought to be able to think it, they ought to be able to understand it or practice it a little bit, just to get grounded, just to touch home base. But I’m finding that actually maybe it’s still all abstraction and up in the air and doesn’t mean a thing to a lot of people, and I don’t know how to bridge that gap or transmit that.