Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Ginsberg's notes on 'Howl'

This material appears in:
Ginsberg, Allen. “Notes Written on Finally Recording Howl.”
Evergreen Review 3.10 (1959): 132-35.
MLA citation for this version:
Ginsberg, Allen. “Notes Written on Finally Recording Howl.”
1959. Kingston: Department of English, Queen’s University, 2006.
This document was created on Monday 28 August 2006.

Allen Ginsberg (1926-1997)
Notes Written on Finally Recording Howl

By 1955 I wrote poetry adapted from prose seeds, journals, scratchings,
arranged by phrasing or breath groups into little short-line patterns according to
ideas of measure of American speech I'd picked up from William Carlos
Williams' imagist preoccupations. I suddenly turned aside in San Francisco,
unemployment compensation leisure, to follow my romantic inspiration--
Hebraic-Melvillean bardic breath. I thought I wouldn't write a poem, but just
write what I wanted to without fear, let my imagination go, open secrecy, and
scribble magic lines from my real mind--sum up my life--something I wouldn't
be able to show anybody, writ for my own soul's ear and a few other golden
ears. So the first line of Howl, "I saw the best minds etc.," the whole first section
typed out madly in one afternoon, a tragic custard-pie comedy of wild phrasing,
meaningless images for the beauty of abstract poetry of mind running along
making awkward combinations like Charlie Chaplin's walk, long saxophone-like
chorus lines I knew Kerouac would hear sound of--taking off from his own
inspired prose line really a new poetry.

I depended on the word "who" to keep the beat, a base to keep
measure, return to and take off from again onto another streak of invention:
"who lit cigarettes in boxcars boxcars boxcars," continuing to prophesy what I
really knew despite the drear consciousness of the world: "who were visionary
Indian angels." Have I really been attacked for this sort of joy? So the poem got
awesome, I went on to what my imagination believed true to eternity (for I'd had
a beatific illumination years before during which I'd heard Blake's ancient voice
and saw the universe unfold in my brain), and what my memory could
reconstitute of the data of celestial experiences.

But how sustain a long line in poetry (lest it lapse into prosaic)? It's
natural inspiration of the moment that keeps it moving, disparate thinks put
down together, shorthand notations of visual imagery, juxtapositions of
hydrogen jukebox--abstract haikus sustain the mystery and put iron poetry back
into the line: the last line of Sunflower Sutra is the extreme, one stream of single
word associations, summing up. Mind is shapely, art is shapely. Meaning mind
practiced in spontaneity invents forms in its own image and gets to last thoughts.
Loose ghosts wailing for body try to invade the bodies of living men. I hear
ghostly academies in limbo screeching about form.

Ideally each line of Howl is a single breath unit. My breath is long--
that's the measure, one physical-mental inspiration of thought contained in the
elastic of a breath. It probably bugs Williams now, but it's a natural
consequence, my own heightened conversation, not cooler average-daily-talk
short breath. I get to mouth more madly this way.
So these poems are a series of experiments with the formal
organization of the long line. Explanations follow. I realized at the time that
Whitman's form had rarely been further explored (improved on even) in the
U.S.--Whitman always a mountain too vast to be seen. Everybody assumes
(with Pound?) (except [Robinson] Jeffers) that his line is a big freakish
uncontrollable necessary prosaic goof. No attempt's been made to use it in the
light of early twentieth century organization of new speech-rhythm prosody to
build up large organic structures.

I had an apartment on Nob Hill, got high on peyote, and saw an image
of the robot skullface of Moloch in the upper stories of a big hotel glaring into
my window; got high weeks later again, the visage was still there in red smoky
downtown metropolis, I wandered down Powell street muttering, "Moloch
Moloch" all night and wrote Howl II nearly intact in cafeteria at foot of Drake
Hotel, deep in the hellish vale. Here the long line is used as a stanza form
broken into exclamatory units punctuated by a base repetition, Moloch.
The rhythmic paradigm for Part III was conceived and half-written
same day as the beginning of Howl, I went back later and filled it out. Part I, a
lament for the Lamb in America with instances of remarkable lamblike youths;
Part II names the monster of mental consciousness that preys on the Lamb; Part
III a litany of affirmation of the Lamb in its glory: "O starry spangled shock of
Mercy." The structure of Part III, pyramidal, with a graduated longer response
to the fixed base.

I remembered the archetypal rhythm of Holy Holy Holy weeping in a
bus on Kearny Street, and wrote most of it down in notebook there. That
exhausted this set of experiments with a fixed base. I set it as Footnote to Howl
because it was an extra variation of the form of Part II. (Several variations on
these forms, including stanzas of graduated litanies followed by fugues, will be
seen in Kaddish.)

A lot of these forms developed out of an extreme rhapsodic wail I once
heard in a madhouse. Later I wondered if short quiet lyrical poems could be
written using the long line. A Strange New Cottage in Berkeley and A
Supermarket in California (written same day) fell in place later that year. Not
purposely, I simply followed my angel in the course of compositions.
What if I just simply wrote, in long units and broken short lines,
spontaneously noting prosaic realities mixed with emotional upsurges,
solitaries? Transcription of Organ Music (sensual data), strange writing which
passes from prose to poetry and back, like the mind.

What about poem with rhythmic buildup power equal to Howl without
use of repetitive base to sustain it? The Sunflower Sutra (composition time 20
minutes, me at desk scribbling, Kerouac at cottage door waiting for me to finish
so we could go off somewhere party) did that, it surprised me, one long who.

Next what happens if you mix long and short lines, single breath
remaining the rule of measure? I didn't trust free flight yet, so went back to fixed
base to sustain the flow, America. After that, a regular formal type long poem in
parts, short and long breaths mixed at random, no fixed base, sum of earlier
experiments--In the Baggage Room at Greyhound. In Back of the Real shows
what I was doing with short lines (see sentence above) before I accidentally
wrote Howl.

Later I tried for a strong rhythm built up using free short syncopated
lines, Europe! Europe! a prophecy written in Paris.

Last, the Proem to Kaddish (NY 1959 work)--finally, completely free
composition, the long line breaking up within itself into short staccato breath
units--notations of one spontaneous phrase after another linked within the line
by dashes mostly: the long line now perhaps a variable stanzaic unit, measuring
groups of related ideas, grouping them--a method of notation. Ending with a
hymn in rhythm similar to the synagogue death lament. Passing into dactylic?
says Williams? Perhaps not: at least the ear hears itself in Promethean natural
measure, not in mechanical count of accent.

All these poems are recorded now as best I can, though with scared
love, imperfect to an angelic trumpet in mind. I have quit reading in front of live
audiences for a while. I began in obscurity to communicate a live poetry, it's
become more a trap and duty than the spontaneous ball it was first.

A word on the Academies: poetry has been attacked by an ignorant and
frightened bunch of bores who don't understand how it's made, and the trouble
with these creeps is they wouldn't know poetry if it came up and buggered them
in broad daylight.

A word on the Politicians: my poetry is angelic ravings, and has
nothing to do with dull materialistic vagaries about who should shoot who. The
secrets of individual imagination--which are transconceptual and non-verbal--I
mean unconditioned spirit--are not for sale to this consciousness, are no use to
this world, except perhaps to make it shut its trap and listen to the music of the
spheres. Who denies the music of the spheres denies poetry, denies man, and
spits on Blake, Shelley, Christ, and Buddha. Meanwhile have a ball. The
universe is a new flower. America will be discovered. Who wants a war against
roses will have it. Fate tells big lies, and the gay creator dances on his own body
in eternity.
1959


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