This is a guest post by Homestead: Theatre of Words.
When Ezra Pound suggested in How To Read that we should teach poetry using a curriculum that had as its principal features the moments of great innovation in western poetry, he struck one of the most sensitive of Modernism’s nerves: the idea that the strength of an artist lay in originality and novelty. Ever since the Renaissance, literary poetry in the West has progressed through an intention to civilise, whether through the project of legitimising the vernacular language, through illuminating the psyche of the individual, through the use of prophecy to correct spiritual illness, or through the establishment of nationalistic agenda. The promotion of innovation may itself be seen as a variant on this theme.
In each case, the establishment of literary and critical desiderata about the centre of civility strangled the educated oral tradition. It distracted attention from poetry as a matter of language and made it subject to assessment by non-linguistic criteria so that more time was spent considering the meaning of a poem and the innovation of its technique than in considering the ‘how’ or the ‘saying’ of it.
Oral poetry – poetry that is said – is deeply traditional. Even a poem that is made up on the spur of the moment and told to only one person simulates tradition in that a new grasp on the world is invented in collaboration through intimacy and sharing. The making and telling of poems keeps people alert to the holding of traditions. In addition to its own intrinsic value, oral poetry trains us to be traditional.
It does this by establishing a truthfulness of language. That is, the language comes to convince in its own right, regardless of whether we understand or accept the meaning of the sentence. Sometimes, the language can offer a lie so convincingly that it seen as intrinsically true: “All men are created equal” is one example; “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” is another. Poetry structures sentences and expressions so that they are truthful to the inner logic or spirit of the language as a whole. A poem can be truthful to the language in which it is composed, but untruthful to life as we live it. It cannot be truthful to life but untruthful to the language.
For the remainder of this article, I want to look at Allen Ginsberg’s Howl to see how the poem is made – that is, how it is told – and then to reflect upon it it terms of tradition, rather than the Modernism to which it is usually ascribed.
If a ruler is held against the text of Howl so that only the opening words of each line are visible, a pattern asserts itself. Here are the results of the experiment using the first part of the poem:
I saw…/dragging themselves…/angelheaded hipsters…/who poverty…/who bared…/who passed…/who were…/who cowered…/who got…/who ate…/with dreams…/incomparable blind…/Peyote solidities…/who chained…/who sank…/who talked…/a lost…/yacketayakking…/whole intellects…/who vanished…/suffering Eastern…/who wandered…/who lit…/who studied…/who loned it…/who thought…/who jumped…/who lounged…/who disappeared…/who reappeared…/who burned…/who distributed…/who broke…/who bit…/who howled…/who let…/who blew…/who balled…/who hiccuped…/who lost…/who copulated…/who sweetened…/who went…/who faded…/who walked…/who created…/who ate…/who wept…/who sat…/who coughed…/who scribbled…/who cooked…/who plunged…/who threw…/who cut…/who were…/who jumped…/who sang…/who barreled…/who drove…/who journeyed…/who fell…/who crashed…/who retired…/who demanded…/who threw…/and who were…/who in humourless…/returning years later…/Pilgrim State’s…/with mother…/ah, Carl…/and who therefore…/who dreamt…/to recreate…/the madman…/and rose…/with the absolute…
The pattern pronoun-verb dominates throughout, and the most powerful formulation is ‘who-verb’. If, in fact, every opening not of this type is followed back, it almost invariably belongs to a subject which has opened a preceding line. The fundamental strategy of this section, then, is built from the formula pronoun-verb, with ‘I saw’ occurring once, and ‘who-verb’ (with the occasional variant of ‘and who-verb’) subsequently occurring to the exclusion of other forms. The figures ‘Moloch!’ and “I’m with you in Rockland’ in parts two and three fill a similar role. The question is, what is this role? what are these formulae doing?
It is a common observation that Ginsberg used these formulae in performance as points from which to drive his breath, following the practices of a Cantor – that is, each formula marked a point just before which he would draw in a full breath, and it would then explode out of that breath and initiate a series of syllables each carrying diminishing energy until either the line was over or a smaller, replenishing breath was required. Although this is the way the early performances are described, those recordings I have heard from the 60’s and 70’s indicate that as he grew more familiar with (or less interested in) the poem, his breathing patterns changed to reflect those more common amongst actors attempting the iambs of renaissance drama. Nonetheless, while the role of the formulae as breath-markers has become cemented in popular lore, their role in the composition of the poem has been overlooked.
Although the poem underwent some revision (most famously ‘angry streets at dawn looking for a negro fix’ became ‘negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix’), it was fundamentally an improvisation: from interview to interview, Ginsberg has affirmed the history as a burst of typing without restraint. The formula ‘who-verb’ does not arise as a planned structure (like a refrain) that is evident from the first, but is a useful device that arises as a result of the composition – that is, the improvisation – itself. The formula does emerge in potentia in the opening of the first line – ‘I saw’ – and again in the fourth line – ‘who poverty’ – but does not begin to assert its power until well after its first appearance. The sequence proper does not begin until line 13, despite being prefigured for a six line sequence earlier on. This becomes clearer if the parts of speech that open the first twelve lines are presented in abstract terms:
sub.-pred./cont. pret.-ref. pron./compound adj.-noun/pron.-noun/pron.-pred./pron.-pred./pron.-aux./pron.-pred./pron.-aux./pron.-pred./conj. noun/adj.-adj./adj.-noun.
In other words, there is a fair degree of exploration as to what type of construction might best open lines intended to be driven from a breath marker. Once the formula is decided, then the lines move onward with little interruption, and such interruption as there is seems most likely to have arisen from a feeling that without a line-break the lines themselves would grow too unwieldy.
Grammatical formulae offer the composer a free access to the unconscious (and so do ‘found objects;’ hence the later ‘Moloch!’ and ‘I’m with you in Rockland,’ which become found objects from their first repetition). Once the structure has been grasped, it is possible to sustain it to the point of nausea. This is why, in improvisation classes, pronoun-verb is a common and rewarding game. More than this, such formulae provide a narrative anchoring that will allow a stream of material, no matter how incoherent, to adhere to a grammatical pattern without requiring any conscious organisational effort. The words that follow the formula may proceed purely under the motivation of the unconscious. Amongst the majority of the improvisational traditions throughout the world, the impact of the id is less welcome than in Howl, and so other constraints are imposed by the artist to ensure that the work remains rational. Howl sets out to be non-rational, and this is why it is quite unlike the Iliad or Perse Plowman, both of which have also been improvised.
In other poems, Ginsberg employs other formulae and improvises with a freedom equal to that of Howl, but with intentions toward the rational and the didactic. Howl is not, of course, unique among his work, but in its absolute surrender to the non-rational it is distinctive. The poem is not convincing because of the meanings that follow the formulae, but because of the manner in which those meanings are articulated. Here is a line selected at random:
‘who chained themselves to subways for the endless ride from Battery to holy Bronx on benzedrine until the noise of wheels and children brought them down shuddering mouth-wracked and battered bleak of brain all drained of brilliance in the drear light of Zoo,’
What strikes first is the incredible complexity of alliteration, both head-phoneme and mid-phoneme. This is a feature of the whole poem – line after line proceeds by a counterpoint of head-phoneme and mid-phoneme alliteration in which there are often two or more consecutive streams. The result might be likened to a fugue of three or four parts. It is contrapuntally exacting and exhilarating, and in its proliferation it becomes marvelous to the point of bewilderment.
Here are some other lines, also taken at random:
‘who burned cigarette holes in their arms protesting the narcotic tobacco haze of Capitalism,’
‘’Moloch in whom I sit lonely! Moloch in whom I dream Angels! Crazy in Moloch! Cocksucker in Moloch! Lacklove and manless in Moloch!’
‘I’m with you in Rockland
in my dreams you walk dripping from a sea-journey on the highway across America in tears to the door of my cottage in the Western night.’
Clearly, although an experience of the poem entire is overwhelming in its alliterative effects, such effects are not consistent from line to line, and even where they are most consistently deployed they are not regular. Alliteration here does not provide an organising principle – the head-line formulae do that – but it does offer an extraordinarily dazzling solution to the problem of alliteration that has bedevilled English language verse since the alliterative revivalists were squashed in the 15thC (as a result – doubtless unintentional – of the need to create an English that was respectable and serviceable as a political language).
There have, of course, been moments throughout literary poetry since the 15thC in which alliteration has asserted itself as an organising force. A popular favourite is Gerard Manley Hopkins’ Kingfishers catch fire and dragonflies draw flame; more famous is The force that through the green fuse drives the flower from Dylan Thomas. However, no poem has explored alliteration with such extravagance – albeit in a disorganised sense – as Howl.
There is a tradition that uses alliteration deliberatively and systematically in just the way that Ginsberg uncovers in Howl. It, too, is an oral tradition, it drives itself through a process of revised improvisations, and it proceeds through a cantorial performance. Unlike Howl, the individual poems are produced collaboratively.
With the accession of uShaka to the head chieftainship of the Zulu early in the 19thC, much that was potential in the culture came to a rapid and explosive fruition. Amongst this was a renovation of the praise tradition – the izibongo.
Hitherto fairly simplistic statements comparable to lithoko, albeit with significant spiritual differences, the Shakan izibongo emerged as a strata of poetry capable of sustaining highly complex patterns throughout extended passages and is easily one of the most compelling and important of the world’s poetic traditions. IsiZulu, like all other Narrow Bantu S languages, is agglutinative – that is, its grammatical functions are illuminated and elaborated by a series of particles – called, in this case, ‘concords’ – which adhere to stem-words. The concords are pronounced and transcribed conjunctively (as an actual component of the stem which they modify). Such languages are perforce alliterative, however the poetry of other groups throughout the range of Narrow Bantu S do not make a great feature of alliteration in their poetry. IsiZulu does.
Like lithoko, izibongo proceed by enumerating eulogues (praise-names), the majority of which are only explicable extrinsically. Domestic izibongo are plentiful, and are usually created by a single poet. Court izibongo, however, are created by the community as a whole. Typically, the imbongi (court poet) receives suggestions from the general public during the course of his working days – some early records tell of people calling possible eulogues, and even whole paragraphs, out aloud as the imbongi passes by where they are at work – and he later combines and organises them into a consistent poem. This process is crucial as the izibongo preserves the spirit of the person it praises – so long as it is remembered and recited, the spirit of that person remains alive. uShaka, in a very real sense, remains an active force amongst the Zulu because his poems are still performed. Buthelezi’s strength as a modern politician depended in a large measure on the continued utterance of his izibongo.
The genre, then, is highly improvisational, although it is subject to studied revision. It exists in performance or not at all – no transcribed copy can be sufficiently magical to keep the spirit alive, no mere unperformed memorisation has sufficient physicality to be really real. Once the proper version of it has been established under the supervision of one of more imbongi, it may not change (the great chiefs of the 18thC began to really die early in the 20thC as more and more of the paragraphs from their izibongo were forgotten and performances became more and more rare).
Here is an introductory passage from one of the Shakan izibongo:
uSishaka kasishayeki kangjengamanzi
Ilemb’ eleq’ amany’ amalembe ngokukhalipha
uShaka ngiyesab’ ukuthi nguShaka
uShaka kuyinkosi yasemaShobeni.
uMahlom’ ehlathini onjengohlanya
Uhlany’ olusemehlwen’ amadoda.
uDabaz’ ithafa ebeliya kuMfene
uGaqa libomvu nasekuphatheni.
He who is famous as he sits, son of Menzi,
he who beats but is not beaten, unlike water,
axe that surpasses other axes in sharpness;
Shaka, I fear to say he is Shaka,
Shaka, he is the chief of the Mashobas.
He of the shrill whistle, the lion;
he who armed in the forest, who is like a madman,
the madman who is in full view of the men.
He who trudged wearily the plain going to Mfene;
the voracious one of Senzangakhona.
The complexity of head-phoneme and mid-phoneme alliteration (and assonance) throughout this entire paragraph is clear. (And, neatly, it matches much of the opening procedure of Howl.) The mechanics are very simple. Not only do the concords allow an alliterative pattern, but the head-phonemes of the stems and mid-phonemes from the stems or the suffixes allow contrasting strands. As a simple illustration, using these (later) lines:
Inkhom’ ekhal’ eMthonjaneni
izizwe zonke ziyizwil’ ukulila
The beast that lowed at Mthonjaneni
and all the tribes heard its wailing
An assonantal range is available in the types of concord (e-, izi- & u-) that unites them to the head-phoneme of inkhom. The mid-phoneme from izi- connects to the head-phonemes of zonke and ziyizwil’, and the mid-phoneme –zw- holds a steady place throughout, as does –kh-.
Shakan and post-Shakan izibongo utilise this technique to such an extent that it may stand as a defining feature of the corpus. The ‘lines’, in fact, are determined by the cross-alliterative strands.
When a group of people is engaged in giving and receiving ideas through conversation, the words they use tend to echo each other in sound, if not necessarily in sense. Some languages can allow this to be a feature of debate and decision making – case studies in South America and Timor illustrate this clearly. In English – like all the Germanic languages – the assonances are commonly alliterative. Lines emerge from paragraphs in Old English poetry as bundles of alliterative units. In some instances, this includes cross-alliterations of such complexity and density that they rival the isiZulu achievement.
Modern English has turned to end-rhyme rather than alliteration. Nonetheless, alliteration is the truth of English. It is this that Ginsberg learned as he read his early poems to groups and invited them to share their responses with him in informal dialogues after the readings.
The lines in Howl are determined by the presence of the narrative which is invoked by the formula that opens them. Complex cross-alliterations arise as a by-product. In using the formula to give his unconscious direct access to his voice (albeit a voice that is transcribed before it is heard), Ginsberg also gave his awakened sense of what a line in English might become an opportunity to realise itself without encumbrance.
It is this, I think, that makes Howl a convincing poem despite its fragility when the individual lines are subject to interrogation. This is also why the poem seems somehow new – no other poem in the language exploits cross-alliteration so consistently and so thoroughly (and with such energy). The result is a line that can remain demotic, inclusive and highly structured.
In the case of Howl, we have a poem that remains truthful to the language, but that is rarely truthful to life. In its method, it simulates tradition, but it does not participate in tradition. A poet, through sensitivity and training, may be able as an individual to make a poem that is truthful to language, but only a collaboration between poets and listeners can strip away the pretences until the poem is also truthful to life. It is this process, conducted over generations in some cases, that is the tradition of poetry proper. This can be achieved by a single poet over a lifetime of work – William Langland’s Perse Plowman is a good example because the manuscripts show the poem shifting the more is is received by, and transmitted by, its audiences. The great poems – the Iliad, say, or Job or the Edda – take centuries to grow.
This said, Howl offers an insight into the process of poem-making that is close to us in time and culture, and yet sufficiently remote in temper and experience for its falsities to be as visible as its truths. It sits like a dog at the doorway of our loss of the tradition. We can still hear it panting in the dark, and as we approach it we can see the door just beyond through which the tradition – and Tradition itself – may still be found.