When writing poetry, one ought to put one’s breath into it. Count the length of one’s line, listening to thought’s syllables. Practice what Charles Olson calls “composition by FIELD.” When we set aside old fears, we unlock our hidden capacity to resonate in sympathy with others. Keep going, keep learning, keep growing. Open windows, let in light, sit outdoors. When I do so, I see trees, the modest, low-slung buildings of an invisible campus.
Igloo taxonomies pull my daisy, skronk my sax. Tug, ballast, season — walk the trail of things and their sources. There is truth to be had by closing one’s eyes and listening to the birds in the trees. Which sun gives one the color of one’s breast: the one in the East, or the one in the West? The birds sing of elevated places, skyborn joy. Elsewhere, in some other time-space in the multiverse, cultural critics drool over Alexandra Drewchin’s “cyborg balladry.” “Embrace the temporary aspect of everything” seems to be the mantra that organizes her workflow. I find her digitally manipulated vocals chilling and even grotesque at times, only to find myself won over on other occasions with tracks like “Inclined.” Inner space is the place. But I still get the feeling I’m dealing with an upgraded being, an augmented intelligence whispering, “Harness the yin of the central nervous system.”
The worker must have her bread — but she also must have her roses. Hand over, motherfuckers, or we’ll storm your gates and tax your estates. We’ve had enough of these open-air debtor prisons. We will remain silent no longer. From out of the monoculture into Out There step bands like Tower Recordings and Wet Tuna. By exercising consciousness, I can release from my usual mask of pain into an embodiment in breath and posture of loving kindness. “Focus on one’s breath”: this is what Charles Olson proposes in his essay, “Projective Verse.” The brain is there in the breath, the line, and the syllable. Regulate breathing, and awareness intensifies. We see and hear more of the grand dynamic. The creak of the kitchen table from the push of our hands as we write. Objects arranged on the table’s surface. Olson intervenes at just this moment to remind us to concentrate on breath and beware the ease of the descriptive. Within the energy field that will become the poem, he says, one must manage syllables and lines in their relations to each other. Such was the way Olson taught his students to write, both at Black Mountain College and elsewhere. Linguistic objects — words, sounds, sequences of syllables: for these, the poet finds a use.
By referencing movements like Dadaism in his poem “Howl,” Ginsberg situates his actions and the actions of his circle of Beat contemporaries as an Americanized continuation of the radical political-aesthetic projects of the European avant-garde. Each of these figures — the “great minds” referenced in the poem’s first line — appears by the end of the poem’s first section as a Jesus, a savior or Messiah “destroyed” for living free, brains and imagination sacrificed to the bloodthirsty demiurge Moloch. The key to Moloch’s true identity appears midway through Section II when Ginsberg reveals its more common alias, “the Mind,” i.e. dead labor, A.I., the practico-inert: “consciousness without a body” (22).
Thomas Merton teaches us, in the face of the nuclear desert as potential future, to wage war unceasingly and courageously against despair. Kikagaku Moyo fill the air with pregnant, dripping, liquid sound with the song “Silver Owl” from their third album, 2016’s House in the Tall Grass.
Listening is like flying regally over a crisp October landscape, air in one’s lungs. Think of that Walt Whitman epigram from Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems as a joyous, hearty psychedelic “yea” in reply to William Blake’s line about the “doors of perception.” “Don’t just unlock the doors,” says the psychedelic evangelist. “Tear them from their frames!” Ginsberg begins his poem in much the same spirit as Blake, evoking the power of vision. By this he means “the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night”: the god-like imaginative power behind dream-work and kosmos-creation. Just as Blake aligned himself with the angry prophet figure Rintrah, so too with Ginsberg, who aligns himself with figures like Muhammad. It’s such a psychedelic place, this world, this book written at the tip of the mind. It was from the Angel Gabriel, remember, that Muhammad claimed to have received the revelations that became the Koran. Ginsberg speaks of Blake appearing before him in a vision hallucinated while lying in bed after an orgasm. Ginsberg’s mother Naomi was hospitalized for mental illness. As biographer Barry Miles notes, this gave Ginsberg “an enormous empathy and tolerance for madness, neurosis, and psychosis.” One of my favorite moments in “Howl” is when Ginsberg refers to “kind king light of mind.” I’ve experienced that kind of high. Also the low he describes on the next line as “the drear light of Zoo.” Ginsberg mapped the emotional antipodes represented in the heroic deeds and misdeeds of the radicals and anarchistic free spirits of his generation. “Howl” is epic poetry set to the purpose of narrating the collective subject of universal liberation collision-coursing its way through the ultimate bender.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge “marries” or in a sense “reconciles” apparently contrary images in “Kubla Khan” by way of the latter’s poetic vision of a dome and a bursting fountain. So sayeth the literary critic Harold Bloom. In Bloom’s “anxiety of influence” school of interpretation, poets relate Oedipally to their precursors, each poem thus a demonstration of superiority — a flexing of imaginative muscle, an elaborate brag. Compared to Kublai Khan’s palace, the poet’s is, as enactment into global consciousness, the “finer dome,” the “more abiding paradise” (Bloom, The Visionary Company, p. 219). Bloom reads “Kubla Khan,” in other words, as a poem about poetry’s power. Through use of language, the imagination ruptures the given, allows back the forbidden, the excluded: the knowledge of Paradise. We are that unified, eternal Being — the one that reconciles contraries. Thou are that. Matter languaged. The oboe made articulate. (I classify the above as “notes toward a theory of fantasy.” In the same file I might add topics of conversation from my recent dinner with fantasist extraordinaire John Crowley. Change the stars, and one changes the world. As Above, So Below.)
Like a squirrel pausing on a high branch to admire a nut retrieved from below, I return home from office hours savoring a day well-spent in joyful, growth-oriented dialogue with students. Work in such moments seems capable of being harmonized with utopianism and individual and collective jubilation. My approach to reality coincides with my approach to students: infinite wonder, infinite passion, infinite forgiveness, infinite care. I can do this. I can bring spirited delight to conversations about consciousness, history, reality, and being, and still have time afterwards to recline and reflect. Students and I through study seed each other’s minds with new language sequences, new hopes, new possibilities. “What about plants?” a student and I wonder. Do they, too, possess consciousness? How do I eat with minimal undue suffering, minimal deconstruction of the order of the Oikos? A version of me tells another version of me across a distance of years to compare the “sacred river” referenced in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s opium-induced poem “Kubla Khan” with the “stream” metaphor employed in the poem’s preface. Consciousness appears in the work as both non-reflecting pool and mirror. Or more precisely, as Coleridge writes, “The pool becomes a mirror” (emphasis mine). But which the surface, which the depth? I grow frightened of the implications. Suddenly I worry that the poem carries within it a warning about drug use as a sinful act of hubris, God’s creation (the mind, the soul, consciousness) purposed, put to use, instrumentalized, enslaved, the eternal Adam damning himself out of Eden by trying to “finish for himself what had been originally, as it were, given to him” — living for an augmentation, a “more,” a heavenly end of time that is always and forever “yet to come.” The infinite deferment or postponement appears mysterious in its implications in the final lines of the poem’s preface — made all the more complicated by annotations about modifications of the text made by Coleridge at different stages in his career — and thus different stages in the evolution of the author’s political sympathies and related worldview. The poem, wistful and tragic in its unreconstitutable, permanently fragmentary form, gestures toward its parent texts, Paradise Lost and the Book of Genesis. I hope students write papers comparing garden imagery in “Kubla Khan” and Pearl. “Kubla Khan” appears equally in this light as ultimate psychedelic metatext and prophetic anamnesis of the destiny of humankind. Gardens and enclosures, experience-bounding laws and hedonistic transgression. Plenty and the desire for more. Drug use is disruption of the stream of consciousness, the sacred river Alph — language, alphabetic reality. The Symbolic. Coleridge likens the altered state of consciousness to “images on the surface of a stream into which a stone has been cast,” whereas in Pearl, the dreaming narrator imagines himself as the cast stone, trying to cross the uncrossable stream dividing Earth from Heaven, only to find himself awakened from his dream and returned to the site of his misfortune.