Yesterday, we launched the fourth episode of the PoemTalk podcast series, in which Al Filreis, Charles Bernstein, Rachel Blau DuPlessis and Jessica Lowenthal discuss Allen Ginsberg’s 1969 performance of “The Garden of Love” from William Blake’s Songs of Experience — you can check out PennSound Daily for the blurb I wrote describing the program. In general, I look forward to each new PoemTalk for the sharp insights of its panelists (many of whom I enjoy making small talk with after events at the Kelly Writers House), but this is the first episode that covers both a poet and a poem with which I’m intimately familiar (as does the forthcoming program on Ted Berrigan’s “3 Pages”), so I was particularly excited to listen.
For me, the most salient aspect of the program was hearing Charles Bernstein discuss the great sway that Ginsberg’s Songs of Innocence and Experience album had over him as a Harvard undergrad — in part because I had a similar experience during my college years. Somehow, I’d managed to come across a 50% off coupon to Borders and scurried out to the local strip mall as quickly as possible to purchase a (suddenly affordable) copy of Ginsberg’s 4-disc box set, Holy Soul Jelly Roll: Poems and Songs, 1949-1993, which I then listened to intensely over the next few years. I remember being stranded in Cleveland over the summer of 1999, during which time my discman and sleeve of cds were one of the few defenses I had against monotony and a quickly-dissolving romantic relationship — and one of my favorite things to listen to was disc 3 of the Ginsberg collection, which was largely comprised of selections from the Blake album.
Why the Blake tracks in particular? First, while I was well-acquainted with Ginsberg’s major poems (in fact, by this point, the spine was nearly broken on my big red Ginsberg collected from little slips of paper marking my favorite poems), they tend to run long, and it requires a considerable amount of attention to absorb, say, a thirty-minute recording of “Howl,” let alone the hour-plus rendition of “Kaddish,” especially when doing data entry or photocopying medical records (so much for quality control). The Blake songs, on the other hand, were like perfect little pop ditties — radio-ready, catchy and always surprising. This is largely due to the impressive roster of musicians, including well-known jazz figures Don Cherry (who plays a half-dozen instruments including harpsichord and wooden flute), Bob Dorough (best known as the musical director for Schoolhouse Rock) and Elvin Jones (John Coltrane’s scattershot drummer), who manage to create a fantastic amalgam of free-jazz, funereal drone, folk and Bach to accompany the songs. While some of Ginsberg’s later musical experiments fall flat (the calypsos, blues songs and pop-punk numbers occupying disc 4 of the box set), these songs are timeless and ever-engaging.
Moreover, it seems appropriate that Ginsberg would provide direct link to one of his greatest influences by re-imagining Blake’s work in a contemporary setting. The Beat Generation school of auto-didacticism is, no doubt, one of the great secrets of American scholarship, and certainly I’m but one of thousands whose teenage dabblings in Kerouac and Ginsberg led them not only to discover their contemporaries — such as Gregory Corso, Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, LeRoi Jones, Joyce Johnson, Lew Welch, Richard Brautigan and Frank O’Hara — but to also work backwards through their influences: William Carlos Williams, Walt Whitman, Arthur Rimbaud, Thomas Wolfe, Ernest Hemingway, Nathanael West and William Blake, not to mention Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and John Coltrane. Trace these influences outwards, and you have a formidable viral model for learning, made even stronger when the connections between works exist in multiple media (c.f. the collaborative work, Pull My Daisy, which exists as a poem, a song and a film).
Both Bernstein and Rachel Blau DuPlessis make strong points concerning these tensions between media. Bernstein notes that it’s perfectly Blakean that Ginsberg’s jaunty, countrified rendition of this grim Song of Experience seems so contradictory — for him, “the tune should be in conflict, it should create a challenge to the content,” since “there are often multiple and discrepant ways of understanding aspects of what’s going on” in his work. In DuPlessis’ estimation, the upbeat musical setting revivifies the central binary underscoring Blake’s work, making the innocence more acute within this weary lyric, and providing a joyous alternative to his depiction of repressive religiosity. With a multi-valent work such as this, it’s easy to overlook the full complexity of both its content and context, yet the PoemTalk panelists do an excellent job of reminding us of the many currents running through the poem — in fact, they make it look easy.
By rather fortuitous circumstances, I’ll be starting on Romanticism, and in particular, Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience, with my Texts and Contexts classes next week. All semester long, I’ve been using contemporary mirrors of the canonical texts we’ve been studying — Caroline Bergvall and David Wallace’s interpretations of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, Tim Blake Nelson’s O (a powerful, modern update of Othello), and Ang Lee’s somewhat-compromised remake of Sense and Sensibility — and so we’ll be exploring both the Ginsberg album and this PoemTalk episode as ways to broaden our discussion of Blake’s poetry. I’ll be very interested to see how these supplements affect the students’ take on the work, and specifically whether hearing Songs of Innocence and Experience performed literally as songs will make the work any more accessible to them. Likewise, by providing easy and entertaining avenues towards a deeper understanding of the work, this PoemTalk podcast is a wonderful pedagogical resource, and I’m glad to have it in my arsenal.
(ps- thanks for the shout-out, Charles!)