June 1993: the National Poetry Foundation at the University of Maine at Orono was holding a large conference on the poetry of the thirties. Most of those attending stayed in the dorms on campus or the motels close by, but about ten of us were put up in an upscale country inn some ten miles from the university. One of my inn-mates was Allen Ginsberg, who had been invited to pay homage to the ninety-year-old Carl Rakosi and of course to give some readings as well. Allen attended every session dutifully. But in the late evenings, he turned to his real preoccupation: the analysis of prosody. Around midnight, he would appear in the lounge and engage whoever was present in a series of language games, centering on the metrics of Ezra Pound. I soon became one of Allen’s partners in crime. He would recite a line from the Cantos and I would help him figure out how to scan it. Throughout these sessions, he was friendly but aloof: I was never quite sure he knew who I was though we had shared the stage at various events at the Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church in New York and had corresponded for some time about his archive, which I helped bring to Stanford.
In this, the last decade of his life (he died in 1997), Allen looked for all the world like a post-wwii college professor: navy blue blazer, red tie, white shirt, neat laced Oxfords, slicked-back short black hair. I always marveled that this super-famous radical provocateur-poet had adopted such a deceptive appearance. But was it deceptive? Not really, when we remember that back in his Columbia days Allen was always trying to impress Lionel Trilling, sending the famous professor poems and waiting for his approbation. And by the eighties, when his Beat credentials were no longer in question, Allen actually did become a college professor, teaching at the Naropa Institute, later Naropa University. His lectures on poetry and poetics are now available online at the Naropa website. This past week, I have been listening to these lectures and marveling at Allen’s interest in the minutiae of prosody. In July 1987, for instance, there’s Allen, explaining to his class what a molossus is: a foot of three long syllables in a row used in Greek quantitative meter. His example is the following line from Pound’s Hugh Selwyn Mauberly:
/ / / / /
Quick eyes gone under earth’s lid
where the first three words constitute a molossus and the last two a spondee. But, Allen explains, a molossus is a term referring to length, not stress, and he proceeds to define long versus short syllables and to distinguish quantitative metrics from the stress prosody of English. In Pound’s poetry, he argues, quantity and stress are in tension. Then Allen refers to Pound’s citation from Basil Bunting, “dichten=condensare,” and explains why “my grandmother’s glasses” is a much better phrase than the prolix “the glasses of my grandmother.” Get rid, he insists, “of the draggy extra bullshit.”
Pound was always, for Ginsberg,
the first poet to open up fresh new forms in America after Walt Whitman — certainly the greatest poet since Walt Whitman ... the man who in his supreme savant investigations of vowels went back to the great musicians of Renaissance times to hear how they heard vowels and set them to music syllable by syllable.
Again and again, Allen pays homage to Old Ez, even though Pound knew nothing of Ginsberg’s own poetry.
But back to Orono. In the lounge over coffee or tea (no alcohol, no drugs), Allen read Pound’s “I Vecchi” (“They will come no more / The old men with beautiful manners”) against some extracts from Greek poetry, trying out various ways of reading a given line. He never let up: the intensity could be a bit overwhelming for the rest of us. And when we asked him what he had thought of this or that speaker at the conference, he would nod impatiently and say “fine,” only to return, as quickly as possible, to his own experiments with rhythm and meter. He wanted to include us all in his project but had little interest in our own work. His was, so to speak, a one-way street but it was certainly not a vacant or dull one.
The next time (sadly, the last time) I saw Allen was under very different circumstances. One Friday morning in the spring of 1996, I was doing my weekly marketing at Gelson’s in Pacific Palisades. Gelson’s is the very incarnation of Allen’s “A Supermarket in California”: “What peaches and what penumbras!” What “brilliant stacks of cans following you!” It’s a kind of food museum with all its gorgeous fruits and vegetables, its gleaming meat and fish displays, its cornucopias of exotic cheeses. I wandered down to the deli and took a number to wait my turn when I noticed that there, standing on the sidelines, was a hunched up little figure who looked familiar. It was Allen, waiting for Stanley Grinstein (the well-known L.A. art patron who, with his wife Elyse, had founded the Gemini G.E.L. Gallery) to finish his shopping.
Los Angeles is a cruel town when it comes to accolades for the famous. No one in Gelson’s so much as glanced over at Allen. I went up to give him a hug, and we strolled up and down the aisles, chatting. He was spending a few days with the Grinsteins while hoping to make a video with Dennis Hopper. He looked tired, unwell, and somewhat distracted, and I thought of his description of “Walt Whitman, childless, lonely old grubber, poking among the meats in the refrigerator and eyeing the grocery boys.” But even eyeing grocery boys now seemed too much of an effort. In front of the bakery counter, Stanley Grinstein found us, and Allen said goodbye and toodled off into the sunlight. No one in Gelson’s had recognized him. I never saw him again.
Since that time, whenever I reread “Howl” or “Sunflower Sutra” or “America,” I see, beneath the bravado of all that ‘”yacketayakking screaming vomiting whispering facts and memories,” the scholarly, learned, almost pedantic “rose rabbi,” who parsed Pound’s lines to anyone who would listen, and who, in the California supermarket, which he had, so many years earlier, turned into an icon, stood isolate in the crowd, dreaming, no doubt, of that “lost America of love” that had always escaped him.