Reconstituting the Whole Universe…

April is national poetry month (USA).

Today, April 5, 2017, is the 20th anniversary of the death of Allen Ginsberg.

Here is a selection of some of his haiku collectively titled “Haiku (Never Published)”, from 1955:

Haiku (Never Published)


The moon over the roof,
worms in the garden.
I rent this house.

My old desk:
the first thing I looked for
in my house.

My early journal:
the first thing I found
in my old desk.

My mother’s ghost:
the first thing I found
in the living room.

The first thing I looked for
in my old garden was
The Cherry Tree.

Looking over my shoulder
my behind was covered
with cherry blossoms.

Winter Haiku
I didn’t know the names
of the flowers—now
my garden is gone.

Reading haiku
I am unhappy,
longing for the Nameless.

On the porch
in my shorts;
auto lights in the rain.

Drinking my tea
Without sugar—
No difference.

Another year
has past—the world
is no different.

[Haiku composed in the backyard cottage at 1624
Milvia Street, Berkeley 1955, while reading R.H.
Blyth’s 4 volumes, “Haiku.”]

Allen Ginsberg

from An Interview with Allen Ginsberg, 1966:

From an interview with Allen Ginsberg by Tom Clark, published in The Paris Review (Issue 37, Spring 1966). Tom Clark is still very busily active, writing poetry, non-fiction, and other things. You can take a look at some of his current work over at his amazing blog-site, Tom Clark – Beyond The Pale. But be advised: many of the war photographs he posts there are not for the faint of heart.

You once mentioned something you had found in Cézanne—a remark about the reconstitution of the petites sensations of experience, in his own painting—and you compared this with the method of your poetry.


I got all hung up on Cézanne around 1949 in my last year at Columbia, studying with Meyer Schapiro. I don’t know how it led into it—I think it was about the same time that I was having these Blake visions. So. The thing I understood from Blake was that it was possible to transmit a message through time that could reach the enlightened, that poetry had a definite effect, it wasn’t just pretty, or just beautiful, as I had understood pretty beauty before—it was something basic to human existence, or it reached something, it reached the bottom of human existence. But anyway the impression I got was that it was like a kind of time machine through which he could transmit—Blake could transmit—his basic consciousness and communicate it to somebody else after he was dead; in other words build a time machine.

Now just about that time I was looking at Cézanne and I suddenly got a strange shuddering impression looking at his canvases, partly the effect when someone pulls a venetian blind, reverses the venetian—there’s a sudden shift, a flashing that you see in Cézanne canvases. Partly it’s when the canvas opens up into three dimensions and looks like wooden objects, like solid space objects, in three dimensions rather than flat. Partly it’s the enormous spaces that open up in Cézanne’s landscapes. And it’s partly that mysterious quality around his figures, like of his wife or the card players or the postman or whoever, the local Aix characters. They look like great huge 3-d wooden dolls, sometimes. Very uncanny thing, like a very mysterious thing, in other words there’s a strange sensation that one gets, looking at his canvases, which I began to associate with the extraordinary sensation—cosmic sensation, in fact—that I had experienced catalyzed by Blake’s Sunflower and Sick Rose and a few other poems. So I began studiously investigating Cézanne’s intentions and method, and looking at all the canvases of his that I could find in New York, and all the reproductions I could find, and I was writing at the time a paper on him, for Schapiro at Columbia in the Fine Arts course.

And the whole thing opened up, two ways: First, I read a book on Cézanne’s composition by Erle Loran, who showed photographs, analyses, and photographs of the original motifs, side by side with the actual canvases—and years later I actually went to Aix, with all the postcards, and stood in the spots, and tried to find the places where he painted Mont Sainte-Victoire from, and got in his studio and saw some of the motifs he used like his big black hat and his cloak. Well, first of all I began to see that Cézanne had all sorts of literary symbolism in him, on and off. I was preoccupied with Plotinian terminology, of time and eternity, and I saw it in Cézanne paintings, an early painting of a clock on a shelf that I associated with time and eternity, and I began to think he was a big secret mystic. And I saw a photograph of his studio in Loran’s book and it was like an alchemist’s studio, because he had a skull, and he had a long black coat, and he had this big black hat. So I began thinking of him as, you know, like a magic character. Like the original version I had thought of him was like this austere dullard from Aix. So I began getting really interested in him as a hermetic type, and then I symbolically read into his canvases things that probably weren’t there, like there’s a painting of a winding road which turns off, and I saw that as the mystical path: it turns off into a village and the end of the path is hidden. Something he painted I guess when he went out painting with Bernard. Then there was an account of a very fantastic conversation that he had had. It’s quoted in Loran’s book: there’s a long, long, long paragraph where he says, “By means of squares, cubes, triangles, I try to reconstitute the impression that I have from nature: The means that I use to reconstitute the impression of solidity that I think-feel-see when I am looking at a motif like Victoire, is to reduce it to some kind of pictorial language, so I use these squares, cubes, and triangles, but I try to build them together so interknit” [Ginsberg interlocks his fingers] “so that no light gets through.” And I was mystified by that, but it seemed to make sense in terms of the grid of paint strokes that he had on his canvas, so that he produced a solid two-dimensional surface that, when you looked into it, maybe from a slight distance with your eyes either unfocused or your eyelids lowered slightly, you could see a great three-dimensional opening, mysterious, stereoscopic, like going into a stereopticon. And I began discovering in The Card Players all sorts of sinister symbols, like there’s one guy leaning against the wall with a stolid expression on his face, that he doesn’t want to get involved; and then there’s two guys who are peasants, who are looking as if they’ve just been dealt Death cards; and then the dealer you look at and he turns out to be a city slicker with a big blue cloak and almost rouge doll-like cheeks and a fat-faced Kafkian-agent impression about him, like he’s a cardsharp, he’s a cosmic cardsharp dealing out Fate to all these people. This looks like a great big hermetic Rembrandtian portrait in Aix! That’s why it has that funny monumentality—aside from the quote plastic values unquote.

Then, I smoked a lot of marijuana and went to the basement of the Museum of Modern Art in New York and looked at his watercolors and that’s where I began really turning on to space in Cézanne and the way he built it up. Particularly there’s one of rocks, I guess Rocks at Garonne, and you look at them for a while, and after a while they seem like they’re rocks, just the rock parts, you don’t know where they are, whether they’re on the ground or in the air or on top of a cliff, but then they seem to be floating in space like clouds, and then they seem to be also a bit like they’re amorphous, like kneecaps or cockheads or faces without eyes. And it has a very mysterious impression. Well, that may have been the result of the pot. But it’s a definite thing that I got from that. Then he did some very odd studies after classical statues, Renaissance statues, and they’re great gigantesque herculean figures with little tiny pinheads … so that apparently was his comment on them!

And then … the things were endless to find in Cézanne. Finally I was reading his letters and I discovered this phrase again, mes petites sensations—“I’m an old man and my passions are not, my senses are not coarsened by passions like some other old men I know, and I have worked for years trying to,” I guess it was the phrase, “reconstitute the petites sensations that I get from nature, and I could stand on a hill and merely by moving my head half an inch the composition of the landscape was totally changed.” So apparently he’d refined his optical perception to such a point where it’s a real contemplation of optical phenomena in an almost yogic way, where he’s standing there, from a specific point studying the optical field, the depth in the optical field, looking, actually looking at his own eyeballs in a sense. The attempting to reconstitute the sensation in his own eyeballs. And what does he say finally—in a very weird statement that one would not expect of the austere old workman, he said, “And this petite sensation is nothing other than pater omnipotens aeterna deus.”

So that was, I felt, the key to Cézanne’s hermetic method … Everybody knows his workmanlike, artisanlike, prettified-like painting method that is so great, but the really romanticistic motif behind it is absolutely marvelous, so you realize that he’s really a saint! Working on his form of yoga, all that time, in obvious saintly circumstances of retirement in a small village, leading a relatively nonsociable life, going through the motions of going to church or not, but really containing in his skull these supernatural phenomena, and observations… You know, and it’s very humble actually, because he didn’t know if he was crazy or not—that is a flash of the physical, miracle dimensions of existence, trying to reduce that to canvas in two dimensions, and then trying to do it in such a way as it would look if the observer looked at it long enough it would look like as much three dimension as the actual world of optical phenomena when one looks through one’s eyes. Actually he’s reconstituted the whole fucking universe in his canvases—it’s like a fantastic thing!—or at least the appearance of the universe.

So. I used a lot of this material in the references in the last part of the first section of Howl: “sensation of Pater Omnipotens Aeterna Deus.” The last part of “Howl” was really an homage to art but also in specific terms an homage to Cézanne’s method, in a sense I adapted what I could to writing; but that’s a very complicated matter to explain. Except, putting it very simply, that just as Cézanne doesn’t use perspective lines to create space, but it’s a juxtaposition of one color against another color (that’s one element of his space), so, I had the idea, perhaps overrefined, that by the unexplainable, unexplained nonperspective line, that is, juxtaposition of one word against another, a gap between the two words—like the space gap in the canvas—there’d be a gap between the two words that the mind would fill in with the sensation of existence. In other words when I say, oh … when Shakespeare says, In the dread vast and middle of the night, something happens between “dread vast” and “middle.” That creates like a whole space of—spaciness of black night. How it gets that is very odd, those words put together. Or in the haiku, you have two distinct images, set side by side without drawing a connection, without drawing a logical connection between them: the mind fills in this … this space. Like
O ant
crawl up Mount Fujiyama,
but slowly, slowly.

Now you have the small ant and you have Mount Fujiyama and you have the slowly, slowly, and what happens is that you feel almost like …  […] You feel this enormous space—universe, it’s almost a tactile thing. Well anyway, it’s a phenomenon-sensation, phenomenon hyphen sensation, that’s created by this little haiku of Issa, for instance.

So, I was trying to do similar things with juxtapositions like “hydrogen jukebox.” Or … “winter midnight smalltown streetlight rain.” Instead of cubes and squares and triangles. Cézanne is reconstituting by means of triangles, cubes, and colors—I have to reconstitute by means of words, rhythms of course, and all that—but say it’s words, phrasings. So. The problem is then to reach the different parts of the mind, that are existing simultaneously, the different associations which are going on simultaneously, choosing elements from both, like jazz, jukebox, and all that, and we have the jukebox from that; politics, hydrogen bomb, and we have the hydrogen of that—you see “hydrogen jukebox.” And that actually compresses in one instant like a whole series of things. Or the end of Sunflower with “cunts of wheelbarrows,” whatever that all meant, or “rubber dollar bills”—“skin of machinery”; see, and actually in the moment of composition I don’t necessarily know what it means, but it comes to mean something later, after a year or two, I realize that it meant something clear, unconsciously. Which takes on meaning in time, like a photograph developing slowly. Because we’re not really always conscious of the entire depth of our minds, in other words we just know a lot more than we’re able to be aware of, normally—though at moments we’re completely aware, I guess.

There’s some other element of Cézanne that was interesting … oh, his patience, of course. In recording the optical phenomena. Has something to do with Blake: with not through the eye—You’re led to believe a lie when you see with not through the eye. He’s seeing through his eye. One can see through his canvas to God, really, is the way it boils down. Or to Pater Omnipotens Aeterna Deus. I could imagine someone not prepared, in a peculiar chemical physiological state, peculiar mental state, psychic state, someone not prepared who had no experience of eternal ecstasy, passing in front of a Cézanne canvas, distracted and without noticing it, his eye traveling in, to, through the canvas into the space and suddenly stopping with his hair standing on end, dead in his tracks seeing a whole universe. And I think that’s what Cézanne really does, to a lot of people.

Where were we now. Yeah, the idea that I had was that gaps in space and time through images juxtaposed, just as in the haiku you get two images that the mind connects in a flash, and so that flash is the petite sensation; or the satori, perhaps, that the Zen haikuists would speak of—if they speak of it like that. So, the poetic experience that Housman talks about, the hair standing on end or the hackles rising whatever it is, visceral thing. The interesting thing would be to know if certain combinations of words and rhythms actually had an electrochemical reaction on the body, which could catalyze specific states of consciousness. I think that’s what probably happened to me with Blake. I’m sure it’s what happens on a perhaps lower level with Poe’s Bells or Raven, or even Vachel Lindsay’s Congo: that there is a hypnotic rhythm there, which when you introduce it into your nervous system, causes all sorts of electronic changes—permanently alters it. There’s a statement by Artaud on that subject, that certain music when introduced into the nervous system changes the molecular composition of the nerve cells or something like that, it permanently alters the being that has experience of this. Well, anyway, this is certainly true. In other words any experience we have is recorded in the brain and goes through neural patterns and whatnot, so I suppose brain recordings are done by means of shifting around of little electrons—so there is actually an electrochemical effect caused by art.

So … the problem is what is the maximum electrochemical effect in the desired direction. That is what I was taking Blake as having done to me. And what I take as one of the optimal possibilities of art. But this is all putting it in a kind of bullshit abstract way. But it’s an interesting … toy. To play with. That idea.