give you a sensible answer. Now, if you had said, what do you think of love? or how do you see using the word “love” for the experience of wonder at the sight of a sunset? Then I might be able to find an instance where it was used well, or I might not and I’d have to invent one. If I couldn’t invent an instance and I couldn’t remember any instance where the word was used will, I would say it’s probably not the right word.
RMN: Well, I’m glad I disappointed you and got such an answer! (laughter) Talking about the nature of wordplay, I read in a lecture you gave that you believe it’s possible to teach inspiration. How do you do this?
Allen: Inspiration means breathing in. The process of breathing is or course, central to meditation practice, but it’s also central to poetry. You have thoughts which are mental and impalpable, like heaven and then you have body, which is ground or earth. So when you speak, the breath comes out as a physiological body thing but it’s also a vehicle for the impalpable thoughts of the mind. So, you could say that speech joins heaven and earth, or synchronizes mind and body. Exhalation or expiration – as in “he expired” – is the vehicle on which poetry comes out whereas inhalation or inspiration, takes in. So, you can say that certain kinds of poetry like Shelley’s famous romantic poem, “Ode to the West Wind” has a certain elevated unobstructed breath about it; unobstructed intelligence, unobstructed production of images, unobstructed self-confidence, unobstructed majestic proclamation.
RMN: So you’re saying that if people can learn to first breathe properly, they can then stimulate their imaginations?
Allen: To be a good example of what they call ‘poetic inspiration’, is to be alive with this physiological (exhales breath) attitude. A sense of a proclamation echoing to the outside space with no difference between the outside space and the inside space. So you teach inspiration by teaching people both meditation and spontaneous improvisation, a sense of self-confidence, the notion of unobstructed breath and also how to allow their minds to speak out loud without thinking in advance. That’s the way poetry is taught at the Naropa Institute. You can also cultivate or point out the notion of the space in the room so that somebody can talk loud enough so that the furthest person in the room can hear. You need a panoramic awareness of the space around you, rather than looking inward and mumbling. So, it’s maybe hyperbole to say you could teach inspiration. You can teach the physiological posture of it, but that’s only half the battle. One of the teachings is about proclamation – to mouth the syllables in an interesting way. If you listen toDylan records or Kerouac’s recordings, you’ll hear an intelligence in the actual pronunciation which is the difference between a mumbling poet and a poet who actually enjoys the language in his own mouth. If you listen to the recordings of Ezra Pound you’ll hear that sense of elegant imperial mouth.
RMN: William Blake actually sang a lot of his poetry.
Allen: Yeah, he actually sang “Songs of Innocence.”
RMN: You put that to music didn’t you?
Allen: Yeah. There was a record in 1969 called, “Songs of Innocence and Of Experience.” It’s out of print now, but it’s going to be re-issued next year.
DJB: Cool. What else have you been doing?
Allen: Well I collaborated with Philip Glass on an opera, Hydrogen Jukebox, putting together poetry and music. I’m working on a record with Hal Wilner and with Fransesco Clemente on a series of books. I’m teaching at the Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado and at Brooklyn College, and I’m writing a lot of poems. I’ve just about got another book ready and am also coalescing my journals from the ‘50’s. Another project called History of the Beat Generation drawn from my lectures over the years. I’m also trying to raise money for the Naropa Institute, the Buddhist school formed by Chogyam Trungpa in 1974. Within it is the school of poetry. We asked Trungpa if we could call it the Jack Kerouac School of Poetry, but it sounded a little boring. So then June Waldman said, well, he’s dead, so he’s disembodied. So now it’s The Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics. And then will people misunderstand? Yes, well, that’s permissible. (laughter) They’ll just have to ask what it means.
DJB: Do you still feel guilty about not doing enough?
Allen: Always. It’s a workaholic problem. (laughter)