Saturday, February 21, 2015

Ginsberg on Auden: "he was uncomfortable, like pinned wriggling to the wall"

W.H. Auden was born on this day, 1907. The Allen Ginsberg Project previously posted Ginsberg's memories of W.H. Auden and reading them is a reminder, again, of how Ginsberg attempted to be friends with everyone -- even when the "funny but fussy" Auden told him Ginsberg would "embarrass me" by singing during his visit.

Ginsberg's observations (of which this is only an extract) show him always ready to show off something new he'd learned or written. The description of Auden appearing "pinned wiggling to the wall" while Ginsberg sang mantras in Auden's presence is a literary cameo of the generational shift that was accelerating in the 1960s. 

This essay appears in the Ginsberg collection Deliberate Prose: Selected Essays 1952-1995   and was originally published in The Drummer, 1974.
...Auden was very funny, sort of generous but fussy. In the 'sixties, I used to go visit him every year or two, have tea. Soon after I came back from India, I went to see him with a harmonium and started singing Hare Krishna and various mantras and he sat and listened, but he was uncomfortable, like pinned wriggling to the wall, and having to be polite and really mind-wandering and not really interested in my great display of knowledge, because I was laying this trip on him.
The next time I went to see him I brought my harmonium wanting to sing some Blake songs. He said "Oh no no no no, I just can't stand people singing to me like that, makes me terribly embarrassed. I can't sit here and have people singing. I'm quiet and prefer to listen to them in a concert hall, or on a record. Don't sing, have some tea, have some tea, please, you'll embarrass me".
I think he got a little bit silly. When he was last in New York he was doing some work with a cartoonist making some funny little poems. So instead of my singing to him, he wanted me to look at those. I was full of big serious mantras and Blake and spiritual trippiness and he wanted me to look at all those little household domestic verses about how silly and comfy the Victorians were. Summer 1973 in London, we all read together - Basil Bunting and Auden and myself and (Hugh) MacDiarmid at Queen Elizabeth Hall and he read some really great poems saying farewell to his body, farewell to his eyes, to his senses one by one, evaluating them and putting them in place, dissociating himself from permanent identification with his senses, and preparing his soul to meet his ultimate empty nature God. So there was an individualistic, solitary complete objectivity that he arrived at.
Apparently, he was very domestic but his apartment was a complete mess, there were papers all over, books piled up on end tables and shelves, just like a real artist's.
I had a couple of funny run-ins with him different times, and always had a very uneasy time with him. I always felt like a fool, trying to lay a trip on him culture-political or otherwise. Once we had a big happy agreement about marijuana should be legalized. He said, "Liquor is much worse, quite right, quite right. I do think...end all this fuss".
He must have been lonely because he said he was afraid he'd drop dead in his apartment and have a heart-attack and nobody would find him. Quite true because he did have a final heart attack a year later. I don't know if he encouraged local friendliness or not, but every time I called him up, he'd make a date for about a week later, and he'd be there and be expecting me and have tea ready."

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Lupercalia and Valentine's Day: Wolves, vestal virgins, and the Pipes of Pan

While most of us consider February 14th a date to celebrate or avoid all together, February 15th became an important date in ancient Rome as a time of rebirth and renewal -- and to its human cousin, fertility. 

As springtime festivals go Lupercalia was a wild affair of debauch and drunkenness, not a bad way to chase off the dread spirits of winter or the very real threat of the wolves outside your the. Appropriately so: the Latin holiday takes its name from the Lupercal, oldest Roman settlement -- on the Palantine Hill -- in which the wolf was supposed to have suckled Romulus and Remus. 

Hallmark won't mention it, but the flayed skin of a sacrificed goat was used by loincloth-clad men for lashing women in order to promote fertility and ease of childbirth. It seems clear that by classic times some ancient ritual had degenerated and its original significance had been lost, but because it involved a lot of nakedness and riotous running around and tomfoolery, the ancient Romans were loathe to abandon it.

But why February? February occurred later on the ancient Roman calendar than it does today, so Lupercalia was held in the spring and regarded as a festival of purification and fertility. Each year on February 15, the Luperci priests gathered on Palantine Hill at the cave of Lupercal. Vestal virgins brought sacred cakes made from the first ears of last year's grain harvest to the fig tree. Two naked young men, assisted by the Vestals, sacrificed a dog and a goat at the site. The blood was smeared on the foreheads of the young men and then wiped away with wool dipped in milk.

The youths then donned loincloths made from the skin of the goat and led groups of priests around the pomarium, the sacred boundary of the ancient city, and around the base of the hills of Rome. The occasion was happy and festive. As they ran about the city, the young men lightly struck women along the way with strips of the goat hide. It is from these implements of purification, or februa, that the month of February gets its name. This act supposedly provided purification from curses, bad luck, and infertility and also imparted a wish that the maidens would marry soon. Of course, with any Roman or pagan fertility festival, a 3-day orgy followed the initial festivities.  

By the time of Imperial Rome the celebration was in full flower: Mark Antony was master of the Luperci College of Priests. He chose the Lupercalia festival of the year 44 B.C. as the proper time to offer the crown to Julius Caesar.

As many a pagan custom in the Roman world, the conversion of Emperor Constantine to Christianity altered the nature of such a free-spirited debauch. Lupercalia, with its lover lottery and more precisely lengthy orgy, had no place in the new Christian order.  Finally, in the year 496 AD, Pope Gelasius did away with the festival of Lupercalia, citing that it was pagan and immoral. 

He chose Valentine as the patron saint of lovers, who would be honored at the new festival on the fourteenth of every February. St. Valentine's feast day became associated with the more genteel and social aspects of courtship. The flailing of one's beloved and the wearing of goat-skins disappeared, and the forms of romantic love took shape that led Hallmark to its hearts-and-flowers domination of the once raucous holiday..

The rites and rituals of Lupercalia were not abandoned completely. In Morocco the springtime celebration is still an intense event of magic and fertility, wildness in honor of the god Pan -- with his goat-skin and dancing, shrill piping and midnight debauchery, he is the god of Panic in the tribes of the desert.

The Pipes of Pan at Jajouka is a field recording made in Morocco by Brian Jones and Brion Gysin in 1968, an edited document of ancient Lupercalia rituals dedicated to the god Pan that are hours, and sometimes days, long. These rituals echo through every springtime rite from the pre-Lenten celebrations of Mardi Gras and Carnival to Easter. Although the recording has been given a psychedelic gloss it doesn't really need, the result is powerful music, if the listener is open to it. 

This is an old, old trip -- and the album, recorded during a visit in 1968 and originally released in 1971 on the Rolling Stones' label, is considered the first of its kind. Since then the Master Musicians of Jajouka have recorded a wildly unique series of albums, produced variously by Bill Laswell and Talvin Singh, that are worth the shoe leather to track down -- short of a journey to Jajouka itself, of course.

Monday, January 19, 2015

"Burial For A King," Rebecca Burns: Atlanta, April 1968

January 15 is the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968).

A recent book by Rebecca Burns, Burial For A King, recalls the events in Atlanta surrounding the weekend of Reverend King's assassination in Memphis. Disturbances occurred in many cities, and in Atlanta there were concerns there might be rioting during the funeral itself. Here is an early excerpt about a lunch that Thursday, April 4, after King's departure to Tennessee, in which a friend arranges an unusual meeting for King after his scheduled return.

"Of all the weird ideas you've had for me, this is one of the weirdest," Martin Luther King Jr. told Xernona Clayton when she approached him with a request: Calvin Craig, Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan, wanted to meet him. Would he consider? King eventually agreed, and so on this Thursday, the day after she took King to the airport to catch a flight to Memphis, Clayton had lunch with Craig to finalize the details.

While they ate in the Marriott's tropical-themed dining room, Clayton realized the attention they were drawing. It was still odd in 1960s Atlanta to see a black woman and a white man sharing a meal -- especially in a hotel restaurant. On top of that, she and Craig were minor local celebrities, which contributed to the raised eyebrows, sideways glances, and outright stares.

She was the star of The Xernona Clayton Show on the local CBS affiliate -- the first television show in the South to be hosted by a black woman. Her husband, Ed Clayton, had directed public relations for Martin Luther King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and after Ed died she had filled in when needed. She frequently traveled with King's wife Coretta Scott King. Diminutive and feisty Clayton was recognized by her trademark hairstyle -- a tall, tightly pinned topknot anchored by a shiny headband. She had a flair for fashion and an enviably taut figure; she had met Ed when he begged her and her identical twin, Xenobia, to model bikinis for the centerfold of Jet magazine.

In contrast to the chic Clayton, Calvin Craig was a burly construction worker, mustached and with arms and a neck reddened from a lifetime of outdoor labor. Like Clayton, Calvin Craig was familiar to television viewers -- but as the subject of news stories, not a polished anchor. He notoriously appeared in full Klan regalia to lead anti-integration protests through the streets of Atlanta or on the steps of the Georgia capitol. He traveled throughout the South to attend cross burnings.

Craig and Clayton met through Model Cities, the urban component of President Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty. Craig was named to the program as the representative from Adair Park, a neighborhood of mostly working-class whites not far from its predominantly black counterpart, Pittsburgh. Their first encounter was prickly; Clayton watched as Craig scooted from chair to chair to avoid sitting next to any black participant in the meeting. Not long after, Craig visited Clayton's office and rattled her as he revealed he had compiled a dossier on her. ...