It’s just occurred to me that something’s happened to me like what happened with Coleridge (aka STC: Samuel Taylor Coleridge) and “Kubla Khan.” As you’ll recall, he was in an opium revere and this poem came to him, “in which all the images rose up before him as things, with a parallel production of the correspondent expressions.” But that’s not quite what I’m talking about, not that exact same thing.
But there’s something else as well. It’s not simply that Coleridge couldn’t get the whole vision down on paper, but that he never again wrote a poem like “Kubla Khan”. He couldn’t get into that (kind of) mental space – or perhaps didn’t want to. Perhaps he feared it.
Back in the summer of 1995 I was working with Cuda Brown (a pseudonym) on a webzine he called Meanderings. We leaned toward the sepia side of life, if you catch my drift, and the back-and-forth on Afrocentrism and black cultural nationalism would sometimes get hot and heavy in the discussion forum (alas, no longer visible on the site, which has been dormant for years). One day I sent Cuda an email where I made some satirical remarks about golf being created in ancient Egypt by black folks.
Back then the controversy over Black Athena was still in the air. As you recall, Bernal had argued that Greek culture, art in particular, had significant roots in Egypt. That’s not at all controversial; it’s History of Western Art 101. He also argued that some of those ancient Egyptians were black. More controversial. Had lots of folks in a tizzy.
Anyhow, that’s the background of my remarks to Cuda, who loved playing golf. Knowing Cuda, he probably chuckled and replied in kind (I know longer have those old emails on my hard drive). Fact is, I couldn’t get that idea out of my mind: golf created in ancient Egypt by black folks.
So, over the next two weeks that idea just grew and grew until it became a full-fledged multicultural fantasy in which I spun a tale, Fore Play: A Lesson in Jivometric Drummology, about how gold was indeed created by a black pharaoh, Pharaoh Ramses Golfotep MCXLVII of the `N Baa Dynasty. He had a wife, Cleopatra, and a best buddy and helper, Daniel Louis Satchotep II, also known as King Toot.
Actually, it was a tale within a tale. The outer tale was told by Jefferson Ribonucleic Parker IV (notice, by the way, how the name is formed: 1) US President, 2) scientific term, 3) jazz musician). He began thus:
Tiger Woods is only the most recent in a long line of fine black golfers. In saying that I refer to players other than the moderns such as Charles Sifford, Jim Thorpe, Jim Dent, Lee Elder, Calvin Peete, and Renee Powell. Truth be told, the tradition of sepia swing masters started in ancient Egypt, where the game was invented. In that company Woods would be no more than a middling player.
Mr. Ribs – that’s what his friends called him – was an independent (was he EVER) scholar and the director of the Abyssinian Memorial Parlor, Inc., a funeral home in Baltimore. Ribs was an exponent of a philosophical system he called jivometric drummology (hence the subtitle of my piece) which is based on stories preserved through the ages by The Order of Mystic Jewels for the Propagation of Grace, Right Living, and Saturday Night through Historic Intervention by Any Means Necessary.
I created a whole world in this one little essay. A representative paragraph:
On the next day Golfotep achieved orbit for the first time. Toot rounded 3rd base heading into the final chorus of Cornet Chop Suey and Whrzhaap! “To the moon Alice! To the moon!” There it was, for the first time, the moon. One groovin' swing by a man, one giant step for mankind. “Yo! Toot my man, how's 'bout a few hits of Muggles?” “You got it Rams.” Thuuunnk! with the No. 3 Slammer and Mars bestrode the heavens. A couple of choruses into Hotter Than That and Wuzzschkk! Venus was up there making bed-time eyes to the world. Then Mercury, Saturn, & its moons, Jupiter, & its moons, Neptune, Uranus, Pluto, & another handful of moons scattered here and about. Of course, those aren't the real names. The real names have been lost, erased from history by Nineteenth Century European Running Dog Jackal Pig Facist Racially-Deluded Honkey Imperialist White-Face Round-Eyed Devils.
Now, and here’s the point of all this, various times since then I’ve tried to get back into that mental space and write some pieces like that original. After all, those Mystic Jewels must have collected hundreds of tales. So, why can’t I write more of them?
If it were a simple matter of word craft I could do it. I’ve got the craft. It’s not going anywhere.
But something else was involved. Call it inspiration. This wasn’t a bolt-out-of-the-blue inspiration, nor was it drug induced. It started as a whim and just bubbled through my mind. Two weeks later Jefferson Ribonucleic Parker IV and Pharaoh Ramses Golfotep MCXLVII were strutting their stuff on the internet.
There is, as you might suspect, an autobiographical aspect to this. Though I never played golf, my father was an avid golfer, like that ancient pharaoh I invented. But I played trumpet, as avidly as my father golfed. And that was the instrument I gave to King Toot in that story. And those tunes Toot was playing, all by Louis Armstrong, all taken from a book of Armstrong transcriptions I’ve had and practiced from for years.
A Mind Grows
I’ve told how I fell in love with a woman – Chesley was her name – in my freshman year in college, but didn’t dare approach her for whatever reason. The summer after that first year I wrote her letter after letter after letter, several times a week, long letters. I’d write them on tissue paper so I stuff more pages into an envelope. And I kept carbon copies.
I suppose I wrote about everything. Just what doesn’t matter. What’s important now is that it was so very easy, effortless. Yes, I had to hit the keys on the typewriter, but I didn’t have to work hard to come up with ideas. They just flowed onto the paper.
They were also, I’m sure, crap. Perhaps interesting for a college sophomore-to-be, but that’s it. They weren’t the sort of thing I could put in a term paper and expect a decent grade. Not at Johns Hopkins.
Now, my senior year, that’s something else. I had enrolled in a course on Romantic literature taught by Earl Wasserman, a renowned if not legendary Romanticist. We read two poets the first semester, Keats and Shelley, and one novelist, Walter Scott or Jane Austen, and two poets (Wordsworth and Coleridge) and one novelist (Jane Austen or Walter Scott) the second.
First up, John Keats. While writing my Keats paper something a bit strange happened. It was late at night, I was tired, but still had to write the paper. There was a moment where I found myself reading the second stanza of “Ode on a Grecian Urn”, but it felt to me as though those words were coming from me and flowing onto the page. It didn’t feel like reading someone else’s words. Those words were mine.
I’ve described that experience in some detail in another post, Touchstones (Unity of Being), so I won’t bother to say more about it. I’m more interested in what happened when I wrote my second paper in the course. It was on Shelley, though I forget which poem. It doesn’t matter.
The paper all but wrote itself. It was late the night before the paper was due. I was tired. But I started writing – I had to, the paper was due in the morning – and things just clicked. It was as though things were all lined up in my mind and the words came out in order. I seem to recall that every once in awhile I’d get up and pace around the room, but there was no anxiety in that pacing, no searching for ideas or words. More like I was stretching my legs and giving the ideas a little time to get their things together, say good-bye to their friends, and then line up for their trip into my term paper.
I assume it was a good paper, and I assume I got a good grade for the first semester. But I don’t remember any of that and I certainly don’t want to go digging trough my old files to see if that paper’s still around somewhere.
But I’m sure it was a good paper. That is, unlike all those letters I wrote to Chesley, these words weren’t written out of narcissistic self-indulgence. These words were fully socialized and ready for others to read.
We began the next semester with Wordsworth. Another paper. I only remember two things about it. First, whatever poem I wrote about, what I said was philosophical in nature; I probably called on Merleau-Ponty, one of my favorite philosophers at the time. Second, Wasserman loved the paper, calling it “a mature contemplation of the poem.” The great Wasserman liked my work!
I assume, by default, that the writing mode was my ordinary one of the time. Start with some notes, maybe even a topic outline, and then start typing. Some things come easy, some come hard. Lots of pacing, maybe consulting a text or two, more writing, more pacing. And so forth until the paper’s done. That’s how most of my writing’s gone ever since.
The last paper I wrote in that course was about “Kubla Khan.” I argued that the poem is complete by virtue of the fact that it asserts its own incompleteness. Wasserman paid me the compliment of putting that idea to a visiting scholar in a question, but he did so in my name.
I wrote that paper in ordinary mode as well. But that paper gave me “Kubla Khan”, and “Kubla Khan has framed my intellectual life.
How Do Minds Grow?
The incidents from my own life span three and a half years, from the second half of my 18th year (I turned 19 in December of 1966) through the first half of my 21st year. The first – my summer of love letters – was from the beginning of that period while the other four – papers on Keats, Shelley, Wordsworth, and Coleridge in that order – were from the last year. I’d guess that there is some kind of developmental sequence involved. My mind was still maturing and, for that matter, my brain as well. The sutures of the human skull don’t finally set until the early twenties, indicating that the brain is still adding tissue at a sufficient rate to require expansion of the cranial cavity.
And I think something like that may have been happening with Coleridge as well. He was born in 1722, making him 27 at the earliest feasible date for “Kubla Khan”. His brain would have stopped growing by then. But, though the mind is what the brain does, it’s not quite the same thing as the mind. Minds change and grow even when brains are no longer increasing in size. While he continued to write poetry through out his life – he died in 1834 – his last great poem is “Dejection: an Ode”, from 1802. After that it’s his prose that’s important to us, chiefly but by no means only his Biographia Literaria, a major work in the history of literary criticism (1817).
And then there is “Kubla Khan.” That’s something else, something outside the ordinary maturation of his mind. Assuming that the poem came to him late in his youth, say 1799, how did that experience play in his mind? What did it signify that, unlike every other word that came from his pen, those words did not come from him? Their origins are elsewhere. Where?
Addendum: A Note on Mental Fluidity
I’m still trying to figure out what I mean by mental fluidity. One way of doing that is to look at examples. Here I’m interested in time-scales.
What happened to Coleridge vis-à-vis “Kubla Khan” seems to have taken place on a scale of minutes to hours. His mind flipped into a certain state, the vision came, and then he formed what he could into a poem. But his mind never again went into that state, or those states – at least not that he told us about.
What I did when I wrote to Chesley was something I could turn on simply by deciding to write – though I had little choice but to so decide on a regular basis. When the letter was done, it was done. But I never again wrote quite so much so fluidly. The letter writing happened on a scale of hours and minutes but that whole period was a matter of months. That’s two different time scales.
And then we have those papers I wrote in my senior year at Hopkins. The writing of those first two papers, on Keats and Shelley, took place on a time scale of hours and minutes. But the moments when I felt as though I were writing the second stanza of Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn” happened on a scale of seconds. The whole school year, during which I seemed to be arriving at a new level of intellectual functioning, was on a scale of months to a year.
So, we’ve got these time scales: seconds, minutes to hours, months to a year, and, of course, a life time.