“Jubilate” by Galway Kinnell

Smart2

Christopher Smart

1

So from poet to poet we proceeded
in our celebration of Christopher Smart’s
long-undiscovered poem Jubilate Agno, composed
by this profligate, drunken, devout, mad polymath
between 1757 and 1763 while incarcerated
for a year in St. Luke’s Hospital for the Insane
and then for four or five years more in the less
bedlamic asylum at Bethnal Green.
Drawing on books he had brought or
borrowed from other madhouse libraries—
to wit: an Authorized Bible, a Polyglot Bible,
Albin’s Natural History of Birds, Walton’s
Compleat Angler, Coxe’s Descriptions of Carolana,
Pliny’s Natural History, Anson’s Voyage Around
the World, Ainsworth’s Thesaurus, plus various popular
journals and occult writings — and availing himself
of his own waggery, his own observations and wide
learning,  his prodigious memory and excited imaginings,
“For I am not without authority in my jeopardy” 
Smart extracted from his whirling brain one, two,
or three, lines a day, to keep himself sane—
for a profound sanity underlies this project:
to repair our connection to the natural world
by joining person after person – a Joram or Caleb or Ehud
or Haggith, or Bernice or Shobab or Joab — with an animal,
or insect, tree, plant, flower, or precious stone — almost any
living, or almost living, entity would do, from the Zoony
to the Great Flabber Dabber Flat Clapping Fish.
This grand but unfinished work, which Smart saw as
his “Magnificat,”  is witty and wild in its calls-and-responses,
in effect a long, healing roll-call of the earth.

2

And so, two hundred and fifteen years later,
twenty-one poets gathered on a February night
in a little church on Lower Fifth Avenue
and one by one stood up and read or recited
to a large and ardent audience thirty
lines or so per poet from Jubilate Agno —
mere floccinaucinihilipilification
to the world outside, but to us a source of joy and truth —
the lung-ether of the living loving the long dead.
Some poets were attracted to passages they knew,
for their own reasons, such as Etheridge Knight,
who, like Kit Smart, had done time:
“Let Andrew rejoice with the whale,
who is array’d in beauteous blue
and is a combination of bulk and activity,
for they work me with their harping-irons,
which is a barbarous instrument,
because I am more unguarded than the rest.”
Or like Allen Ginsberg, who, moved perhaps
by Kit’s madness, in his gentlest voice allowed
that in writing “Howl” he had communed
with the genius of Smart’s prosody. Then he chanted:
“Rejoice with Buteo who hath three testicles,
for I bless God in the strength of my loins and
for the voice which he hath made sonorous.”
Whereupon Grace Paley born Grace Goodside
to immigrant Ukrainian socialists — here now
in her earthly glory — took herself to the podium
and lovingly bronxed: “Let Milcah rejoice
with the Horned Beetle who will strike a man
in the face …for I am the Lord’s News-Writer
—the Scribe-Evangelist.” Then Philip Levine,
who also had drawn singing breaths
into himself from Smart’s incantations
in his own great poem “They Feed They Lion,”
spoke: “Let Huldah bless with the Silkworm
—the ornaments of the Proud are from the bowels
of their Betters.” After him, came elegant
David Ignatow, followed by Allen Grossman,
our philosopher, and Nancy Willard,
our magician.  Jane Cooper’s tremulous piping
floated down from the vaulted ceiling
and reminded us:  “Earth which is an intelligence
hath a voice and a propensity to speak in all her parts,”
and Gerald Stern, with his own joyful
Smartian super-exuberance asserted — as if, Eureka!
he had learned how to do it just yesterday:“The Circle
may be SQUARED by swelling and flattening!” Joel
Oppenheimer came after him, followed
by Harvey Shapiro and Gregory Orr
and a lion-tongued Thomas Lux who roared:
“For the coffin and the cradle and the purse
are all against a man…”  But Vertemae Grosvenor
— O Smartian name!— whose first language,
Gullah, came to her on the tongues of Sea Islanders,
called us back into happiness:  “Rejoice
with the Pigeon, who is an antidote
to malignity and will carry a letter.” Next
Paul Zweig, beautiful doomed spirit, told us,
“For Harpsichords are best strung with gold wire,”
and from Allen Planz, fisherman by trade:
“Let Jude bless with the bream, who is melancholy
for his depth and serenity, for I have a greater
compass of mirth and melancholy than another.”
Then Stanley Plumly recited, then David
Cumberland, then me, and next
James Wright, who took the passage that Gerry
Stern might have been hoping for:  Kit’s éloge to his
Cat Jeoffrey,  his only faithful companion:
“For there is nothing sweeter than his peace
when at rest, there is nothing
brisker than his life when in motion.”

3

Last to the podium was Muriel Rukeyser,
who once wrote her own Smartian vow: “Never
to despise in myself what I have been
taught to despise, and never to despise the other,”
and who concludes her tender ode to the cockroach so:
“I reach, I touch, I begin to know you.”
Now Muriel was soaring with Kit Smart’s words,
and the faces in the nave all lifted
as one, amazed, all of them, by her huge head,
her heart-shaped face, her ferocious beauty,
and her voice a little growly at its edges:
“For I have a providential acquaintance
with men who bear the names of animals…”
And everyone there was with her,
the little church swelled with light,
the podium itself seemed to be attempting
to raise itself up – “ for I bless God
for Mr Lion Mr Cock Mr Cat Mr Talbot

Mr Hart Mrs Fysh Mr Grub and Miss Lamb.”
And now it was evident that the podium
was not rising but that Muriel was sinking,
toppling in fact, hauling down on herself
the microphone and the amplifier and their wires,
in a heap on the floor.  Then from this wreckage
her suddenly re-clarioned voice was heard: “Let Zadok
worship with the Mole—before honour is humility!”
As we disentangled her, she sat up
and said:“She that looketh low shall learn!”
A woman rushed out the door, crying,
“I’m calling an ambulance!” Muriel shouted
after her: “No ambulances!  I need a chair!”
A plump man came swiftly wriggling
through the audience, “I’m a doctor! A doctor!”
“No doctors!” Muriel shouted even louder,
“A chair! A chair!”  Eased into a chair at last,
she smiled at us: “Let Carpus rejoice with the Frog-Fish—
a woman cannot die on her knees!”

4

For all those who were at the Church
of the Transfiguration that evening in l978,
and those who may have heard about it later
and those of you hearing of it now
for the first time, and for Kit Smart who died
in debtor’s prison in 1771 at forty-nine,
and for Muriel, who would die two years after that night,
and for these witnesses who are also gone:
Paul and Etheridge and Jane and Allen and Allen
and Grace and David and James and Joel —
and the carrier pigeon, too — and for the rest of us
still standing — or sitting – or soon to topple —
let all of us rejoice and be made glad.

(published in The American Poetry Review Volume 40, No. 1)

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Galway Kinnell (Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)

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One Response to “Jubilate” by Galway Kinnell

  1. Jerome Bloom says:

    What can
    I say
    About
    This
    Poet
    But

    Loving Respect
    For how
    He uses
    His
    Gift

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