Showing posts with label voice. Show all posts
Showing posts with label voice. Show all posts

Friday, December 13, 2002

Jonathon Wilcke, a Canadian poet now living in Japan, noticed my complaint that I’m almost invariably unable to “hear” the poetry of so many poets of the British Commonwealth unless they are part of that particular subset who took particular interest in post-avant writing in the United States. He, however, had a different take.

I also have a comment/question about your notion of "writing for the ear" and "music" that you used in your blog from Wednesday, November 06, 2002. You say that there aren't many poets from English-speaking countries (with exceptions like Fred Wah, Tom Raworth, etc.) that write in such a way that the music in their writing reaches your ear. But thinking back to Bob Perelman in his portion of the Writing Talks book, wherein he states (roughly – I don't have a copy of the book here in Japan) that "hearing is not a matter of sounds passively entering the ear but rather the brain being able to grasp and interpret sounds that it has already been trained to grasp," I wonder if being able to "hear" certain poetry depends more on what the "ear" is ready to grasp rather than the "music" contained within the poetry. So, with Fred Wah, for example, who was a jazz musician and tends to write out of jazz, especially in his prose work, like Music at the Heart of Thinking, is a very audible text for me because I also was a jazz musician, and I am attuned to the American tradition of poetry. I've noticed that among musician friends of mine who try to listen to jazz (especially Ornette Coleman or Anthony Braxton) or 20th Century "Classical Music" (like John Cage, Steve Reich) for the first time claim that they can't "hear" the music or understand what's going on until they've listened to the music several times and given their ears time to create a cognitive structure for interpreting the sounds. So I wonder how you would respond to my saying that your not having an ear for certain poetry is conditioned upon not having yet generated a cognitive structure that grasps the music within?


Jonathon Wilcke

This analogy with music both rings a bell & puzzles me. Rings a bell in that it cognitively makes sense as a plausible explanation. I can think of examples.* Puzzles me in that it gives me no particular handle to account for my own interests, either in poetry or in music. I was raised in a home with so few records that I can, nearly 40 years later, virtually name them all.** I never had a music class even in grammar school. But for my 21st birthday, I went to hear the west coast premier of Steve Reich’s Violin Phase, Paul Zukofsky on the violin. When I began working on my first booklength poem, I chose both a title & a structure borrowed from musical models: Ketjak.

How does one “get ready to listen”? Why do some people seem to be more receptive to certain modes or tendencies within art than others? Some of this I suspect is as simple as the sort of schoolyard personality traits that will drive one child at recess to stand atop the most rickety jungle gym, another to become the center of a crowd of children in some organized activity, still a third to sit off in a corner, nose in a book. All three types (& a gazillion more) can end up as writers & if it should turn out to be the quiet kid in the corner who evolves into the risk taker as a poet, she or he can probably explain to you what the specific reasons might have been. Certainly in my own life I must have decided very young that I would be different from the unhappy adults I saw around me – what different meant really didn’t matter for quite a few years. By the time that it did, so many other decisions had fallen into place that it was “obvious” that I would pay more attention to the music of Tuva than to that of Gilbert & Sullivan.

What is more problematic, I think, is deciding where in the process the question of regional dialect comes into play. It is one thing for me to say that I can “hear” a British poet such as Lee Harwood or Thomas A. Clark, but not a Glynn Maxwell. That at some level is very close to the discrimination that draws me to the work of a Barrett Watten, but away from the work of a Timothy Steele or an Alan Shapiro. I have, it’s worth noting, no particular trouble with the rhyming poets of the former Soviet Union, such as Ilya Kutik or Ivan Zhdanov – though frankly I prefer both in their original language, even if I can only make out snatches of what is being said. Rhyme in a language with such modular suffixes & flexible syntax as Russian has a different function, both formally & socially. Rhyming nouns in Russian is not unlike walking around with your fly open. As, frankly, it is in English also.

But what about the distinction between a Tom Raworth – clear as a bell to my ear – & J.H. Prynne, Mr. Opacity? How, for example, am I to hear this first stanza of “On the Matter of Thermal Packing,” one of Prynne’s best known poems?

In the days of time now what I have
is the meltwater constantly round my feet
and ankles. There the ice is glory to the
past and the eloquence, the gentility of
the world’s being; I have known this
as a competence for so long that the
start is buried in light

This many enjambed lines over such a short terrain cannot be accidental. Indeed, that hard ending at the end of the second line itself conceals what we discover immediately upon starting the third – that it too is enjambed (a tiny formal joke that is paired with its opposite when “this” at the end of the fifth line turns out not to lead to a noun at the head of the sixth). I hear all the caesurae alright – the stanza appears to be built around them, starting with that careful cleaving of the “m” in ”time” in the first line from its nearest cousin “n” in “now,” the stanza ending in the seventh line right where the caesura should fall. But unless I want to draw a clunky analogy between the this chronicle of minor effects & the weightiness of Prynne’s subject, the rationale for a stanza that, read aloud, sounds this awkward just is lost on me. Is he doing something I don’t see or hear, or is there a way to read that third line so that the period after “ankles” doesn’t completely stop all flow?

Yet it is apparent, here & elsewhere, that Prynne’s sympathies are not that far from my own & that he is decidedly a poet of the ear, related in this aspect to such writers as Duncan, Creeley, Olson or Dorn. Reading him, you cannot doubt that you are in the presence of man who knows exactly what he is about & is after in his poetry. The intelligence is palpable. This is why Prynne, for me, is such a good example. Everything about his work tells me that I should love it unreservedly, but I spend so much time scrunching my nose & furrowing my brow as I read it that I wonder sometimes at what level he & I are practicing the same language. & that seems very different than the question of preferring Anthony Braxton to John Tesh or Yanni.

* When I taught a graduate seminar in 1981 at San Francisco State, using what would become the core of In the American Tree as my reading list, one student swore in her journal that the first several poets we read – Bob Grenier, Bruce Andrews, Rae Armantrout, Clark Coolidge – were complete gibberish. But with Steve Benson’s work, something clicked. She later went back to the books we’d used by the first four poets & suddenly discovered that they were completely lucid, even brilliant. In her journal, she openly worried about somehow having been brainwashed.

**A set of King Cole Trio 78s, the equivalent of a modern album; a couple of Johnny Ray singles, also 78s & Volare by Dominico Modugno, a 45.

Saturday, September 07, 2002

Dear Ron Silliman,

I noticed your Blog entries this evening & wonder if you take  requests. Roger Farr & I are in the middle of a long interview with Peter Inman  about poetry& politics & we're about to ask about the exchange you had with  him at his Philly Talks discussion a couple of years ago:

Silliman: The side of it that sometimes comes back to haunt me when I  think of it in those terms is opening up a text of yours and thinking "oh,  here's another work by P. Inman who I've been reading for over a quarter of  a century." And it feels as totally natural as that waterfall because  I'm so habituated to recognizing the codes and systems and problems and  responses in it. So it's instantly pleasurable.

Inman: So, are you saying that I haven't escaped that danger of  basically doing my own signature work?

Silliman: You're a lot of fun.

Inman: Well I don't want to be fun! Is style hovering in the  background?

Silliman: I hesitate to use the word "voice".

We've been discussing problems around interpellation, collective  agency, punctuation, neologisms. I don't think you have written on Inman  (have you?) anywhere, and I'd be very pleased to hear an elaboration on this  account of Inman's poetry in terms of voice, naturalized beauty, habituation.  Please let me know.

Aaron Vidaver

Buffalo music theorist Peter Yates first coined the idea that “aesthetic consistency = voice,” which has always seemed to me exactly right. Take an extremely early Clark Coolidge poem, such as “Meditation in the White Mountains,” written in 1962, the oldest of the “uncollected” pieces available in both HTML and PDF format on the Electronic Poetry Center website (

Blue sky
few crags, the slopes
are green

whistling by
the granite stopwatch

The utterly straight-forward pastoral lyric sets up the radical disjunct created by the out-of-context term stopwatch. Further, there is an instance of identifiably Coolidgean humor in having not either line or poem end at stop but continue through watch. In a simple single word juxtaposition, one can see the germ of an oeuvre that will evolve over the next forty years.

Coolidge, Inman, Melnick, Mac Low – all of the most rigorous “anti-voice” poets in fact have totally identifiable voices in Yates’ sense of a recognizable aesthetic consistency. Perhaps tone might be a more accurate term than voice, but the differences between these terms are negligible. Just as each bell has its own characteristic resonance (as has the human vocal apparatus, that conjunction of skull, larynx, lungs, sinus cavity, etc. – I can always tell which of my sons has laughed, even when they are in distant parts of the house), each poet in his or her practice has characteristic moves as inescapable as the moon’s gravity on the tides. 

In Peter’s case, the look of language is intimately tied into sound & meaning:

Asian words calved period on
carlights in a book on some hide
the cherokee a banker’s grist
schedule texture on a waist
hours within trees of literature
the peer in my neck to a point
cow glance maned into birthr.
hutterite in some grape dust
seeing cut off from some jots

This stanza, taken from “smaller,” a poem in criss cross (Roof, 1994), demonstrates Inman’s strobe effect shifts between words and phrases well enough. At one level, all is disjunctive, but at several others connections are pulling the text tightly into a center that cannot be paraphrased.

At the level of sound, we find the “i” from “hide” setting up its appearance in the last word of each of the next two lines, only to have the “st” from “grist” lead even more strongly into “waist,” an off-rhyme that is strengthened even further by the shift from the sound of a short “I” to that of a long “a” in “waist.” These terms foreshadow “dust” in the same position of the line five lines later, which then inverts the “t” and “s” in the last word “jots.” In a similar fashion, that curious “r” at the end of “birthr” (which the mind can only hear as a truncated birthright) leads directly to the “ri” in “hutterite” at the start of the very next line. One can follow the hard “k” sound through its five occurrences in the first four lines of the stanza, see the humor of “ch” in “cherokee” as it slips back into a “k” sound in “schedule” only to hear (subliminally?) its echo hidden in the “x” of “texture.”

But just as “texture” contains “text,” meaning here is organized through iterations of nuance. The stanza carries us from “words” to “jots,” the latter figured as a noun, through “book,” “literature,” and even perhaps “hutterite.” Similarly, “calved” prefigures “cow” and “maned” and “period” projects what will be the only instance of punctuation in this text. It is only when one recognizes how much time is being referenced in this stanza – for me it was the line “hours within trees of literature” – that it becomes apparent how concise a history of writing we are being given. Or that it is being contrasted with the writer’s almost alchemical processing of phenomenological perception.

I’m not suggesting that one need do a close reading of every Inman stanza or poem, but rather that such elements are to be found throughout his poetry and trigger associations within a reader that are far from random. Inman’s voice is as clear as a bell.