“Now the base of old hills”

Sorry so long away folks — having fun at writing camp. Here’s another I wrote on Pound for Don Revell back in the day.

Dear Don,

You suggested I look in Cathay for traces of ethics. So reading these poems once more I found myself listening for hints of Confucius, filial duty, harmonious social relations, ranks and hierarchies, each thing in its right place. But Li Po is Confucian in about the way I’m Christian, that’s the soil he took root in, not the light or air that nourish him nor the way his spirit leans.

There is a sense of each thing in its right place, but it has more the flavour of Chuang-tse, heaven and earth and the myriad things whirl about (willow leaves, girls dancing) or stand in place (terraces, hilltops) exactly according to their natures, and if the heart is out of joint, it’s so because it holds too hard, as those of generals do, to what it loves. And the play of the mind through the poems is light and quick in the way of Chuang-tse’s prose despite their ground note of sorrow.

It’s that ground note that most draws me though. The Buddhist Li Po — Ezra Pound proclaiming the dharma — unheard from the beginning of time until now! Well, unheard by scholars, but Snyder heard it, or at least to my ear his

the train down in the city
was once a snowy hill

rhymes sweetly & sadly with Pound’s

The bright cloths and bright caps of Shin
Are now the base of old hills.

I suppose every reader of Pound finds the Pound he needs. I find in these poems, as nowhere else in his work, that the place each thing is in is its right place.

Gotta break in here. I wasn’t dim to the protest Cathay also is obliquely to the senseless shed blood of WWI. But for whatever reason the day I wrote this I didn’t go there.

As some Ch’an teacher said, maybe during Li Po’s lifetime, this was the golden age of Chinese Zen, nothing ever fails to cover the ground on which it sits. But the heart holds on to what it feels has made it whole, and when that goes, cuz go it all does, the heart’s hollowed out by a sorrow it’s too clear-eyed to turn away from.

And out of sympathy the poems open hollows in themselves into and through which time rushes:

By the North Gate, the wind blows full of sand,
Lonely from the beginning of time until now!

Time circles and then without warning leaps across a year or an aeon. Sometimes narrative time —

The phoenix are at play on their terrace.
The phoenix are gone, the river flows on alone.

— sometimes time as it feels its way through mind and memory:

What is the use of talking, and there is no end of talking,
There is no end of things in the heart.

Now and then time reverses direction as it coils to leap to the centre of things:

The leaves fall early this autumn, in wind
The paired butterflies are already yellow with August
Over the grass in the West garden;
They hurt me. I grow older.

In Pound’s Imagist work there is a vast space around the poem in which it may resonate. Often too a space within the poem across which the mind leaps; the semicolon in the Metro station By allowing time a deeper admission to those spaces in Cathay, Pound has avoided the Imagist hell, to be forever an aesthete of plucked moments.

Subtle musical structures are at work holding those spaces open. “Song of the Bowmen of Shu” is almost fugal in its repetitions of “fern-shoots,” “sorrow,” “return,” “horses,” “tired.” “The River-Merchant’s Wife,” as it begins, stands in place through the repetition of its first verb

I played about the front gate, pulling flowers.
You came by on bamboo stilts, playing horse,
You walked about my seat, playing with blue plums.

so that childhood feels like an eternity, one whose end begins a whole record of endings, endings in the face of which only two responses are possible, despair and ordinary affection. Such affection bars such despair as hangs round the margins from entering.

Exercise: Eavesdropping

Last writing exercise of the quarter. In earlier carnations of this course I’ve given it early on and it’s never gone as well as I thought it maybe should. Was ready to give up on it as a pedagogical near miss.

This time though, with some tweaking, a different timing, and some reminders of what else we’ve talked about, something new has kept happening. I get to get glad all over again seeing what they’ve done. I’ll ask one last time for their okays to post some.

Go somewhere people talk. Listen in on their conversations. Try to spend at least an hour there, scavenging for interesting bits of speech or interaction. Do your best to write them down just as you hear them. Don’t use a tape recorder — mis-hearings are as interesting as hearings.

At home, look through the material you’ve gathered. Underline the bits that excite your interest or curiosity (listen to those antennae). Write them out on a new page. You might choose only a single phrase, or a single exchange, or bits and pieces from all through your notes, depending on the material, and what in it moves you.

Working with those seed materials, and making up as little or as much as you want, create a scene half a page long. It should have a beginning, middle, and end, but it doesn’t need to be a complete short story — you can, and probably should, imagine it as a scene in a longer story.

All scene. No exposition. Objective point of view. Most of the words should be spoken by a character. Keep dialogue tags (“she said,” “he said”) to a minimum. Avoid ponderous verbs (“declared,” “stated,” “hinted,” etc.) and adverbs (“wittily,” “angrily,” etc.).

A few reminders advisements provocations —

  • Remember the iceberg. Ninety percent of the story is not in the words but in what the words suggest or imply. Tune those antennae to subtext.
  • Dialogue gets interesting when characters talk at cross-purposes (e.g., answering a question with another question, changing topic, ignoring the other person’s change of topic.) Also interesting are unusual expressions that reveal a personality, and leaps or gaps that hint at unspoken emotion. (These are all ways of creating subtext.)
  • Every phrase should contribute something new to the scene (e.g., developing character, establishing conflict, moving plot forward).
  • As writers we try to avoid clichés. But people often talk in clichés. For this exercise, avoid the clichés you hear, and stick to the curious, the strange, the interesting.
  • If you’re having trouble getting your scene to resonate, try writing it twice as long — a full page — and then make cuts to create interesting dynamics or juxtapositions.

Finally. Go somewhere unusual people have unusual conversations. Try to make it a place you’ve never been before. Try to listen in on people who are unlike you and the people you hang around with.

“Compose in the sequence of the musical phrase”

From some that I wrote for Donald Revell once, some years back, studying Pound and Williams and their ways with him.

Dear Don,

The dictum you asked me to mull: “As regarding rhythm: to compose in the sequence of the musical phrase, not in sequence of a metronome.” Well, sequence of the metronome, that would be the line chopped up into separate iambs, tick tick tick tick, a deadening monotony, each swing of the ticker identical in duration, parcelling out its energies with a robotic indifference to the moment at hand. The figure’s neither perfect (an iamb goes tick TOCK) nor entirely fair. With four or five discernible levels of speech stress to play among, the metrical schema can abstract itself from a wide array of stress profiles.

With how sad steps, O Moon, thou climb’st the skies!


My galley chargéd with forgetfulness

both perfect iamb pent, are not at all alike. But the point’s a crux just the same. Metrical patterns abstracted from speech stress, one way among many, had come to seem the one true way, and were by Pound’s day enervated, outworn, exhausted, and too few had noticed, he thunk.

An accentual-syllabic line, well made, lives in the unfolding tension between an abstract metrical scheme and the actual spoken rhythm it’s abstracted from. It requires, creates, and enforces a split between an unreal ideal and its flawed incarnation. Is it fanciful to find this split a musical instance — a rhythmic performance — of the mind/body dualism we inherit from Descartes and monotheism generally? Ideogram, pagan gods, and the musical phrase may all be for Pound an effort to throw us back into the body, sensuous actuality, to seek what truths may be found without recourse to abstraction.

A “musical phrase” is made up of notes and rests of varying durations. Elsewhere in Literary Essays he speaks at greater length about the musician’s work:

No one is so foolish as to suppose that a musician using ‘four-four’ time is compelled to use always four quarter notes in each bar, or in ‘seven-eighths’ time to use seven eighth notes uniformly in each bar. He may use one 1/2, one 1/4 and one 1/8 rest, or any such combination as he may happen to choose or find fitting.

To apply this musical truism to verse is to employ vers libre.

But how to apply it? Do we work with stresses the way a musician works with notes? Again, stress, an elusive and fluid amalgam of volume, pitch, and duration, is broadly variable. Two stresses of equal strength might reach that level by different paths, one by the length of a diphthong, say, the other by the rising pitch of the phrase-end. Stress is not accent — on, off, on, off — in the way Pound makes it out to be.

Or do we rather turn our attention to duration itself, working with syllables as half-notes and quarter-notes, with caesura as rest? Pound said around the same time this: “the desire for vers libre is due to the sense of quantity reasserting itself after years of starvation.” I suspect “to compose in the sequence of the musical phrase” means a return to quantity, a sensual attention to the lengths of syllables.

Poets had always been attentive to quantity. But to make it focal, an arranging principle, that was something new. Or renewal by way of return to something very old—

You begin with the yeowl and the bark, and you develop into the dance and into music, and into music with words, and finally into words with music, and finally into words with a vague adumbration of music, words suggestive of music, words measured, or words in a rhythm that preserves some accurate trait of the emotive impression.

From the raw animal yelp and howl, to the articulated body, to music, through music and words in different proportions, to musical wordings. But when the wording loses musicality, holds only to a lifeless and abstract on/off that has forgotten its origins in musical tempo, sez Ez, time to go back to the roots, the wellspring, the rhythmic ground, the moving and sounding body. That’s why the return to quantity mattered — not to give a poet something new to do, but to return him to origins, something vital.

Lines (this interposed as I prep this letter for posting) that have haunted dissociated me in the years since I came to them —

This body is my body.
This body is my body.

— though I’ve never found a home for them. Just to note that I have a personal stake in the reading I’ve laid out here. I think that might be the source of the a wee bit polemical moments.

And honest. As the ideogram is closer than phonetic charactery to pictorial art, which cannot lie, and duration is closer than stress to aural and rhythmic art, which cannot lie. Cannot because they make no claim to truth other than their own undeniable is.

In Pound’s work quantity is a form of attention but rarely a system. Which is as it should be, for syllable duration in English is a fuzzy math, a matter of subtle gradations. Rather than simple boxes, short and long, we have a continuum:

a – at – bat – bait – bought – brought – sprouts – strength – strengths

So quantity’s never been a basis for a metrical system in English. Besides which, any metrical system is or fast becomes an imposition, not a discovery, of order. Some such are gorgeous in their effects — masterful in their reach — but are impositions just the same, the mind of abstraction bearing down on the life from which it has abstracted its sleekly gleaming principles.

A discovered order may in comparison look at first like a welter, a chaos, formlessness. As you said last week, we might look at Pound’s career as a struggle between his rage for order and a gracious (grace-filled) surrender. One field on which that struggle is played out is melopoeia. And one patch of that field is quantity.

If quantity is no basis for a system, are there yet patterns to take part in? Mimetic moments? Meaningful recurrences? Before closing this horribly long digressive and disorderly note, I’ll offer a few noticings.

One is this: the length of the syllable is the pace of the mind. Long syllables, slow attention. Short syllables, quick attention. One pole is stillness, one motion. This is how quantity contributes to the “absolute rhythm” that “corresponds exactly to the emotion or shade of emotion to be expressed.” Because one of the things that gives emotion (or thought) its particular shading is how and where one lingers and where and whether one zips through.

(Slowness and speed — stillness and motion — are just a part of it of course. Stress has a role — how gentle or hard the emphases are. Consonants have a role — liquids, stops, nasals, blurring or defining borders. Vowel timbre — the difference between a high sharp long i , which resonates just in the mouth and nose, and a low sonorous ou, which reaches into the gut. The interlacings of all these. And whether the emergent order is that of a cut diamond, or of an orchard, or a watershed.)

Another is this. As absolute rhythm, drawn inward, brings shade and precision to a thought or emotion, drawn outward, it gives heft and clarity to a sensation. An obvious example: the sequence of long syllables in “wide flat road” widens and flattens the road. Many subtler effects could be found.

A third is this. One element of speech stress is duration. So we generally expect heavily stressed syllables to be longer than lightly stressed ones. (Compare the length of “it” in “rabbit” and “omit.” That one’s courtesy of Robert Pinsky.) But sometimes that expectation is defied. In this passage I’ve boldfaced the syllables where stress and duration don’t coincide: they’re either long but lightly stressed, or short but heavily stressed:

Lithe sinews of water, gripping her, cross-hold,

And the blue-grey glass of the wave tents them,

Glare azure of water, cold-welter, close cover.

This marking shows why there’s more unease in the first and third lines than in the second. The first and third, with their tensions between stress and duration, arouse physical tension, sympathetic alertness, concentration, a readiness to fight or to flee. In the second line, stress and duration are in good accord, and the attention is parasympathetic, a relaxed attentiveness, mindfulness, a readiness just to be.

It’s a dynamic tension. (Tension as in what makes us tick. How muscles work, nerves fire, mountains rear up and wear down. Not the tension of silences short or long at the family table.) In other words, not the accentual-syllabic tension between abstract pattern and actual instance, mind getting in the way of being, imposing its perfections on perfection. A tension rather between two actual rhythms in our actual speech. Making no bad-faith leap out of real existence into airy abstraction, setting up no ideal against which the actual is found wanting, fully embedded in the lived sensual life, this melopoeia creates a bridge, as Pound says elsewhere, between consciousness and the insentient universe.

Whether there is such a thing — an insentient universe — that’s for another day.


On Sound (II)

Revisited sound today. This time, with a view to, how does sound do work the good work, bearing up thought and feeling?

Had my students hold in hand, for their heft and texture, two petrous objects. You’ll see in a mo why the Greeky adj. One was sharp and jagged, rough-textured, a bit of railbed gravel. The other, smoothed and rounded, as out of a moving stream.

They passed those round. Took em back and said, One of these is a rock, and one is a stone. I’m going to hold one up in a second, and please write down, saying nothing, which it is, rock or stone.

Held up the jagged one. Write it down, guys, which is it, rock or stone. They wrote that down. Then shows of hands. Morning section, all but two said rock. Afternoon, all but none, said rock.

photo 1 (3)

But how do you know, I asked, pretend dumbfounded. “Rock” and “stone” mean the very same thing in the dick-shun-airy. So how do you know the one’s the one, the other the other?

And we found our ways, in not too long, to these. “Rock” ends in a stop, you have to stop saying it abruptly, and that has a sudden, even jagged, feel. “Stone” ends in a nasal and you can extend the sound for as long as you have breath. That has a softer and more rounded feel.

photo 2 (2)

The words have the same denotations (dictionary meanings) but very different connotations (aurae of association). “Rock” calls to mind rough sharp jagged thangs, “stone” water-smoothy river-beings. And that’s in part because of their sharp and edgy, or smooth and rounded, sounds.

Shout-out to Mary Oliver, a line in whose poetry handbook gave me the idea, years ago. And, next up, one way to bring the thought over to actual words (not “rock” nor “stone”) of actual poems. Teaser, it involves a station of the Paris metro. Yeah that ol’ chestnut.

POSTSCRIPT. This on a night Republicans are poised to take command of the Senate, setting to stay maybe long enough to f*** up the climate for as long, or as short, as we’re like to be here. Go figger. Yo, intelligent design people, don’t you think, if there WERE an intelligent design, the designer would be a little less STUPID than sweet haphazard evolution’s given us? Um, the appendix? Um, mothers who eat their children? Um, obscenely short-sighted self-interested climate-science denial? Saw this fun on FB, where I hardly ever hang, not sure I’m as atheist as it, but.

Be well, all, someone’s got to, and maybe it’ll start a thing.

On sound (I)

When semantic meaning is eclipsed all sorts of other meaning come out of hiding. In our first class I wanted to get students thinking with their ears about vocables — oral sounds — apart from the meanings we like to grant certain of the shapes they take (words). It’s hard to explain but easy to experience.

I started them off with scat singing (always defined in terms of “nonsense” vocables — slanderous) by Louis Armstrong —

and Ella Fitzgerald:

Only a brute would deny there’s meaning there. Not the sort of meaning we mean when we say “I understand what that means.” Much closer to the meaning we mean when we say “you mean a lot to me.” When someone reaches out to someone and makes contact — that’s a meaning.

We moved on to Christian Bok’s performance of Hugo Ball’s Karawane (a more gravelly doing than the one I played in class):

In some spots it’s a little referential and a lot mimetic — jolifanto calling to mind swaying circus elephants. But at the core it’s what the Russian Futurists called zaum or beyonsense — expression released from reference so its sensuous and esoteric possibilities can unfold. Sometimes comically, as here, and sometimes not.

Some meaning is had. Some meaning is been. And some meaning is done. Our focus here is sound, but I can’t resist a bit of vision, how Ball’s poem steps out to the eye:

Anyway, my students did great with this weird trio, pointing out connections to the proto-articulations of infants (which mean nothing communicable but everything to mom and dad) and the science in non-Western cultures of the spiritual efficacy of sound.

And, less esoteric, the noises we make to get something immediate, embodied, across. Ahhhhhhhh. Oh! Hmmmm.

Birds of attention

One thing I love at Samish Island are the birds. Great blue herons, bald eagles, barn swallows, robins; all through a day of sitting your mind is woven into and out of by robinsong. And today, on the drive back, a redtail hawk on a power line, and the sheer abundance in the eye of two goldfinches on a wire fence.

An old thought came back, birds are forms of attention, sometimes the mind twits and chitters, others it floats on thermals, others it dodges cars eating road carrion.

When I say that, birds are forms of attention, is that a metaphor. I don’t think I mean it as one. I’m thinking I mean it literally.

If any thing is also every thing, then metaphor’s no longer a lie, but maybe too it’s no longer metaphor. It’s just a different mode of literal.

Blake’s fourfold vision in the back of my mind here — probably because Norman talked about Blake, his “Fly” and his “London,” this morning. More on that soon but first to the gym.