“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.

“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!

and

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.

C.

On metaphor

Metaphor has fallen out of my work almost completely. I think there’s one in the whole of Dumuzi. Why is that? (Not a rhetorical question.) Something in metaphor feels violent to me — wrenching a thing out of being-as-it-is so it can be yoked to some other thing and lend to its glory.

A metaphor is, at the least, a lie, and to go along with it, we need to split our consciousness in two — the one who accepts the lie, and the one who knows it for a lie. (Compare to the split induced by accentual-syllabic meters — one ear attentive to concrete particular speech rhythms, one to an abstract metrical pattern.)

Donald Revell on mixing metaphors: “A good way to kill the damn things off.”

Metonymy seems gentler, letting its two terms hang out together equably.

Both enlarge consciousness — one by an abrupt rending, the other by a steady gentle pressure outward.

I wonder, is compost, what actually happens in the compost bin, the vegetal smushing, closer to metaphor or metonymy?