Pound’s ideograms

Dear Don,

You asked me to think about the “sustained vision” one might find in (through) fragments but I have not got so far along as that. Instead I have been sinking into, plashing about in, the ideogram.

p 3 KyushunAm I silly to be pleased that the second half of my dharma name, Kyushun (kyu = “endless,” shun = “spring”) echoes characters found in the Cantos?

The second character, “spring,” is composed of two elements. The lower of them (three horizontal strokes joined by two vertical) is the character for the sun. It shows up in the Cantos in the ideograms for “dawn” (“bright dawn on the sht house / next day / with the shadow of the gibbets attendant”) and for “no” or “not” (“a man on whom the sun has gone down”).

Also recall Pound’s explication in The ABC of Reading of the Chinese ideogram: man + tree + sun –> “sun tangled in the tree’s branches, as at sunrise, meaning now the East.”

The other element is I believe the character for “tree.” Without the three horizontals it would be the character for “person.” And so made visual is the kinship known since ancient days between human and tree.

Spring is the sun come through the roots of the tree. When Daidoshi named me I felt an arrow go through my forehead. All at once my name had been a truth of my life all along. The calligraphy above is his, on my rakusu.

Where does all this lead? Nowhere and everywhere. I want to notice just one thing, that Pound uses the ideogram in two ways in Rock-Drill, what I’ll call pictorial & ideational.

The pictorial is treated so magnificently by Kenner that little can be added. E.g., his unpacking of ling, “sensibility,” early on.

ling-1_ZhuDEn bas, as ground, the figure for ritual or witchcraft — compounded of the characters for doing things properly (this is appropriate witchcraft) and the waving sleeves of a moving officiant.

En haut, as gable & presiding air, heaven hung with clouds, beneath them three raindrops, together meaning “fall as the big drops fall on a parched day.”

These images and gestures, compounded thus, from sensual life, actual life, mean “the spirit or energy of a being, in harmony with the invisible and by ritual drawing down beneficence.”

Sensibility as the connection to (among) earth, human, & heaven, realized through right observance (right seeing, rites observed), that is, through te, or virtu.

This is (once more) embodiment. Combining stylized images of ROSE, CHERRY, IRON RUST, and FLAMINGO to make a word for “red,” rather than attaching a sound (“red,” “rouge,” “rousse”) whose relationship to the thing it names is arbitrary.

The ideogram offers, says Pound, a way for the mind to resist the lure of abstraction. A way to think generally, to trade in ideas, without losing contact with the actual, the concrete, the specific instance without which speech is just so much hot & circling wind.

Without, that is, making thought a game of moving counters here there & all about, matching & separating on the basis of putative likeness & unlikeness, which can only be credited when the actual features of a thing, its suchness, its particularity, have been planed off, and the gouge marks sanded & veneered away.

In the world itself, everything is everything else, and each thing is utterly selfsame. Not one, not the other, not neither, not both. Speech can’t reach here.

A practice that invoked an idea more directly than our speech can would be a gift of the mind to the mind of the first order. For Pound the ideogrammatic method is more than just plunking some Chinese calligraphy down in a poem. It is a new way of doing thinking.

Reworking this writing now, I see how I was starting to flounder. Pound’s grandiosity invoked my considerable own. Unexpectedly, it was Williams who came to speak to me more, in this work I did with Don. I’m leaving most of the flaws I see here as I see them. And of course all the flaws I don’t see have gone untouched.

Words are of course employed. They are made into images (or scraps of memory, or bits of overheard speech, or foreign phrases, or names from myth, or historical incidents) which are then built up, compounded, just as they are built up in a Chinese character or a film by Eisenstein. It is in the space between the images (or scraps of memory, etc.) that the spark jumps, the light flows, the wind roams about, & the mind finds itself.

One crafts the image precisely to make the space around it precise. This is all being set down too hastily. Let me try to work it out through an example. We might take this passage as a single ideogram (comparable in complexity to ling above):

“From the colour the nature
                    & by the nature the sign!”
Beatific spirits welding together
                    as in one ash-tree in Ygdrasail.
                         Baucis, Philemon.
Castalia is the name of that fount in the hill’s fold,
                         the sea below,
                                                  narrow beach.
Templum aedificans, not yet marble,

The first two lines invoke Heydon’s “doctrine of signatures” and work somewhat like the radical, establishing the general semantic (spiritual) sense of the ideogram. That sense is hard to spell out (real thoughts are) but it has something to do with vegetal power, and each thing fulfils its nature, and a thing’s nature is discernible.

At any rate, this is the sign under which, or the mood within which, the next strokes are presented. “Strokes” because, as in the ideogram, there is no logical or discursive linkage, space is left in which the mind may roam & flash about.)

The next element in the character, three strokes in three lines, entwines two stories with the same signatures, that of the Norse world-heaven tree and that of Baucis & Philemon, who, faithful to the gods, are spared the annihilating flood, & grow in old age into intertwined trees. Instantiations, not mere instances, of vegetal power, of earth and heaven conjoined (recall ling), and of truth to one’s own nature.

Thus far likeness, rhyme, homeomorphism, is building the character. But the ideogrammatic method, like Eisenstein’s montage, is about gauged differences, for only in difference is there a space for the mind-spark to leap.

The distance is marked by shifts in sense (syntax switches from fragment to full sentence) and rhythm (musical phrasing switches from mostly short syllables to mostly long) but our concern here (insofar as these things can be isolated) (that is at best an enabling fiction, at worst a wrong way of life) is phanopoeia.

We have left the trees and come back to the water. The scene is presented in three glimpses — a fountain encleft in a hill fold (and I sense here the sexual feminine, mate to the virile power of the world-heaven tree), the sea below, a narrow beach — in a staccato & yet fluid fashion that recalls the beach scene of Canto II. (One ideogram can call to mind another one hundreds of pages prior.)

The final strokes of the character draw it together, even as they extend and leave it open. “Templum aedificans,” building the temple. The temple of the Cantos, the temple in which Baucis and Philemon serve as caretakers, the temple the universe is, borne up & arranged by the world-heaven tree.

“not yet marble” because the original temples were of wood, the columns fluted tree trunks — suggesting (not saying) (real thoughts are unspoken) that the marble columns to come have virtu to the extent that they recall (but do not slavishly copy) their origins.

The last stroke, “Amphion!” Terrell: “Hermes taught him to play the lyre so well that when he became king of Thebes he fortified the city with a wall magically conjured up by his music: at the sound of his lyre the stones moved into place by themselves.”

The power of one rooted in his own nature. It joins earth & heaven & human life & gives one sway over wild beasts & field stones.

Does the whole canto, does the whole of the Cantos, fall into ideograms in this way? I amn’t sure. The white space after “Amphion!” articulates the sequence, asks one to look at it as a whole that reflects back on itself, but it is the only such space in Canto XC, and I wonder whether, if Pound meant us to read the way I just have, he would have scored the verse a bit differently. Anyway, I’ve only barely scratched the surface here. I do sense though that in its several formal arenas—melopoeia, phanopoeia, logopoeia, mythopoeia—the poem is a unitary project. Pound against abstraction. A title for a final paper?

Yeah plenty of floundering here along with a few honest gleams. Curious how an anti-system is just another system. But if you can’t put your errors and strayings on display in a blog post — well then what’s a blog for? Scheduling this one for Dec. 30. Happy, if somehow you’ve made it this far, new years all.

UPDATE. And the image up top, here it is big –
7132 - big

Ryoji Koie. A six-fold paper screen. Ink on paper and gold ground. Japan, 2013. An example of the hibi deisui (blind drunk everyday) style. Don’t know if that’s blind drunk or blind, drunk. More on him here (scroll down some).

Terraces the colour of stars

Dear Don,

“Memory supplants history in the humbled mind,” you wrote. To which we might add that epic fallen to fragments becomes lyric, and those lyric scraps of myth and history may become well nigh indistinguishable from personal memory.

So that the Pisan Cantos, held at a certain angle, in a certain light, read as if all of Europe were sifting through the fragments washed up in and of its ruin, trying to comprehend its downfall.

And to separate what it might still love from the dross of its vanity, gazing eastward for equivalences that might be insights, Kuanyin ≒ Aphrodite, rain as Tao ≒ Heraclitean flow, apricot blossoms on the wind as gallows at the camp’s edge terribly clarify the mind.

At a certain angle, in a certain light. The poems are a tsunami in their mass energy valences. Any effort to summarize encapsulate or contain them seems further folly. So I will just tell you the way I am floating along with them this morning.

It starts with defiance and venom. Mussolini as a “dead bullock” eaten at by maggots. Lenders as “loan lice.” The mind is at work on the scale of history, the “enormous trag­edy of the dream” now lost of the ideal city “whose terraces are the colour of stars.”

Pound heaps scorn and contempt upon those he calls guilty, FDR, Churchill, banks, rich Jews. This noise goes on for some time. But even at the outset, turning words are at work in the mind:

The suave eyes, quiet, not scornful,
                              rain also is of the process.

Those same eyes appear some hundred pages later — “there came new subtlety of eyes into my tent” —Kuanyin? Aphrodite? — to release the hymn of self-abnegation, in which love and right action are got free at last of resentment and vanity.

One side of it is letting the world enter, really enter, the tent. To admit that “rain also is of the process” is not idle or abstract in a roofless cage. The other side is, get humble, erase yourself, let the world enter, that is the way through:

ОЎ ΤΙΣ, ОЎ ΤΙΣ? Odysseus
                             the name of my family.

Things flow. So let them. The Pisan Cantos are (this morning) (for this reader) about the thorny ecstatic work of getting out of the way. To be Odysseus is to be skilled in many things, polumetis, a man of twists and turns, and one such turn is to be no man at all.

The poem flows. So let it. ОЎ ΤΙΣ, “no man,” recalls here and everywhere “’Tis. ’Tis. Ytis!” in Canto IV, the cry of Philomela become nightingale. Which connects in turn to the orchestrated birdsong of Canto LXXV. Which connects to the birds composing themselves on wires in Pound’s tent-straitened view. Who sing in Canto LXXXII this song

                             f           f

which I hear as the drawn-out first syllable, and then descending scale, of “Terreus! Terreus!” — Philomela given the power to name he who raped her and cut out her tongue to foster silence.

This would be a way to write about the Cantos: choose one node, trace all that it echoes or actuates, how they foster speech when speech is due, rich silences otherwise.

For so many noticings don’t fit the arc I’ve staked out for myself.

A key that shows up in the first moments: periplum, circumnaviga­tion, as in “the great periplum brings in the stars to our shore.” Not sure what to make of this. Feels like a concession that the world is whole, and epic strivings unnecessary, but that may be my effort, once more, to turn Pound into a dharma holder.

The poem is one left parenthesis and another. So I can hardly say it makes a clean transit from benightedness to insight. That would be too happy an ending — that would be an ending. To the last Pound is hailing Il Duce, his lieutenants, various collaborators whom history has since found, and I’ve no reason to question the verdict, cowards and villains.

There is though a gradual shift in the relative weights given to vitriol (accusation, explanation, calumny) and humility (surrender, sympathy, wakeful attention) — to being right and being alive. A few of the energies at work in that shift:

Hey Snag wots in the bibl’?
wot are the books ov the bible?
Name ’em, don’t bullshit ME.
                                                ОЎ ΤΙΣ
a man on whom the sun has gone down

As Odysseus, become No Man, is connected to Elpenor, a man remembered only for the company he kept, so Pound, as No Man, is connected to the prisoners and guards of the DTC, anonymous but for the place he gives them in his poem. (His giving goes hand in hand with sympathy.) (His humbling is an enlarging.)

As Pound settles into the ascetic attention forced on him by his confinement, mist and clouds, stray camp animals, vagrant insects become charged with meaning:

that the ants seem to wobble
as the morning sun catches their shadows

Sometimes that meaning takes on the dimension of myth, not in the way of epic sweep and portent, but of lyric intensity, the moment eternal: the butterfly, Aphrodite or Psyche, at the smoke hole. Identity with the insects makes humility absolute —

As a lone ant from a broken ant-hill
from the wreckage of Europe, ego scriptor.

— out of humility comes a new allegiance —

nothing matters but the quality
of the affection —
in the end — that has carved the trace in the mind
dove sta memoria

— a descent into memory with consolation from Confucius —

“How is it far, if you think of it?”

— peppered with eruptions of the old rage —

                    interest on all it creates out of nothing
the buggering bank has;                   pure iniquity
                    and to change the value of money, of the unit of
                     we are not out of that chapter

(as if the deep disappointment of the world could be laid at the feet of the banking industry — we are not out of that habit) and in time a reaffirmation—

Amo ego sum, and in just that proportion

To be as one loves.

Such luminous details fall like seeds into a welter of sensation, memory, argument, and myth. And after a near endless swirling gestation they break up through the soil and the world greens with a new sort of understanding:

What thou lovest well remains,
                                             the rest is dross,
What thou lov’st well shall not be reft from thee
What thou lov’st well is thy true heritage

Humbled, the sun gone down on him, made no man, Pound overwinters, all that long summer, to green in autumn with hard insight:

Pull down thy vanity, it is not man
Made courage, or made order, or made grace,
             Pull down thy vanity, I say pull down.
Learn of the green world what can be thy place
In scaled invention or true artistry,
Pull down thy vanity

I am of Pound’s company in this if in no other thing: “Learn of,” not “Learn from,” because of how long “from” would take to say. The music matters. Music is the matter.

The hate that went out turns inward as ruthless self-excoriation —

Thou art a beaten dog beneath the hail,
A swollen magpie in a fitful sun,
Half black half white
Nor knowst’ou wing from tail
Pull down they vanity
                         How mean thy hates
Fostered in falsity
                         Pull down thy vanity,
Rathe to destroy, niggard in charity

— that also is of the process, the Tao of prison, the way of awful reflection. Allowed to flow, it flows, then is gone. What one has loved — that one has loved — remains:

                         To have gathered from the air a live tradition
or from a fine old eye the unconquered flame
This is not vanity.

Well I have tried to work here with a light hand but still feel I have striven to reduce the irreducible. So let me say as I wrap up that these poems are teaching me a different sort of attention. They are not vessels, nor is there any vessel to hold them, they’re mind in motion, world in motion, soul in process, one meets them as a rainstorm or a storm surge. I mean the only way to read them is surrender. One could spend a lifetime in them and not find the depth of them, and that — fascistic rantings notwithstanding — is a great beautiful good.

Thin glitter of water

Another letter to Donald Revell on Ezra Pound. (Queuing up a few in the lull between writing camp and Christmas).

Dear Don,

I’ve been thinking about the “lyrical principle” as Kenner frames it. “That words or names, being ordered in time, are bound together and recalled into each other’s presence by recurrent sounds.” As Pound’s practice develops, seems to me, the elements that recur grow larger and larger, until in the Cantos, as he manages recurrence on varying scales, from phoneme to homeomorph, he makes lyric a mode of logic. A logic that loses not one eyelash of particular existence, because it doesn’t abstract or deduct, but exemplifies and counterpoints.

In his early Provençal translations the recurring element is the phoneme. The effect is loyal to the troubadour and his rhymes and clanky maybe in a modern English ear:

“Up! Thou rascal, Rise,
        I see the white
        And the night

No less dense, but more subtly modulated, is a later (1951) rendering of Montanari:

A swallow for shuttle, back,
Forth, forth, back
        from shack to
marsh track:
        to the far
sky-line that’s fading now

The consonantal music is so finely tuned that one might miss the quieter more drawn-out play of the vowels: swallow – forth – now. Not to mention the aural pleasure of the switch to long i and a sounds in the last line, enacting the swallow’s sudden shot off into the distance.

A long time before, in Cathay, Pound had brought the work and play of recurrence and departure to whole words — the refrain-words I spoke of before in “Song of the Bowmen of Shu” and “The River-Merchant’s Wife.” And in “The Beautiful Toilet” he mixes, as Kenner shows, the word-repetitions of the original Chinese (blue … blue) with lighter aural ligatures (willows – overfilled) that convey the spirit of the Chinese original’s musical patterning and avoid the clunky literalisms of Waley’s rendering.

In the Cantos the repeated elements grow larger — words, phrases, motifs — but the arrangement, and the intelligence it calls into play, remain musical. In Canto IV Diana bathes in a forest pool. The air is “alight with the goddess” herself, her limbs loading and endowing matter with divinity —

Ivory dipping in silver,
        Shadow’d, o’ershadow’d
Ivory dipping in silver,

Hidden by a forest canopy impenetrable to sunlight, the goddess lives in an eternal present, a light at once flowing and still.

What that image does in the eye (light made liquid) the music of recurrence (a word lightly varied nestled in a phrase exactly doubled) does in the ear. So that time circles round, flows but stands in place, in us also.

Then Actaeon, poor boy, blunders in:

The dogs leap on Actaeon,
        ‘Hither, hither, Actaeon,’
Spotted stag of the wood;
Gold, gold, a sheaf of hair,
        Thick like a wheat swath,
Blaze, blaze in the sun,
        The dogs leap on Actaeon.

The paradisal now of the goddess meets historical (tragic) human time. The word spoken twice aloud, hither, hither, urges haste, propels time body matter forward, while those repeated silently, gold, gold blaze, blaze, fix attention, intensify the sensory moment, hush and slow the mind. Meanwhile, on a larger scale, the phrase that bookends the scene, “The dogs leap on Actaeon,” fixes the unfolding action in place, so Actaeon enters mythic time.

Not, it has to be said, on the same terms as a god would enter.

With Actaeon’s entry the sun blazes into the scene. And this penetration of myth by history, of a divine now by historical time, releases light into the world. “Thus the light rains, thus pours, o lo soleils plovil.

Carroll finds in this line “the important canto motif of the light-water-stone progression which finally ends in crystal, i.e., the transmutation of the fluid transparency of subjective experience into the objective solidity of stone through poetry.”

If this is right, and if the light is that of a goddess, too, set loose in the world, and also the light of the Paradiso, which it must be, then the goddess can be nothing but an instance (purified, rarefied) of consciousness.

And if that’s right, there’s no divine eternal now after all, just human time, mostly fallen into history, but at certain points — points at which, for which, gods stand — fleetingly redeemed.

Getting too lofty and well ahead of me. No time here, or space now, for the homeomorphic rhymes, Cadmus and Odysseus, venturing they know not where, Itys and Cabestan, their hearts served up on plates, Actaeon and Vidal, gotten in their own trouble. But to note as I sign off a point or two where the poem wells up with an image of its own activity.

The liquid and rushing crystal


Ply over ply, thin glitter of water;
Brook film bearing white petals.


Adige, thin film of images,


And Tian … with his hand on the strings of his lute
The low sounds continuing
        after his hand left the strings,
And the sound went up like smoke, under the leaves,

“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 the 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.