11
Mar
12

On Richard Swigg’s Quick, Said the Bird: Williams, Eliot, Moore, and the Spoken Word

A version of this review may appear in Redactions: Poetry, Poetics, & Prose issue 16, due out in early 2013.

       Now the music volleys through as in
       a lonely moment I hear it. Now it is all
       about me. The dance! The verb detaches itself
       seeking to become articulate    .

                           And I could not help thinking
                           of the wonders of the brain that
                           hears that music and of our
                           skill sometimes to record it

                                (W. C. Williams, "The Desert Music")

Quick, Said the Bird

The title of Richard Swigg’s book, Quick, Said the Bird: Williams, Eliot, Moore, and the Spoken Word (University of Iowa Press, 2012), is a bit misleading because you might think this book will be about page poets (Williams, Eliot, and Moore) and stage poets (spoken word poets). I mean, don’t we nowadays consider W. C. Williams, T. S. Eliot, and Marianne Moore as page poets – that is poets we read on the page with the quiet voice in our head? And don’t we consider the spoken word poets (the stage poets) as all voice, body, and stage presentation? Isn’t that the dichotomy we find ourselves with in today’s poetry? save a few poets who are simultaneously page and stage poets, like T. S. Ellis, Sean Thomas Dougherty, and Rob Carney, among others. But what the stage poet has is vocalization that infects the body with meaning. Unfortunately, we lose that infection when we only read poems in our heads.

Swigg in Quick, Said the Bird reminds us of the importance of reading Williams, Eliot, and Moore aloud. In fact, Swigg seeks:

to render the speaking voice of the printed text – one that has to be deduced from the marks on the page, is constructed out loud, stays subject to the changing pace and the needs of breath-control, emphases, and enunciation, then possibly ends a verse sequence (an unfolding temporal sequence, not static fragments) in a way that is totally different from the beginning. It is an interpretation of lines by performance – a discovery of meaning’s unexpected contours by lips, tongue, and throat – that can often revise the mind’s interpretation of a poem that has been largely known through silent reading (xiv).

In fact, Swigg will put auditory importance above the text: “I find overall the surest way forward is to remain an independent vocal reader of the verse” (xv). So, while he will listen to the many recordings of Williams, Eliot, and Moore reading their poems and keep a “sympathetic yet critical relationship to the recordings,” he will put more emphasis on how he reads the poem, which I find a good move. I mean, I will at times listen to a poet read a poem of theirs, but I will use their readings more as possible way as to how to read the poem. Often, poets don’t read their own poems well for a variety of reasons. When I read another poet’s poem aloud, I can slow it down and dwell on a specific sound or set of sounds. I can focus on a rhythm or harmony. I can find more clarity in the sonic units and build to a more meaningful reading from those units. I can build a whole auditory experience from researching various voices. I think Swigg is doing something similar, too.

T. S. Eliot

T. S. Eliot

In addition, the poet may change how he or she reads the poem. For instance:

By 1946, when he [Eliot] came to record The Waste Land  [. . .] [h]e had seemingly long forgotten what was once so immediate to him in the poem’s original daring resonances when he first read the poem to friends in June 1922. Then “He sang it & chanted it[,] rhythmed it,” says Virgina Woolf, intimating the vocal variety and energy which characterize (without the singing) Eliot’s virtually unknown and only recently published recording of the poem at Columbia University in 1933 (38-9).

Plus, by Swigg reading it aloud, he can pick up nuances. For instance:

The “garret” clinks out the bones’ fright merely, “Rattled by the rat‘s foot only, year by year”: a line of such resurgent confidence, as one reads it aloud, that this “I” can truly be said, with the poem’s time sense rhymingly redeemed from emptiness, to have outlasted “year to year” what once spread from “ear to ear” as a wintry chuckle (44).

We can’t hear that nuance from silently reading in our head

In Quick, Said the Bird, Swigg focuses on Williams short-lined verse (and at the end he briefly addresses Williams’ longer poems with the “triadic layouts”), Eliot’s The Waste Land and other poems but not The Four Quartets (which I find to be Eliot’s most musical poetry, especially the first page and a half which melt me), and Moore’s poetry from before 1940 to remind us that poetry needs to be read aloud:

So, though the poetic text is not an over-rigid score, and though Moore, Eliot, and Williams can play the voice against “typographic dispositions,” the read-aloud words on the page provide the clue not just to the intonation but to the vital forward movement of the poem, by syntax or sequential impetus: what I describe in this book, together with other acoustic features, by the language of metrics, rhyme, rhythm, assonance, alliteration, aspirates, syllabic emphases, and speech-sounds, as well as by a wider linguistic portrayal that invokes cries, whispers, leaps, thrusts, sinking, resurgences, lingerings, or rapped-out curtness (xvi).

William Carlos Williams

William Carlos Williams

He also spends considerable time revealing harmonies in these poets’ poems, especially of Williams, whose voice we usually consider to be “short-line bursts of breath,” and he explores the subtle harmonies of Moore. I’m grateful for these moments, because harmony is my favorite aspect of poetry because of how it sounds in the ear and how it can yoke together words or images on an unanticipated level to draw together disparate items and find a commonplace for them. Harmonies are another level of discursiveness the poet can use. It’s another way for the poet to leap.

Marianne Moore

Marianne Moore

Swigg makes us hear how Williams has a “brash speech style” (2), how with Eliot’s voice you get the sound of an insecure self who almost wants to hide from the voices of the public, yet whose voice is what holds the fragments together in The Waste Land, and how Moore’s voice becomes almost like a bridge between the two but with the extra dimension:

to what has so far been largely discussed as voices, “personages” or “some good characters” [. . . ] whether in the form of outgoing address, dialogue, or solitary speech, with the effect of syntax, sentences, rhyme or non-rhyme, conventional metrics, or word-blocking balancings. Moore’s example takes us further to governing frame which holds such effects together; for what discussion of William’s short-line poems has only indicated, and what is to become more explicitly important in the treatment of Eliot’s later verse-paragraphs – visual containment cramming acoustic variety inside itself to the point of spillage – is the tension which Moore makes central. If Eliot and Williams are dislocated from their native scene, and seek a way back to newly occupiable ground, Moore, another foreigner in her own country – rejecting those who would reject her style of speech – brings into play the figures and multitudes of a sounded world which now is hers alone, and no others (16-17).

However, Swigg does not compare which poet is better musically, but he does set them “side by side as vocalists to whom we actually listen” (118). As a result, Swigg enables us to hear the effects and how each poet’s use of sounds adds to the meanings and densities of their poems.

While he talks about sounds, Swigg also intermittently explores how each poet is an American poet while estranged to it. For him, Moore “projects outwards the thrust, agilities, and surprises of a unique speaking voice” (28), Williams is the more native, and Eliot:

by going further from a homeland then Williams and Moore in their own necessary distancings, Eliot, for all the emotional cost, is then most intently native – not by harking back to American shores, as in the Boston “nighttown” sequence of the draft, “He Do the Police in Different Voices,” but, as in the first lines of “The Burial of the Dead,” by feeling his way into unspecified ground with the divining care shown by Williams. The latter’s nameless plants “enter the new world naked” but Eliot can name his shoots when, by a participial probing of dormancies –

                                                   breeding
       Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
       Memory and desire, stirring
       Dull roots with spring rain

– he begets a shift of season and pace. Time is on the move, like the seaward river later in the poem. With the pulse of such currents, Eliot sounds out the rhythms and resources, the pluralities and singularities, that now, at risk of overflow – yet vitally so – enter the speech of The Waste Land (36-7).

I find this book significant because I can’t recall such an undertaking in devoting a study to the sounds of poetry. Sometimes you get a brief paragraph or two or maybe a chapter in a book, or maybe you’ll find an essay here and there, but a whole book devoted to the sounds in poetry is rare and delightful.

While reading this I hoped for a longer book that accompanied more poets, but then I thought Swigg was correct in choosing these poets because, as mentioned above, we tend to treat Williams, Eliot, and Moore as textually cerebral and as poets we only read in our heads. In Quick, Said the Bird, Swigg lifts Williams, Eliot, and Moore off the page and makes us hear them, and hear them unlike we’ve heard them before. For this I give high praise and congratulations, and I live in envy for I wish I wrote this book or a similar one.

I think Richard Swigg’s Quick, Said the Bird should be read by anyone writing poetry today, especially page poets (save Linda Beirds because she’s got the most amazing and effective sounds, and Swigg, I’m sure, could write a book about the sounds in her poetry). I suggest that today’s page poets read it because it will help them hear things in a new way or unexpected ways. Mainly, Quick, Said the Bird will give today’s poets auditory effects to steal from. Because of this book, I now have so many great devices I can use to bring out new meanings, enhance meanings, or make meanings more entertaining in the poems I will write.

Swiggs’s auditory investigations should also be read by anyone studying, teaching, or preaching Modernism, and, most important, Quick, Said the Bird: Williams, Eliot, Moore, and the Spoken Word should be read by anyone who is not reading poetry aloud or who thinks it doesn’t need to be read aloud.//

I just thought to add this appropriate image I made the other day, which is a slight variant from Zukofsky’s “A12”:

Poetry IntegralReally, that sums up this book.//


2 Responses to “On Richard Swigg’s Quick, Said the Bird: Williams, Eliot, Moore, and the Spoken Word”


  1. March 11, 2012 at 2:06 pm

    I don’t know whether I should be jazzed for you that you found a book on this, or if I should be bummed that someone beat you to the punch. Either way, cool post and it looks like a cool book. Oh, and you are definitely both a page and a stage poet.


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