Posts Tagged ‘Linda Bierds

26
Jul
14

Swinburne, Four Syllables, and Learning to Listen to Write

The prompt for this essay was to write a 10-15 page paper about poems, stories, or novels that influenced my writing. Below is my response.

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Algernon Charles Swinburne

“Algernon Charles Swinburne” by painting George Frederic Watts 1867.

As I thought about what poems changed my work or writing, I had to ask myself in what capacity. In the capacity of expressing myself? in the capacity of using images? being concrete and clear? in the capacity of using the line? in using etymologies? in sounds? etc. Many poems of course came to mind, such as John Donne’s Holy Sonnet #10, Edmund Spenser’s “One day I wrote her name upon the strand,” Gerard Manley Hopkins “The Windhover,” W. S. Merwin’s “The Mountain,” “The Unwritten,” “For the Anniversary of My Death,” and “The Last One.” Two essays also came to mind: Ezra Pound’s “A Retrospect,” which was really the start of everything for me, and Charles Olson’s “Projective Verse.” There were so many choices, but the more I thought about it the more I kept dwelling on Algernon Charles Swinburne and one of his poems. In fact, it was really just four syllables in this poem that I kept turning to for ten years during the 1990s. I believe these four syllables changed my writing more than any other poem. As a result, I will show how this happened and what I learned. In essence, I will show the growth of how my ears learned to listen. As a result, much of what follows will probably be common knowledge to anyone who’s been writing poems for some time, but it is still a sketch of how I learned prosody, or invented my own prosody.

I was introduced to Swinburne by way of Ezra Pound’s “Swinburne and His Biographers.” In this essay, Pound says:

Swinburne recognized poetry as an art, and as an art of verbal music. [. . .] No man who cares for his art can be deaf to the rhythms of Swinburne, deaf to their splendor, deaf also to their bathos. [. . . ] The rhythm-building faculty was in Swinburne, and was perhaps the chief part of his genius. (292-93)

Before I found my way to that essay and to Swinburne, I had been living in and practicing Pound’s advice in “A Retrospect.” You are probably familiar with the three principles (“Direct treatment of the ‘thing’ whether subjective or objective;” “To use no word that does not contribute to the presentation;” and “to compose in the sequence of the musical phrase, not in the sequence of the metronome”) as well as the motto “Go in fear of abstractions.” In the “Rhythm and Rhyme” section of the essay, Pound also points out:

Let him dissect the lyrics of Goethe coldly into their component sound values, syllables long and short, stressed and unstressed, into vowels and consonants.

It is not necessary that a poem should rely on its music, but if it does rely on its music that music must be such as will delight the expert. (5)

As a young writer, I of course wanted to “delight the expert,” as well as everybody else. However, I didn’t know how. Nor did I know what long and short syllables were. I only knew stressed and unstressed syllables, and not very well. And then, as I mentioned, I met Swinburne, and he, and especially one of his poems, drastically informed and changed how I wrote poems during the 1990s.

Swinburne’s poems will force anyone to hear stressed and unstressed syllables. One really can’t “be deaf to the rhythms of Swinburne.” It’s unavoidable. It’s with him my decade-long research into meters (qualitative and quantitative) and forms began. Swinburne wrote in so many meters and forms, I felt required to do the same. I especially loved Sapphic meters, and he has two Sapphic-metered poems, but they are done with qualitative meters instead of quantitative meters. However, I didn’t know this yet. All I knew was to listen.

And so I listened to Swinburne and other poets and my own poems. It was a long training process, but the poem that may have taught me more about meter and rhythm and influenced my own writing is one of the chorus sections from his Greek-like play in verse Atalanta in Calydon. The chorus opens:

Before the Beginning of Years

And it continues for 46 more lines in a bouncy rhythm. The backbeat of the poem is iamb, anapest, and anapest, which Swinburne will play off of throughout the poem. However, there’s much more going on than that. Here’s a typical scansion of the opening line:

Before the Beginning of Years - Simple Scan

In this scansion, I use “u” to indicate an unstressed syllable and “/” to indicate a stressed syllable. That scansion is absolutely correct, or is it? There’s something more complicated going on in that first syllable. I didn’t realize it the first few times I read it, but eventually, sometime later, I heard it different.

I read the opening line over and over again. I read it loud, soft, fast, and slow to try and figure out what was happening with that first syllable. While the “be” in “before” is unstressed, it certainly has more stress than “the.” “How can that be?” I asked myself. I discovered a number of reasons for this.

Edmund SpenserThe first reason was breath. “Be” is the first syllable of the poem, as a result it receives the first exhale from the speaker’s mouth. It receives initial breath, which is more powerful than subsequent breaths in a poem, at least when it pertains to unstressed syllables. When reading a poem aloud, one can’t help but to burst into the poem on the opening syllable, even if it’s just a small burst. The breathing takes time to regulate, usually a syllable or two or three. What I learned from this is that the opening syllable to a poem can’t really be unstressed. Actually, where I first realized that the opening breath adds stress to an unstressed syllable was in the opening line of Edmund Spenser’s “Sonnet 75,” which begins, “One day I wrote her name upon the strand.” The “one,” while correctly scanned as an unstressed syllable, is more of a semi-stressed syllable. I read Spenser’s poem again and again, I compared “One” to “u” in “upon” and to “the,” which are obviously unstressed syllables, I thought about it, and then applied what I learned to Swinburne’s chorus. It held true there. It held true with many other poems, too. It held true with the poems I wrote. What I learned is that the opening syllable will almost always have a little more stress than the same syllable later in the poem, unless there is a deliberate metrical play being facilitated by the poet. This semi-stressed syllable realization while important was still not fully developed, especially in me and my poetry.

The idea that there was the special syllable intrigued me. I had assumed there were either stressed or unstressed syllables and nothing else. This is all I ever read in books or was taught. Even in the dictionary, there are only stressed and unstressed syllables, and the “Be” in “Before” is unstressed. But here’s a third syllable that is neither. “Is it just an aberration? Is it only true of opening syllables?” I asked myself. I eventually found two answers. The first was realizing that stressed and unstressed syllables are not absolute. They are relational, as hinted at before with the “u” in “upon” and the “the” in Spenser’s poem. While “be” in “before” will usually be unstressed, its unstress comes in relation to the other syllables around it. Since the “be” in “before” is always surrounded by the stressed “fore,” it will almost always sound unstressed. Still, it is more stressed than the “the” later in the Swinburne line. In fact, articles are almost always unstressed, especially when it follows the stressed “fore.” The next unstressed syllable that follows the unstressed “the” is also “be,” but this time in the word “beginning.” This “be” is also considered an unstressed syllable because of where it is in relation to the stressed “gin.” But when I listened closely, I heard it being more stressed than the preceding “the.” I didn’t hear the “be” in “beginning” as stressed or unstressed. It was in between. This time, however, it wasn’t because of initial expulsion of air. It was something else.

When I listened to the lines in this chorus, I heard rising rhythms. Of course, the rhythm will rise naturally with iambs and anapests, but there was more nuance in the rising in Swinburne’s chorus, and it occurs in the second syllable of the anapests. It turns out Swinburne wasn’t using a two-scored scansion system of syllables. He was using a three-scored scansion system. Here’s a different scansion of the opening line:

Before the Beginning of Years - Three Tier

In this scansion, I use “u” and “/” as I used them above, but here I use “u/” to indicate a semi-stressed syllable. When I scanned it by hand with a pencil in the 90s, I used a “u” with a slanted line through it. I was inventing my own scansion and scansion markings, and I would invent more. But back to this line. The rising rhythm is nuanced. It’s smooth. It glides up into each foot’s stressed syllable – unstressed to semi-stressed to stressed. But there’s even more to this rising.

Again, after reading this poem many more times, as well as reading other poems and writing my own poems that tried to imitate meters and rhythms, I heard this chorus’s opening line differently. This time I heard how the last syllable “years” is more stressed than the other syllables in the line. Here’s how I scanned it:

Before the Beginning of Years - Four Tier

Here I use “x” to indicate what I call a strong stress. My ear now heard four levels of stress and I had built my scansion system to include one more scansion symbol. My poet’s ears were really coming alive. Hearing the sounds wasn’t enough for me. I wanted to know why it happened and how I could do it. While figuring it out, I reread Swinburne’s poem “Sapphics.” I liked the way the poem moved, but I didn’t know why it was called Sapphics. At the time, I had a little 4 ½” x 3 ¼” inch Collins Gem Latin Dictionary. (I still have it.) In it, in the prefatory materials, there is a seven-page “Metres” section about Latin meters and poetic forms. One of those was called “Sapphics,” after the poetic form Sappho used, which may have been created by Alcaeus of Mytilen (Sappho’s contemporary). But when the dictionary laid out the meter and format of the poem and gave a brief description of it, it didn’t use stressed and unstressed syllables. It used long and short syllables to represent the three hendecasyllabic lines (or “lesser Sapphics”) and the one adonic. I then remembered Pound mentioning “syllables long and short.” I realized some syllables have a longer pronunciation duration than other syllables. For instance, the “e” in the word “he” is longer than the “e” in the word “the.” I listened to that opening line again.

Before the Beginning of Years - Quantitative

The “–” below the line indicates a long syllable and the “u” below the line indicates a short syllable. My scansion system continued to grow as did my scansion markings as did my poet’s ears. The quantitative scansion system, I would later realize, is also relational, but the relationship has a wider scale. It works mainly with the whole line rather than what is nearby, as in qualitative scansion.

At this point you may be asking, “Why is the ‘Be’ in ‘Before’ longer than the ‘be’ in ‘beginning’?” That’s a good question. Outside of this poem, or if “before” and “beginning” are spoken as independent words, both “be”s would be the same length. In this opening line, however, I hear the “e” in “Be” in “Before” as a long “e.” It is as if the poem begins with a running start or as if the speaker is tuning his/her voice with the commencement of the poem. It might also be because of that initial expulsion of air. Nonetheless, pronouncing it as a short “e,” as in “beginning,” just doesn’t sound right. It’s seems out of key and out of tone, especially with the mood of the poem. One could argue that it is in fact a short syllable, and that is fine, as scansions can be debated. However, I heard and still hear it as a long syllable. The more important observation is the long syllable “years.”

I’m sure Swinburne was aware of long and short syllables, but he didn’t seem to consciously implement them. Even in his poem “Sapphics,” he translates the Greek quantitative meter into an Anglo qualitative meter. Pound will later write at least two Sapphic poems (“Apparuit” and “The Return,” though he disguises the form) where he plays quantitative meter against qualitative meter, and even later on, James Wright will Americanize Sapphics in “Erinna to Sappho,” using three iambic tetrameter lines and an iambic dimeter line. That, however, is another lesson. Back to Swinburne. No matter what Swinburne’s intentions were or were not, “years” is long and stressed. I thought this is how he made the syllable have more stress than a typically stressed syllable. I would later learn that a long syllable, and sometimes just a long vowel, can not only make a stressed syllable more stressed, but it can add stress to an unstressed syllable. In the opening to the chorus, the length of the syllable may also contribute to “Be” in “Before” being a semi-stressed word.

So what I had learned so far and practiced in writing by way of Swinburne? While there are stressed and unstressed syllables in poetry and they can be used as a backbeat to build a poem on, there’s more nuance to those syllables. There are at least four levels of stresses and they can be impacted by the length of the syllable. I learned that I can play stress and length off each other to create certain auditory effects. I would later learn that there’s even a fifth stress. It is more stressed than the strong stress I represented with an “x” in the above scansion. I picked this up from Robert Duncan, who somewhere wrote something like, “in each poem, there is one syllable that is more stressed than all the other syllables.” I found and find this to be often true. Though sometimes there are two syllables that are more stressed than all of the other syllables and sometimes there aren’t any outstandingly stressed syllables. I also learned that stresses are relational as well as the length of the syllable being relational. In addition, this chorus from Swinburne also aided me in realizing that rhythms can rise and fall, rhythms have their effects and can be used to create effects to please a listener’s ear and “delight the expert,” and they can also be used to affect meanings.

Writing in quantitative meters in English, however, is more a difficult endeavor and much more complicated than the four levels of stress. In the Romance languages, as I understand it, the lengths are more certain, just like our Anglo-American stresses. In Anglo-American, however, there are so many variable lengths of syllables it’s too difficult to scan effectively, but knowing when to use a long or short syllable is still useful in composing a music that “will delight the expert.” Further complications in quantitative syllables are compounded with schwas and diphthongs. How many syllables are in a diphthong? For instance, is “fire” one or two syllables? Or is it even more syllables as Robert Pinsky once pointed out when he was in the south and saw a woman running from her burning house yelling “fire” as a five-syllable word. This also became a learned lesson: context can dictate how a syllable is pronounced.

Additionally, after figuring out how a long syllable became a long syllable, which often occurs with a long vowel sound, I learned that vowels, especially long vowels, carry emotions. I thought the long vowel’s emotional effect had to do with duration and pitch. I learned some of this from Robert Bly, who I had thought had a tin ear, but would later realize he was using long vowels to create tones, which was his music. In “Educating the Rider and the Horse,” he briefly discusses it effects:

[The third type of sound a poem with a “wild animal” form is] the conscious intensity – not sequence – of pitches. Syllables that rose high, very high, in the Old Norse line the poets called “lifters.” We can hear them in Beowulf. Sometimes the lifters resemble the peak of a roof, sometimes the dragon prow of a Viking ship that rises and falls. Sounds pronounced naturally in the roof of the mouth, such as “ee,” drive the sound up; conviction drives it up; the beat as it arrives helps drive it up. This is mysterious, unquantifiable. (294)

Allen Ginsberg would do something similar as Bly, but his music came from the ups and downs of pitch. His poems, the lines in his poems (at least the ones I liked and read and studied) would often rise and fall in pitch. Bly would rely on a field of pitch (or a small range of pitches) for tonal effect, whereas Ginsberg would rely on mountains and valleys of pitch for movement and for physical effects. I eventually made up a hypothesis that in poetry the vowels in a word carry the emotions and the consonants carry the meaning, which I think is even more true the further back in English poetry history one listens.

During the 1990s, as mentioned, pretty much all I did was to write in as many meters (quantitative and qualitative) and forms as I could find, including free verse and projective verse. Olson’s “Projective Verse” essay was a major influence on how I wrote poetry. It taught me about breath and breathing, and informed, as a result, though indirectly, my understanding of long and short syllables. I would quote some of the poems I wrote, but I burned them all (all two boxes of them) in a bonfire fifteen years ago on July 3, 1999. It might be for the better because I couldn’t master aligning sound and sense, and to quote them would be embarrassing. Nonetheless, I could write meters very easily. And I could write a line or two that were clear, but writing a whole poem, especially with the complications I added (which I will note below), was more difficult than I could expect it to be. The poems I wrote had intricate meters and sounds, but the meaning of the poems were held together only in my head. They wouldn’t make much sense to other readers. Or the poems would be too abstract. Meters, I discovered, lend themselves to polysyllabic abstract words. At least that is true for me and even Swinburne. Swinburne in his later years fell into polysyllabic music, too. Still I kept at writing in meters and forms. I even tried to train myself to speak in sonnets, but I drift off topic.

Swinburne was not only an inspiration, but he also became a testing ground. If I discovered something in another poem, I would test it out in his poems, as I briefly illustrated above. I would also test it out in my own writings. I began with writing syllabics and used Swinburne’s poem “Syllabics” as a guide, as well as other poets. Once I got syllabics down, I moved on to iambs and then trochees and then to forms with those meters. Then I returned to syllabics and tried to incorporate other musically devices into it, like assonance, alliteration, and consonance. Gerard Manley Hopkins, Thomas Campion, Wallace Stevens, and Linda Bierds were vital in this musical development to “delight the expert.” Having figured out how to make those sounds, I then tried laying those sounds on top of iambs, and then atop other meters, and then into forms. This process restarted again with syllabics and then trying to incorporate etymologies into syllabic poems. I learned how to do this from Hopkins and Wallace Stevens. For instance, in one of Hopkins sonnets (I think it is the one that begins “Thou are indeed just, Lord, if I contend”), most of the words in the poem have etymological roots in feudal law, especially concerning lord and vassals, which I learned after half an afternoon with a dictionary in the Paddy Hill Library in Greece, NY. The poem was rooted by way of etymologies. Stevens did something similar, at times, especially with “Crispin” and “clipped” in “The Comedian as the Letter C.” I would even invent a school of poetry called “Skeatsism,” based on Rev. Walter W. Skeat’s An Etymological Dictionary of the English Language and my findings with Hopkins and Stevens. My writing/discovery process continued with the iambs, other meters, forms, and harmonies, etc. Swinburne was then also a motivator to go learn more. While Swinburne can teach a lot, he can’t teach everything, like long and short syllables, the emotions of vowels, and etymological rotisserie. Still there is one last lesson he had for me.

Besides not being able to write successful poems in meter and form, I also couldn’t master what call the ghost syllable. A ghost syllable is a syllable that has no representation in words or sounds. It is a syllable that is felt. It is a syllable that lingers like a ghost lingers after someone passes away. For example, I will return to the Swinburne chorus I’ve been writing about. Here are the opening four lines again, with scansion:

First Four Lines - Simple Scan

You can see and hear how Swinburne varies the rising rhythms in lines 3 and 4. If you listen even closer, you will hear two extra beats at the end of each those four lines. So it can be represented like this:

First Four Lines - Ghost Syllables

Those two extra stresses (“/   /”) at the end of each line are what I refer to as ghost syllables, and they move the poem forward. They create an extra tension between what is heard and unheard. They extend the line. I thought perhaps I might be hearing things. However, once in 2002 or 2003, I gave a poetry reading to a very receptive audience. Not too far into my reading of this chorus by Swinburne, the audience started supplying those ghosts beats at the ends of the lines by stomping their feet and slapping their tables. They picked up on the ghost syllable, and validated my reading. This effect is magical. Later on, I purchased The Fugs: The Fugs First Album. (The Fugs were an avant-garde rock band, and poets Ed Sanders and Tuli Kupferberg are the most known members.) They did a musical rendition of the same chorus and called it the “Swinburne Stomp.” They heard and included the ghost beat, too. (Their rendition of the song has also influenced my reading of the poem, which is now more dramatic, especially at the end.) To this day, I still do not know how the ghost syllables work or how to do it. I wish I did, but I don’t. This among many things is what makes Swinburne a metrical genius from whom I learned so much about the music of poetry. Those two ghost syllables, the “Be” in “Before,” and “years” were the four syllables that affected me the most.

As a result, Swinburne prepared me for listening and listening with intent. He taught me prosody and how to talk about it. He prepared me for Gerard Manley Hopkins, especially “The Windhover,” which was another influential poem to my ears, as well as Edmund Spenser’s “One Day I Wrote Her Name Upon the Stand” (which maybe a perfect sonnet), and it prepared me John Donne’s Holy Sonnet #10, “Death, be not proud, though some have callèd thee.” It prepared me in such a way that I preferred to write musical poems over poems that made sense. That is, I became so obsessed in writing music to “delight the expert” that I forgot about everyone else, which means I forgot about clarity. The reader needs clarity. Writing poems with clarity would take me a whole other decade with W. S. Merwin to accomplish.

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Works Cited

Bly, Robert. “Educating the Rider and the Horse.” American Poetry: Wildness and Domesticity. New York: Harper & Row Publishers: 1990. 289-96. Print.

Donne, John. “Holy Sonnet 10.” The Norton Anthology of English Language: Volume 1. 5th ed. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1986. 1099. Print.

Hopkins, Gerard Manley. “Thou are indeed just, Lord, if I contend.” Gerard Manley Hopkins: Poems and Prose. New York: Penguin Books, 1988. 67. Print.

Pound, Ezra. “A Retrospect.” Literary Essays of Ezra Pound. Ed. T. S. Eliot. New York: New Directions: 1968. 3-14. Print.

—. “Swinburne and His Biographers.” Literary Essays of Ezra Pound. Ed. T. S. Eliot. New York: New Directions: 1968. 290-294. Print.

Spenser, Edmund. “Sonnet 75.” The Norton Anthology of English Language: Volume 1. 5th ed. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1986. 770. Print.

Swinburne, Algernon Charles. Atalanta in Calydon. Major Poems and Selected Prose. Eds. Jerome McCann and Charles L. Sligh. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004. 3-67. Print.

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Sapphics

– u  – u  – u u  – u  – u

– u  – u  – u u  – u  – u

– u  – u  – u u  – u  – u

– u u  – u

 

u = short syllable. – =long syllable.

The first three lines are the hendecasyllabic lines, or “lesser Sapphics.” The fourth and eleventh syllables are open syllables. Originally they were long, but now are variable.

The adonic is the fourth line.

A Sapphic poem usually consists of a number of these formally structured stanzas.

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To download a PDF of this essay, click Four Syllables.

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09
Feb
13

Helena Mesa’s Horse Dance Underwater (2009)

Over the next few weeks or months, I will post all my reviews (“Tom’s Celebrations”) that appeared in Redactions: Poetry, Poetics, & Prose (formerly Redactions: Poetry & Poetics) up to and including issue 12. After that, my reviews appeared here (The Line Break) before appearing in the journal. This review first appeared in issue 12, which was published circa November 2009.

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Helena Mesa's – Horse Dance UnderwaterHelena Mesa’s collection of poems Horse Dance Underwater (Cleveland State University Press) fulfills one of Philip Whalen’s and my requirements for poetry – poetry is a graph of the mind moving. I know I keep returning to that idea, but it’s a good one. It’s an idea that doesn’t waver and continually proves itself. So with that requirement, Mesa’s poetry proves itself, too. But with Mesa, when she’s moving full force, there’s more. The sound is moving, as well. Specifically, the harmonies. It’s the opposite of Linda Bierds but just as strong. With Bierds, the sounds lead the images and ideas, but with Mesa, the sounds keep up with the images in motion. For example:

   [. . .] Soon, morning hours
   scar our postures with thoughts
   of how we’re still awake, how
   raw words could change a war.
   Our chants hoarsen and against
   a ceiba some stretch, their candles
   cupped close to their chests.

I think this is Mesa’s first book. Whether it is or not, it’s a damned fine book. The language is hard and strong, and the poems create meanings. What else could you want?//

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Mesa, Helena. Horse Dance Underwater. Cleveland, OH: Cleveland State University Press, 2009.//

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.//




The Cave (Winner of The Bitter Oleander Press Library of Poetry Book Award for 2013.)

The Cave

Poems for an Empty Church

Poems for an Empty Church

The Oldest Stone in the World

The Oldest Stone in the Wolrd

Henri, Sophie, & The Hieratic Head of Ezra Pound: Poems Blasted from the Vortex

Henri, Sophie, & The Hieratic Head of Ezra Pound: Poems Blasted from the Vortex

Pre-Dew Poems

Pre-Dew Poems

Negative Time

Negative Time

After Malagueña

After Malagueña

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