Posts Tagged ‘rhythm

29
Mar
17

Notes on Meter and Rhythm: They Aren’t the Same

Sunrise-Sunset Trochee

Each day the sun rises and sets. You can count it, but you can’t set your watch to it, or your metronome. This is my analogy for meter and rhythm. The meter is the sun rising and setting like a trochee.  The trochee repeats each foot, or in the case of the sun, repeats each day. The rhythm is how the sun moves through day. Each day between approximately December 21 through June 21, the sun rises earlier and sets later each day. Its height in the sky changes, too, as well as its angle. On some days, you might not even the sun, such as when it’s raining, or it might appear brighter than the previous day if there is a clear blue sky today and yesterday it was cloudy. On rarer occasions, the moon blocks the sun. The experience of the sun’s movement changes each day, but it still rises and sets each day. And if you want to consider the week as analogy to the line, then the trochaic heptameter will also have changing rhythms from line to line or week to week.

The meter is a way to measure the bounciness of a poem, and the rhythm is how we move through the poem. This might seem obvious, but The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics (1993) says, “rhythm is the vaguest term in criticism” (1068), and often I hear or read of meter and rhythm as being the same thing. As a result, I’m trying to make rhythm less vague and to distinguish it from meter.

Meter is a way to pattern stressed and unstressed syllables and to create expectations in the ear, and the poet will rely on those expectations to occasionally alter or delay them to as to create surprise and meaning. This is part of the reason why no two sonnets, for instance, are heard or experienced the same way. Even if both sonnets are in 14 lines of exact iambic pentameter, their rhythms vary. We know this. We feel the difference in the sonnets, and, in part, it’s because of rhythm.

Rhythm is affected by long vowels, short vowels, and consonants, as well as meter. It’s affected by adverbial and prepositional phrases and other grammatical items, such as punctuation. Notice how the rhythm of a sentence changes if there is a question mark at the end. The voice goes through a convoluted rising sound to indicate a question is asked and not a statement made. The pacing changes. Rhythm interacts with tone, pitch, tempo, inflections, pausing, and other auditory and bodily experiences. Rhythm is the experience of moving through metered lines or non-metered/free verse lines.

Compare these two lines:

O Romeo, Romeo! wherefore art thou Romeo? (Romeo and Juliet II, ii, 36)

Hey Reginald, Reginald! wherefore art thou Reginald?

Both lines have the same meter (or patterns of unstressed and stressed syllables), but the rhythm is different. In the beginning of Shakespeare’s line, the long vowels  – o, o, e, o, o, e, o – create dramatic emotion. The reader/speaker is almost forced to emote these lines to express longing, and I feel like I have to raise my right hand above my head when I speak them. In my line that wonders where Reginald is, the emotion is different and the opening moves quicker, despite the similar meter, and instead of wanting to raise my right hand above my head, I want to move both my arms out a bit with my palms facing the audience to suggest confusion. My experience of moving through the same metered lines is different, in part, because the rhythm is different.

In short, meter can be scored and affects rhythm. Rhythm is the experience of moving through the score.

However, meter and rhythm both affect and are effected by the content.//

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This might be too simplistic, but it’s a starting place. Please add to the discussion in the comments if you wish.//

 

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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06
Jan
13

Gregory Orr’s Concerning the Book That Is the Body of the Beloved (2005)

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 6/7, which was published circa mid-2006.

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Gregory Orr's – Concerning the BookThis book should be on every poet’s bedside like a bible. It’s a bible of poetry. It’s a bible of what poetry is, what love is, & how to live. And it’s beautiful. And it’s tones are so caring & sincere & helping – filled with care & love. And the poems are short, mostly a page long, for each poem is a burst of understanding & vision, but they move slow when I read them, but seem to have only taken a brief moment to have read when I’ve finished, & then a dizziness arrives wondering if I just read one poem or two or three poems. The poems obliterate time, & sing humanity & love. The book is a bible for poets because it reminds us of what poetry is & does, & shows us that there is no separation between persons, love, & poetry, for they are all in unison, all one – hence the title of Gregory Orr’s book Concerning the Book That Is the Body of the Beloved (Copper Canyon Press).

But instead of talking about the content, I’m going to talk about how Concerning makes the content work. The tone of the poems arrives early: from early lines in Concerning’s prefatory poem — “Resurrection of the body of the beloved, / Which is the world. / […] / That death not be oblivion.”; from lines in the opening poem —

   The beloved is dead. Limbs 
   And all the body’s 
   Miraculous parts 
   Scattered [...] 

   We must find them, gather 
   Them together, bring them 
   Into a single place [...] 

                           a book 
   Which is the body of the beloved, 
   Which is the world.

And in the third stanza from the following poem on page 10:

   The shape of the Book 
   Is the door to the grave, 
   Is the shape of the stone 
   Closed over us, so that 
   We may know terror 
   Is what we pass through 
   To reach hope, and courage 
   Is our necessary companion.

And a few more lines in the next poem beginning “When I open the Book” (p 11) & lines from the poem “Sadness is there, too” (p 13).

(Note: these poems do not have titles.) And the tones of sadness with hope are carried in waves throughout Concerning & ride the other tonal waves – harmonic tonalities, but I’ll get to that later.

So we’ve got our tonal bases, now. What else is in the poet’s bible for us poets to learn or be reminded of? We are reminded from where poems arise. We know they arise from our experiences, but when we write we call up other poems, or rather, what other poems do. (All poems talk to each other.) Consider these lines from this poem:

   When Sappho wrote: 
   “Whatever one loves most 
   Is beautiful,” [...] 

   Everything in the Book 
   Flows from that single poem 
   Or the countless others 
   That say the same thing 
   In other words, other ways. 
                                              (p 25)

A bit later in Concerning, in the poem starting “To feel, to feel, to feel,” consider the lines:

   Poem after poem, song 
   Upon song. And all 
   With the same chorus: 
   “Wake up, you’re alive.” 
                                        (p 45)

Isn’t this what all poems do? Don’t they all sing & confirm love, beauty, & life — humanity? Or better put:

   Which is to say: 
   Composing poems 
   And melodious songs 
   That celebrate the world. 
                                          (p 190)

We can continue with this thinking of what every poem does. Robert Bly said something like, “Every poem is an anti-war poem.” And in Ernesto Cardenal’s Cosmic Canticle, after about 100 pages of the beauty of the universe & its creation & its growth, Cardenal steps in to remind us that it is the responsibility of the Latin-American poet to write political poems, & then he does. Concerning realizes Bly & Cardenal. And there are a few political poems, but I just want to note one for what it does – it turns a war poem into a love poem.

   July sun on the green leaves 
   Of that chestnut tree, 
   Intense as when ancient armies 
   Beat their swords on their shields. 

   The beloved marches toward us, 
   Cannot be resisted. 
   Throw down our weapons 
   And beg for mercy. 
   This much love defeats us. 
                                             (p 105)

But there is more because what is said is being done with the harmony of the long E. The first stanza has 6 long Es, & all the lines in the stanza rhyme the long E. Also note that the first two lines create a setting of beauty with long-E words “green,” “leaves,” & “tree.” But it’s not beauty; it’s oppressive heat. So the poem provides a harmonic contrast in the next two lines of violence & war with “armies,” “beat,” & “shields.” Then the long E is dropped, like the weapons, until the last two lines with “mercy” & “defeat,” which harmonize but do not rhyme for the violence is defeated with love & mercy.

There is also a larger harmony in Concerning, reminiscent of Pound’s harmonic tonalities in The Cantos. Concerning’s large harmony rests in the B-words of “book,” “body,” & “beloved,” as they are repeated frequently throughout. But there’s more, & I’ll show it this way. Robert Duncan claimed in each poem there is one syllable that is more stressed than any other syllable in the poem. We can agree or not with Duncan, but the idea applies to Concerning because the words that resonate most in the book are the words that make the important theme in Concerning, which is the connection of book-body-beloved, so these words that receive the most stress throughout. I’ll illustrate with the poem beginning “In the spring swamp.”

   In the spring swamp 
   The red-winged blackbird 
   Perched on a cattail stalk: 
   Have you heard its song? 
   If you have, no need of heaven. 
   No need of divine resurrection. 

   It’s one of those birdsongs 
   That hold a spot in the Book, 
   Saving that space until 
   A human song comes along 
   Worthy to replace 
   All that wordless love. 
                                     (p 99)

You can hear how “Book” receives more stress than the other syllables. So one might think, “But this undermines the poem’s important message of love.” But the poem resolves this conflicted interest between the major theme of Concerning & the major theme of love in the poem. The poem does it like this. You can hear in this poem many stressed syllables, which are often next to each other for two syllables, like “spring swamp,” or three stressed syllables, like “cattail stalk” or “those birdsongs,” or even for four stressed syllables, like “red-winged blackbird.” All those heavily grouped syllables coupled with the rhythm push into the last line’s “All” & give it more stress than it might normally have & it definitely increases its duration, which will then be balanced by “love,” which has more accent because of rhythm & because of the long duration of the “v”. Plus, being at the end of the line, “love” reverberates off into eternity, or heaven – or so it feels. And by adding eternal duration & more stress to “love” (that clichéd word, in that clichéd position as the poem’s last word), the poem overcomes, & love overcomes the clichés & gains impact & profundity, & it resonates. And thus it emphasizes the theme without detracting from the “Book.” But I have a little more to say. This poem also does what it says. The poem’s rhythms & stresses have filled “love” with meaning, & thus, usurped its clichédness. And the usurping is like the human song replacing “All that wordless love.”

But wait, you’re saying, of course, “love” at the end of a poem is going to resonate with the V-sound. But consider this poem:

   Saying the word 
   Is seizing the world. 
   Not by the scruff, 
   Not roughly, 
   But still fervent, 
   Still the fierce hug of love. 
                                            (p 115)

In this poem, the short-U sounds in “scruff,” “roughly,” “hug,” & “love” usurp the clichéd meaning “love” like the stresses in the poem just mentioned. But here love is pronounced different. It is cut off short because the emphasis is on the short-U sound – it steals the resonance of the V-sound, pulls it back. And again the poem is doing what it says. The speaker seizes love – hugs, holds love in place – & keeps it from drifting away, just like the sound of “love” doesn’t drift off at the poem’s end. A better way of saying all this is:

   The heart uttering its hurt 
   And its happiness: syllables 
   Whose rhythm captures 
   The pulse of sorrow or joy, 
   The slow ache or throb of it. 
                                              (p 23)

Yes, the poems in Concerning the Book That Is the Body of the Beloved are “melodious songs / That celebrate the world.” At the same time, this book is really one long poem, & we learn to breathe, or gasp, at the end of each poem making up the whole big poem. The gasping is the book’s rhythm, it stresses the joy of each poem,

   And when joy 
   Arrives – hard 
   To read at all. 
   Blinking at Page-dazzle; 
   The words Breaking apart 
   Into letters, 
   Dancing there, 
   Unable to calm down. 
                          (p 73)

And I have been unable to calm down.//

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Orr, Gregory. Concerning the Book That Is the Body of the Beloved. Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press, 2005.//

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You can read my other review here: Amazon Review. (Look for “Thomas Holmes ‘Redactions’.”)//




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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