Saturday, April 22, 2006

But what do you compare it to?

Couple days ago I told Jessica Smith that I wasn’t kidding when I said (of Annie Finch) “I love it when people talk of poetry as a dance”: “I always remember – tho I can't lay my finger on it” (said I) “that passage where WCW kicks Pound's butt over the ‘condition of music’ business, and tells him that if poetry has to be compared to anything, it ought to be compared to dancing.” So Michael Zbigley replies:
Pound also said "Music rots when it gets too far from the dance. Poetry atrophies when it gets too far from music."

I don't recall that WCW line, but I suppose the salient point is that both dance and poetry arose as responses to music, supplements, you might say.

The Derridean logic of the supplement certainly plays out in poetry's history, i.e. poetry as augmentation to music becomes poetry as replacement for music, but this seems less apt for dance. I suppose purveyors of modern dance see their work as separable from music just as poets since at least the 13th century have been happy to speak their poems sans melody.

Pound again: "There are three kinds of melopoeia, that is, verse made to sing; to chant or intone; & to speak. The older one gets the more one believes in the first."
Well, I found the WCW passage I had in mind, from towards the end of Spring and All:
Writing is likened to music. The object would be it seems to make poetry a pure art, like music. Painting too. Writing, as with certain of the modern Russians whose work I have seen, would use unoriented sounds in place of conventional words. The poem would then be completely liberated when there is identity of sound with something – perhaps the emotion.

I do not believe that writing is music. I do not believe writing would gain in quality or force by seeking to attain to the conditions of music. (Imaginations 150)
Nothing about dance there, tho my memory isn't playing me entirely false, since Wms a few lines before writes of how poetry "creates a new object, a play, a dance which is not a mirror up to nature but –"

I don't deny the historical linkage of music & poetry, & EP, Zukofsky, and Bunting among others certainly got a lot of mileage out of the entertwined roots of the two arts. But for all the maddening & wonderful inconsistencies of WCW's statements about poetics, I think he's onto something: that the Paterian notion of art aspiring to a "condition of music" – a content-free, non-referential, purely formal shape – is only one of the options open to the poet in the 20th century & beyond.

Admittedly, there is a very basic pleasure to be obtained from the poet with a conventionally or unconventionally musical ear. And one can't gainsay the achievements of poets who've been attracted by the model of music – Pound and Zukofsky, to name 2 who really didn't know jack about music in any substantial sense, and Bunting, who seems to have known quite a bit. But there's no meaningful, foundational link between the two arts – maybe never, and not anymore if there ever was.

I find, as I get older and even dorkier on the dance floor than I was when I was young & thin, that I find the metaphor of dance – and metaphors're all they are, these "musics" and "dances" and "paintings," after all? – more attractive when I sit down to write. Celan's "Todesfuge" got analyzed in German high school classes all thru the '70s for its "fugal form," but it's worth remembering that the poem started life as "Todestango."
Oh yes, the weekly random 10:

1) “Den of Sins,” Naked City, Naked City
2) “Born to Run,” Emmylou Harris, Spyboy
3) “Down Where the Drunkards Roll,” Richard Thompson, the big box set
4) “Bottle of Smoke,” The Pogues, If I Should Fall from Grace with God
5) “I Don’t Know,” Mekons, I Love Mekons
6) “Friendly Ghosts,” Mark Ribot, Rootless Cosmopolitans
7) “Archimedes,” John Cale, Hobo Sapiens
8) “Garage d’Or,” Mekons, Original Sin
9) “Long Dark Street,” Oysterband, The Shouting End of Life
10) “Ashes to Ashes,” David Bowie, Scary Monsters


Henry Gould said...

The best thing I've read on poetry & music is an essay by Donald Justice (an accomplished musician & occasional composer himself), in his book OBLIVION.

He points out the confusedness in most "expressive" theories of poetry, including those related to music.

He notes that sound effects (melopeia) in poetry tend ultimately toward nonsense (rather than expression) : and that this is often kind of a "necessary" nonsense, a veering toward anarchy & play.

There's MUCH more in this little essay - I just wanted to mention it.

Alex Davis said...

Frank Kermode has a wonderful essay on this topic in Pieces of My Mind: "Poet and Dancer Before Diaghilev."

zbigley said...

I suppose the trouble here is one of vocabulary. When you say "poetry" you really mean "contemporary poetry," or, at the broadest, "poetry as we have known it since the Romantics"--as is more clearly implied in your post on Duchamp--while I'm thinking of "the tradition of specifically lyrical poetry in the West."

Of the former I suppose it is correct to say that "there's no meaningful, foundational link between the two arts," but it's exactly false in the case of the latter. As distinct from tragic and epic poetry, lyrical poetry was always conceived as poetry to music from Pindar through Dante. What Pound was getting at was that we've lost something fundamental, something foundational in getting away from that.

I'll concede the "at least not now" portion of your formulation and only want to register my regret. These days, as I become increasingly disenchanted with the contemporary options for poetry, I find someone like Townes Van Zandt to be far more satisfying on every level.

I myself have zero interest in poetry that "aspires to the condition of music" in the sense of being, as you say "a content-free, non-referential, purely formal shape," but that's a mis-characterization of Pound, to be sure.

Mark Scroggins said...

When I spoke of the "content-free, non-referential etc.," I wasn't characterizing Pound, but unravelling some of the implications of the Pater statement that he returns to so often in his critical works.

I'm pretty leery of taking Pound's rhetoric of poetry and music as invariable historical truth -- sure, okay, when Sappho wrote she was probably composing something that was a combination of music and words; but as early as Simonides one sees a poetry -- maybe not a *lyric* poetry, but a poetry nonetheless -- clearly designed for inscription rather than singing. By the time of Horace, as WR Johnson argues in *The Idea of Lyric*, one already has a *rhetoric* of musicality which has replaced actual music in the lyric poem.

(The poetry/music combination, it strikes me, is like the mythic notion of the divine founding of one's own city. Nobody remembers it, and nobody can tell quite how it happened, but once upon a time... Or maybe it's an edenic parable...)

When you say that "lyric poetry was always conceived as poetry to music from Pindar to Dante," you lay your finger on a power rhetorical imagining of what poetry is -- a kind of self-definition of lyric -- but it takes us back to what I was trying to say in the post: that the poem as music is a metaphor, & only one out of a number of metaphors poets can choose from (and it seems always could, since you except the tragic & epic).

Many things are telling me these days I ought to discover Townes Van Zandt.

zbigley said...

The civic myth is an excellent comparison. The important thing is that one always constructs one's own myth, and any one poet's myth finally only sheds light on his or her own poems.

But yes, get yourself some Townes, by all means.