Poetry and Music

The instruments I love the most are the ones that resonate—a cello, a double bass, the English horn, the oboe. I like to hear the drummer’s fingers move across the drum, or the metallic noise of a callous dragging across a guitar string.

Similarly, the voices I love the most are the ones that fail—a singer like Björk trying to do a very low note, or Ani Difranco out of breath or laughing while she sings, or a singer’s voice breaking on a note from either intense emotion or mere strain. I suppose it is the human quality that I love.

Technically speaking, I suppose poetry and music share the main affinity of working against silence. In poetry, the language works against silence, but also the subject or content of the poem must modulate against the unsaid part.

George Braque wrote, of the appeal of a vase as a compositional object to Cubist painters, “The vase gives form to emptiness as music gives to silence.” May I swerve from the statement and go to the metaphor?

Music has always been equally about the tones and the spaces between them. Is it possible for one note to offer emotional content? I believe it is. In yoga, breath is considered the core of practice. In my own Muslim upbringing I was told a saying of one of the Imams: “God is closer to you than your own breath.” I wonder what lives between the inhale and the exhale?

Scientists tell us that the universe made a sound in the beginning. It is as likely as any other that the sound was OM. It’s possible still the universe echoes from that first sound. By gauging the light of very distant stars, it is now also know that the speed of the universe is not, as was previously believed, constant. Stars continue to accelerate away from us. So we are still in God’s exhale. Assuming both the expansion and contraction are equal, we are not yet even halfway through the life of the universe.

A comforting thought in the uncertain world.

That music can define silence was probably most radically demonstrated by John Cage in his 4’33”, but Morton Feldman actually worked through the silence, position individual notes sometimes, but building phrases and sounds that worked against a purely melodic line, the kind that uses mathematical chord progressions, a line or theme that once one gets a hold of aurally, one can predict the outcome or, as they say, “hum along.” I think particularly of Feldman’s haunting Rothko Chapel, chilling soundscapes that wash over the listener in an evocation to Rothko’s hauntingly not-minimalist paintings.

When we think of music in poetry, we might most often think about sound, rhythm, meter, assonance and repetition. I’m after something else: a music of the sentence, a music in the way a thought works. Yesterday I mentioned three poets in connection with the unbuckling of syntax: Olga Broumas, Susan Howe, and Jean Valentine.

Here’s a stanza from Broumas’ collaboration with T Begley entitled Sappho’s Gymnasium:

Lord let me all I can wild cherry
I'm dazed all my ways of arriving bear tracks
failure of being torn to pieces is me
mumbling anxiety and I love my heart
I do each day lightly suffering desire
for kindness vividly today
idiot red unselfish green blue threadbare of cloud
outside the labyrinth imagining my life

The music here is a luscious unbraiding of syntactic relationships. It would be wrong to even go back to the rubric of parts of speech to try to assign relationships here. (For example: can “wild cherry” in the first line function as a verb? Can we put commas in the fifth line to return it to grammatical sense?) Rather the intent here is musical sense—the poem is “about” something the way music has a subject.

Language is always representational to me, even if the writer’s goal is to uncouple the representation that seems to be the starting point. Is music representational? When Stravinsky wrote about the “fire-bird” in what ways did he write the “fire?” Similarly how did Mussorgsky spell “mountain” or Feldman describe Rothko? We would need the vocabulary of composers and the knowledge of theory to explain it.

If Broumas and Begley work in the lyric or ecstatic mode of music, then Susan Howe can be called a narrative poet of this mode. She works from story, and is perhaps interested rhythmically not in this mellifluous gorgeousness, but in a starker, more syncopated line, more haunted, more filled with silences. Here is a small piece of the first poem in “Pythagorean Silence” from her book Europe of Trusts:

age of earth and us all chattering

a sentence or character

steps out to seek for truth fails

into a stream of ink Sequence
trails off

must go on

waving fables and faces War
doings of the war

manoeuvering between points

any two points which is
what we want

Each truncated bit speaks three ways: to the phrase before it, the phrase after it, and to the silence surrounding it. Once the poem does stutter: “must go on.” As with much of Howe’s work, these poems are directly political, but also performative as material: both sonically as language, but also spatially in the page.

Broumas and Begley’s music shows the exciting possibility of loss in the erotic fluidity of language and language systems—Howe’s is a darker prophetic voice of how language has functioned in history—an obscurer, a mistranslator, and apologist for imperial war.

These poets are engaged—beyond their compelling subject matter—and from very different aesthetic positions—in foregrounding the performance of language within the poem. Jean Valentine works with a similar attention to syntax and silence, but perhaps without the foregrounding of the language as material.

Here’s the first of Valentine’s “Two Poems for Matthew Shepard” from her collection Door in the Mountain: New and Collected Poems:

But what about the blue dory—the soul

—Thief the sun Thief the rain

Into love
the size of a silver dollar
[the soul] disappeared
to a pencil point then

his nails
and his hair.

In this poem, the initial question (without punctuation), the italics line, the change in lineation, bracketed phrase, tabbed word, subsequently each work against the previous formal outlay of the poem. The soul appears in it, softly and without warning—the question isn’t answered. The final sentence omits the subject [the soul], already departed.

What could happen to poetry if we left the mathematical systems, the tonal registers—the way Broumas, Begley, Howe, and Valentine do?

Music, like poetry, is composed. A classical composer (or a pop-music songwriter) will work within a given mode, given sets of notes, keys. Twelve-tone composers like Schoenberg or Webern worked within systems. Even Cage, revolutionary and immense, was interested in systems.

What happens to music when it leaves the system? Yoko Ono, Alice Coltrane, and Sheila Chandra are three contemporary musicians whose work departs from the known into the territory that Broumas, Begley, Howe, and Valentine mine in words, a place where silence, the individual’s own actual sound (in Coltrane’s case, her instrument, but for Chandra and Ono, the human voice), and the universe of emotion govern what music is, not the mathematics of the system.

Ono’s voice is a sculptural object. In a masterwork of the early seventies, “Fly,” Ono modulates a single note dropping out of sung registers into the throat for 22 minutes. The piece is the soundtrack for her film of the same name in which a woman’s naked body is treated as a vast landscape for a single fly. Coltrane works her organ and harp in unbelievable ways. Ornette Coleman actually sat and transcribed the performance of her “Universal Consciousness” so that other musicians might actually learn the music.

Sheila Chandra, in her ABoneCroneDrone series, shows that a single note not carries immense emotional weight on its own, but there is really no such thing as a “single note.” Each one carries under it a harmonic sequence (mathematically plottable) of seventeen other notes.

The source of the art supersedes the limitations of the medium itself. Returning to Braque, he once wrote (I’m translating it badly): “I never plan a painting beforehand. The painting makes itself under the brush. I insist on this point. The painting is not complete until the original idea has been obliterated.”

In fact, in 2004 astronomers discovered that there is a “sound” of the Universe. Science fact: the universe is humming. A galaxy in the Perseus cluster approximately 250 million light years away is emitting a note: B-flat. 57 octaves below the piano’s middle C.

Originally Published: April 4th, 2006

Poet, editor, and prose writer Kazim Ali was born in the United Kingdom to Muslim parents of Indian descent. He received a BA and MA from the University of Albany-SUNY, and an MFA from New York University. Ali’s poetry collections include The Far Mosque (2005), which won Alice James Books’ New...