(note: this is part II of a 1996 letter from the late Doug Oliver on his book Poetry and Narrative in Performance)

So we can say: “The ‘neutral’ or ‘unmarked’ tune is that which the words would assume for an average voice in a given dialect when no special emphasis is given to the line, providing there were absolute agreement between different readers about the semantic, emotional and syntactical interpretation.” Just because there can’t be absolute agreement doesn’t mean that very often we don’t have such close agreement that we begin to sense the possibility of a perfect tune.

This implies to me, against much that is fashionable in literature today, that it does make sense to talk of people being able to read poetry better than others. There is no need for this to be in the least anti-democratic, because my statement also acknowledges that other interpretations will yield other tunes; but there again the notion of a better or worse reader will arise.

I needed to take such trouble over what may seem a minor point because I couldn’t reform the description of prosody unless I could put into it some secure-ish notion of the melody of a given poem. My prosodic reform begins with a redefinition of what a poetic stress is. All poetic music in any language, just about, depend upon duration, stress (or rhythm), and melody (intonation). Stress seems to happen in an instant of time that we may click with our fingers. Duration is its paradoxical bedfellow because everything that makes a syllable seem to carry a heavy stress takes time to happen. I have given many lectures testing out the following definition of stress before audiences, mostly by playing them the same blues song and asking them what causes a certain syllable to carry stress. As much as possible, I don’t influence their replies.

By common consensus we find at least one or two, often more, of the following elements as reasons why we think a syllable bears a stress. The basic model to bear in mind is like this:

Backwater Blues done caused me to pack my things and go.

… past of stress stress pause future of the stress

From everything audiences say the following can be factors in making us think a stress is heavy or light:

1. The sound: pitch (melody), duration, loudness, and voice quality. Since the stress happens in a notional instant of time – without content – duration is also the element that gives stress its content.

2. The main assignment of the position of a heavy stress is from abstract metrical pattern (if used) – or other poetic forms of patterning – plus linguistic factors, including the natural individual word-stress, the main information focus in the sentence (very important), syntax, etc.

3. In actual performance, 1 and 2 are combined with how important the meaning of the word is and how important is its emotional significance. A stress is a moment when we think we have unified the sound, the meaning, the emotional significance, and the functioning of the word within the sentence, into a single moment when all these come together into a single “beat”.

4. In practice, this gets more complex than I have time to go into. For example, audiences always agree that the pause after the word “Blues” affects our sense of how stressed the word is. How quick the syllables are before counts; how quick they are afterwards counts. The fact that “Blues” is part of the title (meaning) or that it is “blued” in the singing (emotional significance, plus voice quality) are part of the reasons why we think it is stressed. And so on.

5. All that is unified in the beat needs time to develop in the past or the future of the stress, or otherwise we have no time to make the comparisons which tell us whether a word is high or low in pitch or in loudness, important in meaning, emotionally significant, and so on. The past of the stress and the future are therefore read back both ways by the mind on to a single moment when we think the stress had occurred in the immediate past.

–––––––––––––> <––––––––––––––

past of the stress stress pause future of the stress

Backwater Blues done caused me to pack my things and go.

6. All this boils down to saying that the stress is the smallest moment in a poem when we perceive the developing artistic form. For poems I’d define form principally as a unity between sound, meaning, and emotional significance. I accept that forms are never perfect: again, I’m not reactionary. But someone has to explain why an audience when it sings along knows exactly at what moment to clap and knows when it gets the beat slightly “off”. It is not a moment of exact mathematical interval between the beats, but a much more mysterious interval which depends upon a formal perception.

7. Edgar Allen Poe thought metrics was like mathematics. In a way so do I, except that it is a mathematics of durations and pitches which has to take account of our emotional response to meaning.

Once stress has been redefined, it can also be seen as the sliding point where the instant of time through which the sounds have passed is united with duration. That is, it is also the moment when we unite the individual (and ineffable) instant of form into the ongoing processes of form. And we do that by reading durations of time both ways (past and future) on to that instant.

You can think of the instant as quantum-like if you wish. This is why I keep saying “notional instant” and “instant” – it’s an ancient philosophical problem whether we can bring an instant of time into consciousness. We can’t.

Then we may build up a hierarchy of formal development in the poem, considered in its ideal (ineffable) formal perfection:

The stress unites change (notional instant) and flow, but has to be anchored down in time before we can appreciate this. We anchor it in the syllable. The syllables unite into words and poetic lines, phrases, sentences, cadences, stanzas, and so on. Again, described in ideal perfection, the poem would then meet the Romantic poet’s ideal: the union of the part (stress) with the whole (the poem) within the one form, a form which gives “delight”.

Of course poems never do this perfectly and much experimental poetry is designed to allow them to do it as little as possible, by forbidding closure. But the forbidding of closure presupposes closure, so that avant-garde forms or art are always in tension with traditional forms; and much of their interest stems from that. We are, however, in a new era of space-time mathematics and our descriptions of the human mind are, in tandem, changing. This doesn’t mean that the human mind itself has changed much, perhaps….



Originally Published: October 31st, 2009

The son of poets Alice Notley and the late Ted Berrigan and stepson of poet Douglas Oliver, Anselm Berrigan earned a BA from SUNY Buffalo and an MFA from Brooklyn College. His collections of poetry include Integrity & Dramatic Life (1999), Zero Star Hotel (2002), Some Notes on My Programming...

  1. October 31, 2009
     edward mycue

    here on the west coast in san francisco this last thursday night jacke & adele foley and judy grahn provided a concert at the san francisco main library in civic center that embodies your two essays. true original communal expansive.\r
    innocent too of external presumptions. powerfully centered in validated experience. true voices of our people. edward mycue

  2. October 31, 2009
     Colin Ward


    It's a pleasure to see a discussion of the technical aspects of the art form.\r

    Are you a proponent of the notion that "all poetries are quantitative"?\r


  3. November 1, 2009
     Vivek Narayanan

    Thanks for this absolutely fascinating and lovely letter, Anselm. It's very useful in thinking all this through, and I look forward to reading the book. \r

    I still couldn't help tensing up a bit though, when he says says, "this implies that... [some people]read poetry better than others." My problem is not with that statement--I do in fact agree that some people read / perform poetry better than others, even if ultimately, let's face it, performing poetry is not a very high-skill activity, it has much more to with personality and ways of negotiating the public sphere. And I don't disagree with the notion that a poem contains within it an intrinsic tune, though I would prefer the adjective "intrinsic" as opposed to "neutral" or "unmarked" or "perfect"--the last word, especially, does seem very clearly Platonic to me. \r

    Nevertheless, I'm wondering about(at least, the faintest hint of) the suggestion here that a "neutral" performance is an ideal one. Of course, he hedges and plays off his claims very carefully, showing both that that "other interpretations will yield other tunes" and (in part 1 of your post) that this intrinsic tune is "ineffable", that it "doesn't quite exist". \r

    What do you think about this? It seems to me that Oliver's great achievement in this letter is to establish the validity of an intrinsic (if ineffable) tune for the poetic line, and to then posit a far more sophisticated base for prosody than we ever had before; but the question of what actually constitutes a good or bad performance of poetry remains an entirely separate question, doesn't it? \r

    A couple of other questions: 1) were these explorations in prosody mainly about listening, or did they lead Oliver to invent / try out any new prosodic systems in his poetry writing and, if so, can you point me to specific poems /books where he experiments with prosody? 2) Did Oliver have a take on automated voice readers-- like Microsoft Sam -- since I think in some ways of these being as close to "neutral" as we have thus far? (They also, in their way, demonstrate the impossibility of the neutral performance; but I find them "good to think" through prosody.)

  4. November 1, 2009

    Yep. My first instinct is right. Mr. Berrigan, your Uncle Doug has simply, rather nicely, looked to assay prosodic workings in the range of sprung rhythm, what takes us back to when the language was younger, going back to Early English, or before the tongue got so screwed over by rules of Classical (quantitative) syllable measures. What a pseudo-morph on English these measures have proved to be at least since Chaucer.\r

    But don't take my word for it. Read a G.M. Hopkins poem aloud. Catch the sprung rhythm and the hovering stress and the outriders, as he called them. This is the stuff your uncle is talking about. Better yet read again Early English poetry and see if the scops were not looking to meet poetry to performance.\r


  5. November 1, 2009
     Paul Killebrew

    I like this ambition, trying to carve out a kind of democratic superlative.

  6. November 1, 2009

    Thanks for the various comments - when I have some more time later today or tomorrow morning I'll try and address them individually a little more particularly. For now, here's a link to a discussion of some of my stepfather's work that took place last year:\r


    The poems of Doug's that have the most intricate prosody include his satiric political poem The Infant and The Pearl - a satire on Thatcher's Britain written in the mid-1980s and making use of the alliterative verse form of the The Pearl with some extra technical devices added to that form for purposes of attending to the modern ear (I'm paraphrasing Doug's own description here). He also wrote another longer satirical poem, Penniless Politics, that covers the rise of an imagined third party out of manhattan's east village. That poem is in ottova rima, also with a few extra prosodic twists so as to update the music a bit.

  7. November 1, 2009
     Joe Safdie

    Anselm, it's a bit short of miraculous that you're blogging here and providing (already) so much essential information. Here (as a sidelight) are some stanzas from my epic poem about this year's baseball playoffs that mention your first post above . . .\r

    he pops weakly to Swisher in right,\r
    so the Yankees might come back\r
    after all, that’s what money can buy,\r
    a downtick in spending causing\r

    the stock market to plunge 250 points,\r
    Happy Halloween Americans!\r
    welcome to Dante’s Inferno, where\r
    everyday citizens are whipped\r

    mercilessly by the momentary\r
    failures of nerve of day traders\r
    at Goldman Sachs, Swisher doubles\r
    down the third base line\r

    as if in sympathetic magic\r
    with the author of this poem,\r
    thrilled by being able to use the word\r
    “swisher” in a poem – a game – \r

    that has just seen Andy Pettite\r
    drive in the tying run, 3-3,\r
    Hamels has to gather himself\r
    but he doesn’t, Damon doubles in\r

    two more, and the Yankees lead\r
    five to three, but the silver lining\r
    is that an American League pitcher\r
    getting a hit in a World Series\r

    exposes the DH as an embarrassing\r
    lapse into literalism, because anything\r
    can happen in a poem – a game – \r
    and I don’t want Wittgenstein\r

    to be called in from the bullpen,\r
    when you’re talking about philosophers\r
    (as Anselm Berrigan was earlier\r
    today, quoting his stepfather on Harriet)\r

    my weakness is Whitehead\r
    (can’t you see that line being quoted\r
    in an admiring review? No?) Well,\r
    when Andy Pettite’s glove makes\r

    a perfect dark triangle with\r
    the shadow his cap makes\r
    over his eyes, his true Scorpio\r
    demeanor becomes apparent,\r

    especially when facing Howard,\r
    who’s struck out six times\r
    in a row (at least he didn’t\r
    make it seven), but let’s face facts:\r

    if the Yankees win this game,\r
    this Series is over . . . the Phillies’\r
    pitcher now is named “Happ,” \r
    like Thomas Hardy’s great poem\r

    minus one pee, which proposes\r
    that Swisher would hit a home run\r
    just when things are looking good,\r
    blind chance ruling the universe,\r

    (it goes on like that)\r

    Regards . . .\r


  8. November 2, 2009

    Thanks for posting this. Great to be reading about speech melody. English is a tonal language, not on the level of the word, as in some East Asian languages, but on the level of the phrase, and it's good for a poet to be thinking about this.

  9. November 2, 2009
     Matthew Z

    Hi Anselm, thanks so much for posting this, I and I'm sure lots of others read it very carefully and with many new thoughts. The thing I kept coming back to is, "Just because there can’t be absolute agreement doesn’t mean that very often we don’t have such close agreement that we begin to sense the possibility of a perfect tune." This seems to me to be a very wise and true realization one arrives at after a lot of thinking. That "sense the possibility" seems to me to be somehow central to poetry: not the actuality or presence of the "perfect tune" (which would probably explode our brains) but the immanence of it. So maybe his ideas are "religious" in the best sense of that word.

  10. November 2, 2009

    What's key to the notion of perfection, and what keeps it from Platonism, is in Part 1 of the letter, where Douglas Oliver distinguishes between performance and description, and says, if I understood him correctly, that the possibility of perfection can only be apprehended in a particular performance, not comprehended in a description.\r

    Among recordings of classical music are dozens of competing interpretations of the same scores, which nonetheless agree on the basics of the meanings of the pieces. The miracle of splicing and overdubbing allows for any recording to convey its interpretation perfectly. Whether one subtly different interpretation of "The Rite of Spring" is more perfect than another can only be *felt* in performance, not described definitively.\r

    This is perhaps only relevant in an emotional and gossipy way, but the best reader of poetry I ever heard is Alice Notley, whom I heard several times in the early and mid-'80s, reading her own and others' work.

  11. November 2, 2009

    Not a lot of Yankee fans here, huh?

  12. November 2, 2009
     Anselm Berrigan

    Hi Colin,\r

    Well, Doug can't speak for himself, alas....but my feeling is that his take on duration would interfere with any absolute decision regarding all poetries being quantitative. There is also the matter of different languages and their relations to tone, vowel sound, stresses and so forth.

  13. November 2, 2009
     Anselm Berrigan

    Hi Vivek,\r

    Thank you! In reverse order: I don't know that Doug had a take on automated voice readers. I don't think he was very exposed to the technology, for one thing. The ability to get the tech for his recording experiments was, I believe, very temporary. I suspect he'd have something to say about it, but that's a bit inadequate of a statement -- it's more about my desire to hear him talk about it.....listening to doug talk was a real delight whatever the subject. \r

    I do think the experiments had an impact on his own writing, but prosody was something important to his sense of poetry his whole writing life, so the experimentation with prosody within his writing predated the scientific work. And the poems I mentioned before - The Infant and The Pearl, and Penniless Politics, are good examples of this. The former written before the study, and the latter written afterwards.\r

    I also imagine Doug was thinking about listening as a way of participating in a performance - his take on the neutral tune relies upon a near-consensus among listeners as to very particular qualities of a poem being recognizable in order to come near it at all. This strikes me as significant because I think, actually, that the ability to listen to a poem or a song at the micro-level that Doug is talking about requires a combination of attention and experience....it's something like a skill. When I hosted readings on weekly basis for four years at the poetry project in nyc I was often struck by how difficult it was for audience members to allow themselves to do nothing but listen.\r

    One thing about performing poetry as a high-skill matter - I agree that how one handles the social space of performing in combination with one's personality has a lot to do with whether or not a performance "works" in a theatrical sense. But when it comes to performing the "music" or "tune" in a poem or piece of writing, I think there's a real skill to that, and it has to begin with being able to detect the music in the first place (much less being able to write with it anywhere in mind - the writing of a poem necessarily has to be faster, in most cases, than the ability to design the music I think). And I think that's part of why Doug made a point of separating dramatic reading from the performance of the tune of the poem, such as it may exist. \r

    I don't think, finally, that he was equating the neutral tune with an ideal tune - I think he was suggesting that by looking at stress as the smallest possible moment in which we perceive the development of form we might begin to imagine a relationship-of-scale from stress to whatever the largest "unit" in the work might be that could lead to something like a snapping together of all the parts in unison so that the poem swings, vibrates, gives delight, and so forth. But he's also careful not to separate meaning and emotional response from his ideas of music - and this is why referring to a poem's music is far from simplistic (as has been said to me on occasion when I've referred off-handedly to a poem or poet's music. sigh.)\r

    What I'm really struck by at the moment is the fact that stress can be readily apparent and elusive (moving) at once - this could be a very freeing notion for someone who is interested in prosody and looking for a fresh way to talk/think about it.

  14. November 2, 2009
     Anselm Berrigan

    I'm sorry, I meant to add that it sounds to me like Doug was saying that you can establish a neutral music - but under very specific conditions that require a consensus about very particular aspects of the poem - including what good and bad readings might be. The key there was for Doug to, as he put it, try to influence the audience as little as possible. He gave lectures on stress outside of these experiments, by the by, and these lectures included participation in determining where stresses fell in a line and often, according to my mother, demonstrated to audiences that it wasn't always possible to tell in many cases where exactly the stress was falling though it would be clear the stress was there, etc. \r

    But I mean, I think you can get into a place where a good reading or a bad reading is at least partially about how the reader/performer is relating to the poem. And Doug was also thinking of the act of writing as a performance of the poem, and the act of reading a poem to oneself as another kind of performance, so there's a lot of terrain there.

  15. November 3, 2009
     Vivek Narayanan

    Thanks, Anselm. There's a lot in what you're saying that really resonates. I've been hearing about "Penniless Politics", and a little about "The Infant and the Pearl", here and there, over the years--but this really gives additional incentive to try and get hold of those texts, jump into them; I guess I didn't register that he was so interested in prosody. The only thing I've read of Oliver's is "A Salvo for Malawi" in Iain Sinclair's Conductors of Chaos anthology-- discovered on a Bombay pavement a few years ago-- and of course, in a distorted mirror kind of way, in White Chappell, Scarlet Tracings and other assorted texts of Sinclair's, I believe.

  16. November 3, 2009
     Don Share

    Dear Vivek... I was coveting that very book yesterday afternoon at our wonderful Myopic Books! I only hestitated to take it home with me because I daydream of an updated edition.

  17. November 4, 2009
     Vivek Narayanan

    Which one? Conductors of Chaos? Yes, it's certainly interesting, and it is, I believe, one of the few anthologies that really opened up that whole world to a larger audience. But of course, it suffers from all the usual deep problems of anthologies--in its own particular ways. Sinclair lets each contributor choose her/his own selection--a very interesting decision, in true collaborative spirit he is giving up some of his power as editor--but as you can imagine that leads to other problems and questions.