Poetry and Narrative in Performance, part II
(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….
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...