The Poet's Ear (Part 4)
In my last post I used Robert Creeley’s “I Know a Man” to illustrate the basic principle behind torque: that of twisting or swerving away from an expected cadential trajectory. Creeley’s enjambments are both arbitrary and motivated at the same time: they continually threaten to jar us from the precipitous headlong syntax of the poem. That syntax, however, is ultimately sound enough to keep us on track. We get jerked back and forth a bit, but we make it to the end in one piece. The poem is about the threat of cracking up, but it never actually does. One could even argue that the poem’s “flow” is finally quite traditional, that the recurrent torsion effects end up reinforcing it, not dismantling it. But what about poems without that stable undergirding of fluent periods and narrative continuity—poems that are totally torqued up?
Here are the first few lines of Lyn Hejinian’s chapbook The Guard (Tuumba, 1984):
Can one take captives by writing—
“Humans repeat themselves.”
The full moon falls on the first. I
“whatever interrupts.” Weather and air
drawn to us. The open mouths of people
are yellow & red—of pupils.
Cannot be taught and therefore cannot be.
As a political leading article would offer
to its illustrator. But they don’t invent
they trace. You match your chair.
Such hopes are set, aroused
against interruption. Thus—
in securing sleep against interpretation.
Anyone who could believe can reveal
it can conceal. A drive of remarks
and short rejoinders. The seance
or session. The concentric lapping.
Hejinian’s poem is a good example of the “New Sentence” format described by Ron Silliman, in which grammatically and thematically unrelated phrases are arranged consecutively so as to produce maximum torque. The experience of reading such work is something like walking on a newly waxed floor in dress shoes. You never know when you’re going to slip and have to lurch to right yourself. The disordered syntax and abrupt truncations keep the mind awake, constantly anticipating the next phrasal aberration and scrambling to hold the broken stream of images and ideas together in some meaningful relation (“Such hopes are set, aroused / against interruption”). Hejinian writes in The Language of Inquiry about this poem: “I wanted to set the work in motion against itself, so to speak, to establish the inward concentricity, the pressure, the implosive momentum that stands for the struggle that is enacted in the poem” (p. 63). This could stand as an apt definition of torque: a concentric pressure imposed on the flow of the poem, displacing the cadences the reader expects to hear and forcing the brain to adapt to these disjunctive skips (“The concentric lapping”).
To return to my earlier question, what might it mean to have an “ear” for this kind of writing? What would it mean to have a bad ear for it—beyond simply not appreciating it? Despite the not infrequent objections of certain readers that poetry of this sort is artless, I can say from experience (with my own work and that of others) that it is quite possible to fail at composing in New Sentences and similar experimental forms. At the same time, the ear one needs to have in order to write in this way is not quite the same as the ear one needs to have to write classically graceful verse or prose. I say not quite, because there is some overlap of sensibility involved, but there are also different factors at play. Hejinian’s ear is sensitive in some of the same ways that, say, Keats’ was: she knows how to arrange vowels and consonants and different lengths of phrases in ways that soothe, alarm, spark associations, etc. And this is no small feat! This skill is perhaps the hardest thing to teach creative writing students, who are sometimes even recalcitrant in their resistance to the idea that a string of sounds can be objectively measured for euphony or cacophony. I’ll admit that I have a hard time respecting any poet, whatever their other strengths, who doesn’t show some aptitude in this regard. And yet, I don’t think it’s enough anymore (and probably never was enough) to get by as a poet on this ability alone.
One way out of the problem would be to say that it’s not about ear at all, that disjunctive syntax and other poetic alienation techniques are about jarring people out of their need for lyric (and other kinds of) closure so that the mind can step in and be critical. And though there is something to this, I still maintain that torqued verse does solicit a certain sonic sensitivity. The best way I can think to put it is this: the ear one needs in order to critique the “music” of poets like Hejinian, Bruce Andrews, et al., is one that is alive (consciously or unconsciously) to the usual elements of assonance, consonance, cadential patterning, and so forth, and able to deal with radical syncopation or elision at the level of both sound and meaning. Put another way, one has to learn to like noise—ideally, while understanding why it is considered noise in the first place. An analogy would be the aesthetic demands placed by jazz in the twentieth century on listeners used to classical music. For some listeners, the difficulty needs to be bridged intellectually before it can be resolved sensually—but this need not mean that the sensuality is false. And of course there are those listeners who can make the leap to sensual appreciation without due intellectual process, which is fine if they don’t embarrass themselves too much by trying to talk about the experience.
I should add that there are two main reasons for liking noise. One is because it bothers other people, and the other is because one actually derives pleasure from the sounds in themselves. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say that the first reason often leads to the second. And maybe if one leaves the first reason entirely behind, it’s time for a reality check. Let’s not forget what’s truly important. There are always more people out there who really, really need to be bothered, and noise is always a great way to do it.
K. Silem Mohammad is the author of several books of poetry, including Deer Head Nation (2003), A Thousand Devils (2004) Breathalyzer (2008), and The Front (2009). In The Sonnagrams (2009), Mohammad anagrammatizes Shakespeare’s sonnets into all-new English sonnets in iambic pentameter. He is also editor of the poetry magazine Abraham Lincoln and faculty editor...