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The Inward Ear: Reading Basil Bunting’s ‘Briggflatts’
When I was nineteen, I had a bewildering encounter with language, an encounter that changed the way I relate to words and their sounds. I was reading Basil Bunting’s “At Briggflatts Meeting House.” Characteristic of Bunting, the poem begins with a series of monosyllabic stresses, short detonations distinct from the general “poetic” swoon I’d heard recited and mocked, recited and mocked, in the narrow hall of aesthetic education. But Bunting was about something else. “At Briggflatts” begins with these eleven words: “Boasts time mocks cumber Rome. Wren / set up his own monument.” What? Though I’d read a few of Bunting’s other poems and loved “I am agog for foam,” the combination of intense compression and foreign diction here was too much for me. I’d probably never seen the word “cumber” outside of, well, “cucumber.” Furthermore, it was not clear which parts of speech any of the first four words in the poem occupied. As the sounds accrued into a sort of chant across my day–Boasts time mocks, Boasts time mocks–something else was also happening. Stripped of their semantic references, words started taking on other energies.
I could hear how “boasts” and “Rome” contained the same long “o,” as if the line began and ended on the same note, like a piano scale ascending from and descending to a C. The current of “m” sounds in the middle four words of the first line immediately evoked a river. Water rippling is the feeling I still get from nasal consonants strung together like this, a steady rhythmic propulsion. My mental image conjured by the line– conjured by its sounds, that is, not its meanings, about which I was clueless–was that of a long war boat (there’s that long “o” again in “boat,” hidden within Bunting’s “Boasts”) parading along a channel, waves slapping the oars. It was not as definitive an image as might be conjured by direct description. Rather, it floated, vaguely but surely, on a sub-semantic level. “The tune’s image holding in the line,” as Bunting’s friend Louis Zukofsky wrote–implying, I think, that a poem’s music may indeed produce its own pictures.
Seeing a line of Bunting’s poetry as a war boat pushing along the water may seem either ridiculously mystical or simply mundane. But what I was envisioning through my hearing got me much closer to appreciating the shape of the verse itself. My experience of Bunting’s language as original forms, not references, unlocked the physical relationship of the words as they unfurled across the page. There is a Protestant prayer, rooted deeply in Luther’s and Calvin’s notions of God’s Word as a heard thing: “Open our hearts to be attentive; that, seeing, we may perceive; and hearing, we may understand; and understanding, may act upon your word.” Hearing Bunting’s line, I understood–not what the words meant, but, rather, how they moved, how energy was exchanged among them. And “understanding,” I felt involved in the action that is poetry.
Boasts time mocks, Boasts time mocks. In time I “got it,” figured out that you could insert a “that” between “Boasts” and “time,” and that “cumber” meant “encumber.” The line became a simple sentence: subject, dependent clause, verb, direct object. As Richard Caddel glosses Bunting’s sense: “The boasts which Rome (metonymically, the culture of ancient Rome, or perhaps the Roman Catholic Church) once made about its permanence now encumber it, and are mocked by the passage of time.” But the line was not the same as if I’d immediately understood its grammar; it was never the same, because my confusion briefly revealed a new aspect of language itself. Liberated from their immediate meanings, the words had come alive, like stuffed animals after the last light’s gone out.
While I had been taught, and would continue to be taught, that sound “imitates”–or, slightly better, “enacts”–sense in a poem, what I experienced then (and now experience frequently) was a different order of relationship. Sense does not predetermine a poem’s music. Poets do not set out to arrange words in order to describe a feeling, or an experience, about which they already know. Rather, the relationship between sound and meaning in a poem is one of constant exchange, kinetic, dialectical–even, as my imagined war boat suggests, agonistic.
Synesthesia may be a useful analogue for the relationship between sound and meaning I am trying to describe. Though I am not synesthetic, a startling experience occurred recently as I was reading around in Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself.” Section 36 of the poem begins by describing two warships–there’s that archetype again– crossing after a night battle at sea. Zooming in from a long tracking shot, Whitman examines the wounded on board the ship that has just surrendered:
Near by the corpse of the child that serv’d in the cabin,The dead face of an old salt with long white hair and carefully curl’d whiskers,The flames spite of all that can be done flickering aloft and below,The husky voices of the two or three officers yet fit for duty,Formless stacks of bodies and bodies by themselves, dabs of flesh upon the masts and spars,Cut of cordage, dangle of rigging, slight shock of the soothe of waves.
Between the first four lines of this passage and the final two, Whitman’s diction and measure intensify drastically. Something happens to the body of the verse, and to our bodies as well. “Stacks,” “dabs,” “masts”: this fifth line is full of “ae” sounds, fast nasal vowels which Americans pronounce with the tongue very low and far forward, nearly out of the mouth. (How different the line would sound if read in Bunting’s Northumbrian English, which elongates the “ae” sound, adding a layer of tonal reserve.) Variations of “s” stop each vowel sound, marking the words’ edges, but in the inconclusive and permeable manner of sibilance. In fact, every word in this fifth line that is not a conjunction ends in a variation of “s.”
Formless stacks of bodies and bodies by themselves, dabs of flesh upon the masts and spars… Everywhere, a tension between the repeated nasal vowel and hissing consonance bespeaks the failure of our valves, the leaking open of our most precious physical boundaries. It is my contention that the sounds of this line, heard in the context of the poem’s section and at the proper idiomatic speed, produce a particular synesthetic impression, even a distinct scent: a smearing, leaking smell of wounded flesh. There is a rubbery tang (burning bodies) in the repeated “ae.” There is the swirling movement of the smell itself, gathered and let go by the wind, in the sibilance of the repeated “s.”
Can language activate the olfactory organ through sound alone, prior to any semantic direction to make us think, “smell”? Interestingly, after this pungent phonetic incident, the words “scent” and “sniffs” appear in the very next lines of the poem:
Cut of cordage, dangle of rigging, slight shock of the soothe of waves,Black and impassive guns, litter of powder-parcels, strong scent,A few large stars overhead, silent and mournful shining,Delicate sniffs of sea-breeze, smells of sedgy grass and fields by the shore, death-messages given in charge to survivors.
A case like this, I think, reverses the traditional relationship between sound and sense that I was taught. Sense imitates sound, insofar as the mental image of a particular scent of human flesh, called up by a string of nasal vowels and sibilance, leads to a direct statement about smell later in the passage. Meaning rushes to catch up with what sound has already discovered.
The impressive physicality of Whitman’s verse, his ability to achieve particularities within the general unifying wash of his philosophy, derives from his openness to the power of vowels and consonants to utterly permeate his writing, his abandon to be guided by sound. D.H. Lawrence criticized this openness on a spiritual level, arguing that Whitman’s lack of boundaries and impulse toward “merging” resulted in a “leaking out in a sort of dribble, oozing into the universe.” Yet from line to line, Whitman’s “merging” has the opposite effect, allowing for particular collisions of other sense-traces, occasions when the ear stimulates other body parts.
I’m not aware of much literary criticism that has explored the capacity of sound alone to produce mental images, or to activate other sensory organs. Perhaps sonic effects are too difficult to describe, or too personal to smuggle into academic arguments. Or perhaps, as Robert Von Hallberg has suggested, we shy away from discussing musicality in poetry because music itself “has no convincing account” of its own power.
But the Islamic scholar Michael Sells, in his recent translations of and commentary on the early Suras of the Qur’an, has ventured something similar to what I have tried to describe in Bunting and Whitman. These Meccan Suras, from the initial period of Muhammad’s prophecy, are chiefly lyrical, concerned with personal emotion and complex sound patterns. As Sells writes, he was first drawn to the task of translating the Suras because he wanted to replicate certain effects of their recitals, as he has experienced them in cafes in Cairo and on bus rides to Alexandria. It is the sonic experience of the Qur’an that Arabic culture sanctifies, with celebrity reciters known for their drastically different enunciations.
Though the nature of Allah is male, Sells argues that these early Suras offer an alternative “sound vision,” via phonetic suggestion and recombination, wherein the divine spirit is feminized. When Sells listens closely, a female form of the divine emerges–not from semantics, but from the quality of the Arabic syllables as they recur and relate to each other. Sura 1, nicknamed The Opening, begins with this line (transliterated from the Arabic):
bi smi llahi r-rahmani r-rahim
Sura 97, The Destiny, concludes:
tanazzalu l-mala’ikatu wa r-ruhu fiha bi idhni rabbihim min kulli amrsalamun hiya hatta matla’i l-fair
In these examples, the repetition of the female pronoun hā, often hidden within longer words, “creates a sustained…figure” of a feminine divine spirit, according to Sells. It is not that the hā sound “imitates” a woman while the words “describe” her; onomatopoeia is simply an advanced version of the notion that sound trails after sense. Rather, the recurring hā sound evokes, like a picture or an odor, a sense of the feminine, which the ambiguous gender of rūḥ (the word for “spirit”) enhances.
Perhaps the agon of translation has torqued Sells’s ear to a state where he can risk envisioning the inherent physicality of the Arabic–“moving figures,” as he puts it, “evoked by but not confined to particular words.” As Guy Davenport says regarding Homer’s Greek, all good translators accede to the reality that “words are animals, alive and with a will of their own…Asked to be neutral, they display allegiances and stubborn propensities. They assume the color of their new surroundings, like chameleons; they perversely develop echoes.”
Of course, in English translation we lose much of the ambivalence inherent in the Suras’ sonic depths. But in the Arabic, the stubborn echoes of a feminine spirit retain their suggestive tension, with political and theological ramifications that are truly radical. Sound haunts a language’s “internal differences,” the very site of meaning and its (sometimes endless) contests. Beneath these ancient hymns of power and awe, beneath the surface descriptions of a male God, Sells hears a different shape rustling and dancing. His argument, whether one buys it whole, is an elegy to the enduring vitality and subversiveness of poetic sound.
Sells’s audition of a hidden figure moving across the Suras, my blunderings about in Bunting and Whitman–each hearing instilled a certain de-familiarization or dislocation. For sound in poetry to activate its potencies, conditions have to be right. I want to conclude, then, by nodding towards our present modes of transmitting poetry in North America and raising the question: what are the necessary conditions for sound in poetry to reach its aesthetic capacity? Should we read poems out loud from podiums, in front of small audiences? Should we whisper poems to ourselves, out of a book or from a computer screen? Should we memorize poems and hear them exclusively in our heads?
For years, I would have deferred to Bunting on this question. Bunting made his opinion about the optimal conditions for poetry’s reception known in the preface to his Collected Poems: “I have set down words as a musician pricks his score, not to be read in silence, but to trace in the air a pattern of sound that may sometimes, I hope, be pleasing.” Bunting’s idea of poetry’s transmission begins and ends with recitation. Nothing should be said “about” the work at all. Because poetry primarily deals “in sound–long sounds and short sounds, heavy beats and light beats, the tone relations of vowels, the relations of consonants to one another,” Bunting thought that silent reading was a major factor in the public’s distrust and dismissal of poetry.
But Bunting’s stance, comprehensive as it seems, raises questions. First, is his prescription for reading aloud directed at the same “unabashed boys and girls” he mentions as ideal readers in his preface? That is, is he speaking somewhat pedantically for the sake of newcomers to the art? Second, as I know from experience, Bunting’s emphasis on the importance of recitation does the nervous or inexperienced reader no favors. The egregious failure to connect with one’s audience that plagues most contemporary poetry readings should not ipso facto condemn a poet to oblivion. Third, I wonder: does silent reading really reduce the phonetic complexity of phrases like “Boasts time mocks cumber Rome”? Because I was too confused to risk enunciating Bunting’s poetry at first, silent reading became the place where my imaginative warship of vowels ran along its consonantal water. I first learned to hear Bunting inside my head.
Bunting’s concern for phonetic complexity is one that Christopher Middleton also shares, as Middleton’s own poems well attest. Yet it is out of this very concern that Middleton argues in favor of “the silent or murmuring reader,” instead of Bunting’s emotive reciter. For Middleton, most vocalizing is inevitably reductive of a poem’s sound values. Kenneth Cox, who may have anticipated Middleton’s argument, came to the same conclusion when he examined a recording of Lorine Niedecker reciting her poem “Darwin.” (Cid Corman compelled Niedecker to record a few of her late poems–her only extant recordings–just before she died). In Niedecker’s poetry, Cox found that “small differences of pitch and length, emphasis and enunciation, there indicated by visual means, could be picked by the reading eye and transferred immediately to the inward ear, without need to read them aloud.” In Bunting’s own terms, when we vocalize poetry, “something is lost” for both Cox and Middleton.
Granted, Niedecker proves to be an uninspiring reader of “Darwin,” lacking the vitality of her Northumbrian friend in his “Briggflatts” recording. Niedecker refused to give public readings late in her life, when a few English professors in Wisconsin finally knew her, and when she surely could have used the money. But Niedecker’s reluctance to recite her poetry stemmed from more than shyness: several letters to Corman rehearse her deliberated “minority” opinion against reading aloud (“The world is mad, MAD on this subject”). Aesthetically, Niedecker embodied a stance similar to that of Cox, who argued that “the inward ear” is the proper site to receive the “delicacy and variety” of syllables as they spin and pivot down the page. “The inner ear,” as Middleton writes, “is capable of an auditory complexity which exceeds almost any audible vocalizing.”
The ossicles, the three pieces of tissue that process sound on its way to the cochlea, form the three smallest bones in the entire body. Middleton’s inner ear, Cox’s inward ear: wherever this delicate instrument of receptivity is most intensely activated, there we will have the primary conditions for poetry. I prefer Cox’s phrase, for its echo of “inwardness” and, therefore, its inescapable spiritual resonance. Bunting sitting in a Quaker meeting at Briggflatts, maybe composing a few lines in his head; a crowded bus full of Egyptians and one Westerner, falling silent to the tones of the Suras over the cassette player; a drowsy reader’s senses shocked as he takes the sound of Walt Whitman wholly into his body and starts, for no good reason, to sniff at the air–as it is with grace, another condition of complex phonetic receptivity must surely be surprise.