Poetry News

PennSound Presents: 'First Readings'

By Harriet Staff

Rae Armantrout

PennSound presents a new series called First Readings. It's all about the experience of initially encountering a new and unfamiliar poem. First up: Jennifer Ashton reads Rae Armantrout's poem, "Spin," selected from her Wesleyan University-published collection Money Shot (2011).

The email inviting me to participate in this exercise arrived while my husband and I were having a drink in a restaurant bar before meeting a friend for dinner (as it happens, the poet Roger Reeves).

JA: This should be fun. Look, the poem starts with “that” and ends with “there.” So it’s like the whole poem is a way of saying “That there!”.

WBM: Hugh Kenner used to call that the Jane cord. He said you could learn something about any text by looking at the first and last word.

JA: The Jane chord? Is that a real thing? How’s it spelled?

WBM: J-A-N-E. It was invented by Jane Brakhage — the wife of the Canadian filmmaker Stan Brakhage.

JA: What about “chord”?


JA: Oh, “cord” like a string or a rope —

WBM: Yes, because it stretches from the beginning to end of the poem and it’s like the whole poem hangs on it, like it’s strung along a wire. Wait, what did you think it was?

JA: I was thinking “chord” with an “h.” Like the first and last word are the opening and closing notes from the poem, hit at the same time, as if you were listening to them being played together.

WBM: I never saw it written down, but I’m pretty sure it’s “cord” with no “h.” [Picks up phone, types in “brakhage jane cord.”] Nothing much comes up.

JA: What if you include ”Kenner”? Did you try typing “chord” with an “h”?

WBM: [Types “kenner,” adds an “h” to “cord.”] Here’s something, a letter from Hugh to Bill Buckley. It says “you calculate it by combining the first and last words of ‘any book by any mortal,’ and if it is ‘a book worthy of human veneration these words combined will state the book’s quality in a phrase.’”

JA: So it is “C-H-O-R-D.”

WBM [reluctantly]: I guess so — if that’s how Hugh spells it in the letter. I’d sort of like to see the actual letter. I still can’t quite believe it. Ever since Santa Barbara, I’ve had this image of the poem strung along a wire and that was the cord.

JA: But even though “cord” and “chord” with an “h” are totally different, it’s actually not all that different if you’re just thinking about how the two words work for the poem. Oh, there’s Roger [my “first reading” will have to wait].

Read on at PennSound.

Originally Published: November 26th, 2013