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Sound (Shape) As Thought


What happens when the poem sounds itself in reading (out loud or 'silently,' to oneself) is a music the mind sees (and so hears) in terms of its attention to syllable(s) and space(s) -- pauses, line breaks, the turning of the page. For what is the thinking of the poem if not its sound, however that is measured (voiced) by the one called reader. And how else does the poem get read except in the hearing of it. (Listening to reading frames the poem in terms of one's experience of hearing it read.) The poem's literal information, that is, as notes in music determine the shape ('shape') of what's heard. To paraphrase Olson/Creeley, SOUND IS NEVER MORE THAN AN EXTENSION OF SHAPE -- its shape being in the poem a matter of the line and how whatever syntax is there unravels itself along it.

It's not that semantic meaning in a poem doesn't matter, nor that poetry matters primarily as sound apart from meaning. Rather, the poet's act of composition -- and reader/listener's performance of that composition, whether as written (seen) visual text or spoken (heard) acoustic text -- involves the physical presence of words and the spaces between words whose identity is a matter of shape and sound. Our experience of shape and sound, what we see on the page and hear in the air (eyes vs. ears: perception of print vs. perception of pitch, accent, duration, etc.) makes possible any experience of a text's meaning. Poets 'do' things with words, as do readers and listeners, both acts grounded in the fact that words are themselves 'things,' 'objects,' 'material,' 'phenomena' as such. The shapes of letters in words and the music of those shapes read aloud are intimately engaged in the production of lexical meaning, which is itself different from yet inextricably bound to whatever any poem can be said or thought to 'mean.'

Think of the long line currently being explored by Mei-mei Berssenbrugge (and others), a line whose shape plays a particular music (and meaning) that wouldn't come about by any other means:

As far as the transparency or relative compression of her boundaries is concerned, and your backward focus to it:

A white glass of water is hard to conceive of, because we cannot depict how the same thing would be white and clear, and how this would look. She doesn't know what description these words demand of her, since she is alone.

She can sometimes see the events of a story as if they lay behind a screen, and it were transparent, rather like a sheet of glass, since human beings can be reflected on a smooth white surface in such a way that their reflections seem to lie behind the surface, and in a certain sense are seen through it.

One is compelled to go forward here, at a pace commensurate with the speed the eye can cross the page, taking in such 'content' as may be available though that is not 'the point' of such writing. Where it is going in the time it takes to get there is the sound it makes, in words that make the world in its own sound (shape) as thought.

If the sentence stops (at the period) there is a break (in sound), during which Beautiful, unrepeatable, fleeting impressions can be framed . . . [as] a way of repeating a dream. Which is to say, thinking now of Stein, the time of the poem ("composition") and time in the poem ("composition") are precisely the same, at least in the act of reading (sounding).1

To speak of the junction between two thoughts is necessarily to distort the fluidity of thinking, whose sound is inevitably continuous -- no bars, no gaps, a single measure equal to the person's life. What appears to be different is only the next ph(r)ase in the curve "beginning again and again" (Stein).2

You can be trying to connect the experience of being lost with something external or physical, but we are really connecting what is experienced with what is experienced.

The connection of 'this' to 'this' becomes apparent as the shape (along horizontal and vertical notational axes -- pitch, duration, 'silence') of the poem's sounds, this one and that: "And after that what changes after that, after that what changes and what changes after that and after that and what changes and after that and what changes after that" (Stein).3

The longer the line the further it glides, its gesture (shape -- sound -- meaning) to this extent determined by punctuation, which pauses, and the line break itself, which frames syntax at the margin (edge) of thought.

Anything with limits can be imagined, correctly or incorrectly, as an object,
even some language in the way that it is remembered, if you consider
each repetition a fact or object of varying strength in various situations of frequency and
     quantity.

Seeing (hearing) the shape (sound) of the poem, one discovers what it means to say: "the sound and pitch emphasis of a word are never apart from its meaning" (Zukofsky).4 To deny this is to deny the struggle to make certain meanings stick.

What the sound of the poem contributes to its meaning is everything that matters. In such an event (in time) the sound of the text fills the page (air). Because your eye clings to this margin, it appears to speed up. As Alan Davies has written, "The moment's attention, locked to any sound from inside any word:-- that structure must locate itself from within and without, in relation to such points." 5

When Zukofsky defined the poem as "a context associated with 'musical' shape, musical with quotation marks since it is not of notes as music, but of words more variable than variables, and used outside as well as within the context with communicative reference," he means

The speaking [poem] is a constant notation of parallel streams of thought and
     observations
whose substance is being questioned in a kind of oral thought at once open and precise.

Likewise, his attempts to locate the poem in terms of its "limits" ("upper limit music, lower limit speech"; "poetry may be defined as an order of words that as movement and tone [rhythm and pitch] approaches in varying degrees the wordless art of music as a kind of mathematical limit") mean to think of a structure (of sounds) which, until read, "convey[s] the totality of perfect rest." Setting the poem's words into the air, to be a spontaneous part of the desire itself, where coincidence and nonsense merge, is to release (sound) the potential held in its body (shape); as Zukofsky again puts it, "The feelings of painting and sculpture travel with the movement; the body of what is seen is in the music."6

Writing the poem is this act: an extension (placement) of words from the body. The route-through tightens around the nervous system like a musculature. One feels (finds) the words, touching the page.

To say it again, the sound of the words: the rhythm of the body. And if words are to the poem as notes to a musical score, the person who 'plays' the poem becomes "the instrument of language. The writer has written the writer" (Davies),7 who thereby acquires the power to make the space continue beyond the single perception, into raw material or youth of the body, like a body of light.

The poem is the sound whose meaning (heard) is the sound of the poem

dissolv[ing] now at the top of her head, now five lights into her heart. Now, it dissolves into her body. Her friends dissolve into light. They dissolve into her family, which seems to dissolve into clouds that were already full of light.

The words on the page (in the air, then ear) 'do' nothing but this.

Zukofsky, again, quoting Stevens: "poetry [the body] is the subject of poetry [the body]."8 What is to be said (written) will be heard by listening to the sound of thought, whose shape coincides with its meaning. Not the sonogram but sound itself, meaning its own identity --

for which a particular light can represent an initial condition. Even the slightest movement
of a hand or a finger is controlled and emphasized as by a spotlight of this sensitiveness,
the way repetition is a cessation of the potential for conscious experience.

The stopping of any thought, or turning at the line break, is a moment (temporary) of 'silence,' to be followed again the way any moment that happened and in which you think about her goes/ a long way toward convincing you of the autonomy and pre-existence of her form. As John Cage has written, "What we re-quire     is silence     ;      but what silence requires     is      that I go on talking."9

Cage (again): "What I am calling     poetry      is often called     content. I myself     have called     it form     .     It is the continuity      of a piece of music."10 The one who reads (hears) becomes the one who writes to the extent that she imagines the continuity of that sound. Such an act of imagination, as Adorno points out (paraphrasing Stockhausen), "is the passage of the work through the subject, is not some fixed quantity but a variable,"11 depending for instance on the person.

She is not the name of a person, nor there of a place, but they are connected with
     names.
There is a way of traveling, by rotating an orientation, while she remains within herself.

Her existence takes place in the poem, whose words are the sound (meaning) of the world (knowledge) she thinks she knows. Communication between writer and reader (listener), as Cage writes, "takes place of its own// accord,/ is/ for all the world/ inevitable."12

Writing, then, is the sound the reader shapes, listening. The moment the poem is sounded

is the space of the point of a moment in your seeing him or hearing him.

You can calm yourself by moving toward one of these points, the way you move along your own breath.

The reading of the poem is its own thought, making sense by meaning shape (sound), a body of a cloud, which shifts in and out of focus as one reads oneself into consciousness. Of the world, in words, as shape towards sound --

This is the realm or field in which other people exist in subtler forms than the body in daylight. A part of the person can become visible at a time, or parts of the people, and other parts rest in folds of the fog, as if they were muffled sounds.


Passages in italics are from Empathy, by Mei-mei Berssenbrugge (Station Hill Press, 1989).