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'. . . sound . . . shape . . . meaning . . .'


What is the shape of reading, the sound of a text as I read with the eye or the lips? How do I know the text -- words on the page, words in the air? What is that arrangement of language on the two-dimensional page, the sculpture of sound in air? What is the meaning of sound in poetry? What is the relation between sound and meaning, sound and the visual shape of the poem on the page? How, in Zukofsky's poetics --

                                             music

                                             speech

                                 An integral
                                 Lower limit speech
                                 Upper limit music

-- is music the "upper limit" of writing, speech its "lower limit"?

Listening to Reading is about writing as an act of the mind playing with words across time and space that separates and connects them: the sound of words as memory ('echo') of their physical shape which is itself a memory ('echo') of sound: the sound/shape of words and the world we know in words -- words on the page (seen by the eye), words in the air (heard by the ear): dimension of letters on the page and in the air: weight of words as sound or silence waiting to become sound.

The essays that follow offer a critical and 'performative' presentation of 'experimental' writing -- 'avant-garde,' 'post modern,' innovative,' 'language writing': I am less concerned with labels than with asking how this writing works, how it invites us to read -- from Mallarmé, Stein and Cage to books published in the '80's and '90's by Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, David Bromige, Clark Coolidge, Beverly Dahlen, Michael Davidson, Larry Eigner, Robert Grenier, Lyn Hejinian, Paul Hoover, Susan Howe, Ron Padgett, Michael Palmer and Leslie Scalapino -- writers whose work is viewed as 'difficult,' ostensibly 'inaccessible,' and has as yet been largely ignored by criticism.1 My assumptions are (1) that the sound of a poem's words and their visual shape on the page are interconnected: that the sound of words is, literally, an 'acoustic shape' (the shape of words in air), their shape literally a 'visual sound' (letters waiting to become sound); (2) that 'meaning' in poetry exists only in relation to sound (music/silence) and visual shape -- that sound/shape articulates (and creates) 'meaning'; (3) that the poem is less a representation/evidence/likeness of the world than its sound ('echo'), an event in which the world takes further shape; and (4) that the traditional border between criticism and/or theory and poetry is necessarily restrictive, and may be usefully transcribed by a writing that 'listens' to reading: i.e., that itself articulates/enacts the 'role' that sound/shape plays in the composition, and also the perception, of poetry. In testing these premises, I will demonstrate and question how the poetries that are my subject might be read.

The book presents two different kinds of writing about poetry -- 'critical analysis' and 'performance' -- both of which pay particular attention to sound, shape and the relation of sound/shape to meaning. The two kinds of writing alternate with each other ('analysis,' 'performance,' 'analysis,' 'performance' and so on.) in order to suggest the 'conversation' between them: readings whose purpose is to 'explain' the writing that is their subject punctuated by 'readings' whose purpose is to perform/demonstrate that writing by doing/enacting it. The reader will be able to experience, and distinguish between, these contrapuntal forms of writing: analytic close reading and reading-as-writing-itself -- writing that in listening to reading engages its subject on, and in, its own terms.

"The Asymptote of Elsewhere," for example, which asks how writing and reading interact, lays out the ground upon which my reading/writing has been built; "Writing [Echoes] Writing," examines the intertextual nature of writing-as-'memory'/'echo'/'quotation,' writing that attempts to write the world but can't, and the strategies concomitant with that circumstance; and "Memo/ Re: Reading Stein" (on Stein's early works), "Writing/ Re: Memory" (on Lyn Hejinian) and "Listening to Reading" itself (on Leslie Scalapino) are critical/expository pieces in which I think about how to read Stein, Hejinian and Scalapino. Alternatively, "Con( )Text" is an epigraph whose fifty parts 'score' the white (silence/music) space of the empty, two-dimensional page with a series of 'sound bytes' that will map the contextual 'landscape' of the writing that is my subject; "Signature" -- a poem/essay of memory, sound, echo and counting -- performs the writing I mean to explore; "Idea's Mirror" (on Susan Howe) and "Reading Sun" (on Michael Palmer) -- whose two 'voices,' registered in Roman and italics, interact and subordinate: reader interacting with writer, reading with writing; reader subordinate to writer, reading to writing, the Roman voice (mine) to the italicized one (Howe or Palmer's) -- are 'close reading' for the initiate, writing that will demonstrate the intertextuality of writing itself; and "The Landscape (Body) of the Poem," a prose poem that is also criticism, closes my reading by returning to the sound of the world in words.

Inviting a full engagement from the reader even as it itself enacts such a response, the writing in these 'performative' pieces challenges the reader to redefine his or her role (as reader/listener) in reading a text. It has permitted me "to say what I [have] to say," as John Cage puts it, "in a way that [will] exemplify it; that [will], conceivably, permit the listener to experience what I [have] to say rather than just hear about it."2 It will also allow me to demonstrate correspondences between the poetries that are my subject and the sorts of critical claims -- about writing, reading and the alphabet -- that might be made about such poetries: demonstrate how poetry and critical discourse interconnect, how writing of a given discourse is inextricably bound up with writing in a given discourse. Although admittedly 'difficult,' this writing is also essential to the scheme of the book because it is an extension of the writing that is my subject: writing that is itself listening to reading.

Before I begin, some preliminary remarks about the relation between music (sound/silence), shape, meaning and the written text in poetry. Sound in poetry may be thought of as 'dimension': the acoustic dimension, given that the text itself (letters spelled into words, 'scored' with marks of punctuation) exists on the page in two visual dimensions -- the horizontal 'axis' of letters, syllables, words, spaces, the line; the vertical 'axis' of a sequence of lines running down the page.3 Whereas its sound (the sound of letters, syllables, words, lines) 'realizes,' when the poem is read aloud (heard by reader/ listener), a third dimension, which brings the two-dimensional text fully into the world: as articulated 'acoustic shape' (sound-as-shape, the shape of the poem in the air/ear) -- a shape which, until the poem on the page is read aloud, exists only in potential, as Olson suggests when he writes, "A poem is energy transferred from where the poet got it . . . by way of the poem itself to, all the way over to, the reader"4 -- reader who will, in hearing it, 'complete' the circuit. Reading aloud, and listening to reading, is crucial to this realization.

Words read with the eye only, in 'private' reading experience, register only part of the poem's reality/being (presence). Full presence, in the present, becomes realized only when poem enters ear: through air, as words read aloud. When we read the poem 'silently,' with eyes (but not ears), we think that semantic 'meaning' is the key: " She sang beyond the genius of the sea." But to ask, What does Stevens mean here? is to miss the point; whereas if we truly 'listen' to reading we will experience the poem in its full three dimensions, as both visual text and sonic text, words on page and in air. So that we hear (here) four long e sounds ("She," "ge-" "-nius," "sea"), four s sounds ("She," "sang," "genius," "sea") -- hear in other words the poem's articulation of acoustic 'shape' -- what the poet in writing made ('shaped') on the page, going back to the root meaning of poein, to make, poet-as-maker.

Take the last line of Keats' "To Autumn" ("And gathering swallows twitter in the skies") for example -- 'echoed' at the end of Stevens' "Sunday Morning":

                                 And, in the isolation of the sky,
                                 At evening, casual flocks of pigeons make
                                 Ambiguous undulations as they sink,
                                 Downward to darkness, on extended wings

-- sound in poem meaning to enact sound in world; beauty of world's sound (which poem 'refers' to: gathering swallows twitter in the skies) registered (in words) as the sound the poet perceives in the world. 'Meaning' can't be extracted (as 'ideas') from the poem, as critics who write about poetry as if it were only (or simply) 'ideas' tend to do5 (I am thinking of the story about Degas, who said to his friend Valéry, "I am so full of ideas but can't write a poem!" to which Valéry replied, "But my dear Degas, poetry is made out of words, not ideas!"). Nor is the poem's 'meaning' simply its 'content' ("Content never equals meaning"6), its 'knowledge' ("Knowledge is not translated into words when it is expressed. The words are not a translation of something else that was there before they were"7) or its 'representation of the world' ("the essence of which Schönberg summed up in the statement that the painter paints a picture rather than what it represents"8). Rather, as 'meanings' in the world can be 'read' from their sounds and shapes ('world as text,' 'life an open book'), the meaning of the poem is sound/shape -- is known (seen/heard) as a complex of 'extended' meaning ('signification' + sound + shape): sound (shape) as thought, to think in words being to think in shape and sound.

The sound/shape of words is not meaning, but means -- what the ear hears (listening), eye sees (reading). As Vygotsky writes, "A word without meaning is an empty sound"9 -- an absence of acoustic 'shape.' Shape as such (of letters, of words) being fully significant, the poem without sound makes no 'sense' except as something other than what it is: letters on the page waiting to be read. Read aloud, words produce sound: sound a 'product' of visual shape, which sound itself also produces. If one doesn't listen to reading, one can't hear what's going on in a poem's third dimension: if the tree falls in the forest (nobody around?), does it make a sound? Perhaps, or perhaps not, depending on the position of the perceiver, but given that the poem is made of words rather than ideas, concepts, knowledge or representation of the world, those words -- once they are read, at least -- have/make sound of their own that can be heard, as Stein implies when she writes (on Matisse), "Some were listening again and again to this one telling about this one being one being in living."10

(Words printed on the page ['locked' in print] are like offstage actions an audience must imagine in a play: Ophelia's drowning in the stream, Hamlet's father's death-by-poison in the orchard -- action we hear about in words but don't see performed physically on stage; actions that don't actually take place 'in' the play except in the words used to 'perform' them -- words spoken by the actress playing Gertrude, actor playing the Ghost. Similarly, words not read aloud -- 'spoken' -- and so not heard, fail to deliver what's going on in the poem -- or deliver, rather, only its physical shape on the page, and whatever substance, syntax, image, symbol might be drawn from that. Not in any case sound, the action of sound, that 'offstage action' in a poem which gets realized/enacted only when words enter the air/ear.)

The sound of words is a memory ('echo') of their physical shape -- shape of letters printed or drawn, of spaces between them; shape itself a memory ('echo') of their sound (what is spoken sounds like 't-h-i-s'). What we notice in listening to reading is the actual, material 'stuff' of language, which in fact we hardly notice at all, given that we tend to think the purpose of language is to 'communicate.' Hence the reason unnoticed effects are more effective, in poetry at least, than noticed ones: what we don't notice -- the visual/acoustic 'shape' of letters, spaces, words, lines -- in reading or listening to reading is exactly what 'delivers' the things we do -- image, metaphor, symbol, and so on. Readers of the visual text, as well as listeners to the acoustic one, generally pay attention to the 'message' (what the writer means to say), as if the sound and shape of the words themselves don't matter or count -- which of course they do.

Let me spell out directly, then, the ground upon which the essays in Listening to Reading are built:

(1) Listening to the rhythm/syntax of experience, the poet 'hears' the world, which is transcribed in the words of the poem: "A sentence has been heard," as Stein writes, "[n]ow listen."11

(2) In writing experience 'down' (in words), the poet reaches out beyond herself toward an audience -- the "addressee" of Kristeva's second dimension, those "strangers" to whom Stein refers when she says, "I write for myself and strangers"12 -- who in reading will see/hear the shape/sound of those words on the page, in the air.

(3) The visual shape of the poem enacts -- and is enacted by -- its acoustic 'shape': the 'shape' that fills the air/ear, once the poem is read aloud and heard, as sound; as Zukofsky writes, "In sincerity shapes appear concomitants of word combinations, precursors of (if there is continuance) completed sound."13

(4) Made present by such enactment (perceived by the reader's eye as words-on-the-page, by the listener's ear as words-in-the-air), the poem's meaning does not exist separately from its visual/ acoustic identity; to paraphrase Zukofsky, the visual/acoustic 'shape' of the poem -- on the page, in the air -- is never apart from its meaning14.

(5) The reader/listener will, in that perception of the text, come to know and appreciate the aesthetic object, "there being some connection between liking and listening," as Stein says.15

(6) 'Close reading' of the text can lead to fuller understanding of how its words 'work' to create 'meaning' -- how words 'echo' the sound of the world; how, as Vygotsky puts it, "[b]ehind words . . . the independent grammar of thought, the syntax of word meaning"16 registers the poet's experience of that world -- reflects that world's syntax as the poet 'reads' it.

(7) 'Listening to reading' gives access to that 'experience'/ 'meaning' -- of words and world -- made 'present' in the poem's words, as Heidegger suggests when he writes, "What is present comes to presence . . . along . . . lines of usage . . . enjoining and preserving . . . what is present"17 (i.e., in words, as 'echo' /'enactment'/'memory' of world, the relation between the written text (visual shape) and its music (sound/silence, shape-in-air) being the site of its 'meaning').

Exploring the ground of this 'poetics,' the essays that follow will explore how the poetries that are my subject might as I say be read.