Poetry Speaks – Poem as (musical) Score
Poem as (musical) Score
A poem speaks to us both in various ways and by varied means, and reaches us, gets through to us through our various senses: which are –
common sense, activating the cerebral part of us in creative ways, the emotional, the sensual and also the physical.
Poetry is a physical matter – it is sounded out vocally [voice, mouth, lips, ears], written by hand [back, neck, forhead etc…] with materials like pencil, pen or paper – nowadays computers – but questions regarding the deterioration of World cultures’ respect and awareness of the body, of the physical, do arise and poetry is not outside the sphere of these questions. Just as it is not outside any sphere that has to do with humans. Or their perceptions of the non-human (nature, animals, past, future…)
Back to poetry, and how it speaks to us.
To me, a poem is much like a person: at first we may feel a bit timid to get acquainted, but curious as well, we look at each other [pre-computer dating] and size each other up in every way, including physically, even if it’s done unconsiously, we even smell one another in this unconsious way apparently all the time. We try to see what you look like, listen to how you speak and what you have to say to me.
Even if we spend a lifetime together, we’ll never completely understand each other, and it’s a wonder to me that we seem to understand one another at all. Since language is so evasive! On the one hand seemingly accurate and presice – dictionaries prove it. Or do they? On the other hand always ambiguous as well as constantly changing.
The Swiss modern linguist Ferdinand DeSaussur divided language into two parts:
Langue – the formal, legitimate rules on a language, it’s words, syntax etc, and
Parole – spoken language, that changes distorts and eventually, after long struggles of power, enriches the Langue. For language is power, and the politics of language are interesting and studied more and more as media spreads and develops [or does it…].
You can never really know a great poem completely. You may love it and learn its ways and how it expresses itself, comes to life, by the way it speaks, the particular way in which it chooses to say that which it is saying, without which it [the poem] would not be able to say whatever it is, it would have to be something different. Because the addressee in life as in poetry – not only impacts the way we express our thoughts and feelings, the addressee makes us think and feel things we wouldn’t have been thinking or feeling otherwise. An addressee creates thoughts and feelings. He is the hidden or visible cause of whatever a poem is saying. And the addressee, like every other aspect in a good poem, may change through time, as the reader will, and show us new things in the poem, we had never noticed before.
So, a poem, like a person, can be admired, studied, and like a person – you can never really know a poem unless you love it.
So if you don’t come to a poem as open as you do to love, there is no chance you’ll ever “get it”, you may be able to say or quote inportant things about it, from the outside, critical and revealing.
But I’ve found that without getting physically involved with it, without saying the poem aloud, letting our physical body into the reading process, a poem cannot really come alive. If I dare approach a poem un-knowing, empty of preconceptions and pre-information and put my knowledge [which in itself is an enriching and important component of enjoying poetry – writing as well as reading it – but may block a reader (or writer, for that matter) from noticing wonderful things that have not been considered important or interesting in the poem, which may turn out to be explosively important, in the sense that they may reveal poetically ‘provable’ systems at work in a poem you’ve loved for years, that you’ve never thought of.
If we are curious and open, willing to let the poem surprise us – we may be able, after a series of methodical working stages, to understand how the poem works.
Not to understand the poem. To know things about it, yes. To notice many details, small or large – without deciding in advance or through convention, what is central and what, marginal. We might be missing the entire point of a poem, seeing only the more accessible layer of it, the exterior.
Prosody has been emphasizing important components, such as rhyme, rhythm, beat, lines, stanzas,
all of the musical aspects of the poem, in addition to metaphors and images and themes, and more.
The method that I offer, in approaching a poem, respects, admires and loves all of the above, but tries to trigger the process, to activate it differently.
The methodological approach is tricky, it’s artistic words we’re dealing with, language – not an exact science. But like language this method can deal with the madness incorporated intrinsically in the actual writing of poetry – taking something real and useful (to an extent) from everyday, “natural” [i.e. cultural] life and manipulating it, distorting it into something artificial, i.e. artistic. i.e. un-natural, contrived. Fictitious, in fact a lie – trying to convince us readers that it is telling us a big truth. And succeeding at it!
When we read a poem aloud to people, we want to convince them, right? Of its truthfulness, authenticity, that it may sound natural, i.e. convincing.
So we need to find – what in the poem itself, on the page – what tells us anything about how the poem would like to sound. How to say it, using our voice. Using our voice not just physically as in high or low, fast or slow, loud or soft, but our voice as our point of view on things, how we grasp them, what the poem means to us – that comes out through our voice when we really read. Even if we don’t show it.
There is no simple reading of a text. Everything people say has a purpose, or there would be no language, no need for it. When we speak, we mean something, and when we say we don’t we’re lying. There is always an intention, even if a subconscious one, in every verbal expression.
The procedure I propose sees in a poem a physical thing, a body of words. Literally.
A poem uses the senses and is received, comprehended, through our physical senses:
eyes, ears, breathing, skin [sweating?], mouth [drying up?], do we move in our chairs? Out of bored discomfort or emotional upheaval? Our entire body participates both in writing and in reading a poem.
As a reader of a poetic “score” I must be both the (musical) orchestra conductor to interpret the score and find ways of bringing this interpretation forth to a public through the performing musician, but I as reader am also the preformer who must find practical physical ways for the right sounds to come out and make the interpretation not only be understood by an audience, but moved as well. And since a poem can’t come to life without being said aloud [even reading silently to ourselves we subconsciously are reading aloud in our heads as an automatic process], let’s try to see how to do this and be as true to the poem as possible as well as true to ourselves, never trying to imitate a ‘pro’… When reading in public, breathe first, and then just be there – take responsibility for the moment of performance – it will help you as well as the audience to relax and to concentrate better, because you’ll have taken responsibility – to mean something when you say something, and also: to share beauty!
Two basic assumptions about a literary text, especially a poem:
A in every poem someone is talking to someone
B everything on the page is there for a reason – each word, punctuation mark, line change, gap, change of stanza etc. is exactly where it is for a reason.
The most elementary reason is the poetic speaker’s – or: the poem’s voice – doing something, intending something towards the addressee – to cause something to the poem’s addressee.
Imagine ordinary language as a river. Poetry puts up dams and dykes in the flow of the river.
A poem is a garden: does it have a gate [a title] or not? If it doesn’t – what does it gain? If it does, why that particular gate? What kind of path is there in the poem? How do I walk it [talk it]? Is it like walking barefoot on soft warm sand? Ot hopping barefoot on burning hot sand? Or pebbles? Or ice-cold sluch? What kind of talking does it invite? What range of ways of speaking it, does a poem, like musical score, offer or suggest. Which, eliminate?
Choose a poem –
1 Lets look at the figure of the poem on the page
2 Who is talking to whom?
3 Where does the flow of the river, the line of thinking, the sentence change – mark each curve or diverge or swerve – disregarding the lines or stanzas at this stage completely!
The tension between the sentence and the lines is interesting to follow, after you’ve disregarded the lines and enforced the speech-action of each part of the sentence – you may get it much better, more clearly.
4 define the speech-action the speaker in the poem is performing toward the addressee in each section of the flowing sentence along the poem. Write it on the left side of the poem.
In order to prevent pre-conceptions, seek the least interpretative yet most meaningful speech actions pertinent in the context of the particular poem.
Meaning is used as we know it.
Interpretation is meaning with emotional involvement and or value judgement. That we’ll leave for later because the most difficult to nail and most gratifying in its fruitfulness is the least
Interpretative speech actions, and in many poems they reveal a sub-strata of a meaningful ‘grid’ or pattern of the poetic speaker’s choice of speech actions, the actual verbs may coincide with the themes at hand.