About poetic transmission

Kevin Davies recently commented that he distrusts the concept of "ear" in the same way that he distrusts "voice." It’s easy to understand why. Both terms have been drafted into use by mainstream poetics as absolute values, and are thus laden with essentializing connotations, but both terms also seem to me to have useful, generative meanings that deserve more careful treatment than they have received from either conservative or experimental critics.

For one thing, there are important differences between the two terms. Although both are centered around the notion of speech, "voice" (oddly) does not usually have much to do with the actual sound of the voice, but rather with the set of personality characteristics, values, etc. that go into the fashioning of a poetic persona. Sonic considerations may enter incidentally into this conception: for example, an individual poet may typically select a lot of guttural, harsh-sounding words, or use a very euphonious, "cultured" register. But there is little connection between these voiced elements and the idea of poetic "voice." How they sound matters less than that the poet has chosen them for the subjectivity-effects they produce. When we talk about the selection of words more specifically for the sake of sonic effects, however, we are usually talking about "ear." There are problems with this, and more complicated cases, which I’ll try to come back to, but as a starting point, this seems safe, even banally obvious.

Another way of making the distinction is to say that voice is about poetic transmission or forcefulness, whereas ear is about poetic reception and receptiveness. In the first case, the poet makes an impression, and in the second, he/she is impressed upon. This can be confusing, however, because when we say that a poet "has a good ear," we usually mean that that poet has gone past the stage of mere listening, and has passed the transmission (which the poet has supposedly "heard" in order to create the poem) on to the reader via writing, thus becoming the sender rather than the receiver. Nevertheless, the expression clearly suggests that the significant talent on the poet’s part is one of being able to "hear" what will sound most effective even before it has been physically spoken. In fact, the poem may *never* be read aloud, and readers will nevertheless make judgments about the poet’s ear. One can see that the entire concept thus allows both poets and readers to claim a certain aesthetic sophistication: both may establish themselves as having good ears without necessarily ever hearing any actual sounds. It’s tempting to suspect that the entire notion is utterly fictitious, a performative utterance that establishes instantaneous credibility. How many people feel comfortable challenging someone else’s assertion that such and such a poet has a wonderful ear? Once it is said, it almost becomes incontrovertible simply by virtue of the fact that the poet has obviously pleased someone’s ear, and thus must have a good ear him/herself. If I say "Richard Wilbur has the finest ear of any 20th-century American poet," how on earth would you prove me wrong? It would be much more effective to counter me by saying that I have made the error of fetishizing a knack for euphony rather than attending to some more complex factor of procedural sophistication or something to that effect–and this is in fact a common response to such claims, which may be why so few critics feel comfortable commenting on particular poets’ ears beyond observing in an offhand manner that they have them, period: no one wants to be labeled an aestheticist.

In the case of "mainstream" or "workshop" poetry, granted, one might expect to encounter a little more shamelessness in this regard. One might expect, in an Iowa-style MFA workshop, say, to hear participants talking about things like "assonance," "carefully modulated rhythms," etc. Too often, of course, such discussions are mere rehearsals of received notions that have fossilized into codified aesthetic cliches of smooth cadences and "literary" style. One poet who is often praised for such facility with aural surfaces is Jorie Graham, who is also a poet who straddles the "mainstream"/"experimental" divide. Here are the first four lines of her recent poem "Evolution":

My nakedness is very slow.
I call to it, I waste my sympathy.
Comparison, too, is very slow.
Where is the past?

Graham is clearly very skilled at arranging phonemes so as to evoke a "poetic" resonance. The vocalic interplay of A’s and O’s here, along with the consonantal slide of S’s and N’s, is highly controlled and euphonious. The latticework supporting this musical alternation is that old standby, the iamb. The first line is perfect iambic tetrameter, the second pentameter; the rest of the poem is largely structured around much-loosened and syncopated variations on the iambic pattern. One might say, however, that the sense of lulling lyricism produced here is one that works as much by echoing other, well-known poems as by any innate quality of sound. Theodore Roethke’s villanelle "The Waking" springs to mind, for example: "I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow. / We think by feeling. What is there to know? / I learn by going where I have to go." Note that the relation here is largely sonic; "nakedness" is not really connected to "wake" and "waking" by any thematic thread. The point is that Graham’s poem sounds like poetry because it … well, sounds like poetry (other poetry). But is this all there is to "having a good ear"? Being able to imitate a certain recognizable poetic surface?

There are, after all, only so many vowels and consonants to work with: is it really possible to achieve serious poetic effects any longer on the level of sound alone? Or, if it is, can this be done within traditional structures of reference and grammar? Undoubtedly. But must "ear" be limited to this narrow sense? Must the criteria for having an ear be limited to the extent to which a poet’s work evokes Pound, say, or Frost, or Yeats, or other writers whose work plays on the textures and grains of western canonical literary "music"?

The advent of Language poetry and similar experimental trends, I would suggest, has evolved a context in which one might posit new canons (or anti-canons) of "ear." Now, that is, one can have a good ear for certain genres of disjunctive or fragmentary or cacophonic or "resistant" poetry. One one level, this might sound like a cynical proposition. One important goal of experimental writing is to move away from literary models of oppressive stylistic influence and inherited tradition, and to suggest that the same old practices of imitation and indebtedness still inhere raises the specter of conservativism and creative paralysis. I think, however, that we can look constructively at recent work by younger poets in exactly such a context, and in so doing isolate some points of craft–that is, the mechanical process of selection and combination that constitutes the material act of writing–that will be helpful in illustrating just what makes these writers distinctive and important.

Here are four lines from "more compelling we say ubiquitous" by Mark Sardinha in Combo 11:

supposed digging through neptune lucidity
whereupon hubris removed from on cloudy
ex libris: nada / ex nihilo: mazorca
back hatchback of mazda o i can go on like this

Here, the question of the poet’s ear is much more difficult to negotiate than in the Graham example. From one perspective, Sardinha has no ear at all: this can be read as a string of unrelated sounds and concepts. More accurately, the words seem related only by incidental morphemic adjacencies and "free association" links ("ex libris" & "ex nihilo," "mazorca" & "mazda," etc.) that adds up to nothing but a blur. The phrase "o i can go on like this," in fact, reads as a self-mocking index of exactly this randomness. But the fact that the poet "can go on like this" is not just a function of chronic logorrhea. The poem signals its sensitivity to sound and tradition in one gesture, by nodding to the asyntactic structures of recent experimental traditions at the same time that it plays paronomastically with sound for sound’s sake, making a jivy hash of capitalist culture and scholarly ostentation, combining the irreverent ludic swing of New York School with the harshly resistant non-rhythms of Bruce-Andrews-style Language poetry. It is largely nonsense, but it is nonsense that sounds the way it does because the author knows how to imitate nonsense rather than merely generate it. In other words, this is clearly not Language poetry, because its relation to Language poetry is clearly marked as one of either parody or homage or allusion or reaction or some combination thereof. And the marking in question is achieved largely through effects of imitation that depend on the ear, whether we mean actual aural sensitivity, or a more metaphoric power of aesthetic recognition (and ability to replicate with a difference).

Again, "aesthetic" is the booby-trapped word here. There is a sensual "music" to what writers like Ron Silliman, Charles Bernstein, Barrett Watten, Bruce Andrews, et al., do, in some cases despite their intentions, and it is a music capable of being cultivated, which could be either a good or a bad thing for obvious reasons. I want to hypothesize, moreover, that a writer who has a "good ear" for Language writing (for example) may be less likely to fall into certain formalist & aestheticist traps (post-Language romanticization/fetishization, etc.) than one who operates solely on a theoretical notion of what Language writing is and does. This is counter-intuitive, maybe. You might think that someone who is more attuned to sound than to–what … meaning?–would be more rather than less likely to fetishize. But without some notion of poetry as a dynamic exchange between practitioners whose chief media is words, words and their physical contours, whether seen or heard or intellectually abstracted, but nevertheless confronted as crafted arrangements, poetry degenerates into a dry projection of an idea of an agenda for a poetics. Fortunately, that doesn’t seem to be happening, as there are so many poets currently writing who have their good ears tuned in to exciting wavelengths.