In: Real Simple

Subjective Perception

Jeffrey Jullich e-mailed me about the “ear” topic. I’ve abridged his message and pasted it below (with his kind permission):

About your interesting blog thoughts on “ear”: I tried to revive the concept, too, in my review of Susan Howe’s ~Bed Hangings~ at Electronic Poetry Review and, perhaps absurdly, tried to give it some empirical base: I posited a hypothetical criterion for “ear” (in her case, a flair for extended sequences without repeating the same vowel in contiguous syllables, and polysyllabic vs. monosyllabic diction) and then demonstrated Howe’s ability to stay afloat at length against that undertow. (The “argument” had recourse to the same compass point of ~assonance~ that you mention,—although you perhaps want to bracket and suspend assonance as a recidivist measurement while searching for some other level.)

I had no idea if, in fact, contiguous vocalic difference can be borne out as a real barometer (or if it’s a norm in English) and, miraculously, wasn’t at the time crazed enough to establish some sort of control group or double-blind test—but I do suspect that there’s some potential in tracking these quiddities more systematically. Here’s a favorite stay-at-home game. With something like only 24 consonants and 11 or 12 vowels/diphthongs to English, it’s actually surprisingly easy to ~track~ which phonemic bases are being covered: I went through a phase of writing poems where the facing page in the notebook was a grid where I kept a continual check-list of which phonemes as they were being used, rendering poetic intuition (“inspiration”) more quasi-conscious, and allowing me more musically/compositionally to ~delay~ reprisals or shift “key,” as it were. Objectivization like that at least would allow distinguishing between the imaginary (were you really drawn to the Di Palma passage you cite, e.g., because of some hypogrammatic twinkle that its repeated “sodium” “ha-” “ha-” “-am” “-wed” bears to the name “Silem Mohammad”?) and what’s there. …Which, in the case of “ear,” gets very personal, private, and auditory-hallucinogenic: not only is the virtue of “ear” undefined and elusive, but any particular examples that are cited were selected only after being filtered through the critic’s ~own~ strengths or deficiencies of “ear”. That is, yes, it remains a subjective perception of a phenomenon that there’s no consensus about, but—How can we feel confident that there’s not some failing in the ~critic’s~ ear that is leading him to miss fine points
or to exaggerate?

You seem to be (positively) narrowing the factors in your second blog entry, though, even as you’re multiplying them: “alliteration, assonance, rhyme, mellifluity, etc.”, with a whole encyclopedia of additional prosody; silent reading and a resultant logopoeia of meaning that’s a sort of internal phantom limb of “ear” (which should include the graphemic qualities of letter-shape played off against letter-shape and the impression given off by the number of letters in words, whether they’re shaped of letters with tails [g, j, p, q, y], “spines” [b, d, f, h, k, l, t], or neither [a, c, e, i, m, n, o, r, s, u, v, w, x, z], etc. [!]); and, of course, pauses, the silent intervals of comma, period and punctuation, the “negative space” and cadencing of “ear”. The benefit there is that it restores some material base as a counterfoil to any broad or casual claims (which are often made more along the motivation of advancing a particular poet’s reputation, rather than poetics), even if the complexity of that base seems to boggle our capacity for analysis.

You ask: “I do want to ask at what point it becomes impossible to speak of it any longer in terms of ‘ear,’ when it passes over completely into the zone of abstract intellectual apprehension.”

Isn’t that point demarcated only by the limits of any individual’s indefatigability?

In other words, it all depends on how easily any one researcher tires. The “zone of abstract intellectual apprehension” becomes the zone of “I give up!” or “Don’t ask ~me!”~ If somebody else has the stamina (or mania) to keep pursuing materializations of “ear” to their last trace, it could remain possible to speak—and to ~discover~—the terminations of “ear” indefinitely.

I’ve found that the French are remarkably tireless at producing volumes upon volumes of statistical linguistics (statistique linguistique) to prove points like the chronology of Moliere’s plays based on frequency of vocabulary, or such (Or, see, e.g., Jonathan Hope, The authorship of Shakespeare’s plays: a socio-linguistic study, Cambridge University Press, 1994), and classical Greek has been almost exhaustively indexed,—except that to get to a ~genuine~ next zone of abstract intellectual apprehension like that requires standing on a foundation of a great number of charts, diagrams, frequencies, correlations, and so on. There was an article that Alan Sondheim once posted a link for (that I can’t find now): using classical Hellenic/Latin prosody’s own criteria of the variable feet within hexameters, a study “proved” that the Greeks were rhythmically quite primitive compared to Latin poetry; the researchers found Virgil to be, comparatively, rhythmic complexity that they compared to Stravinsky’s.

With an approach like that, quite a bit can be said, quite authoritatively. My fear, with your blog sketch, is that your hypotheses (about a good Language Poetry ear defending against mechanical post-Language reproduction) are ~too~ convincing,—because neither lemma is substantiated and you’re asking your reader to weigh one undemonstrated presumption against another equally unseen case, which is quite believable because maybe tautological. The shell game is working only as long as you don’t raise any of the three shells that you’re moving around so quickly, to risk whether there’s any bean under any of them or none. (Are the musics in Ron Silliman’s, Charles Bernstein’s, Barrett Watten’s, and Bruce Andrews’ poetries generalizable into a “Language Poetry music” at all? Are the numerous musics that any one of them deploys generalizable within each’s own oeuvre [with the possible exception of certain habitual preferences of Andrews’] as being a music distinct to any one of them?)

—Is it a sign of my own insensitivity to “Language Poetry music” that I, to the contrary, am under the impression that “emerging poets” are belaboring too ~undifferentiated~ a single musicality among them? Or, this supposed liberation of rhetorical possibilities since Language Poetry has only achieved a plateau like the generation of American twelve-tone composers, whose tropes were similarly expanded but ultimately beyond the bounds of perception and occult. My sense of it is that lines by [many emerging poets]—all of them extremely talented—could be arbitrarily inserted into each other’s books without doing any injury to the poems or being rejected as a foreign body. Over-reliance on the sole main experimentalist signature technique of disjunction may have canceled out a larger repertoire of Quintillianian tropes.


Too much to respond to all at once here, but I want to say that I think the issue of letter-shapes (spined, tailed, etc.) as a factor in virtual “ear” perceptions (although, really, this is a matter of “eye,” no?) is fascinating. This is something I think about every time I look at poems that are printed in ungainly fonts, like a lot of the sterile sans-serif stuff that’s out there. Or, I should revise this to say that there are certain poems that cannot bear to be printed in sans-serif fonts, and others that positively require it. It changes the entire tone, and maybe this is where “ear” comes in. When letters are skeletalized or neutered or otherwise made minimalistic by having their serifs sanded off, it seems to induce a tonal blankness, as of machine-generated speech. Partly this is a metonymic connection on my part: the text looks computer-generated, so I imagine a computer speaking it. But precisely this kind of metonymic fantasizing goes on all the time in poetic apprehension, I think. Similarly, serifs connote, among other things, a quaintly historicized canonicity, thus lending to texts a faint Renaissance brogue. Somehow related to all this as well is the factoid, which I saw in some word-processing handbook somewhere, that words with serifed fonts are often recognizable purely by virtue of their broad physical outlines, whereas serifless ones never are. One can see how there could accordingly be visual “puns,” for instance, that would not necessarily coincide with aural puns.

I also want to address Jeffrey’s suggestion that there has been a false perception of one unified Language-poetry “music,” which music in turn gets “imitated” (if one can imitate that which exists only in misconception) by emerging poets. Is there a function of “ear,” whether literally auditory or otherwise, that is accessed somewhat along parallel paths by the work of poets as stylistically distinct from one another as Bernstein, Andrews, Silliman, Hejinian, et al.? Jeffrey is skeptical, but I think perhaps there is, at least in a broad sense. I’m coming up with this on the wing, but I would say that they share a certain common cadential maneuvering, a New-Sentency way of starting and stopping without ever leveling out as in the classical period. The results, in terms of individual flavor, are different in different poets: in Hejinian, a kind of elegant affectlessness; in Silliman, a counter-Aristotelian taxic obsessiveness; in Bernstein, a busted-merry-go-round loopiness; in Andrews, a savage, Tourettes-like expulsiveness. But the linguistic mechanics, and thus some of the tonal surfacing, bears a clear family resemblance.

Jeffrey is no doubt right that such generalizations are of limited use.

When I look at work by “emerging writers” (I picture a bunch of erudite snails peeking out of their shells), however, I don’t see the kind of interchangability he does. At least, no more than in any other poets who share some amount of common aesthetic points of reference or influence. I mean, yes, there are for example quite a few younger poets out there right now who are all very Bruceandrewswardly-oriented in one way or another, and some of them are more obviously derivative than others, just as there was a lot of Williamsish writing by the Objectivist poets. And undoubtedly people are mixing up various quantities of Retallack with Grenier and Coolidge and Harryman and whatnot, which may sometimes result in a familiar blend. This in itself is good or bad or indifferent, but the fact that it can be done at all shows that there is some common denominator acting as a mixing agent (or whatever you call a chemical that makes other chemicals compatible with one another). So yes, in part at least, I want to monolithize Language poetry, to the extent that I insist it makes sense to speak of it as a poetry at all, rather than an accidentally connected string of poetic approaches, or one connected only by, say, the political views of the writers.

And I guess my big point here is that the “larger repertoire of Quintillianian tropes” Jeffrey feels is being neglected may just not be possible or appropriate or necessary yet. I’ve wanted to effect some kind of baroquely excessive rupture myself, and have tried on occasion to do so, but it always ends up feeling like showing off, like there is still unfinished work demanding to be done elsewhere. Or right here. At home. Among the muses, where I read and rhyme.

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