Poetry as music

A different way of thinking

Joseph Ceravolo, 1967. Photo by Vito Giacalone.

What follows are excerpts from Poetry as Music: A Different Way of Thinking, a panel discussion organized by Vincent Katz and Tim Peterson as part of their Quips and Cranks series on poetry and poetics. This discussion took place at The School of Visual Arts, New York, March 17, 2011. The panelists were poet and critic Kimberly Lyons, poet and critic Anselm Berrigan, and painter and publisher of The Brooklyn Rail Phong Bui. Katz and Peterson were the moderators.

Vincent Katz:
Our topic today is poetry as music. We were thinking about a number of poets whose work is difficult to categorize, either in terms of political point of view, let’s say, or even formally, or through a relationship to the subject matter. In particular, we were thinking about the poetry of Joseph Ceravolo and Barbara Guest. Guest has received quite a bit of attention since the publication of her Collected Poems [Wesleyan, 2008]. Ceravolo remains a more fugitive figure whose work is hard to find, although there is a collected Ceravolo in the works, which is exciting.

 Ezra Pound usefully divided poetry into logopoeia, phanopoeia, and melopoeia. According to him — and I think he was right in this — all poetry has some percentage of these three elements, and it varies from poet to poet. Logopoeia is the meaning, or logos, in the poem; phanopoeia is making an image appear, the visual quality that the poem evokes; and melopoeia is the sound and the music. So if we’re thinking of these two poets as poets whose work is hard to discuss in traditional critical ways, and we’re trying to develop a new language, we thought to ask what would it mean to use music as an analog by which to look at their work? And then, we realized we need to ask what is music? I’m just going to read some notes before we turn it over to our panelists.

What is music? Sounds and rhythms, sounds and sequences, sounds and phrases like talking. Repetitions, different registers, timbres, harmony, counterpoint, large-scale forms, motifs, embellishments. And as we all know, there has been a long-standing historic connection between poetry and music. Much poetry was performed to music. The Roman word for poem is carmen, meaning song, and our word sonnet means a little sound, a little bit of music. Lyric enters into this; ballads, odes, other terms that we use for poems that come from song. But we’re talking about musical forms, so here are just a few: canon, motet, song, sonata, are elements of music, and these can be useful when talking about ways of talking about these poets. An introduction, a theme, a development, a crescendo, a climax, a denouement, or a coda, but also composition by phrase. Here are a couple of quotes that may be useful: “All arts approach the conditions of music” — Pater. “If we want pure sound, we want music” — Ezra Pound, from “Vorticism” (1915). “For me, poetry has its beginning and ending outside thought” — John Ashbery, writing on John Clare. Timing in art, the timing of a career, timing within a work, an idea of lyric. Is Ceravolo lyric? The passing of time, poetry as a temporal art, as a measurement of time and music.

I’d like to read a short poem by Joseph Ceravolo to get us started thinking about this topic. This is a poem called “Fly”:

The lights are on;
flesh is next to the body.
Drinking out of the glass
and the tide sways
you in my arms.
A membrane of wisdom
or the lips. I spit.
Nothing is changed.
The lights are on.
The sound of the waves
     through the traffic. I rub your body.
Hold me:   the waves.
A fly alights
     on the glass.
It sings a song
with a nerve impulse.
And the tide
        noticed by
the birds——fit to eat
comes back in
the dream of a metropolis.
The flies full of
energy, full of light    alight.

Tim Peterson: One aspect of this topic that interests me is how the meaning of language gets obscured when sound is foregrounded, when the musical qualities outweigh meaning qualities […]. That they’ve taken precedence in some way. I find that happening a lot in Joe Ceravolo’s work in the confounding way that he puts words together. He puts words together like a weird adjective with a weird noun. I can open a random page in this book, say, “A small listen.” You know. “The gang sponge.” “The beach of wingy feet.” That one makes a little more sense. “Algebraic breeze.” These things are everywhere, and that’s interesting. So, what are we saying in a case like that? Is that music or nonsense? What do you guys think about that?

Anselm Berrigan: I would start by saying it’s not nonsense, because nonsense is too tight a sense to have a purchase inside of the conversation, right? It has a musical quality to it because it’s existing in time, and it has this sound as an inherent part of it, but it’s inside of the larger work. Maybe one of the interesting things about Ceravolo and Guest, though in a different way, is that the duration of each line is part of, but also distinct within, the duration of the whole poem. The line is functioning on this sound and material level, and it’s going to hold in a certain way, and meaning on the literal or logical level is something that’s not unimportant, but it’s traveling alongside these other components. What comes up to the surface depending on your particular experience inside that poem is going to really vary. The emphasis is going to shift constantly, and that has to happen if you’re functioning off of some kind of musical performance inside of the poem.

Kimberly Lyons: I totally agree with you. Taking off from that point, in Ceravolo’s wildest, most abstract poems, the shifts are very instantaneous; they happen within the line. It’s almost pointillist. Yet he does have these sequential poems that have some sense of a narrative. With Guest, the lines are usually more sensibly intact, but then the meaning seems to shift from line to line. But there are exceptions to that, and as her work progressed […] she became very spatialized, and you start to see the radicalism that you see in Ceravolo also. It’s just a different process and a very different effect. The music is very different in those two poets.

Berrigan: Ceravolo’s music I think of as jangly, or jittery, almost like there’s a tree following him.

Katz: At first Ceravolo’s music is a little bit jarring and disturbing for some of the reasons Tim was mentioning, two words that don’t ordinarily go together, but I find that after reading a lot of it, it starts to have a very deep tone, and I’m wondering if any of you would consider that lyric. I mean, to me it has something that’s very eternal, it’s “about the eternal issues,” although it’s totally nonlinear and not literal, but I’m wondering if we could bring the term lyric into this conversation at all.

Berrigan: I would say I think Ceravolo and Guest’s particular dictions are fairly different […] They both have this kind of mad word-love […] although one change with Ceravolo I think is that his vocabulary gets a little more spare towards the end of his life, which wasn’t meant necessarily to be an end. But in the early poems, especially “Fits of Dawn,” the vocabulary and diction are wide-ranging. Guest and Ceravolo’s [uses of] syntax […] are really different, but you can hear the consonants, the full use of the alphabet just ringing across the poems. That’s part of how you get those funky word combinations you get in Ceravolo.

Lyons: You know, I hadn’t thought about that poem, “Fits of Dawn,” and I wonder if this might not have been some kind of systematic mistranslation from the Latin or the Italian? Because if you read it, to me it has that sort of surface resonance with Italian, with all the o’s. So I brought some Petrarch, and I was hoping you would read it and you would hear the sound. There’s a resonance, there’s a conversation going on. “O gong of wept / O unviolet” — let me start again, because I’m starting to project into it my own intensities, and I think he would read much more evenly.

O gong of wept

O unviolet 
     furious cozy the rain 
O dam of soul

to chase look! am poor. 
     dimanche poor.

O cheat of beg o cat 
gist o am   Walk

elysium tool a sun day    Broke 
revel lasso to 
Yes, wolf of songs, O muse 
O mixed Enemy!     Invent

 of dwell       So voyage      So end mercy 
earth         Usurp violets

O visible gym of flowered

Katz: Let’s see. You have Petrarch in Italian? It’s all with those funny letters. If there’s an f it’s supposed to be an s. Okay. It looks different. I’m going to try to read this one.

Una candida cerva sopra l’erba
Verde m’apparve, con duo corna d’oro,
Fra due riviere, all’ombra d’un alloro,
Levando ’l sole a la stagione acerba.

Era sua vista si dolce superba, 
Ch’i’ lasciai per seguirla ogni lavoro: 
Come l’avaro, che ‘n cercar Tesoro 
Con diletto l’affanno disacerba.

Lyons: It gives you a sense of the sound. I’m just wondering if some of the wildness of that poem might not come from [a sense of sound in other languages, apart from the meaning] —

Katz: When you were reading the Ceravolo something struck me. These poets all get lumped together as New York School poets, and then we often try to think, well what is the relationship, really, of Barbara Guest’s poetry to John Ashbery’s, or Frank O’Hara’s, and the same with Ceravolo. But when you were reading that poem, as disjunct and abstract as it is, I was getting the sense, and what made me think, oh that’s why it’s New York School, because it was a personal poem, and partially because of his use of the word “am,” which was thrown together with some other words in a non-syntactic way. Also through his use of the O, the apostrophe, which is not only very Kenneth Koch-ian but it’s also very, to me, personal. I don’t know if you’d call it lyric, but it’s this kind of desiring or outpouring of emotion that I saw there for a minute as New York School.

Joel Lewis (audience): I don’t know if this is useful or not, but I remember once asking Joe if he could recommend a poet I should be reading, and he said [Giacomo] Leopardi, who was someone whose work he felt a lot of affinity with. Like Barbara Guest, Joe did make a definite connection in his poetry to the visual arts. Joe was married to an artist, Rosemary Ceravolo, who practiced her art for many years under the name Mona da Vinci and was a feminist artist in the 1970s. She was involved with people like Hannah Wilke, who performed at Joe’s memorial at the Poetry Project. Together, Joe and Rosemary did early versions of performance art in the ’70s at the Project. So visual art really does play a strong part in his work, although it rarely seems to come up in discussions of his work.

Peterson: That Leopardi thing is interesting to me, because — it’s related to what Vincent is saying — you have a texture of sounds which are not English sounds, and you’re putting them together, and so part of what that might do is create an experience that’s more intimate, both more estranging and more intimate. You’re hearing something that’s not a language you know or a place that you know or you recognize immediately; it’s this weird pattern of sound. But when I think of this as an issue of translation, that makes these issues seem new in a way. When I think of other poets where the sound overwhelms the sense as in Mac Low, people who have a texture that’s consistent, they have a consistent way of not making sense in the way that you normally would understand.

Katz: Yeah, but there’s more of a logic there that you can follow. It can be sometimes a limitation. I would go so far as to say that you could make a polemic about this kind of poetry, Ceravolo and some of Barbara Guest’s poetry, that it doesn’t have that kind of underpinning of a logical procedural system. I appreciate Mac Low, I’m just saying something that could be like — I think this kind of poetry, Ceravolo’s, often gets left behind in discussions, because you can’t really pin it to a certain kind of philosophy or movement.

Lyons: That’s a good point, I agree with that.

Berrigan: I’d like to jump in on that, actually. Because looking at this book, The Green Lake is Awake, which came out in 1994, brings me back […] I was reading through Fits of Dawn, and there’s a line on page 76, the line is, “Shoulder are the vines,” and it goes on. I’ll read the page.

  O dive! 
song song restay fairness of 
dawn. That cry of 
booze that sparrow 
of soul “miradel” 
unique justly lotus 
nothingless char of sunday. 
Vicious of moon for the actual. 
Live digress

 Old like the praise cast 
still at day    Assuage 
of rose of eye 
lovingly sun 
    O sun with the dreadful 
of kind      Man! full! of the organ 
                     of move 
Shoulder are the vines 
are the plus are the 
autumn of found are the fallen 
blank are the aussi 
     the loping soon 
           the wet

This is towards the end of Fits of Dawn, and so a lot of those heavy o’s have been happening already in the poem, and then on that page he’s working in the o’s, and he’s working in the r’s, and he’s using the apostrophe, but also the little connective bits of language as repetition, not just to hinge the lines but actually to repeat within the music and flip the time back, to flip it into a circle.

Anyway, I was reading that poem last night, and the line “Shoulder are the vines” rang a bell, and I remembered I found a galley of this book in a bookstore in San Francisco, right around the time it came out in 1994, when I was living there. It was impossible to find his work, and I’d only been writing for a couple of years at that point, and I was instantly attracted to that poem in particular. I actually stole that line and made it the title of a poem. But at the time I was interested in translating or transferring aspects of music I was interested in and loving into a way to approach writing and thinking about sound. The terms that I was thinking of though were not so much the classical terms, like a counterpoint and things like that, which are quite interesting to me now, but I was listening to Sonic Youth really heavily, and I wanted to figure out how I could get distortion and feedback into the work, and the way to do it was through running words together as I discovered, and through the diction and through the clanging of sounds set up formal structures that would dissolve and fall apart midway through and then come back together again. At least, that’s what I was thinking, and to me Ceravolo was doing that in this way, and so it was completely useful.

That gets me back to this idea that lyricism, now, in twenty-first-century America, is beaten down as something coming out of Romanticism, which is sort of ahistorical, or that there’s experimentation, and there’s the lyric, and the experimental is against the lyrical. But then actually in a wider, popular sense, for one who doesn’t read poetry much I think there’s some almost unconscious or implicit conflation of the lyric with narrative. If it makes sense it’s lyrical, so therefore anybody that makes sense is being lyrical. You know, just a lot of bullshit. But I’m interested in the idea of the lyric as actually containing noise, and being noisy and being messy, and that’s where Coolidge comes into play.

Katz: Well today’s lyre could be the distorted guitar of Sonic Youth.

Berrigan: Possibly, yeah. Except that they need more words, which is not a criticism, but I wanted to read this little bit from an interview with Clark Coolidge that’s in Jacket magazine, and he’s being asked about, the guy’s asking “I was wondering too about that whole sense of the blend or the fudge or the blur that comes through in a lot of your work, versus say the somewhat more static visual image that you get in somebody like Ron Silliman, who’s often giving you a very clear da da da,” and Coolidge says, “The idea, probably out of Cage, but also free-jazz, that you can have those blurs, you can have stuff that’s in-between the pitches, that’s more like what they used to call noise than music, if the work lacks that, I find it misses some, it feels like it’s missing something to me. That would be one thing I’d be critical I guess of with Silliman in that it’s a little too clean for me, it’s a little too demarcated and has that kind of evenness to it. Sometimes it looks like a whole page of that is the same color. You can write a certain kind of poetry where it seems like there’s a gap, there’s a slot every thirty, well I don’t know, every few seconds, that’s going to be filled with a certain image, word, or color, and when it becomes too even I lose purchase on that surface. I just can’t stay with it. To me it has to be more full of dirt.”

And I [think], actually on the flip side of that, poetry that is basically prose put into line breaks, where the breaks fall where the clause ends and another one begins is essentially the same thing as that. There’s a system and things fall in these gaps.

Phong Bui: Anselm — and this maybe can apply to everyone else here — let’s turn it back to the tradition of poets who happen to play an instrument, who somehow are able to mix even their singing to their reading repertoire. I’m thinking about that specific tradition of people as such. We also know that Kenneth Rexroth too thought of the voyage, regarded the instrument that can trick back to the audience, the poetry that could take back audience, and that’s what I’m thinking in that tradition too, how one can re-access. There’s a whole perpetual history of those people doing, expanding the voyage into instrumental and vice versa, and it’s very important to place that in the context of New York School poetry too. I think they may have done it before elsewhere. A little bit less here because the painting culture was so beyond predominant, it was so strong.

Franklin Bruno (audience): I don’t know how to formulate this as a question. I’ll try to make this short, but I hope to be slightly provocative. No one has said this explicitly, but there are gestures when you talk about poetry and music toward making music this kind of catch-all site of the ineffable, the irrational, the non-semantic, the alogical. I think this is troubling, and I want to problematize it in a couple of ways. One, for many figures and for many periods, what music has symbolized for people has been rationality, order, system, and in fact the literally rational in that harmonies are caused by the ratios of vibrations, like between strings. Someone like Pater had a notion like that in mind. When he says, “All arts aspire to the condition of music,” he means something abstract but also something wonderfully and perfectly ordered. He’s not thinking about noise by any means, right? It’s a very classicist conception. So one thing that I think has to be kept in mind when we cite a line like that is the context, what he meant by music. He certainly wouldn’t have meant Sonic Youth. When we’re saying all arts aspire to the condition of Sonic Youth, we’re getting something rather different. The second thing is that there’s also a tendency to make this anti-semantic, arational, alogical thing a place where music’s sound gets to be a place of non-meaning, of a sort of aestheticized purity, as though music were not understood cognitively, as though it did not have history, as if its forms came to us innocently or without generic or stylistic baggage. I’d just like to hear people say what they want to say about what music means socially, or how the sound of something has a bearing on what it is as sense as well.

Katz: I’d just like to thank you for pointing that out and making that statement, because it’s very true, and I don’t think any of us were trying to say that music was irrational, or —

Bruno: No, no, I just think we drift that way. I don’t mean to accuse anyone.

Katz: No you’re right, and I’m glad you pointed that out, because that’s really true, and poetry of course has those elements as well. But these particular poets I think are still a little bit off if you’re trying to find a rational, ordered approach to explain their work.

Peterson: I think you’re going to have that problem with the drift if you’re dealing with something that’s potential — it’s going to seem irrational if there’s no language for it. You’re dealing with a system other than language, so that’s why that drift is happening, but that’s not to imply that it’s not a system.

Berrigan: To me a key term here in terms of thinking about music and poetry is prosody, and because prosody is a very specific thing, and it’s typically linked towards strict metrics, but actually by my way of thinking about it strict metrics are a subset of prosody, and prosody is about how you handle sound and emphasis in time, moving forward. When I’m thinking about music, I’m trying to think about it in those particular terms. Ceravolo and Guest have their difficulties in certain ways, but their work can also be read prosodically. Part of the laziness that happens, at least on the poetic side of things, is that if you aren’t dealing in meter, then [you] ignore the fact that words have stresses, that those stresses are affected by accents, that languages are constantly being changed and added to and transformed. To ignore those things is to ignore this gigantic portion of your bag of tools. Where that maybe comes in in a different way to a social context is simply the fact that part of the reason that poetry may be hard to teach after a certain point is that you could teach certain metrics, maybe not necessarily well, but you’re talking about organizing a system, teaching a system — it’s like the thing that O’Hara said about a poem that he was being very critical of. He said he didn’t like the content of the poem, and that it doesn’t matter that you can put it in metrics, because any student in the country studying this kind of thing can put it into metrics. Poetry gets more difficult to teach if you don’t have an orderly system to work within from a certain point of view, which comes back to my idea that if students at very early ages, like seven, were talked to about how to break a line, to think of words going and stopping at a certain point on the page, instead of extending across into a sentence and into paragraphs, then that might stay with some of them and open it up, and then poetry is actually natural and easy to read. It doesn’t really matter if it makes sense, so to speak, because sense is this other thing that’s being imposed half the time.

Lyons: We were asked by Vincent and Tim to bring in some work of people we think have a relationship to Ceravolo and Barbara Guest. So I grabbed Douglas Rothschild’s Theogony, I feel like that’s somewhere in this practice; Julian Brolaski, who’s very much about sound, using archaic sound, very radical; and also Brenda Ijima, I feel like there’s this funny resonance between her and Barbara Guest, I mean completely different content, and of course Brenda has this huge sense of the social, and activism and poetry, but there’s something about the way that she isolates lines and the thickness that somehow made me think of Barbara Guest; Elizabeth Robinson, also working off of a certain tangent of Barbara Guest; Susie Timmons, who’s a wonderful New York School writer; and John Coletti I thought of in relation to Joe Ceravolo, especially the poem “Fly,” the poem of Ceravolo’s we started out with. Hearing that poem made me think of Coletti’s work. So Vincent’s encouraging me to read a John Coletti poem:

Prepackaged Beef

Want big toughness 
Wax flowers bending 
Neon blue plucks open flat B 
Rabbit snails quack house 
Caught in some apse 
Of Truman dust straightening 
Oak leaves west of here

Katz: So as strange as it might seem, this is actually a tradition continuing until today. Thank you all for coming! It’s been a great conversation.