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Notes on Sound

One point: that sound as echo sets up in the listener lines of connection from the present work to works of the past, prior artistic effort, one writer's 'voice' (sound) literally echoing another earlier writer's 'voice' (sound) -- purely on the level of phonetic patterns both rhythmic and within the syllable and even smaller phonemic structure of words. The poet attends to the sound structures in the medium of the art, words, whose pitch and duration,

                  (pitch) |
                                |__ __ __ __ __

bind inextricably the polysemous configuration words carry and may be used to occupy, as counters (weight, measure) to what one thinks one means. Sound in the line the syllables one after the other next the other trailing head to foot as if along a road one travels one's way, the end of one line about to become at that point start of the next, verse a literal turning across -- and over (association with ploughed furrows) -- that white, narrow space:

the road, that narrow fiber of running sounds, on which --
ineluctably -- you'd unravel1.

In a sense the sound of the words she compiles as she writes compile the world, or portion of it, figuratively at least insofar as words have in them capacity to frame, articulate, parody, ring changes upon whatever her senses perceive, thought takes hold, this moment or that:


In answer to the question, why lines? which might be recast as, Given the fact of words as the material writers make use of in their work, what does the line do other than say the string of words the sentence, whose limits turns in thought marked by comma, semi-colon, the period for instance make felt upon any reader's sense regardless of spatial position on the two-dimensional plane we call page, thereupon the black marks we call letters -- in music notes scored in and between literal lines of treble and bass clef -- stand and, as if in motion becoming themselves in that act of reader reading, slip across toward the white space that frames the line, isolates it from all that has come before and all that would follow, its silence an abyss against which each syllable's whole weight presses itself, strains to find access, a purchase, foothold into which stroke and counterstroke, inflection rising or falling, duration might carve, temporarily settle:

THat was a lie
seconds shiver away
bang/ tongue
Oak dient jut
The darkness hideth not from thee3

Unloosed, the line will find its direction from that exact pressure, no more nor less, the syllable exerts as its need to make itself a felt presence, confident in the face of all that might have been 'said' but wasn't, meaning that one takes as one's chance knowing as if the line were every thing:


What has weight in such context becomes the sound that is inside words, call it phoneme, subatomic bits of matter the buildup of which physicists at Los Alamos worked to perfect, this attraction coupling say "w" plus "e": WE, followed by say, "huddle," etc. whose dynamics sets into motion in varying degrees of play from active participants (tongue teeth lips) certain determined reaction:

                                                          huddle Un then All
               raculus cup in such manner Over

It may be useful to slow the line down, for purposes of example as to make the physics of its music/movement perceptible to human (i.e. attentive reader-becoming-listener) eye/ear. As Allegro slows to Andante in a musical score, 45 rpm to 33 1/3, a retardation of the pace, simply, at which one 'goes through' any temporal work. Notice the effect (and effectiveness) of certain cut-in 'slow motion' scenes in the recent German-American film Bhagdad Cafe, scenes of say the man walking across an open space to intersect the woman walking the other way: the sudden s l o w d o w n -- 'reality' shifting from 24 frames per second to what, 16? -- sets the viewer as if into a dream, all perceptions heightened, immediate. In poetry this might be accomplished, for one thing, by increasing the space between words in a given line -- "crossed Ohio occupation arrowhead noonday bay/ was killing and planting blare campnation"6 -- or by spreading the words in each line even further APART, as if to float in the field that is the page, in effect reducing the number of words per line, as in this 'echo' of Shakespeare's Sonnet 26 -- each word here exactly where it appeared in Shakespeare's poem, all the other words missing, eroded away:

                            as as
                   then begins
                             thoughts, from

or Susan Howe's play on the sound/shape of writing as 'site':

Sitt           and so
   site            A
World is
she (was)      shall scale8

How also increasing the space of the stanza break ('lines of silence'), will open the possibility that tone coupled to silence and silence to tone, that splicing so to speak of presence and absence upon which everything in the poem depends, may become even more pronounced. To increase the proportion upon a given page of white space (silence) to printed word (tone[s]) throws proportionately more 'weight' upon what is 'not said,' that silence the white space no ink imprints in effect denotes:

I have workt with silences--with caesuras as definite parts of the articulation of the line, with turnings at the end of the verse, with intervals of silence in the measures between stanzas--related to phrasings and sequences of the measures between the whole. Silences themselves as phrases, units in the measure, charged with meaning. Significant pauses for the syncopation of suspense or arrest. In the notation of the text a line reading phrase-caesura-phrase-caesura-phrase would be considered to be articulated into five elements.9

Punctuation as determinant of rhythm, notwithstanding Gertrude Stein, the dash for instance whose force anywhere, but especially at the end of the line, is as a sudden interruption of the exhaling syllable-delivering breath, slows response, stands on the page as a (literal) line from syllable sound to white-no-sound:

or not
and the person
without means
in the city10

The dash so to speak here a go between figure and ground, the written print of text and unprint (silence) of page, more purely 'abstract' than any given letter could be in that it carries no possibility of referent/content but is sign simply of duration, a pause in time during which no syllable will be sounded, the poem holding at that point, suspended an instant in its forward motion, 'still' as the background space in a 19th century English landscape is 'still,' before the figure of a next sound takes the ear.

And the moment of that sound belongs only to it. The world's ear listens as if suspended there, the pitch and duration of the tone filling the air and all the space it occupies. And if the record could be slowed sufficiently to prolong the moment of this point, and the next one and the next, a single word/note-or-chord extended outward through time and thereby across physical borders, words would approach the perfection they aspire to but cannot have: pure tone. But what could such an abstraction mean? And where does that tone stand in relation to the world we live in of things? For isn't tone at least like the breath-quality each 'thing' inhales, exhales:

Nothing but tones! As if tone were not the point where the world that our senses encounter becomes transparent to the action of non-physical forces, where we as perceivers find ourselves eye to eye, as it were, with a purely dynamic reality -- the point where the external world gives up its secret and manifests itself, immediately, as symbol. To be sure, tones say, signify, point to -- what? Not to something living "beyond tones." Nor would it suffice to say that tones point to other tones -- as if we had first tones, and then pointing as their attribute. No -- in musical tones, being, existence, is indistinguishable from, is point-beyond-itself, naming, saying.11

That sense, too, of pause, the space between the units in a poem, whether they be syllables, words, syntactic units or the line or stanza. And the breaks that 'punctuate' a poem, whether they be printed marks (comma, dash, semi-colon, period) or the empty space after line and stanza breaks, obviously have multiple effect upon the reader/listener's perception of the poem. To open up the white space on a page, by increasing the space between lines, and as well by centering a (small) text as if to float within the sea of a (large) white page, isolates the words from contexts which may precede them and/or surround them; separates them in effect from the baggage of their prior existence(s) in usage in the world, making the language 'new' not only in Pound's sense that the modernist project would necessarily find energy and direction by reclaiming the poetic forms of the past, as for example in "Sestina: Altaforte":

Papiols, Papiols, to the music!
There's no sound like to swords swords opposing,
No cry like the battle's rejoicing
When our elbows and swords drip the crimson
And our charges 'gainst "The Leopard's" rush clash.
May God damn for ever all who cry "Peace!"12

or writing an epic 'song' containing history in which Kung walks beside Sigismundo Malatesta beside Circe beside Andreas Divus beside John Adams et al., all of these presences 'revitalized' at the hand of the inspired poet.

But what if now words lay claim to their own meaning, forging new areas of experience (thereby defining by marking out, as territory, as a circle limits what it encloses) by leaning forward as if on their own, counting on the page without say reference to the people and events of past or current 'history,' though these too will have their place:

Mylord have maize meadow

have Capes Mylord to dim

barley Sion beaver Totem

W'ld bivouac by vineyard

Eagle aureole elses thend13

And what too if the space between line and 'statement' were to open, visually hence temporally in the reader/listener's experience of the poem, and that discreteness of language-unit were further pronounced by say other typographic devices (CAP, ital., other type faces and/or sizes), thereby calling increased attention to the material fact of words as the medium at hand, as Bach's partita tones and Coltrane's 50's sheets of sound:

             I need to think of your hand on the paper

it is the lowliest exercise
that permits one to follow
a geographical reduction

they were waiting to be discerned
            [page break]

leaning against the two images

to advance in the dark
all is calm outside of a body14

An utmost simplicity of means in the work I am thinking of makes of sound and rhythm something we feel at home with so to speak. Whereas Pound the classicist may 'put one off' by means of reference, however beautiful, Williams the romantic wanted a poem in the American tongue:

At ten A.M. the young housewife
moves about in negligee behind
the wooden walls of her husband's house15

Let the snake wait under
his weed
and the writing
be of words, slow and quick, sharp
to strike, quiet to wait,

A tongue that could as if speaking by stammer catch the real world of things in its mouth, grip what passes moving along the line from now to now, true in the way words in a language can gauge the thingness of things, the even- or unevenness of event:

A popcorn-can cover
screwed to the wall
over a hole
      so the cold
can't mouse in17

And in this way to keep 'track' of the mind's awareness, perception of its given life in the world, and thought of and feeling immersed in same, that record being in effect the poet's 'calling':

a car door
   is smaller than
   a house door



earth smells
    birds sing18

Where words might, set loose in the space that constitutes the page, take on 'a life of their own' which the reader/listener is then herself permitted to meet and in that meeting make meaning. As much of possibility will be left to be completed at that stage of the relation between writer/text/reader-listener as is possible, not 'completed' as once and for all but provisionally, this is the way it strikes me now, and now that I look again something (everything) has changed. A succession of pieces I will call my experience of the poem. Which may be said to overlap, intersect with, reach backward and forward into my experience of other word-events, in that sound as echo sets up in the reader/listener lines of connection from the present work to works of the past and vice versa, one writer's voice (sound) literally echoing another writer's 'voice' (sound) -- rhythmically, phonetically, as register of like temperament meeting across time and space:

You are my friend--
you bring me peaches
and the high bush cranberry
             you carry
my fishpole

you water my worms
you patch my booth
with your mending kit
            nothing in it
but my hand19

As a parallel that calls up in the one the other, an echo that brings more than what is present to mind, no matter how large the difference:

Take it

  every atom of me

    belongs to you

      across distances

         one space20

When I sit down to read I see the letters and hear the sounds they make in my head. "b" a mirror image of "d," two "w"'s the same either way save in different surrounds; a dash-line printed in the space below the line separates absolutely what has come and what follows, except that that line, like an horizon, acts as if to reflect the sky in the lake, the words above in the words below; as 'sense' may also be echoed, shifted, slanted, refracted, reflected in the on-going forward motion of the poem, unfolding as it were petal by petal down the page toward an end where all the words sum up to a silence which captures and encloses them:

table was the word


a knot binds the outside

others come to die on the table


silence is a form21

Shape too has its moment as lines, margins, punctuation, spaces between words operate simultaneously to nudge the denotations and connotations of words -- their mere 'meaning' -- toward the larger meaning activated in the ratio between writer : poem : reader/listener. Perception broken up as on the film the brain (conscious, unconscious) keeps taking will then be registered in a language supple enough to bend and stretch and breathe in to and out of the positions our experience of the world takes. In these terms, language creates (and also acknowledges) meaning in the world by setting forward analogues -- in structures of rhythm, sound, syntax, semantic sense -- which operate as counterparts to the consonance and dissonance of events in the world. And like events in the world, this language will refer to itself as much as to whatever is 'out there'; will be that is to say self-reflexive, conscious of itself, its wordness as distinct and separate from, yet aligned with as parallel ongoing temporal events (sequential or non-sequential, continuous or discontinuous bits and pieces threaded in time), the raw data of the world:

        because, once written, could
continue: trace--past ourselves the very
              first outlines, provisions, for our earliest
        rehearsals. nothing, not even the fan of

your fingers, that's not the angle, casting,    instance.22

For why not say a part of the poem is a part of the world, limited no doubt in the sense that our means of experience in feeling, memory, the five senses, would appear in the world to come about as a kind of total immersion, all 'systems' going at once, whereas a poem is a verbal construct accessible thereby through mental process, whatever that may include. (Memory for one thing, and feeling, and a sense of all five senses -- and if by these means we encounter the poem who cannot say its body touches ours:

                                (nereid, or the phrase)

         who, by riding back-
wards, blond-eyed and water-
                  slick, lifts the waves' lids (blown
muscle the least phoneme--riotous--writes against).23

When I listen to the poem read out loud, spoken as it was written to be heard, it isn't only the sense of the words I follow. As if on its own, my mind 'wanders' in the terrain the words map, following along this thread or that one, as often as not (more often?) not the one the poem itself is at that moment tied to. And the words themselves play on and over me, play me like the instrument they have learned to play -- fingers, lips, lungs, breath; keys, strings, surfaces, mouthpieces; voices, pitches, durations, tones:

                                (of the redemptive: a stray vision)

   someday, light
as if flooding their very fibers, these tables,
       chairs shall fill; the bottles--in
   their own, glowing sockets--stand. your voice, its

blown selves, no
            longer need these 'lyric remissions.'24

And thus I follow, trailing off minutes at a time to the play of words I hear as at a distance closer than the ear, because internal, the music of the words already becoming in my brain mine, then coming back to intersect 'what's going on' now. At which point sound takes over -- as pitch of phoneme plus time it takes to 'say' it, whether in mind or out loud -- fills that space of 'silence' otherwise unbroken were the poem not set in motion by poet thence reader/listener, it (the poem, its sound-meaning) "enters the new world" -- and in so doing makes that world as if in its own 'image':

          shadows, and the
               low, breath-papered rooms, as they
fade, now,

And so again also why not say the meaning of a poem stands in -- intersects, and cannot but be intersected by, thus amounts to nothing less than -- its sound. Zukofsky, dissecting the components of the poetic object, 1930: "The sound and pitch emphasis of a word are never apart from its meaning."26

And again,

A poem: a context associated with 'musical' shape, musical with quotation marks since it is not of notes as music, but of words more variable than variables, and used outside as well as within the context with communicative reference.27

Words as if in the ratio: lower limit speech, upper limit music: in as much as to say "an order of words that as movement and tone (rhythm and pitch) approaches in varying degrees the wordless art of music as a kind of mathematical limit."28

But words are not notes, though both take place in time, in that nouns and verbs and adjectives 'refer' -- to things and properties and motions in and of the world -- and 'mean' -- i.e., partake of and are embedded in a nexus of dictionary senses and cross references (Dickinson's "internal difference,/ Where the Meanings, are --") -- whereas the D major chord simply resonates. So there is this (quite mysterious) alignment between words with their attendant music and the things of this world broadly speaking, details we know by moving through and among them. And in the poem words bring to play these multiple simultaneous functions: sound and referential 'meaning' not as two things but a single indivisible 'sign': language as approximate to actual events as may be, by means of the writer's (and reader/listener's) attention, possible:

shapes appear concomitants of word combinations, precursors of (if there is continuance) completed sound or structure, melody or form. Writing occurs which is the detail, not mirage, of seeing, of thinking with the things as they exist, and of directing them along a line of melody. Shapes suggest themselves, and the mind senses and receives awareness.29


1. Gustaf Sobin, "Road, Roadsides and the Disparate Frames of Sequence," Temblor 4 (1986): 3; reprinted in Voyaging Portraits (New York: New Directions, 1988) 84.
2. Susan Howe, "Heliopathy," Temblor 4 (1986): 43.
3. Howe 43.
4. Howe 43.
5. Howe 43.
6. Howe 42.
7. Stephen Ratcliffe, [where late the sweet] BIRDS SANG (Oakland, CA: O Books, 1989) n.p.
8. Howe, "12 poems from a Work in Progress," Temblor 3 (1986): 14.
9. Robert Duncan, "Some Notes on Notation," in Groundwork: Before the War (New York: New Directions, 1984) ix.
10. Leslie Scalapino, way (Berkeley, CA: North Point Press, 1988) 41.
11. Victor Zuckerkandl, Sound and Symbol: Music and the External World
12. Ezra Pound, Personae (New York: New Directions, 1971) 29.
13. Howe, Articulation of Sound Forms in Time (Windsor, VT: Awede) n.p.; reprinted in Singularities (Hanover, VT: Wesleyan University Press, 1990) 11.
14. Claude Royet-Journoud, "A Descriptive Method: Without any sound of syllables," trans. Michael Davidson, Temblor 7 (1988): 64-65.
15. William Carlos Williams, The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams, Volume 1: 1909-1939, ed. A. Walton Litz and Christopher MacGowan. (New York: New Directions, 1986) 57.
16. Williams, The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams, Volume 2: 1939-1962, ed. Christopher MacGowan. (New York: New Directions, 1988) 55
17. Lorine Niedecker, The Granite Pail: The Selected Poems of Lorine Niedecker (Berkeley, CA: North Point Press, 1985) 31..
18. Larry Eigner, Anything On Its Side (New Rochelle, NY: Elizabeth Press, 1974) 20.
19. Niedecker 15.
20. Eigner, 7.
21. Royet-Journoud, "Story in Succession," trans. Michael Davidson, Temblor 7 (1988): 67.
22. Sobin, "Seven Entries for a Flora on Speech," Temblor 7 (1988): 31; reprinted in Voyaging Portraits (New York: New Directions, 1988) 106.
23. Sobin 32; 107.
24. Sobin, 33; 108.
25. Sobin, "A Fable for Lighea," Temblor 7 (1988): 33; reprinted in Voyaging Portraits (New York: New Directions, 1988) 109.
26. Louis Zukofsky, "An Objective" in Prepositions: The Collected Critical Essays of Louis Zukofsky (Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press, 1981) 17.
26. Zukofsky, "An Objective," Preposition 17.
27. Zukofsky, 16.
28. Zukofsky, "A Statement for Poetry," Prepositions 19.
29. Zukofsky, "An Objective" 12.