Saturday, March 07, 2009

`Until Some Voice Brings It to Life'

Above the teacher’s desk in a seventh-grade “language arts” (more about that later) classroom, hangs a poster printed with two sentences identified as a Hmong proverb:

“The tongue tastes food. The mind tastes words.”

The first thing that came to mind was Job 34:3, in the King James translation: “For the ear trieth words, as the mouth tasteth meat.” I like the Hmong saying but it doesn’t go far enough. Yes, the mind tastes words but so do the tongue, lips, teeth and soft palate. Part of the joy of language, particularly of poetry – and it’s probably the first joy we know when reading as children – is the pleasure-giving music it makes in our mouths. The first poem I can remember falling in love with was Poe’s “The Bells”:

“To the tintinnabulation that so musically wells
From the bells, bells, bells, bells,
Bells, bells, bells –
From the jingling and the tinkling of the bells.”

God, it’s awful but it hypnotized me and I memorized parts of it without trying. Today I can’t abide Poe’s poems or prose but I’m pleased I could hear his music, just as I can carry a tune with my voice without being able to play a musical instrument. I fell for “Kubla Khan,” “Danny Deever” and “Fern Hill.” I outgrew Kipling and Thomas but found happy replacements -- Basil Bunting, for instance, whose poems are always musical. In 1966, the year he published Briggflatts, Bunting wrote:

“Poetry, like music, is to be heard. It deals in sound – long sounds and short sounds, heavy beats and light beats, the tone relations of vowels, the relations of consonants to one another which are like instrumental colour in music. Poetry lies dead on the page, until some voice brings it to life, just as music, on the stave, is no more than instructions to the player.”

“Language arts” tastes cloyingly of bureaucracy, composition by committee. It makes us “earsick,” a word Bunting favored. Here’s the “Coda” to Briggflatts:

“A strong song tows
us, long earsick.
Blind, we follow
Rain slant, spray flick
To fields we do not know.

“Night, float us.
Offshore wind, shout,
ask the sea
what’s lost, what’s left,
what horn sunk,
what crown drift.

“Where we are who knows
of kings who sup
while day fails? Who,
swinging his axe
to fell kings, guesses
where we go?”

Eighteen lines, 62 words, 70 syllables. Strict economy and precision. Earlier in Briggflatts, Bunting writes:

“It is time to consider how Domenico Scarlatti
condensed so much music into so few bars
with never a crabbed turn or congested cadence,
never a boast or a see-here; and stars and lakes
echo him and the copse drums out his measure,
snow peaks are lifted up in moonlight and twilight
and the sun rises on an acknowledged land.”

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