Sunday, July 19, 2015

`An Acoustic Quality Called Roughness'

“There were a few striking works of art in [C.H.] Sisson’s house, drawings and paintings by modernists and contemporaries. These works were akin in sensibility to his poems, and resolutely modern in their refusal of a conventional or easy beauty. But the most revealing object was an ancient one, a piece of medieval stonework, the keystone to a small arch, the boss of which had been carved into a man’s head, the mouth wide open, and the entire head seeming to consist of, to be reduced to, the man’s cry.”
“Boss” was a mystery with a simple explanation: “a round prominence in hammered or carved work” (OED). The passage is drawn from “C.H. Sisson – a Memoir” (Agenda, Vol. 45, No. 2) by the English poet Robert Wells, who continues:
“Sisson produced this object on one of my visits—it was a recent acquisition—inviting me to share his pleasure in it. I could not. It was too stark, too shockingly expressive. Yet what it revealed was what I recognized in his poetry—the need to put words to what issued from that gaping mouth, to articulate the cry.”
From Wells’ description, the stone carving sounds interesting, a piece I might admire. Birth and death elicit legitimate screams – of pain, grief or exultation. Petulant, histrionic screaming at everything in between drains a man or woman of dignity. No wonder the kindergarten expressionism of Munch’s “The Scream” remains perennially popular. Wells quotes a brief poem from Exactions (1980), “The Goldfish”:
“Everything that is beautiful must be taken away
As that goldfish was. Shining, and plated with gold,
Its mouth trembling, its eye stony with solicitude
--I gasped when I saw it; it was my own cry.”
It’s the mingling of “mouth trembling” and “eye stony” that makes the poem. In a net or twitching on the ground, even in the water, no creature looks so pathetically helpless as a fish. In silence, the gaping mouth gulps futilely after oxygen. Wells sees more deeply into Sisson’s work: “To speak out—that was what counted for Sisson in poetry; and that the speech, to authenticate it, should keep something of the cry’s rough helplessness and vehemence.” I remembered a radio report I heard earlier this week on a study devoted to the acoustical analysis of screaming:
“When someone is talking, the modulation rate is about four or five changes a second. But when someone is screaming, it can jump to more than 100 changes a second. That gives the sound an acoustic quality called roughness.”
That “roughness” – a weathered quality I associate with Louis Armstrong’s voice – is the defining timbre of Sisson’s voice in poetry and prose. He has sufficiently mastered form – prosody, rhyme, the whole encyclopedia of musical effects – to play with dissonance without trivializing sound or sense, as in “In the Silence”:
“Perhaps silence is best,
But if there must be speech,
Then watch it closely, lest
It stretches out of reach.
The future is too far:
The past is all we are.”

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