Cross Steams was a recent series of events where poets spoke about their process. At my event, Maurice Scully (the better maker) asked if the poem I was exegeticising was fundamentally a 'score'. I was surprised by the question, and at the time said yes, because I think it could leave the page in a musical setting. But afterwards I wondered about it. What would it mean if a text on the page were equivalent to a musical score? I never studied music, but I understand that a score, in its various forms, provides a code for a piece of music as a whole: melody, harmonies, timbres, and all other details necessary to allow an ensemble of sounds to be played by various instruments, including the voice. A score also provides instructions on how a piece of music, or a suite of musical pieces, should be played—lightly, with heaviness, quickly, etc.
Can a poem be like a score? Is my poem 'the second of April' a score? It's a long poem with twenty-seven differently structured parts, the whole representing one moment in time and various influences on that moment. There are periods of movement and periods of stillness; sections range from one long stanza through stanzas of varying lengths, couplets, haiku and tanka. Interspersed are four news reports, and two sections have just one phrase. As is common practice, I was trying to convey mood and meaning in the structure, in this case the round journey of a flash of revelation. But to what extent is the text on the page a thing in itself independently of sound? Because I recite my poems, the question is a valid one. And because I recite, certainly many of my earlier poems were written with the rhythms of song or rap, and wouldn't breathe properly unless spoken. For years, however, the page has been my first medium.
Perhaps the comparison to a score is more tempting when a poem displays a lot of space. If there's a crowd of words, they seem to be taking care of themselves, like prose. Either way, language is a code, but it is also the thing, whether spoken or written. The appearance on the page, even in a poem that's not deliberately shaped, is an experience in itself. When writing lyrics for a song or for a performed poem, the appearance may be a secondary concern, but when seen on the page, the eye will judge it as a picture on some level, reading the placement of the words as part of the structural and semantic effect.
In the early years of reading, the text was habitually read aloud for the sake of comprehension. In The Allegory of Love, (1) C. S. Lewis refers to Augustine of Hippo's remark in his Confessions that Ambrose read silently to himself. You could see his eyes moving, but you heard nothing. This was at the end of the fourth century and marks, according to Lewis, 'the birth of a new world' when the inner life began to engage our attention and enlarge. Previously, the book or written text was the same as 'logos' or speech, and thinking the same as talking. We have now travelled so far along the reflexive path that I wonder whether the senses synchronise in the experience of written text. Don't we see, hear, feel, and taste when we read? An internal reconstruction of sense impressions, an imaginative 'playing' of what we see.
So the written/typed poem does provide a code for the delivery of the poetic material, but it's usually also happy to remain a textual, (visual-imaginative) experience, mine as much as any other. Perhaps musicians experience the same with a score. If you can hear it in your head, you are experiencing it, though in the case of the musician, the physical act of playing the music is crucial. Not so with most poems, or with the poem in question.
What happens when I recite a poem for the first time? Is all the information I need contained within the 'notation' of the text? I find that the process of rehearsing a poem for public delivery is a new creative process. Like many poets, I speak the poem while I compose; I plot, count and manage sounds. But when the page is gone, and all the words come from my mouth, something new happens. The body asks for emphases and tones I didn't plan, and often I make changes. Thereafter I hear the poem differently if I read it. In that sense, my poems are not scores, because delivery can vary. Take the first lines of 'Clockman':
The repetition is to construct the measured tick of a clock, but a reader might not pause with the tick at the same point as I do when I speak it. I generally speak it like this, the em-dashes being short pauses:
the clock has him beat
has him small and effete in the map of its hand
of its click and its twitch like a branch
like a cliff where he fell when he slept.
So while the structure guides the sense, it's not a definitive guide to enunciation.
This — man —
the clock — has him beat —
has him small — and effete — in the map — of its hand
of its click — and its twitch — like a branch —
like a cliff — where he fell when he slept.
Vahni Capildeo writes in the current issue of PN Review:
This is a result, she says, of physical and vocal disciplines learned in the practice of Hindu rituals and the chanting of Sanskrit. So it is the body translating itself onto the page, and, presumably, the whole becomes a kind of ourobouros when the words are spoken, the-text-speaking-the-body-which-speaks-the-text. The poet reading with text in hand is not a musician with a score, but the composer, the musician and the score all in one, the physical text being an extension, like a sword or tool. Ideally, this is what I would wish for my poems and their process.
Without meaning to, I developed a poetics of reverberation and minor noise. I find a line does not break so much as hum; the background to the letters (screen or paper) is not flat, but streaming.(2)
Emily Dickinson's poetry often puzzles me with relation to how the indicated pauses are to be taken, both semantically and orally. For example:
It's mostly, interruptions –
My Summer – is despoiled –
Because there was a Winter – once –
And all the Cattle – starved –
Thomas Johnson in his edition of The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, (Little, Brown, 1960), assures the reader that the punctuation marks are the poet's original ones, so I speak the lines with a pause where the dashes and comma occur. I find, when I do, that something unexpected happens. My voice takes on a personality of watchful deliberation, as if in company where I must remain distant. I am in interrupted flow, and that changes my tone and mood. In delivering the dashes, one is forced to a particular pace and timbre, and these illuminate the poem's atmosphere. The dashes define the tracks on which the voice travels, and one doesn't fully discover this until the poem is spoken. In other words, the poet has effected a kind of score.
I once read a poem of mine at a workshop I was facilitating. The participants, who had the text in front of them, commented that they wouldn't have read it like that at all, that I had delivered a cover version of my own work. I had played with the text, repeated some lines, elongated words, sung some parts. The poem in that case was hardly a score, but a unit that could be interpreted, like a play text. Here's something I relate to—that a poem contains directions for movement. The movement is of all the faculties, mental and sensory, and it's generally clear where speed occurs, or pauses, or turns. This and verbal interplay direct the delivery in a particular way, but it's always open to variation. One accent will naturally elongate, another emphasise a different syllable, and so on. Language is never closed coding. We would all have to sound the same way, and I, for one, have my own peculiar inner system.
So is 'the second of april' quintessentially a score? No and maybe. The proof will be in the performing. Here follows an excerpt—
* * *
It’s not butter, but I spread it on both sides, the better to slide away.
Here I am in my cave, a hoarding creature—
my clothes my unclear eyes my tidy nooks my tomes.
‘I want to live alone,’ I told her, and she filled up with thought.
But look now at the luminous spiders in those nooks.
I have brought her with me. And Her. And Her. And Him. And Him.
And day on night on day these doppelgangers spin their busy webs.
If I told my sins to your frozen grey gymnast of a bark,
you could harp them where you liked; the one truth
is that fact worms into earth and reappears nothing like itself.
Only now and then among ten thousand things does the earth
megaphonically object and claim its judgement.
Then we gape at gate-crashing chaos, the huge-throated,
killing white no.
Bless me, tree, for I have sinned. This is an honest confession.
I made my babies cry
I made my sister cry
I made my lovers cry
I made believe I loved
(I make believe I’m sorry, thinking of Joni Mitchell)
Say I can leave my watch,
that I can drink with them,
wear a new white dress,
my stains on the ground unnamed.
* * *
* * *
(1) Oxford University Press, 1958, c1936.
(2) 'Letter Not From Trinidad', PN Review 221, p. 6.