No.7 - March 2020
MILK, SILK AND HIGGINS
Once I was asked to review an outdoor sculpture exhibit, located throughout the city of Kingston, New York. So it was a walking tour (and some driving—Kingston isn’t that small). Walking through an area, looking at a piece of sculpture, seeing another piece in the distance, walking toward it, seeing it grow and gain clarity as I got near it, meant that my visual sense was sharpened, and I started seeing everything more vividly, seeing the sculptural properties of everyday objects and the unexpected ways that things related spatially. And so it is with rhyme, which I will get to, after I digress again. When I was growing into young manhood, at the cusp of the 1950s and ‘60s, it was an age of conflict. In jazz, it was the hipsters and the moldy figs. In painting, the realists and the abstract expressionists. In poetry, the beats and the academics—“The Raw and the Cooked,” in Robert Lowell’s phrase. In three of those young years, I was in Iowa City at the Writers Workshop, and Paul Engle was still alive and taking an active role. One day, Denise Levertov visited the Workshop, and Engle, with a certain amount of sweet malice, asked her if she could ever imagine writing a sonnet. She did not lightly laugh off this suggestion. She took considerable umbrage. She bristled. No, she said curtly. She would never write a sonnet. Engle pushed it a little farther, suggested that forms such as rhyme could be illuminating—that the correspondence of sound could make us see a correspondence between the textures and qualities of milk and silk. Levertov was not having any of it. She was really bristling now. There was, she said, no connection between milk and silk. And I’m sure she did not go on to say—but somehow I remember it that way—that only an idiot would try to force a connection with rhyme. But that was long ago. We live in a postmodern era where all such conflicts have been resolved, where the lion lies down with the lamb, hipsters sell chocolate bars in Brooklyn, and milk romps happily with silk. And even if the muse that captures your concupiscent soul does not whisper to you sweet blandishments in rhyme, you can still get something of value from spending some time with it. And maybe what you get is what I got from my sculpture walk: a heightened awareness of the sound of words, and how they interact. Auden famously said that the first qualification for a poet was to enjoy hanging around words and hearing them talk to one another. So let us, for a moment, hang around Shelley’s “Ozymandias,” which we spent a whole lot of time with last month, but it takes more than that to exhaust a poem as great as “Ozymandias.” How about that first line? How about the repetition of that one vowel sound, the one that’s called the short a although it’s not particularly short: I met a traveller from an antique land Yes, there’s a lovely hypnotic quality to assonance, but not all assonances are alike. Shelley could have kept the prose sense of the line, and the assonance, by switching to the long a I met a stranger from an ancient place But you’d lose that flat expanse of sound, which sets you up so that by the time you arrive at the rhyme line, and “sand,” you’ve already got the feeling of the sand. And at the end of the poem: boundless and bare The lone and level sands stretch far away You come back to something you’ve never really lost—that sense of vast, unending barrenness. And maybe the sound gives you something else, too. Maybe crafty old Paul Engle was right, and we can get something of value from letting milk bump up against silk. How is an antique land different from an ancient place? “Ancient” suggests arcane mysteries, and Shelley is almost saying there are no mysteries. The sculptor, probably a slave, hated the king, and the sculptor won, and the king lost. Broken, the statute does nothing but mock the king’s pretensions, but even the broken shard that reveals the shattered visage reveals the artistry of the sculptor. And that shard, that antique, is the gift the traveller gives to the poet with his story. Assonance is not the only dialect with which words talk to one another, and rhyme is not their only medium of communication. Consider this, by Donald Justice: There is no music now in all Arkansas. Higgins is gone, taking both his pianos. I’ll get to the whole poem eventually, but consider that one line: Higgins is gone, taking both his pianos. The line finishes with the assonance/internal rhyme of the two long o’s: both his pianos. But what’s striking and wonderful about it is that while it’s bookended by assonance (Higgins is), the center of the line is all about the patterned play of all different vowels. Higggins is gone, taking both his pianos. Yes, you will walk away from this column with that line stuck in your head, like “Blue, blue, blue suede shoes.” And it will do what good poetry does, and that “Blue, blue, blue suede shoes,” classic though it is, does not quite do. It will expand in your mind as you stay with it, and take you to new places. Here are some of the places it takes me. The conscious unmusicality of the dissonant vowel sounds and the syncopated musicality of their rhythm, all light and skipping but anchored by the solid gone, are one, at the same time. “Gone” Is emptiness and solidity at the same time, a hollow, echoing well that Higgins and the pianos are dropped into, and a fulcrum that balances everything on either side of it. Paradox? Yeah. How is it possible that the same word, or the same series of sounds, can evoke opposite feelings at the same time? Easy. You just feel it. As Mick Jagger says, “You’re not the only one with mixed emotions.” And Jerry Corbitt of the Youngbloods captured it nicely in the lyrics to his song, “Grizzly Bear”: “When I woke up this morning she was gone, solid gone.” Higgins is gone, taking both his pianos. Did I say dissonance of all the clashing vowel sounds? Maybe I was wrong, or maybe I was right and wrong at the same time. How about this? It’s an arpeggio, running down the keyboard to fall off the end, like the piano leaving town and jouncing out of tune at the first bad road. But you don’t know about that yet, because I haven’t given you the rest of the poem. So let’s go back to what I have given you, the two lines: There is no music now in all Arkansas. Higgins is gone, taking both his pianos. Which is the truth? Is this wild hyperbole? Of course there’s still music in Arkansas. Higgins and his pianos can’t possibly be all there was. And Higgins is kind of a funny name, isn’t it? Surely no one named Higgins can encompass all the music in Arkansas. (Side note—Donald Justice studied composition with Carl Ruggles, who also had a funny name but was one of the titans of 20th century music.) Or Is it the truth? Is the failure of a university, a state, a moment in space and time, to hold onto someone who makes and teaches music, a monstrous and irreparable loss? It’s like the sculpture walk. Paying attention to something that grabs your attention can open your eyes, your ears, your mind. If you’re a writer of poetry, paying attention to the music of your own words can open you to making connections you didn’t know about before you started. Here’s the rest of the poem. Listen to the music of Donald Justice’s finely tuned words. You don’t have to get poetry. Let it get you. Variation for Two Pianos for Thomas Higgins, pianist There is no music now in all Arkansas. Higgins is gone, taking both his pianos. Movers dismantled the instruments, away Sped the vans. The first detour untuned the strings. There is no music now in all Arkansas. Up Main Street, past the cold shopfronts of Conway, The brash, self-important brick of the college, Higgins is gone, taking both his pianos. Warm evenings, the windows open, he would play Something of Mozart's for his pupils, the birds. There is no music now in all Arkansas. How shall the mockingbird mend her trill, the jay His eccentric attack, lacking a teacher? Higgins is gone, taking both his pianos. There is no music now in all Arkansas. There was more that I wanted to say about hanging around words and listening to them talk to each other. But next time.
©2020 Tad Richards
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