The Neural Lyre: An Interview with Richard Kenney by Amy Beeder
Reader, I present to you Richard Kenney’s elegant, sharp and amusing meditations on musical poetry, the audible palette of rhyme, the “Celtic fringe”, and more―
AB: I was first introduced to your work several years ago, by the poet Hailey Leithauser. We were discussing what we felt to be a regrettable lack of poetry that’s embedded in music. As a contemporary example of ebullient sound, HL pulled “The One Strand River” from her bookshelf. What are your thoughts about where unabashedly musical poetry, yours and others, stands right now?
RK: As to whether unabashedly musical verse is catching on, I can’t say. That’s not my impression. I can say, though, that when I started teaching at the University of Washington a quarter-century ago, fewer students wanted to learn the techniques. Of those, a fair proportion took them like medicine, something they “should know,” rather than as a live option for their own practice. Students in recent years have been a little more catholic about it, I think.
I only feel blood-pressure when I accidentally read something deeply dumb, like the suggestion that an appreciation of “formal” poetry is diagnostic of Republican politics. Apart from certified archangels like Wilbur, Merrill, Hecht, and a few others, in whom it was forgiven, a penchant for rhyme and meter was very unfashionable at the time I started out. That may have proved protective, keeping me from publishing too early. It was also somewhat isolating. Here are some thoughts:
Let’s say 70,000 years ago Urk made a bone flute. From then until Athens, song, dance, tales, memory—the whole of the multiple Muses’ purview—happened simultaneously, all together, under the flag of Poetry. History cracked off early, with Herodotus and Thucydides. Music started going solo, I don’t know when. Dance has tended to keep loose swoop if not close step to music, but even here, the arts separate. Storytelling like a hermit crab found a new shell in novels. Poetry splintered; its constituent elements deracinated.
This is partly what Pound meant when he wrote: “Music begins to atrophy when it departs too far from the dance… poetry begins to atrophy when it gets too far from music.” Their deep natures remember their unitary origin.
Leaping ahead to our own time: Where did storytelling go? Out of novels and into movies, of course. Those whom Wordsworth censured for reading “frantic novels and sickly stupid German Tragedies, and deluges of idle and extravagant stories in verse”— now watch Netflix on their phones.
Where did song from poetry go? I wish I knew. I’m pretty sure song is what I mostly ask from poetry, from limericks at the bottom to Hopkins and Shakespeare at the top. I love nonsense verse for the pure sound and play of it—all poetry is nonsense verse, to some extent—and I love it all the more when music irradiates idea. It’s a deep mystery, the little miracle when a syntactic and perhaps even cerebral proposition gets cast in a succession of such sweet syllables as to precipitate its “felt” understanding—head and heart congruent for the moment, in an apprehension which, though it can’t logically defend itself in Superior Court, nevertheless feels fathoms deeper.
This is brute psychological reality. One proof might be that sonic manipulations—rhyme and meter, roughly speaking—never left the houses of agitprop, advertising, newspaper headlines, or real radio song lyrics. Daniel Kahneman reports that experimental subjects rate rhymed proverbs “truer” than their unrhymed redactions. However this might properly discomfit a logician, it wouldn’t surprise a priest or sorcerer. It’s likewise with curses, charms, spells of all kinds: word-magic won’t perk on the strength of denotation alone.
Stated in plainer clothes: sonic echoes strum the neural lyre. They please the genus Homo. Regular echo and rhythmic pulse will never leave language in all its daily domains, however they may have officially fled the lower slopes of Parnassus.
Why would any poet decline to use such a powerful instrument? Because it’s the Giant’s Harp, and it calls to its masters—all of them big, incommensurable, and dead? Because it’s an art, and to that degree unnatural, which is partly to say you’d have to learn it, and not everybody has a knack? Because as a vein of possibility, it’s imagined to have been mined-out centuries ago? Because rhyme apparently lies, and the American Zen-Puritan ethic, ever suspicious of “ornamentation”, prefers plainer-spoken affectations of sincerity?
Where does the hermit-crab flee? It’s occurred to me that contemporary styles of melody-less music have outcompeted poetic meter in the limbic niche where it once had a flourishing ecology. Or to say it in blue jeans, rap may scratch the same itch, albeit with a back hoe. But that’s a just-so story.
Whatever the etiology of the issue, it does seem to me that a good deal of contemporary poetry has put most of its chips into rhetoric. Personally, I prefer to place those kinds of bets in the coin of prose.
We understand why Pound said he wanted to “break the pentameter—that was the first heave.” Of course, he didn’t mean it literally, he had nothing against the pentameter pulse, per se. It was boredom, the stale conventionality of Edwardian verse he meant to overthrow; breaking its principal vessel must have seemed a quick if dirty solution. His own subsequent verse proves he didn’t mean it. Plenty of his followers weren’t so acute. So much for the Twentieth Century. Music had to go somewhere.
Now that you mention it, what’s wrong with perfect rhyme and perfect meter? Nothing, in principle, obviously. Wonderful poems were made with old-school implements all through the last century, and some poets still try. I try. You mention Hailey Leithauser. We could add Brad Leithauser, Kay Ryan, Eric McHenry, Mary Jo Salter, Cody Walker, Daniel Anderson, Kevin Craft, Carol Light, Alicia Stallings, Joanie Mackowski, Catherine Wing, and many others, all playing the Giant’s Harp in different tunings.
And also ungrudgingly to concede it’s possible that at least a few of the crowd that swears on the Formalist bible do indeed suffer from the sins that tribe sometimes gets accused of: sartorial constipation, Masterpiece-Theater diction, overbred sensibilities, prim natures and pat endings.
For me, the separator is practical. Are you in it for the smile that comes with the tumble of syllables, or are you in it as an antiquary—reproducing “forms” as a curtsy to tradition, or too much for the fascination of what’s difficult? A respectful dash of either of those is OK with me; too much, and I’m reminded of Medieval faires and black-powder hunting.
Nevertheless, being alive and not dead, it’s natural to want to try to awl another hole in the bone flute. Much of the fun I’ve had in my lifetime as an artist has been to try to expand the audible palette of rhyme. That’s a longer story.
AB: Are there trends that you definitely see in contemporary poetry, craft-wise? For example, might you speak a little more about how “contemporary poetry has put its chips into rhetoric”?
I’m really no good witness to trends in contemporary poetry. As I said earlier, I think maybe a few more of my students in recent years have seemed inclined toward echoic effects, but I don’t know what Delphi would predict for the future of the art, in that respect or in any respect. Diffidence also re that rhetoric remark. I have no business generalizing so. I’ll say this: I don’t go to poetry for smart talk. If I want to hear “what some guy thinks,” I’m much more inclined to go to nonfiction prose. As for social justice and overtly political rhetoric, my objection to most contemporary sallies in these fields isn’t to the sentiment, but to the effect: it’s the same as my objection to wet firecrackers.
AB: Regarding students: in my experience, you’re dead on, and over the years I’ve had to develop a number of strategies for teaching sound to reluctant youth. One is to start with words rather than lines, as meter especially is a hard sell. They’re often receptive what I’d loosely call texture–something like what Robert Pinsky talks about in “Like and Unlike Sounds,” from The Sounds of Poetry. The idea of Germanic vs Latinate words is often a revelation to undergraduates, and they love Pinsky’s thoughts on it, especially Our plain short rude words for bodily functions and substances are Germanic: the longer, more clinical words are Latin. You don’t have to know this to hear the difference between “shit” and “excrement.” (Although I wonder if at that point we’re not actually talking about diction.) Do you have any advice for how to teach rhyme and meter?
Also, I’d like to hear a little more about what you mean by “expanding the audible palette of rhyme.”
RK: As for tearstains teaching rhyme and meter to the truculent—again, I’d note there’s the medicine school and the catnip school. It’s worth teaching in both. Without some training in meter—which is easy enough to get—students are shut out of a crucial dimension of pleasure afforded by historical literatures. So it’s in their interest, never mind that they don’t ever mean to write it. As for the catnip school, I suppose I think passion is catching. If you’re interested, and they have some inclination to trust you, they’ll follow your excitements, whatever you say. Respecting mine, and the “audible palette” question—Short version: starting out—this was 1970, under the jackboot of the Second Hegemony of Free Verse—I felt the poverty of acoustical tools currently on offer. What were they? Perfect rhyme (widely deplored as a played-out extractive industry), and slant-rhyme, tolerated in the lab like an attenuated virus. Preserving a single final consonant? What kind of constraint was that? Through a series of enthusiastic accidents I became acquainted with the idea of rhyme-classes in Irish, and the technique of cynghanedd, or sequential consonant-chime, in Welsh. Both these languages make use of voiced-unvoiced consonant mutation. That struck me as a potential key to expanding the audible palette.
But your question obviously electrocutes a nerve in my right hand. If you’d forgive me for rehearsing the history of musical instrumentation since the hand-axe, I’d be inclined to give a finer-grained response. Nobody imagines we’re speaking in person, here, Amy. If you’ve given me a license to essay on my personal lifelong wrestle with rhyme, then what follows will cash out in a pedantry of footnotes. Feel free to skip.
People like interesting sounds, particularly patterned or repetitive ones, that’s just a
species fact. That’s why we cock an ear to owls and crickets and long low train-whistles, especially at night, when our eyes aren’t sharp. A dumpster poured full of glass in the predawn distance catches our attention. You can’t spell that, but if you could, you’d need one damned doom-long vowel and a crepuscular clatter and breakage of consonants. All words sound more like other words than they sound like anything else: that’s one kind of similarity; words everywhere call to their kind, and aggregate. But poets have gambled for deeper symmetries. Following music, which does it all better, these efforts have typically involved either modulation of melodic echo, or of percussive rhythm and duration. Roughly speaking, that’s the categories of rhyme and meter. A particular language and culture will discover which of these methods best suits its character. Latin tried to copy quantitative meters, which with their stretched syllables must in Greek have sounded a lot like singing. Though poets have tried, the consensus seems to be that English can’t manage quantity any more than Classical Latin wanted end-rhyme. Caesar wouldn’t have applauded a rhyme on “us” or “ensis”; rhyme didn’t come to Romance until its inflections had eroded away—once the month of August had gone from Augustus to Aout— then a fertile field for echo opened up.
Point is, the artist needs both constraint, and room to move. To be useful, the technique can’t be either too easy or too hard. If it was too easy in Latin, rhyme in English has been famously said to be too hard. Concerning that paucity of perfect rhymes, I think it’s Paul Fussell who wrote that the technique came late and left early?—end-rhyme ushered into Middle English courtesy of the Norman Conquest, and hectored out again by the Imagists at the turn of the last century? A cartoon. But the point was that in Germanic prosodies, stress has historically overridden terminal echo. That’s a blunt statement for what in Anglo-Saxon can seem a blunt instrument. Hrothgar liked his echo at the beginning of the word: stresses were marked with alliterating consonants. Hopkins swooned for that—I love the remark in one of his journals: “I weep to think what English might have been”—meaning, presumably, if King Harold had done a little better at Hastings. Per that, you mention Robert Pinsky’s meditation over excremental word-choice, putting me in mind of C. S. Lewis’s observation that the same holds true for reproductive vocabularies: “as soon as you deal with [sex] explicitly, you are forced to choose between the language of the nursery, the gutter, and the anatomy class”—and, too, of Orwell: “A mass of Latin words falls upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outline and covering up all the details.” Often the point, no doubt, in the excremental and sexual instances. Certainly the French penetration of English would sound more detailed in Anglo-Saxon parlance. (1) Anyway, like their vocabularies, Middle and Modern English prosodies are a confluence of sonic affordances native to Germanic and Romance roots. For meter, it meant stress and syllable respectively; for rhyme, it meant initial and ultimate echo, respectively. Which takes us to the present day, decorated with meters from the nursery, the laboratory, and the gutter.
Actually, Latin and German each trod the British Isles twice, if you count the Roman and Danish as well as the Norman and Anglo-Saxon invasions. But there was a more ancient strain of Indo-European in the British Isles, resident since the Iron Age. As with the indigenous case in North America, the Celtic languages didn’t contribute much to the invader vocabulary (place-names being the exception). Harp and bagpipes: immiscible cultures, warring. But the two branches of Celtic—Gaelic and British—each spawned great literatures of their own. In 1973, I went to Ireland and Wales with a half-formed curiosity as to why such a number of my favorite extravagances seemed to have been nourished on soil from the Celtic fringe—I was thinking of Yeats, Hopkins, and Dylan Thomas to begin with. I was aware of Tolkein’s fascination with Welsh. I vaguely knew that both these literatures were served by complex prosodies. My notion—half-baked rather than half-formed, I should say—was that though these landscapes were papered over in English, that the musical values of their originary languages were maybe bleeding through.
This happened to be the year Seamus Heaney moved to the South, and I heard
somewhere rightly or wrongly that his and a number of other younger Irish poets’
rhyming experiments partly derived from Old Irish technique. By that time I was in love with Brendan Kennelly’s translations from Old Irish, so I bought Gerard Murphy’s Early Irish Metrics. It was enough just to open the cover, to see how many sorts of notation it took to account for the profusion of effects those poets kept under prosodic management. It took bold-face, italics, superscripts, capitals—and the marks looked to be sprinkled throughout the gibber of the text. Between unintelligible specimens, I read about consonant classes, rhyme classes. These echoes weren’t restricted to the line-ends, and they weren’t as simple as the three thumps in the Anglo Saxon line. Staggering over to Welsh, I learned about the signature technique called cynghanedd, wherein (in its straightforward case) every consonant in the first half of a line is repeated, in the same order, in different words, in the second half of the line—without remainder! No wonder Dafydd ap Gwilym isn’t as famous as Chaucer. The glories of Welsh literature are sonic, and so, untranslatable. Welsh literature is trapped in the matrix of its language. (2) I won’t say all this was like a goldilocks-zone exoplanet swimming across my reading glasses, and it was closer to Derry than Darien, but I did feel a pharynx of echoic possibility yawn open. Backing up. These days when we say rhyme (if we say it at all), we pretty much mean one of two off-the-shelf varieties recognized in current practice. Both apply to a line’s ultimate syllable. (3) One is “full rhyme,” or “perfect rhyme” (often disparaged, along with end-stopped lines); the other being “half-rhyme” or “slant rhyme” or “near-rhyme,” appreciated for its sonic promiscuity.
These terms beg to reckon two elements in a particular syllable: that is, the final
consonant and the vowel that precedes it. If both are identical, then it’s full-rhyme; if the consonant remains, but the vowel has changed, it’s half-rhyme. (4) If there aren’t enough of the first kind in English, there are way too many of the second kind. This isn’t to hint that W.B. Yeats and Emily Dickinson and everyone else haven’t made fabulous use of this instrument, but only to imagine that there might be adjustments that would give a little more helpful constraint on one hand, while producing a little more echo, on the other. The Celtic prosodies seemed to me to offer a few suggestions. The first has to do with consonant mutation. This is actually implicated in the grammars of Irish and Welsh, but it’s audible in any language. (5) There’s no question that the voiced and unvoiced consonant pairs alliterate almost as strongly as identicals do. Or, if (to take the simplest case) the final consonant in your slant or perfect rhyme requires a T, let’s say, or a P, and you don’t have one ready to hand, then a D or a B ought to do just fine, respectively. And if you widen your word-search, permitting the consonants to mutate throughout rhyming syllables, the dictionary becomes a much richer berry-patch. (6)
Take a further step: if in the rhyming syllable you consider two consonants instead of
one—that is, if you control for the initial consonant (identical, mutated, or different),
along with final consonant (identical, mutated or different), you stand to gain increments in both sound and helpful constraint.
If you include the middle vowel (as either identical, or “mutated” to its long or short form, or changed altogether), then the matrix of possible combinations multiplies.
I’m not suggesting you’d engage an accounting firm keep track of these theoretical increments in a managed way. I am suggesting that you might imagine a sliding spectrum of available echo: strongest in a so-called “pararhyme” (7 ) with all identical consonants and vowels, and weakening with each mutation, starting from the front.
This is a little embarrassing. Believe me, it doesn’t feel nearly so mathematical in the mouth, where one actually finds these permutations.
Here are the experiments I’ve tried. “Experiments” is wrong: these are my methods, have been my methods, practiced in many ways over many years. They all hang on these same vowel + same consonant (full rhyme) different vowel + same consonant (simple consonance or slant rhyme) same vowel + different consonant (simple assonance) different vowel + different consonant (nothing) echoic rules (8), poached or opportunistically maladapted not from any strict Irish or Welsh forms, per se, but rather from an underlying reliance on consonant mutation.
- Any consonant is allowed to mutate from its voiced to its unvoiced form, or vice-
P / B T/ D F / V K / G CH / J S / Z [also nasals M / N; less important, liquids
R / L, which hardly echo in American English]
- Any syllable is fair game for the rhyme:
putsch – budgerigar – Persian – butcher – punch – birch – rampage – perishing –
Percheron – rubbish
- Disyllabic rhymes are licit, neither comic nor uncommon:
disparate – parrot – aberrant – parody – barrette – Barréd – paradiddle – Sybarite
N.B. They can occasionally reverse:
silty – diesel goslings – lingos argots – geyser culvert – vertical
- Multisyllabic words can “lyse” or “mitose”, such that two (or conceivably more) of
the syllables seed and propagate their own rhyme-chains, which may themselves mutate:
Thus CAPPUCINO could conceivably sire four separate strands, permitting a cascade of gabs and coops, pooches and bushes, sheens and chains, news and noses, braiding down the right-hand side of the page. It probably wouldn’t, but it could.
Using those instruments, I’ve made poems according to these forms, among others:
Couplets— where either syllable is allowed to instantiate the rhyme. (Stress matters,
obviously and as always)
Tercets— strict terza rima, which is particularly liable to the method, but also self-
contained tercets, either with triple rhymes, or a “mitosis rhyme”, with a strong disyllabic parent and two “daughter rhymes,” like so:
A B Endowed
X A blend
X B doubt
Quatrains: in any of the possible patterns
Mutating Braids— as described in point 5 above, where multisyllabic words lyse and
seed separate rhyme-chains braiding—and simultaneously “evolving”— down the page, governed only by the rule that every line must echo within three lines, that being my arbitrary notion of where the “tuning fork” becomes inaudible: again, this is a commitment to sound, not simply to pattern. (8)
I adopted this particular constraint for the long narrative poems in The Invention of the Zero. The method is flexible and propulsive. You can make it loud and pattern-
predictable at one extreme, or quiet as blank verse, at the other. (Not to propose I’ve done any of those things well! I’m told the book is unreadable).
Rivets— This is my essay at Anglo-Saxony alliterating spondaism, the kind of thing
Hopkins admired and wished to copy. Point was not to write “sprung rhythm,” but rather to find a way to deploy alliteration in a patterned, sustainable way. I wanted something more arithmetically prescriptive than, say, what Heaney does in his Beowulf, which strikes me as “alliterating whenever he can.” Presuming at the outset that the strict Anglo-Saxon method as re-proven by Wilbur in “Junk” and “Lilacs”, with four beats, three alliterations and a caesura, would prove too constraining (for me, anyway), I decided to locate the alliteration between the end of one line and the beginning of the next. Thus, the two lines are “riveted” together. A simple “rivet” is that alliteration. A “hot rivet” is a spondaic or pararhyming one. You do hear the repetitive punch.
Examples of all of these things are littered through my books.
And I hope it goes without saying, I don’t imagine any proprietary rights, here.
Ideosyncratic rhyme-schemes aside, examples of all of these sound-effects themselves are everywhere in the literature, including (if not often enough for my taste) contemporary poetry. Prescriptive patterns may have advantages as cripplers of Tyrant Intellect, and help a good deal in a generative way, and they can produce crystalline structures that withstand time better than amorphous aggregates—but you don’t need schemes to please the ear. Most heart-rending effects are accidental, and always will be. See remarks above in re “internal rhyme” and cold blood.
On the other hand, technical conversations like this one may conceivably help clarify
why we find some adventitious syllable-strings strangely haunting. Take Blake’s “The Sick Rose,” in which the invisible worm in the howling storm has found out thy bed of crimson joy, and with his dark secret love does thy life destroy. The object/verb inversion might have seemed a gratuitous archaism, even at the time. But it laces the vowel rhymes
love does / thy life to the near-identical disyllabic echoes does thy / des troy, in a pretty thrilling way: Welsh couldn’t have done it better. I might quote other poets. These lines, for instance:
the gentle foals / atremble, stem-legged, long-neglected. / Dear drought our summer’s corn was overrun again / with weed & cheat; the bitter zinnias fell to bits.
In this place we sift & bounce the words like dice / thrice dip a pipe into the magma, o my stars.
like damp tea leaf / driftwood no, peat steam
O volcanic Captain, I implore you, pour / Your scorn upon these Borgias; before
these Braggarts / Unfurl your thick invective, show your bullet head / Whiskey-pickled, weathered & pupilless, sweating / In a bantam rage, your sad-fish face a fist—
Hard to imagine lyre more extravagant, these days. So: hats off to you, and thanks.
- My favorite example of the distinction is the farm-to-table vocabulary: French for the viands enjoyed by the Norman lords; German for the animals themselves, swilled or herded as they were by vassal Saxons.
- Edward Sapir.
- When poets congratulate themselves on “preferring internal rhyme,” they’re almost always talking about lucky accidents, not effects they’ve managed in cold blood. All my remarks here have to do with cold blood.
- If the vowel is long and remains long, and never mind the consonant, it’s 94.1,
Country & Western.
- As bespectacled Linguistics would point out in punishing exactitude, this is just one of the ways that different letters may sound alike. “Plosives” here and “fricatives” there, puff and scratch, etc. etc. It is true that ESSS and EFFF are easily confused in a noisy room. Poets employ all of these sorts of semblances naturally; like those internal rhymes they often constitute, such effects seem to me best left in the jurisdiction of the Muses of lucky accident. Though Robert Graves says somewhere that a good part of the Ars Poetica consists in suppressing the letter S.
- I’d note here that as far as I’m concerned, and as much as I like Hank Williams and
Patsy Cline, and even though there’s nothing louder than a long open vowel, this game is ultimately played for consonants. I recall reading in Hopkins’s journals about a trick he called “vowelling-off”—sounds faintly onanistic—I believe what he meant was a sort of smooth trombone-slide from open to closed vowels, eee sliding all the way to ooooh. I didn’t see much future in it—like strict cynghanedd, too difficult for home use, in English. But I warmly understood the impulse to want to loot Welsh prosody.
- Sometimes called “rim rhyme,” for obvious reasons. Here if only to placate scholarly querulosity I’d better confess that the English prosodic lexicon does in fact keep in shadow a vocabulary for most of these effects. Not only consonance and assonance, subsuming a broadened understanding of “slant rhyme,” but also semirhyme, which takes stress into account, and a zoo of other technical terms. From my perspective as a young poet, these instruments were an obscure abacus locked in the attic: everyone I knew was counting on his fingers, or not counting at all. I had to go to Ireland and Wales, where complex technique had been common practice, to learn these lessons.
A final note on this subject, all of whose mysteries are about to be clarified by an expert contemporary practitioner: Brad Leithauser’s new book, titled Rhyme’s Rooms, is predicted out from Knopf sometime this coming year.
- To ring that tuning fork twice: if I’m tagged as a “formalist,” it’s for the echoes, not
the arcana. I’m interested in sound-patterns. If I tend to like my music loud—if
overwriting’s my obverse foible—let that serve to emphasize the point. Purely or
principally intellectual patterns interest me not at all. I have zero use for inaudible
anagrams, for example, let alone the abstruser reaches of Oulipo.
AB: What are you reading now? What have you read in the last year or so that most impressed you? I’d like to hear about this in as much detail as you care to give. Do you read several books at once? That’s a disingenuous question, though―of course you do.
Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow, Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now, and Yuval Noah Harari’s 21 Lessons for the 21st Century.
The last two for non-poetical reasons, except insofar as they sketch a Polis, past and future, where poetry has flourished and may yet bid to flourish. What’s going to happen? How can we resolve our panics and find a way forward, to save the Republic, to save the Earth—you know, all of that. I’d set Harari’s other books, Sapiens and Homo Deus, along with Pinker’s The Better Angels of our Nature, on that same shelf.
If I were to try to say what subject most interests me, in an intellectual way, I mean, I’d probably mutter something about human language, the mystery of its evolutionary origin, the uncertain nature of its grip on reality. Specifically, I’m convinced that the so-called “Forms of Poetry”—better say the fundamental elements of the Ars Poetica—have roots running all the way back to the hindbrain. Einstein famously said that science is nothing more than a refinement of everyday thinking, and it seems clear to me that the same thing may be said about the ways and means of poetry, in very much the same spirit. Villanelles—double-rondeau—contemporary “erasures”— these are orchids or fungi fruiting from the topmost twigs of the cognitive tree; they’re historical, and only important to the handful of specialists who read and write them. Syntax—metaphorical logic—what Frost called “the sound of sense”—these are deep taproots, ahistorical, biological, species-specific, crucial to all humans who need to think their way from breakfast to lunch. Their deployments transcend poetry, inflecting all human intercourse. Have these deepest affordances of the language faculty found their highest refinements in poetry, over time? Are we lucky to presume to stand in that line? I think poets are privileged to experiment at pen-point, at the intersection of syntax and emotion, advancing that possibility. We mostly fail, naturally, and most of what we do won’t matter. But it might, because it has.
Excuse me for unrolling such a preposterous canvas, but I do it to show where books like Kahneman’s or Pinker’s have for me filled in at least a little of the white space. Why do we need poetry? How does it work? As a psychopomp of the cognitive unconscious, Kahneman offers a set of “heuristics and biases” which go some distance toward accounting for the deep operations of poetic imagery, for example, among other things. Among other things, Pinker’s The Stuff of Thought clarifies how and why the medium of language represents the world with such variable fidelity—how, as a digital basket, it carries information over space and time with world-conquering efficiency, while analog qualia leak through the mesh. Poetry tries to tighten the weave.
Maybe I should add, I don’t imagine any of this teaches me how to write, or necessarily makes me a better poet. I’m just interested, and you asked.
After Dactyl Picking
Hecht, et alii¹
Plundered the Word-Hoard from
Suffix to root,
Plucking for personal
Purposes most of the
1. Hollander; Pascal
2. See “Lexecological Resource Depletion May Prove Unsustainable” (Stymie & Moot)
The Andrew Wyeth Exhibit
Bees perched on his brush
while he painted their hurt hive.
Would a gold watch crushed
leak honey?— homing
moments swooping the sweep hand,
buzzing their bruised crèche?
Would they sweetly land
on that wand with which Wyeth
probed the torn comb, Time?
Didn’t they? Why, then
Does this museum’s hush buzz?
Do we not bustle
and cluster, alive
in these seething frames? Listen:
the microwave hum?—
but now the docent
hiss-whispers this museum
will be closing soon.
Ovidian D Train
While for the other, Eros chose a lead-tipped arrow.
The goddess, bored without a mirror, sighs.
Then, glancing sideways, sighs again, better.
She remembers: there is no place that does not see her.
The rich prince knows no such inhibitor.
He appears to have eaten something objectionable—
bad liverwurst, perhaps, or rancid butter.
Ignore the pout: the brow is surely noble,
the chin, square; the beak aquiline.
He hopes his dark eyes smolder like Chernobyl.
Maybe these two will meet, mate, make a squally
copy? Twins? Or not. It all depends
on which curare Cupid dips his quill in.
Tincture of honey?—or salts of lead: dread essence
where this vain undivine train ride rattling ends.
part Plato. Part knapped flint point
All lichen-like, one
fungal tendril earthward, one
algal, in the sun.
The taxon’s mongrel.
Gold algorithm. Song-talk,
talk-song. Sung Sangraal.
Watching world through word
as through the whimmering lens
of a hummingbird
makes for artifacts.
Pax Dr. Williams, but aren’t
(strung so on syntax)
little likening engines,
each one—a sequence
biases, in effect?—
from its smooth ellipse
into these “things” and “events,”
as though such dollops
were of their essence
edged? Does Nature have edges?
Language answers: since
to see’s to see-as,
there really are no things
but in ideas.