Saturday, March 27, 2010

Volume and Pitch

Doesn't this sound like a cool class? Would you take it?

Poetry Seminar: Volume and Pitch

A literary artifact has no literal volume or pitch. But a poem need not be spoken, sung or performed to have a voice: a poem’s sonic properties haunt the page, silently. In workshop discussions, we depend on metaphors of music: a poem’s ending is “quiet” or “loud”; we “hear” strains of Oppen in a specific rhetorical construction or of Dickinson in an uncanny metaphor; we praise the generous “silences” that occur in the suspension of a line break or in the use of white space; we speak of “echoes”; we speak of “voice.”

Much of contemporary poetics discourse is involved in discussing, reimagining, and revising our understandings of “lyric poetry” and “lyricism,” terms we’ve inherited from traditional musical forms. I would like my poetry seminar to enter into this conversation. Focusing our attention on examples of lyric poetry, primarily but not exclusively its modern and contemporary manifestations, I want the class to look at the musical qualities of poetry, however latent or explicit, and question how words on a page can create impressions of “loudness” or “softness”; how we can map poems by their “beats” and “bars”; how a poem can be in harmony with itself or modulate into a different key. Some questions I want to challenge the class with are: Do poems in a series or collection possess tonality? Can we think about poems as chromatic, chordal, dissonant, symphonic, major or minor? How does an understanding of “voice” evolve within the trajectory from Romantic to modern to contemporary lyric poetries? How do we define poetic “virtuosity” and what is its significance to the poem and poesis?

Coupled with reading discussion and writing exercises, much of the class will consist of listening to and discussing music. I am interested in debating with the class how different types of sounds can be rendered in language. I want the class to consider how sound and musicality can be functions of form rather than content. We will discuss vibrations, echoes, refrains, ideas of chorus and verse, poems written for multiple voices, poems written for one. We will examine the role of music and poetry in preliterate cultures as a collective memory aid and a living preservation of stories, myths, and ideas.

The goal is to develop a lexicon of terms with which to discuss these poems as music and from there renegotiate, modify, discard, or amend those terms as we progress and encounter new work. From previous teaching experience, I consider comprehensive and close reading of a wide range of materials more beneficial to burgeoning writers than hours of workshop. I want to develop writing projects around the concepts assigned reading and music selections introduce. While I want to focus course reading primarily on poetry, I think selected essays on poetics, music theory and philosophy would be useful to elucidate concepts and engender conversation around the assigned poems. Several writers whose individual pieces or collections I would like to assign include William Shakespeare, Emily Dickinson, Federico Garcia Lorca, Gertrude Stein, Martin Buber, George Oppen, Italo Calvino, Jack Spicer, Robin Blaser, Robert Duncan, Frank O’Hara, Barbara Guest, Frank Stanford, Keith Waldrop, Alice Notley, John Taggart, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Michael Palmer, Lisa Jarnot, Andrew Joron, and Elizabeth Willis. In addition to these poets and thinkers, I am also considering selections from David Suzuki, Oliver Sachs, Greil Marcus, Lester Bangs, Alex Ross, and Douglas Hofstadter.

Potential music selections include J.S. Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Scriabin, Erik Satie, Leadbelly, Blind Willie Johnson, Mahalia Jackson, John Cage, music of the Cante Jondo, Billie Holiday, John Coltrane, Nina Simone, Bob Dylan, John Cale, Sonic Youth, Radiohead, and the Wu-Tang Clan.


  1. I'd take the class too. I'm very happy Cha is on your list, but please include more *poets of color.* So many come to mind so I won't suggest any, but please visit the beautiful country of Poetry and invite others into your conversation.

  2. Thanks for your suggestion, John. I realized prior to posting the course description that negotiating how to accurately (and responsibly)represent the diversity of the poetic landscape, both contemporary and past, along the lines of gender, race, national identity and sexual orientation would involve a process of inclusion/exclusion that I would not ultimately be happy with. The list of assigned writers, as it stands, is tentative--read as TBA? There are a number of "poets of color" not currently on the list that I not only love and would love to teach but also fit incredibly well into the "poetry as music" conversation I would like to have. Harryette Mullen, Aime Cesaire, C.S. Giscombe, Myung Mi Kim are just a few writers that come to mind. I guess, in composing the posted list, I was including only a few of the many writers I would like to cover. Please don't read this as an excuse. I understand now that the original description is lacking, even as a brief, and I should have come up with a more final list before I posted it for public consideration. What highlights my error even more is the considerable number of "musicians of color" I would like to discuss in respect to the list of predominately white writers I listed. This incongruity is obvious to me now, and I apologize for not recognizing that from the beginning. I really appreciate your comment and hope to hear more of your insight in the future.



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  4. Marv-lus. An unfinished list is no shame, but as seen above, a forum. I know we have never met, but you and josh were my lone carabiners in the loyola english program until late. I would take this class without hesitation, if given the opportunity. Good luck, glad to have made this detour.