April 2, 2016KR BlogBlogWriting

Sound and Sensibility: or, How to Make Some Noise

My old high school French workbook carried the title Son et sens, or something very close to that, while my English textbook, in an odd coincidence, was called Sound and Sense. This sounds like it makes perfect sense—language, after all, is a bunch of sounds we make with our throats, which in turn make sense to other people’s brains. What about poetry? Poetry is made of language, but in Archibald MacLeish’s “Ars Poetica” you’ll find the line, “A poem should not mean, but be.” Let’s examine that for a bit.

Of the prodigious amount of versestuff that MacLeish produced, this is the one poem, and the one line from the one poem, that has survived and reproduced itself, in true meme fashion. (Rather ironic that a poet who has failed to create much permanent poetry made so widely admired a statement of how to write it.) This line of his has been taken up and preserved by subsequent poets and critics for a reason; the question that has given me pause right now is why.

After all, all sorts of poems mean things, right? You can find statements of philosophical ideas and religious dogma in Alexander Pope and Dante; a dramatic monologue has all sorts of emotional meaning, sometimes contradictory or ambiguous ones, but meanings. There are whole traditions of narrative verse from The Ramayana to The Canterbury Tales to ballads genuine and literary that mean what they say (the story) and then mean things “under” what they say (either the moral or philosophical “import”). You can paraphrase a great deal of Shakespeare (entire books are devoted to this) and expand into an essay a single quatrain of the Bhagavad-Gita. Meaning has a role; plenty of poems mean something.

Yet taking this meaning-soul out of its sound-body—that is, perpetrating paraphrase, exegesis, or “retelling”—kills poetry, as we all know. The opposite process, though less often performed, is possible as well—“What ruff bees, its sower cum rowan dat lass, / Slouches torrid Beth La Hymn two bee Bourne?”—is just as much an atrocity against Yeats as paraphrasing “The Second Coming” into academic jargon. The latter operation destroys the sound; the former operation destroys the sense.

Clearly a poem is both its sound and its sense, together, in just that way and no other. Yet why did MacLeish’s downplaying of meaning (making sense) take root in the contemporary poetic outlook? A poem should not make a sound, it should just be: This idea sounds totally wrong, undercutting the existence of the poem itself. Not-sounding seems absurd or self-defeating in a way that not-meaning does not. It’s tantamount to not writing a poem at all: It’s an “ars poetica” advocating—silence.

This inversion illuminates the flaw in MacLeish’s truism. The idea that “prose meaning” is independent of the Truly Poetic, that the poetic exists in a realm beyond rationality or logic, in a “cloud of unknowing,” in ambiguity, that meaning is in the best poetry “elusive,” has become a fairly commonplace one in academic circles. Yet one sees this discounting of meaning very rarely, if ever, in the literary criticism or generations of the past. To Samuel Johnson or Coleridge it would have seemed odd indeed to assert that poems should avoid, or be devoid of, meaning—not to cultivate obscurity, but to cultivate nothing to obscure. (Coleridge’s most famous literary ballad was once accused of this very “flaw,” opacity or obscurity; he actually added subtitles in a subsequent edition, which tells you that he meant his Rime to mean something, if only its own story.) Why this shift to avoid or downplay meaning in a poem? Why now?

The reason lies in the sound, and the shift in the sound of poetry that took over the English speaking world in the 20th century. For centuries, across cultures, what set poetry apart from prose was meter. Not rhyme, in the classical cultures of both the Mediterranean and the Indian subcontinent; even in the classical Arabic world, meter distinguished poetry, while rhyme was a common feature of prose, as in the rhymed prose of the Qur’an. This emphasis on meter as the distinguishing element of poetry resulted in the pre-Socratic philosophers speculating on early science and Dante versifying theological treatises. When, with the rise of free verse, meter ceased to be utilized, something had to change for poetry to distinguish itself from prose. An irregularly irregular rhythm featuring linear logic could not justify its own line breaks. And so the shiftiness and obscurity of sense comes in—with an astonishing simultaneity. The earliest successful practitioner of free verse in English was the same poet who broke most drastically with the Tennysonian tendency to make clear sense: T. S. Eliot. Since then, we have seen poets who make little sense without meter (Ashbery) and poets who make a lot of sense with meter (Frost) and poets who make a lot of sense without meter (Mary Oliver)—but quite rarely, notice, poets who write strictly rhymed meter without meaning, largely because a perfect sonnet that doesn’t mean anything is perceived as a failure across the spectrum, while a disjoint sequence of images in free verse succeeds, automatically, at being “elusive.”

Are other attitudes toward sound and sense possible, going forward? Ones that don’t discard these elements, but utilize them to full effect? Effect may well be the operative word here. We think of the sounds of poetry in this way quite readily—sound effects, like rhyme and assonance and so on. What if meaning, too, were thought of as one more effect? Sense effects: We all know how stories or passionate emotions or ideas or arguments can impact a reader; a deft poet would deftly manipulate these elements, too, deploying them in the same manner as alliteration or onomatopoeia.

Which would seem to conceive of a poem as the sum of its effects. This is hardly to diminish it. The sum, in rare and mysterious instances, is greater than its parts, or rather, its words—which make, in a successful poem, sound and sense and something more.