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When William Carlos Williams said, “It’s all in / the sound,” when T. S. Eliot hailed the invigorating force of the “auditory imagination,” or when Marianne Moore applauded “the clatter and true sound” of Williams’s verse, each poet invoked the dimension that bound them together. In Quick, Said the Bird, Richard Swigg makes the case for acoustics as the basis of the linkages, kinships, and inter-illuminations of a major twentieth-century literary relationship. Outsiders in their home terrain who ...
When William Carlos Williams said, “It’s all in / the sound,” when T. S. Eliot hailed the invigorating force of the “auditory imagination,” or when Marianne Moore applauded “the clatter and true sound” of Williams’s verse, each poet invoked the dimension that bound them together. In Quick, Said the Bird, Richard Swigg makes the case for acoustics as the basis of the linkages, kinships, and inter-illuminations of a major twentieth-century literary relationship. Outsiders in their home terrain who nevertheless continued to reach back to their own American vocal identities, Williams, Eliot, and Moore embody a unique lineage that can be traced from their first significant works (1909-1918) to the 1960s.
In reconstructing the auditory dimension in the work of the three poets, Quick, Said the Bird does not neglect the visual text. Whether in the form of Moore’s quirky patternings, Eliot’s expandable verse-frames, or Williams’s springy stanzas, the printed shape on the page is here brought together with the spoken word in vital interplay: the eye-read text cut against by sequential utterance in a restoration of the poetry’s full effect. By seeing and hearing the verse at the same moment—together with reading side-by-side discussions of the quarrels, friendships, mutual borrowings, and shared energies of Williams, Eliot, and Moore—the reader gains a remarkable new understanding of their individual achievements.By sound and sight, Quick, Said the Bird takes the reader straight into the physical textures of the finest works by three outstanding figures of twentieth-century American poetry.
For a Harvard undergraduate of 1909, a world outside the self waits to be voiced:
This charm of vacant lots! The helpless fields that lie Sinister, sterile and blind— Entreat the eye and rack the mind, Demand your pity. With ashes and tins in piles Shattered bricks and tiles And the débris of a city. (IMH, 15)
"This charm of vacant lots!" says Eliot in "Second Caprice in North Cambridge," emphasizing the force of its spell, not its charmingness. For with assonantal stealth, the "vacant lots" of this native yet alien scene have the power, as they "lie ... sterile and blind," to "Entreat the eye and rack the mind"—a torment to the "mind" instantly pressed further as they "Demand your pity." Nevertheless, such semi-spoken insistence is tranquilized by a rhyming calm (piles/tiles) as the insurgency becomes a balanced heap of
ashes and tins Shattered bricks and tiles
For a New Jersey doctor of 1915, on the other hand—not set apart from his physical surroundings, but from others' tame assumptions about poetic beauty—the broken bits of an urban scene excite the voice to more constructive delight. Walking backstreets in "Pastoral," Williams lights upon the materials by which people build a sense of locality and by which he builds as a speaker. Unrhymingly, in short-line bursts of breath, he puts together
roof out of line with sides the yards cluttered with old chicken wire, ashes, furniture gone wrong; the fences and outhouses built of barrel-staves and parts of boxes ... (CWP1, 64)
Askewness rules, but the ear keeps order as "yards cluttered" bounce off "sides," while the haphazard bulk of "old chicken wire" and "furniture gone wrong" is kept in the balance by "ashes." So also the word-blocks without metrical symmetry, and without Eliot-like pacification of bricks and tiles, are appreciatively weighed in the scales:
the fences and outhouses built of barrel-staves and parts of boxes
Similarly poised, the "I" who continues the unfinished thrust of the sentence (finding, "if I am fortunate," a cool, outrageous pleasure in the houses' smear of bluish green paint) concludes by flouting expectation in another way. The eye which momentarily thinks it is reading a modest aside in the poem's last segment—
No one will believe this
—has the assumption dashed by the final line. For this homemade place is, audaciously,
of vast import to the nation.
—the unhalted voice of the sentence burgeoning forth in that "import" and springing its defiance on unbelievers.
But Williams only seems to have poetically planted himself in native ground through pure audacity: an imaginary home constructed through a brazen speech-style. For Eliot, however, in certain early poems, there can be no such adoption of a vocal confidence to overcome a sense of dislocation. Bound by the condition he described as a "fatal American introspectiveness," he experiences the horror of being forced back upon the self in emotional inadequacy by the very noise of others' implorings—as if the acoustic creep of "helpless fields" demanding your pity in "Second Caprice" is also there in the "fatalistic horns" and "passionate violins" of "love torturing itself" in Tristan und Isolde ("Opera," IMH 17, 1910), the puppet woman of "Convictions" (IMH 11, 1910) crying, "Where shall I ever find the man! / One who appreciates my soul," and the oppressive poignancy of the older woman in the same year's "Portrait of a Lady," seeking a soulmate in her young protégé: "The voice returns like the insistent out of tune / Of a broken violin on an August afternoon" (CPP, 18).
But while the cacophony and the screech of passionate romanticism drive Eliot toward the creation of a resistant persona—a character "by sound," indeed, according to the etymology—Williams discards his romantic inheritance (a sloughable Keatsian style, not an emotional threat) and creates a poetic "I," able to address a larger audience yet be spryly disengaged. What Eliot finds lacking in Edgar Lee Masters's verse ("a personage ... detached from himself in order to give his meditative irony its opportunity") is supplied by Williams once he has abandoned his repertoire of salutations to poetic phantoms in the early poems ("Lady of duskwood fastnesses," "Mother of flames," Apollo, Dawn, or Nature), together with the general effusion ("Waken! O people to the boughs green within you!") by which he greets his fellows in The Wanderer (1914) after he has taken wing with his grandmotherly muse. More specifically, the wanderer must come down in style of speech, closer to the ground and to fellow citizens of his hometown Rutherford. There, in "Tract" (1916), he can take on the manner or "personage" of an exuberant, chastising instructor:
I will teach you my townspeople how to perform a funeral— for you have it over a troop of artists— unless you should scour the world— you have the ground sense necessary.
Filling "town-", "scour," and "ground" with the full breath of airy outwardness, the eccentric tutor sweeps away all parochialism, before the expansive sentence turns back to barbed praise of those who only "have"—such pedestrians!—"the ground sense necessary." But the descent to earth keeps the voice of agility. For when Williams goes on to consider a new "design for a hearse"—a wheelless "dray to drag over the ground" in the deposing of pomp—the "drag" on that "dray" is only the prelude to the zest of release:
Knock the glass out! My God!—glass, my townspeople! For what purpose? Is it for the dead to look out or for us to see how well he is housed or to see the flowers or the lack of them— or what? To keep the rain and snow from him?
The cries of mock-outrage—together with the sound of alternatives hanging in the wide-vowelled air ("to look out ... to see / how well he is housed ... to see / the flowers ...")—keep statement constantly uplifted. Though grounding a funeral in the unpret entious ("Bring him down ... Bring him down!" as the coach-driver is told), "Tract" keeps in play an airy upwardness by question after question: "do you think you can shut grief in? / What—from us?" (the stressed "us" of a more generous community to which Williams finally admits his townspeople). For after his earlier Others version of the poem, when he had over-fastened the Rutherfordians to that "one" land where "your two feet / are sucked down / so hard on it that / you cannot raise them," he thought it better to cancel the lines and end instead with the buoyancy of a larger fellowship before the townspeople are sent on their way. "Share with us / share with us," he insists, with his expansively reiterated "sh-a-re" offering a friendly taunt to the bourgeois niggards: "it will be money in your pockets."
The chastising manner can be carried further. What Ihde calls "a return to ... embodied meaning in sound," as distinct from philosophy's over-visual disembodiments, is for Williams, with gusto, the "lifting to the imagination" of "those things which lie under the direct scrutiny of the senses, close to the nose." Thus he delivers a mock-rebuke to an errant organ in "Smell!": "O strong-ridged and deeply hollowed / nose of mine! what will you not be smelling?" (CWP1, 92). Taking a large breath with those stretched-out o's ("O ... hollowed / nose") and rising to a climax on "mine!" he can then march down the rest of the sentence with rhymed-out inevitability: "what will you not be smelling?" With such a large rise and fall, he has shaped the spacious acoustic and its "What ...?" pattern which now resound in structured exuberance:
What tactless asses we are, you and I, bony nose, always indiscriminate, always unashamed, and now it is the souring flowers of the bedraggled poplars: a festering pulp on the wet earth beneath them. With what deep thirst we quicken our desires to that rank odor of a passing springtime!
Enjoying the earthily sensuous without being submerged, he can press the attack with more questions—
Can you not be decent? Can you not reserve your ardors for something less unlovely ? What girl will care for us, do you think, if you continue in these ways?
—but with the feigned indignance that keeps the voice tonally in the air, just above the rank-smelling ground. "Must you taste everything?" he insists; "Must you know everything? / Must you have a part in everything?": all building to the exhilarated high point where it is his poetry, not just the promiscuous nose, which has an abundant "part in EVERYthing!"
Such controlled castigation could be lauded by a later Eliot—at least in other writers. As an essayist, he celebrates Ben Jonson's rhetorical grip in the tirade by Sylla's Ghost in Catiline, just as he enjoys the comic severity and the detachment from romantic subjectivity of Rostand's Cyrano de Bergerac teaching a vicomte how to insult a nose. But that is the ability to take the vocal initiative which he has yet to earn as the young poet of 1909–1911. As the victim of others' noisy emotionalism, he is still the tormented "I" who, in "Portrait of a Lady," must suffer the Lady's constant impingements on his inadequate personality. She is not to be fended off by the imitation-Laforgue coolness which elsewhere in the poems shrugs off over-intensity with the tones of studied cynicism, indifference, or boredom, for her voice, like an exquisite-turned-savage music, completely overwhelms. "Inside my brain a dull tom-tom begins," as the brain's beat and the metrical pound together in mechanistic iambs:
Inside—my brain—a dúll—tom-tom—begins
As foretaste of how Eliot's auditory imagination could later rigidify into the cliché-African beat of Sweeney Agonistes, it is the hideous, absurd "hammering" that thrusts the speaker into distraction and a four-stress line: "Let us take the air in a tobacco trance ..." Stretched to the limits of his unsure identity in the poem's last part and tented to the quick by the Lady, he must "borrow every changing shape / To find expression," desperately reaching beyond his human inadequacy in animal-like frenzy: "dance, dance" (or "dance, DANCE," as the repetition builds) "Like a dancing bear / Cry like a parrot, chatter like an ape": a movement, nevertheless, toward a bodied vigor and larger identity, however chained and semi-ludicrous.
For though the escapist cue is once more needed—"Let us take the air in a tobacco trance"—the "Let us" points the way to Eliot's progress as a vocalist the same year. As if in rebound from the protégé's oppression and hysteria, he issues a confident-seeming invitation to "you and I," who must hear—"go" with—the direct human talk (so it appears) and the significant animal forays of J. Alfred Prufrock's unsung "Love Song":
Let us go then, you and I, When the evening is spread out against the sky Like a patient etherised upon a table; Let us go ... (CPP, 13)
Now Eliot shares the thrill he later observes in Jonson and Donne: the potential spoken overflow, riskily pushing against boundaries, yet held back inside a vocal "outline." What the Prufrock "personage" irrepressibly allows, as he moves through Boston streets, salons, and beyond, is room to sail from skyhigh breeziness to prostration; from a spread-out "evening" to the flatly "etherised." Up he vaults toward a spacious future; down he comes, impelled through sordid streets of memory where half-spoken, unappeased desires echo in the sub-speech drone of "muttering retreats," while those "retreats" acoustically bring him to "restless nights," as "restless" does to "restaurants" with "oystershells." A further "Let us go" resumes the pattern, as outgoing energy accepts instant rhyming emasculation in the room where "women come and go / Talking of Michelangelo," while a purported outstretch of truthful confession about those "narrow streets" of desire (with "lonely men in shirt-sleeves, leaning out of windows") is retracted to a frightened animal's clutch in "a pair of ragged claws."
But these are more than ironic abasements for the body. Prufrock's irrepressibility as speaker—unlike the Williams of "Tract!" and "Smell," a guise of perpetual self-exoneration more consciously taken over by Eliot from Browning's charlatans, Bishop Blougram or Sludge the medium—brings to the poem a rhythm of resilient yearning, where the voice pushes against limits, sinks back, yet in that failure has extended the boundary of the sayable. Indeed, when the "ragged claws" rhymingly scuttle across "the floors of silent seas," and those seas melt into salon enervations, where time, "Stretched on the floor, here beside you and me," is a slumbering beast, Prufrock has a firm floor of incipient animality to support his further ascents. Offering himself as Lazarus risen from the dead "to tell you all," he is not entirely dragged down to mere banality when thought of what a bored salon lady "Should say" makes him abandon the posture. For now his desire to "tell" has a more fervent basis: the instigation to stretch forth in vocal vigor rather than languor, that comes with a strong echo of Whitmanian expansiveness and persistence.
In "Vocalism" Whitman is undeterred by the immensities he must work through to reach a goal of utterance "after many years":
After treading ground, and breasting river and lake, After a loosen'd throat, after absorbing eras, temperaments, races, after knowledge, freedom, crimes, [...] After these and more, it is just possible there comes to a man, a woman, the divine power to speak words. (Leaves of Grass, 297)
Prufrock, amidst the trivia and idleness of his days, sets the heroic music to a different key. Is serious speech "worthwhile," he asks,
After the sunsets and the dooryards and the sprinkled streets, After the novels, after the teacups, after the skirts that trail along the floor— And this, and so much more?— It is impossible to say just what I mean!
Yet that bursting-out in frustration makes the lines more than a parody. Eliot has so weighed down Prufrock with the "After ... After" burden that the resistance to sloth (as the pull-down on "floor" has its rhyme strained against by the rising note of "so much more?") becomes a parallel, in miniature determination, to Whitman's lengthier push across verbal barriers. Prufrock's beating iambic need "to say—just what—I MEAN!" has the energy which can—two steps forward, one step back—submit to the irritated female voice ("That is not what I meant, at all") and then go on to insist: "No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be." For with such firm self-limitation, he edges nearer under cover to the next comic (yet top) role available, as the Polonius-like adviser, "Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse," and is soon presenting his credentials for the better comic-tragic part of Lear's Fool. The self-promotion becomes smilingly obvious, but while Eliot lets the reader patronize Prufrock in his aged worry about parting the hair behind or daring to eat a peach, the voice has made the most audacious extension of its boundaries since the start of the poem. "Let us go then, you and I" was the grand, sociable pretense of being at home in this America; but now, after the demeanings of rooms and streets,
I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach. I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.
From shore to sea—that openness where the enlarged self might genuinely have a place—Prufrock's broad lineal stride in "walk upon the beach" carries him toward the tighter, rhyming intimacy of "each to each." Despite the glum pull-back ("I do not think that they will sing to me") he has the spur for the imagination's next advance—to what, more intently, he has "seen ... seawards":
I have seen them riding seawards on the waves Combing the white hair of the waves blown back When the wind blows the water white and black.
Excerpted from Quick, Said the Bird by RICHARD SWIGG Copyright © 2012 by University of Iowa Press. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF IOWA PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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1 Voices of a Common Ground 1
2 To Hew Form Truly 18
3 Sounding The Waste Land 38
4 Riding the Flood 54
5 The Animal Vernacular 70
6 Quick, Said the Bird 89
7 A Way to the Last Leaftip 105
Selected Bibliography 137
Selected List of Recorded Readings by Williams, Eliot, and Moore 145