I’ve started on a new book project. I should say, I’ve revived an old book project. The working title is The Sound of the Soul: How to Re-enact Modern Verse. Here’s what it’s about—your thoughts would be most welcome:
The biggest challenge of industrial society is detachment. The economy operates at such a vast scale that the most consequential interactions among people, businesses, and governments must be reduced to expedient transactions. The worst atrocities of the last two centuries were ordered from a clinical distance. Democracy offers a mechanism to respond—if citizens can overcome their apathy.
Since 1800, poets turned verse into a means for people to re-engage with the world. Charles Olson defined the chief objective of modern poetry: “an actual earth of value to / construct one.” Think about William Blake’s Jerusalem, Walt Whitman’s America, Ezra Pound’s paradise, and Diane di Prima’s Loba.
The Sound of the Soul explains the mechanism through which modern poets engage the reader in this construction. Consciousness is rhythmic; the mind perceives the world in patterns or images that unfold over time. The rhythms of modern verse alter the rhythms of the reader’s consciousness and convert the poem from a communication into an experience. The reader enters the imaginal space of the poem so that its possibilities become his or her own—not just ideas to think about but an earth to inhabit.
To this end, modern poems incorporate three kinds of rhythm that place different demands on readers from those of traditional, metrical verse.
First, modern verse unfolds in two simultaneous streams of sound. Like traditional English verse, modern verse incorporates accent and closely follows the natural stress contours of the language. Therefore, this layer of sound emphasizes the sense of the words. On top of this layer, modern poets add rhythms based on syllabic quantities—long and short syllables—which counterpoint the accentual stream. The long syllables sometimes coincide with accented syllables and sometimes fall on different syllables. Syllabic quantities convert the reading of verse from a primarily intellectual activity into a fuller sensual experience.
Second, modern verse consists of aural images, sections of verse, from one to 12 or 15 lines at most. Each occupy a moment of consciousness in the reader’s mind. William James terms such a moment “the specious present,” the amount of attention our mind can sustain between the hazy, receding past and the intimation of the oncoming future. With an aural image, the reader’s mind assembles the words that the poet posits into a tentative perception. A couple of tensions within the aural image oblige us to participate in generating meaning and not just passively absorb the poet’s message:
- The poet aims in one direction while the reader’s mind leaps to another.
- The image resolves into a coherent meaning, or the words remain unresolved as a soul scream.
Third, aural images usually occur in sequence, and this sequence conveys the force of an expansive persona, whether a giant figure such as William Carlos Williams’ Paterson or a revelatory mind like Emily Dickinson’s. The irregular forms of modern verse express a kind of movement in contrast to the narrative flow or argument of traditional poems. “This is the exercise for this morning,” said Olson at his typewriter, “how to dance / sitting down.” The reader moves down the page in sympathy with the persona and enlarges his or her own soul in response. The poem becomes a live event, a joint act of creation.
Modern poets want us to construct an earth of value through the act of reading their verse. “I give you the end of a golden string,” explains Blake, speaking metaphorically of his verse. “Only wind it into a ball: / It will lead you in at Heavens gate, / Built in Jerusalem’s wall.” We do not live on the literal earth; we live on the earth we collectively imagine. We can only renovate the earth if we renovate our souls, whence our relationship to the world springs. The performance that modern poems demand enables the reader to embody a new image of the earth. “Soul of bulk and substance” writes James Hillman, “can be evoked by words and expressed in words; for myth and poetry, so altogether verbal and ‘fleshless,’ nonetheless resonate with the deepest intimacies of organic existence.” Modern poetry redefines reading. We haven’t made a dish just because we looked at the recipe. Similarly, we haven’t read a modern poem just because we consumed the text. We must re-enact it, through its rhythms, to inhabit its meaning.