NOTATION AND THE ART OF READING
The idea of notation implies, if not demands, performance. Virtually any form of writing is a kind of notation and any form of reading is a type of performance. Poetry is an intensely physical art, one that activates several senses at once. In aural societies poetry has traditionally been accompanied by facial movement, gesture, manipulation of symbolic objects, the drawing and painting of figures, the wearing of costumes, etc. -- all of which, in a tribal context, are read. Poetry still is a physical art using multiple senses: the body as a whole equals or sometimes replaces the voice in performance art, and even silent readers turn pages, move their heads, their eyes, the roots of their tongues if not their tongues and lips, and so forth.
The kinesthetic link between sight, sound, and speech is mirrored by an inner speech, inner sight, and inner sound. Our thoughts are a combination of inner sight and inner speech. With this inner kinesthesia, we name things as we see them and form images of things about which we hear. Poetry, whether it is heard or seen, stimulates these inner sensations. An Anglo-Saxon warrior listening to a performance of Beowulf in the near darkness of a meadhall would not only be able to see dragons in the flickering coals of the fire, his mind would be filled with images generated by the words he heard. In like manner, a contemporary reader reading silently (provided she or he hasn't been hampered by speedreading practices) will hear an inner voice, which may call up inner sight. A great deal has been written about the "image" in poetry throughout this century. When that term is used it seldom refers to anything that can be seen on the page, but rather the inner vision of the reader.
In the mainstream culture of the western world in the twentieth century, reading becomes an ever more ephemeral, dephysicalized act. At the same time contemporary poets work against this tendency, rediscovering reading methods from other cultures and discovering new ones on their own. Though for most people reading becomes more and more a system of simple data transference, poets attempt to find alternative notations and to expand the range of their performance. In this essay I will give examples of how poetry was read in three cultural contexts removed from ours in culture and time, and then describe some forms of notation in contemporary poetry and how they can be read.
Many different types of books and documents were in use in Mexico on the eve of the Spanish conquest. Perhaps the most elaborate of these were the religious books of the Mayans, significant portions of which remain undecipherable at the present time. In cosmopolitan Tenochtitlan (Mexico City), all sorts of handbooks, bureaucratic documents, and legal papers were actively produced and used. The Aztecs also kept religious and historical books, books closely associated with poetry. They were generally produced by making long strips of animal skin or fig bark paper and rolling them into scrolls or folding them into screenfold format. They were sized with lime gesso and painted with a limited palette of bright, mineral base colors and lamp black ink. The writing system used was iconographic, based on highly stylized pictures representing ideas that could be orally formulated in different ways. This was not a system for recording specific words. There are instances of rebus notation, but the books chiefly presented concrete images rather than abstract symbols that shaped vocalization.
The way in which these books were read is largely a matter of conjecture. I have been studying this problem for a number of years, and will sketch some of my conclusions here. Scholars who consider the problem at all simply say that these books were mnemonic devices, used to remind readers of things they would not otherwise remember. This may have been the case with bureaucratic documents, such as the Matriculo de Tributos, but makes no sense in the case of the religious and historical books. The Aztecs were in our sense pre-literate and, like many other pre-literate peoples, they probably had excellent memories and didn't need external devices to remind them of their history or mythology. They seem to have had several orders of professional singers of myths, histories, genealogies, etc. not unlike the Yugoslavian Singers of Tales studied by Lord and Parry and the west African Singers of Genealogies brought to popular attention in North America by the tv series Roots.
The first, and probably most important, method of reading was mnemonic, but it approached memory from the other direction. We have a fairly large body of information, including citations by Sahagun's informants, that indicates that painted books and recitation of verse were major parts of education. As teaching tools the books were probably used to engrave myth and history, in a form that could be internally visualized in the minds of students. Their purpose, then, was not to remind readers of things they might otherwise forget, but to help make those things unforgettable. The brilliant and simple colors, the decisive black frame line, the striking clarity of icons, and the vibrant paratactic compositions -- the basic qualities of indigenous style -- are perfectly suited to this purpose. Students would embed innumerable myths, histories, genealogies, prayers, etc. in verse form in their minds along with the visual images in the books. The words and images need not have explained or commented on each other -- each may have balanced, complemented, or extended the other, and each probably gave the student something the other couldn't. The visual and oral components of their education would then inform their dreams, their visions, their ethics, their conceptions of the world, and their actions throughout their lives. An image of the god Tezcatlipoca would not be in a book to tell students of his existence -- they all were absolutely sure of his presence -- but to fix a concrete image of him in their minds, one that intermeshed with his mythology, his liturgy, etc.
A number of sources tell us that books of this type were mounted, fully extended, on walls for ceremonial occasions. We can imagine readers standing in front of the mounted books, reciting the verses they'd learned in youth, as they visually reaffirmed and refurbished the images in their minds. A number of people acting in this manner would somewhat resemble contemporary performances of, say, Jackson Mac Low's Gathas -- performers achieving a high degree of concentration on the images before them and on the sounds they uttered, and simultaneously feeling a sense of community with other participants. We shouldn't, however, push this parallel too far: a contemporary performance would not involve the same stored energy and association as did those of pre-conquest Mexico, but would include a sense of exploration not present in the older type of performance.
History books may have been used in the singing of epics. In this type of situation, a small audience would sit around a singer, who would place the book between himself and his audience, unfolding its pages as he sang. The book would act only minimally as a score for the singer -- its main function would be a visual counterpart of the song for the audience to contemplate (and memorize) as they listened. Books could also be read privately. Private readings were not silent readings: the reader probably recited verses of all sorts as he read. With some of the religious books, this type of reading may have been an important part of an internal self-discipline, a form of yoga. Certainly many of the religious books could have been used in visualization exercises like those practiced by Tibetan Buddhists, and this may have been an important stage in the deity impersonation so important to Aztec religion. The central section of Codex Borgia [Fig. 1] may even have been used as a set of mandalas. The religious books contain lists, charts, and calendars used in divination and in organizing ritual. These, of course, would be read in a different manner from the less compartmentalized books, and may have conveyed some new information. But even in these cases, when the reader may only have been looking for a date in a calendar, he probably did so in a prescribed manner, singing as he proceeded.
The screenfold format is well suited to these different types of reading. The Singer of Epics could spread out as many pages as necessary before his audience. The whole book could be mounted on a wall in ceremonial situations. When held in a reader's hands, a book of this type could be organized in different ways by folding up pages and thus creating juxtapositions of them. For instance, if a reader wanted to juxtapose page 1 and 6 of a book, he could simply fold the intervening pages together, placing 1 and 6 next to each other.
This would be particularly useful in using ritual-calendrical books, where charts, diagrams, and calendars would be compared and correlated. In histories it could have also have been useful: the indigenous Mexicans had a cyclical conception of history, and this format would allow comparison of one cycle with another.
An interesting feature of the books is that they could be given what I call a brief or an extended reading. In brief reading, the reader would simply identify the figures in the book and their functions. An extensive reading would involve a great deal more: the reader would recite portions of the verse associated with each image, though not necessarily contained in it. Let's say the page begins with a god: the reader would begin with an invocation of the deity, list his powers and attributes, narrate his relevant myths, and end with a prayer. The next figure is a man: the reader would recite his genealogy, his biography, maxims associated with him, and so forth [Fig. 2] A brief reading of a page might take several minutes; an extended reading, several hours. The amount of time spent reading would not depend so much on the amount of information contained in the image, but how much the reader wanted to interact with it.
A Calmecac, or University, in Tenochtitlan in 1500 would probably contain a number of people reading books in a number of different ways. One reader may have hastily determined the suitability of marriage partners by the dates of their birth, as charted in an almanac. Another might have hastily determined the days on which the planet Venus would exert an evil influence on members of one of the classes of society. A third may have just as quickly checked out the genealogy of an important person, giving the book a quick reading. Elsewhere in the school, a small group of students may have sat around a Singer of Tales, letting the images of a hero sink into their minds as they more or less automatically committed the narrative to memory. Another group may have sat in a similar circle around a scholar who explained to them the mechanics of time, the will of the stars, the proper use of hallucinogens and other sacred plants. A third group may have discussed historical problems, using a book spread out or folded into a new page order in the middle of their circle. A merchant may have shown a priest his list of goods sold to prove his humility and pay his tithe. A student of book painting may have done sketches in sand while reciting formulas concerning the symbolic nature of straight lines and curves, perhaps as they related to mathematics. A student cloistered in a private cell, after strict fasting, ritual ingestion of psylocibin and peyote, and rigorous self- mortification may have recited a mantram over and over as he concentrated his total being on the image of a deity he would impersonate, becoming a living page of the book. A high priest may have sat in his study, contemplating the interaction of omens and an upcoming festival, whose rites he would have to organize. He may not have had any books in front of him, but have made his correlations by books he had committed to memory.
For the Aztecs, the world was full of voices, human and divine. Even plants and birds had voices, and part of the business of life was learning how to understand them. The first thing an Aztec child heard on entering the world was verse exhortation, delivered by the midwife; his life would revolve around prayers, verse formulas, and incantations; and his death would be surrounded by massive recitation. The Aztecs generally did not use books to acquire new information, but to deepen what they already knew. Books were an essential part of cult, and the interaction of spoken word and painted image had a magic function. In some of the oral poetry transcribed in the roman alphabet shortly after the conquest, we find lines like "only as painted images in your books have we come to be alive in this place" -- "perhaps his heart is a painted book" -- " he [the giver of life] paints in your soul" -- and "like a painted book we will fade away." In the Aztec world, books did not provide scripts for vocalization, nor could they record a fixed sequence of words or sounds. A text was not a set of symbols telling readers what to say, but a tool that allowed them to see what they heard. Books and oral poems set up complex patterns of reverberation between each other, enmeshing the reader-singer in a totality of sensual and cerebral activity impossible in a world of phonetic books.
For millennia the Chinese have used many surfaces to write on, and they have used all the major bookforms: scrolls, screenfolds, mapfolds, spinebound volumes of several types. A practice reaching back nearly to the beginning of Chinese writing is the inscription or painting of poems on buildings and on the rock faces of cliffs. This latter practice united reading with the viewing of landscapes -- an activity raised to a high art in China. Chinese literature is full of stories about people making long trips to read inscriptions on mountains and temples. Occasionally these inscriptions were cut very large: we have instances of several inscriptions whose characters were each more than ten feet tall. Neither giant banners with political verses written on them nor Democracy Wall in Beijing were Maoist inventions. Readers of inscriptions often made copies of them by covering the text with wet paper, working the paper into the incisions, and rubbing them with charcoal or ink. These rubbings could be rolled, folded, or bound into books and it may have been this practice that gave rise to the art of printing [Fig. 3]. At some Chinese universities, official texts were inscribed on stone drums, and students acquired their textbooks by making rubbings from them. Not only was this a good way of generating copies, it produced standardized texts, without textual variations, an invention usually attributed to Renaissance Europe. Surfaces for writing didn't have to be flat or static: Tuan Ch'ng-shih, writing in mid 9th century, reported seeing a workman whose whole body was tattooed with poems by Po Chu-i.
Calligraphy has been essential to the art of writing poetry in China, and calligraphy, in turn, has been closely linked with painting, so that there has been a continuum between the three arts, often referred to as "The Three Perfections." Ideally, the calligraphy that a poem came in should be of as high an artistic caliber as the poem itself. The nature of written Chinese encourages this sort of artistry in a way that the roman alphabet (for all its beauty) can not do. The large number and complexity of Chinese characters provide a wide range of design problems that challenge even the best calligrapher's abilities, as well as allowing the widest range of potential forms with which to express himself. This range becomes even larger in the cursive styles of writing, in which the calligrapher abstracts, simplifies, or elides the characters, working on intuition and a sense of the design of the whole text. The cursive hands are difficult to read, even for adepts, and this puts an extra emphasis on the calligrapher's art [Fig. 4]. Poems often appear with paintings, and developments in each art influence the other. In some periods, landscapes, birds, etc. have been painted in calligraphic manner; in others, pictorial possibilities of characters have been stressed.
One of the reasons for the continuity of arts is that the basic tools of painter and calligrapher have been the same: a hair brush mounted in bamboo and lampblack ink. This brush allows the artist- calligrapher a wide range of strokes: it can handle straight lines, sharp angles, graceful curves, thick lines can be modulated into hair- thin ones; outer hairs on the brush can create delicate traceries around the main strokes, etc. The brush, however, does not allow the calligrapher to rest his hand in mid stroke, which would cause a running blot. The artist has to work quickly and this encourages both spontaneity and care in visualizing what he wants to do before dipping brush in ink. The artistry of the calligrapher has shaded into the craft of the inscriber and block-printer. By the 9th century, characters could be painted by master calligraphers on stone or wood blocks with enough skill and precision to accurately reproduce the graceful curves, sharp angles, and outer hair traceries. Many rubbings and blockprints seem as spontaneous as brushwork [Fig. 3 & 4].
Another reason for the continuity of the three perfections is the nature of written Chinese. Basically there are three types of characters or character components: 1, pictograms, characters based on abstract pictures of things; = man, and looks like a stick-man; sometimes these characters imitate gestures instead of static forms. 2, phonograms, symbols representing sounds without any pictorial content. 3, ideograms -- these are often combinations of components in the other categories; they chart ideas but do not wholly represent them either phonetically or pictorially. The reliance on gesture could be seen as a character type of its own, although most character components include gesture to a greater or lesser degree. The gestural nature of Chinese expands Chinese beyond pictograms, and in this respect makes it unique among writing systems. This gives the characters a "body language" -- and internalizing the gestures of writing not only gives them a more profoundly human and organic quality. It also makes up an essential charateristic of learning to read and write Chinese. As with the Aztec writing system, deepening the reader's understanding was essential. Arthur Cooper has called the system etymological -- perhaps the most important characteristic of this type of writing is the history behind each character. Chinese readers don't pay much attention to any of this when reading everyday documents, such as letters, popular fiction, newspaper and magazine articles -- in such instances characters are just symbols for words. In writing or reading poetry, however, readers tend to be much more attuned to the interworkings of sound, sight, gesture, and idea. The interaction of components emphasizes continuity and versatility; a mind trained to read interwoven pictograms, graphs of gestures, phonograms, and ideograms can be expected to feel a continuity between sight, sound, gesture, and intellection.
The Chinese have felt that sound is an important element in poetry, as basic as the three perfections. In the 9th century, poetry was generally chanted or sung and the ideal poet was not only a good singer but also a skilled lutanist. According to the Confucian Analects, "Except in unusual circumstances, a cultured man is never without his lute." The Chinese spoken languages, which rely heavily on variations in pitch, encourage poets to create musical patterns in their poetry. This is perhaps the most difficult characteristic of Chinese poetry to bring across to western readers. I don't know of anyone who has tried to translate the music of Chinese poetry along with the lexical meaning. Many poets have tried to find correlatives for its visual forms [Fig. 5] , but its melopoea has been thus far beyond us -- perhaps it's a job for some future sound poet or composer.
Though printed books of poetry were available in the year 810, most poetry was circulated in manuscript form. A ninth century Chinese poet receiving a manuscript from a friend would first unroll or unfold it before him in an almost ritualistic fashion. He would certainly take notice of the silk or paper on which it was written, feeling its texture, hearing the sounds it made, perhaps smelling it. He would first look over the manuscript as a piece of abstract design. Then he would start reading it. It would probably be written in a cursive script, so reading would be something more like deciphering -- he probably would have started figuring out the author's particular approach to cursive script when he began looking at the manuscript as abstract pattern. The design would have implied a mood or state of mind which he would now work out on the level of individual characters.
Having gotten his bearings, gotten the hang of the individual nature of the calligraphy, he would determine the form of the poem. Although modern editions of Chinese poetry sometimes indicate line endings by a small disk or other device, traditional Chinese poetry has not had any markings or layout conventions to indicate where lines end. A reader determines line endings by internal means involving pauses, syntax, parallelism, etc. Five and seven character lines were most common, with a caesura just before the middle and the reader would have these numbers in mind as he determined line length. Parallel or antithetical couplets were focal points in poems of the period, and the reader might isolate them first, reading them as units before he began reading the poem through from the beginning. Chinese is a language without tense or number, and with a minimum of the connective and relative components (such as pronouns, prepositions, articles, etc.) found in western languages and Chinese poets have often accentuated the ambiguities and generalizing tendencies latent in the language. The reader would probably decide fairly quickly on solutions to these ambiguities (as he would do almost instantaneously in less artful writing) but keep other possibilities in mind as the poem as a whole took shape in his mind. Poetry of the period was full of allusions and a sensitive reader would let these reverberate through his memory, linking the poem before him with many other texts and with social situations at which they had been sung or recited. After pondering over the verses until he felt he grasped them, he might explore the poem's sound potentials beyond those of ordinary speech. The line and caesura structure would suggest a rhythm, and the tones a melody. This would give him the keys he needed to chant or sing the poem. Many poems were written to well known tunes, and if this were the case an attentive reader would sing the poem to the appropriate tune -- setting up further reverberations of allusion and memory. At this point he might get out his lute and accompany himself or grind some ink and paint a picture or write a poem in response. If the poem pleased him, he would commit it to memory.
This reading would obviously have been a slow process, but it would have allowed the reader a wide range of activity and creativity. We find in this reading a continuity between visual text and sung poem, each dependent on the other, and the two together drawing on other senses and experiences.
Like the Aztecs, the Chinese found magical powers in writing -- those scrolls and wall hangings you occasionally see in Chinese restaurants in North America may have talismanic significance to the proprietors. A number of myths attribute divine and mystical origins to books and writing, and written characters retain an affinity to the hexagrams of the I-Ching, to which they are etymologically related. In the 9th century, Po Chu-i hoped that his profane poems would be reborn as Buddhist sutras; he hoped that he would be reincarnated as a monk, and be able to read them in their transfigured state.
In 1620, indigenous style documents were still admissible as evidence in the Spanish courts of Mexico, and some of the religious books may still have been used in secret. In China, poetry was still written and read in much the same way as it had been in the 9th century, though conventions had become more rigid and printed books were more common. In England, poetry was circulated in a number of forms: it was commonly read aloud or recited from memory at all sorts of social functions, and as part of family entertainment. The theaters were still active, and at times audiences could still go to plays by Shakespeare performed by actors who had known the author. Written poetry was circulated in printed books and in manuscript. Manuscripts were versatile: often they were fascicles rather like chap books today; they could contain a single work, a collection of poems, or a miscellany of poems by different writers, sometimes topically selected.
Printing was a different business then than it is now. In order to curb sedition and control the press, the number of printers licensed by the crown was limited, as was the number of type founders and the amount of type they could cast. Of course, there were underground presses operating in the country and type could be smuggled in from the continent, but, nonetheless, printers overworked their type, reusing it until it became completely illegible. Ink was expensive and hard to make, so it was used as sparingly as possible. Although editions with a standard of clarity at least as high as our own could be commissioned by wealthy patrons, this was by no means the norm -- but the crude norm may have had some benefits. The roughness of impression gave letters a tactile quality: the printed word seemed more of an object, more a physical reality, than it does today. Print was more difficult to read then -- lack of standardized spelling and a multitude of inconsistent symbols and abbreviations contributed to the difficulty, along with the worn type, the rough impression, and the light ink. Paper was heavier and the wire marks on its surface were the result of normal paper making processes, not a superfluous decoration as in today's laid finishes. Paper, like print, was more palpable, and a reader holding a book or turning a page probably had a greater awareness of its tactile quality than does his modern counterpart. Book bindings were sturdy, meant for active use; if they fell apart from extended wear, they could be rebound. A book might stay in a family for generations, being read and reread by many of its members as well as friends to whom they might lend it. A reader buying a copy of The Faerie Qveene [Fig. 6] in 1620 would as likely as not be buying a used book -- books were made to last and the difference between the new and used market was less distinct than it is now. The Faerie Qveene had become a classic by 1620, recalling an epoch that seemed glorious, however painful it may have been to those actively involved in its political events. The reader may well have heard a good deal of the book read or recited before he bought it and may have already committed some passages to memory -- he may even have used passages as maxims, things he turned over in his mind when making decisions or trying to make sense out of the world. The book he had purchased would probably not be read through and shelved (though some ostentatious buyers might keep a copy on their shelves just for show). It would be used as a script for reading to family and friends, as something to ponder over in private, or as something to commit, in part, to memory (which was still considered one of the basic arts of life). The text is admirably suited to these uses: the narrative allegory could be listened to with varying degrees of attentiveness; its regular rhythms and graceful phrases would be easy to read aloud; and the combination above with the regular stanzas and rhymes would make passages relatively easy to memorize. Even its inconsistencies and obscurities -- unintentional results of composition in installments -- would make it something to reread many times. Even when reading the book in private, it would be more a script to declaim than a source of silent information, conveyed from page to brain by an easy activity of the eyes.
Poetry that circulated in manuscript, of course, shared with printed books the current freedom from standardized orthography. Shakespeare, for instance, spelled his own name half a dozen different ways, almost one for each signiture we have. In "The Good-Morrow," John Donne could render the word "be" three different ways (bee, beest, be) on the same sheet of paper. For Shakespeare and Donne and most of their contemporaries a written word was not confined to a single orthographic form: it could change according to the writer's intuitive sense of how it should look or sound, showing shades of emphasis, intonation, color, perhaps even pitch in his own pronunciation. Written language maintained the fluidity, even volatility, of speech: a phrase or line was something a poet created with his mouth, not an arrangement of fixed parts that could be precisely interchanged. A written poem was essentially a record of spoken verse and a score that could enable a reader to recreate it. The elaborate and inconsistent abbreviations and symbols current in script and print also underscore the oral orientation of writing. When a text is just a form of notation, "&" (a symbol that is still with us) could easily stand for "and," and "ye" could be an acceptable abbreviation for "the" (the "y" stood for "th" as in "thorn," not "y" as in "year" as some people now pronounce it in an attempt to sound old fashioned). Punctuation of this period often seems illogical to us for the same reason: we punctuate according to fixed notions of sentence construction, whereas the Jacobean poet punctuated by ear: his punctuation was a form of notation, often indicating a pause where the normal construction of a sentence would not suggest one. A number of conventions, create ambiguities somewhat similar to those in Chinese verse. The use of the apostrophe in possessives had not come into standard usage, and when Donne used a word like "worlds" he may have primarily meant "world's," but wished to leave a sense of secondary meaning: multiple worlds (he was probably familiar with Giordano Bruno's notion of infinite worlds). Letters like "I" and "J" or "U" and "V" were at that time more or less interchangeable, creating further ambiguities and keeping the reader at a speed approximating serious speech.
Only four of Donne's poems were printed in his lifetime, and one of them was plagiarized rather than published under his own name. The was not because Donne couldn't find publishers for his work, but because he had several reasons for not wanting to see them in print. He only meant them for an audience of friends and didn't like the idea of having strangers see them -- particularly if the poems could be used to thwart his political and ecclesiastical career. Restricting distribution allowed him a great deal of freedom to experiment with meter and syntax, use arcane reference comprehensible only to a few fellow cognoscenti, and deal with subjects he would otherwise have to keep to himself. This was not unusual at his time: other gentlemen circulated verse only in manuscript, or published their more public poems in book form while circulating more personal verses in manuscript.
Generally speaking, the manuscripts circulated by Donne and his fellows were not written in the wide-curving and ornate hands of which some 17th century penmen were capable, though they were not without flourishes and decorations. The capacity of quill pens to swing from thin to thick lines allowed a certain amount of expressive coloration in individual words, though this was minor in comparison to the expressiveness of Chinese calligraphers. Of course, manuscripts, even in fair hands, had to be read slowly. And, as important as anything else, manuscripts were personal in a way that printed books could never be. A manuscript was something fashioned by the author's (or a friend's) own hand and passed more or less directly to the reader, without the intermediary machinery of type and press, or the scrutiny of censors, publishers, typographers, proofreaders, salesmen, etc.
Donne's poetry reads as though it were meant for manuscript circulation. He assumes that the reader will be willing to spend a fair amount of time figuring out what the poems mean and how they should be vocalized. He assumes a stance of familiarity with his readers, not only sharing his private thoughts with them but also assuming that they are familiar with the arcane images, scientific experiments, philosophical arguments, and biographical details he knows.
Donne seems to assume that the manuscripts' recipients would not only read the poems aloud, but carefully rehearse them, perhaps to be recited to other friends. Lines like
are difficult to recite and would have demanded a skilled speaker who had practiced a bit to bring them off right. Donne's metrics are tricky. Sometimes he creates uneven patterns simply to keep the poems from becoming too neat, too prim. Sometimes his irregularities are metrical experiments, or approximations of colloquial speech, or theatric gestures, or based on melodic patterns. Sometimes if you read what seems to be an uneven line with even stresses, the reading brings out meanings that would be muffled if normal speech rhythms were followed. A reader would have to spend considerable time sorting these options out.
- She's all States, and all Princes, I,
Nothing elfe is
The poems are, in their nature as well as their written form, often ambiguous, asking serious questions and filling in witty answers without disturbing the original puzzle. A reader would be expected to ponder them after reading them aloud and even after committing some to memory. The reader was expected to contemplate them, turn them over in his mind, apply them to the changing patterns of his life, the way he would an important letter. At the same time, the poems served as a social bond between a small group of people: something they shared but held private from the rest of the world. They could be recited in all sorts of interpersonal situations: amorous, entertaining, jocular, serious, consoling.
In 1615 Donne was ordained a minister and in 1621 became Dean of St. Paul's. After this time he tried to suppress most of his poems, apparently because they were then in fairly wide circulation and might tend to discredit his office in the church. Both the writing of lyrics and the preaching of sermons in Donne's time were closely related to theater. The texts of Donne's sermons are full of the same kind of conceits, striking images, ringing phrases, grandiose tropes, and poetic cadences as his sermons. Accounts of his preaching indicate that he could use dramatic gestures, employ a wide vocal range, and even weep when it seemed like the right thing to do. He preached his last sermon dressed in his own shroud, which sounds like something out of a play by Webster. If the theater was the basis of language art in the Jacobean era, we can see a private extension of it in his lyrics and a public one in his sermons. Play, lyric, and sermon were all vocal arts that used scripts, and that's precisely what the texts of Donne's poems and sermons are.
A certain aura would have surrounded a manuscript fascicle of Donne's poems coming into a readers's hands in 1620. The reader would probably know that the author was trying to suppress them, which would make them all the more interesting. Many of the poems' initial readers had been members of an unofficial elite, and access to the manuscripts would make the new readers feel privileged to share in the glory of the small group of savants associated with Donne. The reader would certainly be aware of Donne's reputation for wit and may have heard some of the poems read or recited by other people.
He would first read through them quietly, perhaps silently. He would try to get a general sense of the poem, then concentrate on details. He would probably commit some of them to memory, and make copies of some or all of them. Copying was a form of reading in those days: a way of becoming one with the text, of tracing its graphic form, much the way art students have copied paintings and drawings as part of their apprenticeship. In 17th century Europe there were still monks who copied scripture as a form of prayer: they spoke the words as they wrote, touched the sacred energy of the script, and created more copies that could be used to save other souls. Transcribing also aided memorization.
The reader would rehearse oral performances of the poems. Probably, like his Chinese counterpart, he had had some musical training, and he may have tried to work out melodies for the poems, or fit them to existing tunes, perhaps accompanying himself on a lute. A poem like
almost demands such treatment. We have one anonymous 17th century setting for it [Egerton Ms. 2013, f. 586; see John Shawcross's The Complete Poetry of John Donne, p. 91] and certainly other readers composed settings for it. The reader might sing the poem to family or friends and it would become an integral part of social life.
- Goe, and catch a falling ftarre,
Gett with child a Mandrake Roote,
Tell me, where all paft times are,
Or who cleft the Divells foote,
Teache me to hear Mermaydes finginge,
Or to keepe off Envyes ftinginge,
Serves to'advance an honeft minde.
A more difficult poem would require prolonged intellectual effort. Here is the last stanza of "To Chrift":
The spiritual and intellectual dimensions of this poem are immense - - I will only point out one approach to it that is dependent on writing in the 17th century. "Sonne" is both a person of the trinity and the illuminating sphere in the sky, about which Donne and his fellows speculated endlessly. "Done" is a pun on the author's own name, and "more" is a pun on the maiden name of his wife, who was dead when this poem was written, if our current dating is correct. We tend to scorn puns because our language is not as fluid or as magical as it was in the 17th century. For Donne, however, the links between Christ and the sun, himself and his death, his wife and the joy of living were not crossword puzzle games, but the threads that shaped his life. No one bound by static orthography or a frozen conception of language could have written this poem. Its author might have understood more easily than we do the puns blood = water and flower = heart in the Aztec books, or the origin of writing in the union of light from a star with the footprints of birds in Chinese mythology.
- I have a finn of feare yt when I have fpunn
My laft thred, I fall perifh on the sfore;
Sweare by thy felf that at my Death, thy Sunn
Shall fhinne as it sfhines nowe, & heretofore;
And having done that, thou haft done,
I have noe more.
For most people living in late 20th century North America, reading is a dreary task. Its main objective (even in fiction) has become the acquisition of data. Standardized orthography and usage have taken the fluidity and magic out of the language and encouraged silent reading. Reading is now something most people want to get out of the way as quickly as possible and speedreading is perceived as the ideal way to read. Since speedreading alters the order of words, makes some words disappear or pass in a blur, negates the timing of poetry, suppresses the sensations of inner and outer ear as well as the throat, tongue, and mouth, it takes the physicallity out of language and is completely incompatible with poetry. It is like ingesting a nutrient that you don't have to eat -- smelling, chewing, tasting, digesting are time consuming activities. Even people who don't know how to speedread approach reading as if they did, wanting to get it over with as soon as possible and trying to avoid its physical qualities as much as they can. People no longer memorize verse and recite it to each other or use it to give depth or breadth to their discourse. The closest most people come to this sort of social interaction is the discussion of popular novels, often as they relate to movies or tv programs, making the reading activity subservient to the video medium. According to many sources, dyslexia is increasing among young people and I imagine one of the major reasons for this is the ephemeralization of reading. A disproportionately large number of dyslexic students have I.Q.'s above average and I suspect their refusal to learn to read is, on a human if not a practical level, an intelligent response to current attitudes toward reading.
People interested in contemporary poetry approach reading differently. Contemporary poetry uses many of the forms of reading described in the three historical examples (more often than not without awareness of precedents) and has invented quite a few more. Unfortunately, people who are not familiar with contemporary poetic practice find contemporary work incomprehensible because, due to their notions of reading, they don't know how to read it. If their ephemeralized reading habits are too deeply ingrained, explaining alternative reading methods will probably not help them -- teaching them a difficult new language, say Arabic or Hopi, might be easier. At this point it's impossible to say how much this will change in the future. Perhaps the self-destructive nature of speedreading and developments in technology will make reading for information's sake obsolete, and will return the act of reading to a form of art. Whatever the case, readers of poetry are not part of the mainstream and poets constantly develop ways of staying out of it.
One of the most positive things contemporary poets have going for them is the total lack of standardization at all levels of notation. In writing about Donne, I pointed out that standardized spelling reduced the sense of fluidity and magic in language. Many poets of the last two centuries have reacted to this on a gut level by simply not learning to spell "correctly" -- William Morris, W.B. Yeats, and Ezra Pound have been among their company. More recently, poets like bill bissett have completely rejected standardized orthography and have spelled by intuition and their sense of how the words sound, look, and feel. When bissett writes "seek / sum priva see its wintr fr reel now sins ystrday," notions of correct spelling are completely irrelevant. Though people inured to inflexible orthography cringe at this sort of thing, feeling that some immutable law of the universe has been violated, intuitive spelling returns poetry to its oral base: readers must work out the sounds of words to be able to read the poem at all.
In "The Prosody of Open Verse" (Open Letter, 5.2, pp. 5 - 13), bpNichol and Frank Davey provide an excellent catalog of notational devices in projective verse and its descendants. Visual poets and language centered writers have similar arsenals of notational devices. Though the notational devices are numerous, they are done largely by intuition or personal system and they do not seem to be tending toward any sort of standardization. One poet may mean one thing by a certain notation, another poet may use the same notation for a completely different purpose. Readers must try out several possibilities when reading a new work, actively participating in the realization of the poem, considering the text from several different angles, turning it over in their minds, testing it in vocalization, and becoming more familiar with it in the process. Ultimately readers will have to hear the poet read before they can come to a complete understanding of the notation employed.
After reading sketches of some of my visual poetry, Charles Stein and George Quasha asked me how I performed it and I read them a couple pages. They then did a two voice rendition of the same pages as they thought they should be performed. Their reading bore little resemblance to mine. Quasha and Stein are knowledgeable readers and extraordinary performers and in some ways their reading was better than mine. The important thing, though, is that all three of us ended up with a fuller appreciation of the work after we had been exposed to the two different readings. Even misreadings can expand the reader's sense of the poem, once the poet's intentions are understood.
During the sixties, concrete poetry had a tendency to be pictorial, trivially self-referential, and static. Works like the tiny masterpieces of Emmett Williams tended to get lost in the juggernaut of poems made up of the word "pine" typed over and over in the shape of a Christmas tree. The tendency of visual poetry now, however, is away from pictorial and mimetic representations in favor of gesture, motor stimulus, gestalt, and abstract archetype. Visual poetry, whether complex or minimalist, has become deeper, more capable of reaching more levels of thought, perception, and action, and, at the same time, more oriented toward performance, public or private. This can lead to multimedia performance, incorporating other arts, sometimes interacting with work produced by a number of people in a cooperative or collective effort.
Projective verse and visual poetry shade almost imperceptibly into performance art and sound poetry. The emphasis shifts from visual texts that can be performed to scores that exist primarily to shape vocalization but can also be read as images. A good example of a score that could find its way into an anthology of visual poetry is Jackson Mac Low's "Vocabulary Gatha for Pete Rose" [Fig. 7]. Readers seeing this piece in print can read it casually, as a piece of graphic art. After reading the performance instructions, they can do their own performances -- either single voice or with friends. They will probably appreciate the piece more if they have attended performances done under Mac Low's supervision, and most if they have participated in such performances themselves. If they have done this, they may be able to hear performances with their inner ears. Experienced performers can experience this in much the same way as musicians can hear music with their inner ear while reading musical scores. Though the reader may find the score visually interesting, that interest pales in comparison to the satisfaction of taking part in a performance of the work -- a satisfaction that can be carried over, to some extent, into silent readings of other Mac Low scores.
A score of this sort must be relatively easy to follow and use. It is not necessarily meant to be performed by professional performance artists but by sympathetic and knowledgeable members of the audience. The distinction between artist and audience blurs in this sort of performance. Other scores may be more cryptic. A score like the page from "16 Part Suite" by the Four Horsemen shown in figure 8 is a good example of this type of notation. It was developed for the use of a single performance group. The Horsemen weren't thinking about how it might be read by other people at the time of composition, they were simply using the form of optophonetic scoring developed by Raoul Hausmann as a working method. I doubt that anyone else using it would end up with a performance anything at all like that of the group that originally developed it. Nonetheless, it can be read as a work of graphic art as long as the reader understands that it was composed for a different purpose. Other performances that it might inspire could be just as meaningful as the Horsemen's and the Horsemen themselves might have been able to further develop their own performance from such a reading. Readers already familiar with live performances of this piece might find their understanding of it deepened by seeing the score, somewhat like the original readers of the Aztec books found their oral poetry enhanced by visual images.
The amount of lexical material in a score, the number of words and letters, need not be great: many scores are for minimalist interpretation, somewhat like the music of Philip Glass or Steve Reich, and some scores have no words or other forms of traditional notation at all. Some Horsemen scores fall into this category, but probably the supreme master of nonlexical scoring is Bob Cobbing. It seems that Cobbing can use virtually anything as a score, though the scores he has published are almost always visually impressive, capable of standing alone as works of graphic art.
Poetry evolved from song and still has close ties to the parent art. Poets often write with melodies in mind, and some poems still get set to music. Many poets base their work on larger musical structures; some, like Theodore Enslin, have had rigorous training in music and their knowledge of musical form shapes their work on all levels. In the case of sound poets, it's often a matter of semantic quibbling whether you call the work music, song, or poem. In Mac Low's "Vocabulary Gatha for Pete Rose," the same notation can be used for speaking voice, singing voice, or musical instrument, and other poets have written pieces to be performed in conjunction with music. Like music, poetry is essentially an art of time. The sense of timing a poem creates is its rhythm and that rhythm is one of its most expressive characteristics. "To read Donne you must measure Time, and discover the Time of each word by the sense of Passion," wrote Coleridge -- he could have said the same thing about his own poetry, or that of Arthur Sze or The Four Horsemen or Rosmarie Waldrop or Toby Olson or Louis Zukofsky or Daphne Marlatt or Clark Coolidge or the original singer of Beowulf. The sense of timing in a poem can vary from the timing of discrete units, such as the clues in Anglo-Saxon riddles or the accretions of examples in Pound's Cantos, to the sense of time implied by spatial deployment in visual poetry, to the sense of time implied by regular meters. You can find songs meant to be delivered more rapidly than normal speech (Carmen Miranda comes to mind) but these are usually comic, and the general tendency of song has been to progress less rapidly than ordinary speech. Sound itself is a function of time: you hear different pitches by different rates of vibration. If you play a 33 1/3 r.p.m. record at 78 r.p.m., you will not be able to hear the music on the record. Not only will the notes come too short and too fast and the rhythm be altered, the increased speed will have changed the pitch of the notes. This is one of the reasons that contemporary verse must fight the speedreading tendencies of the times. Many forms of notation in contemporary poetry tend to slow reading down, to encourage the reader to dwell on small units of language, or at least to perceive the words in real (i.e. spoken) time.
The sort of song that poetry evolved from was dependent on an audience. Though some critics have claimed that contemporary poetry has no audience, this is patently false. The audience may be small, but this may also be one of its strengths. Donne actually wanted a small audience. Serious contemporary poets can get to know one another relatively easily, and at the numerous readings, festivals, etc. that have occurred during the last two decades, poets have been able to make contact with many (in some cases a majority) of people interested in their work, and to talk to them on a personal level -- the party after the reading can be as important as the reading itself. Readers depend on these performances in order to understand the notation used by poets. In many cases, such as performances of Jackson Mac Low's Gathas, there isn't a clear distinction between author and audience: the author is the central figure; a number of people who would ordinarily sit passively listening join in as performers; and they, in turn, take cues from the rest of the people in the room. Some poets have developed performances that include the audience, leaving no room for passive spectators -- Pauline Oliveros has done a great deal in this area.
At present, poetry is largely a participatory rather than a spectator art. A large percentage of the audience for poetry is made up of writers, performers, and other artists. Readers often read not simply to be moved or entertained or instructed or morally uplifted, they read to improve their own art. This encourages them to read more closely, more critically, more intensely than they might otherwise do. Younger poets tend to imitate poets they admire and their imitation is a way of intimately identifying with the work that is most important to them. This sort of imitation is not unlike the copying of Donne's contemporaries, of scribal monks, of Chinese calligraphers, and of Aztec book painters. Experienced poets also learn from and identify with the work of their peers: any poet is potentially part of a given poet's audience, even if the two poets are going in different directions or working in different modes.
A large portion of the audience for contemporary poetry gets involved in publishing the work of other poets. They may only act as a magazine's assistant editor for a short time, or they may edit their own magazine, or run their own presses. For some, this becomes a way of life. Poet-publishers tend to read manuscripts carefully and critically in determining whether or not to publish them and put a great deal of effort into the means of producing those they decide to publish. This type of activity tightens the bonds between poets, opens channels of communication with whatever larger audience there may be, gives the editors a sense of proportion in terms of nature, size, and scope of their audience, and, again, given the intimacy with the text encouraged by copying. Publishing requires commitment and encourages the poet-publisher to be textual analyst, literary critic, and graphic designer. Working with layout, type, perhaps presswork and binding, has suggested new kinds of notation and presentation and has inspired work that would otherwise not have been done. The method of production a poet- publisher uses often effects or reflects her or his work: offset publishers often write differently from letterpress printers. The mimeo format of d.a. levy publications continues to be an integral part of the outlaw urgency of the work, even though levy's been dead for many years. The austere design and impeccable typography of Elizabeth Press Books underscores the restrained precision of the poets published in that series. The limited press runs and personalized distribution of most poetry publishers creates a sense of intimacy and fellowship not unlike that created by the circulation of manuscripts in Donne's time.
Book art may negate notation on the level of individual words and replace it with notation by size or shape of page, materials used, form or content of book as whole entity. The reading of such a book may depend heavily on gesture, and the book may in turn be incorporated into performances including other forms of notation [Fig. 9]. The book art movement seems to have originated in the small scale cottage industry environment of alternative presses and luxurious artists' studios and can draw from all current types of poetry.
At present there are at least twenty major schools of poetry functioning in North America, each with dozens of subgenres. No group dominates, so poets at the present time enjoy more freedom than they ever have in the past. Members of some schools can be dogmatic and exclusionist, and members of one clique can become extremely bellicose toward another coterie, but few, if any, can limit their interests to members of their own group. Hence poets belonging to one clan can be influenced by members of another -- in fact, some poets switch allegiances at times, and many function in several schools at once. The cross-fertilization among these groups produces all sorts of hybrids, sometimes showing a great deal of what biologists call hybrid vigor. We should note that what poets work against is often as important as what they work with, and even bitter antagonisms can lead to positive action. As well as producing hybrid vigor, interaction among schools seems always to exert an influence on notation, keeping it from becoming rigid or consistent, and opening up new possibilities.
Contemporary readers read in a number of different ways for a number of different purposes. Sometimes the text dictates their manner of reading, sometimes their needs recast the text. A sequence of reading might be: 1, casual examination of the text -- in the case of visual or sound poetry this might involve scanning the page for a point of entry, a place to begin; 2, closer examination of the text, including tentative determination of how its notation works; 3, close reading of the text once a method of reading has been established; 4, hearing the poet read, live or on tape or record; 5, reconsidering the text in light of the poet's reading. All of these except 4 would probably include at least some vocalization on the part of the reader. Going beyond this, the reader could branch off in several directions: A, making use of something learned from the text; B, rejecting the text in whole or in part; C, getting people together for a performance of the work, soliciting work from the author for a magazine or anthology, or setting up a reading for the author; D, establishment of personal relations with the author, which could lead to interaction on a number of levels. Of course, there are other sequences readers could follow: the reader could begin by hearing the poet read or attending a performance of her or his work and then turning to the text; the reader could find something lacking in her or his own work and cast about for a solution, coming upon the text in the process, and so on.
However a poem is read, readers can employ all their faculties in reading and the possibilities of interaction with the poem are virtually endless. At the same time, notation is not a static body of convention, but a nexus between large areas of contemporary practice.
This essay was written in 1983, and published in Open Letter s.4, no. 7, Spring, 1984. Coach House Press, Tornoto. The article was commissioned by bpNichol, and attests to his endless ability to bring out the best in people.
Copyright © 1984 and 1996 by Karl Young.