Saturday, February 25, 2012

Voices from the air

In a short prose text called "Voices from the Air" (from her book What Is Found There: Notebooks on Poetry and Politics, Norton, 1993), Adrienne Rich describes three scenes of hearing recorded poetry on the radio, with each scene exemplifying a different way of responding to poetry. In the first, while in the hospital recovering from an operation, Rich turned on the radio to look for music and heard instead a recording of The Duchess of Malfi, specifically, a passage that begins with the Duchess saying, "Who am I?" (it's about halfway through this scene):

BOSOLA: Thou art a box of worm-seed, at best but a salvatory
Of green mummy. What's this flesh? a little cruded milk
Fantastical puff-paste. Our bodies are weaker than those
Paper prisons boys use to keep flies in; more contemptible,
Since ours is to preserve earth-worms. Didst thou ever see
A lark in a cage? Such is the soul in the body: this world
Is like her little turf of grass, and the heaven o'er our heads,
Like her looking-glass, only gives us a miserable knowledge
Of the small compass of our prison.

DUCHESS: Am not I thy Duchess?

BOSOLA: Thou art some great woman, sure, for riot
Begins to sit on thy forehead (clad in gray hairs)
Twenty years sooner than on a merry milkmaid's.
Thou sleepest worse than if a mouse
Should be forced to take up her lodging in a cat's ear:
A little infant that breeds its teeth, should it lie with thee,
Would cry out, as if thou wert
The more unquiet bedfellow.

DUCHESS: I am Duchess of Malfi still.

BOSOLA: That makes thy sleep so broken:
Glories, like glowworms afar off shine bright,
But look'd to near, have neither heat nor light.

Rich found that hearing this brutal passage, which precedes Bosola's strangling of the Duchess, could "solace [her] consciousness to the point of relief. For that is one property of poetic language: to engage with states that themselves would deprive us of language and reduce us to passive sufferers." This is a particularly vivid example of the cathartic experience of tragedy, the purification of negative emotions ("pity and terror," in Aristotle's terms) into an experience of solace. The scene is strikingly different than the theatrical scene of tragedy—not a stage with actors performing for an audience in a well-prepared aesthetic experience, but a solitary sufferer listening to something on the radio that she had not even been looking for—but even in this unlikely situation, the play produces its effect, and its audience finds relief.

The second scene could hardly be more different, except for the accidental discovery of poetry on the radio that connects it to the first. Driving at night, Rich and a friend again come across a Wallace Stevens poem being read by Stevens himself (I tried to find this recording on the web somewhere, but had no luck):

The house was quiet and the world was calm.
The reader became the book; and summer night

Was like the conscious being of the book.
The house was quiet and the world was calm.

The words were spoken as if there was no book,
Except that the reader leaned above the page,

Wanted to lean, wanted much to be
The scholar to whom his book is true, to whom

The summer night is like a perfection of thought.
The house was quiet because it had to be.

The quiet was part of the meaning, part of the mind:
The access of perfection to the page.

And the world was calm. The truth in a calm world,
In which there is no other meaning, itself

Is calm, itself is summer and night, itself
Is the reader leaning late and reading there.

Rich writes of this experience: "And for those moments, on a mountain road on a calm night, for two listeners in a world we knew to be in fracture, the words ... rose in that flat, understated, actuarial voice to bind the actual night, the moving car, the two existences, almost as house, reader, meaning, truth, summer, and night are bound in the poem. For a few minutes, we could believe in it all." This is quite a different way of responding to a poem: not through a cathartic purging of negative emotions, but through identification: although the scene they experience in the poem in is quite different from the scene described in the poem, they find themselves identifying with the described experience and having an experience of their own that corresponds to it. "The words were spoken as if there were no book": and for Rich and her friend, of course, there was no book, as they heard Stevens read the poem on the radio.

But Rich then spins this scene in a different way, imagining a different person coming across the Stevens poem on the radio: someone driving over to her sister's house in the middle of the night to go to the emergency room with her sister, whose boyfriend has stabbed her. This listener also searches for music while driving, but comes across poetry instead. If you were this listener, Rich wonders, "what would make your hand pause on the dial, why would these words hold you?" Such a listener would not identify with the reader in the poem, because her house is not "quiet," and her world is not "calm." Nor would she experience catharsis, for the poem is far from being a tragedy that can "purge pity and fear." If she is drawn in, Rich imagines, it will be for another reason entirely: "You are drawn in not because this is a description of your world, but because you begin to be reminded of your own desire and need, because the poem is not about integration and fulfillment, but about the desire ... for those conditions." For such a listener, the poem provides not solace or confirmation but a vision of an alternative, a utopia even, in which solace and confirmation might be possible.

In all of these scenes, the listeners turn on the radio to look for music, and they get poetry instead. They look for distraction from their momentary existence, and instead they find a commentary on it. They do not get an experience of wholeness that erases their own experience and replaces it with a commodity; they get the experience of a desire for wholeness, a desire for "what is found there" in poetry, as the title of Rich's book puts it, in a reference to William Carlos Williams: "It is difficult / to get the news from poems / yet men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there." The misery of the lack of catharsis, the lack of identification, and the lack of a way to represent one's desires even (or especially) when one's world is fractured beyond hope of repair.


Click here for the context of the Williams quotation in his poem "Asphodel, That Greeny Flower." The quoted passage is right near the end.


Alex Ross has a beautiful and brief response to the Stevens poem here.

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