Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Once trilobitten, twice



As always, Steven Fama provides comments (which see) that send me back into something I've said — and not seen — in an earlier post. This time, he responds to my too-brief commentary on Coolidge's poem, taking up the discussion of "torque" at Kasey's blog that returned me to the poem in the first place, and redirects torque to bear on the poem's sound, rather than its syntax and grammar.

In particular, he notes that the poem is built around rhythms, like drum-beats, in bursts of three, and connects this to the etymology of trilobite, "three lobed." And a surprise that the OED refers this etymology, in its gloss of the Greek λόβός, specifically to the earlobe, as though suggesting just such a way of reading the last line of Coolidge's poem.

We might extend this approach, shifting our attention from rhythm to tone. Thus, we'll notice that the poem's first line is similarly built around a repetition of three Os, each of which represents a distinct sound. The long o of code recurs in ohm, and twice in trilobite. Two of the words in the second line — a and the — have indeterminate/variable pronunciations, their doubling allowing for a total of three vowel sounds.

Given its lack of grammar, the first line does not invite a particular rhythm, suggesting that we stress its syllables almost evenly, allowing only for orange's second syllable to provide contrast. The "third line," itself broken into three (after Williams?), similarly resists determining vocal stress, but its visual "descent" points to the scansion of trilobite. And puns emerge, as trilobite's dactyl (evocative of another prehistoric creature) waltzes out to the cymbal (symbol?) crash of the terminal s.



8 comments:

Steven Fama said...

Thanks for the extending the discussion.

I follow you, save for the comment:

". . . the poem's first line is similarly built around a repetition of three Os, each of which represents a distinct sound. The last of these recurs in ohm, and twice in trilobite."

When you say "the last of these recurs" I'm not sure I get what "the last of these" is . . .

It reads as if you are suggesting that the last "o" in the first line (i.e., in the word "orange") recurs in "ohm" (and then again in the final double "trilobite/s").

But I don't think that's so, although I must admit I am a master of mispro-noon-see-ashun. I think the "o" sounds of the poem's final three words matches up with the "o" sound in "code" in the first line.

But maybe I am missing the mark as to what you wrote.

I enjoyed being alerted to the variable pronunciation of the two articles ("a" and "the"), and your description of them as part of a virtual descent.

There's also the homophonic echo in "ohm" (unit of electrical resistance) of "om" (the meditation mantra), but I don't know what to make of that...

I'm digging Space out of the Coolidge box tomorrow.

Nathan Austin said...

Steven:

Thanks for the correction! Fixed my mistake.

As for ohm/om — I couldn't figure out a way to relate either to the rest of the poem. The homophonic play is obviously there, but I'm not sure how to connect it...

Steven Fama said...

The following is long, but it's all about "ounce code orange"; it's from Jacket 13; the writer is Tom Orange, and there's a long quote from Coolidge about the poem too:

Arrangement and density operate in tandem. This can be illustrated by looking at a poem from section three of Space, which resembles those in the book Clark Coolidge and was included in the Anthology of New York Poets as well.

ounce code orange
a
the
ohm
trilobite trilobites

In the “Arrangement” talk, Coolidge explains that the poem was written in 1966 when he was living in Cambridge with Aram Saroyan, who was “writing these one-word poems, dividing everything down to the smallest possible thing. . . and I immediately wanted to put them together. I couldn’t stand the idea of one word” (161). His gloss reads as follows:

“ounce code orange”: ways of measuring, in a sense. Weight, a symbol system, a color. “a/the”: the indefinite article, the definite article. “ohm” is the unit of electrical resistance, a quality of metal, let’s say, that requires a certain amount of juice to go through. In other words, this is a fuzzy, resistant word. It hangs down here, it affects particularly this space. I wanted these things hanging in the middle because they could adhere to words in either the top line or the bottom line. “the ounce,” “a/the code,” “the orange.” You can’t say “a ounce” or “a orange,” practically. You can say “a code.” So there are those vectors going there. “trilobites”: you know what a trilobite is, it’s an early animal of the Paleozoic Age that was a crustacean divided into three lobes. As a word, to me it’s completely irreducible. What are you going to do with it? “A trilobite”: it’s like a clinker. Angular, uneven, heavy word. (162)

The way in which Coolidge describes the words of the poem hanging, affecting, and adhering to each other illustrates arrangement and density at work: the placement of words on the page with attention to their sound and semantic values.

For example, while Coolidge acknowledges the denotations of these words from the outset, denotation gives way to a greater interest in not merely the sound properties of these dense words (long and diphthonged “o” vowels and nasal consonants being the dominants) but the relationality created when they are arranged.

This nexus of meaning, sound and relationality becomes especially pronounced when Coolidge arrives at “ohm.” This is a “fuzzy, resistant word,” presumably so in part because of its denotative status as a unit of electrical resistance (and even, perhaps, from its proximity to the mantra “Om”), in part because of its sound properties (the long “o” linking it to “code,” the nasal “m” linking it to “ounce” and “orange”), and in part because of its ability to enter into relationships, “hanging down there” and “affecting” the verbal and phonic space.

Likewise, the articles “a” and “the,” though not themselves particularly dense words, nevertheless create relational vectors when combined with the nouns above and below them, less because of their semantic distinction (indefinite versus definite) and more because of their sound properties or possibilities (or impossibilities: “You can’t say ‘a ounce’ or ‘a orange,’ practically. You can say ‘a code’”).

The long “i”s in the poems last word, “trilobite,” could make the word the lightest or brightest in the poem, but for Coolidge it is “angular, uneven, heavy” because of its sound and sense.

The word seems to confound him: “What are you going to do with it?... it’s like a clinker,” which is itself a kind of indefinable, onomatopoetic word, suggesting that while “trilobite” can never escape its denotation, it can never be reduced to it either. The poem becomes the field in which energies are released through the placement, sound and sense of words.

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منتديات مصر توداى said...


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