Swim and Burn with Swinburne

By Herrick, Jeffrey | The Antioch Review, Winter 2009 | Go to article overview

Swim and Burn with Swinburne


Herrick, Jeffrey, The Antioch Review


More tin ear than tenor, you sing? Nay, neigh not so, say I. There be more sings in heaven and earth, hear here hoar ratio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy, might a bearded bard have brayed. And there is more music in the spoken, and vice versa, in verses than our usual views allow. It takes a hamlet, and not in the sense of a tone-deaf or daft politician. It depends on what the meaning of is is. What if you're it? And your assignment is to listen your way out of the blind of conventions, the poses of our dull daily prosings. Consider communication among the Piraha, an Amazonian tribe. According to John Cola- pinto, in an article titled "The Interpreter," in The New Yorker, April 16, 2007, it "sound[s] like a profusion of exotic songbirds, a melodic chattering scarcely discernible, to the uninitiated, as human speech. Unrelated to any other extant tongue, and based on just eight consonants and three vowels, Piraha has one of the simplest sound systems known. Yet it possesses such a complex array of tones, stresses, and syllable lengths that its speakers can dispense with their vowels and consonants altogether and sing, hum, or whistle conversations." Hmm, sounds rather like Swinburne to me. But before getting into that, let's consider the English ear, to which Italian is widely considered musical. Is it all those vowels? Vow not so, for every syllable of Japanese has one, yet the intonation of each is nearly flat. But don't be flattered into thinking tone alone is musical, for the Japanese ear may well be attuned to microtonal variations that make Italian sound bombastic. The rather flat intonations of rap have come to be heard as musical to many ears, though as poetry rap is usually doggerel at best, reflecting the perils of puerility. We need to learn to listen more attentively to the tunes rung in and on our own tongues, and to use them as effectively as possible to rip beyond rap. We need, indeed, to cleanse the doors of perception, the auricular in particular. Charles Bernstein, in his introduction to Close Listening: Poetry and the Performed Word, and in his own practice of it, Robert Pinsky, in The Sounds of Poetry, and in his own verse practice as well, and William Gass, in many of his essays and in his practice of prose fiction, have begun to help us adore and adorn this door. But no one is better equipped to help Anglophones do more than that than Algernon Charles Swinburne, his riprap a foundation for getting to swim and burn in elemental opera.

The common rap against Swinburne, that of sound and fury signifying nothing, could not be more misdirected. The distinction between sound and significance, if it's poetry we're speaking (of), is the unheard reading of unread herrings. Have you never been deeply moved by a song in an unknown tongue? And is being moved not a matter of significance? And if we move from there to the supposed cement of semantics? Well, consider the title, alone, of one of Swinburne's volumes that speaks: Songs Before Sunrise. Is that like death before dishonor? Or are songs prior? Do songs cause sunrise? The usual sense, that of hope waiting on ideals such as independence, whether in Italy or in "I" tallies, may include all of these and more, as Swinburne, the master of such valences, knew, and knowing, availed himself of in unveiled harmonics. And by opening our ears to these, we begin to cleanse indeed. As Jerome McGann has cogently noted, in an essay on Bruce Andrews in The Point Is To Change It, "the poetic action depends on the self-conscious re-action of the reader, which the texts solicit." Such poetry is a matter of exchanges, and to take our part, to give a due its due, necessarily involves reading aloud, to decant and descant its enchantments. Or, as Yeats sang:

    Nor is there singing school but studying
   Monuments of its own magnificence. 

Nor, earthlings, is there studying but swimming and burning in airs. It seems seams of polysemy inhere in here, i. …

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