Academic journal article English Studies in Canada

Sounding Eyes: Mina Loy's Acoustic Subjectivity in "The Song of the Nightingale Is like the Scent of Syringa"

Academic journal article English Studies in Canada

Sounding Eyes: Mina Loy's Acoustic Subjectivity in "The Song of the Nightingale Is like the Scent of Syringa"

Article excerpt

DURING A 1965 TAPED INTERVIEW with poets Paul Blackburn and Robert Vas Dias, the avant-garde artist Mina Loy admitted to a fascination with the sonic complexity of language About the making of her poems, Loy confessed: "I'd only written these things for the sake of the sounds" (Shreiber and Tuma 214). (1) Uttered one year before her death, Loy's admission is among the last recorded words we have of the poet, and her remark underscores a certain dismissive posturing consistent with her self-fashioning as artist figure. Her statement nonetheless draws attention to the relationship between the materiality of language and the sensorial, betraying the extent to which her training in multiple artistic media informed her use and understanding of the extralexical aspects of the word.

Primarily recognized as a poet and painter, Mina Loy was also a designer, model, actor, and inventor. She was never content to work exclusively within the bounds of one discipline and thus cultivated an artistic methodology that deliberately intersected various media. Understanding her distinct penchant for multidisciplinarity not only helps to elucidate her integrationist tendency and preoccupation with liminality but also provides multidiscursive clues to the complexity of her sonic experimentation. In fact, Loy's definition of poetry in her 1925 essay "Modern Poetry," prioritizes sound: "Poetry is prose bewitched, a music made of visual thoughts, the sound of an tried" (Lost Lunar 159). Throughout her essay, which compares American poetry to jazz, Loy maintains that it is the acoustics of a "composite" and "living" American language "enriched and variegated with the grammatical structure and voice-inflection of many races" that is the driving force of rhythm in modern poetry (158-59). Sound, for Loy, demonstrates the interplay between semantic and nonsemantic signification that characterizes communication.

Loy's precise and condensed vocabulary and syntax force the reader back to the surface of the text--to a "close listening" of its materiality. Indeed, Charles Bernstein's introduction to Close Listening: Poetry and the Performed Word provides a very useful framework for "hearing" Loy's sonic theorization and experimentation. Bernstein argues:

   It is precisely because sound is an arational or nonlogical feature
   of language that it is so significant for poetry--for sound
   registers the physicality of language, a physicality that must be
   the grounding of reason exactly insofar as it eludes rationality.
   Sound is language's flesh, its opacity as meaning marks its
   material embeddedness in the world of things. Sound brings
   writing back from its metaphysical and symbolic function to
   where it is at home, in performance (21)

Similarly, Loy's lesser-known poem, "The Song of the Nightingale is Like the Scent of Syringa" (1958), is a vivid example of her preoccupation with the productive tensions that are generated by a textual or poetic instantiation of the sonic qualities of language. The poem is a kaleidoscope of sounds and puns, and it reveals specifically how those sounds command the space of the page in a playful and complex jouissance. Reprinted in full below, the poem was first published in Jonathan Williams's 1958 edition of Loy's poems, Lunar Baedecker & Time Tables. Not surprisingly, it benefits from being read aloud:

The Song of the Nightingale is Like the Scent of Syringa (2)

   Nightingale singing--gale of Nanking
   of Ming-dynasty
   in Ming
   sing long
   lingerer (80)

Loy's poem relies primarily on phonetic shifts that articulate both the "arational" and rational features of the poet's linguistic choices. The first line of the poem invites the reader into an emotive and sensory appreciation of language, recombining "Nightingale singing" into "gale of Nanking:' Linguistically and imagistically, the first phrase is reversed in the subsequent one wherein "gale," which denotes an emotional outburst and a strong current of air, becomes the metaphorical song of Nanking. …

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