Academic journal article Parnassus : Poetry in Review

Modernism's Melos

Academic journal article Parnassus : Poetry in Review

Modernism's Melos

Article excerpt

Melody has been a suspect word for a long time. It has a bland, watery sound: mehdy is Bellini, music is Beethoven; mehdy is Irving Berlin, music is Schoenberg. Even in the world of Italian opera, where it seems to reign supreme, there is a certain distrust of melody. When Verdi was advising die prima donna of his ambitious new opera Macbeth (1847) on how to sing the sleepwalking scene, he told her, "Everything is to be said sotto voce and in such a way as to arouse terror and pity. Study it well and you will see diat you can make an effect with it, even if it lacks one of those flowing, conventional melodies [canti fihti, e soliti], which can be found everywhere and which are all alike." No one, it seems, wants to be a mere tunesmith.

In the domain of poetry, too, if you write flowing, conventional melodies, you're usually not doing too well. Though he doesn't refer to them as such, Northrop Frye is clearly thinking of diese melodies when he writes, "Musical usually means 'sounding nice.'... The term musical as ordinarily used is a value term meaning that the poet has produced a pleasant variety of vowel sounds and has managed to avoid the more unpronounceable clusters of consonants that abound in modern English. If he does this, he is musical, whedier or not he knows a whole note from a half rest."

The poetics of Modernism valued music highly, but only insofar as the music had a certain strangeness to it. One of the tenets of Pound's Imagism was "As regarding rhyriim: to compose in the sequence of the musical phrase, not in sequence of a metronome." This is in some ways an unremarkable wish: A hundred years before Pound's time, Keats had been equally eager to emancipate poetry from the tick-tock of Pope's rhythm:

a sc[h]ism

Nurtured by foppery and barbarism,

Made great Apollo blush for this his land.

Men were thought wise who could not understand

His glories: with a puling infant's force

They sway'd about upon a rocking horse,

And thought it Pegasus.

("Sleep and Poetry")

Keats of course is writing in heroic couplets, Pope's own favorite verse form, but the caesura doesn't mechanically alternate (as Pope's caesuras tend to do) between the fourdi syllable of die line and the sixth; Keats puts the caesura in some quite odd places, even in the middle of a foot ("His glories: I with a puling infant's force"). Keats might not have liked Pound's verse, if he'd lived to read it, but I doubt that he would have quarreled strongly with die third tenet of Imagism.

Still, there is a certain radicalism in Pound's dogma. The metronome was an object of fun even when it first appeared - Beethoven wrote a little spoof about Johann Nepomuk Mältzel, its inventor, a canon with a springy tune familiar from the tick-tock movement in the eighth symphony. And it is a commonplace to observe that music gets its life from agogics, rubato, hesitations, accelerations, slight vertical miscoordinations - all sorts of déviances from the notated rhythm. But to say that music might be defined as the anti-metronomical is to go much farther than just about anyone in the nineteenth century would have gone.

Pound dreamed of a poetic music that was sinewy, sinuous, an unmetered riff - "To break the pentameter, that was die first heave," he tells us in Canto LXXXI. But to some extent this battle had been fought and won long before the Modernists came onto the scene. Consider the beginning of Whitman's late poem "Patroling Barnegat" (1880):

Wild, wild the storm, and the sea high running,

Steady the roar of the gale, with incessant undertone muttering,

Shouts of demoniac laughter fitfully piercing and pealing,

Waves, air, midnight, their savagest trinity lashing,

Out in the shadows there milk-white combs careering,

On beachy slush and sand spirts of snow fierce slanting,

Where through the murk the easterly death-wind breasting. …

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