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Worlds of eye and ear in the poems of William Harmon.

The eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen, man's hand is not able to taste, his tongue to conceive, nor his heart to report, what my dream was. (Bottom, Midsummer Night's Dream, IV.i)

IN PLATO'S PHAEDRUS, SOCRATES'S ACCOUNT OF THE MYTH OF THOTH portrays what seems to be a philosophical conflict between the spoken voice and the written word. The story goes that Thamus, the King of Egypt, was leery of Thoth's invention of letters, a form of artificial memory, which Thamus feared would cause real memory to atrophy through lack of use. Why take pains to memorize something after it's been written down? If Plato's warning applies to the print culture he helped to create, it applies even more to computer culture, as witnessed by the increasing reliance of business and government on artificial memory, as well as the spectacle of people forgetting important phone numbers after saving them on speed-dial.

Plato further annotates the myth of Thoth by Socrates's observation that written words cannot interpret themselves or answer questions, as a living speaker can. As such, writing invites manifold risks of misinterpretation. With palpable irony, Plato has Socrates conclude that the spoken voice is superior to writing, thereby voicing the danger of writing through the medium of writing. He must have thought the risk worth taking.

William Harmon's prose and poetry tackle a similar problem from a different angle. In Time in Ezra Pound's Work (1977), a critical work based on his doctoral dissertation, Harmon grapples with Pound's poetic attempt to synthesize elements of writing and speaking, which forms part of a broader examination of spatial and temporal aspects of Pound's work. By infusing the seemingly timeless and visual qualities of painting into the temporal and musical aspects of poetry, Harmon argues, Pound was able to create "timeless moments" in verse that resist time's onslaught of change, loss, and death. Many of Harmon's best poems also portray this "salutary antagonism," to use Coleridge's phrase, between the eye and the ear. (1) In some cases, the eye seems primary, as it perceives crucial relationships which the ear either loses or fails to register. In other poems, auditory experience seems to unsettle or to supplement the visual spectrum in disturbing and provocative ways. In still other poems, eye and ear seem to battle it out, as Harmon holds out the possibility of synthesis or reciprocity between the two forces.

Before I examine a few poems themselves, it will be useful to consider, however briefly, Harmon's approach to visual and auditory aspects of poetry in Time in Ezra Pound's Work. The book is prophetic in many ways, and remains relevant to contemporary discussions about speech and writing. The age-old debate over written versus spoken words has been recast in numerous theoretical frameworks, with varying degrees of clarity. Derrida's famous attack on Plato's apparent championing of speaking over writing, for example, assumes the inverse superiority of writing or "iterability" over the heretofore higher value placed on speech--the latter position being decried as "logocentrism." Many structural and post-structural analyses of literature have begun with this premise. Catherine Pickstock's book After Writing(1998), by contrast, argues that the cultural ascendancy of writing over speech, as facilitated by the rise of print technology, has produced an epitaphic side effect. The relative permanence of writing, after all, seems to offer a vicarious way of standing against or at least demarcating time's relentless passage. Many a sonneteer has sought to immortalize a beloved in lines of written verse. Such gestures attempt to arrest the flow of time through the spatial and visual inscription of words on a page. The resulting spatialization of time may initially seem to be a triumph over mutability. But without the living voice to enact or engage the written word, argues Pickstock, the script can eventually become a dead letter. The subtitle of Pickstock's book, The Liturgical Consummation of Philosophy, gives some indication as to the religious nature of her diagnosis and cure. Temporal liturgy, over and against spatial inscription, both embraces and eludes the flux of time through rhythmic and musical repetition--a way of celebrating eternity in and through time.

Harmon's study of Pound engages many of these same questions involving time and space, as well as speech and writing. By focusing on the concrete perceptual elements of ear and eye, however, Harmon gratifyingly steers clear of the structuralist and post-structuralist jargon that besets both Derrida's and Pickstock's writing. Early on in the book, Harmon speaks broadly about the psychological effect of timelessness which Pound sought to create. In Pound's aesthetics, Harmon says, "the aesthetic act is concentrated precisely on transcending its own physical limits and on removing the object and the audience from their conditions of spatiality and temporality by putting them into a refreshing and illuminating connection with free, timeless values" (46). He continues:
 But how? Poetry exists in time and therefore best imitates objects
 that are arranged sequentially. For objects that are arranged in a
 timeless pattern of simultaneous relations, the spatial media
 provide the best expression. In Pound's aesthetic there is a search
 for means by which the immediate impact of spatial arts can be
 achieved by words in time. Pound accepts the assumption that time
 and space are properties of the real world and its aesthetic
 counterpart, but he rejects the conclusion that poetry is limited
 by its own temporality to the imitation of temporal objects; he
 seeks a form of art that combines all the virtues of painting and
 poetry. (46)

Working against the assumption that poetry is better suited to the imitation of temporal objects, Harmon emphasizes Pound's attempt to "spatialize" poetry by joining its inherently temporal auditory qualities with the visual and spatial qualities of painting. The result would be a hybrid art that unites both perceptual fields.

Harmon then discusses Pound's varying definitions of Imagism and Vorticism, both of which elaborate how the painterly values of the image can suffuse the musical values of poetry in both thematic and formal ways. Pound's later poetic formulations in How to Read further define the process through the terms melopoeia, phanopoeia, and logopoeia, which deal respectively with aural, visual, and verbal dimensions of poetry. Pound applied the latter of these terms, logopoeia, to the strictly semantic aspect, which takes stock of "the habits of usage, of the context we expect to find with the word, its usual concomitants, of its known acceptances, and of ironical play" (58). Since this essay deals mainly with visual and aural dimensions of Harmon's work, however, I shall pass by this crucial element with little comment. But the term is implicitly relevant in most cases where the other two terms apply.

Pound himself defined phanopoeia as "the casting of images upon the visual imagination" (56), and as "poetry wherein the feelings of painting and sculpture are predominant" (57). Pound likewise defined melopoeia as "poetry on the borders of music" and went on to suggest that "music is perhaps the bridge between consciousness and the unthinking sentient or even insentient universe" (55). It is not difficult to see how phanopoeia might generate a "timeless moment" in poetry through the visual invocation of space. Melopoeia, however, can achieve timelessness only through a temporal sequence that typically involves rhythm, which Pound referred to as "the most primal of all things known to us" (56). Harmon takes note of this paradox:
 Clearly, the operation of rhythm takes time, so that its effects
 cannot present a complex object in an instant. On the other hand,
 the "two-fold" effect of melopoeia, by furnishing a bridge between
 consciousness and the universe and by reminding the reader of "the
 most primal of all things known to us" may release the poet and the
 reader alike from the world of ordinary time and space. (56)

These temporal and musical aspects of poetry, whether rhythmical or otherwise, can create extra-temporal effects. Insofar as the most basic awareness of time is an awareness of mutability, repetitions or patterns create a contrary awareness of permanence over and against the inexorable torrent of change.

"I see The Cantos," says Harmon, "as the record of the poet's personal and artistic struggle to resist the killing flood of time" (98). This vision of time as the enemy partly explains Pound's attempt to infuse the inescapably temporal art of poetry with thematically and formally non-temporal visual elements. As we shall see, this same sense of struggle pervades many of Harmon's own poems. But lest Pound (or Harmon) be seen to be naively championing the spatial over the temporal, Harmon appended an essay to Time in Ezra Pound's Work entitled "Time in the Study of Literature." Harmon here surveys a number of critics who reduce modern literature to the triumph of space over time. He takes special note of Joseph Frank, who argues that "modern novels and poems arrest the flux of time by handling it as space and space only," with the goal of what Frank calls "simultaneous perception" rather than sequential perception. The Waste Land, in Frank's view, should be apprehended as a species of spatial art, formed by various "word groups," and not scanned by its enigmatic temporal sequence. To approach The Waste Land in this way, says Harmon, is "briefly, to miss the point" (136).

Against this reduction of modern poetry to spatial "word groupings," Harmon quotes George Santayana:
 [W]hat gives music its superior emotional power is its rhythmic
 advance. Time is a medium which appeals more than space to
 emotion.... The visible world offers itself to our regard with a
 lazy indifference. "Peruse me," it seems to say, "if you will. I
 am here; and even if you pass me by now and later find it to your
 advantage to resurvey me, I may still be here." The world of sounds
 speaks a more urgent language. (George Santayana, The late of
 Reason, 4:46-47, quoted in Time 136)

While accepting Santayana's corrective to Frank's oversimplification, Harmon further rescues Santayana from an oversimplification of his own:
 [I]t is not enough simply to say that the world of the ear is
 superior as an aesthetic medium to the world of the eye.... Painting
 and sculpture do not represent an absolutely static object with all
 the time removed, and poetry and music do not represent an
 absolutely dynamic object with all the space removed.

 Poetry, especially, partakes of both temporal and spatial orders of
 existence and of a transcendent imaginative order as well.... Poetry
 transmits its meaning by appeals to eye, ear, and imagination all at
 once. The reduction of any single appeal to a unilateral effect
 leads only to the arrangement of trivial syllables in "concrete"
 visual formats or in insubstantial jingles.... Poetry is not a time
 art or a space art; it is a complex process that takes place (and
 takes time, as well) in a rich continuum of physical and
 psychological dimensions. (136-37)

By proposing a just equipoise between the spatial and temporal dimensions of poetry, as between visual and aural elements, Harmon not only avoids aesthetic reductionism but also sets the stage for his own fascinating invocations of these contrary dimensions in his own poems.

In much the same way that Pound's poems record "the poet's personal and artistic struggle to resist the killing flood of time," so do many of Harmon's poems also dramatize a similar struggle between a sense of time as irrevocable loss, and time as a "world of sounds" which "speaks a more urgent language." Nor are the visual and spatial always portrayed as salutary stays against time's torrential flow. The attempt to graph or map time onto space can, after all, create a stasis or fixity just as deathly as time's "killing flood." The interplay of time and space, of the aural and visual, includes unsettling and unresolvable scenes of confrontation, as well as of complementary negotiation.

These dual invocations of what Wordsworth called "the mighty world / Of eye and ear" (2) suffuse Harmon's poems, not only as implicit ways of describing experience but also as explicit thematic elements to which Harmon attaches dramatic and psychological significance. As I examine these poems thematically, I shall also take stock of their formal properties, noting spatial dimensions such as stanza pattern and shape, verse format, and page layout. I shall also note the temporal and acoustic effects of alliteration, consonance, assonance, rhyme, rhythm, and meter. Although Harmon early on expressed an ideal view of poetry as a negotiation between eye and ear, I believe that many of his poems demonstrate a vigorous testing of both axes of perception. Some poems challenge Santayana's assertion that "time is a medium which appeals more than space to emotion"; through appeals to the eye, other poems countenance and even embrace that thesis in a way that dramatizes a sense of wonder, whether at the ear's uncanny apprehension of temporality itself, or at its intuitive sense, within time, of timelessness.

Harmon's fascination with the relation between music and written verse pervades the titles of his poems, early and late. Three of his four major collections contain musical subtitles: Treasury Holiday: Thirty-four Fits for the Opening of Fiscal Year 1968 (1970), Legion: Civic Choruses (1973), and Mutatis Mutandis: Chamber Piece in 27 Invoices for Reader (Unseen) and Dancer (1985). In the first instance, the word "Fit" harks back to the Anglo Saxon fittea, meaning a division of a poem or song. Harmon's reference to "Choruses" likewise recalls Pound's Cantos, another musical appellation for a written collection of poems, which is at least partially a visual art form. The use of "Chamber Piece" and "Dancer" may be Harmon's most musically complex subtitle so far, and I shall return to his thematic invocation of dance in various poems to suggest a synthesis of aural and visual dimensions.

One of Harmon's early poems entitled "How Need and Death Are Balanced on a Blade" (1973) uses both musical and visual terms to describe time's invidious and all-consuming progression:
 the clock chews her own offspring note by note.
 her litter.
 for motes of music float in the sunset light so sadly.

 how old is such sunshine how old such sad shadows how old how old.
 & the slug's unlovely sole deposits a snot-silver trail & writes
 things much uglier than luck or cunt on garden wall & walkway.
 (Legion 43)

If time is seen as devouring all, including the condition for music itself, "note by note," the visual spectrum offers little solace. The almost seamless transition from "note" to "mote" by the alteration of one letter may dramatize the speaker's desire for stability in visible light, but the light itself bespeaks only age and sadness. The passing reference to the slug's written trail seems to foreclose any consolation from the visually inscribed word. The poem continues with an inventory of semi-discarded junk in a garage or storage shed, in varying states of decay. Following this sad catalog, the poem ends by invoking music once again, and poetry:
 you know I think I would give anything to talk with Bach today.
 or Dante.

 but what what would could & should I say.

 meister I would say maestro I must so sadly say do you speak any
 & the blessed slug passing between us & the rusted sunset has as
 much to say.
 he is like us all in that he says as much as he must & no more or
 not too much more.

 the death wish is the law of gravity.
 the motes of music float through the filtered moonrise light.
 (Legion 44)

The speaker's turning to Bach and Dante, to whom he is connected only through music and poetry, is frustrated not only by the passage of time itself, but also by a linguistic gap. And yet this urge to speak is somehow pacified as the scribal slug goes on writing, and as the sunset goes on saying what it visually says, rusting away. This speaker thereby seems to recover a strange and decorous sense of the need to say just so much and no more. Almost as an afterthought, the last two lines seem to encapsulate the poem. The iambic pentameter of the penultimate line typifies the relentless and musical march of time:

[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] the death wish is the law of gravity. (3)

Although the second foot contains a trochee and the final syllable is unstressed (though promoted by the metrical beat), the iambic pentameter pulse of the line creates an eerie gravitational undertow. The final line, however, again synthesizes the visual and the aural, as "motes of music" unaccountably defy the deathly law of gravity and hang suspended, not in old sunlight but in new moonlight.

Harmon's next collection, One Long Poem (1982), contains what appear to be companion poems, entitled "Redounding" and "Thunder Stuns Stutterers Mum Among Jumbo Doombooms." Both poems describe the sound of thunder, while dramatizing contrary points of view. "Redounding" begins by describing how thunder strangely reverberates through the house:
 Our whole house shakes to the thunder's psalm,

 Windows react
 To the wind's offices, and I am turned all the way around

 By the bold sound
 That represents, in one sense, almost nothing at all,

 But, in another sense,
 The presence of an old God--popular,

 Gullible, petty, sports-minded, omnipotent, girl-crazy,

 But nothing now
 But noise, with some nominal vestiges of awe.

As the word choices of "psalm," "offices," and "God" suggest, the emphatic sound bespeaks sublimity and even divinity, as least by lexical association. The speaker then self-consciously considers beseeching the thunder to "roar on," bearing in mind that Romantics such as Byron, James, and Longfellow often "Did things like that. Redundant." Why tell something that can't help happening to go on happening? With something of a shrug, the speaker decides, "So what the hell: throw / Your hammer, Thor! / Thunder, Thunder. Be yourself. Provoke apostrophes. That's it" (12). Although the poem dramatizes the unsettling and even numinous power of sound, it also pithily captures the modern dilemma of post-religious sensibility, caught between the sturm und drang of Romanticism, and the skeptical impulse toward restraint.

"Thunder Stuns Stutterers Mum Among Jumbo Doombooms," the next poem in the volume, dramatizes a similar predicament. In only eight lines, the poem comments on the seeming competition between the mythologically fraught sounds of thunder, over and against trivial modern sounds:
 Dog of the sky barks
 Tons of thunder.

 Dog of the earth barks back
 Tons of nothing-thunder, echoes ago.

 All the telephones in the world crow
 Like the weak sun above an ice age.

 All the starcocks in the equinox sky
 Shake angrily their many-colored combs. (13)

Following the title's onomatopoetic barrage of alliteration, assonance, and consonance, the poem confronts the thunder with the metaphor, "Dog of the sky," and its echo with "Dog of the earth." These metaphors stand in stark contrast with the crowing telephones, which persist "Like the weak sun above an ice age," a visual image which seems a fitting commentary on the enervated sounds of modernity. Furthermore, the poem's weakening from metaphor into simile also dramatizes the progression of a demythologized age away from symbolic identity toward conscious comparison. The transition from dynamic sound to sight is completed as the poem ends, though the final image is cryptically mythological. The celestial anger of the "starcocks" may serve here as a protest against what appears to be man's severance from the transcendent. As the loud but mundane "crows" are checked by silent but sublime starcocks, however, the final line verges into iambic pentameter:

[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] Shake angrily their many-colored combs.

By inserting a regular meter into the last line of this rhythmically irregular poem, Harmon intensifies the aural register even as he creates a visually arresting image. A tense and uneasy convergence between eye and ear is the result.

The most sustained treatment of sound in One Long Poem occurs in "The Lilies of the Field Know Which Side Their Bread Is Buttered On," the title of which features the metaphor-making impulse of "Thunder Stuns" run amok. As in "Redounding," certain sounds doggedly raise the specter of sublimity. Here, though, the poem begins quite differently:
 Clear as a bell, the substantial summer night rings with many hymns.

 Mindlessly, a million singing insects obey the dictates of instinct.

 Nor cloud nor moon obstructs the space that supervenes between each
 singing thing and each circling star. (32)

This sense of aural clarity seems amplified by a momentary sense of connectedness with what the speaker calls the "science-fiction stars." There follows a prolonged meditation on a series of night-sounds, ranging from far off barking dogs, other insect songs, and "Something truck-like" which "hums, / Hums lower, then shifts deeper and goes on in a heavy-duty register, far away." In attending to and enumerating each sound, the speaker suddenly voices a sense of mystification:
 Some mourning dove or owl donates notes to the orchestra's chord.
 In light pajamas, on our front porch, I wonder what in the world
 is going on

 In the world. (33)

As the last truck sound fades, the speaker muses that "Retail merchandising made this country great. Light travels light." The contrary appeal to the visual spectrum of light, here associated with the mundane and mercantile, serves as a foil to the aural spectrum, associated with wonderment. "I think I would be better off illiterate again" he continues, lamenting his over-saturation in the writings of Freud. Deciding that "The insect's number is beyond me," the speaker then makes an aural appeal of a different sort:
 Listen: there used to be a verse in the book of Ezekiel,

 One of these wonderfully overstated mosaic rhapsodies of gorgeous
 mockery addressed to poor old ruined Tyre:

 The suburbs shall shake at the sound of the cry of thy pilots.

 Or words to that effect, something like that, prepositional triads
 wall-to-wall, hot- and-cold-running alliteration and internal
 rhymes, Dark Age verb forms. (34)

While natural sounds remain virtually un-interpretable, this sonorous passage from Ezekiel 27:28 (King James Version) holds out the possibility of meaning. After ironically misapplying various words in the passage to his own surroundings ("pilot," for example, suggests a local airport), the speaker again says "the prophet's mantic number remain[s] beyond me." In the end, he goes back to bed with a yawn, but not before one last audio-visual synthesis:
 But something from the Golden Age lodges in my wake. Long ago, when
 I was a child, able to sleep all night every night,

 They used to write scriptures out in sacred radium that glowed in
 the very dark,

 Perfect letters on a lurid blue background with sprinklings of

 On an old clock there would glow pea-green hands and numerals,

 If I should die before I wake / I pray the Lord my soul to take....

 They've cut that out now, they've quit all that, for safety's sake,
 the letters and the numerals of faint fire. (35)

Although the night sounds and words of scripture remain "beyond me" in their meaning, the formal properties of other prayers and written scripture verses learned in childhood nevertheless persist, in both aural and visual form. The so-called literacy that has caused the speaker to overindulge in reading Freud can be traced back to the luminous radium letters of scripture, which persist in the memory as "faint fire." Even more mysteriously, the ominous childhood bedtime prayer persists in the ear, not in the eye, insofar as the prayer is normally taught to children in oral form. The note of wonder on which the poem ends relies on both the aural and visual memory, and their unified testimony seems haunted by the sublime.

"Rousseau and Romanticism: A Letter (Eventually)" (1983) sets forth an even more dramatic contrast between eye and ear. The speaker here finds himself on a lakeshore reading Irving Babbitt's book from which the title is taken. Just as Babbit's book cautions against the sentimentalities of Romanticism, urging classical restraint, so does the speaker thoughtfully negotiate between eye and ear. Early on the poem, he describes his own visual experience of the lake:
 I take a look at

 I take a look at what the lake looks like,
 At what a lot and lottery of light
 And water,
 Recalling only you (bright
 Bridge of light
 Breast to breast all night).
 Chameleon's pointblank chiaroscuro and oxymoron,
 I look up from the book to take a look
 At what the lake looks like
 In the light after first light:
 A cold, water-flat but bona-fide bonfire
 That consolidates its gains, establishes liquidity.... (80)

There follows then a Hopkinsian catalogue of descriptive wordplay, as the lake appears "blinding, busy, robust, / Vivid with bumps, grinds, bucks, wingtips, broncos, / A bingo of boomerangs, retro-reciprocating ricochets / Of carom-carols--thrills and spills--of bank-shot light...." The speaker then pivots through this aurally rich panoply of visual description into aural description. The note sounded, however, is much more direct:
 The lake equals a Lake, a theorem, fiat
 And canonical paradigm of itself's whispering of
 thisness.... (81)

In another Hopkinsian echo, the speaker here alludes to Duns Scotus's principle of haecceitas, the mysterious "thisness" of each "mortal thing,"--here, the lake itself, whose sound seems to communicate its elusive essence. As if taking a cue from the lake's audible whisper, the speaker turns suddenly and matter-of-factly to reflect on another acoustic activity--his recent "transferring some of our favorite songs / From disk to cassette." A few meditations on song-lyrics follow, one of which contains the line, "She's the only girl I love." In the end, the speaker says, the aural memory of the song lyric fuses with the vision of the lake's reflected light, and their integration impels the poem, which itself becomes a letter to the beloved. The speaker is happy to acknowledge the strange giftedness of the experience: "Such moments and episodes, so suffused, come along so often; / These things happen to me all the time and make me happy."

This persistent yet elusive quality of sound in general, and music in particular, runs throughout Harmon's next collection, Mutatis Mutandis: Chamber Piece in 27 Invoices for Reader (Unseen) and Dancer (1985). The volume lists each poem as an "invoice," an audio-visually ambiguous term. While the word normally denotes a visibly itemized bill of sale, it may also serve as an aural counterpart to Hopkins's exuberant neologism, "inscape." The visual "scape" or shape which for Hopkins informs "each mortal thing" is answered by Harmon's correspondent and auditory term "invoice." The word simultaneously suggests poem as merchandise, and poem as internal logos rendered momentarily audible.

Many of the poems in the volume are composed in blank verse, or other traditional forms such as the villanelle. This rhythmically conventional book, however, is prefaced by a somewhat unconventional note:
 Note: Dance begins and ends when reading does, scrupulously, on
 the dot; but the mood and rhythm of the dance never match those
 of the reading. Pains are to be taken to avoid even a random
 alignment of the "feet" (in two senses). If the reading happens
 to say "surprise" or "cringe" or "Das Kapital" (say), the dance
 must not even remotely suggest surprise or cringing or Das

While the note may seem to prescribe a radical and even consciously orchestrated disjunction between meter and meaning, this need not be the case. Just as Harmon frequently dramatizes sight and sound as impinging on and occasionally transforming one another, he hyperbolically stipulates here that the conjunction (or collision) between each poem's metrical "dance" and its semantic meaning is not or should not always be predictable, or even susceptible of rational analysis. As the speaker says in "The Lilies of the Field," the "number is beyond me," implying an irreducible sense of mystery. A similarly irreducible tension also emerges between the aural and visual fields in several poems.

"Invoice No. 6" is entitled "Pantomimesis," and navigates tersely between the eye and the ear, between space and time. The poem begins, "Let loss show loss, and absence absence, here," as though the spatial act of inscription were carving out a paradoxically empty space. The poem continues a few fines later:
 Space equals space.
 Space does not equal space.

 The particles of everlasting light
 Fall through their endless cosmos endlessly
 And slow, all things considered, ever so slow. (9)

This atomistic view of light is then abruptly confronted with a consideration of music, which also can be thought of atomistically:
 And the large pieces of music are composed
 Of somewhat smaller pieces, movements, say,
 And then they of subaltern passages, phrases,
 Clusters, measures, two by two into the ark
 That is a covenant with shapely silence,
 Down to the final hemidemisemiquaver.

 Yet even larger pieces, opera plural of opus,
 Omnia Opera, as they were wont to say in olden yore,
 When nobody knew when it was nine o'clock....

 The total music of the universe,

 And even that but ... but you know the rest. (9-10)

Although the poem attempts to anatomize music, it verges into sacral language by calling the silence into which music is reduced "the ark / that is a covenant." Moreover, the spatial description of the "shapely silence" denoted by music's absence is different from the sheer absence marked by empty space alone. The poem then turns, and ends by moving toward music as totality, as unity, but verges rhetorically into the very "shapely silence" it has just described. Music therefore both invites and frustrates descriptive analysis, and its elusiveness suggests a numinous threshold beyond writing or speech, beyond eye or ear.

In Spring 1991, Ploughshares published "Heav'n is Musick," which may be Harmon's most theoretically probing poem to date on the subject of writing versus music. The title is taken from Thomas Campion's poem "Rose-Cheeked Laura," which is part of a longer series of meditations in Observations in the Art of English Poesy (1602). Campion makes reference to the "Silent musick" of Laura's beauty, a visible form that announces the divine. "Heav'n is musick," the speaker continues, "and thy beawties / Birth is heavenly" (17). Harmon uses Campion's title as the starting point for a meditation on the relative merits of traditional formal poetry versus a kind of free verse. He begins with a prose preface:

The two books I think I am cooking up are:

1. Thingsomeness. Orthodox verse (villanelles, etc.) plus some less orthodox experiments in sound repetition (e.g., borzoi and for joy, echo and threshold).

2. Brass and Percussion: Prose Songs. Derived somewhat from classical Greek ("logaedic") and Chinese fu models (Pound includes the phrase "prose song" in Cathay), these rather casually observe a rule of No Repetition: i.e., no consecutive feet the same rhythm, no consecutive lines the same meter, no anaphora or rhyme or alliteration or parallelism--if something like that occurs naturally (as in "may say") then a line break is dictated. Uniform left margin, no white space.

Both projects involve a degree of return to past models, especially such eccentrics as Wyatt, Campion, Vaughan, Smart, Bridges, and some others.

I guess the bottom-line caption (oxymoron?) reads:


or some such.

Or should I say some such (82)

As Pound had said in an introduction to his translation of the poems of Guido Cavalcanti (1910), "music is, by analysis, pure rhythm; rhythm and nothing else, for the variation of pitch is the variation in rhythms of individual notes, and the harmony the blending of these varied rhythms" (qtd. in Harmon, Time 56). Harmon simply takes this point a step further, meditating on the fact that the essence of rhythm is repetition. And no repetition. If "Heav'n is Musick," and music is rhythm, and rhythm is repetition, is heaven repetition, pure and simple? And if heaven is repetition, is hell no repetition? In order to break out of this reductio ad absurdum, Harmon takes the logical step of showing how repetition or sameness thrives on lack of repetition, variation, and difference. One way in which he does this is to consider not merely repetition itself, but different kinds of repetition. That is to say, many different kinds of sameness. Not surprisingly, Harmon invokes two different axes along which poetic repetition occurs: the aural and the visual.

The first half of the poem meditates on a typewriter, as the synthetic locus of the eye and the ear:
 One of the best pleasing things
 about a typewriter is
 its hidden little bell, which tings
 as the edge approaches

 Bell sounds: borzoi
 Existence sings as if for joy.
 It tintinnabulates. (82)

What captivates the speaker's mind here is the way in which the visual threshold of the paper's edge corresponds with the temporal threshold marked by the bell. Fittingly, the poem rhymes abab, although the "b" rhyme in the first stanza is more homeoteleuton than true rhyme. As the edge of the first stanza "approaches," in fact, the rhyme is paradoxically muted, as the graphic break signals the next stanza, where the "Bell sounds." This slight tension between eye and ear raises the question as to why the bell's ringing evokes existential joy. It is not so much the presence of sound, or its absence, but the demarcation of a threshold between knowing and unknowing:
 Understanding lost ...
 an ear near a telling curfew's end ...
 to hear almost
 to understand.

 silence near
 equal to
 quality.... (83)

The poem here dramatizes this threshold between sound and silence, as it modulates from the heretofore perfectly rhymed abab, into consonance rhyme ("lost," "end," "almost," "understand") and from there into only a faint consonance rhyme on "near" and "pure," ending with an even fainter consonance rhyme on "to" and "-ty." The speaker goes on to reflect on Glenn Gould's penchant for modulations, and on a fascinating lecture he once gave "on three notes in a Bruckner / symphony." The poem continues to meditate on sonic thresholds, and their relation to graphic or spatial boundaries:
 The protocols of melody dwell
 all in what are called passages,
 bird song or doorbell
 bespeaks eloquent edges,

 my self, it lips and spells:
 a music message whereof one dropping echo
 withdraws its conditional decibels
 threshold by threshold.

 A vocal nora bene veberating
 radical candor in a one-tone continuum-medley.
 For joy sings being,
 edge, in English: e, d, g, e. (83)

Although the poem celebrates the power of music to demarcate being through "passages," the final passage of the poem ends by focusing on the spatial and visual ability of words to capture sounds through sight, and to produce a kind of visual music all their own, seen and heard in the very spelling of the word "edge," the letters of which themselves rhyme.

While music and writing seem profoundly reciprocal in "Heav'n is Musick," two of Harmon's later poems dramatize an obstinate questioning about the limits both of ear and of eye. Harmon used to speculate in lectures at Chapel Hill that, given the ascendancy of print culture, and given the inability of many college freshmen to apprehend even the most basic patterns of poetic rhythm or rhyme, poetry may well be evolving (or devolving) into a purely visual art form. On December 4, 1997, Harmon published a broadside containing two poems for a reading at The Avid Reader bookstore in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. The companion poems are "No Fits" and "Words for a Reading." For reasons that will become apparent, I reproduce them here consecutively as they were printed:
No Fits

 you know is "you"

 (eye's ear
 hears what
 ear's eye
 can't get):

 hearing it, though,
 you won't know'f it's
 you ewe yew U
 or what.


Words for a Reading

 My heresy comes down
 to considering poetry a visual art
 suitable for the articulations
 of predators and scavengers
 whose eyes matter more than their ears.

 I never write out loud,
 and I seldom read out loud,
 admiring what Saint Augustine admired
 in Saint Ambrose, who could read silently
 at a time when such a deed was seldom done.

 Not long ago, for a paper I had to do
 involving poems that exploit geography,
 I quoted a famous passage that begins
 "Ay me! whilst thee the shores and sounding seas
 Wash far away, where e'er thy bones are hurled...."

 Reading the piece aloud in public for the first time
 (I had mumble-whispered through a rehearsal
 to estimate the timing) I got as far as "Ay me!"
 and could not continue, as though Milton's
 heart and voice had arrested my heart and voice.

In "No Fits," the title itself suggests not only the silencing of "fits" of song (echoing the subtitle of Treasury Holiday), but also implies a disjunction between eye and ear. As Harmon might have said to Santayana, the ear alone is not enough. Case in point, the pun in line 7 on "know'f it's," which the eye catches more easily than the ear. (4)

The poem's playful indictment of the ear's limitations, however, relies on examples that are themselves strangely limited. In most cases, the "ear's eye" gets confused only where phonemes are uttered out of context, as in the examples given. In normal speech, the ear has little trouble distinguishing "Hey, you" from "U-turn," judging sonic identity through context. Moreover, the ear's eye also does a pretty good job distinguishing "U-Haul" from "U-turn," which the eye's ear might miss.

If the "ear's eye" needs the help of the "eye's ear," the reverse is also true, as the next poem illustrates. By labeling as "heresy" the notion of poetry as a visual art form only, Harmon sets up a dramatic situation where redress is imminent. Citing the uncanny ability of Saint Ambrose to read silently, Harmon confronts the apotheosis of print culture that Christianity has itself produced through its emphasis on the sacred page. And yet it is precisely in the embers of written poetry that aural forces smolder, and as the speaker here readies himself for a reading, he is suddenly overtaken by the sonic properties that lie dormant in Milton's verse, through which Milton's voice seems suddenly present and overwhelming. As in other poems, the speaker here verges into silence, as the aural properties of the poem generate emotions that run off the semantic and verbal map.

It is worth noting that even as "Words for a Reading" longs for the recovery of spoken or even sung verse, the stanzas are themselves unrhymed and virtually unmetered, at least by normal standards. The verses are shaped visually on the page, as though standing in some middle ground between prose and verse, waiting. The final line of the second stanza, however, as well as the entire third stanza, approximates iambic pentameter, as if in anticipation of Milton's famous lines from "Lycidas":
 at a time when such a deed was seldom done.

 Not long ago, for a paper I had to do

 involving poems that exploit geography,

 I quoted a famous passage that begins

 "Ay me! Whilst thee the shores and sounding seas

 Wash far away, where e'er thy bones are hurled ..."

With a few anapestic substitutions here and there, the entire passage reads as traditional blank verse. Although the poem begins and ends arrhythmically, the ghostly pentameter rhythm subliminally asserts itself prior to the infusion of Milton's voice into that of the speaker's quoted lines. This masterstroke again shows how the apparently fleeting quality of musical rhythm asserts itself across time through the spatial medium of written verse. In this poem at least, Milton's lost rhythms invoke the "more urgent language" of the ear, which Harmon emphatically contrasts with and through the language of the eye.

As Blake says in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, "Opposition is true friendship" (Erdman 42). In many of his best poems to date, Harmon has engaged Santayana's provocative claim that music has a "superior emotional power" over the spatial arts, and that "time is a medium which appeals more than space to emotion." Many of Harmon's poems vigorously challenge Santayana's claim, showing how the visual world speaks an "urgent language" all its own, and how spatial details capture strong but subtle emotional movements. The floating "motes of music" at the end of "How Need and Death are Balanced on a Blade" illustrate such a challenge. By contrast, other poems seem implicitly or even explicitly to illustrate Santayana's point, as temporal, musical, and vocal qualities break into the visual field, charging it with unsettling significance. The last lines of "Words for a Reading" are a case in point. Even in these cases, however, Harmon shows how musical or temporal qualities are further amplified by their collision or interplay with visual or spatial qualities, in a way that unleashes the powerful dramatic and psychological effects which Santayana champions. Such poems demonstrate that the most urgent language is to be found along that threshold where eye and ear, space and time, or painting and music intersect in the figure of the dance.

Works Cited

Benthall, R. A. "Coleridge and the Undersong of Meter." Diss. U of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 2002.

Campion, Thomas. "Rose-Cheeked Laura." Observations in the Art of English Poesie. 1602. Renasance Editions. Ed. R. S. Bear. 1998. <>.

Engell, James and Bate, W. Jackson, eds. Biographia Literaria. 2 Vols. The Collected Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. 7. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1983.

Erdman, David V., ed. The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake. Newly Revised Edition. New York: Anchor, 1988.

Harmon, William. "Heav'n is Musick." Ploughshares 17.1 Spring (1991): 82-83.

--. Legion: Civic Choruses. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan UP, 1973.

--. Mutatis Mutandis: 27 Invoices. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan UP, 1985.

--. "No Fits." Computer-printed copy made for the Avid Reader on December 4, 1997.

--. One Long Poem. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1982.

-- "Rousseau and Romanticism: A Letter (Eventually)." Carolina Quarterly 35.3 Spring (1983): 80-82.

--. Time in Ezra Pound's Work. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1977.

--. Treasury Holiday: Thirty-four Fits for the Opening of Fiscal Year 1968. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan UP, 1970.

--. "Words for a Reading." Computer-printed copy made for the Avid Reader on December 4, 1997.

Hayden, John O. ed. William Wordsworth: The Poems, Vol. 1. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1982.

Pickstock, Catherine. Aider Writing: On the Liturgical Consummation of Philosophy. Oxford, U.K.: Blackwell, 1998.


Ave Maria College

(1) The phrase is taken from Coleridge's discussion of meter in Biographia Literaria, Ch. XVIII, where he describes the origin of meter: "This I would trace to the balance in the mind effected by that spontaneous effort which strives to hold in check the workings of passion. It might be easily explained likewise in what manner this salutary antagonism is assisted by the very state, which it counteracts; and how this balance of antagonists became organized into metre (in the usual acceptation of that term), by a supervening act of the will and judgment, consciously and for the foreseen purpose of pleasure" (Engell and Bate II. 64-65).

(2) The phrase is taken from Wordsworth's poem, "Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey," ll. 105-06 (Hayden 360).

(3) In scanning these poems, I am using a metrical notation developed in my doctoral dissertation, "Coleridge and the Undersong of Meter," which combines elements derived from prosodists Derek Attridge, George Wright, and Vladimir Nabokov. The notation registers the dramatic tension between the natural rhythms of speech, and the prescribed metrical rhythm of each line. Speech rhythms are marked by a downstroke for each stressed syllable ( / ) and an "x" for each unstressed syllable ( x ). Metrical rhythms are marked by an underscore for each metrical beat ( _ ). Metrical offbeats are not marked.

(4) I am grateful to Ms. Suzanne Abdalla for pointing out this pun to me.
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Author:Benthall, Al
Publication:The Mississippi Quarterly
Article Type:Critical essay
Date:Dec 22, 2004
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