Reminded of Pater oft-quoted: “All art aspires to the condition of music” – in relation to Williams and Zukofsky ideas of music and to locate how their projects herald and resist the quote.
music as a trope of transcendental art in modernism.
Williams resists this idea in Spring & All:
“Writing is likened to music. The object would be it seems to make poetry a pure art, like music…Writing, as with certain of the modern Russians whose work i have seen, would use unoriented sounds in place of conventional words. The poem then would be completely liberated when there is identity of sound with something — perhaps the emotion.
I do not believe that writing is music. I do not believe writing would gain in quality or force by seeking to attain to the conditions of music.
I think the conditions of music are objects for the action of the writer’s imagination just as a table or —
According to my present theme the writer of imagination would attain closest to the conditions of music not when his words are disassociated from natural objects and specified meanings but when they are liberated from the usual quality of that meaning by transposition into another medium, the imagination.” (150)
in williams, the imagination, not music, becomes the trope of the transcendental. Liberation occurs not when words are disassoicated from semantic or semiotic pressure (made “pure” into music) but when the words are transposed into the imagination.
Zukofsky, on the other hand, adopts the trope of music as transcendental. In “An objective”: “The order of all poetry is to approach a state of music wherein the ideas present themselves sensuously and intelligently and are of no predatory intention”. and in “A statement for Poetry”: “Thus poetry may be defined as an order of words that as movement and tone (rhythm and pitch) approaches in varying degrees the wordless art of music as a kind of mathematical limit.”
Williams does not see what poetry would “gain in quality or force”, but that the poem created as an addition to nature transposes the local onto the global, this i think being the politic of his project – the dream of a common speech only achieved by the “local”, practical imagination.
zukofsky, however, in prepositions: “music being the one art that more than the others aims in its reach to speak to all men.”
For williams the practical imagination that is of communion (but perhaps only american community) but zukofsky desires to speak to all men and poetry becomes between lower limit speech of facts and upper limit speech of music. The desire for communion and a common speech, i will argue, is shared by both williams and zukofsky, they only disagree on their tropes of transcendence.
WCW describes the cleavage between prose and poetry as being a necessary tension: from SPring and ALL “Imagination is not to avoid reality, nor is it a description nor an evocation of objects or situations, it is to say that poetry does not tamper with the world but moves it — It affirms reality most powerfully and therefore, since reality needs no personal support but exists free from human action..it creates a new object, a play, a dance which is not a mirror up to nature but–
As birds’ wings beat the solid air without which none could fly so words freed by the imagination affirm reality by their flight” (150)
Compare this to Zukofsky in “An Objective”: “In poetry the poet is continally encountering the facts which in teh making seem to want to disturb the music and yet the music or the movement cannot exist without the facts, without its facts. The base matter, to speak hurriedly, which must receive the signet of the form. Poems are only acts upon particulars. Only through such activity do they become particulars themselves-i.e. poems.”
These two articulations are surprising similar. Both WCW and Z hope to liberate words from narrow contexts to a larger communion of contexts – and they both have their transcendental tropes. and they both realize the importance of struggle and the inability of poetry to become completely freed or completely music – which is to say that poetry can never transcend (or abandon) the world. The social consiousness of both WCW and Z do not allow them to become transcendentalists – so even though they gesture towards transcendence, their main goal is to change the world.
Both WCW and Z have a similar idea of the “horizon of poetry”. In Z it is a “musical horizon” whereas in WCW it is a “imaginative horizon” – both of their aesthetic projects aspires to attain these horizons, thus enacting similar liberations through very different tropes. This aspiration is driven, partly, by the ethical concerns of both poets dreaming of a common language in which to communicate to all men.
In Z’s “A Statement for Poetry”: “Poetry has always been considered more literary than music, though so called pure music may be literary in a communicative sense. The parts of a fugue, Bach said, should behave like reasonable men in an orderly discussion. But music does not depend mainly on the human voice, as poetry does, for rendition. And it is possible in imagination to divorce speech of all graphic elements, to let it become a movement of sounds. It is this musical horizon of poetry (which incidentally poems perhaps never reach) that permits anybody who does not know Greek to listen and get something out of the poetry of Homer: to ‘tune in’ to the human tradition, to its voice which has developed among sounds of natural things, and thus escape the confines of a time and place, as one hardly ever escapes them in studying Homer’s grammar. In this sense poetry is international.”
This idea of “international” highlights both WCW and Z’s desire for a “transtopospatialilty” that desires a communion with a global community without abadoning the local community (the relation between upper limit music/lower limit speech & liberated words / bound functions of words).
Here is a rather strange quote from a strange essay of Z called “BASIC”: “One great step forward would be news every hour of the day and night, in a common language, from one or another of 24 stations working with a common purpose through BASIC. [It] is against ‘Babel’, the confusion of many languages. But the refreshing differences to be got from different ways of handling facts in the sound and peculiar expressions of different tongues is not to be overlooked, precisely because they have international worth.”
This is quite lovely. Z’s desire to establish “standards” to poetry and to perhaps reduce the range of language to a flattened musicality so as to create a larger communion of readers could dangerously push into arguing for an actual common language thus denying and destroying cultural differences…but in the above quote, “different tongues” also have “international worth”, not just what transcends those tongues (music). So there is a very beautiful dialectic between the communal international worth of transcendence (the global, music, imagination) and the differential international worth of immanence (the local, facts, particulars, things) – shared by both WCW and Z, but approached through their various methods which depend on their tropes of transcendence.