Friday, July 24, 2009

Measure and Beyond

I've been dipping into Michael Golston's Rhythm and Race in Modernist Poetry and Science. I've had a long standing interest in ideas of "musical soul" as they intersect with questions of technology and race. Golston is one of the few writers I've found who discuss early ethnomusicologists like Milton Metfessel and Carl Seashore, who created elaborate recording machines to analyze the emotional qualities of African American song. (Metfessel even made a graphic analysis of the "negro laugh.") After reading the first very interesting couple of chapters in Golston's book, I skipped ahead to his thin, albeit important final chapter on Williams' "measure." For Golston, Williams' concept of "measure" is his definitive, yet little explored challenge to the rhythmic ideologies of other modernists such as Pound and Yeats (and detailing these "rhythmic ideologies" forms the rest of the book's meat.)
Williams' move "beyond lyric" requires a dispassionate stance towards these rhythmic myths promulgated by other modernists, tied biomechanically to blood and pulse and fantasmatically to the inaudible consanguinities of race and nation. Williams' more constructivist notion of "measure" always struck me as non-musical, and Golston solidifies my hunch that its association with musical notions is misleading. The word conjures up both science and haberdashery, a numerical span or swatch held out at arm's length. If anything, Williams' "measure" is something you do with materials after the fact. The concept of rhythm, of the other hand, has an originary feel, making claims to a core authentic outpouring, which is why it encourages both the irrational plenitudes of "soulful" performance and the cultic violence of the fascist homebody.
In tandem with this book, I was reading Susan Stewart's essay "Letter on Sound." If the above sounds Derridean in its suspicion of the vitalist category of rhythm, it still maintains a clear dichotomy which Stewart's (more Derridean) approach seems to challenge. While Williams' "measure" is not really synonymous with meter, Stewart's distinction between rhythm and meter seems to evoke a creative tension between the planned, measured structure of a poem, and the various existential or performative iterations of it. "The sound of the poem emerges from this dynamic tension between the unfolding temporality of the utterance and the recursive temporality of the fixed aspects of the form. . . . Song, by virtue of its measure, is fixed and repeatable, although it is, like all utterances, subject to transformation. It is the tension between the unfolding semantic pressure of speech and the asemantic pulse of measure that defines the possibilities of lyric art." (34-7)

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