FILL EVERY PORE WITH MUSIC
I think I will do nothing for a long time but listen,/ And accrue what I hear into myself . . . . . and let sounds contribute towards me.
—Walt Whitman in Leaves of Grass
Maybe the so-called contemporary indifference to poetry is nothing more than dread, dread that poetry is so penetrated by silence.
—Forrest Gander in “The Nymph Stick Insect: Notes on Science, Poetry, and Creation”
Walden is a book informed by many others, including Henry David Thoreau’s own Journal. Thoreau positions the “Reading” chapter of Walden before “Sounds” to emphasize that reading germinates sounds because a poetic composition is always born through the transformative circumstance of attentive listening. His account of “sounding” the depths of Walden in the winter of 1846 also clearly relays conviction that actively listening initiates a process of externalization, pitching the listener forward into the field as they follow sounds toward their spatial dimensions.Reading Walden alongside the Journal, it’s also apparent that things flower and bear fruit in their own seasons—a fact that’s overtly explored at the opening of Thoreau’s stunning “House-Warming” chapter. It’s equally clear that it’s finally impossible to know what A) constitutes the great “texts” of our lives, when texts are certainly only the fossil of greater activity, and B) what reading will nurture sounds.
I grew up in the country and Aram Sorayan’s attempt to trace the churning assonance of crickets comes to mind. His variations on crickets key into the braided layering, hiss, folding ebb, and (terrifying) amplification that conjures special dimensions of neighborhood and field as it sets (devours?) the starkness and immense void of night
Walt Whitman: “I hear all sounds as they are tuned to their uses”
Thoreau was actually incredibly interested in crickets and frequently associated them with “the very foundation of all sound” on his night walks (July 14, 1851).Which is to say, they provided the constant dimensional weight of sound, conjuring wood and universe while he was walking. They offer a vibrant, otherworldly, oscillating silence he met on those walks and attempted to answer within himself.
Ronald Johnson’s careful meditation on Thoreau’s night walks, Songs of the Earth, opens by grounding “ear” in “earth.”Songs of the Earth is a book that knows nature, language, and transcendence are material facts and treats them accordingly. Grounding your ear in earth is a first rite and initiation into the web of being, an ebbing succession of accretion, entropy, and renewal.
Like Walden, Songs of the Earth takes root in ancient harmonies that border concrete confounding experience. Reading is the pleasure of being patterned into activity beyond the scope of thinking. Here, spring life as it rings itself in to be. It’s a marriage that distills visual and aural acoustics perforated by the echoes of other springs and their beings.
Johnson listens to a storm gather and subside as rivulets of water carve channels through stones (“s tone s/ s tone s/ s tone s”); he hears wind fill the long double (oo) hollow of “wood” to create a nexus of sound as chord crescendos in ascent: “c l o u d” [my emphasis]. One life/ melody wanes while another accumulates in the wings and emerges to take precedence. (I heard a story that Eric Dolphy’s last words were “What like music is gone?”).
Music is occasioned by sounds. It gathers as sounds gather and breaks up as they become unmoored. Like Thoreau and John Cage, I say, “sounds,” not “sound” because I’m interested in the possibilities and resonant spatial dimensions of multiple fields. Celeste Boursier-Mougenot’s zebra finches exhibit at the Barbican Centre in London (May 2010), from here to ear, a breathtaking example of the artist’s interest in “living” music, comes to mind because it celebrates sounds that are self-organizing, unprecedented, and rare (exquisitely fine), linking hearing with presence to consider the sculptural and ecological resonance of life and movement. Boursier-Mougenot’s from here to ear series also takes Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s sense that an artist’s work is “not to create, but set into increased activity” in his Biographiavery seriously, showcasing the wildness of melodies that arrive unbidden. An artist does not create, but cultivates attention and, thus, amplifies reality that will not bear artistic delusions of grandeur.
Talking about sounds and the experience of silence that underpins them in his NYC apartment, John Cage laughs and strokes his cat
When I hear music, it seems to me that someone is talking about his ideas of relationships, but when I hear traffic—the sound of traffic—here on Sixth Avenue, I don’t have the feeling that anyone is talking. I have the feeling that, um, sound is acting, and I love the activity of sound. What it does is it gets louder and quieter and it gets higher and lower and it gets longer and shorter. It does all those things, which—I’m completely satisfied with that—I don’t need sound to talk to me. We don’t see much difference between time and space. We don’t know where one begins and the other stops, so that most of the arts we think of as being in time, most of the arts we think of as being in space. I—Marcel Duchamp, for instance—began thinking of time, I mean, thinking of music as being not a time art, but a space art and he made that piece called Sculpture Musicale, which means, different sounds, coming from different places, and lasting, producing a sculpture, which is sonorous and which remains. People expect listening to be more than listening and so sometimes they speak of ‘inner listening,’ um, or ‘the meaning of sound.’ Uh, when I talk about music I gen [sic]—it finally comes to people’s minds that I’m talking about sound that doesn’t mean anything—that is not ‘inner,’ but is just ‘outer.’ They say—these people who understand that—finally say, ‘You mean, it’s just sounds?’ thinking that for something to just be a sound is, a—to be useless. Whereas, I love sounds just as they are and I have no need for them to be anything more than what they are. I don’t want a sound to psychological. I don’t want a sound to pretend that it’s a bucket, or that it’s, um, precedent, or that it’s in love with another sound. [Laughs.] I just want it to be a sound, uh, and I’m not so stupid either. There’s a German philosopher, who is very well known, Emmanuelle Kant, and he said there are two things, that, um, don’t have to mean anything: one is music and the other is laughter. [Laughs.] Don’t have to mean anything, that is, in order to give us very deep pleasure. [Talking to his cat: You know that don’t you?] [Laughs.] The sound experience that I prefer to all others is the experience of silence and silence—almost everywhere in the world now—is traffic. If you listen to Beethoven or to Mozart you see that they are always the same, but if you listen to traffic, you see it’s always different.
Forrest Gander suggests that poetry fills us with terror because it’s “penetrated by silence.”I tend to agree and I continue to find that I’m most attracted to texts that startled, awake and enlarge attention(s) by promoting active listening that begins by drawing readers into cycles of entropy that preclude and forecast renewal. Perhaps this is why the thrumming, and seemingly ravenous, choirs of crickets I remember chirping below my windows in childhood were sometimes so frightening.
As I was entering the Deep Cut the wind which was conveying a message to me from heaven dropt it on the wire of the telegraph which it vibrated as it past. I instantly sat down on a stone at the foot of the telegraph pole—& attended to the communication […] A human soul is played on even as this wire—which now vibrates slowly & gently so that the passer can hardly hear it & anon the sound swells & vibrates which such intensity as if it would rend the wire—as far as the elasticity & tension of the wire permits—and now it dies away and is silent—& though the breeze continues to sweep over it, no strain comes from it—& the traveller hearkens in vain. It is no small gain to have this wire stretched through Concord though there may be no Office here. Thus I make my own use of the telegraph—without consulting the Directors—like the sparrows which I perceive use it extensively for a perch.
Shall I not go to this office to heart if there is any communication for me—as steadily as to the Post office in the village?
I can hardly believe there is so great a difference between one year & another as my journal shows. (Sept 12, 1851)
Yesterday & today the stronger winds of Autumn have begun to blow & the telegraph harp has sounded loudly. I heard it especially in the deep cut this afternoon. The tone varying with the tension of different parts of the wire. The sound proceeds from near the posts where the vibration is apparently more rapid. I put my ear to one of the posts, and it seemed to me as if every pore of the wood was filled with music, labored with the strain—as if every fibre was affected and being rearranged according to a new & more harmonious law—every swell and change or inflexion of tone pervaded & seemed to proceed from the wood the divine tree or wood—as if its very substance was transmuted—
What a recipe for preserving wood perchance—to keep it from rotting—to fill every pore with music!!(Sept 22, 1851)………………
The fibres of all things have their tension and are strained like the strings of a lyre…I feel the very ground tremble under my feet as I stand near the post
This wire vibrates with great power as if it would strain & rend the wood. What an aweful and fate-ful music it must be to the worms in the wood—no better vermifuge were needed. No danger that worms will attach this wood—such vibrating music would thrill them to death. (Sept 23, 1851)
Imagination links Thoreau’s telegraph with the Aeolian harps that were popular during the Romantic Period (fashioned into a symbol of the poet by Coleridge in “The Aeolian Harp” and William Wordsworth in the Preface to the Lyrical Ballads) and it becomes a more modern incarnation. He identified wind/ weather (“the news”)/ god (“the artist”), and the strains of music he was given to witness when he put is ear to the post with the ebb and flow of his imaginative life. He was elated when the harp sang, sometimes desperate and lonely when it didn’t. Reading Thoreau’s Journal, it’s easy to hear Percy Bysshe Shelley’s desperate plea for purpose and renewal across the threshold of entropy in “Ode to the West Wind”: “Wind, make me thy lyre.”Thoreau dreamed a harp, awakening to the devastating realization that he was “but a scuttle full of dirt” during the creative dry spell of the fall
And then again the instant that I awoke methought I was a musical instrument—from which I heard a strain die out […] my body was the organ and channel of melody […] My flesh sounded & vibrated still to the strain & my nerves were the chords of the lyre. I awoke therefore to an infinite regret—to find myself not the thoroughfare of glorious & world-stirring inspirations—but a scuttle full of dirt—such a thoroughfare only as the street & kennel—where perchance the wind may sometimes draw forth a strain of music from a straw (Oct 26, 1851).
A growing intimacy with the telegraph harp corresponds with a resurgence of creative energy and sets the stage for an epiphany that manifests as the stunning “Sometimes on Sunday I hear the bells…” passage in “Sounds”(also written in the spring of 1851)
Sometimes, on Sundays, I heard the bells, the Lincoln, Acton, Bedford, or Concord Bell, when the wind was favorable, a faint, sweet, and, as it were, natural melody, worth importing into the wilderness. At a sufficient distance over the woods this sound acquires a certain vibratory hum, as if the pine needles in the horizon were the strings of a harp which it swept. All sound heard at the greatest possible distance produces one and the same effect, a vibration of the universal lyre, just as the intervening atmosphere makes a distant ridge of earth interesting to our eyes by the azure tint it imparts to it. There came to me in this case a melody which the air had strained, and which had conversed with every leaf and needle of the wood, that portion of the sound which the elements had taken up and modulated and echoed from vale to vale. The echo is, to some extent, and original sound, and therein is the magic and charm of it. It is not merely a repetition of what was worth repeating in the bell, but partly the voice of the wood; the same trivial words and notes sun by a wood nymph. (“Sounds”)
This celebratory passage conjures the oceanic sweep of sound and marks the poet’s place in the reverberating momentum of bells that ring through the wood he loves to walk in, communicating with “every leaf and needle,” wind/ current, dimensional atmospherics, etc. It identifies the joyful and isolating circumstances of life with melody, however “strained” by distance and change, as it gives way to the harmonics Shelley associates with “the similitude of things” in “A Defence of Poetry.”Thoreau’s revelation that “even an echo is a somewhat original sound” is also monumentally important because it acknowledges that close listening, finally, reveals repetition to be change in a way that anticipates Gertrude Stein.
The succession of “Reading” into “Sounds” in Walden establishes Thoreau’s sense that original works begins with attentive listening as the evolution of echoes (nodding homage and imitations) give way to unprecedented sounds. In typical fashion, Thoreau goes on to do what he says, tracing the transformational quality of echoes by attending to the way birds call and respond to each other in the wood. Thus, performing a careful dedication to one activity (amateur birding) as it gathers toward the harmonics of the whole to recapitulate the entire story of Thoreau’s stay at Walden
When other birds are still the screech owls take up their strain, like mourning women […] I love to hear their wailing, their doleful responses, trilled along the woodside; reminding me sometimes of music and singing birds; as if it were the dark and tearful side of music, the regrets and sighs that would fain be sung. They are the spirits, the low spirits and melancholy forebodings, of fallen souls that once in human shape night-walked the earth and did the deeds of darkness, now expiating their sins with their wailing hymns or threnodies in the scenery of their transgressions. They give me a new sense of the variety and capacity of that nature which is our common dwelling. Oh-o-o-o-o that I never had been bor-r-r-r-r-n! sighs one side of the pond, and circles with the restlessness of despair to some new perch on the grey oaks. Then—that I never had been bor-r-r-r-r-n! echoes another on the farther side with tremulous sincerity, and—bor-r-r-r-r-n! comes faintly from far in the Lincoln woods.
It’s the (Great Horned) hooting owl that steps in to answer, supplanting the announcement with another question in “a strain made really melodious by distance”: “Hoo hoo hoo, hoorer ho.”Who’s born here? Elsewhere in “Winter Animals” Thoreau identifies the hooting owl with the “lingua vernacular of Walden Wood” because its call helps facilitate rebirth by reminding him to ask who is born whenever he opens his door.
Origin is all momentum (futurity). Sounds carry reading and reader.
Put your ear to the post.
Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass: The First (1855) Edition.Penguin Books, 1986. Print. Lines 583-585.
Gander, Forrest. “The Nymph-Stick Insect: Observations on Science, Poetry, and Creation.” A Faithful Existence: reading, memory, and transcendence. Shoemaker & Hoard, 2005. Print. 8.
Thoreau, Henry David. “The Pond in Winter.” Walden and Resistance to Civil Government.Ed. William Rossi. 2nd ed. New York: Norton & Company, 1992. Print. 190-194.
Saroyan, Aram. Complete Minimal Poems. Ed. Aram Saroyan and James Hoff. 2nd ed. New York: Primary Information/Ugly Duckling Presse, 2013. 29, 63.
Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass: The First (1855) Edition.Penguin Books, 1986. Print. Line 589.
Thoreau, Henry David. A Year in Thoreau’s Journal: 1851. Ed. H. Daniel Peck. New York: Penguin Books, 1993. Print. 107.
Johnson, Ronald. To Do As Adam Did: Selected Poems of Ronald Johnson. Ed. Peter O’Leary. New Jersey: Talisman House Publishers, 2000. Print. 67.
Johnson, Ronald. “Songs of the Earth.” To Do As Adam Did: Selected Poems of Ronald Johnson. Ed. Peter O’Leary. New Jersey: Talisman House Publishers, 2000. Print. 67.
Boursier-Mougenot, Celeste. from ear to here installation for The Curve, Barbican in London, Feb 27, 2010–May 23, 2010.
Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. The Biographia Literaria. Norton Anthology of English Literature (D): The Romantic Period. 8th Ed. Eds. Jack Stillinger and Deidre Shauna Lynch. New York & London: WW Norton, 2005. Print. 485.
Cage, John. Talk on “Silence” recorded in his New York apartment on Feb 4, 1991 for a documentary by Miroslav Sebestik, 1992.
Gander, Forrest. “The Nymph-Stick Insect: Observations on Science, Poetry, and Creation.” A Faithful Existence: reading, memory, and transcendence. Shoemaker & Hoard, 2005. Print. 8.
Thoreau, Henry David. A Year in Thoreau’s Journal: 1851. Ed. H. Daniel Peck. New York: Penguin Books, 1993. Print. 221-222, 231, 237.
Shelley, Percy Bysshe. “Ode to the West Wind.” Norton Anthology of English Literature (D): The Romantic Period. 8th Ed. Eds. Jack Stillinger and Deidre Shauna Lynch. New York & London: WW Norton, 2005. Print. Line 57.
Thoreau, Henry David. A Year in Thoreau’s Journal: 1851. Ed. H. Daniel Peck. New York: Penguin Books, 1993. Print. 274.
Thoreau, Henry David. “Sounds.” Walden and Resistance to Civil Government.Ed. William Rossi. 2nd ed. New York: Norton & Company, 1992. Print. 83.
Shelley, Percy Bysshe. “A Defence of Poetry.” Norton Anthology of English Literature (D): The Romantic Period. 8th Ed. Eds. Jack Stillinger and Deidre Shauna Lynch. New York & London: WW Norton, 2005. Print. 838.
Thoreau, Henry David. “Sounds.” Walden and Resistance to Civil Government.Ed. William Rossi. 2nd ed. New York: Norton & Company, 1992. Print. 84-85.
Nathan Hauke is the author of two book-length collections of poems, Every Living One (Horse Less Press, 2015) and In the Marble of Your Animal Eyes (Publication Studio, 2013) as well as four chapbooks. His poems have been included in Hick Poetics (Lost Roads Press, 2105) and The Arcadia Project: North American Postmodern Pastoral (Ahsahta Press, 2012). His poetry has been published in 4Ink7: An Unction from the Holy One, American Letters & Commentary, Colorado Review, Denver Quarterly, Interim, New American Writing, TYPO, and Zen Monster among others.