Christine Casson
May 2008

 

Christine CassonChristine Casson is the author of After the First World, a book of poems (Star Cloud Press, 2008).  Currently she is writing a book of non-fiction that explores the relationship between trauma and memory, as well as a study of the poetic sequence entitled Sequence and Time Signature: A Study in Poetic Orchestration.  Most recently her poetry has appeared in DoubleTake, Agenda (England), Stand (England), The Dalhousie Review, Natural Bridge, Slant, South Dakota Review, and Alabama Literary Review, and in the anthologies Fashioned Pleasures (Parallel Press, 2005), Never Before (Four Way Books, 2005), and Conversation Pieces (Everyman's Library, 2007). She has published critical essays on the work of Leslie Marmon Silko and the poetry of Linda Hogan and is Scholar / Writer in Residence at Emerson College in Boston.

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Composition and Cadence

I remember as a child being drawn to music, though I didn’t think about it in any conscious way.  It was there, in the house, in the classical music my father would play on the turntable tucked inside our old Magnovox console, lumbering and dark, and carefully placed across from two armchairs in our living room.  It was there in other ways, too—in my compulsion to sing, to learn the words and the melody of any song that drew me in and to see, then, what my own voice could do.  I never gave much thought to this impulse, but I do remember that music—hearing it, learning it, and recreating it—exhilarated me.  Now, as an adult who listens avidly to music but has not made it a career, I still recognize its allure, how music allows for that complete immersion I experienced when I was young.

So what has this to do with poetry?  Everything, I believe.  As a child and young adult I was also a great reader of novels.  In my middle-class household, there was not much poetry on hand, though my parents certainly encouraged me to read.  It was not until later—until high school and college—that I began to read poetry in any serious way.  It was also around this time that I began to move away from any serious consideration of a musical profession and, instead, decided to study literature.  What struck me most as an adult reader was the way poetry utilized language and the ways in which the language of a poem was further affected by rhythm—by the cadences of free verse and by the meter of formal verse—a music constructed not only through syllable and rhyme and stress, but through the turning of a line.  To me it seemed that poetry could push language to its limits and, in the finest instances, beyond the limitations of word and definition.  In the best poems, what was signified was not limited by signifier.

And how was this accomplished?  Not only by a careful use of language, but also by the poet’s deft ear, by his or her attentiveness to the innumerable and subtle ways in which music affects our emotional and, indeed, our physical responses.  It is music that allows us to understand the emotional import of Eliot’s The Wasteland or his Four Quartets when reading it for the first time, before we have fully taken stock of the intellectual and/or philosophical implications of these poems, before we have poured over the notes, or translated those quotations from other languages, or fully explored the wealth of literary, Biblical, and cultural allusions he draws on.   It is his way of turning language, both written and spoken, and his use of rhythm (his knowledge of meter and his mindful reaction to it), and how these both serve as counterpoint to his lineation that speaks to us at a visceral level well before the commencement of our intellectual response.  In other words, it is music that makes his poems—and any poem—accessible and emotionally compelling. And, in the best poems, it is both a sensual music and a music of sense to which we return, as readers, again and again.

Above all it is this music that I listen for in the poems I read and that I work to create and sustain in my own poems, whether free verse or formal.   I believe that my reader needs to hear the music of my poems to understand them fully because so much of what I would evoke and embody in my work—and I do believe poems embody their subjects since so much of what is conveyed gets transmitted through the senses—is revealed through how I hear the words and the lines.  To me it is all very much the work of my ear.   In my sequence of poems on the life of Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel I try to push this aural work one step further as I seek to create musical cadences through language and lineation that would evoke for the reader the voice of a particular speaker—be it Fanny Mendelssohn, her mother, or her brother—or, alternately, in the narrated sections, the emotions of the poems’ human subjects.  

In an interview the great actor Peter O’Toole once spoke of how acting, to him, is the revelation of human speech as an art form.  The same could be said of poetry—that it would cast the human voice into some different but utterly recognizable form—into a shape, a song that would make and remake the world that then becomes, as Wallace Stevens writes, “acutest at its vanishing.”  And how does the poet achieve this feat?  In the same interview, O’Toole tells the story of another great actor and friend, Ralph Richardson, who would play the violin while studying his lines as though to better reveal the lyricism of the play’s language—to get at the music of Shakespeare’s lines or of Shaw’s.  O’Toole’s story provides me with an image for my own process of composition: while one part of me responds to the sounds of language, its cadences, and how they affect us physically and emotionally, the other wrestles with the denotative, syntactic, and sequential significance of words.  And there is something vividly relevant about O’Toole’s anecdote of his friend for the reader of poetry as well as for the poet—for anyone really who turns and returns to a poem that moves them as they listen to its words, to its sentences, to its lines, and all the while its music plays on.

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