Pound and Cohen

I’m dead tired and have to work in the  morning, hopefully after fixing my battery problem, but I have to write down one small thing before I go to sleep. Today I spent six hours on various public conveyances and had some time to get into my severely overdue library copy of Hugh Kenner’s The Pound Era.

For several months I have been circling around modernism, not sure why people are fascinated by it (and sneering at me for asking the question), but I keep sort of circling round and round the castle and finding nothing but moat.  First it was Joyce, but now I have set that aside for now–O, don’t worry, I am past page 100 and will most certainly finish one day–then I sensed some affinity with Pound that I couldn’t put into words.  That’s when deadgod recommended the Kenner and Hat concurred, so I was off to the library.  So today I read some more of the Kenner, then when the train got too noisy with strange characters I put on the earbuds and locked myself into a Cohen world with Leonard Cohen’s London album.  Curiously enough, they dovetailed.

First Kenner. Kenner is passionate about Joyce, passionate about lexicography (is that a word?), about troubadours (like deadgod), anyhow….In the “Motz el son” chapter, Pound is taking apart Arnout Daniels’ (or somebody’s) poem:

–When the nightingale sings…

–Quan lo rossinhols escria

(es-cri-a; three syllables, the last instantly echoed:)

Ab sa

(and echoed again:)

par la nueg eּl dia

and not the metronome but the musical phrase, two in the first line, three in the second, groups these rapid syllables.  By 1918 pound had an equivalent:

When the nightingale to his mate

Sings day-long and night late

-his assonance of day with the vowel of mate and late placed exactly where the anonymous lyricist places sa.

Oh my, this is exactly the question I asked on some thread way back when and received no answer, except that some read the prose out loud. (and some insults) But now Kenner is explaining exactly what to look (and listen) for… and suddenly I’m back inside a Scandinavian skaldic poem with its exact meter and rules about internal vowels (but not end rhymes). On and on Kenner explains rhyme, separating, not blending syllables, sound relieving and not prolonging sound, imitating the sound of birds by interrupting the flow of the poem with onomatopoeia with different words,…and finally quoting someone (with Kenner, you are never quite sure who) “How do we distinguish the oak from the beech, the horse from the ox, but by the bounding outline?”…and about another poem, “compelling us to hear them, craggy monosyllables, one at a time.” Finally we find “subject rhymes”– in Homer snow rhymes with hurling missiles, a Japanese poet might rhyme a pine tree in mist with a fragment of Japanese armor. The visual rhyme.

Now Cohen. Who by fire.

And who by fire, who by water,
who in the sunshine, who in the night time,
who by high ordeal, who by common trial,
who in your merry merry month of may,
who by very slow decay,
and who shall I say is calling?
And who in her lonely slip, who by barbiturate,
who in these realms of love, who by something blunt,
and who by avalanche, who by powder,
who for his greed, who for his hunger,
and who shall I say is calling?

And who by brave assent, who by accident,
who in solitude, who in this mirror,
who by his lady’s command, who by his own hand,
who in mortal chains, who in power,
and who shall I say is calling?

[To hear Cohen sing it, here is Albert Noonan’s high quality bootleg from Dublin and here is one with saxophonist Sonny Rollins from 1989.][For a similar but less medieval sounding set of verses, scroll down past the guitar chords to “translation or collection by Rabbi Morris Silverman of a religious verse by Kelonymus ben Meshullam, 11th century Germany” ]

As I sat back in the train seat, squeezed between thick-coated strangers, the words, the stanzas, started to form, printing themselves in my mind as I was hearing them. Slip does rhyme with barbiturate, love rhymes with blunt, and the merry merry in the middle of one line is balance by the very inside the next. Who by avalanche (skiing?)… who by powder (skiing again–a type of dry snow as opposed to wet snow–or is it gunpowder?) The unspoken secondary meanings of the words resonate below the level of consciousness. Then

who for his greed, who for his hunger,

Why do these two–greed and hunger–rhyme so much? They do when Cohen sings it. What’s the opposite of greed– necessity? Need? Need would sound too trite here, like rhyming June with moon, but the meaning is perfect. So now we have…… the visual rhyme, only the genius of Cohen does it with emotions. And hunger as an emotion–what a powerful poem. This takes my breath away. And now I’m tired, forgive me for not proofreading and making this shorter.

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