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Donald Wellman

Seventies prosody:

“the tone leading vowels”

Paragraph 1

The phrase is Robert Duncan’s from The Truth and Life of Myth, often cited by Burton Hatlen, for whom it was memory matter derived from a treasured conversation with Duncan. Looking at its use in context now, I find the concept of “tone leading” to have unexpectedly complicated semantic properties. Duncan cites both spiritual and scientific registers of meaning. He writes:


Creativity, as I have suggested, means such a change in the meaning of every part in the creation of each part that every new strictness is also a charm undoing all previous strictnesses, at once an imperative and at the same time a change of imperative. Each syllable of the poem, if we keep alive each sound in the sounding of the whole, is such a stricture — just the sound it is — that proves in the movement of the poem to be a liberation. But let us take this concrete immediacy of the poem: I start with the word “Father”, and since I compose by the tone leading of the vowels, the vowels are notes of a scale, in which breaths move, and these soundings of spirit upon which the form of the poem depends are not constant.… (67).


The “movement of the poem” is an “undoing” of existing relations among the parts. Movement on the semantic plane is associated, by analogy, with movement among vowel signs. The effect at the level of the syllable is liberating, balancing vowel duration with the “concrete immediacy” of consonants. That is one parsing of Duncan’s meaning. This passage from Writing as an Aid to Memory(1978) by Lyn Hejinian describes a similar process, both involuted and recursive:


by putting a tiny object into it
          a syllable is a suggestion
                     is the beginning of inclusion


Duncan and Hejinian, at a minimum share a deliberateness with respect to intonation that distinguishes the prosody of many post-avant poetries from that of plain speech, as well as from wild rhapsody or some varieties of formalism, “new” or “old.” Duncan, it seems to me, combines the expression of desire with the root phonemic formation at the core of the syllable and arrives thereby at position similar to the Lacanian formulation of enunciative force. [Note 1] The function of the “signifier” (if it has meaning in relation to the “signified”) constitues the epistemological rift between Duncan and Hejinian.


The passage cited from Duncan’s Truth and Life of Myth(1968), conjoined with essays from the same period by Robert Creeley in his A Quick Graph, especially “‘Poems are a complex’” (1965), provides guidance with respect to the musical and semantic registers that characterize much of the significant poetry of the seventies. My intention is to explore a bundle of emerging possibilities, mapping the period 1968 through 1978 (or so). I will caste my net broadly enough to share the editorial feel that led me to publish a range of diverse poetries in Coherence,the first volume of O.ARS (1981).


Creeley’s sense of the poem as a means of knowing or seeing a “subject” or “reality” for the very first time, that is with new eyes, was especially important to me then. He speaks to his concept of the “poem as a complex” between references to the prosody of Charles Olson and to Garcia Lorca’s formulation of ‘duende.’’ In sum, Creeley situates the poem as “the fact of its own activity” (54). Such “activity,” twinned by the concept of “the tone leading of the vowels,” lays down a prosody that is distinctive by reason of ear: ears receptive to duration or length, to the brightness and darkness of vowels — ears seeking an index of integrity in forms and complexes of meaning poetically structured. And importantly the intonation of these vowels is variable. That would seem to be the gist of Duncan’s language, in the above passage, when he writes, “these soundings of spirit upon which the form of the poem depends are not constant. … (67). Jim Rosenberg, in his work on developing a “non-linear prosody,” has attempted to paraphrase Duncan’s understanding of “tone leading,” citing a conversation with Duncan in 1973. Duncan addresses two subjects under the rubric of “tone leading,” first the degree of “glide” in the pronunciation of a diphthong and second a “negative reinforcement” that occurs when first you hear a sound and then you don’t hear the sound.


I turn to an example that illustrates these two points. Interestingly, Gustav Sobin, in the text below, employs distinctively Old English phonemes:


          We’re earless.

           It’s the earth
             that hears,
              the earth,
               the earth
            that has ears.
                    “Eototo (song)” 1973. Wind Chrysalid’s Rattle.


The /ear/ sound and the /earth/ sound represent diphthong glides of a different order, but of the sort identified in Duncan’s conservation with Rosenberg; also note that one syllable /earth/ contains the other /ear/, as the diphthongs seem to embrace, within differently formed brackets. The title word “Eototo” weds Anglo-Saxon to Native American presences. To the Hopi, one source explains, the kachina Eototo is to be identified with the redlands to the south and with the primordial Aztec god of creation, Ometeotl or Quetzalcoatl. “As Eototo, he brings the ‘gifts of nature’ back to the villages at Powamu.” ( Eototo Kachina”).


The axial arrangement of words on Sobin’s page has a resonance with the visualization of form on a central axis found in many transcriptions of Native American poetry, for instance, consider Lesley Marmon Silko’s Ceremonyand how she lays out the voices that carry mythic material:


          They made \ Boy right in the center of
                        the white corn painting.
                       His eyes were blue pollen
                       his mouth was blue pollen
                             his neck was too
                 There were pinches of blue pollen
                                 at his joints


Beyond the visualization of the page, which has great relevance to my purposes because the 1970s are the decade of the discovery of concrete poetry, [Note 2] structurally there are two additional points of interest in Silko’s text: repetition and the break down of punctuation, as chanting comes to dominate the soundscape. Although there is nothing here that resembles “the tone-leading of the vowels,” there is a poetics of performativity. The lay-out visualizes the making of a pollen-boy sand painting.[Note 3]


I associate performance and chanting with “my medievalisms,” qualities that I find in Duncan and Pound. Pound transformed English prosody by introducing a sense of duration derived from the use of assonance in Romance languages. His essay, “Cavalcanti” expresses both Ezra’s and “my medievalisms.” Pound’s example and his own mystical nature led Duncan to associate passional reality with the spirit that moves behind the literal meaning of words (Truth and Life of Myth13). Ron Silliman has recently commented on the role of trobar clusor unlocking secret or immanent meanings, both in post-avant poetry and popular culture (Silliman’s Blog. March 25, 2004). Prosody is crucial to such codes. Pound’s versioning of Guido Cavalcanti’s “Donna mi pregha” carried that sense forward from the middle-ages to our time. In turn, I associate chanting and performance with “my dada-isms” by which I mean the visual arrangements of the syntactic or semantic fragments, a “scored speech,” different from Olson’s and more liberating than Mallarmé’s, possibly that of Tristan Tzara or Jerome Rothenberg.


No work or anthology is more comprehensive in its address to these themes than Rothenberg and George Quasha’s American A Prophecy: A New Reading of American Poetry from Pre-Columbian Times to the Present(1973). The subtitle derives from Olson’s influence and adumbrates some of Susan Howe’s work. The anthology weaves visual, performative, epic, lyric, and experimental materials into a mind-altering array of possible poetries. The assembled materials touch on multiple characteristics that trend toward language writing and its kindred developments. In this context of exploding possibilities, prosodic elements like “the tone-leading of the vowels” serve a crucial function with respect to expressive intensity, distinguishing “enunciative force” from the flatness of prose, the homogenized slurrage of American broadcast language. And yet contrary to that middle-American flatness, we must include the intensities that Michael Davidson nicely evoked in The Prose of Fact. “I have in mind,” he wrote, a kind of imperative that doesn’t resolve itself into a poem but makes sense out of its own anxiety” (“The Imperative of Fact” in The Prose of Fact, 981: 43). The presence of prose not ruling out the presence of poetry, one not ruling out the presence of the other, but absence and presence combining as Duncan seems to have suggested, when discussing the qualities of desire associated with “the tone leading of the vowels.” Davidson like Duncan is “passional.” In a poem entitled “Rapture,” Davidson writes:


Necessary adjuncts to feeling,
blue water lit by sun and wind
refrigerator hum
         (The Prose of Fact 4)


Explain to me how the sound of /hum/ in this passage acts as a grand unison, resolving a musical theme. The steps in the scale are: /adjuncts/, /sun/, /wind/, /hum/. I myself instructed students to avoid words like “expression” or “feeling” in the period 1976–82. The poem, after all enacted its meanings. Poems were not about. That is how so many seemed to read Olson. And yet what the poem enacts, its passions, are tied to the prosody that I am now describing.


I do find Duncan himself to be sometimes flat, even tone-deaf, for all that I have cited his theory. In “Now the Record Now Record,” he writes,


Verde, verde, que te quiero verde,
whose leaves are loves and who breathes
close upon the breath of his lover
                 photosynthesis of his most being,

kisses of air and light of the spring-tide.
                                    (Roots and Branches 7)


Surely Duncan heard the brilliance in Lorca’s assonance and the sliding diphthong of “quiero,” ending in the expressive open /o/; however, “photosynthesis of his most being” jumbles both stress and vowel quality. Duncan’s ear for Lorca’s music is not Jack Spicer’s. In plain fact, Duncan’s extended sequence “The Structure of Rime” is mostly preoccupied with desire and expressivity, not prosody. In the first poem in the original seven-part sequence, language personified as a woman, instructs the poet:


I alone long for your demand
I alone measure your desire
                                   (The Opening of the Field 2)


Sometimes enunciative force is equated by Duncan with homoerotic desire, or so Jeff Hamilton argues, in his analysis of the correspondence between Duncan and John Crow Ransom, Ransom being unable to dissociate arguments over the role of craft in poetry from the fact of Duncan’s acknowledged homosexuality. In any case, for Duncan the key component of his poetics is passional intensity, an intensity measured by the “tone-leading of the vowels.” Intensities such as these were at the heart of “the revolution of the word” proposed by Jerome Rothenberg.


Here is a thesis: in the act of chanting we respond to variations in enunciative force, possibly variations that effect the breathing also affect the pulse, but it is through the “tone leading of the vowels” and similar prosodic features that we map the internal distances and difficulties of a poem.


From Rothenberg’s The Notebooks (Membrane 1976), passage dated 2/76, I take another example of the role played by vocalic assonance and duration:


sodomites walk past with Jeremiah
perfumed men & prostitutes
show their sex freely
the wind rises over Jerusalem
moves between the women’s legs & lifts
odors to the altar seed and blood
engulf the priest so beautiful
so like a boy bride


The text of The Notebook alternates pages of prose-based commentary with pages of graphic or concrete poetry and lyric passages like that just quoted. The project falls into a family of texts that includes Olson’s Call me Ishmael and Susan Howe’s My Emily Dickinson. In its intonations, so very nasal, beyond the remarkable consonance of /m/’s and /b/’s, open vowels like those in the first line, “sodomites” and “Jeremiah” create sonic envelops, balanced measures, embracing pride in relation to strictures in a line like, “show their sex freely.” Enabling this reading is the play with syllable stress that leads one to read “odors to the altar ^ seed and blood” with the properly placed caesura. The control of lyrical intensity or degree of emphasis from the opening “sodomite” to the closing “so like a boy bride,” threading the beat of the differently placed stresses, exemplifies the phonetic and semantic features of “tone-leading” that I associate with Duncan’s instigation.


The verses, just discussed in terms of prosody, form a gloss on a highly in-woven semantic field, engaging disputed readings of key Old Testament passages. For instance, Deuteronomy 23–17 in the King James Bible reads, “There shall be no whore of the daughters of Israel, nor a sodomite of the sons of Israel.” “Sodomite” is taken by many readers of the Bible as synonymous with “abomination” and therefore a proscribed homosexuality, but the word in Hebrew is “qadesh,” correctly translated as “temple slave” or “prostitute.” The Oxford Annotated Bible gives, “There shall be no cult prostitutes of the daughters of Israel, neither shall there be a cult prostitute of the sons of Israel.” There is no explicit proscription of homosexuality as is often argued by some commentators. Rothenberg’s address to the subject arises, judging from the surrounding pages, from a species of dream work (Rothenberg also invokes Breton and Tzara), suggesting that prophecy is compromised in the service of the state. In Rothenberg’s vision, Jeremiah, castigating the worshippers of Bal, also joins them in communal masturbation. Working in the fashion of the Talmudic scholar who is also a bricoleur, Rothenberg re-inscribes both sodomy and masturbation in relation to expressive intensities that take the form of dream work for each of us.


Writing about Susan Howe’s use of marginalia, in Singularities, Stephen Collis has observed, “identity is always erasing and reasserting itself to be multiple, fraught, mutable, fled” (24). In her rough music, he argues the poet seeks to escape confinement and instead explores the edges of meaning (115). Both Howe and Rothenberg are exploring truths at the margins, outside received positions and readings.


rest chondriacal lunacy
velc cello viable toil
quench conch uncannunc
drum amanoosuck ythian

scow aback din
flicker skaeg ne
barge quagg peat
sieve catacomb
sting chisel sect
                   (Singularities 10)


As final examples of Duncan’s influence, I will discuss two closely related poems before I close, Susan Howe’s Pythagorean Silences (Montemora 1982) and John Taggart’s Dodeka(Membrane 1979). The works seem to comment on one another, both being drawn from a world of measured geometrical figures and balanced silences. In section 9 of part 2 of Pythagorean Silence, Howe writes:


How far

back through Memory    does memory
extend   a gap
in knowledge


In the inscription of the line, Howe employs the breath space or gap that is associated with Duncan’s practice. There is also a syntactic instance of “torquing” as that practice is to be described by Ron Silliman in “The New Sentence.” The use of the word “gap’ – just to the right of the visualized gap, gives me the sense that the poem is swallowing itself. I first read “gap” as a lesion in the substance of mind. Only next did it become a twist on a received expression, common to political and commercial discourse “a gap // in knowledge.” Small signs of difference count in a highly determined poetic construction like this. The first “Memory” in the text is personified by means of capitalization. The second is not. It is memory as process. This reaching toward and through a mythic source is similar to Duncan’s view of the function of memory in myth.


John Taggart has unraveled the ways in which Pythagorean Silence reads or incorporates aspects of Martin Heidegger’s thought. Poetry, Language, Thought was as instrumental for the conceptualization poetry in the 70s as Derrida’s work has been since the 80s. Heidegger presents an investigation of the difference between language as “expression” and language as that which presents a bidding or inviting toward a recognition. Heidegger’s “dif-ference is not purely a matter subsisting in language (although it is in some senses a forerunner of Derrida’s deference), it is in fact a division at the threshold of the immanent and the material real. Responding to this logic in O.ARS 1: Coherence, I featured both the virgule and the eye of Horus, the running horse, as typographical elements in my logo. Taggart cites echoes between Howe’s Pythagorean Silence and Georg Trakl’s “A Winter Evening,” the poem chosen by Heidegger to demonstrate his famous theses: “language speaks.” (119). This notion of language as the substance and arena of discoveries is crucial to both Olson’s and Creeley’s poetics, as well as to Duncan’s and Howe’s.


Until I read Giles Deleuze on Spinoza, I feared to use the words “expression” or phrases like “expressive intensity” – so caught up was I in acts of listening to “language speak.”


To tie my threads together, if this is a celebration of Duncan’s relevance to evolving poetries and it has been, Duncan provides the introduction to Taggart’s Dodeka (Milwaukee: Membrane, 1979). He describes the mathematical rigor of Taggart’s composition, drawing the evident parallel to Zukofsky, especially A22 & 23 “with its configurations and processions of five unit lines,” finding in Taggart’s strictures a kind of “divining art” (iv). That “divining art” –the manifestation of inherent if not immanent truths is for Taggart at the base of poetic construction. In a letter that Duncan quotes from extensively, Taggart wrote: “My method is a continuing search among the word particles. How do I know when it is completed? When the syllables lock together in what seems the right, final rhythm.” Taggart also uses the word “chant” in this description of his method, “… the poems present variations and returns to the base line heard throughout; but they also set the chant in another sense, the magical link between earth and sky-sphere or universe at large; here not to ‘control’ what happens to the earth, but to ‘sound’ what happens to earth, taking earth’s sounding in the imagination of the sky-sphere. Colors may then be vowel colors, as in music, tone-colors. … The intent is theurgic.” (vii).


Dodeka is an enactment of a Pythagorean mystery and necessarily, in its publication of geometrical components and compressed phrasings, a betrayal. From the text it is possible to glean that there is a formula or map that traces coherencies between “fire,” “seed” and “light,” all moving in the space of a dodecahedron so as to define the parameters of that geometric body. The measures by which the poem is constructed and their numerological base and certain kernel-like, kenning-like phrases: “starapostle” and “fireyesman” (both one-word units) are keys to the structure of the poem: three identified bracelets with variations in three sets of cells where the prosodic unit is composed of four-line units of equivalent duration. These units are interleaved with pages of scored-speech, presenting commentaries on the bracelets that form the dodecahedron, keys to a trobar clus. Like Hippasus who was “the first to publish and describe the sphere and who perished at sea for his act of impiety,” Taggart has here published both structure and keys to the mystery of the dodekahedron. The opening lines of Dodeka are: “firm song / fixed song / long notes / against / quicker motion.” These words are almost to my sense a recital of the relation between different degrees of strictness, etched by “the tone leading of the vowels.”


If you have not noticed, it has been my intention to pay tribute to the small presses like Montemora and Membrane, that together with Tuumba and the Figures, paved the way for the poetry of the 80s. In her Gesualdo (Tuumba 1978), Hejinian uses a form of prose with marginalia to present her reading of puzzling or even dizzying relations between different texts. Comments in the side-bars of the page thread blocks of prose. She annotates the meaning of the words “you are akin” with “This style has both a rational and an irrational ambiguity.” Further down the page she writes, “The run is complete in the formation.” Where poetry would go in the 80s begins for me with this emphasis on formation, construction, geometry and prosody, some form of syllable if not tone-leading of layered meanings. The method is about measure.

Works Cited

Collis, Stephen, Through the Words of Others: Susan Howe and Anarcho-Scholasticism.

Victoria: English Literary Studies, (ELS) Editions, 2006.

Creeley, Robert. A Quick Graph. Ed. Donald Allen. San Francisco: Four Seasons Foundation, 1970

Davidson, Michael. The Prose of Fact. Berkeley: The Figures, 1981.

Duncan Robert. Bending the Bow. NY: New Directions, 1968.

Duncan Robert. The Opening of the Field. NY: New Directions, NY: New Directions, 1960.

Duncan Robert. Roots and Branches. NY: Scribner’s, 1964.

Duncan, Robert. The Truth and Life of Myth. Freemont: Sumac, 1968.

Hamilton, Jeff. “Wrath Moves in the Music: Robert Duncan, Laura Riding, Craft and Force in Cold War Poetics. Jacket 26 (Oct. 2004). June 8, 2008.

Heidegger, Martin. Poetry, Language, Thought. Tr. Albert Hofstadter. NY: Harper Colophon, 1975.

Hejinian, Lyn. Gesualdo. Berkeley: Tuumba, 1978.

Hejinian, Lyn. The Language of Poetry. Berkeley: California, 2000.

Hejinian, Lyn. Writing as an Aid to Memory. 1978. Los Angeles: Sun and Moon, 1996.

Howe, Susan. Pythagorean Silence. NY: Montemora, 1982.

Howe, Susan. Singularities. Middleton and Hannover: Wesleyan, 1990.

Lacan, Jacques. Écrits. Tr. Alan Sheridan. NY: Norton, 1977.

Pound, Ezra. Literary Essay. NY: New Directions, 1968.

Rosenberg, Jim. “A Prosody of Space / Non-Linear Time.” PMC 10:3 (2000).

Rothenberg, Jerome. The Notebooks. Milwaukee: Membrane, 1976.

Rothenberg, Jerome and George Quasha. American A Prophecy: A New Reading of American Poetry from Pre-Columbian Times to the Present. NY: Vintage, 1973.

Silko, Lesley Marmon. Ceremony. NY: Penguin, 1977.

Silliman, Ron. “The New Sentence.” Talks: Hills 6/7, 1980: 190–217. Rpr. The New Sentence. NY: Roof, 1985: 63–93.

Silliman, Ron. Silliman’s Blog. Thursday, March 25, 2004. June 8, 2008.

Sobin, Gustav. Wind Crysalid’s Rattle. NY: Montemora, 1980.

Solt, Mary Ellen. Concrete Poetry: A World View. Bloomington: Indiana, 1969.

Swanson, Mark. “The Antlion Pit; A Doodle Bug Anthology.” 1996. June 5, 2008.

Taggart, John. Dodeka. Robert Duncam Introduction. Milwaukee: Membrane, 1979.

Taggart, John. Songs of Degrees. Alabama 1994.

Wyman, Leland C., and Flora L. Bailey. 1964. Navaho Indian Ethnoentomology [University of New Mexico Publications in Anthropology, no. 12]. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.


[1] The distinction between the words uttered and the act of uttering them is crucial for much postmodern linguistic theory. By “enunciative force” I mean to focus on the act of speaking or saying as opposed to what the act is about. Duncan, like Olson is of course suspicious of the “lyric interference” of the ego In relation to the semiotics in play here. A helpful example: “The very word ‘I’ (Je) is ambiguous; as shifter, it is both a signifier acting as subject of the statement, and an index which designate, but does not signify, the subject of the enunciation. (No Subject: Encyclopedia of Lacanian Psychoanalysis. June 7, 2008.

[2] Mary Ellen Solt’s anthology, Concrete Poetry: A World View, was published in 1969.

[3] The references are Navajo, as much as Laguna: “corn, the symbol of fertility and life, Cornbeetle Girl, Pollen Boy, and pollen itself are tied together in Blessingway procedure and myth which is fundamental for well-being throughout the life cycle” (Wyman and Bailey 1964: 132).

Donald Wellman

Donald Wellman

Donald Wellman: Fields, a selected poems, is available from Light and Dust. Wellman’s recent poetry includes Prolog Pages from Ahadada and Baroque Threads from Mudlark. Other poetry can be found in Eratio, There, and Fascicle. His essay, “Creeley’s Ear” appears in Jacket 31. “Aleatory displacement,” a review of Anne-Marie Albiach’s Figured Image, tr. Keith Waldrop appears in Jacket 32. Recently published translations include the poems by Antonio Gamoneda (Spanish) and by Yvan Goll (German). For several years, Wellman edited O.ARS, a series of anthologies devoted to questions of poetics and experimental practice.

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