thinking through music, sound and culture

Category: poetry

On A.R. Ammons: “A Poem Is A Walk”

“Poetry is a mode of discourse that differs from logical exposition. Poetry is a verbal means to a nonverbal source. It is a motion to no-motion, to the still point of contemplation and deep realization. Its knowledges are all negative and, therefore, more positive than any knowledge. Nothing that can be said about it in words is worth saying.” – A.R. Ammons

For a stretch of a few years I forgot how much I enjoyed the poetry and artistic stance of A.R. Ammons, until recently when I came across an interview with him in the Paris Review. In 1967 Ammons wrote a remarkable essay, “A Poem Is A Walk,” that explores the phenomenology of poetry. The piece takes a formalist approach, claiming that poetry isn’t “about” anything but its own working out of form through space and time. In fact, there is nothing we can say about poetry that it can’t say better itself. As Ammons notes, “Nothing that can be said about it in words is worth saying.”

Ammons illustrates his argument by comparing a poem to a walk. How, he asks, would one teach a class about walks? What is there to teach? You could ask what they’re good for, or what they mean (to various walkers, to history), but that would miss the point of their essential four experiential qualities–qualities that they share with poems. First, they make use of the whole body. Second, they are unreproducible. Third, they turn, one or more times, then return home. Finally, they have their own kind of internal and external motion that can only be experienced by entering into them.

What I find intriguing about “A Poem Is A Walk” is how deeply it speaks to the experience of music. Both music and poetry are constantly studied and analyzed, but never to their deaths. Both are modalities of knowing that seem to elude full explanation. They don’t argue, they’re just themselves. Even as we try to explain them, they keep going about their expressive work, unfettered. There’s something wonderful about this fact.

You can read the essay here.


Now back to that Paris Review interview. Ammons elaborates on some of the themes he expressed in “A Poem Is A Walk.” He speaks of the impetus for writing and the creative process:

“The invention of a poem frequently is how to find a way to resolve the complications that you’ve gotten yourself into.”

He speaks of the need for a poem to be autonomous and self-directed:

“What we want to see a poem do is to become itself, to reach as nearly perfect a state of self-direction and self-responsibility as can be believably represented. We want that for people too.”

And intriguingly for those of us thinking through music as we read Ammons thinking through poetry, he speaks of ignoring the Western tradition, trying to make poems that inhabit their own “bare space”:

“I have tried to get rid of the Western tradition as much as possible. You notice I don’t mention anything in my poetry having to do with Europe or where we come from. I never allude to persons or places or events in history. I really do want to begin with a bare space with streams and rocks and trees. I have a little, a tiny poem that says something about the only way you can do anything at all about all of Western culture is to fail to refer to it. And that’s what I do.”

You can read the interview here.

Microthought: On Musical Means To Ends

There’s a man
who walks the subway train
each night asking for money
by way of wayward singing of a song.

“Fee-lings” he begins,
nodding to that old standard
but the riffs turn to his hunger:

“I’m hun-gry” in a monotone,

and then the proposed solution–
“I like chi-cken”

a single harmonica tone.

“I like chi-cken legs,
and chi-cken thighs.
I like fried chi-cken,
chi-cken and rice,
Chinese chi-cken”–
with another wheezing tone.

The song
hasn’t changed in years.
By now it’s a routine, and music
is nowhere to be found.

Notes On A Talk By W.S. Merwin


When I was in graduate school at NYU, I occasionally spent time wandering the stacks of Bobst Library. With only a subject matter and a range of Dewey Decimal numbers in mind, I’d take to the shelves intuitively–looking for interesting book titles to crack open. One afternoon, while scanning a long and deserted isle of poetry under the indifferent hum of the library’s fluorescent lights I found a book of verse whose title offered the possibility that its contents may have some connection to musical or sonic things. The book was The River Sound and its author was W. S. Merwin.

Flipping through the book I found a poem called “Remembering” that seemed to be about the relationship between music and memory–about how bits of sound can continue to resonate inside us free from their original moments of hearing. Here is the poem:

There are threads of old sound heard over and over
phrases of Shakespeare or Mozart the slender
wands of the auroras playing out from them
into dark time the passing of a few
migrants high in the night far from the ancient flocks
far from the rest of the words far from the instruments


I thought about this poem recently as I watched a video of Merwin giving a talk (available somewhere on the Authors and Poets Podcast on iTunes). Merwin had quiet sparkle to him as he spoke about the imagination and its links to other distinctively human attributes such as making mistakes, the importance of asking questions, and the value of ignorance. Here are some extended excerpts that I transcribed from the talk:

“Everything happens once. You’re born once. You learn to talk once. You fall in love once. You make every mistake once. It’s a different mistake the second time even if it seems to be the same one. Your mistakes are very important and you should pay very close attention to them.

One of the things that I can tell you….is that you’re very interested in getting from here to there. You’re very interested in finding the answer to the question. You forget about the question in looking for the answer. But the question is really much more interesting than the answer. One you get to the answer you think you’re there, but you’re never there …The fascination with the answer should not ever obliterate the deep respect—endless respect—for the question itself. The question is the thing that goes on opening out, teaching you things.

Your knowledge is wonderful…But in the long run it’s a delusion. It makes you feel like you really know it.

The other thing your ignorance may lead you to is a sense that you are a great paradox. That you are only yourself and that you are connected to everything else at the same time…I believe that respect for your ignorance may lead to you to a sense that everything is connected.

The thing that makes us distinct…is something that on the one side is compassion, and on the other side imagination. Compassion and imagination are part of one another.

Whatever you’re doing, what you want to be watching for is to be doing what only you can be doing. If you’re not doing what only you can be doing—and your ignorance is terribly important in this—you’re going to feel miserable.

Your ignorance is a great gift to you. It’s the link with your imaginations, with your compassion–with all the things that really matter.

It’s the thing that you may hear in Mozart and Mozart may be telling you, and that you may be able to see in Vermeer and that girl pouring a pitcher of milk. The most startling image in painting to me is that milk pouring out of the pitcher.

Why is that so? I don’t know.

Notes On A Talk By Robert Fripp

On a whim
I searched Spotify
for music by Robert Fripp
but found none.

there was a recording of him speaking to a crowd
about various musical things.

And it was good.

“Music never goes away” he said,
“It’s always available,
but we are not always
available to music.”

And when pushed
to say where music comes from,
to say something about its source,
he just said, resoundingly:

“Music comes from love.”

On The Strange Poetics Of Spam


For some reason, lately my blog inbox has been inundated with spam. (I’ve written previously about spam here.) My irritation swiftly turned to anger at the sheer automated idiocy of it. Where is all this stuff, all this fake human fakery coming from? How is it generated and who is profiting from it? And I do mean inundated: the spam was arriving at a rate of about one piece every seven minutes.

Then, as I was deleting the spam (and changing the security settings on my blog), the strange poetry of it began to make me smile. Here is the latest bit, two separate pieces from the same annoying source whose sense is more apparent when arranged into stanzas. The first:

I have just been looking
for information
approximately on this topic
for a long time

Yours is the best
I have come upon
so far.

concerning the bottom line:
Are you positive
concerning the source?

(To answer: No, I’m never positive concerning the bottom line of my posts or their sources. But thanks for asking though!)

Here is the second bit of spam:

It is an appropriate time
to make a few plans
for the longer term
and it is time to be happy.

I’ve read this post
and if I may
just desire to suggest
you a few fascinating things
or advice.

Perhaps you can write
subsequent articles
referring to this.

I desire to read
more things,

Microthought: On Musical Process


Music finds a way around us.

Music, that subliminal force, finds a way around us, through our ears, into our hearts.

Your Music might not be my Music, that subliminal force that finds a way around us, through our ears, into our hearts.

If we traded musics, you and I, do we trade minds as well?

My Music may not be your Music, that subliminal force, that sings a way through us, around our hearts, into our ears.

Music, that way around our hearts, through our ears, finds a subliminal force.

Music, around us, finds a way.


Observations On A Musician Playing Guitar

A tune beyond us as we are,
Yet nothing changed by the blue guitar;

Ourselves in the tune as if in space,
Yet nothing changed, except the place

Of things as they are and only the place
As you play them, on the blue guitar,

Placed, so, beyond the compass of change,
Perceived in a final atmosphere;

For a moment final, in the way
The thinking of art seems final when

The thinking of god is smoky dew.
The tune is space. The blue guitar

Becomes the place of things as they are,
A composing of senses of the guitar.

 – Wallace Stevens, “The Man with the Blue Guitar”


1. She’s smiling, enjoying herself and making playing the guitar look easy.

2. She has an audience of one sitting next to her (plus all of us!) making her playing a performance.

3. The music is acoustic, takes place outside, and the instrument doesn’t require electricity.

4. The music has a steady strummed rhythm, a sequence of chords (I-IV-I-V), and a melody that repeats with variations.

5. Look at her left hand technique on the guitar fretboard: her hand moves through a series of gestural shapes that keep the music continually changing in small ways despite its steady strummed rhythm and repeating chord sequence. This makes the performance feel longer than its 2:47 length.

6. Almost as soon as it has begun, the music is finished.

Microthought: A Santoor And Tabla Duet

Tensioned melody

over rhythmic cycled drum–

Pandit strings motives.

On Listening With Sympathy

Sitting at the kitchen table
listening to a mix
playing from the other room–

excited sounds
flying around corners
and down the hallway,
partly muffled,
half exaggerated,
out of proportion,
out of breath,
and weakened upon
their diminished arrival
at my ear

–a thought appears:
listening with sympathy
makes the music doubly resonant
by giving it the benefit of doubt.

Yet the music
doesn’t ask
or encourage
such sentiment

only appreciating
its generous goodwill.

On Microthoughts

Autumn by airport,

hearing sounds of flight and roar,

far away pleasure.


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