I volunteered at the university’s poetry festival yesterday (which is chaired by my Harlem Renaissance professor), and listened in on one of the speakers, who was not reading his own poetry, but lecturing about poetry. Which I find more interesting. He had some interesting things to say about poetry vs. prose and the way that we read differently when something is in lines (i.e., we expect unlined prose to follow narrative logic, while we expect lined poetry to follow the logic of sound). He used several examples, including one from King Lear–a set of lines which in the first quarto is prose, but is lineated in the folio edition. Another example was a prose poem by contemporary poet John Ashbery, which starts in lines, but then ends with an un-lineated section. Yet the logic remains poetic rather than narrative, as you’d expect prose to be. Pretty interesting. (I think you could even extend this into the filmic arena, actually…perhaps in the way some films suppress narrative logic in favor of formal logic.)
Anyway, one of his examples was from James Joyce’s Ulysses–the “Sirens” section, which is lined. I haven’t read Ulysses, but the speaker pointed out that this poetic part, which seems semantically meaningless, is mirrored by the prose of the next section. This section is the pure sound without the narrative explanation. I can’t decide whether this makes me scared to death to read Ulysses, or really eager to do so. Here’s the poetic section in question:
Bronze by gold heard the hoofirons, steelyringing.
Chips, picking chips off rocky thumbnail, chips.
Horrid! And gold flushed more.
A husky fifenote blew.
Blew. Blue bloom is on the.
A jumping rose on satiny breast of satin, rose of Castile.
Trilling, trilling: Idolores.
Peep! Who’s in the….peepofgold?
Tink cried to bronze in pity.
And a call, pure, long and throbbing. Longindying call.
Decoy. Soft word. But look: the bright stars fade. Notes chirruping answer.
O rose! Castile. The moon is breaking.
Jingle jingle jaunted jingling.
Coin rang. Clock clacked.
Avowal. Sonnez. I could. Rebound of garter. Not leave thee. Smack. La cloche! Thigh smack. Avowal. Warm. Sweetheart, goodbye!
Bloomed crashing chords. When love absorbs. War! War! The tympanum.
A sail! A veil awave upon the waves.
Lost. Throstle fluted. All is lost now.
I like verbal experimentation, but I’m afraid I wouldn’t be able to get past the sounds and connect it with any meaning whatsoever, the way real Joyce people do. I had enough trouble keeping track of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, which is nowhere near as experimental as this. But if I want to focus in any way on literary modernism….gotta have Joyce. Like I said, reading this passage both attracts and repells me. Maybe that’s what it’s supposed to do…