Fisches Nachtgesang

July 28, 2012 § Leave a comment


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– Christian Morgenstern

Christian Morgenstern’s “Fisches Nachtgesang” is a piscine paradox: a concrete poem rendered in abstract shapes, a sound poem with no discernable sounds, a foreign-language poem that needs no translation, a metrical poem consisting of nothing but metrics that many New Formalists will no doubt never identify as a metrical poem, or even a poem at all.

The title translates to “Fish’s Nightsong”. The poem consists of alternating lines of macrons and breves, the marks of scansion in Latin and Greek poetry, reimagined as both the shimmering scales of a sleeping fish and musical notations. How wonderful to turn something consigned to the paper oceans of Classics scholars into a watermark of whimsy. The scansion marks split the poem into one of sound and one of shape.

A song at night might be a lullaby. If the macrons go thump in the night, and the breves consign a consonantal thm to their repertoire, then we get this percussive berceuse: thump-thm-thm-thump-thump-thm-thm-thm-thm-thump-thump-thump-thm-thm-thm-thm and so on. Crescendo, diminuendo, terraced dynamics. It is the fish’s heart beating, an ambient underwater soundscape, a song hummed through puckered lips, and ultimately, with no words to anchor the symbols, no sound at all. The scansion symbols are variable; one can assign any sound or instrument to them and all that remains constant is the pattern of stress they impart. Morgenstern indicates no actual sound, and the stress marks wait for a reader to come along and give them meaning. It is similar to looking at a real fish below real water and not being able to hear the swish and bubble of its aquatic world from one’s stance on shore. The sound exists beyond the water and must be imagined.

Likewise, the shape of the fish remains just out of view. The macrons and breves cluster in a vaguely fish-shaped form. They show a fish in abstract with all its details lost in the murk. The breves look like fish scales of a child’s drawing and the macrons might be crude renderings of horizontal fins, but lines are not connected to form a solid figure. Again, the reader must fill in the blanks himself.

Morgenstern wrote “Fisches Nachtgesang” in 1905 at the beginning of a century that would upheave the definitions of literature and art. Some critics may dismiss his poem as a textual trick, nice enough, but not poetry. But consider the use of the macrons and breves. These symbols, particular to the study of prosody, root the poem in the tradition of Latin and Greek poetry from which all other literature in the Western canon blooms; and Morgenstern, confronting the enormity of the canon behind him, baits the future with a little fish dreaming its silent song, the tune yet to be invented.

Unscrambling the Waves at Goonhilly

April 26, 2012 § Leave a comment

– Edwin Morgan

Goonhilly Downs, situated between the Atlantic Ocean and the English Channel, contains the Satellite Earth Station, a cluster of satellite dishes that was once the largest ground station in the world.  “Unscrambling the Waves at Goonhilly” starts as a garbled satellite transmission trying to relay the names of various sea creatures. Like the computer in “the Computer’s First Christmas Card”, the satellite, or the scientists manning the satellite, must make several attempts to sort out a simple message. The transmission ends up being a list of rather mundane marine life ending in telstar, which sounds like an aquatic animal but is actually a type of satellite. This semi-surprise ending emphasizes the tension between the phonetic and spatial aspects of the poem; when we hear star we think it will match with fish, but we see that the two could not be paired with each other. Part of the fun is watching the odd combos that result in the syllables bouncing off each other before finding their proper partner — dogphin (dog’s fin?), hadfish (lost at sea?), sardock (cynical sardine?)

Siesta of a Hungarian Snake

February 10, 2012 § Leave a comment

s sz sz SZ sz SZ sz ZS zs ZS zs zs z

– Edwin Morgan

Not just a dance of fricatives, but a concrete poem as well: the capital letters represent the snake’s bulging stomach after a midday snack.

the Private Dining Room

January 10, 2012 § 1 Comment

Miss Rafferty wore taffeta,
Miss Cavendish wore lavender.
We ate pickerel and mackerel
And other lavish provender.
Miss Cavendish was Lalage,
Miss Rafferty was Barbara.
We gobbled pickled mackerel
And broke the candelabara,
Miss Cavendish in lavender,
In taffeta, Miss Rafferty,
The girls in taffeta lavender,
And we, of course, in mufti.

Miss Rafferty wore taffeta,
The taffeta was lavender,
Was lavend, lavender, lavenderest,
As the wine improved the provender.
Miss Cavendish wore lavender,
The lavender was taffeta.
We boggled mackled pickerel,
And bumpers did we quaffeta.
And Lalage wore lavender,
And lavender wore Barbara,
Rafferta taffeta Cavender lavender
Barbara abracadabra.

Miss Rafferty in taffeta
Grew definitely raffisher.
Miss Cavendish in lavender
Grew less and less stand-offisher.
With Lalage and Barbara
We grew a little pickereled,
We ordered Mumm and Roederer
Because the bubbles tickereled.
But lavender and taffeta
Were gone when we were soberer.
I haven’t thought for thirty years
Of Lalage and Barbara.

– Ogden Nash

Nash belongs to none of the 20th century’s poetic movements though he borrowed from all of them. He published his first collection during the height of High Modernism and his last in the early 70s with the Language poets and Second New York School bubbling around him. “The Private Dining Room” pops and fizzes on the level of sound poetry, both a sendup to the form and to 1950s propriety and etiquette guides.

A sound poem like Hugo Ball’s “Gadgi beri bimba” introduces new sounds sparingly; it uses alliteration to tie the lines together and to create momentum. By recycling phonemes, Nash both replicates the dizziness of a plastered partier and captures the party’s inertia. As the dinner guests get more and more drunk, words transmogrify into mutant strains of themselves; “pickerel” becomes “pickled” becomes “pickereled” or “lavend” becomes “lavender” becomes “lavenderest” with the words gaining freak morphemes as they progress through the poem. Then, when inebriation subsides and the guests leave, we’re left with the plain last lines and the narrator wondering if the debauchery ever happened at all.

Here is Ogden Nash reciting the poem. Ignore the awful background music.

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