Thursday, April 30, 2009

Mary Leader on "They Vibrate"

“They Vibrate” asks to exist in three ways. First impact: visual, thus “saying” that a poem can be beautiful and meaningful as grasped immediately. Second, development in time: aural. Ultimately: a fusion of both. That’s why it has been so much fun for me to interact with BPJ on this poem. Lee Sharkey had to futz with the thing as a typesetting problem, as did I on my computer in the first place. But in addition, she described how she and her co-editor John Rosenwald read the poem aloud at the board meeting, each taking one of the words from the pair on each line. One says red, the other says blue, no, red, I said, no, blue, red, blue, Lee John Lee John, with an element of humor, a he/she argument, among others. The waves, then, are the fusion, illustrating that arguments do not consist in there being a right answer, but rather in the perception of a vacillation pattern.

It’s interesting to see what happens at cusps of technology. One such cusp occurred in the seventeenth century when a poetic system—friends circulating manuscripts—yielded to the printing of poetry by movable type. Right then, George Herbert’s poems, all patterned to an extent, most noticeably “Easter-wings,” were left by him only in a fair copy by an unknown hand. After his death, his friend Nicholas Ferrar saw them into print, at which time the patterns were disrupted, were not “true” any longer to the product Herbert called his poems.

Today, the cusp is between printed books and internet texts. Again, in early days, there is a kind of denaturing. Observe this lesson from the Editorial Style Guide of

Layout 102: A heartfelt plea to poets fond of fussy indents: Please don’t. Poems with indented lines don’t work well on the Internet. . . I have heard poets read out loud poems with fussy indents, and guess what? You can’t hear the indents at all. No extra pauses are given where the fussy indents appear; the poet reads the text out loud as though it had a normal left margin. So why not print it that way? Please ask yourself honestly what these fussy indents are supposed to mean. What do they actually add to the poem? What is their rhythmic function? They certainly attract attention to the special ‘poetic’ nature of the text, to a slight extent, but do you need to do that? Shakespeare didn’t need them for his sonnets—do you?

Well, actually, yes, I do. The dispenser of advice there assumes that the sound level and the meaning level exhaust the potential of poetry. But for me, poetry is just as connected with silent weaving as it with voice. Line from linen; linen from linnet, a bird known not for its song but for its in-and-out, up-and-down flight pattern. They vibrate. I need every visual device I want to use. I am confident that the internet will catch up some day.


  1. It is a pleasure to be able to focus on a poet's or translator's work, by being able to receive it and then send something back.I entered the blog hoping to add a few words to the comments on translation and Arabic/English. Alas,the web administrator had declared it now closed. That led me on to Mary Leader's poem. A very pleasant discovery.
    Several things strike me. She is right to hold out for the freedom to compose her poem visually as she feels it works. The borders between collage and words, words and visual pattern are varied and have many distinguished people who have enlarged them. I'm not so sure about the causal divisions she makes in printing and technology and their effects, but I agree that lyricism is often something that assumes another level when it works subliminally as a visual element. Her lines invite a spirit of play and diving into words' waves. In Italy, where I live, a painter, Remo Gaibazzi, began to work with the word, lavoro, work, and he began writing it, much as Mary Leader plays with words for colors, etc in lines that become waves. Gaibazzi used the word as a mirror, a metaphor,an action, and in his last works, in ways that refer to many eastern forms of art, the spirals of the word 'lavoro' begin to vibrate. Their meanings accumulate and spin towards mysticism. They also toil towards ant-like discipline.

    Well, perhaps Mary Leader can tell us more about how she hopes her work will develop, taking us into force-fields of larger traditions.


  2. It's interesting to look at works such as these in a historical sense as well. It would seem that poetry with visual mechanics to this extent are reemerging and receiving more attention after spending a great deal of time dismissed as a novelty. One could say it truly is a mark of the times, founded slightly by a seasonal cycle of history discussed by William Strauss & Neil Howe in their book "Generations". To summarize their theory, historically there is an awakening, much like the consciousness revolution period of the 60s, every 70 years or so. The decades before this are marked by a shifting of paradigms, then secular upheaval, and a high period of idealism that shifts into awakening periods (Ex. Protestant Reformation, Puritan and the great awakenings)

    I raise this only as a curiosity, and wonder if poetry that breaks traditional form and relies more on the subconscious eye will once again meet with a possible shift in the poetic appetite in an upcoming era of (hopefully) change and rising popularity of exploring consciousness.

  3. To continue this thread--
    "They Vibrate" would have fit well into the chapbook of concrete poetry that the BPJ published as its Fall 1966 issue (you can access it from in the online archive). The guest editor of the chapbook, Stephan Bann, defined the concrete poem as "an ideogram with a spatio-visual syntax." Would that accord with your intentions for "They Vibrate"? It strikes me that the same poem might vibrate differently in 1966 and 2009.

  4. Already this association with the BPJ forum has given me unexpected reentries into interesting territory. I am intrigued by what Wallis says about Remo Gaibazzi and have been messing around on the internet for information. The website is in Italian, which I don’t read, so I fall back on picture. The masthead shows a section of either a large set of concentric circles drawn closely together or a large spiral whose one continuous line repeats the circular configuration. Because we see only a section, it could be either. Then there is a drawing hand, a fraction of the size of the configuration, which is continuing the act of drawing it.

    I am intensely reminded of a drawing I bought from Edie Tsong, a young artist who happened to take a poetry class from me. It is about 6 feet square, was stapled to her studio wall as a kind of doodling pad, consisting of brown paper for the top two-thirds and glued to it white paper for the bottom third. There are studies of things: the skull of a deer-like animal, a chair, a white-chalk squiggle, a black-charcoaled area, and encompassing the whole 36 square feet is a spiral Edie put on freehand in a narrow line of India ink; the lines making this spiral are spaced about a quarter of an inch apart. The artist brought it to me folded. I said, “Oy, Edie, you should have rolled it.” She said, “No, it’s supposed to be folded; it’s a map.”

    One difference is that for the Gaibazzi logo, the lines look like they’re made of calligraphy of some kind. So, how might I write a poem like that? I can draw but unlike a real visual artist I cannot say anything with what I draw. I choose to stay within the limits of what can be done with my unsophisticated abilities on my Mac laptop using only the word-processing program. When I worked on a typewriter, I figured out a way to roll the paper in at various angles and thus produced a set of rays pointing out of a circle in the middle. I am always drawn to things that are mandala-like.

    Now, when is sound mandala-like. Chanting, maybe. A word, lavoro, lavoro, lavoro, a mantra of sorts. I also think of Baroque music. And I find myself thrilled by Wallis’s description of Gaibazzi’s work, post mirror/metaphor/action, and on into a state of vibration. As Wallis puts it, “Their meanings accumulate and spin towards mysticism. They also toil towards ant-like discipline.” An exciting set of terms. I am also interested in thinking further about Wallis idea that “lyricism is often something that assumes another level when it works subliminally as a visual element.”

  5. Like Nate Fisher, I am very interested in placing “poetry with visual mechanics” into historical perspective. There’s a great book called Pattern Poetry by Dick Higgins, which goes back to very early examples, Sumerian and the like, on up through the Renaissance, when there was a kind of flowering of pattern poetry, and beyond. It drives me crazy that sound and meaning have been taken by most of my generation as the important things, with visual elements being completely relegated to the status of “gimmick.”

    In my lifetime, and this gets at Lee’s point too, about concrete poetry, the movement in the late 1950s and early 1960s was interesting—I will be interested to pursue the 1966 special issue that Lee cites—not only because it saw an unleashing of what Stephan Bann defined as concrete poetry: "an ideogram with a spatio-visual syntax", but also because it was a consciously international movement. Just as I can glean meaning and find beauty from a website even without reading the language it is written in, so these poems are legible “otherwise.”

    One historical facet of the Renaissance, which was also an international movement, come to think of it, and a paradigm shift, involves what were called Emblem Books. The form included a title, an etching or woodblock illustration or “devise” as it was called (using the language of heraldry), a motto, and a verse. Almost like a “post-modern” layering. Anyway, we have examples of the illustrations from these books being embroidered onto bed curtains and so on. The women, most of whom could not read the motto or verse, “read” the books visually. I therefore find a kind of feminist impulse being expressed in visual poetry, which was explored by my favorite of the 1960s concrete poets, Mary Ellen Solt, who rendered “domestic” works as well as other kinds.

    I think Strass and Howe are quite correct in viewing history as “seasonal”; and I wouldn’t be surprised if 70, the length of a “life” shapes up as a rough calendar of the periodic pattern of these watershed moments. This idea of “generations” interests me because my current project is working on the poems left by my mother at her death at precisely age 70. She graduated from high school in the middle of World War II. I graduated from high school the year BLJ did its issue on concrete poetry. 1960 plus 70 is 2030.
    Butg I honestly think very large changes set in following WWII, and 1945 plus 70 is 2015.

    The ideal of ending world divisions was prominent in the hope following that war; maybe the current war will end, and we will see a rebirth of artists “speaking” across barriers. This issue of BPJ has the look of that kind of speaking, including as it does Russian and Palestinian poetries, including, very beautifully, what works for me as the pictograph level of these works in languages I don’t read.

  6. First of all, to Mary, thank you for the poem. I admit I was puzzled how to "say" it when I encountered it. However, my experience of the piece broadened very nicely when I read your description of Sharkey and Rosenwald doing an antiphonal number on it. I am among those drawn to poems for the aural / oral experience and, due to this limitation, I needed a little help to gain the toehold that was right for me. (So, thanks as well to BPJ for helping me open my mind a little bit more. Score another point for community in service to poems. Or is it the other way around?)

    I've carefully read all the comments so far, wondering when I would see remarks on the irony of a poem with the word "vibrate" in the title, so strongly evocative of the sonic, yet with a primary first impression being visual. Perhaps no irony, (forgive me as I puzzle through my thoughts here), since Brownian motion seemed to jump out at me from the first time I saw the piece, even before I read or said a word of it. Nonetheless, I just want to say it does seem ironic, at least to me, and I get a bit of a kick out of it. Sorry if I'm belaboring the obvious, but it tickled me. Call me simple.

    Mary, your comments about technological cusps got me thinking about the earlier divergence between verse and prose, especially the seeming acceleration of the divergence following the advent of the printing press. For the past three or more centuries many writers have chosen prose forms when, prior, the need for a mnemonic might have pushed them toward verse. But with physical recording (e.g. print) the need for mnemonic aid is greatly reduced. The maker is free to make according to the need of the work rather than the constraint of the medium. With pixels and podcasts et al the constraints of media are further reduced. Imagine listening to the Sharkey/Rosenwald performance of They Vibrate while watching their antiphonics pulse through the syllables and words pixellated on the screen. Perhaps an inconvenient script writing chore, but perfectly doable these days.

    I guess I'm wondering if you, Mary, have any comments or intuitions or careful linear analyses regarding confluences of senses (e.g. eye and ear and voice box) in expressions of language art. Where do you guess things are going? I'm hoping that the apparent shift of literary journals over to the internet might lead to such confluences. Right now it all seems a bit piece-meal, but I expect strange and unanticipated forms may emerge.

    Thanks again for the poem, Mary Leader and BPJ.


    P.S. Mary, when I got to your line with THREE levels in it, [foregroundbackgroundforeground . . .] - well, were you messing with my head?

  7. Mary Leader (didn't mean to send anonymously)May 14, 2009 at 11:34 AM

    How interesting. Although I knew, and even wrote of, the sonic level of my poem, Peter Munro’s excellent reading—the aural as the level he intuits first and foremost—has given me insight into my own processes. Lee Sharkey, as I have repeated reason to know, is extremely sharp at picking up places in poems that need adjustment. When she reported that she and John verbally stumbled a bit on certain lines, that was the one remark I didn’t follow up on. When I read this poem to myself, I don’t “track” the line but just set up a this-that-this-that-this “stream” and let it build or peter out however I feel like. It’s like a line of music with no bars measured, no tempo suggested, no dynamics indicated. However it sounded as antiphon is fine with me.

    But now that Peter has got me thinking more on this level, not least of all because I have tuned my ear on his wonderful sequence “Animal Kingdom” from BPJ as well as pieces I’ve come across from the sequence "Hard Weather Prayers," I see—yeah, “see”—that except for the [incidental] fact that “They Vibrate” can be read aloud, it does not have anything to do with sound. What do I mean by that?

    I notice, for one thing, that the imagery is all visual or abstract. I seem simply not to have thought of writing, say
    wind~percussion~wind~percussion~wind~percussion (you’ll have to imagine the waves) or what about
    ebbtidefloodtidefloodtideebbtidefloodebbfloodebbflood (!)

    More important, Peter has made me realize that the title, in my mind, never for one instant referred to sound, if you can believe it. The poem is from a series called “The Hammer of Red and Blue” which also includes the other poem of mine in the current issue, “Letter to Arkady Plotnitsky,” and one forthcoming in BPJ, “To Gaze Is To Think.” They are influenced by Sidney Perkowitz’s book about painting and physics, Empire of Light, and “They Vibrate” is a sentence from there, referring specifically to red and blue.

    Where Peter sees a gap, and logically calls it irony—first impression visual but title referring to the aural—for me, the title never meant anything BUT visual waves (until now). The gap, for me, is less one of irony, or anyway intended irony, and more one of truly disparate temperaments. It’s fascinating to me to read Peter’s poems and see how they include trials of shamanism and to compare my own which include trials in weaving. I distrust “voice”; Peter’s work is unthinkable without it.

    I do have to say, with you, Peter, that BPJ deserves credit for introducing such disparate poetics, as any issue will show, and as the comments on the forum do too.

    As for computers, I love the idea of “They Vibrate” as antiphonics pixellated on the screen. My mac does that with music and it is so psychedelic, man. And as for computers and future poetry, I do think that there will be strange and unanticipated forms emerging; I would direct anyone interested in this future to the website of my wonderful student Eric Scovel. in general and also to get to a gorgeous poem he made with a program called “gnoetry”: see

    It also seem to me that the moment in printing when the need for mnemonics underwent a decrease, as Peter points out, led to an age of prose at the expense of poetry, and I see that happening now, too, to my dismay.

    Then again, there’s potential in the adaptation of a poem being primarily a list of end-stopped sentences, which is not prose-like at all, nut incantatory, as in Peter’s “The Wind’s Measure,” and I adore the form of “Animal Kingdom”: poems of 17 lines, between a sonnet’s 14 and a villanelle’s 19, but with the tercets of the latter (though more like terza rima here) and the couplet at the end like a sonnet, but the BEST part is the paring down of the line poem by poem, which manages to be both gradual change and utter change. Beautiful.


  8. Light Waves, Sound Waves, and Peter Munro Is A Parochial (No Irony Intended):

    When I was crafting my comment a couple of days ago on Mary's poem and the subsequent comments, I kept pressing the "preview" button then the "edit comment" link. Back and forth. Back and forth. I couldn't figure out what was moving me to waver in and out of "yesnoyesnoyesnoyes". Had I been somehow sucked through some sort of microprocessor-aided discontinuity in the time-space continuum and was now actually inside Mary's poem vibrating away? Eventually I rejected that explanation as implausible. I went ahead and pushed the "publish your comment" button.

    The instant after that mouse-click, I realized there was no irony in the title "They Vibrate". Mary's kind response named the real issue nicely. She wrote, "The gap, for me, is less one of irony, or anyway intended irony, and more one of truly disparate temperaments."

    That is correct. I think of vibration as sound, it is my natural orientation (and I learn best by listening and talking, not reading). Mary was perceiving vibration visually and the energy touching her came as light. But light and sound are merely different frequencies of energy transmitted in waves. The only difference in the nature of those waves is that one set of organs, the eyes, can perceive one range of frequency and another set of organs, the ears perceives a different range of frequency.

    Energy transmitted in wave form.

    I say "tomato", you say "tomato" (well, that one loses something in a visual representation, I guess)

    I say "listen", you say "look".

    But, let us not call the whole thing off. This poem demonstrates an instance of bringing "things" together. The poem is operating in multiple ways simultaneously, in the light wavelengths and in the sound wavelengths. Pretty cool. Also, not ironic. (Though I still find myself tickled by it.) The poems I love the most are those that operate on multiple levels. Sound and sense. Idea and image. Physical experience and mental experience. It's an old saw I suppose but it remains valid. This poem shows another way have multifaceted experience through language art.

    Brownian Motion And Technological Cusps:

    My first comment included a passing reference to Brownian Motion, as if I knew what I was talking about. I hadn't really thought much about the phenomenon since my initial exposure to it, peering through a microscope as an undergraduate. I went to Wikipedia, a questionable but convenient source, stumbled my way onto random walks (which I actually use at work), then bumbled into an entry on Lucretius's poem "On The Nature Of Things" in which he is reputed to have described Brownian Motion.

    Which got me thinking about this comment by Mary: "It also seem to me that the moment in printing when the need for mnemonics underwent a decrease, as Peter points out, led to an age of prose at the expense of poetry, and I see that happening now, too, to my dismay."

    To your dismay perhaps, but not to mine. If I had to read a POEM to learn the physics of anything I would be put off word art for good. I can assure you, having to read Lucretius would have killed both physics and poems for me. Some stuff is way better in prose. I like Moby Dick and Blood Meridian in prose form, even though you could argue they are awesome poems.

    I expect that for poems, where delivering an actual experience is so important, we will be able to use new technologies to make that experience more accessable. Add motion to "They Vibrate", deliver a sonnet to the listener as a recording. Cheap and easy digitization is going to enable many activities that were prohibitively difficult just a decade ago.

    I think print pushed all word work out of verse form except for the stuff that could be conveyed only in verse. That's good in my opinion.

    Because of new technology, Mary could deliver a poem like "They Vibrate" as an augmented visual experience, adding motion perhaps, or sound if she thought it made the experience more valuable. How would you do that with a book? How would you do that sitting around the campfire distracting yourself from hunger due to recent bad hunting by chanting a few lies? A poem like "They Vibrate" couldn't have even existed back in the truly oral days.


    P.S. Thanks for your kind words about some of my work, Mary. Feels really good to hear it.

  9. Hi Mary Leader. Mary Molinary here.
    I want to say first what a pleasure this issue of BPJ has been and what a thrill to find poems by Mary Leader—poems that illustrated perfectly a few points I’d wanted to make in class the week of its arrival. I’ll mention that classroom experience with the poem shortly, but did want to mention briefly my first encounter with “They Vibrate” because it was neither aural nor visual; it was, in fact, etymological because when I saw the title in the Table of Contents, my thinking went immediately to “wife.” In Eric Partridge’s Origins, the entry under “wife” reads: WIFE WIFEHOOD WIFELY see VIBRATE para 9. Of course when one turns to para 9, one finds all manner of women thrashing around or being thrashed until they vibrate, an etymology that has stuck with me for many many years. So, when I see VIBRATE I think (correctly or not) WIFE. I expected, then, a marriage of sorts and a marriage I did find when I turned to the poem—a marriage of the visual with the aural. (Who is playing “wife” in the relationship is a question for another time, perhaps.)

    When I brought “They Vibrate” into class, my intention was to lead a discussion around three implications of the poem: the title, the pronouns, and subjectivity. I’d wanted the students to note these particular (relational) vibrations in this, and thus in all, poems. I wanted to get to notions of plurality and “correspondence,” which would lead us into the next Mary Leader poem, “Letter to Arkady Plotnitsky.” But, the students would not honor my map, however neatly it was un-folding; rather, after the initial, brief discussion of the guiding question, (the guiding question of the class—the initial question we ask of each poem—this semester was: which part of the body wrote this poem and which part receives/translates/reads this poem? The answer here for the students was, without equivocation, that the eyes wrote and received it initially) I asked, “well, what else? How else can we see and hear the poem?”

    Before I could lead in the intended direction, someone put forth “well, it’s like you were saying about sonnets and how they depend in part on proportion. It’s not fourteen lines, but I see the proportions of a sonnet here.” “Oh, where do you see that?” “The Q/A line makes a bold division mark and the Thou/I line, with its vertical T and dropped vertical I. makes another one although it isn’t as bold. That makes fifteen lines then five, then another five—not counting the two division lines. If you count those, it’s fifteen, then six, then six. Which makes it fifteen : twelve. Which breaks into thirds.” “Oh, yea,” I sallied, “let’s read it from the bottom up and see what happens.”

    Sonnet-ish or not, a lengthy discussion of proportion and structure followed. Many of the other students dismissed the sonnet interpretation, but all agreed that among the poem’s possible vibrations is an architecture built from the ear, the optic, and, additionally, the haptic, or tactile. One student blurted out: “I just want to touch all over this poem!” After the laughter subsided, all agreed that “They Vibrate” depends upon all senses working in concert around a fault-line of sorts. We made note of all sorts of relationships, seismic and so on, noting ultimately that poems who want to be more experimental might need a more obvious apparatus, or armature, (like this one provides) in order to help the readers/singers find all the potential there.

    We did read and sing the poem a number of different ways, though antiphony in twenty voices created the most interesting vibrations—individually and collectively.

    Alas, we never made it to the next poem. Three hours just isn’t enough time for a poetry class!

  10. Reading Peter Munro's follow-up and Mary Molinary's delightful report: the most fun I've had in ages. What a lively time! Mary Helen, that confused math-minded person has a place in my heart, as do you. always.

    Hectic day set for today but I am wishing my BPJ "network" many good wishes.