Friday, July 1, 2011

Jenny Johnson on "Aria"

As a record collector and a fan of all sorts of music, I love thinking about the relationships between sounds and bodies. One way to think about “Aria” is as seven meditations on this theme. In a conversation about what we might call a “queer poetics,” poet and friend Gabrielle Calvocoressi asked me: “How many times have we wanted to use our body in a way that is just past the point of possibility?” When I drafted sections I-III, I was thinking about this question in relationship to the music that arises out of the body. I also thought hard about my use of plural pronouns when writing this poem, the turn towards a “you,” the use of “we” to capture what theorist Ann Cvetkovich calls “public feelings.” When I refer to “dance interludes” in sections VI and VII, I am interested in music’s ability to rattle bodies in public spaces, too. Specifically, I drew inspiration from Cvetkovich’s An Archive of Feelings: Trauma, Sexuality, and Lesbian Public Cultures, a book that opens with a personal experience of a Le Tigre concert, a space where Cvetkovich felt a vital queer and lesbian subculture had formed in response to trauma. Having seen this band live, I knew what she meant and tried to write into this sensation.

I also decided while working on this poem (and the crown as a whole) that metrically I did not want to prioritize unity over disjunction. Rather, what I was most interested in was playing with the sounds and restraints that emerge from a queer body, the sounds that emerge from a queer collective, a body or voice that has the potential to be unified by its disjunctions.

Admittedly, as a poet with queer and feminist sensibilities writing a blank verse sonnet, my impulses err on the side of disruption. I want to break a meter much more than I want to write within it. However valuable this impulse, I found that I had to first fool around with what’s “normal” before I could effectively trouble my metrics. So, when I drafted “Aria,” my first crown, I set the following limits: Irregular feet should not outnumber regular feet in a line. No more than two substitutions per line. [These limits did not hold in the final revision, but these guidelines were crucial to the poem’s genesis.]

My hope was that the first sonnet would foreground the crown’s tensions and establish its sonic texture. The desire to silence or disassociate from a high pitch or a curved body is a concern the speaker wrestles with throughout section 1. Later, the speaker reveals a chest that is bound. I wanted to create in the pitch, timbre, and quantity of sound specific moments where the music, too, is cut off or disrupted. Ultimately, these subtle variations and returns build to a visible psychic crisis and narrative shift in lines 8-11. The stanza break bifurcates the sonnet form, creating a visible chasm. The body is bound. Or is it? Sound is bound. Or is it?

The last line of the first sonnet offers a final turn when the “off-pitch soprano steals through” the flattened “frame.” What does it mean to be “off”— to be unsatisfactory? to be strange? to be separate from? I’m not sure. Are the voices in this poem “off-pitch”? Do they satisfy or dissatisfy the ear? And if so, whose ears? Your ears? According to which standard of musical measure? I do know that there is in line 14 an imbalance of vowel pitches; three high frequency “i” and “e” sounds in “this,” “pitch,” and “steal” clash against the low frequency “o” sounds in “soprano”. On the other hand, the line is not necessarily metrically irregular. So, even if the writer/speaker/body lacks control of one aspect of the sonnet’s music, another aspect of the music is regulated. The one metrical irregularity in line 14 is that the line is truncated to nine syllables. The intent here was to give “steals through” extra-emphasis, space to stretch. And the phrase does stretch—the long-voweled diphthongs in “steals” and “through” take forever to say.

I’ll stop here. There’s much more that I am happy to talk about with regard to the making and thinking behind this poem. Also, in order to give credit where credit is due here are a few liner notes.

Notes for “Aria” (see hyperlinks on right):

In section 2, the italicized lyrics are from “Kimberly,” written and performed by Patti Smith. Section 3 alludes to Alessandro Moreschi, the last castrato to sing in the Sistine Chapel Choir and the only castrato to make a recording of his voice. Section 4 invokes jazz flautist Eric Dolphy; bird songs often inspired his compositions. Section 5 makes reference to a BBC recording of nightingales in 1942 in England. Intending only to broadcast the birds in song, engineers in Surrey incidentally recorded the nightingales alongside the drone of bombers flying overhead en route to Manheim. In section 6, the italicized lines are from the Le Tigre song “Fake French.” In section 7, “Danse Russe” is the title of a poem by William Carlos Williams. The italicized lines are lyrics from “[You Make Me Feel Like] A Natural Woman,” first released by Aretha Franklin and co-written by Carole King and Gerry Goffin, and “She-Bop,” written and performed by Cyndi Lauper.


  1. I love all the song lyrics you throw in there! A great poem and a great blog post, Jenny.

  2. This is a wonderfully rich post. Poems are forms that take shape and materialize thought and feeling, and you explain that so eloquently! (Poetic form = human body = music)

    I've been thinking a lot about Renaissance sonnets lately, particularly Wyatt's "Whoso List to Hunt" and sequences Sidney's Astrophil and Stella and Shakespeare's Dark Lady sonnets. These sonnets are, in a sense, structured by their desire for the other, a beloved who can only be attained (and contained) by being inscribed. I hope this isn't taking the discussion too far afield, but I'm curious about the relationship between desire and inscription in "Aria" and how the specific form of the sonnet crown speaks to that relationship and then complicates it. Historically, we've read sonnets as lyrics that perform, at least, rhetorical resolution (oh, closing couplets!), but given the nature of desire, especially in your poem, this doesn't seem quite right. I suppose I'm looking at the poem through the lens of incorporation, which is perhaps cousin to the lens of disruption. Maybe? What do you think?

    (BTW, I love the reference to Cyndi Lauper; "She Bop" is an under-appreciated classic!)

  3. I agree. This is a wonderful illumination of the crown, and beautifully, lucidly written. I guess I'm trying to understand what you mean by "unified by its disjunctions."

    It seems that there are a variety of departures from the form, understood, as they must be, in relation to it. But I think you were saying that you repeat some of those disruptive elements. If you used similar methods of disruption throughout ("subtle variations and returns") do those create their own patterns of continuity? Is it partly against these new patterns that your sonnets register their own variations, as in that stanza break?

    And regarding the last comment about the sonnet as signaling rhetorical resolution, I agree it carries that connotation, but I'm also reminded of something Mary Leader says about sonnets being intrinsically unfair, since the closing lines always get less word space than the opening ones.

  4. Dear Noisiest,

    You’ve not taken the discussion too far afield at all. I was reading Marilyn Hacker’s Love, Death, and the Changing of the Seasons alongside Shakespeare’s Dark Lady/ Young Man sonnets before writing “Aria,” both examples of sequences “structured by their desire for the other.” I love Shakespeare and I admire Hacker immensely for her technical flare and the way she gives Shakespeare’s sequence a good nod (ultimately placing, I think, her lesbian sonnet sequence about desire and inscription in conversation with his). But, to be honest, I find that, if I read either of these sequences in sequence and not just as individual poems to linger over, the triangulating tension between speaker, lover, and whatever obstacle stands between them leaves me feeling claustrophobic. As a reader, I want out of the predictable power dynamics and the clamped shut conclusions. Which is to say, I think your use of “incorporation” is right on. Yes, a cousin to disruption! Why can’t a crown be a crowd of noisy desires pressing against one another? And sure, the beloved is in there in say section 3 (“I’ll tell you what the girls who never love us back taught me…”), but there’s a different desire, a longing for social justice in section 4 (“to love without resource or peace…), and something else, a desire for community in section 6, and when all else fails, a desire to love the self well, I think, in section 7. A rich question – let me know if I’ve not yet addressed it fully.


  5. Molly,

    The short answer I think is yes. Thank you for your questions and for elucidating, better than I could in my initial post, what it might mean for a poem that deviates from traditional form to be “unified by its disjunctions.” I think the disruptive elements in “Aria” do repeat, and I hope that the elements that depart from the form register, as you mentioned, “their own patterns of continuity” for readers and listeners. I know many lines lapse briefly into a consistent trochaic beat, nearly Sapphic in cadence. Within lines and across sections, as I thought about how high and low voices are gendered in society, I tried to play with a consistent range of clashing pitches. In terms of structure, the beginning and ending lines mostly recur as they should in a crown, but the volta hardly assumes a fixed position in this sequence. I wasn’t consciously trying to defy rhetorical resolution by avoiding the time-honored turn after line 8 or 12. I think I just found that I was more interested in using this long form as a space for inquiry –a space where I was driven by sounds and discursive energies more than an urge to build towards satisfying closure.

    Funny, too, that you should mention Mary Leader in this post. She was my first reader for this poem, and she certainly helped this poem find its tune! I wonder if her ears are burning as I type.