Friday, June 22, 2007

Drumming in Sullivan's Room

The drummer boy at Sullivan's Room last night was an artist. His improvisations on the club's deep house sounds were creative and strongly felt. In the basement space, with exposed stone and brick interior, and pseudo-classical wall frescoes, at different times and in thrilling variations, the drums accented, attacked, sang, and danced around the pillars of the beat.

The comparison that leapt to mind was metrical poetry. Meter is the house beat, whereas rhythm is the drumming. Meter is familiar and collective; rhythm is surprising and individual. Rhythm is not only a matter of timing, it is also volume and pitch. Regardless of its content, a line of perfect iambic pentameter has a different volume and pitch depending on its position in a poem. This is most obvious in forms with repetends, like the triolet or the villanelle, but it applies to all poems. Like the drummer tapping, stroking or striking his different drums--bongo, kettle, snare--the poet's rhythmic devices can croon, whisper and shout.

The loss of meter is a great loss. Pound's formula for the replacement of meter--poetic structure depends on (at least) one constant and (at least) one variable, but the constant needs not be meter--frees modern poetry to be experimental and improvisatory, but it also takes away its traditional supports. Without the familiar and collective beat, a poem must establish and vary its measure within its own body, a task easier in a long poem, like Whitman's. Or else a poet must rely on a reader's familiarity with his corpus of work, also like Whitman. A new poetry is based on a new sound, I think, never on a new image.

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