Keats and Light


The following is excerpted from a class that Diane di Prima taught at Naropa. I originally read it in something called Talking Poetics from Naropa Institute: Annals of the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodies Poetics, Volume One, which I picked up at a used bookstore many years ago. I only had the book in my possession for a year or so before managing to leave it behind during a move, but the gist of her talk resonated very strongly with me at the time, and has stuck with me ever since. I was very happy to discover recently that part of it had been posted onto someone’s website nearly a decade ago.

June 24, 1975, Boulder Colorado– The actual stuff that poetry is made out of is light. There are poems where the light actually comes through the page, the same way that it comes through the canvas in certain Flemish paintings, so you’re not seeing light reflected off the painting, but light that comes through, and I don’t know the tricks that make this happen. But I know they’re there and you can really tell when it’s happening.and when it’s not. So I’ve been trying to figure out what makes it happen. And I think it’s not very different from the light of meditation. So that I’m beginning to suspect that what makes it happen is the way the sound moves in you, moving your spirit in a certain way to produce a certain effect which is like the effect of light…

And I want to read to you something about the way sound moves in you, the way the sound moves in the hearer. It’s from the second book of Natural and Occult Philosophy by Cornelius Agrippa in the 1400’s. In the second volume of this three-volume work, Agrippa gets a lot into numbers. When he gets into numbers, he gets into music. When he gets into music, he gets at one point into the fact that vocal music is the most effective of all musics for moving the hearer. And what he has to say about vocal music. And what he has to say about vocal music is not that very different from the effects of a well-read, well-chanted poem:

“Singing can do more than the sound of an instrument, inasmuch as it, arising by an harmonial consent, from the conceit of the mind and by imperious affection of the fantasy and heart, easily penetrateth by motion, with the refracted and well-tempered Air, the Aerious spirit of the hearer, which is the bond of soul and body, and transferring the affection and mind of the Singer with it, it moveth the affection of the hearer by his affection, and the hearer’s fantasy by his fantasy, and mind by his mind, and striketh the mind, and striketh the heart, and pierceth even to the inwards of the soul, and by little and little, infuseth even dispositions; moreover, it moveth and stoppeth the members and the humors of the body . . .”

He goes on to say that breath is, of course, spirit, and that what happens is that the spirit, your spirit as a person singing or chanting or reading aloud, enters the ear and mingles in the body of the hearer, with his spirit, and so moves and changes the body’s humors and dispositions. What we are is nothing but a physical instrument, not much different than a musical instrument in some ways, and the effect that we produce–or perceive–of light or other really high energy–meditative high–comes only out of changes in this physical instrument.

And so there is a way, to me, is that the most high aim of poetry is to create that sense of light. There are passages in the Cantos that do that. There are poems in every language that do it, and it’s a question of some real subtle juxtapositions of vowels. Pound tried to track it down when he talked about the tone leading of vowels and harmonizing the different vowels, and Duncan is into that when he talks about assonance and “rhyme”. Like picking up the same vowel over and over for a long time, and then changing it. Or paced–spaced–repetition of sound. Pound tried earlier to get at it when he wrote–in his critical essays-that we’ve always in recent centuries had a stressed beat in English verse, whereas the older, quantitative verse, where some syllables are more drawn out than others, gives more the sense of music. It also gives more the space for that phenomenon of light to occur.

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