Saturday, June 6, 2009

Verse and Universe

By Shirley Anne Leonard

My wife Shirley Anne, editor of WestWard Quarterly, wrote this piece for the Summer 2009 issue of the magazine.

In his book The Pursuit of Poetry (McGraw-Hill, 1960) Robert Hillyer observes that the word verse means a turning, and since the turn must come full circle on itself, it is a repeating rhythm just as in music. He also observes that the word universe means a concerted turning. "We walk, we breathe, our hearts beat in recurrence; the sun and moon, the stars in their courses, the changing seasons — all these are recurrent: we are metrical creatures in a metrical universe" (pp. 8-9).

Ancient musicians looked out on the universe, noted the ratios of the different planetary cycles, counted the rhythmic periodicities in nature, and calculated the ratios of the human body. They put together a geometry, a set of mathematical ratios and proportions. They believed that these ratios, if used in the sounds of music, would resonate with the life forces of the universe and thus enhance life. These particular sounds and rhythms, they thought, would make life healthier and more abundant. Such ideas were handed down to the composers of Baroque music. Musicians in that era were trained to use these particular numbers and patterns for harmony, counterpoint, rhythm, and tempo in their music. This "mathematical" Baroque music was supposed to affect a synchronizing of our minds and bodies to more harmonious patterns. But is there more to that?

Musicologist Julius Portnoy found that not only can music, "change metabolism, affect muscular energy, raise or lower blood pressure, and influence digestion," but "It may be able to do all these things more successfully ... than any other stimulants that produce those changes in our bodies" (David Tame, The Secret Power of Music, Turnstone Press, 1984, p. 138).

An intensive series of studies carried out by Dorothy Retallack of Denver, Colorado, demonstrated the effects of different kinds of music on a variety of household plants. The experiments were controlled under strict scientific conditions, and the plants were kept within large closed cabinets on wheels in which light, temperature and air were automatically regulated. Plants grown in scientifically controlled chambers were given concerts of different kinds of music from rock to Baroque. All the plants that were next to the rock music leaned away from the speakers, trying to get away from the music! And to show that it was not just the noise itself, the plants next to the classical music leaned toward the speakers — actually trying to get closer to the music. In the end all the plants next to the rock music died!

What has this to do with poetry? you may ask. It occurred to me that, if music could have this effect, then what about poetry? Could it be that the lack of interest in poetry in our culture is because much of it has been written without harmonious rhythm, and some with intentionally discordant rhythm? The reader who thinks he does not care for poetry may be reacting to the type of poetry that is written today.

As Featured Writer Leland Jamieson stated in his article in the Spring 2008 issue of WestWard Quarterly, "My outlook on writing poetry is this: the healing incantatory energy of meter and rhyme is the reward for both the poet and the reader. There will be no resurgence of readers of poetry until poets give them sufficient reward for their effort. In giving reward to readers, they will give it to themselves as well. . . . It is necessary along the way, of course, for poets to rediscover their roots in an English language tradition going back past Shakespeare to Chaucer. There is plenty of good poetry to serve as a model."