G R A H A M F O U S T
from An Essay for Record Players: a Mix Tape
Like a Hurricane
In the brief entry on “The Search for Sound Free from Motion” that appears in his Wallace Stevens: Musing the Obscure , Ronald Sukenick paraphrases Stevens' poem as follows: “The world repeats its sounds, which yet are nicely tuned to express its own, nonhuman intelligence, in a way quite equal to the way ‘the self' uses ‘the word.'" While this summation accurately points to one of the poem's concerns—namely the notion that the poem comments on the expressions of its “you” relative to other sorts of expressions—the fact that Sukenick fails to mention the source of the world's sounds renders “The Search for Sound Free from Motion” far less interesting than it might be said to be. The poem begins:
All afternoon the gramophone
Parl-parled the West-Indian weather.
The zebra leaves, the sea
And it all spoke together.
The many-stanzaed sea, the leaves
And it spoke all together.
But you, you used the word,
Your self its honor.
As far as this reader can tell, the sounds of the world in this poem (that is, the sea and the leaves) are delivered by way of a record player. If this is the case, it seems reasonable to assume that the “speaking together” to which the poem refers is in fact music , a projection of the human imagination very likely to be found emanating from a gramophone. The poem continues:
All afternoon the gramaphoon,
All afternoon the gramaphoon,
The world as word,
Parl-parled the West-Indian hurricane.
While these lines might be read as a return of the speaker's attention to the aforementioned record player (their repetition and mispronunciation perhaps mimicking a skipping record), I would suggest—given the previous traces (or grams ) of “hoon” in Stevens' oeuvre—that these lines are in fact a continuation of the description of the “you” who first appears in the third line of the second stanza.
Before explaining this claim, I'll mention that the poem's reference to the West Indies is certainly evidence of Stevens' much-written-about penchant for exoticizing lands to which he'd never traveled; what's more, I should note that his well-known early poem “Tea at the Palaz of Hoon” indeed marks a previous instance of this practice, not only because of its somewhat outlandish content, but perhaps also because “hoon” is a Hindi word for a type of pagoda. Because “grama” is a scale used in Indian music, it's tempting to see Stevens' changing of the “o” in “gramophone” to “a” in “gramaphoon” as a unifying factor that allows the later poem's awkward coupling of an Indian musical term with the sounds of Caribbean music to perhaps point to Christopher Columbus' historic “skipping” of the Americas when he mistook them for East India. However, “Sad Strains from a Gay Waltz”—a poem written between “Tea at the Palaz of Hoon” and “The Search for Sound Free from Motion”—suggests that “Hoon” is in fact the name of a kind of poet figure, a character likely to “use the word” (as opposed to music) in order to access and project the imagination. (The Australian definition of “hoon”—a crazy person—is perhaps more relevant here.) That poem, which also contains the lines “The truth is that there comes a time / When we can mourn no more over music / That is so much motionless sound,” refers to
. . . that mountain-minded Hoon
For whom desire was never that of the waltz,
Who found all form and order in solitude,
For whom the shapes were never the figures of men.
and it seems to me that Stevens' notion of Hoon as a literary character who eschews music in favor of written characters is, within the context of “The Search for Sound Free from Motion,” more important than the Indian origins of the word “hoon.”
In the poem's last stanza, “the world” and the “you” are, as Sukenick suggests, compared with one another:
The world lives as you live,
Speaks as you speak, a creature that
Repeats its vital words, yet balances
The syllable of a syllable.
What could it mean to balance “the syllable of a syllable,” the small part of a small part? If we return to the first six lines of the poem, we find, in addition to repetition, a kind of playful balance at work. Indeed, we see that the lines “The zebra leaves, the sea / And it all spoke together” and the lines “The many-stanzaed seas, the leaves / And it spoke all together” contain many of the same words, and we also observe that the order of these words changes upon their being repeated. In the first pair of lines, “the leaves” appear before “the sea” and are described as “zebra leaves”; together, the zebra leaves and the sea form an entity, an “it all” that is able to speak. In the second pair of lines, it's the sea that comes first and is striped with “many-stanza[s],” while the words “all” and “spoke” have—like the leaves and the sea—switched positions. It's interesting to note that the poem's first two stanzas seem to make use of the very same linguistic technique that resulted in the name of the recording device to which they refer. According to the Oxford English Dictionary , the word “gramophone” was apparently formed by the inversion of “phonogram,” a word that refers to “a written character or symbol representing a spoken sound.” Both “phonogram” and “gramophone,” then, indicate the writing of sound, but, like the world and the you in Stevens' poem, they seem to have different ideas of order: a “phonogram” is “sound written,” a gramophone is “written sound.”
The oft-quoted speaker in “Tea at the Palaz of Hoon” finds himself “more truly and more strange” at poem's end, and it might be said that the third stanza of “The Search for Sound Free from Motion” also manages a kind of accurate oddity—or, more and/or less to the point, a kind of odd accuracy. When the neologism “gramaphoon” appears—that is, when the at-once creative and destructive powers of the writerly “you” who “use[s] the word” are made manifest—our knowledge of the poem's meteorology becomes far more specific than it had previously been, for while the gramaphone was only able to speak “the weather,” the gramaphoon is able to “[p]arl-parl [a] hurricane.” In other words, what is perhaps most remarkable about this stanza is the fact that even as the source of our meteorological information becomes more peculiar —for even if we can identify it as a bastardization of “gramophone” that more closely rhymes with “afternoon” and contains one of Stevens' previous tropes, we must also recognize that no dictionary can provide us with a definition for the word “gramaphoon”—our knowledge of “the West-Indian weather” becomes more particular .
Given that it also rhymes with typhoon , the you's gramaphoon, however “wrong” or “off” it may be with regard to our official vocabulary, seems the perfect instrument to speak the storm's sounds. An indifferent, human-made machine, a gramophone has no control over its accuracy or its specificity. Its technology charms, of course—or perhaps hypnotizes—as the world it presents to us by way of turntable, record and tone arm is one that spins as it progresses. In this way, a functional record player is like a hurricane, but it might also be fair to say that it's like a waltz, something to which—the weather to which?—a group of people might also at once revolve and travel to perform a dance of that same name. Indeed, a record player both repeats endlessly and balances masterfully; by contrast, a poet, constrained by the fixed and rigid world of the written word, needs to wobble a bit, must falter strangely, in order to more truly convey the world in which he or she walks. It seems that poets must also—again, like a hurricane—wreak a little havoc: warping “gramophones” into “gramaphoons,” they destroy words and rebuild them in order to get their new and playful worlds to work.
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