Thursday, March 22, 2007

Stairway Through the Senses: Hacker’s Use of End Words in “Canzone”

What I know of the canzone I learned from Marilyn Hacker. I came across her “Canzone” in 2005 and was so amazed at its intricacy that I copied it into my blog, calling it a “double sestina.“ My attraction to formal verse is directly attributed to this one poem. It started my preoccupation with Hacker, as well. I read Presentation Piece and Separations and just this month, Taking Notice, where in a delight of reunion, I found “Canzone.”

Definitions for the canzone are in agreement on a few things: it is Italian in origin; it is connected to the Troubadors; it was originally a song; and, Petrarch, Dante, W.H. Auden and Hacker are usually mentioned as its masters. Some say the form rhymes. In these versions, it has been equated with a sonnet but with an irregular rhyme scheme. Some describe its primary themes as passion and love. The first multi-lined strophe has been called the fronte and the closing strophe, a sirma. More contemporary definitions of the form mention the repeating end words, and point to the “Canzone” examples by Auden and Hacker.

I still consider the form a mutated double sestina. The two forms are related in more ways than my imagination. The sestina is also an Italian import from Provence. It has a format of six, unrhymed stanzas with repeating end words and a final tercet or envoy of three lines. Hacker’s “Canzone” consists of five 12-line stanzas and a five-line envoy.

Both forms, and especially the longer canzone, rely on the repeating end words for internal consistency and logic. Choosing these words is not a haphazard business. A flaw in the choice will turn the form quickly into a grisly exercise of coercion, where successful inclusion of the end words make the poetic content and tone secondary.

Hacker manipulated this requirement with a deft intelligence while also complicating her responsibility. Rather than accede to 12 end words, to match the 12 lines of the full stanzas, or even ten words for purposes of the envoy, she reduced the count to five. Thus the same end words are doubly repeated within the same blocks of verse. Her end words are as follows: tongue, pleasure, organ, give and taste.

Hacker is a sublime wordsmith who loves a challenge.

The end words retain an internal logic all on their own. Each is related to sensory perception, and each one is a sequential or simultaneous expression of one of its neighbors. Hacker opens her canzone with an emphasis on “the three functions of the tongue.: / taste, speech, the telegraphy of pleasure,” and conjoins the three with an emphasis on pleasure. Her second stanza explores the geology of taste, its “multiplicitious” identities and its relation to individual perception. This focus continues into the third stanza, where she attaches taste and pleasure to the mental function of word creation: “Making words, we give the private contemplations of each organ / to the others,…” She flawlessly turns this stanza’s theme into a fuller explanation in the next strophe. Now, the reader is asked to consider the tools of “sentient organisms,” the uses of analogy and discourse, noting that “The first organ / of acknowledged communion is the tongue,…” Her final full verse again speaks of the multiplicity of perception: “pleasure / means something, and something different, for each organ; / each person, too.” Hacker winds up “Canzone” with a somewhat unexpected personalization of her context.

But I would rather think about your tongue
experiencing and transmitting pleasure
to one or another multi-sensual organ
— like memory. Whoever wants to give
only one meaning to that, has untutored taste.

This venture into the territory of memory is less an abstraction and more a fulfillment of the sequence of sensory perception. She has outlined this sequence in the preceding stanzas with concrete examples. Now the poem concludes at the point where human perception ultimately resides: the memory.

“Canzone” ascends through the physical to the mental, using its five end words as clever steps along the path. The canzone is a perfect pattern for accomplishing this movement. Hacker is its masterful manipulator.

Marilyn Hacker

Consider the three functions of the tongue:
taste, speech, the telegraphy of pleasure,
are not confused in any human tongue;
yet, sinewy and singular, the tongue
accomplishes what, perhaps, no other organ
can. Were I to speak of giving tongue,
you'd think two things at least; and a cooked tongue,
sliced, on a plate, with caper sauce, which I give
my guest for lunch, is one more, to which she'd give
the careful concentration of her tongue
twice over, to appreciate the taste
and to express — it would be in good taste —

a gastronomic memory the taste
called to mind, and mind brought back to tongue.
There is a paucity of words for taste;
sweet, sour, bitter, salty. Any taste,
however multiplicitious its pleasure,
complex its execution (I might taste
that sauce ten times in cooking, change its taste
with herbal subtleties, chromatic organ
tones of clove and basil, good with organ
meats) must be described with those few taste
words, or with metaphors, to give
my version of sensations it would give

a neophyte, deciding whether to give
it a try. She might develop a taste.
(You try things once; I think you have to give
two chances, though, to know your mind, or give
up on novelties.) Your mother tongue
nurtures, has the subtleties which give
flavor to words, and words to flavor, give
the by no means subsidiary pleasure
of being able to describe a pleasure
and recreate it. Making words, we give
the private contemplations of each organ
to the others, and to others, organ-

ize sensations into thoughts. Sentient organ-
isms, we symbolize feeling, give
the spectrum (that's a symbol) each sense organ
perceives, by analogy, to others. Disorgan-
ization of the senses is an acquired taste
we all acquire; as speaking beasts, its organ-
ic to our discourse. The first organ
of acknowledged communion is the tongue
(tripartite diplomat, which after tongu-
ing a less voluble expressive organ
to wordless efflorescences of pleasure
offers up words to reaffirm the pleasure).

That's a primary difficulty: pleasure
means something, and something different, for each organ;
each person, too. I may take exquisite pleasure
in boiled eel, or blacmange — or not. One pleasure
of language is making known what not to give.
And think of a bar of lavender soap, a pleasure
to see and, moistened, rub on your skin, a pleasure
especially to smell, but if you taste
it (though smell is most akin to taste)
what you experience will not be pleasure;
you almost retch, grimace, stick out your tongue,
slosh rinses of ice water over your tongue.

But I would rather think about your tongue
experiencing and transmitting pleasure
to one or another multi-sensual organ
— like memory. Whoever wants to give
only one meaning to that, has untutored taste.


Robin said...

A quick HELLO!--just to say that I enjoyed your notes on Hacker's canzone and will say something mroe when I'm not racing to my office hours. Also, Marilyn N says to tell you THANKS for starting the petition. Here's hoping it spreads far and wide and has some real impact on the school itself.


Ann said...

Thanks Robin - I look forward to reading your thoughts...and yes, pass the petition, please!