Some Thoughts on the Ear and the Eye

By guest blogger poet Gregory Pardlo, author of Totem and Digest

An auditory experience is momentary, instantaneous: one instant, and another instant, and another. The ear cannot hold an auditory experience before it in space. In fact, a prolonged auditory experience causes discomfort or we efface it as a kind of white noise. In his Psychovisualist manifesto, the poet, Russel Atkins discredits the ear as an organ that is made useful only by translating sound into spatial concepts. In other words, we hear the chair scrape on the floor and we visualize the chair. By this argument, outside of music, sound is meaningless until it is assigned an image. I think Atkins means by this that without interpretation by the mind’s eye, sound is merely physical, dumb resonance. I don’t feel entirely disparaging about the ear because of course we can say light is dumb resonance, too. But I do think the ear, and thus the lyric, resists the durable logic of the eye, the capacity for sustained resonance, and in this sense the lyric image is iterative and paratactic. The lyric image tends toward a Snapchat quality. One instant after another instant after another. The narrative image, on the other hand, endures. A narrative image can be hypotactic in the way Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase is hypotactic, the way Muybridge’s photos are hypotactic, or Charles Demuth’s I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold, with its nesting, subordinate depictions of the number five. Narrative employs ocular logic to produce a living image, “moving, tense, unheeded,” as Williams writes in his poem, “The Great Figure.” The eye is never still and cannot isolate an object in space; the eye is always “gathering” information before it in time, aspiring to stillness, but never attaining it. If want to describe a specific thing in three dimensions or while it is in motion—and I mean describe it to the page the way my eye describes the world to me—I have to resort to the narrative, though this seems counterintuitive to me.