Thursday, July 21, 2016

Rambling Reflections on Rhythm

It's become my new favorite, life-describing word. But what exactly do I mean, internally, when I say "rhythm"?

I should know, shouldn't I? I'm a lifelong musician, music-lover (but not a dancer, definitely not a dancer), even a relatively new convert to the reading and writing of poetry -- fields where rhythms abide. But I am kidding myself, really: I have no innate sense of meter, either on a page or in a score; I'm not quickly aware, as the serious artists are, what kind of "foot" a poet has just used, or what sort of mischief Bach is up to with his triplets. I don't count beats when I read, write, or listen, and even when I play the beat must be pounded into me, so to speak.

But "rhythm" is the word I run to, to describe existence. It is entirely the wrong word, I'm sure, but it's the word that I'm in love with, that repeats steadily along my attempts to make sense of the world. What does it mean for me? So many things.

Rhythm is the root of all. So much, Williams might have said, depends upon rhythm, or so I'm convinced. We all begin with a heartbeat. We all survive through the constant if not regular pumping, pumping of blood, the in of air always followed by an out. Biological rhythms, patterns, inevitabilities. And what is the daily life, I wonder, but a broader imitation of that basic beat: a steady pulse carrying us through the predictable pulse of waking and working -- with their frequent flutters. Rhythms need not be regular, after all; only perpetual.

Jackson Pollock
Rhythm is motion, any motion. Musically and poetically, we associate it with sound and its pauses, but start again with the heartbeat, or better yet a drum: isn't it really that vibration you feel, through the body, the little trembling movement down to your core? Sense of touch more than sound. And doesn't motion expand into the fundamentals of physical experience? Rhythm lives in steps; it lives in the mouth, the lift, fall, click of tongues; even, silently, in the inevitable pressing back of one set of lips into another. Everything is fast or slow, steady or fluttering, deep or trickling, isn't it? A flow or tempo of some kind. And move that movement into other senses: a rolling hill is a large sweeping motion; the quick, dotting whistle of a sparrow is a pinprick of motion. So doesn't all art, then -- the solemn bends of Beethoven and the flittering splatters of Pollock -- come back rhythm?

Rhythm, of course, is language. I don't even know how to turn rhythm off -- my addiction to lists is really an amateur's addiction to sentence-structure repetition, I suppose. And again, there is the poet's textbook understanding of rhythm in language: beginning with the natural stresses, pauses, and repetitions, ending with the stylized meters of poetry (iAMbic FEET imPLY an INesCAPaBILity).
But for me "rhythm" wants to describe everything else in language, too -- every blessed, minute detail of speech. There's the small roll, trill, before certain consonants in certain non-American accents. There's also the excited rapidity in an extroverted child's words, a contrast to the slowing and carmelizing of a lover's words. Loudness is a kind of rhythm -- a broad, single burst of timpani -- and so is quietness -- the tip-tap of rain. Pitches, too, are often inescapably tied to rhythm, as seen socially among tonal languages, musically with Africa's mysterious talking drums, which imitate such languages. None of these are an identifiable pattern, like TROchees or amPHIBrachs or pentameters, and are perhaps not patterns at all, since speech defies regularity. But diversity of sound is a kind of rhythm as well -- a wild and strange one.

"Rhythm" is the word I've fallen in love with, and I'm convinced that rhythm is what I need always as a writer. Not just to imitate the musicality of speech on the page, or to describe the flow of the world, but to actually survive as a writer. I need walks, walking to create the little internal bounce that sends the magnificent words of Nabokov bouncing freely in me: "the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta." I need the rhythm of steps, or the rhythm of stillness amid the moving world, to unclog or declutter words that need to be written. To be a writer I need to observe rhythm, always, to see the natural world as something never still but active: bodies of water with ever-trembling molecules, grand trees with their creeping cycle of green-aflame-bare. I need to practice rhythm, to make writing, reading, and simply appreciating as much of a natural constancy, bodily necessity, as breathing. We all begin with a heartbeat and we'd die without this biological rhythm; I want that to be so for all intellectual, spiritual rhythms, too.

It all sounds so "zen," so New-Agey and ridiculous coming from Roman Catholic me, to say an artist must rely upon the rhythms of existence. But for me rhythm (whether that is the right word or not) is not a philosophy so much as a hunger, an instinct, the absolutely only way to make sense of the world. Try even for a second to live in total, stagnant stillness, or to see anything as not implying an internal, glowing pulse behind it. I'll bet you can't.

Grace and peace to you.