ESSAY: Re-Rhythm: Jerome McGann’s Modern Reading of Poe’s “Annabel Lee”


by Chris Mustazza

The Brain, within its Groove
Runs evenly—and true—
But let a Splinter swerve—
‘Twere easier for You—

To put a Current back—
When Floods have slit the Hills—
And scooped a Turnpike for Themselves—
And trodden out the Mills—

Emily Dickinson, Poem 556

I was moved to write about the phonotextual experience created by reading the text of Poe’s “Annabel Lee” while listening to Jerome McGann perform the poem. Looking at the text of the poem (this version of the text is not the exact version McGann reads, but it’s close), it begs to be read in a lyric fashion, reading through the enjambment and either placing a stress on the rhymed words or injecting a slight caesura after to highlight the rhymes and rhythmic qualities of the poem. In doing so, the result would be the regular, metrical sound expected from lyric poetry. But McGann denies us our sonic expectations through his disruptive reading of the poem, and in doing so, liberates the poem from its metrical bounds, achieving the “elevation” of the reader’s perception Poe speaks about in his poetics.

In “The Poetic Principle,” Poe speaks about the “rhythmical creation of beauty.” But McGann shows us that another aesthetic layer can be created by the negation of rhythm, especially when there is a rhythmic expectation. Indeed, the idea of “rhythm” functions on the faculties of memory and pattern recognition. By storing in short-term memory what was heard and forecasting what will be heard, the brain settles into a dually retrospective and prospective “groove,” pun intended. In addition, the Dickinsonian connotation–“The Brain, within its Groove”—holds, as McGann’s difficult-to-anticipate (anti-)rhythm serves as the “splinter” to derail our expectations.

Listening to the first stanza of “Annabel Lee” read by McGann, without viewing Poe’s text, we might construct a libretto of the stanza that looks like this:

It was many
many a year ago,

in a kingdom
by the sea,

that a maiden lived whom
you may know
by the name of
Lee; —

this maiden she lived with no other thought
Than to love and be loved by me.

Of course, visually, this looks like a modernist construction, perhaps something from William Carlos Williams, certainly not like Poe’s lyric. The alternate lineation derived from the aural qualities of the reading shows modernist aesthetics of composition being used to “make it new,” to revivify a well-known poem through a sort of deformance. By denying the reader the expected sound of the poem, not only is something new created, but the reader is provided new insights into the content of the original by a disruptive, aural reordering, indeed a performative example of McGann and Samuels’ concept of deformance.

In addition to acting as the “splinter” that disrupts the brain within its rhythmical groove, McGann’s performance pulls against other dimensions of the poem’s form, including grammatical syntax and the chosen lineation. It creates a visualization (if it were transcribed as above) with irregular line lengths and lineation placed to disrupt the syntactical properties of the text. For example, the line break after the first “many” is highly unexpected, both sonically and grammatically. It serves to create an expectation of a following noun object—it was many…?—but leads to the lone “and’” which in turn leads to  the rest of the introductory phrase that stands alone as its own stanza. The pace of the poem is dramatically (both in terms of degree and as a dramatic rhetorical device) slowed to create a visual, derived from the aural, pull.

As McGann’s reading progresses, a new order emerges. The listener can perceive repetitions in the way McGann reads the poem that are not present in the text, but become nonetheless expected in their irregular regularity. For example, the listener begins to expect McGann to pause slightly between “Annabel” and “Lee,” every time the name is read. While at first this functioned against the visual aspects and expected rhythmical properties of the poem, it itself becomes regular and creates a new expectation. While the listener experiences the phonotext, he or she comes to foresee more of the coming rhythm, alternative to, though contingent upon, Poe’s written rhythm.

Poe’s poetics do seem to mesh well with the aesthetic theories of McGann. From Poe’s thoughts on alternative ways to read Paradise Lost prefiguring McGann’s theory of deformance through their alternate-but-related applications of the creation of beauty through rhythm, the two figures seem complementary. One of the most fascinating aspects of Poe’s poetics, to me, is in the “Philosophy of Composition,” where he suggests that a poet should consider the refrain of a poem early in its composition and also strive for universal appeal. In musical terms, this mirrors compositional advice on how to write a pop song: write the chorus first. I mean this not to be derogatory (the comparison to pop music). Indeed, most pop songs are fantastically well written songs—it’s in the jejune musical production where they become adulterated. Because the musical arrangements strive so hard to evoke and illustrate the content of the song, they become mono-dimensional and uninteresting (admittedly subjective). McGann’s “cover” of Poe serves to revitalize it in the way a reinterpretation of a song can, by using a complex production to pull against the content and expected form–and create originality through the disjuncture. Through his irregular cadence, tight range of pitch that resists an overly expressive application of tone, and judicious use of emphasis, McGann makes it impossible to put the Current back again and hear the poem as a lyric.

Chris Mustazza is interested in the intersection between technology and the Humanities. Specifically, he works with early sound recordings (1930s and ’40s) of American modernist poets reading their work. His research centers on the collection, digitization, and historical/aesthetic contextualization of these works. 
Most recently, he’s been researching the National Council of Teachers of English’s Contemporary Poetry Series, which ran from Columbia University in the 1930s and ’40s. As part of his work on the CPS, he has edited for PennSound collections of recordings by Vachel Lindsay, James Weldon Johnson, and Harriet Monroe. His critical introduction to the Vachel Lindsay recordings was awarded the 2014 Sweeten Prize for best essay in American Literature in Penn’s English Department. He’s also written about the CPS in his article on the provenance of the earliest William Carlos Williams recordings. He is currently working on a master’s thesis on the historical and aesthetic framing of the CPS. Chris is also the editor of Jacket2 Magazine’s Clipping commentary series, which focuses on experimental digital analyses of poetry audio. 

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