The Farrar, Straus and Giroux Poetry Blog

April 25, 2012

trains, rhythm, and poetry

Isherwood and AudenI read poetry on the L train most mornings. It’s easier on my shoulder than carrying around a novel, and when you think about it, it's really the most appropriate thing to do. Crammed uncomfortably close or not, simply being on trains produces what Hungarian-French theorists Abraham and Torok call a “rhythmizing consciousness”: 

In the compartment of a train, distractedly contemplating the receding landscape, I feel myself surrounded by a whole world of presences: my fellow passengers, the windowpane, the rumbling of the wheels, the continually changing panorama. But for a little while now I have been nodding my head and tapping my foot, my whole body animated by movements and tensions. What has happened? A radical change of attitude must have taken place within me. A moment ago, too, I was perceiving the monotonous sound of the wheels, and my body was receiving the same periodic jolts; but in the interval between the sounds, I was taken hold of by a tension, an expectation, which the next shock would either fulfill or disappoint. And so the jolts, which were merely endured before, are now expected; my whole body prepares to receive them. (Rhythms: On the Work, Translation, and Psychoanalysis, p. 70)

The passenger stops noticing the rhythm of the train and only becomes aware of it when the train’s jolts either fulfill or disappoint an unconscious expectation. What a useful description of the experience of reading poetry.  

Shoes

The train tracks’ clackety-clack in Auden’s "Night Mail" comes to mind ("Fact: Rap was made by English white railroad documentary narrators over 70 years ago," says a commenter).

There's also this delightful excerpt from Robert Walser’s Berlin Stories, posted recently on the NYRB blog. And since there's always room for a poem by Kenneth Koch, how about "One Train May Hide Another".

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