‘What does it mean to be held by rhythm?’



From Lana Turner:

What I have been thinking about of late is how those first lyric poets were trying to invent ways to express human life in the various beats, pops, and hums of language (the part of the music we still have some scraps of).

Archilochos, one of the very first lyric poets, puts it this way:

“Know what rhythm holds human beings.”

Archilochos and his compatriots were creating, in part, rhythmic allegories, to show what rhythms hold us together as individuals, as groups.

What does it mean to be held by rhythm?

It is to be held together by something that is in motion. You can almost see the leg bone being cupped in its socket as it moves, as if by the softly clicking music of words, the whole body lightly bouncing across earth, held to it by gravity in a silent rhythm of self-attracting masses. Like humans, language is never still (even if one or the other sometimes appears so). To quote Cedar Sigo: “to be at rest in language is not possible.” Some poems do achieve a strange double-duty where language seems to reach a suspended still point – just as silence is sometimes measured out in silent beats.

Time is one of the rhythms that holds human beings, and rhythm, at root, reflects this. Much was measured on the body, where we count time: Fingers reckon rhythms (dactyls), feet do, as of course do breathing, the heart beat and the parasympathetic nervous system.

In Sappho’s radical Fragment 16 (the one in which she repudiates the whole gestalt of the Iliad), one of the things she does is capture the beloved’s rhythm of walking through the poem’s own feet – and claims it is more beautiful than all the warriors of Lydia. As Yopie Prins puts it in her book Victorian Sappho, “Fragment 16 implies how desire might be mobilized to different ends than Homeric narrative” (Prins, 130).

Some say an army of horsemen, others
Say foot soldiers, still others say a fleet
Is the finest thing on the dark earth.
I say it is whatever one loves.

Everyone can understand this — consider
That Helen, far surpassing the beauty
Of mortals, left behind
The best man of all

To sail away to Troy.  She remembered
Neither daughter nor dear parents,
As [Aphrodite] led her away

…lightly …thinks.
…reminding me now
of Anaktoria gone.
I would rather see her lovely step
And the radiant sparkle of her face
Than all the war chariots in Lydia
And soldiers battling in arms.

Impossible … to happen
…human, but to pray for a share
…and for myself

[trans., Diane Rayor]

“Notes on The Innovative Lyric”, Eleni Sikelianos, Lana Turner