Friday, 6 February 2009


I did the RNIB conversation by phone this morning: about an hour of talking about poetry to six blind men and women in various parts of the country, the conversation held together by a kind woman called Iona speaking from somewhere in the far north of Scotland. I think they were mostly older people, lively and full of questions. They said none of their audiobooks had any poetry and asked where they could get recordings, so I told them about the Poetry Archive with its hour long CDs for sale and downloadable free poem selections.

But chiefly I was talking about poetry, what it is like, what it is concerned with, what's it for and how it gets perceived and written.

One said: But you were an artist and we have no visual sense. So I started talking about synasthaesia. When you hear a voice do you think of it as warm or cold? Yes, they said.

And I go on thinking: Can we say a smell is soprano or bass? Or does it make sense talking about a taste having the texture of rusty metal? Yes, of course, this is all possible. Because poetry is so deeply rooted in metaphor, synasthaesia comes naturally to it. We try to absorb the totality of experience employing the entire range of senses and run the result through the maelstrom of language. It is not surprising, under the circumstances, that one sense should reach out to touch another in the swirl and twist of it.

The most famous poem to hint at a possible synasthaesic system is Rimbaud's poem, Voyelles, or 'Vowels':


A noir, E blanc, I rouge, U vert, O bleu: voyelles,
Je dirai quelque jour vos naissances latentes:
A, noir corset velu des mouches éclatantes
Qui bombinent autour des puanteurs cruelles,

Golfes d'ombre; E, candeurs des vapeurs et des tentes,
Lances des glaciers fiers, rois blancs, frissons d'ombelles;
I, pourpres, sang craché, rire des lèvres belles
Dans la colère ou les ivresses pénitentes;

U, cycles, vibrements divins des mers virides,
Paix des pâtis semés d'animaux, paix des rides
Que l'alchimie imprime aux grands fronts studieux;

O, suprême Clairon plein des strideurs étranges,
Silences traversés des [Mondes et des Anges]:
—O l'Oméga, rayon violet de [Ses] Yeux!

This is Oliver Bernard's* prose translation:

A black, E white, I red, U green, O blue: vowels, I shall tell, one day, of your mysterious origins. A, black velvety jacket of brilliant flies which buzz around cruel smells,

gulfs of shadow; E, whiteness of vapours and of tents, lances of proud glaciers, white kings, shivers of cow-parsley; I, purples, spat blood, smile of beautiful lips in anger or in the raptures of penitence;

U, waves, divine shudderings of viridian seas, the peace of pastures dotted with animals, the peace of the furrows which alchemy prints on broad studious foreheads;

O, sublime Trumpet full of strange piercing sounds, silences crossed by Angels and by Words - O the Omega! the violet ray of Her Eyes!

(I post this prose translation because it still seems to me the best though I myself am occasionally tempted to have a go at a fully rhymed sonnet version.)

When I dashed in to teach my class at the university, synasthaesia came up again through playing with word association. We were looking at Frank O'Hara's Why I am Not a painter, a poem that seems to dawdle along until he comes to the subject of oranges, at which point the poem spirals beyond its off the cuff colloquial ease .

Here's the O'Hara:

Why I Am Not A Painter

I am not a painter, I am a poet.
Why? I think I would rather be
a painter, but I am not. Well,

for instance, Mike Goldberg
is starting a painting. I drop in.
"Sit down and have a drink" he
says. I drink; we drink. I look
up. "You have SARDINES in it."
"Yes, it needed something there."
"Oh." I go and the days go by
and I drop in again. The painting
is going on, and I go, and the days
go by. I drop in. The painting is
finished. "Where's SARDINES?"
All that's left is just
letters, "It was too much," Mike says.

But me? One day I am thinking of
a color: orange. I write a line
about orange. Pretty soon it is a
whole page of words, not lines.
Then another page. There should be
so much more, not of orange, of
words, of how terrible orange is
and life. Days go by. It is even in
prose, I am a real poet. My poem
is finished and I haven't mentioned
orange yet. It's twelve poems, I call
it ORANGES. And one day in a gallery
I see Mike's painting, called SARDINES

Then we start to talk about orange, and why anyone should think orange, the colour, was terrible, and, if terrible, in what sense terrible, and this leads us on to the great glacier of the Romantic sublime, and what those pages of words about orange might have looked like. Synasthaesia. Madness. Mind-altering substances.

I should add that Oliver Bernard, now in his eighties, is a marvellous poet and lives only a few miles down the road. He sent me a CD of his poems yesterday that I was listening to, enchanted. There is a droll, sharp edge to the voice that suddenly flows into a kind of richness, somewhat reminiscent of my first unofficial mentor, Martin Bell. Oliver was Jeffrey's brother of course, and Bruce's. Oliver in youth here:

Those Bernards. Those Soho Bernards. Those Unwell Bernards. Those Colony Club Bernards. Oliver's version of the anonymous 15th century poem Quia Amore Langueo is glorious. Oliver's version is not on the web but I have a small pamphlet of it. Upstairs. Somewhere. In that faint green noise.


Gwil W said...


Nice work you did with the blind.

Love the O'Hara.

I think there's an 'e' in synaesthesia - in fact there may be 2.


Anonymous said...

Well, George, this is very interesting. I did read it the other day but for some reason didn't comment - it was a busy weekend...

I thinkt he O'Hara is very interesting in this context - I love Frank O'Hara but int he way of someone like Eliot, in that you simply cannot replicate what they are doing. And the Rimbaud! He has the colours all wrong:

A noir, E blanc, I rouge, U vert, O bleu:

When everybody knows it's A rouge, E jaune, I blanc, U gris, O noir...