Acoustic Confusion and Medleyed Sound: Stevens’ Recurrent Pairings
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Acoustic Confusion and Medleyed Sound:
Stevens’ Recurrent Pairings

TOWARD THE END of “The Noble Rider and the Sound of Words,” Wallace Stevens states that “above everything else, poetry is words; and that words, above everything else, are, in poetry, sounds” (CPP 663). Such an explicit, even totalizing declaration of the value and centrality of sound by the poet has stimulated an impressive body of work recognizing and theorizing the place of sound in Stevens’ poetry and thinking.1 While, as Lisa Goldfarb observes, “Nearly every critic on Stevens has, in some way, acknowledged the centrality of sound and music in his work” (28), understanding the role that sound plays within the poetry remains a challenge. Stefan Holander notes sound’s double potential to accomplish “a ‘defamiliarizing’ moment of radical deception” while also producing “a sense of integration and participation, a heightened experience of language as the physical and semantic aspects of a poem appear to work together” (70). By contrast, other critical strands have sought to explore “the possibility that the sound of words admits play without involving a particular semantic register” (Gerber, “Prosody” 186).

Anca Rosu’s The Metaphysics of Sound in Wallace Stevens, for instance, situates sound in the murky area beyond the representational. According to Rosu, Stevens brings sound to a point of exhibiting a “reversal of what we consider to be the normal relation between reality and language,” as when language approaches charms or incantations, a kind of verbal magic that “conjure[s] up a reality instead of representing one” (34). And one explanation that Peter Middleton offers for Stevens’ “immersion in sound” is the possibility that “Stevens may well be trying to resist the cognitive subsumption of the work of art under a philosophical or cultural paraphrase by retaining a resistant stratum of sound in the same manner that visual artists use brushwork and texture to resist easy pictorialization of the work by viewers” (75). The idea that sound conjures up its own reality in the poem, and resists, rather than aids, legibility, stands in opposition to Alexander Pope’s dictum, in the second part of “An Essay on Criticism,” that “The sound must seem an echo to the sense.” If in Pope sound should accompany, serve, and illuminate sense, there is also the possibility that sound, in its materiality, physicality, or texture, resists or obfuscates sense.2 [End Page 233] But how can such obfuscation be achieved in a poem? As I will show, sound in Stevens often works to obfuscate sense and resist legibility by tampering with our cognitive mechanism of encoding and recalling words with similar sounds. This particular effect of phonemic overlap, or sound similarity between words, has been studied by cognitive scientists in the context of “serial recall,” experiments in which subjects are asked to repeat a group of words that they hear, in the correct order. In a series of experiments published in 1966, A. D. Baddeley first played sequences of words to subjects and then asked them to write down the words they heard. These words either shared similar sounds (mad-man-mat) or did not (cow-day-bar). Baddeley found that sequences of similar-sounding words were overwhelmingly less correctly reproduced than different-sounding ones: relatively few subjects were able to write down the similar-sounding words in order. From these results, Baddeley inferred that phonemic similarity blurs words in our short-term memory and makes them difficult to recall.3

This cognitive phenomenon, known to memory researchers as “acoustic confusion,” occurs in a specific sound strategy Stevens employs. This strategy has, to the best of my knowledge, escaped systematic treatment even by critics attuned to Stevens’ sound precisely because unpacking its operation requires understanding of the psychological mechanism Stevens exploits to achieve his effects. In this particular sound strategy, Stevens uses a pair of words with some degree of phonemic overlap. The overlap may involve weaker sound-relations between the two words, like partial rhyming or consonance, or stronger sound-relations, like full rhyme. In either case, the words recur, typically together, but often in varying locations throughout a poem: the pair can appear and reappear within the same line, across two different lines...