the sound of rain begins to speed up; then steadies
i hear only chaos;
the blind man hears
a single leaf fall,
hitting others as it drops
glows on my eyelids,
warms my face;
i see movement in
shifting dark blotches
the city noise,
so chaotic when looking,
when I close my eyes
and sit with the sound
The Longfellow poem “There Was a Little Girl” has a line that says, “…When she was good, She was very good indeed, But when she was bad she was horrid.” That’s kind of how I felt about this book. At its best, it reports findings about how practices involving sound (i.e. mantra chanting) effect health and well-being, and lends insight into why sound sooths. At its worst, it tries to sledgehammer the square peg religious / spiritual practices into the round hole of quantum physics and foundational physics, often engaging in leaps that are at best wildly speculative, while presenting them as though they are as likely as not.
My favorite professor from undergraduate studies was a folksy Religious Studies Professor who cautioned against two opposing fallacies. The first he called “the outhouse fallacy.” This is assuming that because people of the past didn’t have indoor plumbing that they were complete idiots. Let me first say that, until recently, yoga (and other complementary health practices) suffered its fair share from this fallacy among doctors and the scientific community who felt that it couldn’t possibly help with health and well-being because it wasn’t rooted in the latest scientific findings. However, there is an opposing fallacy that my teacher called the “firstest-is-bestest” fallacy, which assumes the ancients figured it all out and we are just bumbling around in the dark hoping to stumble back into what they once knew. Scientists are prone to the first fallacy and the second is rife among religious folk. As a medical doctor who turned to siddha yoga (a form that puts a great deal of belief in superpowers and magic), Chaudhary had a rough road to not fall into one of these fallacies and, in my opinion, she falls more into the second — sounding at times like the ancient yogis knew more about the subatomic world and consciousness than science ever will. Most of the time, she words statements so that a careful reader can recognize what is well-supported and what is speculative, but she’s rarely explicit about the degree to which speculations are such, and I don’t remember an instance in which she presented an alternative that would undermine her argument. (i.e. The unstated argument seems to be that mantra is special among practices, that its usefulness is embedded in the fundamental physical laws of the universe, and, therefore, that it works by mechanisms unlike other meditative / complementary health practices [i.e. by engaging the parasympathetic nervous system so the body can make repairs using established biological mechanisms.])
In a nutshell, there is a “god in the gaps” approach to the book that says, look we don’t understand consciousness or all the “whys” of quantum mechanics, ergo there must be supernatural explanations. I don’t think that because we’ve used EEG since the 1920’s and fMRIs since the 1990’s and still haven’t yet unraveled the hard problem of consciousness that we need to say that god / supernatural forces are where we must look for explanation. The gap is ever closing, slowly but surely, and there’s no reason to believe it’s reasonable or useful to cram commentary from Vedas (or any other scriptures) to fill the gap.
It’s not only the science where Chaudhary presents a belief as though it is established truth without alternative explanations. Early on, she states that colonization is the reason for the decline of meditation in India. Don’t get me wrong, I’m as accepting that colonization resulted in a great number of evils as anyone, but it’s a leap to say that – therefore – every negative a society faces is because of its colonizer. I would point to Thailand, a society that was never colonized (except a brief period by the Burmese) and which is primarily made up of Theravadan Buddhists (a system for which meditative practice is considered central,) most of whom also do not meditate regularly today. I suspect a more logical explanation for the fact that most Indians don’t meditate today is that: a.) it’s hard work and time consuming (as a productive endeavor it’s not bread-winning and as a leisure time activity it’s laborious,) and b.) the majority of Indians (like the majority of Thais) probably never mediated. (When we look back in time, we often want to create this wholesome and uniform image that what we have writings about was how everyone lived, and that probably never reflects the truth.)
So now that my rant is over, I should say that I didn’t think this book was horrible, by any means. It has a lot of good information, and some of the speculative bits offer interesting food for thought. As long as one reads it carefully and with a healthy dose of skepticism, it’s a beneficial consideration of sound and vibration in health and well-being. It’s just that when I compare it to, say, Davidson and Goleman’s “The Science of Meditation” (which I reviewed recently) this book is far less careful about presenting the science, eliminating pseudo-science, and letting the reader know what is controversial and speculative versus what is well-supported by sound and rigorous investigation.
Some people swear by the mind-altering properties [and other benefits] of chanting mantras. I’ve been reading a review copy of Kulreet Chaudhary’s “Sound Medicine,” a book whose play-on-words title says it all. It’s about the way sound is either shown or speculated to have health effects. (Full-disclosure: Some of the speculation gets a bit out there.) Chaudhary is both a medical doctor and an Ayurvedic practitioner, and has an outlook akin to that of Deepak Chopra.
Chanting has never been my thing. I’ve learned about it and done some in yoga training, but I can’t say it ever resonated [no pun intended] with me. However, in the spirit of investigation, this month I did a few one hour and half-hour sessions of chanting. I kept it very basic, chanting AUM as I was taught with equal parts of A – U – and – M.
While I can’t say that I’m sold that chanting is the ultimate practice that achieves outcomes unachievable through other means, I will say that after these sessions I do feel a sense of calm and clarity. I can certainly see why mantra chanting has appeal for so many people, even though I also believe that, sadly, it’s sometimes oversold as something supernatural and the discussions about it are needlessly complicated.
faintly jingling anklet bells
jarred by lightly padding feet
accompanied by the jangle
of arms bejeweled in bangles
can’t silence be trusted?
each movement must be accounted for?
bells are put on cats to track their mischief
bells are strapped to livestock
so shepherds can track rogues & runaways down the valley
but why bedeck oneself in bells?
is silence more dread than sound?
silence is stillness is potential energy winding tighter
perhaps lost potential is a sacred tragedy,
begging one question:
while squirrel away nuts never to be consumed?
As the title suggests, this is a book about sound as a component of poetry. Besides the characteristics of noises made in reading poetry, the book details the various characteristics that shape the overall sound of a poem–such as the duration of a syllable and whether it’s stressed or unstressed. Having said that, a major theme of Pinsky’s work is that one shouldn’t be absolutist or rigid about these characteristics (e.g. stress versus unstressed) and should instead look at the relative traits (i.e. more or less stressed.) By adopting a more flexible view of the concepts like accent (stress), rhyme, similarity of sound, one opens up limitless options for poetry.
The book consists of five chapters. The front matter includes an introduction and a brief commentary on theory. The latter points out that there are no hard rules, but by paying attention to these concepts one can produce richer and more interesting sounding poems. Pinsky reviews the most common poetic terms (e.g. iamb, trochee, spondee, etc.) but also looks at how these are varied for effect in a way that is enjoyable to all but prosody hardliners.
The chapters are: 1.) Accent and duration; 2.) Syntax and line; 3.) Technical terms and vocal realities; 4.) Like and unlike sounds; 5) Blank verse and Free verse. (fyi: Blank verse is unrhymed verse that has a regular meter (most commonly iambic pentameter. Free verse is unrhymed verse with irregular meter.)
There are relatively few poems used as examples in this book. Some readers may find this a bit tedious and would prefer being exposed to more (and more varied) examples. However, other readers will enjoy drilling down into a few poems along several dimensions. That’s a matter of personal preference, but the reader should be aware of it.
The book is less than 150 pages even with the back matter, which includes recommended readings and glossary of names and terms. It’s a quick read.
I enjoyed this book. It’s not too technical, and can be followed by a reader whether they’ve had an extensive education into poetry or not. It’s not doctrinaire about prosody, which appeals to my personal preferences. It provoked some intriguing insights, such as the flexible approach to accent as well as poetry as an art that uses the body of reader as its medium—their respiratory systems, vocal chords, and related musculature how these sounds are produced.
I’d recommend the book for poets and readers of poetry who are serious about the endeavor.