June 9, 2014

It Don't Mean a Thing (If it Ain't Got That Swing)

The Invisible Connection between Italo Calvino and Ella Fitzgerald: It Don't Mean a Thing (If it Ain't Got That Swing)

I am thinking about swing--the rhythm found in creating music or dancing or writing a poem. After reading Calvino's essay "Cybernetics and Ghosts," about narrative, I begin thinking about jazz forms and Ella Fitzgerald singing It Don't Mean a Thing (If it Ain't Got That Swing). These artists have a strong and compelling voice. They have a connection.

 Invisible Cities is made of several stories, each with the same form, told by Marco Polo to the emperor Kublai Khan and these descriptions are arranged in eleven sections: Cities and Memory, Cities and Desire, Cities and Signs, Thin Cities, Trading Cities, Cities and Eyes, Cities and Names, Cities and the Dead, Cities and the Sky, Continuous Cities, and Hidden Cities. It is a beautiful form that reminds me of Islamic art.  The content of Calvino's work was matched by the form that he used. He employed patterns. This gives his writing a strong poetic form.  Swing can be noted not so much in the syllables and metrics as in poems--but in the narrative patterns. Swing--or patterning--also occurs in the arc and reach of an individual's body of work, and even of literature in general.

If on a Winter's Night A Traveler also presents an intriguing form.  Each chapter in the book is chapter one, each a new beginning of the story. Italo Calvino sheds light on his obsessive forms in the essay "Cybernetics and Ghosts" in The Uses of Literature, he writes: "The struggle of literature is in fact a struggle to escape from the confines of language; it stretches out from the utmost limits of what can be said; what stirs literature is the call and attraction of what is not in the dictionary." He writes of a dialectic balance that exists between narrative formulas and formlessness, between mathematics and consciousness, and between language and the unsayable.

Calvino found comfort in the idea of a system or a geometric form of storytelling. Literature combines a set of given elements, he writes, to "defend me from the whirlwinds that literature constantly has to face."  His methodical forms allowed him to fully map the dialectic balance of which he writes.  He had an interest in folktales and storytelling structures that reached into mystery. He wrote:
Myth is the hidden part of every story, the buried part, the region that is still unexplored because there are as yet no words to enable us to get there. The narrator's voice in the daily tribal assemblies is not enough to relate a myth. One needs special times and places, exclusive meetings; the words alone are not enough, and we need a whole series of signs with many meanings, which is to say a rite. Myth is nourished by silence as well as by words. A silent myth makes its presence felt in secular narrative and everyday words; it is a language vacuum that draws words up into its vortex and bestows a form on fable.
     But what is a language vacuum if not a vestige of taboo, of a ban on mentioning something, on pronouncing certain names, of a prohibition either present or ancient? Literature follows paths that flank and cross the barriers of prohibition, that lead to saying what not be said, to an invention that is always a reinvention of words and stories that have been banished from the individual or collective memory. Therefore myth acts on fable as a repetitive force, obliging it to go back on its tracks even when it was set off in directions that appear to lead somewhere completely different.
     The unconscious is the ocean of the unsayable, of what has been expelled from the land of language, removed as a result of ancient prohibitions. The unconscious speaks--in dreams, in verbal slips, in sudden associations--with borrowed words, stolen symbols, linguistic contraband, until literature redeems these territories and annexes them to the language of the waking world.  
This passage of his essay, full of assonance, alliteration and hypotactical sentences, creates a marvelous momentum. It is rich with image. Notice he says "words alone are not enough, and we need a whole series of signs...." Special places, special times, special meetings. In the context of story-telling, the setting, the episode, and the moment the story is told--by whom to whom--has much to do with the experience of the story--as much as character and plot. A reiterative form creates a rite. What is form if not a ritual?

In addition, he finds in the uncertain boundaries a tendency for literature to swing like a pendulum through and beyond a culture's dominant narratives to trigger those that run counter or are the opposite. Story-telling must reach far enough to grasp the shadow-side. In the Enlightenment, the Marquis de Sade and the Gothic novel appears. In Puritan America, Edgar Allen Poe emerges.

In poetry, pattern or swing is a necessary element. Each voice has a unique rhythm that accompanies the individual's perceptions and fascinations.  Poems might not be fables, but they are concerned with the unconscious, the mythic, and the unsayable. White space is important, and both line and stanza breaks signify meaning. These are like open fields--not merely empty space but a necessary margin or a cultivation, furrow, seed-bed.  The patterns can be developed in the sound of language, or in repeated images, words, or lines.

In his stories, Calvino makes us aware of the invisible cities, endless beginnings, permutations, and labyrinthine forms--and by his relentless search through the oppositions and contradictions, he reveals the hidden truths. "We have only to imagine the point where the imagined...does not coincide with the real...and then find it."  He aims for the gap. This is the place where 'swing' can help achieve the goal--a little extra impetus--and this is where Ella Fitzgerald comes in. Jazz forms offer a similar type of exploration, an improvisation and progression providing a satisfying experience, that swing.


Calvino, Italo. The Uses of Literature. Translated by Patrick Creagh. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. 1982. Print.

The Baron in the Trees
The Nonexistent Knight and The Cloven Viscount
The Path to the Nest of Spiders
t zero The Watcher and Other Stories
Invisible Cities
The Castle of Crossed Destinies
Italian Folktales
If on a winter's night a traveler
Marcovaldo, or The seasons in the city
Difficult Loves
Mr. Palomar
The Uses of Literature
Under the Jaguar Sun
Six Memos for the Next Millennium
Road to San Giovanni

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