Of Mantras and Poetry: The Seed Syllables of Sound Poetry

by Candy Shue


In “A Grammar”, the first essay in Andrew Schelling’s collection of essays titled,

Candy Shue is a poet and reviewer whose work can be heard on the online show, Poet As Radio. A Kundiman Fellow, her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Drunken Boat, EOAGH, Versal, Spiral Orb, Washington Square, Paragraph, Switchback, Eratio, The Collagist, and other journals. She holds an MFA from the University of San Francisco and lives in San Francisco just below the fog belt, with her husband, two daughters, and family dog. She loves taiko drumming and the “rasa,” —or juice—of yoga and meditation practice.

On Libations:  “A cold glass of Viszlay Chardonnay, tasting of pear and caramel, on a hot Indian Summer day.  It’s my favorite drink during my favorite time of year, especially if I can have it with friends and family all around!”


Wild Form & Savage Grammar: Poetry/Ecology/Asia
(La Alameda Press, 2003), he writes:   

Out of tantric India from the hands of scholar-adepts come anatomical

ink & paint drawings in which a man or woman’s body is displayednot inwardly vibrant with physiological organs, but coursing with seed syllables

& mystical phrasesthe whole constitution, arms, legs, torso, sex glands, skullpan, comprised of vivid & legible letters carefully inscribed. This I

would take as model of what a man or woman “of letters” might benot

some bookish habit onlybut the body thrill’d so decisively with language

the person of letters thrilled with an almost sexual delight in the flush of graphemes like bristling body hair. (17)

I find the image of bodiesboth male and femalefilled with pure sound captivating. I can see and feel the vibration of words that are music and music that are words at the same timeno notes required to make the body sing. To me, this seems the very essence of poetry. The phrase “seed syllables” in Schelling’s description attracts me too, as I have become a little familiar with the Tibetan mantra of A, Om, Hung, Ram, and Dza through my meditation practice. In his book, Tibetan Sound Healing, Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche compares chanting these syllables to an armored horseman riding his steed down a forest path. According to Tenzin Rinpoche’s description of the Bon Tantra tradition, the mind is like an untrained rider, and the breath is a horse that gallops out of control down the path, which is the body. In the practice, the warrior seed syllables are like the rider’s armor, which when “worn” diligently, protects the rider from her own negative emotions and develops the mind’s awareness to direct the energy of the breath through the pathways of the body skillfully. This gives the practitioner a felt sense of an inner freedom that is part of each person’s natural state. 

When I first began chanting the seed syllables, it seemed strange to look for meaning in a practice that appeared to have no denotative aspect, and in an ancient foreign language to boot. How did the sounds act as armor, especially if there was no definition attached to them? Would they work even if I didn’t know what I was chanting, nor part of the culture from which they had come? As a writer, words were my stock in trade, my puzzle of joy, my security blanket, and my artistic raison d’être.  Didn’t I spend hours upon hours parsing the meanings between words? Wasn’t the nuance between “gap” and “space” of utmost importance in a poem? 

I pushed past my initial feeling of resistance, knowing that this was a normal part of the process of many of meditation practices and indeed, all the yoga practices I had studied over the years. When had I ever felt completely comfortable doing even the simplest poses in yoga? It had taken me forever to achieve a credible handstand pose, starting from a simple down dog, to walking my feet closer and closer to the wall just to get comfortable with the idea of being upside down, until I could do a modified half dog pose with my feet on the wall and hands on the ground. Only after doing this over a series of weeks, could I gain the confidence to swing my feet above my headand even then, I felt better if I had a partner spotting my feet so they wouldn’t rebound off the wall and pull me down to the ground again.   

When I first started meditating on the breath, I couldn’t get past the count of three without my mind wandering to some irrelevant subject, whether it was what to make for dinner or how I could be writing instead of torturing myself with meditation.  (All the while knowing that if I were sitting at my desk writing, I would be pining to be on my meditation cushion instead.) I hadn’t gotten much better at breath practice even after years of trying, but I knew that was more of a reflection on my own monkey mind than the practice itself. It was too bad I wasn’t a dancer, I told myself, someone whose control of mind and breath were linked in art. 

As a poet, the sound of chanting the seed syllables came more naturally to me than I thought they would, especially when I remembered the pleasure I had found in poems that used sound as a major element. As a child I checked out a library recording of Edgar Allan Poe poems and stories and listened to “The Bells” over and over, just to hear the word become more chilling and doomed with each repetition. More recently, I had been reading the poet Christian Bok’s book, Eunoia, and his recordings of “The Cyborg Opera:  Synth Loops,” both of which explore the power of sound, the former in rhyme and the latter in percussive spoken word performances. In this excerpt from Eunoia, Bok pays homage to a “Dada bard” while using “a” as his only vowel:

Awkward grammar appals a craftsman. A Dada bard

as daft as Tzara damns stagnant art and scrawls

as alpha (a slapdasharc and a backward zag) that mars

all stanzas and jams all ballads (what a scandal).

So it was with a hopeful faith in the sounds themselves that I began chanting “A,” “Om,” “Hung,” “Ram,” and “Dza,” and as I became more accustomed to the feel of the words issuing from my throat and mouth, I started to sense the mantras in a more bodily and intuitive way. The logic of its meaning became clearer to me as wellmusic was a language made out of sound, wasn’t it? So why couldn’t words also be a language of pure sound, without a written definition? In poetry, the movement away from semantic meaning to meaning through sound was a quality that had always been part of a poem, but was developed as a poetics in itself with the Futurists and Dadaists, the Surrealists, the Beats and beyond.

At the PennSound website I found a collection of “Dada Sounds” that featured a variety of recordings of Hugo Ball’s (aka: Tristan Tzara) verses, including readings by Christian Bök and the singer Marie Osmond. The poems are hilariously funny to listen to, and hearing Osmond read “Karawane” with gusto in all her chipper sweetness is a revelation and a rare treat.

jolifanto bambla o falli bambla

groBiga m’pfa habla horem

egiga goramen

higo bloiko russula huju

hollaka hollal

anlogo bung

blago bung blago bung

bosso fataka

u uu u

schapa wulla wussa olobo

hej tatt gorem

eschige zunbada

wulubu ssubudu uluwu ssubudu


kusa gauma


Ball’s poems embody the ridiculousness of assuming that words mean anything concrete and highlight the arbitrary way that people take meaning for granted without realizing it. Thinking about another use of sound as meaning, I recalled Michael McClure’s Beat Era poems, “Ghost Tantras,” in which he uses abstract and bestial sounds to explore humanity’s animalistic nature. In one of my graduate poetry seminars, my professor had the entire class read several stanzas of “Ghost Tantras” aloud together. We started hesitantly at first, feeling embarrassed and awkward, but we forged ahead, growling and roaring:




Grah gooooor!  Ghahh!  Graaarr!  Greeeeer!  Grayowhr!





looking for sugar!




As we got over our jitters, we could feel ourselves gaining confidence and by the end of the recitation, we were calling out the words at full force as a group, delighting in the freedom of not having to follow our usual semantic conventions.  Through the saying of McClure’s “beast language,” we were freed from the tyranny of being civilized poets; with our breath we rode the sound through the path of the body to find our inner animals. It was surprising how quickly the transformation could take place.

If McClure’s poems can touch an inner primal place in us on one end of the sound poetry spectrum, the more cerebral, conceptual end of the sound poetry can be heard in the recording of Jackson Mac Low and Anne Tardos performing, “A Phoneme Dance in Memoriam John Cage” (1993).  In it, the husband and wife duo use only the five phonemes in the composer’s name/dj/, /ah/, /n/, /k/, and /ei/to honor Cage by implementing the chance operation poetics that he himself loved and used to create music. You can listen to it at here courtesy of the EAOGH Journal.

Of course there are other poems that could be included in this list:  Guillaume Apollinaire’s “Le Pont Mirabeau,” F.T. Marinetti’s “Zang Tumb Tumb,” William S. Burroughs’s “Sound Piece,” Raoul Hausmann’s “b b b b et F m s b w,” Joan La Barbara’s “Seventy-nine Poems,” and many more. 

I love the way that sound in these poems can inhabit the body in the way that mantras inhabit Schelling’s lovers as physical bliss and way the Bon Warrior seed syllables reach a place of meaning that is beyond words, dissipating emotions through vibrations rather than intellectual reason. When I repeat “A” over and over, I lose my self-consciousness in how I sound, lose the sense of whether I’m on pitch with anyone elseI become just me, sounding like myself, for myself and of myself. And for that moment it is enough, it is all I could want or ask for. When I voice a sound poem, I feel I am living within its soundand in speaking, I am giving life to sound as well, the sound coming to life within me.