Reading 'sound'

Stephen Ratcliffe reading at the Marin Headlands, May 16, 2010.

Reading sound (shape-in-air) of poem as acoustic phenomena (in air, heard by ear), one hears the syllable, word, line (and line break), stanza unit, whole poem determined by the poem’s shape on the page, its physical presence (seen by eye) as letters written/composed/transcribed on the page into words, there to be perceived by the human (reader) when the poem is read aloud (or silently, thereby entering the mind’s ear as sound only imagined).

Sound in the poem (i.e., the sound of “sound of waves in channel,” “sound of song sparrow calling from tobacco plant branch in right foreground”) is an approximation of actual ‘real’ sound in the world: is the sound of words which themselves are not exactly that sound — not the same thing as that sound — but can enact it, can be a transcription of it, as Stein suggested when she talked about “the word or words that made what I looked at look like itself” (and elsewhere, “made what I looked at be itself”).

What I want to think about here is the relation between poem on the page vs. — i.e., ‘as opposed to,’ not ‘better’ or ‘worse’ than but different from, not the same as but not equal to — poem in the air, by which I mean the physical shape of letters-composed-into-words-arranged-in-lines on-the-page (what we as readers read with the eye when we read the poem on the page) vs. what I would call the ‘acoustic shape’ of those same letters-composed-into-words arranged-in-lines-on-the-page read aloud (what we as listeners hear with the ear when we hear someone else read the poem). I don’t mean to ‘privilege’ the sound of the poem in the air over its shape on the page, nor do I mean to suggest that the sound I am thinking about is (simply) speech itself, the sound of voice a talking/speaking, that “speech” that one Robert Grenier once (famously, at least to some of us) once said (wrote) “I hate.”[1] What I do want to do here is think about the physics of the poem’s sound (words in air perceived with EAR) in relation to the poem’s shape (words on page perceived with EYE) — these most obvious of ‘conditions’ — because it seems to me there’s more here than meets the eye (or ear). That is to say, we sometimes read poems on the page, and we also sometimes go to poetry readings, hear poems read aloud (most often, though not always of course, without having the poem being read aloud by the poet on the page in front of us, so that we might ‘read along with’ the poem, following his or her words on the page as he or she reads them aloud). Everyone here in this room has had, I presume, both of these experiences: the experience of reader sitting in chair reading words on page; the experience of listener, also sitting in chair, hearing words read aloud by someone else, someone who is seeing the words on the page in order to read (i.e., translate) them into the air.

So what are the differences between these two obviously different kinds of experiences of these two also obviously different ‘conditions’ of the poem — one the physical ‘shape’ (image) of its words on the page, one the acoustic ‘echo’ (sound) of those words read into the air, one of which we see with our eyes, the other of which we hear with our ears? What, to put it differently, is the difference between sound and shape in poetry (the acoustic dimension, the visual dimension), which isn’t exactly the distinction Zukofsky was making between “Upper limit music” and “Lower limit speech”? What for example is the difference between the duration of syllable, word, line, stanza, whole poem in air vs. on the page? And what exactly is it that we hear when we hear the poem read? And in what ways are the ‘things’ we hear (in the air) different from ‘things’ we see (on the page) when the poem is read silently? And why are these differences important, why do they matter?

These distinctions matter, let me simply say, because we hardly notice them: the poem on the page is so obviously not the same poem in the air — the poem we read not the same as the poem we listen to, being read — that we are likely not to pay any attention to the differences between what we see and what we hear, the physical ‘shapes’ of words on the page and the corresponding acoustic ‘shapes’ of words in the air. Unnoticed effects (in this case the visual ‘effect’ of letters shaped into words arranged on the two-dimensional page, the sound ‘effect’ of those words read out into the air) are not, however, less significant than noticed ones. Nor is the distinction between sound (poem heard when read aloud) and image (poem read when seen on page) less important to our experience of poetry than the things we normally think of as being ‘important’: what the poem ‘says’ or is ‘about’ for example, the poet’s ‘influences’ or ‘school’ or ‘themes’ or ‘biography’ or ‘reputation’ etc. What I’m asking about here is the phenomenology of the poem itself: how do we come to know it in its different incarnations (as physical/acoustic phenomena), and why does it matter to pay attention to such things.

The sound of the poem conveys, in abstract ‘terms’ (sound vibrations), what the words ‘picture’ or ‘say.’ When I say ‘picture’ or ‘say’ I mean carries into the air, across to reader’s eye, listener’s ear, transcribes into physical letters (type) on the page, a two-dimensional surface/plane. The dimension in which the poem’s sound exists, and is perceived by listener/reader, is not the same physical dimension (‘space’) as poem’s words, made up of letters (of the alphabet) written down on the page.

The poem’s sound is the echo of its shape, the physical shape of its letters shaped into words on the page. It is the shadow cast by those letters/words struck by the light of the reader’s voice (perceived by listener’s ear, thence mind). The articulation of words by the reader reading silently or aloud casts the shadow of those words upon the ear’s plane, from which ‘point’ the perception of sound takes place. Just as the shape of the poem’s letters-shaped-into-words is stamped on the reader’s eye, so the sound of those letters-shaped-into-words is stamped onto the listener’s ear: two different kinds of perception lead to mind’s perception of poem.

The poem’s words ‘picture’ ‘things’ we ‘see’ (things which need not have ‘appeared, its ‘presence’ set against the nothing of total blindness/blankness) — the image, ‘poem-as-speaking-picture’ (ut picture poesis, as Horace said): this word-picture speaks to, is imprinted on, mind’s eye, so to speak. Sound on the other hand (also a presence against ground of ‘silence’ without this poem) is not visible, can’t be seen, is (somehow mysteriously) heard and (somehow, also mysteriously) felt: it conveys the ‘secret’ life of the poem’s emotion/feeling, appeals to emotion (note Pound’s melopoeia: “inducing emotional correlations by the sound and rhythm of the speech”).

To take a few examples, let me read to you these words from Wordsworth:

Five years have passed; five summers, with the length
Of five long winters! and again I hear
These waters, rolling from their mountain-springs
With a soft inland murmur …

followed by these words from Keats:

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
  Close-bosom friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
  With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eaves run;
To bend with apples the mossed cottage-trees,
  And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
    To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
  With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
    For Summer has o’er-brimmed their clammy cells …

followed by these words from Shelley:

O wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn’s being,
Thou, from whose unseen presence the leaves dead
Are driven, like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing,

Yellow, and black, and pale, and hectic red,
Pestilence-stricken multitudes …

followed by these words from H.D.:

O wind, rend open the heat,
cut apart the heat
rend it to tatters …

You will notice that all of these are addressed to a second person, even in Wordsworth (Dorothy, who is standing there listening to William, enters the poem at line 115) — the poem as address to a listener going clear back to Homer (andra moi enepe: “sing in me muse”). You will also notice the sounds of the words I’ve just read to you: the sound of my voice reading these words, whose “sound and pitch emphasis … [are] never apart from [their] meaning” as Zukofsky put it. You will also, I believe, feel in those sounds something of the emotional ‘weight’ those words read/heard in those rhythms (those pitches sounded in those time intervals, those vibrations heard in those durations) convey. Hearing all that, what you don’t notice is what I see reading these same words on the page: their shape as letters, the white spaces (and punctuation) between them, the physical look of the physical language itself, whose presence on the page enables the potential sound encoded there to be made apparent (to the ear of the listener) when those words are read aloud by the person who reads the poem aloud, as I have just done.

Some would diagram/picture the poem’s sound as a graph of the speaking voice, rising and falling in “pitch emphasis.” I would suggest that Pollock’s drip paintings are an image of that same sound: ‘abstract,’ not a representation of any ‘thing’ we can see but a register of motion itself, the trace of a marking subject whose hand (read ‘voice’) poured the paint onto the canvas (read ‘words’ that, when read aloud, produce these sounds). Alternatively, I would think to use the shadow cast by the rock in Cézanne’s Bathers as an image of the poem’s sound: what we ‘see’/hear when light of voice hits words on the page, sound-as-shadow/echo-of-words-on-page-read-aloud: sound in this regard something like offstage action in a play, the action we hear about but don’t see performed physically by actors on the stage, things spoken about (aloud) in words only, the play’s ‘performed’ action analogous to the physical ‘action’ of words in the poem on the page.

The sound of the words in the poem is potential sound, realized as sound when the poem is read aloud. Words on the page present the reader (who reads the poem silently, as words on page) with ‘information’ as to how the poem might be read aloud, thereby releasing its sound into the air. Consider the opening ‘unit’ of Leslie Scalapino’s It’s go in / quiet illumined grass / land, which reads:

silver half freezing in day
                     elation the
of the outside sky walking

— words whose placement (in lines) on the page constitutes a syntax — knitting together/arrangement/composition of thought, perception/event in words — that exists (as event) on the page and, when read aloud, also then in the air, as sound (‘information’), that part of the poem which the physical shape of words gives (acoustic) rise to, as acoustic shape.

Words on the page are physical ‘action’ — ‘events’ made up (composed) of letters which are only part of the poem — the physical shape part, which can be perceived by the eye (and brain) but not ear. What words ‘say’ can be heard (can only be heard?) if/when the poem is read aloud, its words sounded in air.

Thus back to the question: what is the difference between words-on-page (physical objects, made of letters and spaces and marks of punctuation) and words-in-air (acoustic phenomena released into the air when words (syllables) are sounded)? And also, going from physical ‘thing-on-page’ to the nonphysical (acoustic) ‘thing-in-air,’ how does information transcribed on the page get ‘translated’ into the air — as pitch, duration, volume (loudness), voice emphasis? How exactly does poem act as musical score, its marks on paper analogous to notes in music whose instructions to the performer enable that person to play that piece?

And taking this question of performance further, how is the information of the poem on the page (which the reader perceives, with eye) different from the ‘same’ information of poem sounded in air (which the listener perceives, with ear)?

That is, what exactly does the ‘spoken’ text (words read aloud) give us (its ‘auditor’) that the ‘unspoken’ (merely read-with-eye) not give us (its ‘armchair reader’)? How can poem on page, which exists in silent ‘two-dimensional’ space out of time (like painting on wall, ‘abstract’ painting I should say, since words are abstract in the sense that they don’t actually picture the things, events, people, thoughts they refer to, as Pound would have us believe Chinese does, the character/picture of sun rising through tree branches meaning ‘EAST’) — how exactly does that physical work on the two-dimensional page enter the third dimension (air/space) as words sounded in time — the time it takes to perform it, the time it takes to hear it — and what does our experience of the poem in time (experience of poem read aloud, spoken, heard with ear) give us that the poem on the page doesn’t?

I read these words (again) on the page:

silver half freezing in day
                     elation the
of the outside sky walking

And then this next (second) ‘unit’ below it:

silver half freezing in day
                      moon’s elation
of the outside rose, his seeing
                      on both
seeing someone else at all and the
                      half freezing
elation of the outside so that’s even
                      with one
continually over and over one/person

What I see with my eye isn’t what I hear with my ear, doesn’t register the same ‘information’ in my brain. The words seen exist outside time, in “a / literary space outside of ideology & history, a zone / timeless / & blank” as Charles Bernstein puts it,[2] exist ‘in potential’ (waiting for me to open book, turn the page, read them); the words read aloud take place in time, define the time of the poem by marking it out with/in those exact sounds. What has been written down, as mind’s act (“mind’s operations,” as Leslie Scalapino puts it)[3] becomes ‘realized’ (‘real’) once read (with eye) and heard (with ear).[4]

The sound of the voice reading the (silent) words arranged on the page enacts the poem’s ‘feeling’ (intangible), mind’s action in thinking such things (word events) in the first place. Sound (vibration) and pitch emphasis are not only not apart from its meaning; they get to the heart of where it (meaning) actually lies, waiting to be released (heard).

Two kinds of sound: those sounds we ‘see’ when we read the poem’s words on the page (silently) — “Th’expense of spirit in a waste of shame / Is lust in action, and till action, lust / Is perjured, murd’rous, bloody, full of blame, / Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust” — which we don’t actually hear; and those sounds we hear when we hear the poem read aloud — “Th’expense of spirit in a waste of shame / Is lust in action, and till action, lust / Is perjured, murd’rous, bloody, full of blame, / Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust” — which we don’t actually see (i.e., don’t see the letters-arranged-as-words that make those sounds ‘appear’ when the reader reads them aloud). The poem’s ‘information’ is encoded in two different (but interdependent) ‘languages’ — one (physical) performed in two dimensions, one (acoustic) performed when words lift off the page into the air; one read (as letters/words) by the eye, the other ‘read’ (as performed sounds) by the ear; one preceding the other in ‘composition’ (sound of words coming to mind before actual words written down on page), the other necessarily following ‘performance’ of the first (words written on page) as reader’s voice delivers them.

So what exactly are the differences between our experience (perception) of poem on page and poem in air? For one thing, one (the poem made up of letters made into words printed on the page) exists as I say in two dimensions, comes to us through the eyes: we see it, see its letters and words, its lines and the spaces between them, the black of printed text and white space of the page it floats on. Whereas the other exists in three dimensions, in the space of the room through which poem’s sound vibrations travel from mouth of the person who reads poem (aloud) to ear of the person who hears it so read. Thus two different ‘forms’ of same poem, or same poem ‘translated’ into two different shapes/incarnations (‘languages’), one (print) experienced with the eye, the other (sound) with the ear.

To read poem on page is to have an essentially ‘private’ experience. The line of communication goes from text-on-page through (reader’s) eye into (reader’s) mind: moves that is from the flatness of words printed on the page to an interior space inside the reader’s head (‘mind’s eye’ so to speak). To hear the poem read aloud could also be private — one person reading, one person listening — but can also, and often indeed is, ‘public’: one person reading, several people listening at the same time to the same poem read aloud. So it is (or can be) a ‘shared,’ ‘communal’ experience — ten or twelve or twenty-five of us sitting in a room as we are here, hearing someone speaking the poem. But at the same time, even though we listen to the same words being read aloud at the same reading, we each of us also hear the poem in private, in the privacy of our own head (‘mind’s ear’), so it’s also, like reading poems on page with eye, a private experience, one that takes place in the isolate space of our own heads.

But again, what is it exactly that we see or hear when we read the poem on the page, listen to it being read aloud in the air? Well, let’s see, we see shapes of words, arranged in lines, separated/punctuated by marks of punctuation. We can, if we want (or even if we don’t want; sometimes we can’t help it), slow down our experience of reading, go two steps forward and one step back, read not only horizontally (across the line) but vertically (across lines), backward and forward, reread, can start to see how the poem is ‘put together’ on the page, how its words are set next to one another, in approximate relation to each other: how these same opening lines of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 129, for example,

Th’expense of spirit in a waste of shame
Is lust in action, and till action, lust
Is perjured, murd’rous, bloody, full of blame,
Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust,

are ‘composed’ of multiple overlapping patterns that we hear but don’t notice consciously when we hear the poem read aloud: the sh of “shame” is echoed (twice) in “action … action” in line 2, the st of “waste” (also twice) in “lust … lust”; the ABAB order of noun/prepositional phrase/noun/prepositional phrase in line 1 (“expense of spirit … waste of shame”) reordered as an ABBA chiasmus (“lust in action … action lust”) in the next; the various u sounds (short and long) appearing in all four lines in “of,” “of,” “lust,” “action,” “action,” “lust,” “murd’rous,” “bloody,” “full,” “rude,” “cruel,” and “trust”; “in” appearing in the first two lines; “Is” the first word of lines 2 and 3; and so on. These are things we hear when we hear the poem read but don’t, as I say, actually notice that we notice, because the poem’s performance (in reading) goes by too fast for us to notice these effects consciously — at least as consciously as we do notice them, and testify to them, given the time to read the poem (slowly) on the page.

Not so with poem-in-air, poem read aloud in ‘performance’: we hear those same (shaped/physical) words but don’t actually see them: hear the sound (pitch and duration) of syllables, the o’s and ah’s of vowels preceded and followed by consonants, the glide and clash of consonants preceded and followed by vowels, the rhythm of a sequence of syllables read one after the other ‘in time’ (the time it takes a reader’s voice to read them, time the so-called ‘fourth dimension’ through which each word travels on its way to the listener’s ear). The poem’s ‘speed’ is beyond our control — we cannot slow it down or speed it up, cannot go back or leap forward, can only follow (‘keep up’) with speed of reader (reading words) as best we can. So we’re carried along at the speed of sound so to speak, the sound of someone else’s voice (not me) whose intonations don’t reverberate inside my chest, my throat, because I am silent, I am the listener hearing the words the person reading (reader) reads to me (the listener), who hears those words but doesn’t actually see them (physically, on the page), ‘sees’ them only as sound of words in air — hypnotic, casting a spell that sends me into my own daydream — the sound of reading ‘sound’ (itself) as such.





1.  Robert Grenier, “On Speech,” In The American Tree: Language, Poetry, Realism, ed. Ron Silliman (Orono, ME: The National Poetry Foundation, 1986), 496.

2.  Charles Bernstein, “Thelonious Monk and the Performance of Poetry,” in My Way (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1999), 23. The full passage is worth noting: “Every reading (whether one’s own reading of a book or a / poet’s reading to an audience) is an enactment, a / sounding, an / embodiment, which is to say a / reading that takes or makes / time, that enters into / the social, material, & historical space of / our lives. To deny the performative / aspect of poetry is to repress / its most literally political dimension, which is to / say, how it / enters into the world. To deny the rhetoricity / (rhetoricalness?) / & theatricality of a poem is to idealize a / literary space outside of ideology & history, a zone / timeless / & blank in which evasion substitutes for the friction / of interaction.”

3.  “Remembering everything, all layers at the same time, writing is the mind’s operations per se and imitation of it at the same time”: Leslie Scalapino, “The Radical Nature of Experience,” in The Public World/Syntactically Impermanence (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1999),

4. Scalapino’s remarks in the following essay, “The Cannon,” on speech in relation to thought, are also worth noting. From page 26: “In the view (such as in Anne Waldman’s statements) that (which is the real) poetry is ‘speech,’ there’s a sense of ‘speech’ (spoken is social, convention of ‘conversation’?) — that is not ‘thought’ [interior], is not ‘felt spatially / such as correspondences in the limbs.’ Tonal is considered thus as ranges of speaking voice or breath. Yet poets have been writing other tones — that are in the written text only — tones not occurring as speaking. These are ‘sounded’ silently, spatially — a separation; between ‘one’ and ‘social’? Or separation between ‘one’ and ‘correspondences in the limbs’ and night. (As if a butterfly and the butterfly motion of a swimmer.)”