teaching sound

Anti-ordination in the visualization of the poem's sound

ARLO visualization of the PennSound recording of Charles Bernstein's "1 to 100," numbers 73 through 75

Through ARLO (Adaptive Recognition with Layered Optimization), enabled by the HiPSTAS (High Performance Sound Technologies for Access and Scholarship) project headquartered at the Information School of the University of Texas at Austin, I sought to visualize the later passages of Charles Bernstein's chanted/screamed list or counting poem, “1 to 100” (1969). Thanks to Chris Mustazza, Tanya Clement, David Tcheng, Tony Borries, Chris Martin, and others, I am finally learning how to use ARLO to some rudimentary effect. Every single PennSound recording is now available in a test space to which ARLO can be applied by researchers, including myself, associated with the project. We are just beginning. HiPSTAS has received two NEH grants to make all this possible, and PennSound is a founding archival partner.

Teaching with sound

The very fact that audio recordings of poetry are now readily available to the classroom can be turned to a great advantage and can at least temporarily change the relationship between teacher and student. It is surely the case that when my students and I in class together listen to sound files instead of reading poem-texts, our vocabularies tend to be on the same plane. I might have a subtler response to what we’re hearing, and certainly I know far more than they about the sound in literary-historical context, but they are never struck dumb by the terminology I bring to bear on the point I seek to make about the specific sound of the words, the poetics of it. The students notice this difference – between their talk about the poem on the page and their talk about the sounded or recorded poems – and their discussion of poetics generally becomes charged with it. If it is true of those who perform spoken poetry that (as David Antin has put it) ‘it was my habit to record my talks / to find out what i[’]d said’ then similarly, the disorienting and terminologically disruptive mode I am describing is the means by which we might find out what we are teaching.

Sound poetry

If it's true, as Bob Cobbing put it in 1969, that "Sound poetry dances, tastes, has shape," then those of us who have been teaching poetry-as-printed (poetry on the page, unsounded poetry, what have you...) would presumably have to add at least these three dimensions to the realms of approach in the classroom. Which is perhaps too elaborate a way of saying that to have been prepared to teach words on a page, no matter how complex, is not to be prepared to help present a language as a kind of dance, as something to be tasted, as something that has a physical shape.

Cobbing again: "Leonardo da Vinci asked the poet to give him something he might see and touch and not just something he could hear. Sound poetry seems a to me to be achieving this aim."* Same problem here, I'd suggest. See and even hear we can do, with work. But touch? That's difficult. (And although seeing a printed poem - really seeing it as a thing, in William Carlos Williams's sense ("Poems aren't beautiful statements. They're things!") - is something we think we do in a close reading when often it is not what we're really doing.)

Scholarly uses of recordings of poets performing their poetry

Below is a partial list of articles that make explicit use of PennSound material (prepared by Charles Bernstein):

Christine Hume, Improvisational Insurrection: The Sound Poetry of Tracie Morris, Contemporary Literature, Volume 47, Number 3, Fall 2006, pp. 415-439 (Article)

Hank Lazer, “Is There a Distinctive Jewish Poetics? Several? Many?: Is There Any Question?” Shofar: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Jewish Studies, Volume 27, Number 3, Spring 2009, pp. 72-90 (Article) [At left: Photo of Hank Lazer reading at California State University at San Marcos, October 2008.]

Andy Weaver, Promoting “a community of thoughtful men and women”: Anarchism in Robert Duncan’s Ground Work Volumes
ESC: English Studies in Canada, Volume 34, Issue 4, December 2008, pp. 71-95 (Article)

Charles Bernstein, Objectivist Blues: Scoring Speech in Second-Wave Modernist Poetry and Lyrics: American Literary History, Volume 20, Number 1-2, Spring/Summer 2008, pp. 346-368 (Article)

Bob Cobbing

Bob Cobbing (1920–2002) was so cool that he embodied a post-word-as-such aesthetic, which enabled him to reach through language to sound and material (concreteness) and also an alphabeticality (the letter as letter). Ruth & Marvin Sackner's amazing archive in Miami includes a good deal of Cobbing's work, and our Matt Abess spent the summer of '06 and a good bit of time since then digitizing some of it and preparing for an exhibit that is opening now at the University of Pennsylvania library's gallery. This activity culminates in an event at the Kelly Writers House on October 11. For more: 1 2 3 4.

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