The tape recorder, implies Olson, makes a demand that is contiguous with the audience at the reading. It calls for the reading to become a performance, like a “concert or something.” This problem seems ironic coming from Olson, who described projective verse as a return to the possibilities of the voice and orality. I would like to take Olson’s question — and his anxiety — seriously in order to argue that it embeds both a threat to and an unacknowledged affinity with his poetics.
In response to a request to record his reading at Goddard College on April 12, 1959 (made available by the Slought Foundation and PennSound), Charles Olson quipped about the apparatus in front of him: “What happens if it just goes on and I don’t say anything?”
There seems to me no better way to begin this discussion than with an epistemological thought experiment (as is the case with most discussions). Consider what you heard in the “epiphone” to this essay, which is hiss from a digitization of recordings of Vachel Lindsay, originally made on aluminum records in 1931. It likely sounded like noise, and it is—to human auditory perception. But what if there is a pattern in this noise that is imperceptible to the human ear but recognizable to so-called machine listening? Consider the sample above from the Lindsay, alongside this sample of leading “noise” from digitizations of Harriet Monroe from the same series, alongside this one from the James Weldon Johnson recordings. I’ve been listening to several hours of audio from this series and have come to think that the noise from each of the recordings sounds similar, in the most impressionistic way possible.
It may seem odd that this commentary takes its name from a type of audio distortion, anathema to recording engineers who seek to capture crystalline representations of the human speaking voice. But just as all clear audio recordings must begin by having their levels set, so too must cutting-edge, experimental scholarship, which is what Clipping aims to present: inchoate working ideas on digital analyses of poetry audio. Rather than working to create a polished product off the record, as it were, we aim to publish brief working essays that the community can see and help to refine. As such, we hope to serve as a public platform and an incubator for experimental digital analyses of poetry.
In the coming months we will present a series of exciting posts by scholars working in the field of poetry audio. Ken Sherwood will explore visualizing poetry with special reference to audio versioning.
Contents of my or anyone’s recording archive result from milieu and surroundings. My collection reflects networks assembled through connections fused at Naropa (who has their own superb Poetics Audio Archive) and We Press at the foundation; its reach expands during my years in Albany, and continues to grow through my research in the field of electronic literature.
I co-founded We Press with Ted Farrell, a friend who I lived with during a year of graduate school at Virginia (1986-87). We was inspired by Anne Waldman’s proclamation, in a class a class of hers I attended at Naropa, that all young writers must start a magazine, to build networks and be engaged most fully (not only as writers but as readers, correspondents, and broadcasters of contemporary work).
I bought my first purposeful audio recorder, a simple handheld Sony cassette device, a week after completing Naropa’s Summer Writing Program in 1986—planning to use it as a composition tool, to “compose on the tongue” in Ginsbergian terms. Ginsberg described, in one of our classes, his successes and failures in using a recorder to “write” [see his Composed on the Tongue, Grey Fox (1980) for some discussion of his practice in this area]. His notion, writing-by-dictation, seemed compelling: I was about to embark on my first cross-country road trip so I imagined imparting my own observation dictations à la Fall of America. Little of substance came from that experiment, though I later ended up using that recorder to document some readings and band rehearsals; quality of these tapes, which I still have, is not good—this was rudimentary recording tech and cheap cassettes barely sustaining documentation.