As readers, writers, students, teachers, or scholars of poetry, many of us have 'first-encounter' stories — hearing Poet X read for the first time; copying neglected Caedmon LPs in the library basement; borrowing a thrice-dubbed cassette of the Black Box Magazine or New Wilderness Audiographics; exploring the personal collection of a generous friend, poet, or teacher. In the days before the web, one might infer the performativity of David Antin, Jerry Rothenberg, Charles Olson, Anne Waldman, or Amiri Baraka through books like Technicians of the Sacred or Open Poetry or envision the scene of a raucous Beat coffeehouse reading, poet jamming with a jazz quintet — but recordings could be scarce. In place of the pleasurable frustration involved in sounding out a Futurist or Dada poem from its suggestive but underdetermined visual text — the reader seeking to hear a poem in 2015 will search online archives like PennSound or Ubuweb.
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what you heard in the “epiphone” to this essay, which is hiss from a digitization of recordings of Vachel Lindsay, originally made on aluminum records in 1931.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.