Pages and Soundscapes

Open your copy of The Arrivants. Find a recording of Kamau Brathwaite reading from it. You’ll notice the line he speaks is a different unit from what’s written on the page. The effects of the visual are not the effects of the auditory.

Similarly: M. NourbeSe Philip’s Zong! opens with a series of isolate letters that offer no immediate directional logic. They struggle to form a phrase, One day’s want of water, the absence of potable fluid that caused Africans to be thrown from a slave ship in a plot to recoup insurance. Visually, the letters float up the page, towards the ocean surface, releasing voice —or are they metonymic for African bodies drowning as we read down the page?

The page proffers revelations—but listen to Philip reading and you’ll hear the body strain to seek articulation, exhalation: the plosive push of consonants, the haul of vowels.

All too often we treat poems as either written or spoken. All too soon, this invented binary legitimates a single way to read a poem. James Fenton’s dismissive review of Rita Dove’s recent anthology removes Melvin Tolson and Amiri Baraka from poetry by insisting on the primacy of the page, turning their work into “ludicrous agit-prop” and “dreck.” (Paradoxically, such arguments implicitly rely on a version of scansion that confines us to the page, to a set prosodic interpretation, though an awareness of poetic rhythm should animate possibilities for oral reading and performance.)

Against such limitation, we can set a long history of poets who have tried to make print sonic, to dissolve the distinction between writing and speech. Charles Olson’s “Projective Verse” (1950) argued that the written word conveys the “deep reachings” of the poet’s organism. Baraka imagined a poetry-writing machine beyond the typewriter, one that would include grunts and elbows in a poem. Even he, though, contributed to this binary: “The page doesn't interest me that much—not as much as the actual spoken word,” he said in 1980. (He’s still publishing books.)

Let go of the written / spoken binary and we find a spectrum analogous to Zukofsky’s “lower limit speech / upper limit music”: at one end, the material of printed words, set in place; at the other end, the possibility of unanticipated improvisation, of audition. Think of Peter Gizzi’s attention to song as threshold, Patrick Rosal’s roustabout kundiman, which pop as he performs them yet are no less intricate on the page, or the jazz-influenced swing of a Gabrielle Calvocoressi poem which, read aloud, releases an altogether different music from its elegant unfolding on a paper rectangle.

It’s not that the poet-author has a monopoly on how the poem comes away from the page—or on how to transcribe the heard. We need to give the poem the elasticity of the musical score, the theatrical script: a guide for rehearsal, for production, for arrangement.

My own compositional process is sonic, a transfer of sound from moment to moment that happens to take shape as recognizable lexes. I’m looking less for le mot juste than the right sort of bruit. My earliest exposure to poetry, knee high to a grasshopper (though not yet ee cummings’s) was verse recital contests. The poem was never meant to stay on the page. Nor, though, was the page set aside: before reciting, we offered handwritten copies of the poem, perhaps illustrated, judged on their presentation. If I’ve learned a thing or two since then about normative aesthetics, I’ve kept a sense that the poem has both physical materiality and soundscape, that we’re worse off if we can’t let these interact.

To allow that interaction, we might begin with the binary, but we must transcend it. Like borders, binaries let us notice the thresholds where we slip from one set of expectations to another. If we over-zealously police those border-binaries, we regress from stereo to mono.