Perfect Sound Forever

On Sound-Poetry:
Words on the Edge of Music

by Rich Cochrane
(December 2009)

Most students of poetry do fine with mainstream modernism: with Eliot, I mean, and Pound, and Williams and Cummings and Auden and so on. They have the tools to deal with it; it's not, after all, so different from Shakespeare or Keats. Most modernism isn't scary or shocking any more.

They do tend to draw a blank, though, at certain points, and one of those points is sound poetry. By that I mean a poem like Kurt Schwitters' "Ursonate," which begins

Fümms bö wö tää zää Uu,
        kwii Ee.


dll rrrrr beeeee bö
dll rrrrr beeeee bö fümms bö,
    rrrrr beeeee bö fümms bö wö,
        beeeee bö fümms bö wö tää,
            bö fümms bö wö tää zää,
               fümms bö wö tää zää Uu:

The poem continues in this manner for well over a thousand lines. On first meeting it, readers often respond with a sort of outraged confusion. Surely this is modernism as Emperor's new clothes, a joke at the expense of the reader or at most an archaic gesture supposed to shock the bourgeois? But as experienced travellers around the avant garde will have learned, when you draw a blank it's usually a sign that something interesting's going on.

The "Ursonate" is one of the most famous sound-poems, but the Dadaists –of which Schwitters was a member – produced numerous examples. Hugo Ball wrote more a rather bumptious kind of sound-poetry, reminiscent to an English listener of Edward Lear shorn of all remaining sense:

gaga di bumbalo bumbalo gadjamen
gaga di bling blong
gaga blung
Many of the Dadaists’ sound poems, including those by Hugo Ball, were printed with a strong typographical component, mixing fonts and type sizes to create striking visual effects. The performer is in some cases able to treat such effects as a kind of rough musical notation.

Sound in Poetry Before Dada

Sound poetry is, on the face of it, an effect of modernism. Some painters discarded representation in favour of abstraction. Some composers did the same with harmony, replacing it with texture. In poetry it was meaning, it seems, that was put aside in favour of the pure sound of the words.

As with the other arts, though, this story is suggestive but wrong. The sonic was always present in poetry; the very first word of Beowulf, the oldest surviving complete poem in English, is "hwaet," which essentially means "oi" – an interjection suggesting "listen" or "pay attention" that serves the same purpose as ringing a bell or blowing a horn. In one sense, "hwaet" isn't much of a word, since it doesn't mean a great deal. But that's not what matters. It's a sound: it announces the arrival of poetry. In the oldest Beowulf manuscript, it's written extra-large, like it might be in a graphic novel.

Poetry was always, at least in part, about sound. Beowulf and the later "Gawain" resound with alliteration and strong-stress rhythms; they were designed to be read aloud. Many of the devices most typical of poetry – metre, rhyme, repetition of sounds, the imitations of sounds called onomatopoeia – all have an effect only when heard.

Reading a poem like this on the page, without thinking of its sound, is not very different from doing the same with a musical score. This has sometimes been lost in the teaching of literature in the twentieth century, when the influential critical schools have all been based around the scrutiny of the printed text. There have always, too, been poems that worked on a visual level, but they're exceptions: the history of poetry is a history of sound, and the arrangement of sounds for aesthetic ends. In other words, poetry has always also been music.

Jumping forward perhaps a thousand years, here are a few lines by the Victorian poet Gerard Manly Hopkins:

And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
If you don't get it, read it aloud. Listen to the repetitions of the sounds in the first two lines, the long pause after "feel" and the strong, falling cadence it gives to the rest of the line. This is certainly musical poetry, if not already poetry as music.

What Does "Ursonate" Mean?

Yet there's a big difference between Hopkins and a fully-fledged sound-poem like the "Ursonate." In Hopkins a whole family of conventional linguistic meanings are being articulated by the sounds of the words. This is what happens in all speech, and in poetry, it just gets more emphasis. With Schwitters, on the other hand, all meaning and syntax appear to have been obliterated.

For Schwitters, "Ursonate" may have been a kind of nihilistic satire: a reduction of poetry to senselessness in a society that itself seemed to have lost all meaning. Writer Christian Bok has suggested that Schwitters's own performances of "Ursonate" were intended as parodies of the Latin mass. The ceremonies of established power had lost their credibility; they, in fact, were the Emperor's clothes, and the Dadaists, aping the priest, were declaring him naked. Bok's own performance sounds sometimes like a mockery of a shamanic incantation, sometimes of a political speech.

It's perhaps surprising, then, to hear contemporary sound poet Jaap Blonk perform "Ursonate" as a very gentle kind of song of vowels and consonants. Even a glance at the short snippet quoted above probably suggests to most readers a kind of musical phrase-structure, and a look over the whole piece reveals "words" and larger patterns functioning as repeated motifs. Of course the title too, with its reference to the sonata, suggests musical form. Blonk's interpretation seems to me wonderfully optimistic and not at all Dadaist, but it works beautifully.

Whichever version of "Ursonate" you prefer – and there have been many others, for simply taking the text in your hands makes it almost impossible to resist having a go – it's interesting that we seem to be looking primarily for meanings. Berio's "Sequenza III," say, is an example of a composition for the solo voice that we experience quite differently; we don't normally start by asking what it means.

It seems to me that this attitude of the audience is all that can really distinguish sound poetry from vocal music. It's an attitude that looks primarily for language-like meaning. We usually take up other attitudes towards music when we listen to it as such. Whether something is sound poetry or vocal music, on this account, is the listener's decision, not the creator's. The interpreter and the circumstances of the performance will probably no doubt influence that decision.

Double Articulation

We've identified two attitudes: the 'linguistic,' which seeks meaning, and the 'musical,' which looks for structures in abstract sound. These are both attitudes readers of PSF will have no trouble adopting. I don't think we should just try to draw a line here between the two, because it seems to me that they're folded together in a more complicated way.

First, the linguistic attitude has, as I've tried to illustrate, a musical articulation: the structure of the sounds of the words, their repetitions and variations. This isn't just an extra we bolt onto language when we do poetry: it runs right the way through it, from the rising intonation that suggests a question right through to the delicate dance of vowel sounds in a sonnet. Spoken language is always, automatically, unavoidably musical, and when we take the everyday linguistic attitude to it, we nevertheless hear that musicality all the time.

Second, the musical attitude seems to at least sometimes ask the question, "What does this mean?" We do often ascribe meanings to major vs. minor, slow vs. quick, consonant vs. dissonant, electric guitar vs. string quartet, punk vs. jazz and so on. Our interaction with music is undoubtedly concerned with meanings of a sort, not just with the analysis of abstract form.

In approaching sound poetry, we have to bring both of these attitudes – each of which contains an aspect of the other – to bear simultaneously, and they become so closely intertwined as to be inseparable. At any moment, we seem to have two layers of coding, musical and linguistic, and yet neither is fully one or the other. Neither approach will give us the whole story: there is no whole story, no secret message the right decoder will reveal. Meaning emerges, when it does, as if by magic as a side-effect of this folded-up sediment of music and language. At least part of the pleasure is the slippery, elusive complexity of that process.

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