Friday, October 17, 2014

Playlist Parataxis: The Poetics of Shuffle

Image by Mark Giles
Used under CreativeCommons
I recently purchased a record player. I’m not exactly sure why I purchased it (I’ll forego explanations about the “warmth” of the sound, etc), but part of it, I think, has to do with re-socializing the musical consumption process (cf previous post) and a reacquisition of tactility, both of which center on the process of visiting a record store. Another effect of my newfound habit of purchasing records is that I mostly purchase the full albums within which the singles I know well are situated, within their original contexts and juxtapositions—including placement vis-à-vis other songs on the album and their relative position to the “flip,” which I feel is a kind of aural caesura, a dramatic device. 

It would be stating the obvious to point out how digital music (especially the iTunes store) has reiterated the primacy of the “single,” but I do think that there is a risk of losing something by consuming singles as singles. The risk of loss is not some kind of encoded meaning derived from a track existing in its set context within an album; rather, the possibility of loss is the process of creative close listenings necessary to decipher the parataxis of song placement on albums—why are the songs ordered thus? (Definition of poetic parataxis, from Wikipedia: "[Parataxis is] used to describe a technique in poetry in which two images or fragments, usually starkly dissimilar images or fragments, are juxtaposed without a clear connection. Readers are then left to make their own connections implied by the paratactic syntax.") Why would this song precede the following song, and how do they relate? The most fascinating thing to me about digital listening is that parataxis is not lost in the primacy of the single in the playlist; it just becomes further listener constructed (decentering the editorial authority of the producer/artist), and intensified by the need for creating more distant relations. The difference is that many people don’t consider these juxtapositions in playlists or shuffles as meaning-making devices—but should.

With the rise of critical theories like reader-response theory, questions of meaning moved from that of encoded and intended meaning—why did the artist place the tracks in this order? Can we figure out what he or she meant through a close-listening?—to the listener’s role in constructing meaning—here’s what this track placement means to me… Listening to a record, where the tracks are ordered according to the producers’ wishes, certainly makes one want to ask questions similar to the former, but also lends itself to the latter. In either process, a engagement with parataxis occurs. The listener is forced to make a creative leap with little to no cues with regard to the subordination of tracks or the transitions between them. For example, on Led Zeppelin I, how does “Good Times, Bad Times” transition into “Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You?” Is it the triumph of the “bad times” over the good, resulting in the subject deciding to abandon the relationship? These are the kinds of questions the track placement in a record begs us to ask.

One might posit that the vast majority of musical consumption moving to singles rather than full albums obviates the ability to engage in such analyses. But to do so would be mistaken and would forego one of the greatest advantages that modern technology affords to musical interpretation: the ability for listeners to construct their own juxtapositions or to use algorithms in the (somewhat) aleatory making of meaning. In other words, the juxtapositions created in playlists don’t carry any less meaning because they were not placed by an editorial authority. In fact, it’s possible that the decentered construction of the playlist or shuffle gives way to more possibility than preconfigured arrangements.

Let’s say for example, that your shuffle algorithm decides to play Sinatra’s “My Way” before Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song.” Most would chalk this up to the result of having a variegated musical taste and would listen to the tracks as unrelated singles. An alternative would be to ask the question of what the juxtaposition of these tracks signals. Does Sinatra (via Paul Anka) celebrating the triumph of individualism over attempts to constrain and reduce him (me vs. the world) against Marley’s populist anthem for liberation denote a conflict (individual vs. collective) or an exploration of the same impulse to understand a complex dialectical that takes place daily? Also, what does it say about the arranger of the list to have both of these tracks in his or her library?

This kind of extreme parataxis and decentering of the editor is nothing new. Consider greatest-hits albums. In these cases, few would ask the questions about juxtapositions suggested here (though, I would argue, should). Too, the forms of relation between individual tracks are evolving constantly. Consider Pandora and other algorithmic forms of Internet radio. These highly mediated orderings of songs need an additional layer of exploration (rendering more opaque their algorithms and determinants to song selection), but also should not be exempted from close-listenings.

While this brief blog post cannot hope to cover all of the background necessary to fully explore this topic, my hope is to propose that we, from time to time, establish some critical distance to the music we listen to and engage in the creative act of close-listening and thus, meaning-making. We shouldn’t let the fact that musical tracks are called “singles,” a term that derives from their relative lack of editorial context, exempt us from what we might learn from considering them in juxtaposition.

All of this reminds me of a well-known statement by Emily Dickinson: “Did you ever read one of her Poems backward, because the plunge from the front overturned you? I sometimes (often have, many times) have -- a Something overtakes the Mind—“

I propose that a Something overtakes the Mind when we listen on shuffle.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Glitch is never more than an extension of content: An outtake

Image by
Used under CreativeCommons license
As I work on sifting through and segmenting recordings of the poet Vachel Lindsay for PennSound, I came across an amusing, if unfortunate, audio error in the recording of Lindsay reading his poem "How Samson Bore Away the Gates of Gaza." Toward the end of the poem, Lindsay enters into a refrain of sorts that interacts with the biblical story of Samson and Delilah (and perhaps Milton's Samson Agonistes):

She cut off his hair,
She put out his eyes

The recording of Lindsay reading the work, though, well...cuts off on the words "cut off":

[MP3 link]

Perhaps one could read/hear this as the recording device allowing us to hear the dead being parallel to Samson's hair: with it, so too goes our power, the power to represent that which is no more. Or we could just call it a kind of funny (in its irony), unfortunate (in the damage to the recording) happenstance.

One thing worth noting, though, is that this is one of the first instances (1931) that I know of where we get an interaction (even if unintentional) between the content of recorded poetry and the potential for glitches in the materiality of its medium (its sonic form). The next one that I know about is William Carlos Williams' recording of the "The Defective Record" (1942), wherein the poem ends in a mimesis of a skipping record.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Charles Reznikoff’s “During the Second World War…” as Objectivist Ars Poetica

A poem I keep coming back to again and again is Charles Reznikoff’s “During the Second World War, I Was Going Home One Night,” first published in 1969. I first encountered the poem from hearing it in PoemTalk #56, and later had the opportunity to study Reznikoff in my poetics seminar. The reason that I find this poem so striking is that it seems like a kind of proto-Language poem, in addition to being an Objectivist ars poetica, despite (or perhaps through) the poem’s narrative structure. Also worth some attention is a critical difference in the way Reznikoff performs the poem and the way it exists on the page.

The poem details two brief encounters between the poem’s subject, the “I” of the poem, and a fruit vendor, during and after WWII. On the surface of the poem, we get a kind of subject-object relationship between the two figures, with the poem’s narrator as subject, and the vendor an object in his field. But looking more closely, it’s not just the poem’s subject trying to comfort a vendor whose son was fighting in the war; the poem unfolds into an intersubjectivity wherein the two men reciprocally provide support for each other. In the second stanza, when the subject returns to the fruit store, he notes, “I found myself once more in that street/and again it was late at night, dark and lonely;” The description of “dark and lonely” is the affect of the subject—not the vendor. We could also read the “again” to imply that not only was it late at night again, but that the subject is feeling dark and lonely and again, i.e. that he was in a similar mood the first time he visited. Pairing this with his upbeat language in the presence of the vendor, and the fact that he returns to the fruit store again, we might deduce that the companionship is bidirectional. In this regard, the poem is different than some of Reznikoff’s other poems, such as “Amelia,” where the poem is framed as a kind of detached observation of a scene.

But the most interesting aspect of the poem, to me, is its function as a commentary on language and the potential shape of the signifier. Reznikoff structures the poem such that the subject is the enthusiastic and more eloquent user of language. “You are sad…What is troubling you?” he first asks the vendor, who replies, in what the subject later describes as a “monotone”: “Yes, I am sad.” The uneven dialogue here, with the vendor speaking in an almost robotic, affectless cadence, implies that the vendor either doesn’t want to talk (because he is sad?) or, alternatively, that language is not his chosen method of communication. We see several other examples of the disparity in language use throughout the poem, including and especially when we learn that the vendor’s son returned from the war unharmed:

his thin wrinkled face was grim
but not particularly sad. “How about your son?” I said.
“Did he come back from the war?” “Yes,” he answered.
“He was not wounded?” “No. He is all right.”
“That’s fine,” I said. “Fine!”

I found interesting here Reznokiff’s use of, and lack thereof, contractions to smooth dialogue. The subject, who is clearly comfortable with language, uses contractions: “That’s fine”; the vendor does not: “He is all right.” Again, this shapes the subject into a dynamic presence and the storeowner into a kind of automaton, an affectless object.

The turn of the poem comes here, when the storeowner responds to the subject’s bonhomie:

He took the bag of apples from my hands and groping inside
took out one that had begun to rot
and put in a good one instead.

The apple that the vendor gives the subject is itself a non-lingual signifier, a sign that carries all of, if not more than, the affect/expression of the subject’s ebullient discourse. It is language made concrete and material. “Words are things, too,” said Charles Bernstein. It’s also a tangible manifestation of Zukofsky’s famous “rested totality,” in that the apple serves as a perfected, finished object that encapsulates the power of the poem. The apple is an objectivist poem within an objectivist poem--rested totality inside rested totality.  (Interesting paradox: two contingent totalities.) As such, the poem presents itself as a metapoem.

The dialogue and the poem are completed with the storeowner having the last “word”:

He took the bag of apples from my hands again
and took out one of the smaller apples and put in a large one.

The apples are expressive of complex, nuanced feelings, the kind of feelings we generally fumble with language to define, not just tokens of gratitude to the subject. The vendor seems to express more with his statement (and revision) of the apples than the subject does with words, causing the reader to question which of the men is the subject and which is object. In this regard, the poem seems a kind of commentary on the limits of words and the presence of alternative semiotics. Even though the poem doesn’t look anything like a Language poem, I feel like it’s akin to Language poetry in this regard: Reznikoff subtly makes language something real and concrete in a way that causes the reader to ponder the material existence and physical limitations of words. The apple as signifier does not point, in any constant sense, to a fixed signified. We get the sense of the rough direction in which it points, but it resists the transparency that can undo the selfsame function in language. It’s not possible to read straight through the apple to some kind of fixed referent: we must stop and consider it as a material thing, and in doing so, consider how this reference is different than any other, particularly—language.


It was surprising to hear that in both recordings of Reznikoff reading “During the Second World War…,” one from 1974 and one from 1975 (both available on Reznikoff’s PennSound page), he reads an alternative version of this poem, one that amalgamates the two apple exchanges into one.

In both readings of the poem, Reznikoff elides these lines:

He took the bag of apples from my hands and groping inside
took out one that had begun to rot
and put in a good one instead.

He then amalgamates the two exchanges into one, reading the final two lines of the poem as:

He took the bag of apples from my hands and groping inside
took out one of the smaller apples and put in a large one.

So we get the first line of the first apple exchange in the text, followed by the last line of the text. Given that he chooses to read the poem the same way in both recordings, there must be some significance here. So the question becomes: why change the poem?

One guess is that Reznikoff felt that the replacement of the rotting apple was less expressive than corrective. The only way we could see it as expressive is if the vendor was consciously going to sell the subject a rotting apple. That wouldn’t make the vendor as sympathetic as otherwise (though one could make the argument that it makes him a more complex character). Another possibility is that Reznikoff is condensing the two exchanges into one in the spirit of Imagist-Poundian minimalism. Perhaps he felt that the two exchanges compressed into one kinetic expression yielded more force than the repetitive iteration presented in the text.

Personally, I think that the text of the poem creates a much more complex aesthetic. The version as performed makes the apple exchange into a simple show of gratitude; the subject is given a bigger apple as a sign of thanks. I think that the repetition of the process in the text of the poem creates a complex, dialogic exchange and the conversion of a subject-object relationship into an intersubjective encounter. The repeated process of trying to select the right apple to express the giver’s intended feeling mirrors the process of the subject trying to choose the right words—only it lays bare a process that would otherwise be backgrounded, at best, and transparent, at worst.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Poetics Seminar on Sound - 4/7/2014

This post is for anyone attending the 4/7/2014 session on sound and poetry in Charles Bernstein's poetic seminar. 

Practice with waveforms 

I thought it might be a good idea for everyone to get some familiarity with waveforms before the actual session. It seems like SoundCloud is the easiest way to go about this (no need to install any software, we can work on something collaborative, etc). So, to this end, I've uploaded a reading I spend a lot of time thinking about, William Carlos Williams' 1942 reading of "To Elsie." (I have an essay coming out on the context and provenance of this recording, and will post the link if it's out in time for this session.) You can see the recording here.

SoundCloud will allow you to see the recording in its waveform form. It should be pretty intuitive to look at--the x-axis is time and the y-axis is intensity/volume. This is the visualization that most people use when they edit audio (though audio tools will let you zoom in and out, etc.).  This image is a screenshot from Audacity, a fantastic and free audio editing tool.

It would be great if everyone could take a look at the recording, but for the intrepid souls amongst you, please do consider creating a SoundCloud account and commenting within the recording. Instructions on commenting are available here. I dropped in a couple of annotations, which will pop up when the player gets to the segment of the recording where I've appended them. If you'd like to add some comments (which I hope you will), it might be a good idea to focus on the sound of the recording. For example, how do the expressive properties of the sound (pitch, volume, prosody, tempo, etc) at any given point interact with the form and the content of the poem?

If anyone is interested, here is a copy of my seminar paper from my Fall 2013 poetics seminar, where I work toward a phonotextual analysis of this poem. It's still very rough, but I hope to build upon it this term. Any comments very welcome! The paper goes beyond waveforms to spectrograms and musical notation, but I think it gives a decent overview of some of the phonotextual considerations.

Friday, February 28, 2014

"Breath" and Depth: Distinguishing between dramatic pauses and breath pauses in poetry performance

One of the topics I’ve been interested in for a while is how a poet “phrases” his or her poems when performed. Where does the poet pause when reading, and how does the pause interact with the sonic expectations set forth by the visual form of the printed poem? I think of these phrases, as delimited by pauses, to be manifestations of Pound’s famous dictum, “ to compose in the sequence of the musical phrase, not in sequence of a metronome.” I think that this distinction between sonic phrasing and visual form—both lineation/spacing and grammatical/syntactical form—is crucial. Many times, when hearing a poet read, the performance will roughly align with the sonic expectations created by the printed poem. But in many other cases, it will not. And herein do we get to consider the phonotextual relation of the poem as sounded entity to its existence in print.

I wrote a seminar paper on this topic for my poetics seminar with Bob Perelman. To write the paper, I used digital audio tools, paired with close listening, to meticulously parse four performances of WilliamCarlos Williams reading “To Elsie” into aural phrases. Afterwards, I compared the commonalities in the way Williams phrased the poem in performance against the text of the poem, looking for aural-textual agreements and disagreements. As I was discussing the paper with Al Filreis, he asked me whether the pauses could be just breath pauses, rather than dramatic devices. I’ll spare you any anticlimactic disappointment by telling you now that this blog post does not/cannot answer that question! But what some new techniques I learned recently helped me make some progress in considering the question.

Using ARLO (Adaptive Recognition with Layered Optimization), a cutting-edge digital audio tool developed through the HiPSTAS (HighPerformance Sound Technologies for Access and Scholarship) initiative, I sought to expose facets of the pauses delimiting the aural phrases I heard, facets difficult to hear with the human ear alone. Here’s a spetrogram of Williams reading the first few lines of “To Elsie” in 1942:

In the spetrogram, we see clearly delimited phrases of speech. The first, the one to the far left, is Williams reading "The pure products of America/go crazy--" After a defined pause, we see the second phrase, "mountain folk from Kentucky//or the ribbed north end/of Jersey/" Finally, after the second pause, is the third and right-most phrase: "with its isolate lakes and/valleys,"

By listening to the recording, and even by looking at this sophisticated visual representation of the poem, these look like cleanly carved out phrases, with no sound occurring in between. But let's turn up the "gain" in ARLO to amplify the visual representation of the sound. In other words, we will create a new visualization that renders perceptible very quiet sounds that are difficult, if at all possible, to hear with the ear alone.

We can now see a sonic phenomenon that was not present in our first spectrogram-- (faintly) circled in red here. These are visualizations of the sound of Williams taking a breath. Under amplification, they become visible. In fact, when you listening again, you can almost hear the first breath.

So this brings us back to the question Al posed me: are these pauses just breath pauses? Maybe. But it's worth asking the question: is there a pause because of a breath or is there is breath because of a pause? Can we determine a causation, or can we merely claim correlation? Is it possible that, like in musical vocal performances, Williams takes his breaths strategically to fall within "rests" in his composition? 

I'm not sure that there is a way to answer this definitively, but perhaps one approach would be to consider the length of the pauses. Do there exist short pauses, which are functional, just to take a breath, vs. longer pauses of a more standard length that denote aesthetic choices? If the latter, can we start to consider the visualization of these poems a kind of musical score, thinking of sound in terms of pitch and duration, "notes" and absence thereof ("rests"?), phrasing and syncopation? 

In Al's post on using ARLO, he references Louis Zukofsky's famous integral for locating poetry, a calculus, I think, that technology constantly serves to reify:


Sunday, February 9, 2014

Man A Know I: An Aural Deformance of Robert Creeley's "I Know A Man"

Robert Creeley, image from PennSound
After reading Jerome McGann and Lisa Samuels' groundbreaking essay on deformance, I was moved to create a deformance of my own. I wanted to work with a sound file, rather than text, to start, because I haven't seen many aural poetic deformances. Creeley seemed like a natural place to start, due to his reading style. If you haven't heard Creeley read, you really should. His style of reading is quite different than others in that he reads a poem in the way that it looks. In other words, he places a slight pause at the end of every line--he does not read through the enjambment. In this way, he interprets quite literally Charles Olson's concept of the typewriter as compositional device, as a tool to create a musical score through spacing and lineation. As such, it was not difficult to segment the recording into lines, audio chunks that mirror the textual lineation of the poem. I started with his well-known poem "I Know A Man," from his October, 1966 reading, available in PennSound. After breaking recording into "lines," I take Emily Dickinson's advice, as relayed by McGann and Samuels, to read a poem backwards, because "a Something overtakes the Mind --" when one does so. So I created a deformance by sewing the individual lines of "I Know A Man" back together backwards, available here:

Some thoughts on the poem

I think that this poem dichotomizes learning through language and haptic learning. The poem's speaker seeks to address the problem of the surrounding darkness through language and expression, wrought through a kind of solipsism. His self-centeredness is displayed through addressing his interlocutor with an incorrect name and the repetition of "I" in the first stanza--and indeed the I as the first word and subject of the poem's title, a subject that operates epistemologically on a generic object, "A Man." This generic and marginalized man, whose name is not John, ultimately gives potentially lifesaving advice:

drive, he sd, for
christ’s sake, look
out where yr going.

In other words, grasp (literally, in terms of the steering wheel) the here and now if you want to avoid an immediate darkness. Do--do not say.

The ineffectualness of language (rather than action) to address the encroaching void is best shown through the abbreviations Creeley uses: "sd" for "said" and "yr" for "you're." I interpreted these to be reductive poetic devices to show that a word can have a patina of meaning, the form of efficacy, but be hollow and decentered. The outer bounds of "said" are present, but the word has been excoriated. This, to me, connotes a doubt in the efficacy of speech over action. It also parallels the use of language with the speaker's pseudo-solipsistic (or at least self-centered) views. Note too that the main verb of the poem, "drive" is not abbreviated. Related, the subject's interlocutor enacts the content of the poem through the inverse of the subject's actions: when he speaks all of his words appear in full, with the exception if "sd" and "you're." The latter case seems to me to act against the subject's self-centeredness by reducing the subject through the reduction of the contraction (the contraction of the contraction?).

All in all, I think the poem is meant to be a playful reminder that, while intellectualism is important, it cannot function outside some form of practicality.

On the deformance of the poem

Given that this is one of Creeley's best-known poems, I thought that it could benefit from a deformance, in order to allow those who've read/heard it many times a fresh look at it. As noted in the PoemTalk on "I Know A Man," a key feature of the phonotext is the wavering, sometimes-tremulous, voice Creeley uses to perform it. I think that the hesitance, perhaps trepidation, expressed by the performance serves as a counterbalance to the strong egotistical tone connoted by the speaker's choice of words. In other words, it creates an interesting form-content disjuncture. The solidification of the voice when it considers buying "a goddamn big car," comes more into tune with the content, as it's likely that this sentiment is one of defiance. The tone hardens and becomes resolute as the subject considers whether a commercialistic act of resistance is the right action if the face of the daunting void. So, to me, the performance of the poem interacts well with the content--the hollowed out "said" ("sd") performed without the resoluteness of performance that one might expect from the text alone, a hollow egotism.

The deformance of the poem is quite paratactical. It does not flow together logically, like the originally ordered poem, but this is the point of a deformance--to defamiliarize. To me, the deformance connotes a stammering, stuttering attempt at saying (sy-ing?) something. It's like the speaker wants to tell us something badly, but words themselves are failing. It's in action, in the physical action of speaking, that the speaker communicates to us. We somehow feel what he means: that there is something great that needs to be addressed, but cannot be sd. It's through the act of his trying to say it that it can be addressed.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Re-Rhythm: Jerome McGann's Modern Reading of Poe's "Annabel Lee"

The Brain, within its Groove
Runs evenly—and true—
But let a Splinter swerve—
'Twere easier for You—

To put a Current back—
When Floods have slit the Hills—
And scooped a Turnpike for Themselves—
And trodden out the Mills— 
Emily Dickinson, Poem 556
I was moved to write about the phonotextual experience created by reading the text of Poe’s “Annabel Lee” while listening to Jerome McGann perform the poem. Looking at the text of the poem (this version of the text is not the exact version McGann reads, but it's close), it begs to be read in a lyric fashion, reading through the enjambment and either placing a stress on the rhymed words or injecting a slight caesura after to highlight the rhymes and rhythmic qualities of the poem. In doing so, the result would be the regular, metrical sound expected from lyric poetry. But McGann denies us our sonic expectations through his disruptive reading of the poem, and in doing so, liberates the poem from its metrical bounds, achieving the “elevation” of the reader’s perception Poe speaks about in his poetics.

In “The Poetic Principle,” Poe speaks about the “rhythmical creation of beauty.” But McGann shows us that another aesthetic layer can be created by the negation of rhythm, especially when there is a rhythmic expectation. Indeed, the idea of “rhythm” functions on the faculties of memory and pattern recognition. By storing in short-term memory what was heard and forecasting what will be heard, the brain settles into a dually retrospective and prospective “groove,” pun intended. In addition, the Dickinsonian connotation--“The Brain, within its Groove”—holds, as McGann’s difficult-to-anticipate (anti-)rhythm serves as the “splinter” to derail our expectations.
Listening to the first stanza of “Annabel Lee” read by McGann, without viewing Poe's text, we might construct a libretto of the stanza that looks like this:
It was many
many a year ago,
in a kingdom
by the sea,
that a maiden lived whom
you may know
by the name of
Lee; —
this maiden she lived with no other thought
Than to love and be loved by me.
Of course, visually, this looks like a modernist construction, perhaps something from William Carlos Williams, certainly not like Poe’s lyric. The alternate lineation derived from the aural qualities of the reading shows modernist aesthetics of composition being used to “make it new,” to revivify a well-known poem through a sort of deformance. By denying the reader the expected sound of the poem, not only is something new created, but the reader is provided new insights into the content of the original by a disruptive, aural reordering, indeed a performative example of McGann and Samuels’ concept of deformance.
In addition to acting as the “splinter” that disrupts the brain within its rhythmical groove, McGann’s performance pulls against other dimensions of the poem’s form, including grammatical syntax and the chosen lineation. It creates a visualization (if it were transcribed as above) with irregular line lengths and lineation placed to disrupt the syntactical properties of the text. For example, the line break after the first “many” is highly unexpected, both sonically and grammatically. It serves to create an expectation of a following noun object—it was many…?—but leads to the lone “and’” which in turn leads to  the rest of the introductory phrase that stands alone as its own stanza. The pace of the poem is dramatically (both in terms of degree and as a dramatic rhetorical device) slowed to create a visual, derived from the aural, pull.
As McGann’s reading progresses, a new order emerges. The listener can perceive repetitions in the way McGann reads the poem that are not present in the text, but become nonetheless expected in their irregular regularity. For example, the listener begins to expect McGann to pause slightly between “Annabel” and “Lee,” every time the name is read. While at first this functioned against the visual aspects and expected rhythmical properties of the poem, it itself becomes regular and creates a new expectation. While the listener experiences the phonotext, he or she comes to foresee more of the coming rhythm, alternative to, though contingent upon, Poe’s written rhythm.
Poe’s poetics do seem to mesh well with the aesthetic theories of McGann. From Poe’s thoughts on alternative ways to read Paradise Lost prefiguring McGann’s theory of deformance through their alternate-but-related applications of the creation of beauty through rhythm, the two figures seem complementary. One of the most fascinating aspects of Poe’s poetics, to me, is in the "Philosophy of Composition," where he suggests that a poet should consider the refrain of a poem early in its composition and also strive for universal appeal. In musical terms, this mirrors compositional advice on how to write a pop song: write the chorus first. I mean this not to be derogatory (the comparison to pop music). Indeed, most pop songs are fantastically well written songs—it’s in the jejune musical production where they become adulterated. Because the musical arrangements strive so hard to evoke and illustrate the content of the song, they become mono-dimensional and uninteresting (admittedly subjective). McGann’s “cover” of Poe serves to revitalize it in the way a reinterpretation of a song can, by using a complex production to pull against the content and expected form--and create originality through the disjuncture. Through his irregular cadence, tight range of pitch that resists an overly expressive application of tone, and judicious use of emphasis, McGann makes it impossible to put the Current back again and hear the poem as a lyric.

For more on McGann, see:
- PoemTalk 48: Ill, Angelic Poetics
- McGann's PennSound author page
- McGann reading Poe

Monday, January 27, 2014

Aural Dialectics: On Allen Ginsberg’s Musical Rendition of Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience

William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience (1789) is a collection of illuminated poems separated into two groupings, Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience, that engage with their respective, eponymous forces and ostensibly present them as a dichotomy, or perhaps rather as a linear transition, with innocence giving way to experience. But to consider the poem a presentation of binaries or opposing forces, discounts much of the Blakean aesthetic. For me, it wasn’t just the text and the accompanying illustrations that helped to frame and reify the dialectical counterbalance between innocence and experience in Blake’s work, but rather the addition of a third dimension: Allen Ginsberg’s musical renditionof the work, available through PennSound. It’s through Ginsberg’s off-key, warbling, sometimes out-of-time, performance of the lyric that we get a simultaneous embracing of the Romantic ideology and the Modernist rejection of it, coexistent and counterbalanced to great aesthetic effect.

Content and form of the original poems

First, a little on my view of Blake’s work. The presentation of Blake’s poem, the separation into groupings of innocence and of experience, would imply that each grouping is discrete and addresses solely its own force. But that’s not how Blake’s collection works. It begins with the presentation of innocence, focusing on youth and pastoral imagery as a kind of thesis, but intersperses challenges to the purity of innocence, such as slavery and child labor. Through this impingement of Experience upon Innocence’s textual ground, it would be tempting to assume that Blake would chart a linear progression, with an inverse relationship between innocence and age (for which experience is an ostensible proxy or metonymy).  Similarly, in Songs of Experience, we see the focus shift to the apparent corruption of innocence: the turn toward death of the vegetal imagery (a symbol of innocence) in “The Sick Rose,” a formerly fertile pastoral space turned fallow in “The Garden of Love,” etc. But the balancing factor of this antithesis is the form, both the poetic and visual form of the work. The ballad-esque forms that project the feel of a soccer supporters club singing in a crowded pub and the bright, Technicolor images that display a kind of childlike, Crayola vibrancy even in their depiction of dark subject matter both serve to illustrate (literally) the encroachment of Innocence upon Experience.

When I first read the work, I was expecting to see a kind of Hegelian dialectic take shape: thesis (Innocence) collides with antithesis (Experience), with the residue of the collision, the synthesis (death?), resolving, in time, the conflict. But what we actually get is a non-Hegelian dialectic, similar to the way Henry Sayre describes William Carlos Williams’ dichotomy between reality and the imagination. It’s not that one force is the established hegemony and a challenger will seek to supplant it, but rather that the two forces can and do coexist symbiotically, even if ostensibly opposed. Innocence needs Experience to care for it. We see this repeatedly throughout the poems—imagery of shepherds and mothers and nurses representing Experience’s nurture of Innocence. Later, we see the content turn dark, toward Experience, but the form seeks to counterbalance it through interspersed innocence, including youth as a palliative presence in “London," and the persistent presence of vegetation as a symbol of innocence. Through this disjuncture, Innocence offers its help to Experience. It seeks to show that reality is constructed through perception, through the imagination (as WCW would claim over a century later), and that Innocence is ever-present and can be invoked at any point to act as a counterbalance. In this manner, we get two contingent and interdependent forces, which can never devolve into one superseding the other, nor a Hegelian synthesis. It’s perhaps Kantian, in that innocence is tied to perception (phenomena) and experience gets bound up in an immutable reality, a progression toward death (noumena). We can’t altogether avoid the noumenal reality of things, but we can and do construct a phenomenal reality through perception. Blake suggests that this process can be conscious—innocence can be recalled and applied to temper experience—in much the same way Williams calls upon the imagination to temper reality.

Ginsberg’s performance of the collection

While Ginsberg offers a unique interpretation of the Songs through his musical renditions, I find that listening while looking at the original illuminated texts provides the best feel for how Ginsberg extends and complements the content and form aurally.

Starting from the first song, the introduction to Innocence, the poem describes a biblical divine inspiration, wherein a piper meets a messianic child on a cloud who is moved by his song. The child asks the piper to “pipe a song about a Lamb”—note the capitalization here, likely an allusion to the Christian “Lamb of God” and reflexive to the child who requests it. From there, the child asks the piper to sing, and then finally to write. The order here should not be overlooked. This subordination would be echoed by poets from Ezra Pound (“music begins to atrophy when it departs too far from the dance…poetry begins to atrophy when it gets too far from music”) through Olson (written poetry as derivative of kinesis and human breath) through Vachel Lindsay (who saw written poems as librettos to sung/performed poems). So the progressions goes: melody to song to text, the latter being necessary for preservation, though inferior to the former options. This framing works well for Ginsberg’s performance, where he becomes the inspired, revitalizing the textual representations of the Songs into their intended sung forms. As discussed in the PoemTalk on this work, he becomes the bard who composes and sings these songs to us, through a divine inspiration.

In addition, the musical choices made throughout Ginsberg’s interpretation of Blake intertwine with the content and form. Starting from the introduction to Innocence, we hear the choice to include a flute, which seems meant to evoke the piper’s pipe. The flute exists throughout the Songs of Innocence, and seems to become an aural symbol of innocence. Its presence in poems where Experience impinges upon Innocence, such as in “The ChimneySweep,” begin to create an aural disjuncture parallel to that created between the darkening theme of child labor against the images of children embracing and perhaps celebrating their liberation by the angel. The flute all but disappears as we progress into Experience (save for “To Tirzah.”)

Most interesting to me in terms of musical arrangement is the lack of drums in Innocence, and their appearance on certain tracks in Experience. To me, this is a crucial detail, as drums mark regular time and evoke the metronome, an anathemized  symbol in the modernist aesthetic—“compose in the sequence of the musical phrase, not in the sequence of the metronome,” said Pound—for its association with mechanized poetic forms. The introduction of drums in “The Garden of Love” and culminating in “The Grey Monk,” (though this work is not part of Blake's Songs of Experience) with drum legend Elvin Jones playing on the latter, to me connotes a conscious aesthetic choice to chart a course toward the Romantic aesthetic of poetry, as innocence becomes background to experience. To counterbalance the Romantic ideology, we have Ginsberg’s warbling, whimsical, out-of-key vocals continuing to evoke Innocence, now impinging upon Experience, through their association with childlike revelry. Herein do we get an aural, non-Hegelian dialectic taking shape.

Finally and most importantly, I would note the increased degree of production and polish we can perceive when we arrive at the final song in Ginsberg's Songs of Experience, “The Grey Monk.” The fact that this track is appended to the album is an interesting aesthetic decision itself, as "The Grey Monk" is not part of Blake's Songs of Experience. Ginsberg's decision to include it as a conclusion seems to signify where he thinks the Songs' logical end-point lies should innocence be depleted: violence and renewed tyranny. Only an "intellectual thing" like a tear, which also has religious connotations of contrition, forgiveness, and thus return to innocence, can restore balance.

The music that started out sounding like a ragtag group of folk musicians in the introduction to Innocence now takes on a much more professional and produced feel, even moving toward including professional musicians like Elvin Jones on the track. This move toward a manicured production is directly in parallel with the Romantic aesthetic of attempting to reach a kind of purity through form. At the same time as the we reach the (overwrought?) zenith of this formal trend, we reach the nadir of the darkening of the content. So the Romantic aesthetic seems to chart a linear course with the growing hegemony of Experience. At the same time, Ginsberg’s out-of-key vocals conjure the modernist aesthetic—the kind of beauty-in-the-broken aesthetic captured so well by William Carlos Williams, a primary inspiration of Ginsberg’s. So here we have the Blakean concept of Innocence merging with the modernist aesthetic of Ginsberg's time, present and acting as a counterbalance to the Romantic Experience that has come to the fore.

And so I propose that, not only do we get a dialectical balance between innocence and experience in Ginsberg’s rendition of Blake, but so too an interplay between Romanticism and Modernism. And all of this is made present by the aural facets and production choices made in the creation of the album. In this way, Ginsberg helps us to perceive both the complexity of Blake’s work and Blake’s position as a proto-modernist.