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