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.

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