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Journal, Day Five

By Tracie Morris

Well I have to say it’s been a real blast hanging out at this website. Thanks for the great comments (including those back-channeled). As yesterday’s response post indicated, I want to conclude by talking about working with sound in poetry, which for me, includes the previous posts’ references to the different perspectives poets may have, inclusion and notions of community in that vision, and ways in which risk-taking and experimentation can affect how we conceive of communing.

I don’t really know how to discuss examples of sound in this virtual space, but will give it a shot. I started playing with this medium of sound more (after lots of experiences lead me toward it), with the poem “A Little”—a sound-based poem about sexual abuse. I knew that there was only one thing I wanted the speaker to say and that I wanted the reader/listener in the room, without even the vehicle of abstract concepts (words) as an escape. Like when you see a really scary movie and start paying attention to how much the ketchup on the floor looks like real blood—amazing! We/I get into deconstructing wordplay etc. when dealing with uncomfortable poems. But the risk comes in staying with it. So sound engages with viscera in a way that compels physical interaction. Sound is something that works beyond the “brain barrier” and directly intersects with the body.

Part of the element of surprise that works in all poems that include it, as in the Etheridge Knight poem I referred to previously, comes from our naiveté about what’s about to happen in the text. But what if we knew before we started, would we keep reading? Would it be safe for us to do so because we’re looking, knowingly, in a book? Something we can close? Since I don’t write out sound poems (the only exception being when I have written some for another person to speak). But I have examples of people who do transfer sound to the page. If you read my last post, you might not be surprised by the selection below, by Charles from the magazine Tinfish 2:

Johnny Cake Hollow
by Charles Bernstein

Xo quwollen swacked unt myrry flooped
Sardone to fligrunt’s swirm, ort
Jirmy plaight org garvey swait ib
Giben durrs urk klurpf. Sheb
Boughtie bloor de dazzy dule dun
Fruppi’s ghigo’s gly, jud
Chyllrophane jed jimmsy’s cack—
Exenst aerodole fump glire. Eb
Horray bloot, ig orry sluit neb
Nist neb ot neb gwon. Shleb
Atsum imba outsey burft allappie
Merp av ords. Een ainsey swish
Ien ansley sploop ughalls dep dulster
Flooge, ig ahrs unt nimbet twool
Begroob, ig ooburs quwate ag blurg.

Okay, I give you credit (for what my credit’s worth) for working through the poem, if you did. But did you try to say it? How was that? A pain? Literally, physically?

Exhausting. It’s funny how far away we’ve moved from words. Our first interaction with words as kids, and even with poems, as kids, was by looking at them as funny words. Dr. Seuss—one of my favorite words of all time is “yop!”—even Poe and Gerard Manley Hopkins work with sound in sequences in “The Raven” and “Pied Beauty.” But the poem above? That’s not words right? Says who? What do we mean by “words” again? What do we do by them?I remember talking with a couple of very opinionated and well-read poets in a car going from one poetry event to another on the East Coast once. They said (almost in harmony): “We don’t like the experimental poets, or language school poets. All they do is play around with words.” As if that’s not what we all do:

Pied Beauty
by Gerard Manley Hopkins

Glory be to God for dappled things-
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced-fold, fallow, and plough;
And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
Praise him.

These may be words, but the sequence of dappled, couple-colour and rose-moles, isn’t just about some description. Technically speaking, they’re all abstractions. All these words are, fundamentally, originally, made up. We assign their value and we continue to assign and reassign value to words. So we say this poem immediately above is serious and worthwhile because it is. My question stems from the concern about what isn’t. Now that we’re all grown up we think playing with words is okay as long as they come with meaning first. It’s interesting to think of this when working in other languages because the initial entry we have to the new text is through phonics. Sound-based poems are simply prioritizing sounds above meaning. It’s not the same as meaninglessness. One uses the vocabulary worth as a point of departure. “Johnny Cake Hollow” wouldn’t have the same resonance, particularly when uttered, if we didn’t have references in conventional vocabulary. And I think this is the case with all art considered “experimental.” We are communing with the sense of self we know but may wish to depart from, particularly when it’s timely to do so:

15 MINUTES
by Edwin Torres

eein the tradition
ov The YEAR Of The WHO-man
ov Black HIS-story MONTH
ov Secre-TARRIAL’s WEEk
ov Earth DAY
ov ANY inda-video-list-tickally challenged GROOP
to which THEES accent
can find a home to, I give yu…

“HISPANIC CITIZEN MINUTE”
Everything you could possibly want to NO!
about The Hispanic Citizen…IN ONE MINUTE!
The famous sponsor for this infraction shall be
“Citizen Watches – You know what to do!?
Well, well…it looks like our time is up!
Thees has been
“HISPANIC CITIZEN MINUTE”
Everything you could possibly want to NO!
about The Hispanic Citizen…IN ONE MINUTE!
We now r-r-r-return you
to your r-r-r-regularly scheduled
op-pr-r-ress-sors

And isn’t this an apropos meditation in this day and age. Who’s to say that the “non-words” don’t do as much work as the words we already know? You can see here that the departures from convention to the unconventional are bound together. Each “side” gives us points of departure toward the other and gives us a more profound meaning of the poem as a whole. But maybe we all don’t have to depart as much to get it. Is this an abstract poem in the streets of California right now? Does it all sound right there? Is it ever the “right time” for poems about, as they have said in the ‘hood for years, “what time it is?”

In African American poetics, there is still this negotiation between sounds and what they mean. There are echoes of African vocabulary, syntax and sound in American grammar and poetry. Rumbling through, disconcertedly in and out of, the comfortable American uttered (textured) body:

Father’s Voice (excerpt)

wa ma ne ho mene so oo
osee yei, osee yei, osee yei
wa ma ne ho mene so oo

he has become holy as he walks toward daresay
can you hear his blood tissue ready to pray
he who wore death discourages any plague
he who was an orphan now recollects his legs.

This selection from Sonia Sanchez’s does your house have lions? is an echo of the father’s voice as a speaker that also includes an African iteration. For those of us who don’t know the language of the first three lines, all the sounds still signify both as American English and non-English texts. This incorporation of multiple sources for the voice has impacted my corporeality through the experience of reading it (in my own voice inside my head) as well as through “sounding it out.” The R&B sounds that transformed into Hip Hop sounds with the sonic force of technical production and replay were dense, simultaneous layers of text both uttered and played. The phat beat compels the body as much as scansion, as much as rhyme. It is this feeling of compulsion/propulsion of the body that makes alliteration and onomatopoeia work. The sound, the physicality of the words in deep collaboration with its vocabulary extend, extract, explore meaning. But in order to be meaningful, its basic value must be assumed. As Hip Hop emerged, I just knew, as part of my cultural history, that the internal rhyme, interacting with dissonant, distracting electronic sounds, had community value, meaning. It wasn’t just some “talent” or some “noise.” (After all, I grew up understanding that James Brown’s holla had specific musical placement.) The artist who wrote and performed these words with his collaborator at the time, Eric B., changed the landscape of my hearing in the mid-1980s with new, thick sound. This page-based copy is a reduced substitute for hearing the recorded collaboration, but hopefully it can convey at least some of the ideas presented in the previous texts as well as its own sound-sense:

Follow the Leader (excerpt)
by Rakim

Follow me into a solo
Get in the flow—and you can picture like a photo
Music mixed mellow maintains to make
Melodies for MC’s motivates the breaks
I’m everlastin, I can go on for days and days
With rhyme displays that engrave deep as X-rays
I can take a phrase that’s rarely heard, FLIP IT
Now it’s a daily word

Coda: Most of my comments throughout this week have been to convey pieces that have special meaning to me and, I hope, provide new value to you, in this poetic framework. (It was so hard not to put in even more! Forgive me if my swan song is overlong . . .)Thanks for checking it out and reading through my musings!

Oh, and if you ever want to chat more, I’m working on my little website: www.traciemorris.net, so stop by if you like as it ‘constructs’ itself. Thx, Poetry Foundation, Nick and Mike.


Posted in Uncategorized on Friday, March 31st, 2006 by Tracie Morris.