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a question on hearing

By Anselm Berrigan

I’ll be heading to Tulsa, Oklahoma tomorrow to take part in The Tulsa School Conference & Literary Festival that Grant Jenkins has organized through The University of Tulsa. Never been there, but my father, Ted Berrigan, was stationed in Tulsa after the Korean War and wound up enrolling in TU via the G.I. Bill. There he met Ron Padgett, Dick Gallup, and Joe Brainard, who were all in high school and thus was born the “soi-disant Tulsa School”, which is no school – even less material a school than the New York School which, as a traveler through the very real New York public school system from K to grad school, I can verify does not, in fact, exist in any tangible manner despite words to the opposite from a cast of thousands ­– though certainly classifiable under the heading of remark (courtesy of John Ashbery, supposedly). But the fact of a four-cornered artistic friendship with its more complicated sub-divisions (one-to-one relationships, say) is as good a reason as any to throw a conference and festival, so I’m into it despite an innate inability to feel panel.  Plus Erica Hunt, Kenward Elmslie, Leslie Scalapino, Barbara Guest, my mom, Fairfield Porter, and Jackson Mac Low, among others, will also be being discussed; there are a number of creative panels that come with no definition in advance; and there will be performances and discussion on current happenings and innovations in Oklahoma-based poetry. I hope to have a report early next week on the talks, readings, performances, and overall dynamic of the whole shbang. And maybe I’ll get a photo of the 60-ft. high bronze pair of hands in prayer on the campus of Oral Roberts University if there’s time to get there.

That said, I would like to build on the conversation that gathered a few angles in the comments on Douglas Oliver’s letter. My feeling is that prosody in performance (and taking off on Doug’s sense of this we can include public performance and private readings both aloud and internally of a poem under this umbrella), if it’s unchained from any particular polemic or prejudice, can be a connective thread of discussion across poetries that might be radically different. The difficulty is often in finding a solid opening question, so I’ll try one with the understanding (and hope!) that most answers will by necessity be various: how do you – you being anyone reading this who reads or writes – begin to hear in your practice of reading and/or writing? Or how do you think you begin to hear?  My own angle on this is slanted towards the writing side of the question, but I’m interested in any possible take. For my part I often, but not always, look for a single sound, usually a consonant or two, to begin writing with or against. That listening for a sound might be something like an attempt to get near Doug’s “smallest possible unit” of the poem-in-formation (though what I hear to begin with isn’t necessarily a stress point), but I also understand it as part of a working desire to find a sonic point of beginning that is not yet bound to a particular tone of voice. This is when I am looking for a way to begin and don’t have an idea, a subject, a line, a text, a work in progress, etc., to be clear about it. And I’m not assuming that hearing begins when writing begins. In fact, there are many times when I’m quite conscious that I’m listening before I begin writing. Anyway, this is a different kind of attempt at beginning, so please take it from here and change it as you like……

Comments (21)

  • On November 5, 2009 at 2:35 am john wrote:

    How do I begin to hear? With my own danged flat midwestern middle-class white male voice, probably without the nasal short “o”s and “a”s.

    After years of reading Reznikoff with my own inner voice, it one day somehow occurred to me that he was not a midwestern Protestant, but a Jewish New Yorker, and that English wasn’t even his first language. (Was it Yiddish?) Adopting such an inner voice made me love the poems even more.

    When reading 19th century narrative poetry, my inner voice becomes more melodramatic.

  • On November 5, 2009 at 9:25 am Paul Killebrew wrote:

    I’ve tried to start poems in a voice that feels totally different from my own, just to get things going and to pull myself across a distant language, you know, so as not to get bogged down. In doing this I’m very much inspired and put to shame by a recording of John Wieners from the Dial-a-Poem series called “from Memories in a Small Apartment” (you can listen to it here: http://ubu.artmob.ca/sound/dial_a_poem_poets/disconnected/Disconnected_20_wieners.mp3). I’m told that this poem can’t be found in any existing books and that Wieners may have composed it on the spot by sampling from different parts of his journals and other materials. I bring it up because Wieners performs different tones of voice throughout the poem and even starts off in a voice that’s distinctly not his own:

    “Now, I go into the dime stores on Saturdays after matinees. I do it because [pause] there are girls in the stores. [laughter]

    “But that’s going out of our mutual way, and what I wanted to do was set up some sort of a person as methodology for understanding my own effects in society, its reaction against myself in the ordinary accustomed passage to the working combinations of, well, applied machinery and carefully planned traffics. So much time goes into the overall programming of new appliances and neat fixtures simply so I want to know who I am and what I mean, just to others.”

    Wieners wants to begin by speaking through someone else’s voice so that he can triangulate his own social self, the self that exists within the minds of others, or what he imagines to be their minds. He pitches his voice in the voice of another, and then he can observe the effects of the assumed voice on himself and compare them to the effects of that voice on society. In this way, by “set[ting] up some sort of a person as methodology,” he can come to know something about his “own effects in society.”

    I was thinking that Wieners’s voice experiment comes out of a similar impulse to Anselm’s “working desire to find a sonic point of beginning that is not yet bound to a particular tone of voice.” In both there’s a resistance to coming into the poem already latched to a personal “I”, as well as a belief that the “voice” of the poem is not entirely in the hands of the person writing it.

  • On November 5, 2009 at 10:18 am john wrote:

    I can’t imagine avoiding a particular tone of voice, since tone is a fundamental element of language, or should I say, speech. I agree that the voice of a poem is not entirely in the hands of the person writing it.

    Regarding melodrama and performance: I once heard the actor Martin Sheen speak, at a fund-raiser for a low-income housing group of which a friend of my wife’s is the director. Sheen began his speech with a rip-roaring performance of one of the lyrics from Tagore’s “Gitanjali,” full of verve, at high tempo, with great momentum. Absolutely marvelous and unforgettable.

    • On November 9, 2009 at 11:20 am Anselm Berrigan wrote:

      To clarify – when I speak of looking for a sound I’m speaking of also looking for a point of sound to begin with that hasn’t formed into a word yet – though that forming may follow quite quickly. And while sorting through “sp” “thw” “ck” “ve” etcetera (internally) I don’t feel as if I’m yet confronted by a tone of voice or anything like a complete tone of voice that is connected to a delivery of semantic or emotional meaning. I’m also on the alert for disrupting my own tendencies, and that include trying to begin outside of a known range of tones that I might slip into, etc.

      • On November 9, 2009 at 2:25 pm john wrote:

        Interesting! I’d never thought of proceeding that way. I just messed around with “sp” and its variant, “ps,” and quickly came to all sorts of negatively-shaded words that began to imply a tone — sputter, grasp, gasp, lapse, spasm, lickspittle, piss-poor — and maybe that says something about my frame of mind today, and there are all sorts of cheerily-shaded words with that cluster, but it really made me wonder about the possibility of an onomatopoeia of the consonant cluster, the possibility of a sub-morphemic sememe. (Which is one of the areas of inquiry in David Antin’s great poem “the structuralist.”)

        Thanks.

  • On November 5, 2009 at 3:35 pm Leucis Hughes wrote:

    I began with learning to organize color (tone / tempo / texture / repetition / & variety) in visual space. By translating various languages into a place to begin and end like the (what is the name of the instrument that is held) composer.

  • On November 6, 2009 at 9:36 pm Terreson wrote:

    I confess the question is unclear to me. I think it has to do less with what a poet and poetry reader hears and more to do with what the poet and reader are listening for. Here is why. It is where you say: “Or how do you think you begin to hear? My own angle on this is slanted towards the writing side of the question, but I’m interested in any possible take. For my part I often, but not always, look for a single sound, usually a consonant or two, to begin writing with or against. That listening for a sound might be something like an attempt to get near Doug’s “smallest possible unit” of the poem-in-formation (though what I hear to begin with isn’t necessarily a stress point), but I also understand it as part of a working desire to find a sonic point of beginning that is not yet bound to a particular tone of voice.”

    If the question has to do with what the poet and her reader are looking to hear I would say it involves the organic organization of rhythm, what seduces the ear and transmits the poem to brain neuron receptors which, in turn, register significance of message and or beauty. I figure that crazy bastard, Olson, was right. The twin children of a poem are syllable and line, the father of which (or the mother for that matter), what he called the “Single Intelligence” is BREATH. But I think he did not pay right attention to poetry’s, at least in the English language, metrical organization, without which there is no rhythm and the poem becomes Schoenberg-like atonal; which, when you think about it, pretty well captures a whole bunch of American poetry since. This atonality.

    So rhythm is what I listen for first. And it involves syllable structure, nuanced, certainly varied, metrical stress and pause, and the breath based line.

    Here is a queasy thought. You suppose it possible that American poetry’s atonality is what has lost it a general readership?

    Terreson

    • On November 9, 2009 at 10:29 am Michael James wrote:

      Yes, I figure you are correct.

      There seemed to be a movement against rhythmic tones, a kind of flatness many poets wanted to achieve. And since the brain works in patterns and rhythms (from inside the womb as our eyes barely work, we are stationed in essential sound cocoons), audiences/readerships naturally dwindled. I mean, it is not the sole issues for the -why-, but it definitely played a part. This is partially why Hip hop became the ‘new poetry’. At a time when poetry was dwindling, hip hop stepped forward. You can almost pinpoint the exact time period of this if you choose. It’s quite remarkable, really.

      And now you begin to notice qualities of Hip hop influencing some of the most premier poets. Paul Muldoon, for instance.

      But Anslem, much like Terreson, the question is slightly lost on me…

    • On November 9, 2009 at 11:54 am Anselm Berrigan wrote:

      Well I appreciate the extension of the question. I don’t think there has to be too great a difference between “beginning to hear” and “listening for” – and while this may be rather abstract in articulation (though its very concrete when I’m reading and writing) what I’m curious about is hearing people describe how they listen to poetry, and specifically how that listening begins in the moment of writing or the moment of reading a poem for the first time either aloud or internally.

      I mean, I think your “looking to hear” is going to be coupled with “how one hears” in any given moment. Then there’s what the poem is doing. So there’s a meeting of a type there.

      More later.

    • On November 9, 2009 at 4:30 pm Anselm Berrigan wrote:

      Am wrong. Busted. Impulsive comment. Filled with argh. Degraded in public. Humiliated and silly. Cracked in the head. Trashed on the vine. Cut off at the knees. Duly noted of fuck up.

  • On November 9, 2009 at 12:32 pm Edwin Torres wrote:

    hi Anselm — Astute focus, as you always have, on the beginning of writing. The start of hearing how a poem presents itself — interlaced with my day at the moment of its happening. Letters, sounds, images are the air itself, permeating the skin pores…i.e. no thought obstructs the receiving of thought…i.e. word. So the listening for a poem’s genesis is different than the receiving of a poem’s finality…i.e. someone else’s writing in my ear will trigger a different membrane than my own, by nature of its beginning in that same membrane. So territory plays a role in hearing — the body’s capacity for translation when standing in what’s familiar versus new. The more I surround myself with outside territories, the more fluid my own becomes. “My listening speaks for my seeing to be.” So this gets at the origin of processing sound, how that falls through your mouth or travels down your fingers and lands on the page. That feral opportunity for direction.

  • On November 9, 2009 at 7:27 pm Michael Robbins wrote:

    WTF are you talking about?? The NEA released a report last year showing that only 8.3 percent of adults had read any poetry in the previous year. It was widely covered, not least on poetry blogs — this one, for instance — but also by, um, national news organizations.

    I entered “nea poetry statistics” into Google. .52 seconds later I had all sorts of “concrete evidence,” which took the form of a “statistical study,” indeed, a “report,” even “research.” It obviously took you longer than .52 seconds to write this post, so one wonders what you think it means to “hear or read” something.

    • On November 9, 2009 at 7:28 pm Michael Robbins wrote:

      (this is meant to reply to AB’s reply above, regarding his ignorance of evidence for the decline in poetry reading.)

  • On November 9, 2009 at 7:52 pm Anselm Berrigan wrote:

    Hi Michael,

    I’ve downloaded the NEA study. My apologies to Terreson and Michael James, with specific regard to the comments on poetry’s decline – see above repost. And I’ll read the full report and the basis of the study.

  • On November 9, 2009 at 8:27 pm Michael Robbins wrote:

    No problem, AB. To be sure, there’s room for doubt where the study’s concerned (in this it resembles all other studies). I think Steve Burt has some kind of response somewhere.

  • On November 9, 2009 at 8:48 pm Anselm Berrigan wrote:

    I should probably not comment on anything when in between a swell but emotionally trying set of events directly related to my father and a memorial for a recently departed old friend. That’s probably too much information, but too much information is often the condition so what the hell. I can live with a dose of spotlight-on-the-blogging-schmuck for an eve.

  • On November 10, 2009 at 9:51 am Michael James wrote:

    I am always wary of statistics, of purposed ‘studies’ (which can in fact differ from research). Studies/statistics are always incomplete. They are always sample servings then extrapolated to represent what is believed, based on the sample serving, the majority norm. The whole idea of poetry dwindling (oh have we come to this, not even Anslem’s initial point!?!) has always seemed false to me. I cannot count how many random people I’ve bumped into state to state who enjoy poetry. Young to old, rich to poor, all the supposed social stereotypes and un-stereotypical people, all with an openness to poetry. Could it be the social structure of poetry has changed in a way that created a blindspot for those more suited to the previous structure? Like a man living in a new house with his lip turned up, walking around saying, “this isn’t the same, this room is smaller, this roof doesn’t slope like mine did”, even if the room is actually bigger than before?

    Okay, back to Anslem’s post. I was reading this interview with Terese Svoboda conducted by Shya Scanlon:

    SS: How important is music in determining syntax?

    TS: Syntax is all about cracking the language for energy. The music between consonant and vowel is fricative, lush, and suggestive. The music between words–each a little instrument banging away–is that much more nuanced. Maybe because of this, I am musically deaf. That is not to say I can’t carry a tune or play an instrument (oboe and harp) but that I can’t bear it while I’m writing and since I all I ever want to do is write, music as it is ordinarily understood is rarely part of my world. Sound, on the other hand—I’ve collaborated a few times with Stephen Vitiello, a wonderful sound artist.

    But in regards to your question of my personal attempts… I am not conscious of it until afterward. I can tell you what I believe occurs on a subconscious level from a distance of me re-examining the completed/attempted work.

    I usually find myself following open sounds. O’s. M’s (combined with another letter which forces the M-mouth to go from closed to open, thus forcing the M to become an open letter) — sounds which begin in a closed fashion, then open up. I then find I begin trying to close those sounds. Moving, like the meditative humming of monks, from an open sound to a closed one — the back opening of the throat to the closed shape of the lips.

    This is when I have a subject. If I do not have a subject in mind, I hear noises. Inaudible noises. And I feel as if I am attempting to convey these noises into words I can understand. I am not even conscious of it until later. Actually, I wasn’t even conscious of it (when writing without a subject) until your post.

  • On November 10, 2009 at 3:07 pm Colin Ward wrote:

    I trust no one is arguing that poetry hasn’t suffered a precipitous decline from the days when it appeared in virtually every magazine and newspaper to a time when the circulation of the top three poetry magazines is less than that of the North Bay Nugget; from an era when contemporary poetry was quoted and recited in parlors, letters and speeches to a time of poetry readings when, aside from Dr. Seuss and some limericks about a guy from Nantucket, most people cannot quote a single verse written during the last half century; or, from an epoch when poets and poetry were revered to a time when poetry is the subject of ridicule on late night talk shows. Do we really need surveys and statistics to quantify the obvious?

    What, if anything, we care to do about the problem is another discussion entirely. FWIW, I am optimistic about a turnaround–perhaps even a dramatic one.

    Best regards,

    Colin

    P.S.

    I’m sorry to hear about your personal travails, Anselm, and about typing the wrong salutation earlier.

    -o-

    • On November 10, 2009 at 4:34 pm Teri G. wrote:

      People quote poetry from the past fifty years all the time–Got Milk? Where’s the Beef? Raid kills bugs dead– they just don’t call it poetry.

  • On November 10, 2009 at 8:31 pm Richard Epstein wrote:

    In his Preface to The Lyrical Ballads Wordsworth wrote,

    I might perhaps include all which it is necessary to say upon this subject by affirming, what few persons will deny, that, of two descriptions, either of passions, manners, or characters, each of them equally well executed, the one in prose and the other in verse, the verse will be read a hundred times where the prose is read once.

    RHE

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Posted in Uncategorized on Wednesday, November 4th, 2009 by Anselm Berrigan.