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Poetry as Oracular Radio

By Andrew Joron

To send or receive? That is the question. Watching Cocteau’s Orpheus for the umpteenth time the other night, I was impressed, during the scene in which Orpheus is listening to the car radio, by the doubling of the figure of the poet: there is the invisible (dead?) poet whose words are heard on the radio, and the visible poet furiously transcribing those words. The scene is doubtless supposed to serve as a model of poetic inspiration—the poet as medium—yet it seems to represent an act of plagiarism instead. Of course, the “sender” may have no identity as such, representing only the infernal churning of the voices of the underworld. If the poet is transcribing only “white and aimless signals,” as Spicer put it in his poem “Thing Language,” there’s no one really to plagiarize. (Anyway, Spicer added, “No / One listens to poetry.”)

However, the radio transmissions in Cocteau’s movie propose a link—which would have been obvious to a postwar French audience— between surrealist poetry and the coded messages transmitted by the French Resistance. Attention, listen: a single glass of water illuminates the world. Two times, I repeat. . . Here, hermetic poetry becomes, in a quite literal and practical sense, a weapon of liberation—not so “aimless” after all. Indeed, René Char, a former surrealist who served in the Resistance, likely originated some actual radio code-phrases himself: the sentence The library is on fire, which announced an Allied parachute drop into a forest where Char’s group was hiding, was later used by Char as the title of a prose poem about his own identity as a poet.

As is well known, Spicer derived much of his own poetics from watching the car-radio-transcribing scene in Cocteau’s Orpheus. However, when Spicer declared, in his poem “Sporting Life,” that “the poet is a radio,” he meant that, metaphorically, the poet is a radio receiver. What would it mean for a poet to be a radio sender? Perhaps Char, transmitting cryptic sentences from his wartime hideout, provides an example of one, yet—crucially, perhaps—those transmissions weren’t received as poetry at the time. (And let’s not forget the baleful example of Pound, also famous for being a radio sender, broadcasting not so much poetry but pro-fascist messages from Italy during World War II. Nonetheless, Pound was perhaps the first to utilize the poetry-as-radio metaphor, describing the form of his Cantos as comparable to a radio dial sweeping across the voices of History.)

A more forceful example of the poet as radio sender is encountered in the case of Antonin Artaud, fresh from the asylum and ravaged by the electroshock treatments he endured there, premiering his poem To Have Done with the Judgment of God on French radio in 1947. As Allen S. Weiss wrote in his excellent book Phantasmic Radio, “Would it be too extravagant to suggest the electric shocks that traversed and convulsed [Artaud’s] body were countered with electric ‘shocks’ of his own: a radiophonic transmission? The redemptive quality of such a work cannot be overlooked, nor can its role as psychic compensation for his previous isolation, suffering, and position as an outcast: in contrast to the demonic voices that had tormented him, he can now broadcast and thus orally universalize his passions, his art, and his cultural critique.” The complete broadcast can be heard at the Pacifica Radio Archives; Artaud’s voice, as a result of the shock treatments, is high-pitched and often rises to a screech.

In contrast to Artaud’s demonic radio voice, we have the angelic radio voice of the young Philip Lamantia, reading a poem (broadcast on Pacifica Radio in 1953, but not included in the Pacifica Radio Archive) whose theme— “man is in pain”—certainly relates to Artaud’s life and work. In this broadcast, we hear Lamantia’s voice much as it would have sounded when he read at the seminal Six Gallery reading in San Francisco in 1955. As Kerouac described it in The Dharma Bums, Lamantia read with “a delicate Englishy voice that had me crying inside with laughter.” (And here is the place for a reminder that Lamantia’s Collected Poems are forthcoming later this year from University of California Press.)

What is the most phantasmic medium for poetry? Today many poets use the Internet as an oracle. But can we imagine Orpheus consulting Google with as much intensity, as much poetic furor, as he listened to the radio? Though it seems silly, the answer is undoubtedly yes.

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Posted in Featured Blogger on Monday, April 8th, 2013 by Andrew Joron.