Essay on Poetic Theory

Sight-Specific, Sound-Specific . . .


Nathaniel Mackey was born in 1947 in Miami, Florida. He received a BA from Princeton University and a PhD from Stanford University. A professor, novelist, and critic, his book-length collections of poetry are Eroding Witness (1985), a National Poetry Series selection; School of Udra (1993); Whatsaid Serif (1998); and Splay Anthem (2006), which won the National Book Award in Poetry. He is also author of the critical works Discrepant Engagement: Dissonance, Cross-Culturality, and Experimental Writing (1993) and, with Art Lange, Moment’s Notice: Jazz in Poetry and Prose (1993). Mackey has been awarded a Whiting Writers’ Award and the Stephen Henderson Award of the African American Literature and Culture Society.

The sources of Mackey’s poetry are diverse and include West Africa folklore and music, American jazz, Bedouin traditions, the Koran, and African American music and history. Splay Anthem contains part of his epic series “Song of the Andoumboulou” and “mu.” The Andoumboulou are progenitor spirits of the Dogon of West Africa; mu has utopian connotations. In 1995 Mackey collaborated with the musicians Royal Hartigan and Hafez Modirzadeh to produce the audio CD Strick: Song of the Andoumboulou 16–25 from Spoken Engine Company.

In “Sight Specific, Sound-Specific . . .,” Mackey describes the collaborative process of making Strick: Song of the Andoumboulou 16–25. A poet who believes in the power of words to do the performing, Mackey expresses his ambivalence about overly dramatic readings of poetry, yet affirms that “language’s ability to perform is variable and site-specific, mind, ear, eye, air, page, and other sites conducing to particular powers and effects.” He describes his attention to the placement of words on the page while writing, but doesn’t recognize a corresponding method of reading aloud: “To avail oneself to graphic amenities peculiar to the page is not to disallow the poem behaving differently when read aloud but to recognize that it does.”

Reading with musicians produces a collaborative effect that is different from the life of a poem merely on the page. Mackey recounts the decisions that he, Hartigan, and Modirzadeh arrived at in regard to instrumentation, atmosphere, cross-cultural references, and layering, with the music and words working in concert. In one passage he describes how the percussionist, Royal Hartigan, chose to rub his hands directly on the snare drums’ heads (“their skins”): “a pun or a play on the head-and-heart, head-and-skin harmony sought by the people in the poems, the tension or tug between mind and body they’re beset by … a sound of abrasion as much as caress that some have heard, due to the words it introduces, as the sound of the sea.” 

Performance is a bothersome word for writerly poets. Performance art, poetry slams, and the like have made the term synonymous with theatricality, a recourse to dramatic, declamatory, and other tactics aimed at propping up words or at helping them out—words regarded, either way, as needing help, support, embellishment, deficient or decrepit or even dead left on their own. Writerly poets, advocates or devotees of what Wilson Harris calls “the innate life of the word,” shy away from the implied subscription to such a view of language, resistant to the presumed deadness of the word, an apparent deadness to the word by those who advance it. We’re less comfortable speaking of the poetry reading as performance or the poet as performer than of the words themselves performing, the words being made to perform by the poet, allowed or trusted to perform. Kamau Brathwaite, in a 1989 interview conducted by Stewart Brown, responded to a question regarding “the importance of performance” in relation to his work by saying, “I don’t perform at all, it’s my poetry that does it. . . . The words on the page have a metaphorical life of their own. I do not depend upon walking up and down on the stage and doing things. People have the impression that I’m performing when in fact they are actually dealing with poetry as they ought to, that is, the poetry is singing in their ears.” [1] I’ve heard Clayton Eshleman, Lyn Hejinian, and others make a similar distinction, likewise insist on the animacy of the word. I, too, view the matter that way.

I recall a Robert Duncan reading in 1979 that at one point conjured an image of a stairway beneath eyelids, a stairway a star ascended. It was an image I found startling, arrestingly so, all but grotesque or etymologically grotesque in the way it put a flight of stairs inside the eye or between the eyelid and the eye, on the eye, throwing in a star to boot. The piece was the prose-poem “Structure of Rime XIX.” The passage in question, I found on looking it up later, goes as follows:

At the turn of the path where it is steep we saw Jupiter climbing ahead of us and turnd his image in the hand mirror. As a lone brilliant in the thick of eyelashes. As a star in the stare under the closed lids. [2]

I’d read this poem a number of times in the years prior to attending the reading but I’d evidently forgotten that the word was stare. I heard it as stair. To hear it so was to “mishear” it—in quotes because to hear it so was to be true to the passage’s play on the fact that a stare under closed lids is no stare, an eclipsed or suspended stare if not the inversely capable, inner sight or ascent suggested by stair, the mind’s eye the passage both advocates and opens. The life of the word resides in such variable apprehension, a congeries of apprehension its power to perform concatenates. Writing that’s alive to this power needn’t be performed or declaimed. It needn’t be read with a pointed effort to be dramatic, emotive, hortative, expressive, and such. There’s enough going on already. There’s no need to ham it up.

One of the benefits of readings is that things of the sort I just recounted can occur. I could give other such examples, but my aim isn’t to extol, in isolation, the power of the spoken word, the heard word. Language’s ability to perform is variable and site-specific, mind, ear, eye, air, page, and other sites conducing to particular powers and effects. Ezra Pound’s “phanopoeia, melopoeia and logopoeia,” echoed by Louis Zukofsky’s “sight, sound and intellection,” touches on this multisitedness to an extent, but by congeries of apprehension something more multiple and involved than a trinarism is gotten at. Taking not only eye, ear, and mind into consideration but acknowledging mind’s eye, mind’s ear, and, further, mind’s nose, mind’s tongue, and mind’s touch as well, to say nothing of synesthetic amalgams and exchanges, considerably complicates the mix. Look, for example, at Lorenzo Thomas’s poem “The Leopard”:

The eyeballs on her behind are like fire
Leaping and annoying
The space they just passed
Just like fire would do

The ground have no mouth to complain
And the girl is not braver herself

She is beautiful in her spotted
Leopard ensemble. Heartless so

To keep her fashionable in New York
Leopards are dying

Crude comments flutter around her
At lunchtime. She sure look good
She remembers nine banishing speeches

More powerful than this is the seam
Of the leotard under her clothing

Her tail in the leotard is never still
The seam!
She feels it too familiar on her leg
As some crumb says something suggestive

The leopard embracing around her
Is too chic to leap and strike

Her thoughts fall back to last semester’s karate
Underneath, the leotard crouches up on her thigh
It is waiting for its terrible moment! [3]

The reader’s literal, physiological eye alights on the near identity, orthographically, of leopard and leotard, which are roughly to the eye what stare and stair in Duncan’s poem are to the ear (these last two having an orthographic nearness as well but an “unstated” one, “stair” not actually on the page). Appeals to suggestive tactility factor in as well, erogenous mind touching or touched by intimate cloth and animality as well as the nearness (phonologically and in the movement the poem reports) of crouches to crotch. There’s other action, other performance going on as well, but these brief comments will suffice.

I try to write poems whose words perform on multiple fronts. I’m as attentive, to speak only of two such fronts, to the placement of words on the page (the use of variable margins, intralinear spacing, page breaks, and such to advance a now swept, now swung, sculpted look, a visual dance down the page and from page to page) as I am to the rhythms and inflections with which they’re to be read when read aloud. It’s not that the former serves as a score for the latter, as Charles Olson, Denise Levertov, and others have insisted. Such placement, to the silent reader, can suggest the unfolding of thought or composition (its hesitancies, tenuities, accelerations, leaps, and so forth) while speaking, by way of the eye, to a mind’s ear that hears every line break as a caesura, every break between sections or pages as an amendment or an addendum or even a new beginning, additional space between words as a pause. This is the poem performing on the stage the page amounts to (and on the stage the reader’s mind amounts to by way of the page). I don’t, however, feel obligated to read the poem aloud in the manner such placement might suggest—obligated or even able. What, after all, do varied margins sound like? (What, for that matter, does an unvaried margin sound like?) To avail oneself to graphic amenities peculiar to the page is not to disallow the poem behaving differently when read aloud but to recognize that it does. The ultimate untransmissibility of vocal dynamics (timbre, accent, pace, volume, inflection, and so forth) by print—and vice versa—makes variance inevitable. The poem’s articulation is as various as its locations.

All this goes as lead-in to saying that when I came to working with musicians, the collaboration with Royal Hartigan and Hafez Modirzadeh that resulted in the CD Strick, I didn’t particularly think of the project as a move into performance—certainly not performance in the hyped, hortative sense I associate with stage adaptations of Walt Whitman, performance art, poetry slams, and such. On the contrary, I had misgivings about the equation of music and poetry collaborations with a more hopped-up or heated-up reading style, the declamatory mode that is often, perhaps typically, the staple and fare of such undertakings. This isn’t to say performance in that sense is without its powers and attractions, but simply that it’s not what I do. When Royal contacted me in the fall of 1993 and said he was interested in collaborating with poets and that David Bindman, a tenor saxophonist with whom he’d worked, had suggested he get in touch with me, I thought of Carleen Robinson’s oratorical reading of Sonia Sanchez’s poem “A Blk Woman Speaks” on the Tomorrow Is Now! album by Fred Ho and the Afro-Asian Music Ensemble (Soul Note, 1985). Royal, I knew, was a member of the ensemble and although it turned out when I later looked it up that he wasn’t yet in the band at the time of that recording, I associated him with that reading. I thus took it that he was used to working with a type of poetry and a style of reading quite different from mine. He said he wasn’t familiar with my work, that he’d phoned solely on the basis of Bindman’s recommendation, so I wondered if he would find it work he could collaborate with. (Bindman had written me some time prior to this and I knew that he’d read my fiction, specifically Bedouin Hornbook, a copy of which he’d been given by his grandmother, Joyce Adler, a literary critic with whom I’d been in touch due to a shared interest in Wilson Harris’s work. Whether he’d read my poetry I didn’t know, but with his not having mentioned it, I assumed he hadn’t.)

Wariness notwithstanding, when Paul Naylor got in touch to say that he and Lindsay Hill were launching a spoken-word recording venture, Spoken Engine Company, a project that would issue CDs of poets reading with musical accompaniment, and that they were interested in recording my work, I thought right away it was worth giving a try. Music, after all, had from the beginning figured prominently in my work as reference and inspiration. Hearing from Paul only a couple of weeks or a month or so after hearing from Royal, moreover, seemed especially auspicious. In any case, when I contracted Royal to tell him about the recording possibility and to ask if he’d be interested in taking part I asked him to wait until he’d gotten acquainted with my work to decide, saying I’d like him to hear some of my work and my reading style and to think about whether he could do something with it musically and, if so, what that something might be. I was determined that my reading style with music accompaniment remain essentially the same as when reading alone, a determination I talked about, conveying thoughts along the line of those I opened this essay with. I sent him a tape of a reading I’d given in the Woodstock Guild in Woodstock, New York, a few months earlier, a reading that included installments 16 through 25 of the “Song of the Andoumboulou” series, the ten poems that were later to comprise the “Strick” section of Whatsaid Serif and which I was already thinking of devoting the recording to. Royal got back to me after listening to it, saying yes, he liked the work and was interested in collaborating, that he had some ideas about what could be done with the poems musically. We agreed to get together over the coming months to see what we could come up with, aiming for a recording date sometime early in the summer. The two of us would start the process and later bring in Hafez, whose work with the Afro-Asian Ensemble, like Royal’s, I was already familiar with.

I was interested in getting beyond the generic jazz and poetry sound: musicians noodling nonchalantly behind fairly transparent verse. While I wanted there to be room for improvisation I didn’t want it to sound as if the musicians just happened to be there. I wanted to plan what, within certain limits, would be going on when, to sketch out an approach to each poem with regard to instrumentation, atmosphere, color, pace, and so forth, to map out who would come in doing what where, who would pull back giving way to what when, to determine how each piece would begin and how it would end, to decide on the place of purely instrumental stretches, and so on. Among the advantages and attractions of working with Royal and Hafez was their proficiency on a wide range of instruments, including instruments other than those typically played in jazz. In addition to the traditional drum set, Royal brought an array of African and Oriental percussion instruments to the project; in addition to tenor saxophone and Western flute, Hafez contributed work on a variety of Oriental reeds and flutes. The cross-cultural musical possibility and palette they afforded not only helped get outside the jazz and poetry box but accorded well with the poems’ cross-cultural references and reach, a cross-culturality not only in such areas as history, mythology, and lore but in that of music itself. References, that is, to John Coltrane, Lester Young, and Johnny Mbizo Dyani sit, over the course of the poems, alongside references to flamenco singer Juan Peña Lebrijano, the Ethiopian “harp of David,” Algerian chaabi singer Hsissen, reggae singer Burning Spear and the reggae band Culture, Sudan’s Abdel Gadir Salim, Mali’s Rail Band, and Brazilian sambista Paulinho da Viola.

It wasn’t, however, that Royal and Hafez’s playing would “illustrate” such references. It wasn’t that they would represent or sample the cultures or the music alluded to in the poems. The renderings of “Song of the Andoumboulou: 21,” which begins “Next a Brazilian cut came / on” and is backed by a drums-and-flute bossa nova that turns into a samba in the section mentioning samba, was a pointed exception, an exception intended to highlight the rule it departed from. The role of the music was more atmospheric than referential, its cross-cultural work’s accent falling on cross, an offhand or loose congruence if not incongruence. Cultural specificity or exhibition was not the aim, music and cultural amenities valued no more for what they avail than for what they ameliorate or mask. The point was to partake of the salvage operation the poems assert music and cultural amenities to be, to invoke while applying a balm to the primordial devastation the Andoumboulou represent:

                  who, asked his name, gave only his

            middle, “Music,”       mask made of

                      wind, of wrack,      by which if

            by wind it meant soul it meant

                                                             salvage [4]

A transcultural caution, a certain wariness of cultural masks and identity masks, would have its say. The music, for all its energy, assertion, and performative presence, would be laced with or subjected to a subjunctive ascesis or abeyance, a relay work of qualm and qualification that would verge on evacuating the acoustic masquerade (performance also, then, in that sense) that music is, the graphic and acoustic masquerade that poetry is.

On the phone after listening to the tape I sent him and again when we first got together, Royal remarked on the layering in the poems and their multiple strands of exposition, drawing analogies with Cecil Tyalor’s music and West African drumming. We talked about the poems a good deal before working on the music, and later, when Hafez came in, we returned to that discussion. I talked about my approach to writing and about the particular poems we were working with, elaborating on the place of the Andoumboulou in Dogon cosmology, commenting on some of the references and allusions, detailing some of the concerns driving the work. Royal and Hafez spoke of their senses of the poems, especially where their responses or readings prompted ideas as to how to accompany them musically. Royal, for example, noted early on the fraught sensuality of the people in the poems, their sexual strain and striving, and suggested resorting at times to putting the drumsticks aside and simply laying his hands on the snare drums’ heads (their skins) and rubbing—a pun or a play on the head-and-heart, head-and-skin harmony sought by the people in the poems, the tension or tug between mind and body they’re beset by. Hence the sound that opens the CD, a sound of abrasion as much as caress that some have heard, due to the words it introduces, as the sound of the sea. The hands-on-drumhead tack anticipates and would be echoed or returned to—rhymed with—by the use of the bendir, a Turkish frame drum played with the fingertips and heel of the hand, on the rendering of “Song of the Andoumboulou: 19” and “Song of the Andoumboulou: 22,” two of the poems most fraught with senses of bodily lure and largesse. Likewise, Hafez heard and read a theme of possessed or problematic speech, spooked or impacted speech, that led him to suggest removing the mouthpiece from the tenor sax, playing it with no mouthpiece. (Conch sax he called it.) Hence the garbled or haunted or ghostly sounds he contributes on the CD’s initial track.

Hafez and Royal’s playing not only underscored such themes and motifs but also added further layers and further strands. Their accompaniment to the poems was worked out by way of a process involving trial and error, conversation and rehearsal, a process that took place over a number of months. They both wrote out the arrangements we arrived at on their copies of the poems, notes as to what instrument was to be played when, where to come in, where to cut off, tempo, attitude, and such. Royal’s notes were very detailed, Hafez’s a bit more sparse. Their copies of the poems, in both cases, became something of a score. We consciously worked, in these arrangements, to knit the set together musically in a way that reflected, somewhat, the recursive nature of the poems, returning to specific instrumentations and aural textures (usually with slight variations) for a kind of leitmotif effect at points.

As for my part, I simply tried to read the poems as I normally do, aiming to enunciate clearly though not dramatically and to render the rhythms, inflections, and accents the way I heard them when writing the poems. I found it a challenge to do so, especially at first. The presence of the music does exert an influence, an influence it took some getting used to. I came to see why poetry and music collaborations are so often in the declamatory mode. Simply the volume or insistency musical instruments are capable of can impart a driven, hortative quality, a sense of goad it’s difficult not to be affected, impelled, or even overwhelmed by. Although the tenor of the poems and their diction and syntax tend not to lend themselves to declamation, I found I needed to resist that sense of goad nonetheless. It took an effort to maintain a cooler approach. Royal and Hafez made it easier by listening, letting me set the tone—attempting to, at least. Our biggest challenge, that is, was a practical one, that of my rather low-key, soft-spoken reading style being difficult to hear amid the instruments—especially the louder ones, tenor sax and drum set. It was difficult for me to be heard and to hear myself, difficult for all of us to hear the overall sound. This was especially the case during the period of working things out through rehearsals, which took place in a small room at Royal’s house without benefit of microphones, monitors, and the like. We learned to accommodate each other, however, Hafez and Royal keeping their volume down and me striving to project a bit more than usual.

By the time we went into the recording studio, which brought such amenities as monitor headphones with levels mixed to our individual dictates (“I feel like I’m fully hearing the poems for the first time,” Hafez remarked), we’d gotten a lot better at hearing one another under less than ideal circumstances, which included a presentation of the first five poems of the set at the University of California, Santa Cruz, a month prior to the recording. Such amenities notwithstanding, the demands I’d gotten used to under those other circumstances and, I think, a certain force field intrinsic to ensemble interplay, made for a charge or an edge or a hint of urgency in my voice even on the recording, subtle differences from the way I sound when simply reading alone. Since making the recording we’ve had occasion to present the poems at the Monterey Jazz Festival, Rutgers University, and Seton Hall University, venues where technical provisions less ideal than those in the studio continued to teach us how to listen better, how to hear one another better, but also not to be put off by not hearing, the occult clamor that sound, whether words or music, often is.



1. Stewart Brown, “Interview with Edward Kamau Brathwaite,” Kyk-over-al, no. 40 (1989): 89-90.

2. Robert Duncan, Roots and Branches (New York: Scribner’s, 1964), 169.

3. Lorenzo Thomas, Chances Are Few (Berkeley: Blue Wind Press, 1979), 44-45.

4. Nathaniel Mackey, Whatsaid Serif (San Francisco: City Lights, 1998), 21.

Nathaniel Mackey, "Sight-Specific, Sound-Specific" from Paracritical Hinge: Essays, Talks, Notes. Copyright © 2005 by the Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System.  Reprinted by permission of The University of Wisconsin Press.
Originally Published: May 12th, 2010

Born in Miami and raised in Southern California, poet, novelist, editor, and critic Nathaniel Mackey earned his BA from Princeton University and his PhD from Stanford University.   Mackey cites poets William Carlos Williams and Amiri Baraka, in addition to jazz musicians John Coltrane and Don Cherry, as early influences...