Poetry News

Turn On Your Readerly Poetic Mode of Speech Perception for This Indispensable Eric Baus Lecture

By Harriet Staff

Eric Baus

A more informal lecture by Eric Baus at this year's Summer Writing Program at Naropa has turned into a must-have resource for your reading/listening pleasure. In "Granular Vocabularies: Poetics & Recorded Sound," Baus talks about, as he puts it, "the micro-level (or at least the relatively small-scale) elements of sound and language in recorded performance." Using sources that range from Barthes to Xenakis to French composer Michel Chion to poet Harmony Holiday, there's much of interest, samples included. A brief excerpt follows, but be sure to indulge your archival bent further, especially if, say, a subtitle like "Paratextual Comments as Poetic Speech" gets you. It does us:

Paratextual Comments as Poetic Speech

I want to make a bit of a jump now to consider an experience that often happens if you’re spending a lot of time listening to archives of recorded poetry readings. Certain aspects of the writer’s speech that aren’t part of the poem start to strike you as poetic fragments. I will play some examples I have come across: Eleni Sikelianos (“You might take a cue she’s laying down to listen.”) & Eileen Myles (“I started writing the skies and I never wrote the stories.”)

I won’t dwell on these small samples very long, but I think what happens is that while listening to a recording of an entire reading, we are primed for patterned language, and this blurriness into everyday speech creates an interesting gap or overlap.

Reuven Tsur, a scholar of cognitive poetics, argues that there is a “poetic mode of speech perception” that we can switch into when listening. Tsur writes: “When the acoustic signal is processed in the nonspeech mode (by the right hemisphere of the brain), we hear it as if we heard music sounds or natural noises. We attend away from overtone structure to tone color. When the same signal is processed in the speech mode (by the left central hemisphere), this tone color is suppressed. We attend away from formant structure to phoneme. In the poetic mode, the main processing is identical with the processing in the speech mode. However, some tone color from the processing in the nonspeech mode faintly enters consciousness” (What Makes Sound Patterns Expressive 18).

So, we experience a more pronounced overlap between the material qualities of the language as a kind of productive noise, that enhances the meaning. In this passage, Tsur is in the middle of a very nuanced explanation of a phenomenon unrelated to the one I just mentioned, but I think it is useful to know that there is a concept of the “poetic mode of speech perception.” When I listen to the drift between the end of Eleni Sikelianos’s poem, her address to the child in the audience, and her uniquely lyrical phrasing of an idea, I can tune into that part of my brain that hears speech as poetry. By framing these moments in comments between poems, I hope to point to another way of listening, and by emphasizing their status as segments I want to say something about poetry in general.

Much more where that came from. Also, Baus gives advice and experiments for listening to recordings and engaging with archives; and provides a comprehensive list of additional resources. Have fun!

Originally Published: July 25th, 2013