Sound Poetry for Many Reasons June 9, 1980

Many people view sound poetry as a true artistic movement. They demonstrate its universality by pointing to onomatopoeia in Aristophanes and to the magic words of many primal cultures. They show how the medium began to develop in the West, first through Rimbaud and Mallarme and then through Joyce and Stein, how it achieved classic statements in the ‘Ursonata’ of Kurt Schwitters (1921-’32) and the ‘Geographical Fugue’ of Ernst Toch (1930), how this led in the ’50s to the electronic word manipulations of Henri Chopin, the shrieks and cries of Francois Dufrene, the orderly sequences of Brion Gysin, and the tape collages of Bernard Heidsieck, and how the work of these European artists has created a major medium that has attracted artists as diverse and important as Milton Babbitt, John Cage, Glenn Gould, Jackson Mac Low, Meredith Monk and Claes Oldenburg.

It seems to me that sound poetry is largely a coincidence. I just don’t see many causal relationships in this historical sequence. Instead, it appears that a whole lot of artists coming from a whole lot of places, driven by a whole lot of motivations, have just happened to end up in more or less the same general area. Some are poets who have grown tired of the printed page and would like their art to be, once again, an aural medium. Some are composers who have grown tired of the song form and seek new ways of working with language. Some are singers who want to expand the vocal vocabulary, just as others have sought new ways of playing the piano or the flute. Some like to work in recording studios and find speech sounds more interesting than other sounds. Some want to mix languages or create new ones. Others want to make certain esoteric literary ideas more rhythmic, more dramatic, or more accessible. Others have mystical inclinations and wish to create incantations of one sort or another. Still others seem driven largely by social ideas. They see no reason why spoken poetry should always be a solo art, and seek ways of writing material that will allow several speakers to participate.

In other words, sound poetry is not a proper artistic movement at all, but rather a hodgepodge of almost contradictory motivations and intentions which have all just happened to coincide in a nebulous area lying somewhere on the fringes of traditional literary and musical forms. Yet despite the disunity, and perhaps partly because of it, this nonmovement is more interesting than most movements, and it has been generating a lot of activity. This spring some 50 artists participated in the International Sound Poetry Festival, an annual event which is usually held in Europe, but which this year took place at the Kitchen and at Washington Square Methodist Church. I attended three of the 10 festival programs and heard several performances which have stuck in my mind, and which demonstrate a few of the many types of work now going on under the general heading of sound poetry.

Armand Schwerner and Charles Stein contributed a lively segment one evening. They alternately played clarinets and spoke nonverbal lines, and they worked together well, largely in an improvisatory way. What particularly interested me was the way their performance shifted from purely musical material to linguistic sections, and sometimes to theatrical moments in which I began to see them as characters having a strange dialogue.

Kenneth King is one of my favorite dancers, and he danced a bit

in his presentation, but the point here was his sound poetry. His tongue twisters can be delightful, and he produced one line that I found myself reciting for several days. ‘Sarah and Clara slept on the Sahara.’ Try saying it out loud a few times. It demonstrates, I think, the basic appeal of much sound poetry.

Jerome Rothenberg presented some of his ‘Horse Songs,’ which are translations of works by Navajo musician Frank Mitchell. I find these chants, usually accompanied by a small percussion instrument, appealing not only as ethnological studies, but also in their own right. And Rothenberg sings them well. This kind of cross-cultural work also contributes to the good cause of breaking down Western ethnocentrism.

Courtenay P. Graham-Gazaway improvised odd semiverbal sounds through a microphone to the accompaniment of pretty color slides, mostly of nature. Some listeners apparently found her work naive, but I was touched at several points by the dramatic implications of her vocal inflection and the obvious sincerity of her highly personal sounds.

Mary Ellen Solt is a master of concrete poetry. Her visual poems are graphically impeccable and logically rigorous, and they convey stimulating images as well, but her ear is not as acute as her eye. Her attempts to realize some of her work with voices and instruments came off as pale reflections of the visual versions. Still, I was glad to be able to hear her work as well as see it. I should also mention Sten Hanson, a Swedish artist whose work reflects the high-quality multichannel recorded approach to sound poetry that has evolved in European electronic music studios, and Bob Cobbing, an older British participant whose way of putting together a poem with audience participation was quite appealing, even though the results did not sound very good.