Basil Bunting understood the convergence of poetry and music as “patterns of sound drawn on a background of time.” A poem’s pattern of sound becomes most apparent when it shifts from the page to the air via breath vocal folds larynx phonating pharynx epiglottis velum palate tongue lips to other ears, this being the spoken path much simplified. The physiological complexities of speech formation dictate that no two human voices are alike; an enormous range of emotions is evoked by simple modulations in voice. And so upon hearing a poem read aloud it starts to radiate light like a white dwarf.
I enter the Listening Booth and click on Roman Jakobson’s 1956 reading of Velemir Khlebnikov’s poem “Invocation of Laughter” (1908-1909). Jakobson—that structuralist giant of linguistics and phonology who investigated the differentiating value of phonemes across languages and disciplines—often emphasized the importance of relating speech sounds with meaning, repeating what now seems obvious but was once ignored, that in language there is neither signified without signifier nor signifier without signified. Thus a poem’s pattern of sound points to its pattern of meanings, and its meanings are encoded in its sounds. Listening to Khlebnikov’s invocation through Jakobson I cannot help but laugh. I understand no Russian and my wife, listening across the table, asks, What is that, and starts imitating lines from the red-suited dwarf’s reverse-speech in the Black Lodge of Twin Peaks, along with his snapping and dancing. But then there is the build up of what I hear as longing, a grasping in the lines that reaches a higher pitch like little glass bells. There is no laughter in Jakobson’s voice, no beating around the bush, no irony. It is precise, scholarly as expected, in the sense of knowingness and insistence. Fortunately I have Paul Schmidt’s equally incomprehensible translation of “Incantation by Laughter” that remarkably follows the syllabic count and rhythm of Khlebnikov’s lines with nonsense words that build up and dance around the root-sound of “laugh” and “ha.” One can read the 11-line translation right along with Jakobson, in real time, and end at the same time. In a note Schmidt says that Khlebnikov was experimenting here with creating nests of words based on the same root, here based around the root smekh, or laughter. It is a shamanistic poem, a children’s poem, a poem spoken by a hyena-god.
In the Listening Booth I click on Susan Howe’s 2011 performance with composer/musician David Grubbs of “Frolic Architecture.” I’ve heard her read it before live, solo and with Grubbs—the first time (solo) chills ran up my back and the top of my head was chopped off: white dwarf effect. Certainly a meteor of snow, and with each listening something else appears, some other spirit ghosting in the text. If Khlebnikov’s is an incantation by laughter, Howe’s is an incantation by sorrow structured around the frolic play of snow. The reading is a thirty minute performance with Hammond organ and computer (digital gravel, cicadas). Howe’s text consists of visually stunning pattern poems composed of collaged writings from Hannah Edwards Wetmore’s diary and other texts, woven like a scrap of square cloth in the middle of the page, or scattered across the inner margins or flattened against the outer edges. The convergence of poetry and music extends to the visual page, composition following the order of words, then poems, then music, which in turn shapes the next poem.
Like Khlebnikov’s vocables, Howe highlights the oppositive, relative, negative figure of the phoneme, giving each an emotive force in the context of her cuttings. Fricative sibilant breath, vowels sliding into upside-down vertical diagonal horizontal word-mounds (-moles). It is as if a fourth dimension were opened by a burrowing aurality, in whispered fragments, clicks, shadows, repeated lines sounds return slightly changed, a hymn of syllables, a passing breeze of consonant vowels. As if walking through an orchard silent snowstorm or clear starlit forest night, sorrow forming a narrative place where voices meet and haunt the present, haunts our being loosened fr[om] / vocalism and remembering of. I’ve been proofreading an essay Howe wrote on Chris Marker for a new series of poetry pamphlets New Directions will be bringing out. In it she refers to “North American writers who inherit this feeling for letters as colliding image-objects and divine messages” and “invisible colliding phenomena.” What does it mean to be marked—by grief, by art, by God, or society, by a phoneme? What marks a soul in the world? Howe’s hesitant (secular Puritan?—of Irish descent we know, New England) voice collides in counterpoint with her own digitally tracked voice; volume contours further the fragmentation and layering, digital organ drone a pitched ringing in the ears, then fades. Jakobson invokes Khlebnikov who invokes some originary language; Howe invokes Wetmore and Emerson and others dead, both distant and near, come alive. A hush, a secret revealed. Both are oral-aural poetries that manifest their own essences on the page, against the edge of a revelation, at the crossroads of conversion. At the heart of Wetmore’s diary-life was her conversion experience, while walking through her father’s orchard seeing the vision of a Bible but then a piece of stays (boned corset of the sort she made) “intercepted and covering the pages” prevented her from reading. It was Hopkin’s long-suffering struggle, too: faith or art. At the heart of Howe’s poem is Emerson’s Art astonished, the reading and invisible “-graphy” that is faith in art, and art in faith, a sudden lightning fragment, one of the most emphatic the listener hears near the end of the poem: “only hope is from this world,” to the stammered, “poor body of one, and / the marks of...”
In the Listening Booth one can follow this thread of musical bars to Rodrigo Toscano’s “Sublunary Markings” that slides across different vocable-registers in slang (or slung (sung!)) languages, Jean-Pierre Bobillot’s rendition of Schwitters’ “What a B,” the “collision deslice” in Clark Coolidge’s “Radioactive Gar” giving way to the “gear in love with itself” subtle turns of breath and meaning in Elizabeth Willis’s “Nocturne,” and on to the endless resonance that is poetry.
Jeffrey Yang is the author of the poetry collections Vanishing-Line and An Aquarium. He is the translator of Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Liu Xiaobo's June Fourth Elegies and Su Shi's East Slope, and the editor of Birds, Beasts, and Seas: Nature Poems from New Directions and Time of Grief: Mourning Poems. He works as an editor at New Directions Publishing and New York Review of Books.