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DAVID KENNEDY - SPRING 2002 FEATURE  

The Cortland Review

FEATURE

Billy Collins
An interview and reading with U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins. Grace Cavalieri hosts this special one-hour program.

Molly Peacock
Diary of Our Day in Painting Titles:  A day in the life of Molly Peacock.

David Kennedy
Voiceprints (Part 1) - Poetry on CD and Cassette: David Kennedy explores the magical relationship of poetry and voice.

John Kinsella
A Travel Snap of the Stirling Ranges - pure memory:  Flora, fauna, mountain peaks, guns, Brecht and Jimi Hendrix, all in the latest chapter of John Kinsella's autobiographical series.

David Kennedy

David Kennedy was born in Leicester, England, in 1959. He co-edited The New Poetry (Bloodaxe Books, 1993) and is the author of New Relations: The Refashioning Of British Poetry 1980-1994 (Seren, 1996). A selection of translations from Max Jacob's surrealist classic, Le Cornet à Dés (The Dice Cup), in collaboration with Christopher Pilling, was published by Atlas in January, 2001. Cornell: A Circuition Around His Circumambulation is forthcoming from West House Books. David lives in Sheffield and is a contributing editor to The Cortland Review.
David Kennedy - Voiceprints (Part I)

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Voiceprints - Poetry on CD and Cassette
Part I


Poetry and voice are intimately entwined. Creative writing students are encouraged to find their own voice and anyone who has tried to write poetry knows that one test of a poem's success or failure is to read it aloud to oneself or others. Similarly, hearing a favourite poet read can be a revelation or a disappointment. Charles Olson's influential manifesto of 1950, "Projective Verse", asserted that poetry "must [...] catch up and put into itself certain laws of possibilities of the breath, of the breathing of the man who writes as well as of his listenings".

Poetry, then, is the artifice whose construction, transmission and reception are haunted by the idea that they are also a species of notation. The English critic Eric Griffiths catches this well in the opening chapter of The Printed Voice of Victorian Poetry (Oxford University Press, 1989), which is full of useful ideas about poetry in general.

Whatever else poetry may be, it is certainly a use of language that works with the sound of words, and so the absence of clearly indicated sound from the silence of the written word creates a double nature in printed poetry, making it both itself and something other—a text of hints at voicing, whose centre in utterance lies outside itself, and also an achieved pattern on the page, salvaged from the evanescence of the voice in air. Browning names this double nature "the printed voice", a phrase from The Ring And The Book (WW Norton, 1967).

Nevertheless, despite the fact that poetry "works with the sound of words", poetry magazines rarely review "the voice in air" of poetry on CD and cassette, and the audio books sections of bookstores are often tucked away in obscure corners. This is even more surprising when one considers that the market for audio books is one of the fastest growing areas of the book trade and that the popularity of poetry slams remains undiminished. This article is partly about redressing that imbalance, but it is also about directing attention to the fact that poetry on CD and cassette is not just confined to recordings of existing books. Many poets are publishing directly on CD and cassette and are using recording technologies to combine voice and music and make sound pieces. Some are using the medium of CD-ROM to produce hypermedia pieces. In what follows, I focus on poetry on CD and cassette that has excited and engaged me or which suggests something interesting about poetry in performance or about poetry in general. Publication and distribution details may be found at the end of the article.

Going Down Swinging is an energetic Australian magazine of new writing founded in 1980. The current issue #18 features 108 pages of experimental and conventional poetry and prose and comes with a twenty-seven track, 75-minute CD which, the foreword tells us, is not the magazine's "translation, but its equivalent". The CD features everything from studio recordings of conventional poetry and live recordings of performance poetry to text-with-electronics pieces that are more akin to drum'n'bass dance music than poetry. I particularly liked Lauren Williams's hilarious report from the sex wars, "Killer Instinct", which begins, "He f... so hard all I could do was watch" and Phil Norton's mysterious "Fountain of Me". Kate Middleton's "Sonnet" processes a conventional sonnet through multi-tracked and treated voices, delays and repetitions and flute sounds to produce a hypnotic piece that loops and increments. The insistent and disembodied phrases reminded me of the strange radio messages in Cocteau's Orphée. Mayakovsky, by Poets of the Machine, a biography in miniature, which uses actual recordings of the Russian poet 's original writing (Mayakovsky's love poems to Lily Brik, for example) and dance rhythms and chants: "U-S-S-R! U-S-S-R!" Going Down Swinging introduces a wide range of new Australian work and suggests that the combination of poetry and recording technologies is a fruitful area that remains largely unexploited.

Blackfellas Whitefellas Wetlands is also from Australia and is part of a project initiated in Brisbane to reflect on the social, environmental and historical importance of the Boondall Wetlands. The project brought together poets, photographers, visual artists, researchers, historians, community members and environmental experts. The CD selects work produced by the three poets involved: B. R. Dionysius, Samuel Wagan Watson and Liz Hall-Downs. The project reflects on European settlement in the area, its impact on the indigenous Aboriginal people known as the Turrbul, and the area's environmental character and importance. The three poets are quite distinct. Liz Hall-Downs offers a series of monologues in the personae of real and fictional nineteenth-century explorers, settlers and visitors. B. R. Dionysius is concerned with what settlement has done to what was once a tribal homeland and ritual landscape and how white settlers are themselves a tribe with strange practices. Samuel Wagan Watson's pieces seek to make a direct portrayal of the land itself. Blackfellas Whitefellas Wetlands causes one to reflect that there must be many places on the earth—the American West, for example—where similar stories could be told. The CD also demonstrates how poetry's defamiliarisation of language allows for imaginative recreation beyond a plain narrative of historical dates. My only complaint is that it would have been useful to have the poetry reproduced.

Seeing Voices, published by Auckland University Press, takes us even further south and features twelve New Zealand poets. It covers a reasonably broad range of mainstream and slightly edgier work. Senior figures such as C. K. Stead, Lauris Edmond and Elizabeth Smither appear alongside acclaimed younger writers like Michele Leggott. There is much to enjoy here. Elizabeth Nannestad's "Facing The Empty Page" is a witty take on being a poet:

The empty page looks all innocence
But has its own sense of humour.
You might decide to call yourself Madame X,
Be sighted in foreign cities without forwarding address.
The empty page will be at home waiting.
[...]
The empty page has no heart.

In contrast, David Eggleton's "I Imagine Wellington as a Delicatessen" is a Beat-like riff-and-improvisation satire on the way cities demand that we consume them. The New Zealand voice seems ideally suited to a detached, slightly ironic, keenly observed poetry. The poets here who go for a more bardic or Shakespearean reading style—Alan Brunton, Michele Leggott and Murray Edmond—seem precious or blustering and much less engaging. Seeing Voices is a good introduction to New Zealand poetry and a reminder that New Zealand generally gets left out of accounts of that strange, mythical beast called 'world poetry'.

In the course of gathering material for this survey, I came upon a number of comprehensive anthologies. The most impressive of these is undoubtedly Our Souls Have Grown Deep Like The Rivers: Black Poets Read Their Work. This is a double CD featuring an astonishing seventy-five tracks and everyone from Langston Hughes, W. E. B. Dubois, Maya Angelou, Derek Walcott and James Weldon Johnson to Audre Lorde, Jayne Cortez, Amiri Baraka, Public Enemy and Gil Scott-Heron. It comes with a fifty-page booklet which comprises a personal account of the importance and meaning of poetry by Al Young, an essay about the work on the CDs by Rebekah Presson Mosby, and a list of recommended reading and listening. Mosby's essay is invaluable for the way it locates the poetry on Our Souls...in its original cultural and political contexts. Al Young has interesting things to say about the difference between the printed voice and what he terms the "sounded" poem: "Voice brings poetry into the physical world, where sound and talk and music make themselves at home. [...] Speech—which lives in time, real time—presumes that someone, a living person or persons, might be listening. Meaning and drift can turn and shift on a phrase, on one prolonged vowel, on a grunt, or with silence". There is so much exciting, moving and amusing material here it seems ridiculous to select individual pieces. Our Souls is an indispensable anthology which makes it very disappointing to learn that there are no plans to distribute it outside the USA.

In the UK, Bloodaxe Books has begun a series of double cassette Poetry Quartets. Each lasts two hours, features four poets reading and talking about their work. The overall aim is to "reflect the diversity and excitement of contemporary poetry". Bloodaxe sent me #6 which features four poets from other countries now resident in Britain—Moniza Alvi, Michael Donaghy, Anne Stevenson and George Szirtes—and #7 which features four Scottish poets: John Burnside, W. N. Herbert, Liz Lochhead and Don Paterson. One of the most striking things about the two Quartets is how they reveal the limitations of the anecdotal style of poetry which continues to dominate the British mainstream. This is most obvious in the case of Moniza Alvi: once you've heard her talking about how a poem came about and what it tries to address, the poem itself becomes completely superfluous. Many readers, of course, find this type of work tremendously comforting. However, to return to Eric Griffiths, poetry is "a use of language that works with the sound of words". This may seem obvious, but it is a way of understanding that poetry is not life writing or journalism and that it is not, therefore, necessarily predicated on what it talks about. In fact, the most engaging poetry often talks about very little. This is an important distinction because the marketing of the anecdotal style in British poetry is founded on the assumption that a poet's origin and subjects are synonymous with ability and achievement.

Bloodaxe's Poetry Quartets are rather mixed affairs, but they do show how poetry changes when it becomes "the voice in air". Michael Donaghy's poems on the page have often struck me as rather dry attempts to update formal and metaphysical poetry. This is because you can see the whole thing very quickly, can quite literally see the witty point coming, the conceit being woven. Hearing Donaghy read his poems means that clever and amusing arguments develop before your ears: "Ever been tattooed? It takes a whim of iron". Don Paterson's poetry has also often seemed rather unsatisfactory on the page, torn between a postmodern self-reflexiveness and the linguistic relish of someone who, in the words of fellow Scottish poet W. N. Herbert, "has fallen in love with language and stayed faithful". His readings here reveal a very different sort of poet altogether who, while often concerned about the easy rewards of poetry, is more interested in the journey than the arrival. "Bedfellows" is a kind of noir version of Larkin's famous "Mr. Bleaney" in which the "greasy head" of the previous occupant of a room has left a "yellow blindspot" on the wall:

Every night I have to rest
my head in his dead halo;
I feel his heart tick in my wrist;
then, below the pillow,

his suffocated voice resumes
its dreary innuendo:
there are other ways to leave the room
than the door and the window.

 

[ ... Want to read Part II of this article?  Be sure to come back in July, 2002 when the article will be continued as part of our Summer Feature. ]

 

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© 2002 The Cortland Review