[ Adadaide Morris, ed. Sound States: Innovative Poetics and Acoustical Technologies. Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 1997. ]
"Our aim is to give the reader an earful" so Dee Morris claims in the introduction to this exciting new anthology of essays. They certainly do this -- unstopper the ear (the book includes a CD illustrating some of the essays) though they get at the ear largely through the eye, through intricate and densely-textured arguments.
The claim is that critics of twentieth-century poetry have given great attention to visual experimentation, and that contemporary theory, too, is eye-obsessed and page-oriented. This almost "phonophobic" approach cannot take in and account for the radical implications for writing of a century's worth of acoustical technologies. These have in effect made possible, in Walter Ong's phrase, a "secondary orality" a consciousness shaped by a powerful, dominating babble, opening possibilities not only for simultaneous participation, but for massive control and coercion: "It's not just Eskimos who live in an ear-world'. . . ; it's not just talk poets who think with an ear-mind,'" Morris claims. "Steam engines, the shriek and grunt of industrial machines, factory sirens, the ring of phones, the buzz and blare of loudspeakers, radio background noise, jamming, feedback, static, undertones, in-your-ear headphones, sound tracks, voice-overs, the hum, whirr, and sosumi-twang of computers -- past or future, live or on tape, we are always suspended in a surround of sound"(2).
The awareness of these technologies and their cultural power necessitate a different kind of reading: "Complex, plural, and supple methods of interpretation methods that register more than one sense become ever more urgent," as new multimedia possibilities continue to open (7). As one of these supple new modes of reading, Morris and others call attention to the work of Garrett Stewart, Reading Voices: Literature and the Phonotext (Berkeley: U of California P, 1990). Stewart insists that reading even so-called "silent reading" is not only a lexical but an acoustic event; his account of reading itself stresses the play between "graphotext" and "phonotext," between "the scriptive character processed by the eye and phonemic characters evoked for the inner or outer ear" (4).
The implications of this book are almost too much to take in at once, at least for this reader. As Morris says in reference to Stewart's readings, these new dimensions "seem lush, thick, and startling" (2). I am left with a troubling but exciting aftermath of reading. Two essays are especially striking in demonstrating the ambivalence of the power allowed by these new technologies: Morris's essay on H.D.'s Helen in Egypt ("Sound Technologies and the Modernist Epic") and Michael Davidson's essay on contemporary poets ("Technologies of Presence: Orality and the Tapevoice of Contemporary Poetics"); and Jed Rasula's more theoretical exploration of "voice" ("Poetry's Voice-Over"). Morris and Davidson contextualize modernist efforts at the epic in terms of the history of radio and other technologies, pointing out that radio came into its own with Hitler's broadcasts, as a tool of extended, coercive persuasion. Thus, though the possibilities of the new orality were generative for the early generation of modernists, their efforts at voicing presence, so as to create "coercive community," participate in a charged arena of cultural power.
Rasula's essay makes broader, universal claims about the connection of "poetic voice" to technology: that though the technologies (such as those available to modernist poets) have altered, poetic engineering has not. Poetic voice -- not only contemporary or modern, but "archaic" as well (e.g., Hesiod or Homer) -- has always needed "voice-over": "[I]ndividual voice serves as subpoena for an entire cultural habitus, a way of disposing as personal and inviolable something that has been dictated, by ventriloquism, well in advance of the poem itself" (278). The poet, willy-nilly, serves as transmitter for this culturally determined voice-over.
These essays present a rich brew indeed, opening surprising terrains and asking that one see (hear) anew poets and projects (like Helen in Egypt) that had begun to gain clarity in available vocabularies. In the context of the on-going HOW(ever) project, this collection is important in addressing modernist and contemporary poetics from a new vantage. The book considers many artist/writers in some detail, among them Joyce, Beckett, Burroughs, Ginsberg, David Antin, Laurie Anderson, Steve Benson, John Cage. Jack Spicer, Robert Duncan, Amiri Baraka, Bob Kaufman, Blues singers, West Indian poetry, etc. But reading the book with HOW2 in mind, one wonders, once again, where the women are. Apart from H.D. and Laurie Anderson, no women are here considered, only a handful of others even mentioned in passing. And it strikes me that many of the women engaged in experimental writing have already entered the complex acoustic dimension of poetic language suggested here. To quote Kathleen Fraser in the endnotes to HOW(ever) 4.1: "The work in this issue elucidates moments of transition, places at which the aural, written and visual dovetail. The work finds its form at these junctures. Our attention is held, as the Working Notes suggest, between babble and sense, between color and its resonance, between prayer and the rhythm of a narrative of loss, between a gash in a screen and a projection on a page, between speech and radio signal--these are the slivers occupied."
Bio: Eileen Gregory is a Professor of English at the University of Dallas. Her books are H.D. and Hellenism: Classic Lines (reviewed in this issue) and an earlier book of essays, Summoning the Familiar (1983). From 1987 through 1992, Gregory published and edited The H.D. Newsletter.
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