Dispatches | July 10, 2007

In a letter to Paul Demeny, Rimbaud argues “All ancient poetry culminated in Greek poetry, harmonious Life.” For Rimbaud, this harmony involves both mind and body: “verses and lyres, rhythms: Action.” This is a far cry from the dominant perspective that sees poetry first and foremost as text. The poem, for the ancient Greek of Rimbaud’s imagination, is not simply a collection of black strokes on a white page (what he calls mere “games” or “pasttimes”), but a living enactment, an incarnation, a singing. While “voices and lyres” may sound a bit precious to the modern ear, the rhythm and action of a poet’s voice still adds an irreplaceable dimension to the poem itself. Inflection, emphasis, innuendo, sarcasm, silliness: all of these nuances become distinct only when a living voice articulates what is otherwise just a series of marks on a page. For what is text but the disappearance of speech?

Poetry as text is the disappearance of poetry as living speech. This is worth remembering. As text, the poem exists in the alienation of the poet from himself or herself (as well as the alienation of the speaker from his or her audience). Speech becomes an autonomous artifact like an unwound grandfather clock made of words. Rimbaud sees this movement from poetry as embodied speech to poetry as disembodied text as a narrative of decline–one of a vast number of human “Falls” from various hazy Edens. The fall from speech into textuality is one phase in the greater fragmentation of human reality. It is one of the originary representational acts, and thus stands at the beginning of all simulation (and dissimulation). Postmodernity could perhaps be understood as the historical culmination of the logic of disembodied textuality: text, divorced from voice, running rampant. Consider, for instance, the rootless language of popular marketing or the pompous, empty air of contemporary political discourse. Ours is an age of endlessly accelerating signification, defined by a paralyzing doubt in the possibility of meaning, legitimation, and authority.

But for every paradise lost there is (I would like to think) one to be regained. Paradoxically, the same technology that has intensified our self-estrangement (writing) has made possible technologies (such as digital recording) that are capable of reintegrating voice and text. Personally, I have grown up with this technology, so my experience of poetry as a living fact has been altered and enhanced by it. For instance, I remember the first time I heard Ginsberg’s “Howl” on a tin-speakered, late-night computer. After the fact, it was impossible to separate the prophet from the prophecy. Then, there are the vintage classics, such as Yeat’s “Lake Isle of Innisfree,” where you hear the Irish bard like a mellifluous ghost singing through static. You can hear Pound’s manic, intelligent cadences and Eliot’s ultracivilized, unsettling monotone . Somewhere you can access Kerouac’s laughter during a reading of Mexico City Blues and Berryman’s weird rest-and-half-rest-riddled versions of the Dream Songs . When read by the poet, the poem changes. And we are changed in the hearing.

The medium of audio poetry offers the possibility of a reunion between voice and text (and also between speaker and audience). In a sense, text becomes testament. Is it possible to listen to the passion of an Amiri Baraka reading and then consider the words as if they were simply “text” again? When poetry is animated by the voice, a new kind of intensity (which is actually a very old type of intensity) becomes possible; the recorded voice binds the enduring phrase to its disappearing creator. Could it be that technology will change the way in which we understand poetry itself?

I hope so.

This is one of the reasons I am excited about TMR’s upcoming Audio Competition. By giving priority to the spoken poem (not to mention fiction, drama, etc.), this contest marks a shift in the culture of the literary magazine. Text is no longer everything. I hope that digital recording technology will make possible not only a reunion of voice and text, but also a new era of experimentation and expanded artistic horizons. I can imagine a new medium of digital audio poetry with unique and yet-to-be-articulated aesthetic principles. The poem becomes open to ambient sound, the grinding of machinery, howl, echo and reverberation. It becomes pure soundscape. Again, the poem comes to include more “harmonious Life,” as Rimbaud has it. Perhaps in that opening up we will find something new in ourselves.