Dick Higgins: A Taxonomy of Sound Poetry

Posted by Lidya Endzo Kun iLLa On 6:38 AM
For Starters, a Sub-History

Most sound poets and observers of the contemporary scene approach sound poetry as if it were a purely contemporary phenomenon, but this neoteric view simply does not hold up. It is true that some kinds of sound poetry are new in the sense of being without formal precedent. But just as "concrete" and other recent visual poetries have their analogues going back into folklore or into (for example) the Bucolic Greek poets, so sound poetry too has its close analogues. This is natural, since it is natural for anyone who is interested in poetry to try, at some point, isolating the sounds of poetry from other aspects of it and to try out the making of poems with sounds more-or-less alone; only if such an experiment were totally artificial could something so basic as a poetry of sound alone be entirely without precedent. But, to start our investigation, let us consider sound poetry not (as might be tempting) by some tight definition that gave a climactic structure to the argument of the critic or poet who offers it-the revelation-of-the-here-to-fore-unknown-truth kind of discussion-and simply use "sound poetry" as, generally, poetry in which the sound is the focus, more than any other aspect of the work.

Three basic types of sound poetry from the relative past come to mind immediately: folk varieties, onomatopoetic or mimetic types, and nonsense poetries. The folk roots of sound poetry may be seen in the lyrics of certain folk songs, such as the Horse Songs of the Navajos or in the Mongolian materials collected by the Sven Hedin expedition. We have some of this kind of thing in our own culture, where sound poetry fragments are apt to be used at the ends of stanzas, such as the French "il ron ron ron petit patte à pont" in "Il était une bergère," or the English "heigh down hoe down derry derry down" in "The Keeper." Similarly, in Black American music there is a sound poetry tradition, possibly based originally on work calls, which we find metatacized into the skat singing styles of the popular music of the 1930's, in the long nonsense-like passages in Cab Calloway's singing of "Minnie the Moocher," for example.

In written literature, by contrast, most of the sound poetry fragments are brief, onomatopoetic imitations of natural or other sounds, for example the "Brekekex ko-ax ko-ax" of the frogs in Aristophanes' drama, or the "jug jug jugs" of the birds among the Elizabethans. This use of sound has no semantic sense to speak of, although, on occasion, its freshness consists of possible overlaps between nonsense and sense. Even some recent sound poetry has an onomatopoetic element. For example, my own Requiem for Wagner the Criminal Mayor is above all a structural piece, but its sounds resemble the fighting of cats and also the so-called "Bronx cheer" of traditional calumny.

Some of the most interesting sound poetry is the purely nonsense writing of the periods in Western literature when nonsemantic styles and forms were not supposed to be taken in full earnest. One of their delights is the art with which they parody the styles of their authors' native tongues. Try this English example, for instance, from the Victorian, Edward Lear:

Thrippsy pillowins, Inky tinky pobblebookle abblesquabs?
Flosky! beebul trimple flosky!-Okul scratcha-
bibblebongebo, viddle squibble tog-a-tog, ferrymoyassity
amsky flamsky ramsky damsky crocklefether squiggs.
Flunkywisty poom.
Slushypipp.

While not set up as verse and therefore not exactly sound poetry, this text is from the period when prose poems were re-developed, and it tropes the style of a conventional polite letter of its period quite admirably. Another well-known example from its time would be the nonsense words in Lewis Carroll's "Jabberwocky --'Twas brillig in the slithy toves. . ." and that kind of thing. The protagonist is equipped with a "vorpal" sword, and speculation on that kind of sword has been abundant ever since. When I was a child I had a science fiction magazine in my possession-long since vanished-in which two genius children invented a "vorpal" sword to protect themselves against an invasion of creatures from another dimension, and there are currently even a literary magazine in California and an art gallery in New York City named-what else?-Vorpal. Thus though no meaning has ever been assigned definitively to "vorpal," the word has become familiar as a sort of empty word, significant for its lack of meaning and for its harmony in a sentence of other, more semantically significant English words.

Similarly, in Christian Morgenstern's "Gespräch einer Haussechnecke mit sich selbst," from the famous Galgenlieder, a snail asks if it should dwell in its shell, but the word fragments progress arid compress into strange, decidedly ungrammatical constructs; these use a sort of inner ear and inner grammar of the German language which reveal a great deal about the sounds and potential of that language:

Soll i aus meim Hause raus
Soll i aus meim Hause nit raus?
Einen Schritt raus?
Lieber nit raus?
Hausenitraus-
Hauseraus
Hauseritraus
Hausenaus
Rauserauserauserause ...
which Max Knight has translated as follows:
Shall I dwell in my shell?
Shall I not dwell in my shell?
Dwell in shell?
Rather not dwell?
Shall I not dwell,
shall I dwell,
dwell in shell
shall I shell,
shall IshellIshallIshellIshallI...

Of course in German the last five words can be perfectly compressed into one invented word each, which cannot be done to the same extent in English. This illustrates not only the uniqueness of the German language but also the unique relationship between successful sound poetry and the effective use of the linguistic potentialities in any given language.

[NOTE. Dick Higgins (1938-1998) was a key figure in the international Fluxus movement of the 1950s & 1960s, a continuingly resourceful poet, artist, composer, & performer, whose experimental works included early forays into intermedia (a word of his coining & a marker of his art) & computer- & chance-generated verbal & visual compositions.  He was also the publisher of the highly influential Something Else Press & the compiler & editor of Pattern Poetry: Guide to an Unknown Literature, a classic assemblage of concrete & visual poetry (or their near analogues) going back to ancient Greece & Egypt.  In my own case I knew him as a friend & as the publisher of work of mine that coincided with aspects of his own extraordinarily diverse project.  With him too I engaged in a series of conversations that helped to clarify my own relation to traditional & modern (experimental) approaches to poetry & performance. (J.R.)]

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