The Sound Of Poetry / The Poetry Of Sound.  Chicago, 2009.  Marjorie Perloff & Craig Dworkin, editors.









As Badiou sums it up, the central question of contemporary art is “how not to be Romantic.”  And at first blush, The Sound Of Poetry / The Poetry Of Sound seems up for the challenge, in synch with a cutting-edge poetic sensibility many Lana Turner readers will recognize as kin and muse.  In her coeditor’s introduction, Marjorie Perloff—long innovative poetry’s best friend and exegete—rails against fellow critics for whom “poetry equals lyric,” spinning The Sound Of Poetry / The Poetry Of Sound as a corrective to Official Verse Culture’s sticky fetish for the 19th century.


The volume focuses on the avant-garde and latter-day experimentalism’s most extreme oppositions to polite literature and conventional meaning—with sound poetry employed as a poster child for asemanticity—and has much in common with more historically- and taxonomically-minded canon-nudgers such as Close Listening and Experimental - Visual - Concrete, including the latter’s indifference to the vernacular and an overlapping roster of contributors.  And where Perloff’s monograph Poetic License carefully frames innovative poetry in relation to lyric practice, comparisons here tend to be interdisciplinary (to music and visual art), intra-experimental, and feisty.  By including button-pushing polemics alongside its scholarly essays and artists’ statements, The Sound Of Poetry / The Poetry Of Sound captures innovative poetry’s squabblesomeness, but articulates a remarkably consistent formulation of sound’s meaning and function, namely that sound = freedom.  At which point a second blush begins (freedom being the 19th century’s most important literary fetish, and political project.)


For Helene Aji, Jackson Mac Low’s visual poems are inscriptions of democracy and “a controlled exercise of freedom.”  In a less Tennysonian vein, Yunte Huang’s insights on Pound rely on the fact that proper names are “not semantically constrained,” and Susan Howe tells of “the freedom of an inexorable order only chance creates,” likening her own writing process to Thoreau’s “absolute freedom.”  Leevi Lehto and Antonio Sergio Bessa offer that linguistic constraint and license can spur translators to create essentially new works.  The constraint exemplified throughout the volume via Christian Bök’s poetry mostly resolves to a measure of freedom.  Autotheorizing in “When Cyborgs Versify,” Bök cheekily valorizes the emancipatory potential of post-human poetry and performance, both of which (like techno) are “free from error and ennui”—and thus oversimplifies a diverse music, and excises the political from Donna Harraway’s original cyborg paradigm.  Similarly, Nancy Perloff’s ambitious comparison of musical and poetic avant-gardesone of the too-few essays here to analyze poetic sound closely, though many call for such analysis to be doneoversells sonic discontinuity as “alogism,” and makes the doubly-refutable generalization that “Avant-garde music discards lyricism, just as sound poetry rejects meaning.”  

Though almost every essay in The Sound Of Poetry / The Poetry Of Sound chases a thread of semantic freedom (while slighting other relevant formulations, such as sound = narratorial identity, sound = pleasure, and so on), the volume’s strongest essays chase reception too, and are less prone to take poets’ or audiences’ declarations about meaning’s absence (or the meaning of meaning’s absence) at face value.  Refuting vispo’s rhetoric, Brian M. Reed brands as “utopian” the idea that semantic freedom equals political freedom.  Rubén Gallo and Steve McCaffery overturn the coffee table wisdom that sees mostly “abnegation of meaning” in the oeuvres of both Cocteau and Ball:  after thorough research, Gallo proffers hidden referents for some of Orphée’s most cryptic language, and McCaffery suggests that “phonetic poetry has a repositional rather than a negative effect on meaning; it situates the semantic order elsewhere.”  In the volume’s only unnecessarily prolix essay, Ming Qian-Ma’s plausible speculation on the reception of works wholly outside the realm of literariness rests on a key Romantic category.  Asemantic graphic poems and wordless diagrams can become readable via a temporary frustration and then a release of the sonic imagination—semantic freedom’s kissingest cousin. (As John Cage unpacked it, sound’s signification may be delayed, but never indefinitely—”everything becomes melodic.”)


In her witty history, “Rhyme and Freedom,” Susan Stewart takes stock of the 19th century, mentioning Schopenhauer’s belief that rhyme was “independent of all reasons.”  Romantic ideas about music—Schopenhauer’s arguments about its refusal to signify mimetically, and Jankélévitch’s later observation that sound signifies in multiple ways—prefigure so much of what’s claimed throughout The Sound Of Poetry / The Poetry Of Sound that a more thorough use of even old-line musicology might help untangle the Romantic root uncovered here.  While one can’t expect maximum depth of field (such as is found in Lentz’ 1200-page Lautgedicht-Lautmusik) in an anthology of conference essays, some of the inter- disciplinarity here lacks heft.  That said, The Sound Of Poetry / The Poetry Of Sound provides a needed supplement to the small number of books that focus on the sound of recent poetry.


What then of experimentalism’s most recent developments?  Flarf’s ear most often selects by lyric rules, marking it as ironically Romantic, and conceptual poetry—in addition to being a pagebound, non-ephemeral version of conceptual art—has its semi-conscious reinscription of 18th-century aesthetics to deal with.  (Kant’s impurposivity is constantly being regurgitated, ad nauseum, by Kenneth Goldsmith and others, but without Cage’s comic twinkle.)  Even Badiou, with his careful definitions, manages to wring old changes with his valorizations of surprise and new knowledge (respectively harking back to Baudelaire and Ion.)  In light of which, the best question for contemporary poetry may be: “you are Romantic in what way, and is it good for you?”




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