Marjorie Perloff and Craig Dworkin (eds), The Sound of Poetry/The Poetry of Sound

Marjorie Perloff and Craig Dworkin (eds), The Sound of Poetry/The Poetry of Sound (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009), 343pp. £48.50 hb, ISBN 9780226657414; £18.00 pb, ISBN 9780226657431.

As I was finishing Majorie Perloff and Craig Dworkin’s edited collection my one year old daughter was playing with a noisy toy of the type that regularly fills our house with a cacophony to rival anything ever heard at the Cabaret Voltaire. A small square plastic box, it has a space in the middle into which can be inserted chunky tablets embossed with single letters of the alphabet, an action which triggers electronic vocalization of the appropriate phoneme. If the space is empty, however, a tinny mantra repeats (and repeats and repeats) the sing-song slogan: ‘Every letter makes a sound’. It was a fitting accompaniment to this volume of essays: irritating and enlightening in equal measure, often at exactly the same time.

In the endless grudge match between the U.S. poetic mainstream and its experimental opposition, Perloff is the leading critical exponent of the latter, with Helen Vendler glowering at her from the blue corner. Recently retired from a chair at Stanford, Perloff, alongside poet-critics like Charles Bernstein and Steven McCaffrey (both with essays here), has been central to the extraordinarily rapid institutionalization of the American avant-garde over the past two decades. Bernstein and McCaffrey, for example, often seen as co-founders of Language Poetry, hold chairs at Penn and SUNY respectively. It’s a far cry from poor Kurt Schwitters subsisting on food-parcels in Ambleside.

In her Introduction Perloff, as usual, gets quickly to the point, and as usual that point concerns how most poetry is beholden to a form—the lyric—that valorizes self-identity, inwardness and epiphany and consequently fails to do justice to today’s forms of subjectivity. For Perloff the contemporary conjuncture can be mapped only by a poetry that is pre- or post- or trans-individual, attentive to the materiality of language and acutely suspicious of the very notion of transparent communication. It is this shared set of assumptions that gives the collection its coherence, and most of the essayists here argue, explicitly or implicitly, that such a poetry must be particularly attentive to its sonic element.

Yet one of the productive tensions of the book issues from the various ways its different essays understand the results of this attention. For some of these writers the intensification of poetry’s sonic affects supplies an asignifying, impersonal yet viscerally materialist aesthetic that acts negatively as a critique of the humanist self. This would seem to be McCaffrey’s position in his essay ‘Cacophony, Abstraction and Potentiality: the Fate of the Dada Sound Poem’. Susan Stewart’s measured and thoughtful piece on rhyme, by contrast, sees such acoustic patterning as ‘a balance between will and contingency’ that might act prescriptively as a model for understanding human agency.

Others, like Nancy Perloff in her essay ‘Sound Poetry and the Musical Avant-Garde’ grasp the importance of poetic sound through the way its evolution registers the impact on human consciousness of the so-called ‘soft’ technologies (e.g. radio and the tape recorder). Rather than returning us to some kind of libidinal substrate, sound poetry thus achieves what Christian Bok calls a ‘machinic intensity’, reflecting the profoundly prosthetic nature of experience in modernity. In his own rather self-regarding essay ‘When Cyborgs Versify’ Bok situates himself as legatee of Marinetti’s Futurist attempt ‘to make literature out of the life of a motor’. However instead of Marinetti’s paeans to trains, explosives and molecules, Bok claims to be writing a poetry that emulates ‘modern genres of electronica like techno or trance’, hoping as a result ‘that the arias in my opera might provide the vocal grist for acts of deejaying’. Although Bok seems to be trying to present his hipster credentials here, the effect is more reminiscent of watching your geography teacher dancing at the school disco.

In Charles Bernstein’s essay ‘Hearing Voices’ attention to sound serves neither to promote the vertigo of polysemy nor to notate the mediations of techne, but rather to locate the speaker in both time and space through the register of accent. The occasion for this is a consideration of the various digital archives where poets read their own work (e.g. PennSoundor, although he doesn’t mention it, The Archive of the Now). Late in the essay he describes Eliot’s notorious reading of The Waste Land as one dominated by ‘a de-accented, not to say impersonal voice that is haunted by the often sudden intrusion of accented voices’. Eschewing qualms about Derridean logocentrism, Bernstein goes on to declare emphatically: ‘Yes, I do fetishize the voice because doing so returns voice from sometimes idealized projections of self in the style of a poem to its social materiality, to voicing and voices’.

Derrida’s investigation of the relation between speech and writing, performance and text, is evoked on several occasions in the book. However one development the collection traces, indeed demonstrates by its very publication, is the way recent avant-garde poetry, in a move away from Deconstructive orthodoxy, tends to promote performance over textuality. This is something brought out succinctly in Brian Reed’s essay on ‘Visual Experiment and Oral Performance’ where he notes the way in which McCaffrey’s practice has moved from treating text as ‘a challenge to speech’s primacy’ towards seeing it as ‘an incitement to oral performance’. It is a movement also suggested by Kenny Goldsmith’s extraordinary closing essay ‘I Love Speech’, its title explicitly refuting the Language poet Robert Grenier’s notorious ‘I HATE SPEECH’ statement of 1971. Such polarities are of course meat and drink to the manifesto-munching groupuscles of the avant-garde, but they tend to generate bad criticism. The best of these essays argue instead that the critical task should be, as Reed puts it, to ‘undo the crispness of the distinction’ between page and performance rather than artificially separate them. Or to put it another way: the chunky plastic alphabet of my daughter’s toy, as materialist a text as it is possible to get, cannot be divorced from the slogan that, as I write, is once again ringing in my ears—‘Every letter makes a sound’.

Conor Carville, University of Reading