7 | Sound Writing


Ah, eee, oooh, rrrrrpppp and other sounds are to sound writing as fonts, paper, color, and the other physical materials of text are to reading. Sound writing approaches  writing’s  tri-faced  nature  of  form/meaning/score  from  its  third aspect, though in impromptu performances there is no score. Sound itself is the material, a single squeak the basic building block in the way that a pixel on a screen, or a dot of ink on the page, can be thought of as the basic unit of visual writing.


Its roots reach back before the lyric poem, back to the first utterance of language, some claim; its breadth extends out to those who make the sound of language integral to what is written: the deep etymologies and rhythms manifest in Nathaniel Mackey’s reading of his poetry, the alliteration in William Gass’s fiction, or the lyric prose of Rikki Ducornet, or the punning associations in John Ashbery or Ben Marcus. R.M. Berry has the monster in his rewriting of Shelley’s Frankenstein perform a mashup of words that often have puns or homonyms as their common denominator in order to create a text whose meaning is between sense, or extra-sense. His monster’s invented collage language is denser in both meaning and sound than natural language in the way that Shelley’s monster both is and isn’t human. Leonard Forster translates Wordsworth ("My heart leaps up when I behold") into German ("Mai hart lieb zapfen eibe hold") using the common ground of how the words sound (rather than mean) in each language. Likewise, David Melnick translates Homer’s Iliad from Greek to English using sound as the medium of exchange, and in so doing creates a new work, Men in Aida, that refreshes both the original and language itself from an unexpected perspective that makes it impossible to ever again see the original as before.

But sound writing is most conceptual as it pushes into the abstract. In this regard it is associated with authors whose means and methods are more closely aligned with the anti-art art of Dada—nonsense syllables against commodified art forms, or other reasons to go beyond reason, e.g., the attempt of Zaum poetry to get at an ur-language, or to use the elements of language to elicit emotional responses, as Kurt Schwitters does in “Der Ursonate” (“The Ur Sonata"), or the sound poetry group the Four Horsemen (Rafael Barreto-Rivera, Paul Dutton, bpNichol and Steve McCaffery), which often walks a line between sounds that make sense and sounds that don’t. This is a rich field but it isn’t music. Sound writing may have much in common with the joy, freedom, and emotional release elicited by Ella Fitzgerald’s scat singing. It may have much in common with the arrangement of sounds from non-musical instruments like a power drill, or the crackling of a fire in the experimental music of a sound composer like Olivia Block. But while these kinds of music go with the grain of what is generally considered to be music (as opposed to noise), sound writing cuts against the grain of what is commonly thought of as writing (sense). As Gerald Bruns points out, the most common response elicited by sound poetry is laughter.


Laughter may, in fact, be the best metonym of what is at stake: a spontaneous, bodily reaction that is part of language though not of language. Bruns elaborates by listing the sounds that the human mouth can make: “Besides vocal there are buccal sounds — ‘buccal’ means ‘of or pertaining to the cheek.’ The mobility of sound is rooted in the rubbery flexibility of cheeks, without which the mouth is useless. Think also of lips kissing and popping and simulating farts. Don’t forget glottal sounds made with the tongue (clucking, trilling) or guttural sounds made with the throat: choking, for example, swallowing, gurgling, hawking, grunting, growling, hiccupping. Then there are bronchial sounds: breathing, gasping, wheezing, coughing. And nasal sounds: sniffing, snoring, sneezing, whining, speaking French (as when a language not understood by the listener becomes a sort of sound poem). Not to mention dental sounds: teeth clicking, chattering, grinding. Buccal sounds are proto- or extra lingual: They break with the phonetic world that underwrites language. This is even more true when the sounds of the voice, mouth, teeth, and sinus are augmented or modified technologically.” Steve McCaffery’s “Mr. White in Panama,” Bruns points out, is a good example of a poet working with the complete range of sounds listed above. As R. Henry Nigl says of his “shout art,” Bruns also points out that it matters that anyone can make a sound poem.


Like much conceptual writing, sound writing calls attention to its materials, here extracting sound from writing and presenting it as writing itself, even at the expense of meaning. It pushes the boundaries of language in seeming agreement with Jerome Rothenberg and Pierre Joris’s assessment of the instrumental role poetry can play in the “struggle to save the wild places—in the world and in the mind. ” Wittgenstein concludes his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus by asserting “Whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must be silent.” The sound poet replies, with apologies to Frank Ramsey, “But we can whistle."