Tuesday, January 11, 2011


A few days ago Pierre Joris posted a link at Nomadics to Double Change, an astounding video and audio archive devoted exclusively to contemporary poetry. Most of the clips were, I believe, recorded in France and feature an impressive range of largely Anglophone poets that include Claudia Rankine, Cole Swensen, Susan Howe, Steve McCaffery, Karen Mac Cormack, Jena Osman, Rob Halpern, David Antin, Lyn Hejinian and others. But the video footage that most caught my attention was a February 11, 2009 reading by J.H. Prynne, a poet famously unavailable outside of published writing and textual communiqués. While viewing the video I couldn't resist transcribing some of Prynne's prefatory remarks explaining why he so often refuses public readings:

When I come to Paris (too infrequently) I make an exception about my attitude to reading publicly on an occasion like this. Very often I don’t do that. Not because I don’t enjoy it, but because I think it creates a wrong expectation in the audience. When an audience hears reading of work in the poet’s own voice they believe so readily that some special insight has been communicated to them because the poet’s voice is authentic and true and inward and so the whole mystery of the poem is presented directly to the ear of the audience. This belief is completely false; in my impression, totally misguided, misleading, untrue and false. Many poets read very badly. Most poets read their work quite differently on different occasions. There is no fixed way of delivering in acoustic form the text of a poem. And there is no truth about such performances. Only just the occasional choices made on the occasion in particular. And these auditory memories when an audience hears a poet read can stay with you for a lifetime. You open the text of a work that you know and admire and immediately you hear the memory of the poet’s voice and it’s an insuperable obstacle to reencountering this poem in a new way for yourself—a really serious obstacle—and I detest to create obstacles for the freedom of the reader. But Paris is a different place. Paris has a sophisticated culture. Paris understands these things. And so, I am reasonably safe in your hands.

Perhaps, as Rod Stewart says, Paris was a place you could hide away. It certainly was in the Modernist imaginary. And one thing I vividly recall about my earliest encounters with so many Modernist poets — Pound, HD, Joyce, Yeats, WCW et al — as well as any number of other poets is that I didn't hear them, I didn't hear them. So much so that when I first heard a recording of Williams reading from "Asphodel" I was crestfallen; I recognized immediately that something of the poem and, more broadly, something of Williams himself, or his body of work, was irretrievably lost to me. All the poems I so admired as a young man were, in a sense, ruined.

It wouldn't come as a surprise if, like the video footage of his 2009 Chicago lecture on "mental ears" uploaded to the web last year, Prynne insisted that the clips of his performance in France be removed from the Double Change archive. But I hope they are not if, for nothing else, because the first of these clips offers one of the clearest statements available on his reluctance to read publicly. He encourages us, kindly I think, to attend to the work of our own mental ears.

But regardless of how one may or may not feel about the public performance of text-based work, what I find most affirming in Prynne's personal decision to refuse public readings is that, in conjunction with his essay "Mental Ears and Poetic Work," this refusal does not refuse the primacy of music — or, more specifically, sound — in the construction of poetry. Even in silence, Prynne insists, one always already composes aloud, unable to disentangle thought from the sounds associated with language, written or otherwise.

"Mental Ears" is one of those rare essays I find it difficult to extract isolatable quotes from without carefully summarizing it in its entirety and, like a Montaigne essay, extracting passages from it does little more than instrumentalize the work and crush its architecture. But the following passage is worth wrenching from its cradle since it articulates so well with Prynne's reservations regarding public readings:

The poet works with mental ears. Via this specialized audition the real-time sounds of speech and vocalized utterance are disintegrated into sub-lexical acoustic noise by analogy with the striking clatter of real work in the material world. Plus also bird-song, weather sounds, and the cognates. From this first reduction the array of voice-sounds can then be transposed into a textual constellation in which compositional purpose begins to remake the anecdotal variety of actual speech. By this means the sociology of utterance-occasions is part-replaced by the textuality of a language domain.

Earlier, in the paragraph preceding this passage, Prynne writes:

It's widely believed that to read deeply and with enhanced attention the sedimented products of an earlier poetic history is to encounter the meaning of a cultural process, the intricate play of ethical agency and imaginative conjecture as composing a pedigree for full present-tense creative empowerment. But for an emergent poet to read the output of precursory eras is a complex and recursive activity, because what in the record is output must for the poet-reader also be input, dismantled from its bounded emplacement as re-fluidized for soluble modularity.

For some time now I've wanted to read this essay not necessarily against but in conjunction with Bunting's Newcastle lectures, particularly the lecture titled "Ears" and a few of Bunting's comments on Wordsworth. The driving issue concerns presence, availability and authenticity — the notion that one can, by way of listening closely or reading widely, render legible or gain fuller access to a radically unavailable object or event. Indeed, it is precisely the distance between Bunting's moment and that of Wordsworth's — the utter unavailability of both Wordsworth's historical milieu and Wordsworth himself — which allows Bunting to make the following claim:

Nobody had thought of 'standard English' in Wordsworth's time. He spoke as a Northerner, in spite of the years he spent in Cambridge, London and Somerset; in such a Northern way that Keats and Hazlitt found it hard to follow his conversation. And though he did not compose in dialect, he composed in his own voice, aloud. His music is lost if his poems are read in Southern English, and no doubt that is why so many critics imagine he had none.

Even if Wordsworth were himself available it is unlikely that measuring a recorded performance of his work against the texts he performed would disclose anything too meaningful about those texts. Further, the willful confusion of Wordsworth the figure with the texts attached to his name would mask all manner of gaps and contradictions. But in the face of this somewhat recent recognition — a recognition that Bunting himself would have been unaware of — it is clear that Bunting's claim is oriented toward a reclamation of Wordsworth that attempts to redirect the centripetal force of canonicity away from its privileged space in the southeast and outward toward other points of encounter. In fact, for years now I have read the whole of the Newcastle lectures as a modest gesture which insists on the internationality of an Anglophone canon. Not only is Bunting's Wordsworth a Northerner, but he is a poet situated not against Keats or Coleridge or Shelley but against Whitman, suggesting Bunting's primary interest was given to a consideration of regionally specific forms of differntiation within much broader and fundamentally transatlantic developments in poetry.

In any event, I sense that Bunting's "Ears" and Prynne's "Mental Ears" are at times not so different. We see this continuity not so much in the lecture "Ears," where Bunting offers a largely linear narrative that laments the (imagined) separation of poetic practice from the real-time music of lute and lyre, but in his discussion of Spenser:

Much decoration is hardly possible in verse written to be sung. The words must not compete with the notes. But Spenser handled words so as to make them their own music. Even the earliest scraps of his verse, written at school, make use of the sounds of words so fully that they leave no room for the musician to add anything to them. There is no such economy of means as Wyat had used. This abundance of decoration was Spenser's way all his life, and it has been the most persistent of his legacies to English poetry.

For Bunting decoration is the inverse of economy and there are few poets as distant from Bunting than Spenser, something Bunting himself acknowledges. But what is clear for Bunting as for Prynne is the primacy of sound in the construction of otherwise silent texts; for both Bunting and Prynne sound is never (or at least scarcely ever) subordinate to the larger abstract or conceptual architecture of a poetic work. The privileging of sound in this particular way is at once slavishly traditional and surprisingly radical, especially now when the ungainly, overambitious architectures of so many hastily produced textual projects (most willfully engineered to fail from the outset) foreclose on any serious interest in sound a poet might have. And perhaps the greatest irony, and one I think Prynne implicitly acknowledges in "Mental Ears," is the outrageously absurd expectation that poets publicly perform the very texts that refuse a close attention to sound.