I have recently been considering how to develop a heightened sound effect in my poetry, how to infuse a poem with sound. I have kept a diary on and off, and keep a writer’s journal. Those writings are autobiographical, and a source of ‘language as material’. In working with the sound aspect of language, exploring sound in the world of a poem, I became curious about the sound of my world --what sounds do the places I inhabit, and pass through, consist of? What is the nature of those sounds? I decided to take advantage of being on holiday this summer, of being in a different environment, to make a sound diary. Two texts fed into this idea of keeping a sound diary. The first was David Toop’s Ocean of Sound, the second, R F Langley’s Journals. I thought to combine Toop’s musician’s ear, his attention to listening, and Langley’s focus on seeing, recording the visual for material for poems. Making a sound diary would be a practice in testing out my attention to listening. A test in finding out what sounds I could hear in the environment around me and how I could record them.
From entering the airport, human voices become an indistinguishable group of sounds, except for the odd word, in exclamation, which rises above the continuous clamour. . . . Human voices vie with the louder engine of the bus, the engine of the plane is more severe. . . . Subdued for take off, a baby cries, school children whoop as the plane speeds up . . .
Soundscape of a Bay in Majorca: A field exercise in listening
Sometimes I tried recalling sounds from the previous day in an attempt to improve my concentration and recall. Other times I listened and recorded in the moment. Listening in the moment meant I could tune in and get the detail of each type of sound - human, nature and machine.
The air con on low, icy air. The wind, rhythmic, coming across the bay. Pulses of bird song. Lapping, crashing, waves softly, engines of two motor boats, flap of a sail flicked by the wind. Boat’s engine cuts on and off as it approaches shore. Human voices, children’s, splashings of water in the pool.
Reviewing how the recordings developed during the week I realised that the ‘soundscape’ included a dynamic array of sounds coming from human, from nature and mechanical sources. I have tried this exercise out back at home. Making a sound diary show me a world consisting of the noisy, irregular rhythms of the human, animal, of nature and machine -- working with, and against, each other in a continuous clamour of sound energy that sometimes causes me to sit still, close my eyes and listen.
In my poetics, sound is an intrinsic part of poetry whether it is foregrounded or not. Listening is a skill (I know from attending readings of poetry!) and is encouraged in reading and writing poetry (and writing about poems). Throughout his A B C of Reading Ezra Pound repeatedly advises LISTENING to language, because this how we tune our ear to prosody and melody.
In his introduction to Ocean of Sound Toop cites Anthony Storr on the origins of music (in Music and the Mind): ‘It will never be possible to establish the origins of human music with any certainty; however, it seems probable that music developed from the prosodic exchanges between mother and infant which foster the bond between them.’ I am interested in the possibilities for sound in poetry in this exchange between human voice and music.
In A B C Pound cites Dante: ‘A canzone is a composition of words set to music.’ Paraphrasing Pound, starting the reader/hearer from what they actually see or hear is vital -- not deduction or conjecture. LISTEN and LOOK at the evidence, the particular and limited extent of the actuality = a focus of attention in listening to and looking at the POEM.
The first week of the innovative form in poetry module I teach on, I was working with students listening to Robert Creeley’s ‘The Rain’ and Charles Olson’s ‘In Cold Hell, In Thicket’. And guess what -- they DID pay attention to both aspects! They LISTENED for the sound shape of the poem and LOOKED at the shape of the poem on the page. Their approach bodes well for their engagement with, and responses to, our set text, Pendle Witch-Words by Geraldine Monk.
As it is just now I am listening over to murmur by Maggie O’Sullivan, to catch the sound shape, the soundscape, of that work and her voicing of it, as part of preparations for writing about that work.