Academic journal article English Studies in Canada

On Discreteness: Event and Sound in Poetry

Academic journal article English Studies in Canada

On Discreteness: Event and Sound in Poetry

Article excerpt

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Twenty-six letterforms--the alphabet--part of poetry's visual dimension. One-hundred-plus sounds, derived from forty-plus phonemes--spoken English--part of poetry's sonic dimension. On Discreteness: Event and Sound in Poetry largely explores the latter dimension--sound--in poetry. However, the mix of "auditory and visual standards in poetry" (in the wry words of James Laughlin to William Carlos Williams) (1) also arises, for several contributors, as a theoretical and practical (that is, descriptive and experiential) concern. In the call for papers for this special issue, poetry was conceived of as an event in sound branching out and dividing through language, technology, history--"ramifying." To ramify means "To extend; to spread (in various directions); to grow in complexity or range" (OED). Such happens in sounding-out poetry byway of durational, intonational, pitch, stress, and loudness variation, by way of the print and recording technologies that mediate and condition the quality and kind of aural reception, and byway of shifts in cultural contexts shaping poetry's multimodal existence. What most of these sixteen contributors to Esc: English Studies in Canada share--which makes this issue somewhat timely--is the intent to listen to the sound of poets' (and for one contributor, to listen to the sound of actors') poetry recordings, including other poetry performances. In this respect, there are contributors who consider recordings of Gertrude Stein and William Carlos Williams, Brien Gyson and Kenneth Rexroth, and contemporaries Caroline Bergvall, Charles Bernstein, Anne Carson, and Geraldine Monk, among others, from Canada, the U.S., and the UK.

Uttered sound is unstable-allophonic, noisy. A poem as a temporal sequence of recorded utterances shows more differences from itself than as word forms in print. In translating, Ezra Pound needed to discern between multiple versions of Arnaut Daniel's poetry that print transmission had ramified through half a millennium. Today, in order to achieve the degree of discernment practised by a translator, we must we can, thanks to recent sound pioneers in poetry--discern between recorded versions of a poem delivered in the course of less than half a lifetime To "stabilize" sound's protean qualities is, in a sense, what prosodic inventions such as various metres, measures, phrases, and rhythms, as well as the concept of phoneme itself, and the seven meanings of logos, etc., are about. The concept of discreteness plays to the classical Greek roots of logos: that you can cut up any thought into minimal units--atom or particle and, hence, phoneme. "In all languages" Victoria Fromkin's An Introduction to Language explains, "discrete linguistic units combine in rule-governed ways to form larger units" (41). Or as John Lyons explains discreteness: "Identity of form and language is [...] a matter of all or nothing, not of more or less" (Lyons 21). For the "more or less" range of speech expression to aurally impress, language must be constituted on a set of "all or nothing" distinctions. Sound needs to be made discrete at this constitutive phonemic level for it to behave like a language. We activate, in listening, at least two levels of language: the sound continuum of "more or less" meaning and its discretely differentiated, opposing, and relationally constituted "all or nothing" set of minims. This collection of essays exists in the tension between sound continuum and discreteness.

Roman Jakobson contrasts the degree of fluid and choppy expressivity in speech to the degree available in poetry in written form. Ivan Fonagy paraphrases from the Czech:

In everyday speech, emotions are reflected in the rate of speech, in intonation, in unusual pauses, in the shift of stress, the emphatic lengthening of vowels or consonants or the expressive modification of articulation and the corresponding shift in the sound spectrum; e.g. a raised, forward tongue position and brighter vowel color may reflect gaiety, particularly strained consonants may express anger. …

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