Thursday, January 04, 2007

I Went to the MLA, Part Two

More notes from "The Sound of Poetry, The Poetry of Sound" panels that I attended last week in Philadelphia:

Following Caroline Bergvall and Christian Bök on the "Sound Poetry Workshop" comes poet and critic Craig Dworkin, claiming that sound poetry can help to "open" non-sound works. Talks about units of composition beneath the level of the word and how this can relate to the particularities of a given speaker's body. Cites a piece by Henri Chopin called "Buckle Cavities." Also mentions an author whose first name I didn't catch, a Canadian poet named Scot or Scott who happens to have a stutter, who writes "a text as difficult as possible for its own author to pronounce." The stutter motivates his work and disables the reader.

Steve McCaffrey follows with a talk on the Dadist Hugo Ball, performing part of Ball's "Elefantenkarawane," which does indeed seem to be mimetic of an elephant caravan. Ball claimed to invent sound poetry or Lautgedichte in Zurich in 1916. The haptic and phatic affect of such poetry, intended to evoke "poetry's last holiest refuge" (Ball). McCaffrey suggests the non-sense of sound poetry was motivated by disgust with World War I and the linguistic environment that made the war possible. But Ball's sound poetry does not escape symbolism—semantic content trails his phonemes. Seems to suggest Ball was a Romantic in disguise. Dada as mantra—mystic meditation—the word itself as shibboleth, "tetragrammaton of a new century." Sound poetry shades into magic. Language as golem.

Rubén Gallo talks about Cocteau's film Orphée, which among other things represents an experimental poet who transmits his work over the radio, and another, more conservative poet who becomes obsessed with transcribing what he hears, ultimately transforming himself into an uncreative writer (a proto-Kenneth Goldsmith?). Talks about noise, specifically radio noise, as one of the privileged markers of modernity in the first half of the twentieth century. Marinetti said noise must come in with modern poetry. The French word for radio interference is la parasite. The German word for this is Störung. Shows us a 1913 calligramme of Apollinaire's showing the Eiffel Tower from above, which includes nonsense fragments to indicate the presence of la parasite. Clips from Cocteau's film in which a woman listens to poetry being played on the radio of her chaufferred Rolls Royce. Emblem of modernity.

The respondent is Nancy Perloff of the Getty Center in LA (any relation to Marjorie?), but by this point I'm starving (they don't seem to have scheduled much time for lunch between these panels, which are running late anyway) and take a break for some fish 'n chips. Unfortunately, this means that I miss the first presenters in the "Sounding the Visual" workshop. Fortunately, I return in time for the entirety of Johanna Drucker's charming talk, in which she asks what elements of the visual have functional analogues with sound.

Drucker seems to ask: what is the "sound" of "appearance"? Much of her talk is accompanied by visuals in which words and letters move across the screen, demonstrating the analogues whenever possible. She speaks of seven "graphic variables," the first four of which have sound analogues and the last three of which do not:
- Size (analogous to volume)
- Scale or relative size (sound can represent this through multiple voices)
- Shape (analagous to the texture of the voice—the type in which text appears is shape and thus has a function for style)
- Value (analagous to tone)
- Pattern (no analogue)
- Color (no analogue)
- Placement or orientation (no analogue)
She also talks about the modes of disappearance that are difficult to represent aurally: when a text is under erasure, when it has been censured, when it purely disappears. It's difficult to convey the elegance of how the visuals her talk is accompanied by demonstrate these ideas.

Ming-Qian Ma's talk has an imposing title: "The Sound Shape of the Visual: Toward a Phenomenology of an Interface." For poetry, Ma says, sound has historically taken the form of noise, while the visual takes priority. Mentions how Odysseus stopped his men's ears against the Sirens' song. Visuals from telescopes: astronomers produce "noisy" images of other galaxies that need to be "cleaned" or "silenced" to become legible. The split in crystallography: before the eighteenth century crystals were empirically catalogued; after they were presented as ideal geometrical forms or "projections." The visual presents us with a ratio between the focus and fringe, body and margin. "The visual demonstrates its authority by being silent." "The visual is considered to be spatially rich but temporally poor," and the opposite is true for sound.

Many of these speakers seem to suggest that sound is social, embodied, horizontal, while the visual is abstract, idealist, vertical.

Joan Retallack's talk is called "Uncommon Senses: Silence, Phonemes, Synesthetics." "Words begin for all of us as phonemes." In infants and children, phonemes in spoken language stimulate both the visual and auditory cortexes of the brain. Adult brains are modular and separate these modes of cognition. But a few people are genuine synesthetes, typically registering words or letters as somehow colored. Nabokove, Kandinsky. Synesthesia as an index of engagement with one's environment. John Dewey: when the organism gets too far from its environment, it dies. Retallack suggests that nowadays the reverse is true as well. Shows images of texts that simulate synesthesia: pages from Tom Phillips' A Humument and poems by Jonathan Skinner and Peter Inman.

The last panel of the day is "Translating the Visual" and it's kicked off by Gordana P. Crnkovic, who says she came to the sound of poetry via the novel, specifically a novel called Death and the Dervish by Mesa Selminovic that was published in Yugoslavia in 1966. Selminovic said of it, "I needed the Quran because I needed poetry" to counteract the Communist dogma of the time. Crnkovic cites a saying of Mohammed's that amounts to, "If you doubt these teachings, write better poetry than this." Selminovic uses poetry in his novel as a mode of resistance to Communist prose. But how to translate it? In the original language (what used to be called Serbo-Croatian), Selminovic's prose uses strong internal rhyming to subvert the negativity of the content—there's a liveliness that belies what's being said—and this is virtually impossible to translate. Demands poetry, if not verse, from the translator.

Richard Sieburth, who bears an uncanny resemblance to John R. Bolton, is next with a talk on his translation of a sequence of quasi-sonnets by the French poet Maurie Scève called Délie, published in Lyons in 1544. Typograhical oddities in the original that most editors and translators have smoothed over. Mentions how Basil Bunting did readings from Wordsworth's The Prelude in what would have been Wordsworth's own Northrumbian accent (and I'm reminded of the fact that Keats was a Cockney). Walter Benjamin (I knew his name would come up): "The translation is an event in the afterlife of the original." Scève was apparently a kind of anti- or skewed Petrarchan. Sieburth devised a four-stress, ten-syllable to line to work against the grain of the English sonnet's iambic pentameter, so as to preserve the strangeness of the original.

Rosmarie Waldrop, who's always a pleasure to listen to, talks about how poetic devices affect sound and vice-versa.
"The translation of sound in poetry is impossible... the translator is forced to separate what canot be separated, and to kill the original." But after this killing we must resurrect the poem somehow. Benjamin again: the translator is forced to choose between "inaccurate transmission of inessential content" and putting content first and thus producing a trot. The Zukofskys' Catullus attempts to translate both sound and sense, and is occasionally successful. But always something is lost, in this case tone, which Waldrop says comes from the joining of the two (or exists at their nexus, as in a Venn diagram). The translator must try to get at a poem's "genetic code," developing a feel for how it's put together.

Yunte Huang begins with a story about his Buddhist, semi-literate grandmother, who learned to pronounce all the words of the Diamond Sutra but remained uninterested in learning their meanings. "Homophonic translation turns every word into a proper name." Seeks to broaden "homophonic translation" to mean any practice of foregrounding the materiality of words so as to turn them into proper names. Pound's "The River Merchant's Wife: A Letter": how Pound left "Cho-fu-Sa" untranslated as the poem's last word because its literal meaning, "long wind sand," doesn't have the aura of the proper name. A manifestation of Pound's nominalism. This converts words not to icons or ideograms only, but to indexes—"As indexes, proper names are foreign to any language." Nixon in China: "Oh, what a great wall!" Huang seems to suggest that proper names are free from conventional signification—that they escape the Saussurean game by which words achieve meaning only through their distinction from other words. Instead they are sutured directly to their referents. (Is he really saying this?) Pound liberates Chinese words from the context of other Chinese words to set up a direct relation between the name and the thing it represents. (I am reminded of what Yoko Tawada said earlier about how reading English taught her to empty ideograms of signification, turning them into mere counters).

Antonio Sergio Bessa talks about Augusto de Campos and the Noigandres poets of Brazil in the 1950s and 60s. His were "the first concrete poems." Talks about Anton Webern and his theory of melody. Glenn Gould saw the atonal reticence of Webern's music as heightening its emotional power rather than diminishing it. Webern's use of "mirror forms" and its infulence on de Campos. "Silence made audible as a structural element." Plays a very beautiful polyphonic performance of one of de Campos' poems (the first "line" is "diaz diaz diaz"), a page-as-field work in which different words, coded by color, are spoken/sung by different voices.

Leevi Lehto: "The cure for Babelization is more Babelization." Positive cacophony of sound. "In the beginning was translation." Opposes the dominant idea of a democracy of languages above which hovers a netural instrument called translation. Proposes a new poetry of barbaric English—English as a second language, as no one's native language (we are back with Tawada and Goldsmith) as the lingua franca of our age. "How is it Ashbery has yet to be translated into his native language?" The untranslatable text—cites Bök's Eunoia—is best translated "by not even glancing at the original."

And that's all I wrote: I spent the rest of the conference catching up wtih friends, browsing the book fair, and carousing. For much more on this past MLA and its poetry-related panels, see what Ron said and what Barrett Watten said. And if you know of other reports, please comment below to tell me where I might find them.

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