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Friday, August 10, 2007

Poetry Friday- Wordless Poetry?


Thinking about instrumental music the other day, I was pondering how it can evoke so many emotions with just sounds. (Actually, I'll give some credit to Hofstadter's book for making me reflect on this issue.) Perhaps even more astounding is that different people often have the same (or as near as two people can) emotions to a particular piece. Why is that? And to get to the point of this post, could a poem accomplish a similar feat without words?

I like that there is no single agreed upon definition of poetry. Though, I venture to guess that few people would allow a definition that doesn't include words. But assuming the goal of poetry (and this might be a large assumption) is to evoke emotions and provoke thought through written language, couldn't it be done without the luxury of words? Lewis Carroll, with the fictional words of "Jabberwocky", proves that we don't necessarily need concrete meaning to communicate a message. But I propose taking it even further.

After talking this through with my wife, one of her suggested names for my idea is reductionist poetry. Essentially I'm asking if it's possible to strip the poem down below the word level to that of phonetics, or speech sounds. Think about it, "sssss" might make you think of a lot of things: a snake hiss, static, rain, air being released from a balloon, and so forth. Subsequently, or independently (at least on the conscious level), you might be left with a sense of foreboding, relaxation, or another emotion. Put in the context of a poem, it might even be possible to create some sort of consistency across readers. But how would a poet put them in the context of a poem without resorting to words?

(I'll acknowledge of course that even the definition of "word" is hazy. "Grrrr" for instance, might be considered a mere consonant blend, but the meaning in English is pretty consistently agreed upon and is considered a word by some dictionaries.)

You could, I suppose, write as you would any poem. If you want meter, throw it in:

fff t fff t fff t

Rhyme might be a problem. But some blends work:

k-k k-k k-pl
m-m m-m m-bl
k-k k-k k-pl
m-m m-m m-bl

Plus using like-articulated sounds might create some sort of near-rhyme effect, which could conjure up feelings similar to the cohesiveness a rhyme or near rhyme brings:

b b b D!
b b b T!

And as you can see, a poet might also experiment with punctuation, spacing, repetition and so on to convey messages.

However, I'm not convinced it can be done well. I also think it's probably a little too experimental to be taken seriously. What do you think?

14 comments:

Little Willow said...

I believe that poetry is available in all forms - words, music, sounds, the absence thereof. Some have to listen for it; to others, it comes naturally, it is there all of the time. I am fortunate enough, I think, to be a member of the latter party.

Barbara Bruederlin said...

Probably not a huge market for this. As opposed to the normally gigantic market for regular poetry.

Kelly Fineman said...

Barbara: You're hilarious.

John: I think exploring rhythm is interesting. I'm not sure you can go all the way to wordless, but I'm wondering what'd happen if you went with more nonsense words, or something that contained vowels at the least. It could work well, I'm thinking.

John Mutford said...

Little Willow: I tend to agree and hope that I'm one of the latter as well. At the very least, I see art everywhere if not poetry.

Barbara: That's true. A niche inside a niche market is hardly a money making venture!

Kelly: I did sell the vowels a little short in my examples, didn't I? Unintentional. (r ws t?)

Carrie K said...

Too true, Barbara! The Harry Potter like crowds for...Robert Frost.

If the poem is refined down to that point, isn't it less a poem and more music?

John Mutford said...

Carrie: It would certainly blur the edges (nothing wrong with that!). But if it's the case that refining it down to that level transforms it into music, the reverse should also be true. But is it the case that adding lyrics to music creates a song, not a poem?

richard said...

John, I'm not sure what you're doing with "reductionist poetry" that isn't already part of concrete poetry. Can you maybe suggest why this isn't something that, say, bpNichol wouldn't have done? Try listening to 060173, for example, even though technically it's sound poetry rather than concrete poetry.

cloudscome said...

Photographs can be poems, and music.

John Mutford said...

Richard: Though I've liked what I've read, I haven't read a lot of bpNichol's poetry. Listening to that link though (and thanks for that!!!), yes, I guess my idea was not my own at all. Sheesh, is it possible to have an original idea at all anymore? Sound poetry. It reminded me initially of throat singing, which in turn made me think of listening to unfamiliar languages. It can still sound poetic, despite lack of a literal understanding. Do you know if this particular poem is transcribed anywhere? And if not, is sound poetry typically transcribed or not?

I've thought of concrete poems as those which use the shape of the letters, words, or arrangement, to convey messages. I'm not sure why sound poetry fits under that description.

Cloudscome: They can, but I personally still think the poetry is second, or at least just one component.

Carrie K said...

Sound poetry? Wow, I learn something every (good) day.

If adding lyrics to music makes it a song, does taking away instruments make it less music?

Well that sounds stupid and argumentative. I was going for musical instrument reductionism but no, doesn't work. Sorry! Just typing out loud. ;)

richard said...

John, I just don't know what to do with Nichol's poetry. (I have to resist the temptation to call it "poetry," for example!) I like some of it very much, sure, but I've had Zygal on my shelf for a really long time and even though it's short, I can barely bring myself to open the damned thing.

To my eye some of it's print-making rather than poetry, and some of it's performance art (I'm looking at you, sound poetry). That's why I disagree with cloudscome's remark about photographs and music.

By all accounts a committed and fascinating individual who was a natural teacher. For me Nichol's a great example of how reputation functions in Canadian literary circles, especially in relation to the academy and literati. There's a lot of pressure to keep him in the pantheon for reasons that aren't all that clear to me. (I say this while acknowledging, of course, that the "literati" is a fictional construct, there's no pantheon, etc.)

But I'm my own special kind of snob and wanker, so what do I know.

John Mutford said...

Richard: I get the sense that not a lot of people knew what to do with his poetry. On the one hand, as someone who so clearly wanted to push the boundaries, that disagreement must have been a goal. On the other hand, if more people sided with him, it must have made him question their sincerity. I don't think I'd want to be surrounded by a bunch of yes men all the time.

As for your being a "special kind of snob", perhaps the world needs people like that to keep people like Nichol in check. You provide balance!

richard said...

Word is that Kurt Cobain killed himself in part because he couldn't figure out why he was so damned popular, or even accept it. This may or may not be relevant.

I'm not the person to keep "people like Nichol in check," John. I encourage them. Whenever I see a student in one of my classes who can do something different, I try to find a way to let "different" count for grades.

I'm kind of OK with Nichol's printmaking counting as poetry; yes, I only say "kind of," but my heart could never get behind an effort to push someone interesting out of one of the few possible homes out there.

It's not my poetry, and I won't say that it's poetry, but I'm glad Nichol had supporters, sales, and an audience.

John Mutford said...

Richard: Rereading my last comment, I feel like I implied you're the dead weight against creativity! I certainly didn't mean that and I apologize if I came across that way. I was actually thinking more along the lines of the boy from "The Emperor's New Clothes," calling out the b.s. as it were.