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Performing the Visual Poem






Ira Lightman



I want to think for ten minutes about whether a poem that piggybacks as a recording or object (or performance-as-object-in-the-mind-and/or-the-ear) has reached its being as an object. Is the text a subtext, a backing vocal, the lyrics on the CD fold-out, the DVD extra? The hyperlinked-to?


Then, it can be a question of: I don't like the poem in a book much, but I like the performance, or vice versa.


For example, I don't like spending a long time with John Cage's A Second Reading Through Finnegans Wake as a visual text, but I do like Roaratorio, which is Cage's own setting of the text. I recognize Cage's skill with mesostics, with printed poems, and like to look at and read some of them. There are composers who set texts, by themselves and others that I don't like to read on the page.


By contrast, Clark Coolidge's reading of Polaroid, available as an online text and as an mp3 of a 70s recording he released as a cassette tape, puts me into a constant to and fro between visual text and performance.


As a visual text, Polaroid feels very anti-affect, an endurance test of a text that I cannot easily make flow over its line breaks into sentences I can sound aloud in a sequence. I can turn a few lines at a time into a sentence, but I cannot then do that with a number of sentences over a number of lines or pages. There seem to be no paragraphs. But Coolidge puts them there, brilliantly, in his rendition. The text is all made up of little words, the "and" and "the", "ever", "all" and "how" with only occasional longer words. My eye keeps resolving the text into couplets, or single lines.


The predominant effect of the recording, however, is there is a poem here about something, fleeting and shifting but that reveals a complex mood in its shift and detail - something of the feel of an Ashbery poem, or a Henry James text. This is true for me of only a few of Cage's performances of text, though they have other virtues - as sound, as a kind of meditation. Coolidge on the other hand, like Stein's recordings of her texts, does not emphasise the predominant visual feeling of the text - the repetition, the feeling with Polaroid of those heavily emphasised one word lines in free verse poems. Instead, a feel of a narrative, a something needing to be said, and hard to say, comes through. Certainly, anywhere, a syntax, a way of linking nouns that feels like the voice of the poem, the habit of the poet. It's very chastening, like becoming aware of one's own bad rhetoric.


I'm implicitly discussing not just performance, but recording. I'm comparing a visual poem that I can hang on the wall, or return to, or memorise, with a recording that I can replay. That way, you see, I can imply that there are visual poems that you see once; just as there are songs you hear once, that pale a little on rehearing. (There's another category here, pieces that you have to remember being surprised by, that you have to remember the feeling aroused by them so as not to be disappointed on rehearing them...)


A lot of people around the world have seen Apollinaire's visual poem "Il Pleut". They are aware it says something about rain, and it streaks vertically down the page in wavy lines. Some note that it says something about women crying like the rain. It is a very pleasing visual piece that does not demand you look at the brushstrokes to get it. (What is the equivalent of those paintings, in visual poetry, that cannot be put into a photograph - call it brushstrokes, call it presence - that were partly made in rebellion against photographed art in books, or "figurative painting"?) Apollinaire is a model of how visual poetry can undoubtedly be poetry, something to dwell on, and inspires poets to link poetry with painting of the time, and continue to want to update poetry in keeping with one's own time.


Jeffrey Side has proposed that a poem should produce a kind of simultaneous performance of itself in the reader, so that there is overload and surplus but also a feeling of pace and direction, of voice. How can a visual poem have that kind of direction and pace? Its words are often simple (there's a whole school of minimalist concrete poem that Marjorie Perloff has implied fears the sentence) and at an angle, or in a specially chosen font (or fonts). How do we stress these fonts and angles in reading the poem in the head? Musical scores carry a "presto" and "andante" to guide us. Scores in the twentieth century sometimes made these signs ambiguous, hinting two ways at least at once; and also abstract and expressive, open to subtle interpretation drawing on a library of signs in the musician's head. Poets working visually, if they are alluding to the twentieth century score (or borrowing its glamour) have tended to hand these interpretations too over to other people, writing something elegant as typesetting that doesn't have a range of interpretations but any interpretation. It looks pretty too.


I remember Bob Cobbing's interpretations of his swirling photocopied curves and blurs as a score. I could believe in these pieces as springboards to varying Cobbing's habits as a sound poet, and I'm aware (by how much I miss Cobbing) of what I didn't come to grips with as a perhaps more structured form there. Perhaps there is or might be somewhere a glossary that would enable anyone anywhere interested in reading scores, or poetry as scores, to perform Cobbing's poems like him, without having heard him. There are certainly such performers, new to the work, who could have a go at Cardew or Stockhausen's abstract swirly scores full of new notation.


Apollinaire's "Il Pleut" has been set, with conventional score notation, by someone who knew him or knew those who had known him (I believe): Poulenc. Poulenc set seven poems from Calligrammes, three of them visual poems (at least there are seven on his 4 CD Songs set). Poulenc's setting of Apollinaire's "Voyage" did very little for me, listening to it without the text in front of me. But it was very interesting to hear when I did have the text. It offers in rhythmic variation and ascents and descents up the scale an interpretation of the different individual lines in "Voyage". It imagines the white space of the poem in the overall tense atmosphere of the song. But it does not, to my mind, attempt to set the lines as they appear in relation to each other, as simultaneities. This is I find odd; as composers are always interweaving instrumental parts simultaneously, having contraries and counterpoints murmur in the background and interrupt. The Beatles remain one of the key groups that do this with text, with sentences and phrases occurring seemingly simultaneously.


"Il Pleut" is the great achievement of Poulenc's settings, for me, both as a song without knowing the text, as an interpretation and realisation of some of what the poem is doing as a visual poem. The haunting melody, and counterpointing piano line, creates a feel of rain, of the melancholic mood of a text written thinking about the rain, and of the idea, somehow, that the text is not written in straight lines but wavy, parallel ones. The way that each word seems to sneak up to each other word, as in a dovetail joint between two not very symmetrical pieces each time, Poets aspire to that effect, they might pick a different font for each word. But such a visual poem (inspired by Poulenc’s “Il Pleut”) would not be best sung as Poulenc directs "Il Pleut" (inspired by Apollinaire’s “Il Pleut”) to be. He has not gone for exact analogy but a kind of syncopation against the text, that is nevertheless intimate with it.


What of the visual poets who set their own work? I give two examples here, of visual poems available online whose poets also have recordings of these pieces online, not always at the same site. Johanna Drucker has a one-hour recording at Penn sound, in the middle of which is a 5 min performance of her "Prove Before Laying". The visual text dovetails individual characters neatly onto a square page, in the first few pages as characters only, thereafter with a word appearing here and there, then a phrase, coming to nearly full text by the end. Drucker performs the characters as runs and ripples from letter to letter, not unremoved from the tradition of the words of the sea suggested by Joyce in Ulysses. The runs and ripples are very lovely, half-sung and full of jouissance - prevalent throughout Drucker's visual poems, and yet subdued in the other 55 mins of the mp3 here. The performance represents some of the fun in collage of letters, even of fonts, that mark a side of Drucker's work, and that's valuable. Again, the idea of simultaneous lines, or of sound world around the words, is much more present in the visual text than in the sound work - the latter is fun, and throws light on the former, but the former is better, for me. Caroline Bergvall ( e.g. Ambient Fish) has similarly worked marvellously with space, with typography, and with sound. But I find the soundings, for example, of her stuttering spellings an offshoot of fun from the texts, an injection too of a sombre and dark character not letting fun trivialise the work. I love some of the sound work that does not arise from a visual poem, and a lot of the visual poems, better than the sound work from visual poems. Hannah Weiner’s readings are full of interpolation, but do not carry, for me, as sound, the feeling of sculptured overlay in the text (though they wobble that way of looking at the texts, as Bergvall does, and reintroduce the panic, the intensity).


I want to finish with a half-remembered line from a b p nichol mp3 that I surfed while researching this piece. Nichol introduces his sound poem as a kind of grounding himself into his body as part of his overall poetry performance, tuning the voice and setting out that things might get a little wild even, perhaps especially, in poems with recognizable grammar. Nichol's work is a challenge to go deeper into the body, and I wonder at it as a way of grounding the kind of complex and lyrical poetry I’m celebrating here into forming a new visual poem or any new poem. Nichol's work so closely echoes a lot of bodily expressive wordless art around now, as echo, as convention that it's a scylla and charybdis for anyone seeking to perform and negotiating an audience. One feels the room change gear, when one maybe wants all the gears: to put on the enticing trailer that gets people into the film that isn't really so genre-busting but isn't reducible to an unfair genre summing-up.




copyright © Ira Lightman


Ira Lightman has published several pamphlets (see biblio at British Electronic Poetry Centre), and a full-length e-book with /ubu Editions. He has spent the last year developing Public Art projects in the North-East of England where he lives. He is married, with so far one child.