Utopian Turtletop. Monsieur Croche's Bête Noire. Contact: turtletop [at] hotmail [dot] com

Saturday, March 29, 2008

In Davis, California visiting my beloved spouse’s relatives, nothing to worry about. Bike rides through the gorgeous bike trails of Davis. A trip to a Central Valley nature preserve of California prairie. Reading and napping and playing with the kids – our son and 3 nieces, two older and one younger than him.

In 1862 Augustus Leopold Egg painted a picture of two women in a train, one napping, one reading, with sub-Alpine landscape lying out the window, un-beheld. Reading draws one into another’s consciousness, another consciousness, language spilling from someone’s mind to yours. Today I realized that I expect no new revelations of poetry in my lifetime. Good poems, sure, some, but no New Thing, no new style, no new paradigm of perception or procedure. As opposed to music, from which I expect continual new revelations. Why do I place so little faith in poetry? Is it because the poetry commentators I find most congenial wax most enthusiastically about poetry that is literally my age or older, poetry that was written in my infancy? Poetry is the most poorly theorized of the arts, which is paradoxical, since its material is of the same substance as theory – language. But language is the weather and the atmosphere, the water to our fishy existence; our consciousness of it is limited because our consciousness is of it. Poetry is under-theorized because the great modernist explorations of painting and music that happened in the 20th century never quite happened with poetry, or, more broadly, literature. The Abstract Expressionists and the Minimalists explored the nature of paint-as-painting, the fundamental This-ness of painting through the medium of paint. Composers led by Luigi Russolo, Edgard Varése, Pierre Schaeffer, and John Cage explored the nature of sound-as-music, the fundamental This-ness of music through the medium of sound. It never happened with literature, because language is always a pre-mediated and fractional medium; there is no “pure language” or “fundamental language” in the same way that there is “pure sound” or “fundamental sound” or “pure paint” or “pure color.” Consequently, fundamental explorations of sound poetry a la Hugo Ball or Kurt Schwitters or Ernst Jandl always verge into music, while fundamental explorations of visual poetry a la Apollinaire or Tom Phillips verge into visual art. Coincidentally, poetry has not been as successful in incorporating the full gamut of language experience into its aesthetic realm as music and visual art have. The concert halls may play soundtracks of video games, and museums display advertisements through the ages, but no curator of poetry includes the products of Madison Avenue in his or her anthologies – not even Burma-Shave! (Probably my dad’s favorite 20th century poet.)

The other night I mentioned that researchers have reproduced sound from an impression of soundwaves recorded in 1860, around the time of Egg’s painting. The recording was not made with the intent of reproducing the sound, unlike Edison’s invention of recording 18 years later. Nevertheless, the recording of the soundwaves onto paper was sufficient to allow researchers and sound engineers to use them for sound reproduction 148 years later. If you haven’t heard it yet, I urge you to click on the link and listen to the MP3.

You will hear a teenage French girl singing a French song for 10 seconds, with a lot of audio noise. She never imagined that her performance would be heard again. Her father, Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville, who invented the soundwave-recording device, never imagined that her voice would be heard again. That we hear it now points up just how uncanny the phenomenon of recorded sound is. Human life has existed in something very much like our present form for many many tens of thousands of years, and yet it has only been for 130 years that we have been able to record sound. If the teenager on that recording were still alive, she would be 163 years old. For the first time, voices reach across the abyss of death and speak to us from the past.

Writing and painting have enabled something like this to happen for millennia, as has musical notation for several centuries. But a person’s actual voice is something else again. It’s the body in process, air through larynx and mouth, each larynx and mouth unique to the individual. My mom has kept my late father’s voice on her answering machine. One of my siblings will only call our mom on her cell phone, because hearing our dad’s voice is too intense. I love hearing Dad’s voice, but I utterly sympathize with my sibling’s reaction.

-- Augustus Leopold Egg, The Traveling Companions, 1862

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