- Re-Conceiving Voice in Modern Verse
This investigation into the speaking of modern verse (i.e. free verse and after) has, as its broadest founding assumptions that, as verse readers, we have lost sight of the history and anthropology of linguistic utterance and human listening, and that we continue to believe that the aim of metrico-rhythmic analysis is to get it right, once and for all, rather than to get it maximally appropriate, relativistically. I go back in time to a treatise on versification of the early nineteenth century, say, and think ‘Poor old soul, how linguistically unsophisticated, how misguided’, rather than thinking ‘So this is how poets and readers of this period actually perceived verse, how they heard it, how they composed it’, and then asking ‘How should I register, in verse-scansion, what we hear, what we are capable of hearing, today?’. If the train and camera, for example, have changed the dynamics and variety of optical perception, how has oral and aural production been affected by the development of voice-styles and voice-engineering?
Christoph Cox and Daniel Warner remind us: ‘Invented in the mid-1930s, but commercially unavailable until a decade and a half later, the tape recorder revolutionized music. Early experimenters such as Cage and Schaeffer noted that this device opened music to “the entire field of sound”, rather than merely the restricted body of sounds produced by traditional musical instruments’. They go on to point out that Pierre Schaeffer, the founder of musique concrète, trained as a radio engineer rather than as a composer and ‘came to represent the new breed of musician’.1 What did the tape recorder do to poetry? The poets of ‘poésie concrète’, ‘poésie sonore’, ‘poésie phonétique’, ‘spatialisme’, are quick to tell us:
Mais ce qui aujourd’hui favorise son [la poésie phonétique] développement c’est l’apparition d’un instrument remarquable : la magnétophone ; l’impossible d’hier devient le possible d’aujourd’hui : la connaissance exacte et approfondie de sa langue par le poète lui-même, l’étude directe aux différentes vitesses, aux différents tons, les montages, les superpositions, les perspectives soniques, donc la création [End Page 5] de paysages linguistiques, la possibilité pour le poète d’enregistrer son émotion, enfin les multiples attraits soudain découverts d’une œuvre poétique créée exclusivement pour l’oreille.2
But the poets who discovered the tape recorder in the 1950s – for example, François Dufrêne, Bernard Heidsieck, Henri Chopin, Franz Mon, Ferdinand Kriwet, Pierre de Vree, and Pierre and Ilse Garnier – had been anticipated, in their aim of restoring to the voice its multidimensionality, of mining untapped vocal resource, by Apollinaire, who had looked to the gramophone and cinema as the future vehicles of poetry’s reproduction and transmission:
Quant aux Calligrammes, ils sont une idéalisation de la poésie vers-libriste et une précision typographique à l’époque où la typographie termine brillamment sa carrière, à l’aurore des moyens nouveaux de reproduction que sont le cinéma et le phonographe. (Letter to André Billy, July 29 1918.)3
And from the outset, in 1914, Apollinaire had imagined the further implications of phonographic recording: to be able to compose on to disc, with all the ambient noises: ‘Comme si le poète ne pouvait pas faire enregistrer directement un poème par le phonographe et faire enregistrer en même temps des rumeurs naturelles ou d’autres voix dans une foule ou parmi ses amis?’4 Apollinaire’s implicit expectation of the imminent demise of free verse half-echoes Marinetti’s call for the replacement of free verse by words-in-freedom in 1913, on the grounds that free verse was still too addicted to the discursive straitjacket of syntax (at the expense of intuition) and to facile sound effects, the tired acoustic chiming (presumably of alliteration, assonance, internal rhyme) and over-familiar intonation patterns.5 Already, it seems, poets were exasperated that verse and verse-analysis lagged way behind what new habits of voice production and technologically expanded aural experience had accustomed them to.