Poetry should be heard rather than seen:
lost its innocence when the source of making and receiving was no longer
hearing and hearsay. The need to write it down brought the eye into it, topography
vying with song. The utterance reflected on the page brought second thoughts.
Poetry searched out theology, philosophy and the sciences, questioning itself.
The bearer of news from generation to generation had come a long way.
Too far for the last century. Mainstream poetry was drawn away from romancing the moon to trying to understand it. Astronomy rather than astrology. The quest for the fact that would explain everything. The slipstream of modernism still found its trickle of interest. But it was an art not at ease with itself, breaking with tradition in order to remake on paper. In other words, the poets wanted their work seen before being heard. Sensible enough in an age where literacy is the norm. The layout on the page was the key to Mallarme, the most daring of modernists, in his later poems such as ‘Un Coup de Dès’.
The young James Joyce, aggrieved by the Abbey Theatre’s disinterest in his submissions, knocked at WB Yeats’s door. When the poet appeared, Joyce announced, ‘Old man, I cannot do anything for you. There is no chaos in your soul’.’ Yeats’s response to Joyce’s youthful insouciance came when in later years when he felt words were not obeying his call and rather than throwing poor words away, he wrote the ‘Crazy Jane’ poems (1930). They read out loud so well that the written forgotten and the oral tradition reigns.
Poets, cut adrift from being chroniclers, sages, maudits, unacknowledged legislators and so on, wandered amongst the visual arts where first impressions still prevailed over second-guessing. Many found their bearings in painting (Paul Valery), printmaking (Brian Coffey) and Ezra Pound made tables. Borges, blind as Homer, saw libraries as mooring ports for poets to log their voyages. He dictated his entries to the young people who read to him. As Osip Mandelshtam committed his to his wife’s memory, and not paper. The Gulag swallowed him. Nadia passed them on. Oral poetry does not die.
Words cut in stone or on printing blocks weather away. The spoken word is essential to poetry’s survival. The poem, in common with musical composition, is heard in the head before being written down. Though Mozart and Mallarme are said to have committed their notation and word scatters to paper before apparently hearing them having synchronous sight/ sound coordination.
The expansion of international trade built its own Tower of Babel after the Industrial Revolution. Vernacular dialects became less isolated and merged into the main colonial languages. The Tower’s foundations were reinforced by Capitalism. But the edifice swayed in the wind and toppled down into audio-visual advertising. The visual jingle continues in cyberspace.
Unheard words have variable meanings. Scholars, and interpreters of text messages, don’t have to be told that. Without the nuance of inflection, they lose their unique character. The task of the poet is to restore it. Rap and its de capo is a start returning poetry to pure orality.
As book reading is gradually being replaced by plastic appliances that deliver screen prints with a voice-over, perhaps it is the beginning of a return to the oral tradition, the ear overcoming the indirectness of the eye. I was Basil Buntings minder for a reading of Yeats for the Open University. The page disappeared with his rendition of the ‘Crazy Jane’ poems. I was carried away by a voice from the past echoing into the present and speaking to what happens next. My friend, Brian Coffey, sent his life as a poet trying to rise above his native influences like several of his more European-inclined writers like Thomas McGreevy, Denis Devlin and Beckett. However, on one memorable occasion we discussed poems we knew by heart, and Yeats was the top of the list. Pound referred to W.B’s ‘auricular assurance’ which came from composing his poems walking up and down his room sounding the words against the walls until they rang true and flew out the skylight.
Age has not been so kind to me. In my youth my poems sang, partly because writing them down challenged by dyslexia. When publishing them friends and editors got around the malaprops. And I began to find ways to discipline my spelling and grammar, and I ended up writing prose. I still write verse as an economic way of putting words together. And just occasionally a youthful memory takes over and I can be heard rather than seen.
The oral tradition saves paper and no doubt that is good for the environment. Also, businesses with the internet are increasingly working on line. Banks now are loath to accept letters, and mostly don’t respond to them. I read their email messages on how deal with them ‘paperless (quick and easy’. We are moving into paperless magazines of course (my webzine for instance). Print is still pre-eminent but voice-mail is increasingly deployed in communications. Why not with poetry?