Hearing the Tenor of the Vendler/Dove Conversation: Race, Listening, and the “Noise” of Texts

In the beginning there were no words.  In the beginning was the sound and they all knew what the sound sounded like. –Toni Morrison, Beloved

How were Truth's words heard? By whom?

A conversation in my Black Feminist Theories class on the two versions of Sojourner Truth’s famous speech from the Ohio Women’s Convention—the one published in 1863 that renders her words in a black southern dialect or the 1851 version that does not—elicited the following story about listening. A black male student was student teaching/observing in a classroom — the teacher was white, the student teacher black.  The exercise he observed involved transcribing speech and then reading it back.  A black male student in the classroom spoke and the white teacher and black student teacher each transcribed the speech and read their transcriptions aloud.  The white teacher’s transcription/recording was in dialect, the black student teacher’s was not. The student teacher maintained that what and how the white teacher heard the black student was not, in fact, either what or how the black student spoke.

Discussions like these have spurred me to meditate more deeply on sound. And now that I’ve really begun to consider it, texts have become much noisier places; the white spaces and black marks becoming places for reading and hearing.  Thinking more deeply about sonic affinities and communities has helped me really begin to understand how sound shapes sight and sight shapes sound.

An example: Since reading Fred Moten’s In the Break, in particular “The Resistance of the Object,” it’s not only impossible for me to read the scene of Captain Anthony’s beating/rape of Aunt Hester in Frederick Douglass’s Narrative without hearing Abbey Lincoln’s hums, moans, and screams, it is not possible for me to read the entire text without populating it with sound, even as those sounds are, in my imagining of them, not always specific.

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Perhaps it’s most accurate to say that I am aware that the world that the text references is a world filled with sounds peculiar to it, many of which may no longer be present in our contemporary world.  At the same time, I try to bring at least some of those sounds—talking drums, field hollers, whips cracking, the sounds of chains, etc.—and approximations of sounds into the classroom when I teach Douglass’s Narrative and My Bondage and My Freedom (as well as when I teach other texts).

In “The Word and the Sound: Listening to the Sonic Colour-line in Frederick Douglass’s 1845 Narrative” (2011) Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman writes, “The emphasis Douglass places on divergent listening practices shows how they shape (and are shaped by) race, exposing and resisting the aural edge of the ostensibly visual culture of white supremacy, what I have termed the “sonic colour-line” (21).  Stoever-Ackerman riffs on Elizabeth Alexander’s “Can you be BLACK and Look at This: Reading the Rodney King Video” (and Alexander riffs on Pat Ward Williams’sAccused, Blowtorch, Padlock”) to ask, “Can you be WHITE and (really) LISTEN to this?” or alternatively, “Are you white because of HOW you listen to this?” (21).

Pat Ward Williams's "Accused/Blowtorch/Padlock" (1986), Courtesy of the Artist and the New Museum, New York

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In his review of Shane White and Graham White’s The Sounds of Slavery: Discovering African American History Through Songs, Sermons, and Speech (Beacon Press, 2005) in the July 2009 issue of the Journal of Urban History, Robert Desrochers contrasts the abolitionists who were attuned to how to make a white audience hear the sounds that surrounded and produced the (performances of the formerly) enslaved, to the “Virginia patriarch who failed to mention the singing of his slaves even once in a diary that ran to hundreds of manuscript pages” (754).  Given these examples of the ways that many white ears had to be systematically attuned to hearing slavery’s sounds as well as the understanding that, “the very things that made slave sounds distinctive—chants, grunts, and groans; melismatic, repetitious, and improvisational lyric play; pitch and tonal inflections and cadences; timbral variations, polyrhythms, and heterophonic harmonies—struck whites mostly as strange, inappropriate, wrong” (754)—the answers to Stoever-Ackerman’s questions may be respectively “no” and “yes” (or several combinations of no and yes), particularly if we engage “whiteness” as an ideology and not simply (or not only) a “raced” description of those people constituted socially and legally as (presumably) white.

It was with these kinds of questions of sound and sonic whiteness on my mind (especially this question of who hears, who doesn’t hear, and then again what is and isn’t heard) that I read and was brought up short by Helen Vendler’s recent November 24, 2011 New York Review of Books review of Rita Dove’s The Penguin Anthology of 20th Century American Poetry. In this piece, Vendler takes Dove to task for what she considers the anthology’s over-inclusiveness (“No century in the evolution of poetry in English ever had 175 poets worth reading”), the “accessibility” of the poems (“short poems of rather restricted vocabulary”), and the appearance of a large number of black and other non-white poets in the latter part of the twentieth-century. In short, from Vendler’s perspective, Dove is choosing “sociology” and complaint over artistry; mixing the wheat and the chaff.

Vendler writes, “Rita Dove, a recent poet laureate (1993–1995), has decided, in her new anthology of poetry of the past century, to shift the balance, introducing more black poets and giving them significant amounts of space, in some cases more space than is given to better-known authors. These writers are included in some cases for their representative themes rather than their style. Dove is at pains to include angry outbursts as well as artistically ambitious meditations.”

And Vendler on Dove on Hart Crane: “sometimes one wonders whether Dove is being hasty. She speaks, for instance, of ‘the cacophony of urban life on Hart Crane’s bridge.’ But the bridge in his ‘Proem’ exhibits no noisy ‘cacophony’; its panorama is a silent one. The seagull flies over it; the madman noiselessly leaps from ‘the speechless caravan’ into the water; its cables breathe the North Atlantic; the traffic lights condense eternity as they skim the bridge’s curve, which resembles a ‘sigh of stars’; the speaker watches in silence under the shadow of the pier; and the bridge vaults the sea. The automatic—and not apt—association of an urban scene with noise has generated Dove’s ‘cacophony.’”

Why does Vendler insist on silence where Dove joins sight and sound?  That Vendler imagines silence and takes Dove to task for attaching cacophony to the city scene in the bridge poem is a struggle over meaning, over epistemology and ontology.  How is Vendler registering not only the poem but also the entire text differently?  This isn’t the only instance of Vendler’s insistent sonic “whiteness” whereby and wherein the reading of the poem, the anthology, and the anthologizer herself are disciplined.

Can you hear these poems? Image by Crossett Library Bennington College

Speechlessness though, is not soundlessness, and it seems to me that Dove locates herself on the bridge (and in the soundscape of the contemporary written poem) such that she hears the water, the seagull, and the leap and curve and flap of gull and man. As Dove herself responded (also in the New York Review of Books), “A cursory sweep over just the section [Vendler] excerpted in my anthology yields a host of extraordinary sounds: what with trains whistling their “wail into distances,” chanting road gangs, papooses crying—even men crunching down on tobacco quid—my gasp of surprise at Vendler’s blunder can barely be heard.”

In Vendler’s remarks and Dove’s response we might read the kind of cultural dissonance that continues to both construct and give insight into how different communities of readers and listeners are formed and the ways they are and aren’t racialized.  By the end of the review, Vendler wants to be heard by those whom she imagines as the anthology’s likely readers: she wants to turn to them and “say,” to “cry out,” that there are better poems than those included here. For the sounds that in this anthology that Vendler hears most often in the “minor” poems, in the “minority” poets, and the “minority” anthologizer, are simplicity, noise, and needless complaint. And Vendler and Dove have been here before – see Vendler on Dove and Delaney on Vendler and Dove.)

But despite the debate putting poetry front and center and enacting ways that it matters, Vendler’s critique and Dove’s response are each conservative, though in quite different ways.  Neither Vendler nor Dove in the review, anthology, and defense of the anthology imagines the inclusion of spoken word, hip-hop (see Howard Rambsy II), and other forms of contemporary rhyme and verse that speak to a broad range of audiences across race, sex, and class.  The inclusion of rap might further change the tenor of the conversation, opening up in important ways the debate over what counts as poetry, and expanding how black musical and poetic forms are heard and by whom.

Christina Sharpe is Associate Professor of English and American Studies at Tufts University where she also directs American Studies.  Her book Monstrous Intimacies: Making Post-Slavery Subjects was published in 2010 by Duke University Press.  Her current book project is Memory for Forgetting: Blackness, Whiteness, and Cultures of Surprise.

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