This post is dedicated to the memory of Amiri Baraka, who passed away on January 9, 2014 in Newark, New Jersey.
I began writing this post while my wife, Sarah, was at a conference on writing curriculum for high school literature. Over the phone one night she asked how to help students better understand the language of Shakespeare, and at a loss for suggestions (not only because I don’t study early modern drama), I recalled my own adolescent struggles with Macbeth, Hamlet, and Julius Caesar. I recalled well-intentioned teachers who gave me recordings, telling me that they would help me get an “ear” for Shakespeare’s language—yet all I remember, maybe all I learned, while listening to the Caedmon recording of Macbeth on vinyl, was that, to my mid-1990s ear, Shakespeare (anachronistically) sounded like Star Wars (which appeared 15 years after the 1960 Caedmon album).
My high school confusion has not completely faded when it comes to the sound of recorded poetic language, even more so when the notion of the poet’s voice is thrown into the mix. As opposed to verse recited by actors (the Caedmon Macbeth featured Anthony Quayle), or the sound of the syllables when we read a poem silently to ourselves, I find it tough to parse the idea of the sound of the poem in terms of the poet’s voice because “voice” is a slippery category—a constructed one, contingent upon the given historical moment of inscription and reception. It is tough because this idea of the sound of the poem, located in the voice of the poet, gets complicated with sonic technologies where voice is subject to the shifting conditions of fidelity.
The act of listening to recorded poetry thus poses particular analytic challenges, which become more complex when the politics of identity are brought to bear on these questions of voice and poetry. As a site for identity production, the recorded poetry performance projects a mediated voice that is a potential self. The “sound” of this poetic subjectivity is different from recording to recording, even of the same poem. In an effort to work through these complexities, this post takes up three different recordings of Amiri Baraka’s poem “Black Dada Nihilismus,” which offer variations in delivery and performance that each depend upon the social, political, and aesthetic dimensions of the soundscape that each recording is embedded within.
“Black Dada Nihilismus” is an excellent opportunity to consider the overlapping challenges of voice, performance and the politics of identity in recorded poetry. Published in the early 1960s, this poem was written before Baraka’s shift in politics, which was precipitated by the assassination of Malcolm X in 1965, yet the poem anticipates the intersection of aesthetics and politics during the Black Arts Movement in the late 1960s into the 70s. This shift can be tracked in the sonic details of the first two recordings, made in 1964 and 1965. In the third version, a 1993 remix by DJ Spooky, we can hear how this shift reverberates beyond its historical moment.
In a statement of poetics included in Donald Allen’s classic 1959 anthology The New American Poetry, Baraka (then Leroi Jones) asked: “HOW YOU SOUND??” How a poet’s poem sounded mattered most for him: “you have to start and finish there … your own voice … how you sound” (425). Primarily referencing the poem on the page, he wasn’t whistling in the dark: often thought of as a vocal performance of language, poetry has a long history with sound. One thread of this history is the Homeric tradition of an “oral poetics,” a tradition where, as Albert Lord notes in The Singer of Tales, socialized performances of poetry were simultaneously modes of composition. The feel of language in the body remained inseparable from the poetry that relayed the heroic tales of the ancient world. In The Sounds of Poetry, Robert Pinsky offers a similar account of sound and voice, suggesting that the “sound” of language, the sensuous play of speech, is the material for poetic composition. Or as Charles Bernstein has it in Close Listening, “poetry needs to be sounded” because it is a way to understand it better (7).
Poetry is often said to be difficult—but how would a poet’s “sounding” of a poem help a listener better understand it, as Bernstein suggests? How is the recorded voice resonating in air different from inert marks on a page? What is the status of that difference? Why or how would the sound recording signify differently than the poem on the silent page? In short, is listening easier than reading? My answer to the final question is a resounding “no.” For me, the challenge is how to consider the recorded poetry performance in both formal and aural terms so as to remain tuned in to the aesthetic and the poetic as well as the social and historical dimensions of a particular poet’s work. This is not easily done.
“Black Dada Nihilismus” was first published in The Dead Lecturer (1964) and later included in Transbluesency (1995). Written in two parts, it asserts a black aesthetic by critiquing the dominance of (white) light in Western art and suggesting a connection between this light, ethnic violence, and religious ideology. This is how the poem opens:
.Against what light
is false what breath
sucked, for deadness.
Murder, the cleansed
purpose, frail, against
God, if they bring him
Bleeding, I would not
forgive, or even call him
black dada nihilismus.
The protestant love, wide windows,
color blocked to Modrian, and the
ugly silent deaths of jews […]
Through critique the poem develops the connections between aesthetics and racial dominance and violence. These connections take on different inflections in each recorded version of the poem, and with each inflection another aspect of them is amplified.
The first version is a bootleg of a reading at the Asilomar Negro Writers Conference that was held in Pacific Grove, California, in early August, 1964.
In addition to the preamble, where Baraka explains some of the poem’s key terms such as Dada, which he describes as a movement in France (rather than Germany or Switzerland), another sonic detail that marks this as “live” is at the 2:59 minute mark when we hear the flap of a turning page, reminding us that Baraka is treating the poem as a script in these recordings. In this version, the opening lines are sharply delivered, the voice fully pausing at the linebreaks and acutely pronouncing the hard vowels (e.g. “sucked”). Against the continuous background hush of the original reel-to-reel recording, Baraka punches his words into the air, as if trying to find a rhythm between these harder vowels and the softer ones that often denote the poem’s object of critique (e.g. “light”).
The next version is off the A side of New York Art Quartet and Imamu Amiri Baraka (ESP Disk 1965), where the poem’s rhythm is immediately established by the musical accompaniment.
Between the first recording and this one a shift began in Baraka’s development as a poet. The assassination of Malcolm X pushed him to think even more about race, politics, and art. In this version the opening lines, delivered with punch and pause in the bootleg, take on a different register when juxtaposed with the smooth coolness of the quartet. Overall, though, the poem is delivered more militantly here. In the first version the opening lines are delivered forcefully, but ultimately this forcefulness subsides over the course of the reading. The opposite is the case in this studio version that slowly builds to the apex of the poem, the point of most force, this stanza:
and chant, scream,
and dull, un
In the bootleg, the turn of the page—between “earthly” and “hollering”—interrupts this stanza, and Baraka hesitates and slowly finds his way toward the poem’s close, while in the studio version, the musical accompaniment reaches a fevered pitch here, making it feel as if it is at the edge of the scream that it names. This prepares us for the closing litany of names of black figures of “black dada nihilismus,” which goes like this:
For tambo, willie best, dubois, patrice, mantan, the
For Jack Johnson, asbestos, tonto, buckwheat,
In the final version, which is DJ Spooky’s remix of the second one, included on the CD Offbeat: A Red Hot Soundtrip (TVT Records 1996), this litany feels more like the outro (that is meant as) against Spooky’s beats and moody reverb.
An aspect of the poem amplified in the remix is the stanzas leading up to the apex stanza of the “black scream.” In a series of tercets that open the second section, the speaker addresses the experience of racial oppression and a growing need to strike back:
The razor. Our flail against them, why
you carry knives? Or brutaled lumps of
heart? Why you stay, where they can
reach? Why you sit, or stand, or walk
in this place, a window on a dark
The “why” is significantly amplified in the remix, forcing us to hear the ironic indictment of the oppressive “light,” not as audible in the other two tracks, explicit in Baraka’s tercets.
The original recordings of these versions of “Black Dada Nihilismus” are each in a different format: vinyl LP, tape-to-tape reel, and CD. I have been working with digitized versions, so the way I am hearing these recordings—through a smooth digitized MP3 file or Youtube clip—is not the same as the crackle of a needle running an LP’s groove or a nearly noiseless laser tracing a CD. These variations in format mean that the different ways these versions individual signify—their respective “sounds”—are flattened out by compression. Despite this loss of material context, Baraka still sounds different in each of these tracks. Each version of Baraka’s poem offers us another iteration of his “voice,” and the poem, but listening to each of them does not necessarily provide a better understanding of it. We are, though, given different sonic experiences that depend upon the purpose of Baraka’s performance, the listener imagined during the reading, and the voice enunciated through the mediated environment.
Some of the voice details do remain consistent across these recordings. For example, the delivery of one of the poem’s most memorable phrase—“Hermes, the/the blacker art”—that occurs toward the close of the poem’s first section is steadily delivered in a lower register, in the hush of an aside, and might be taken as the motif of each of these variations.
A vast archive of recorded poetry exists. Mid-century recording projects by Caedmon and Folkways made “voices” of well-known poets, such as Robert Frost and Dylan Thomas, available for mainstream consumption. More recent anthologies and series like Poetry Speaks and The Voice of the Poet suggest that the “voice of the poet” still holds appeal. The proliferation of online sound archives such as Penn Sound and From the Fishouse further attest to an ongoing investment in recording, storing, and making available sound files of poets reading their work. And this fascination with the “sound” of poetry is not limited to mainstream cultural spheres or web-based archives. Several scholarly collections on this convergence of sound, voice, and poetry such as Bernstein’s already-mentioned Close Listening, Adelaide Morris’s Sound States, and Marjorie Perloff’s and Craig Dworkin’s The Sound of Poetry/The Poetry of Sound have appeared over the last decade.
The idea of the sound of the poem, located in the mediated voice of the poet, therefore remains relevant today. In many of these instances, however, the poet’s voice falsely takes on an authoritative “aura,” as Walter Benjamin used that word in his (recently re-translated) “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility.” Benjamin uses “aura” to talk about authenticity in art and how that is lost when images (or sounds) can be reproduced and widely distributed, and this is not a bad thing: “technological reproducibility emancipates the work of art from its parasitic subservience to ritual. To an ever-increasing degree, the work produced becomes the reproduction of work designed to be reproduced” (24). When Benjamin’s concept is applied to recorded poetry, two key points emerge. First, the “sound” of a poet’s voice is the product of technological conditions. Second, just as a book editor makes aesthetic judgments based on a perceived audience, a listener is imagined when a poetry performance is recorded. Too bad I didn’t know this in high school.
Featured image: “Paula Varjack” by Flickr user Very Quiet, CC-BY-SA-2.0
John Hyland recently completed his dissertation on sound, poetics, and the black diaspora, titled “Atlantic Reverberations: The Sonic Performances of Black Diasporic Poetries,” at the University at Buffalo, SUNY. His poems, essays, and reviews have appeared (or are forthcoming) in a range of journals, such as The Journal of Postcolonial Writing, College Literature, and Borderlands. Recently, he has enjoyed performing with the Buffalo Poets Theater and co-edited a special issue of the poetry journal kadar koli on the relationship between violence and the expressive arts.
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And now, we interrupt this broadcast for a message from Guest Editor Neil Verma: At 9:00 pm on July 11, 1938, the Columbia Broadcasting System unfurled a plush Tchaikovsky concerto to welcome 23 year-old wunderkind Orson Welles and his Mercury Theater troupe to national airwaves for a show destined to become the most famous dramatic radio anthology ever aired.
The Mercury Theater on the Air came with hype. Welles was fresh off a streak of innovative stage adaptations of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar,” Shaw’s “Heartbreak House,” and Marlowe’s “Doctor Faustus,” pledging in a New York Times article to “treat radio with the intelligence and respect such a beautiful and powerful medium deserves.” A jab at his rivals? Maybe. Legends tell of 17-hour writing sessions, of rows minutes before airtime between Welles, producer John Houseman and composer Bernard Herrmann, of sound men abusing baskets, watermelons, toilets, lawnmowers to make audio. Time described Mercury’s ambition as “bounded north and south by hope, east and west by nerve.”
Welles was by then a radio veteran, the hero of The Shadow and impersonator of newsmakers from Sigmund Freud to Fiorello laGuardia on The March of Time. Hundreds of extant recordings link Welles to rousing Norman Corwin pageants, Columbia Workshop experiments, strident war shows like Ceiling Unlimited, buffoon turns on the Jack Benny and Fred Allen Shows, picaresque Harry Lime adventures, dense thrillers on Suspense, romances on Lux Radio Theater, diplomacy on Hello Americans, and on and on. Welles gave radio new forms, as radio informed his filmmaking profoundly – the sound of Citizen Kane (1941) the characters in Mr. Arkadin (1955), the vocals in Touch of Evil (1958) the theme of F is for Fake (1974). Welles invented a cinema that is, among other things, a kind of radio play you can see.
Mercury (and the Campbell Playhouse it became) undertook plays like “Dracula,” “Treasure Island,” “The 39 Steps,” “Rebecca,” “Jane Eyre,” and “The Magnificent Ambersons” and dozens of others. But none would be remembered were it not for the “War of the Worlds,” adapted from H.G. Wells’s novel by Howard Koch. In October of 1938, WOTW aired to six million listeners, hundreds of thousands of whom misheard it as news. The “Panic Broadcast” became a series of fables: listeners treated for shock in Newark; families on Boston rooftops watching the fires of New York in the distance; an Indianapolis church service interrupted by a parishioner telling congregants “you might as well go home to die;” bomb threats and a police raid on CBS headquarters. Three quarters of a century later many agree with the New York Tribune’s Dorothy Thompson, who declared the Invasion “one of the most fascinating and important events of all time,” but the meaning of that event also feels unclear, growing more ambiguous with time. Today, the alien invasion is itself increasingly alien.
To confront that issue and to open Mercury to new kinds of critical practices in sound studies, Sounding Out! is partnering with Antenna over the next six months to bring you a 12-part series entitled From Mercury to Mars: Orson Welles on Radio after 75 Years. I’m honored to serve as Sounding Out!‘s Guest Editor. We’ll be bringing you authors who engage aesthetic, historical and political aspects of Welles’ radio work with a depth and intensity unusual in Welles studies.
That’s especially true of this inaugural post by Cornell Comparative Literature Professor and SO! contributor Tom McEnaney, who has been working on a book project involving radio and the “neighborhood” of the Americas. I’m thrilled welcome Tom’s nuanced and provocative take on Welles’s adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and his Hello, Americans program, and I hope it will encourage you to stay with us as the series unfolds.
Like Welles, we’ve got a few tricks up our sleeve. Stay tuned. — nv
When WNYC’s Radiolab aired their live celebration of War of the Worlds five years ago, the odd laugh line was reserved for a moment at the start of the radio play when an announcer interjects “now we return to the music of Ramón Raquello and his orchestra.”
Raquello, as the Radiolab team makes clear, didn’t exist, and his “orchestra” was just an anonymous phonograph recording of the famous tango “La cumparsita.” Welles apparently chose the song for its “tedium,” hoping it would make believable the lunacy to come. That the music of the Southern Cone set up listeners in the United States for the greatest hoax in history might have been yet another of the inside jokes Welles left us to listen for.
The sounds of Ramón Raquello and the settings of some of Welles’s most famous films—The Lady From Shanghai (1947); Touch of Evil (1958)—remind us how Latin America, and its relationship to the United States, fascinated Welles in the late 30s and 40s. Five years after War of the Worlds, he began the final episode of his CBS program Hello Americans by recalling the show’s mission: “It is important for the people of this hemisphere to get better acquainted, and the Mercury [Theater] has been given the job of helping out with the introductions.”
An artful propagandist, Welles told Nelson A. Rockefeller, FDR’s head of Inter-American Affairs and Welles’s boss at RKO studios, that radio and film were the best way “to sell South America to North America.” Between 1938 and 1943 his technical innovations in film and radio, in addition to a 1942 stint as a “good will ambassador” to Latin America, created for him by Rockefeller, were meant to convince U.S. audiences of FDR’s claim in his first inaugural that the United States should follow the policy of the “Good Neighbor.” Whether listening, watching, or reading his work during World War II, Welles’s U.S. audiences were constantly reminded that they were residents of the Americas, rather than an exceptional and isolated America.
To assess the aesthetics and politics of Welles’s engagement with Latin America, it’s worth returning to the October 30, 1938 broadcast of War of the Worlds. Presented as a live news report of an alien invasion on the East Coast of the United States, War of the Worlds sent its mass audience into hysterics, proving to Marshal McLuhan that radio was “a tribal drum,” capable of calling forth the “archaic forces” of “the resonating Africa within” (301). The primitivist and racist logic in McLuhan’s Understanding Media (1964) sought to explain away the irrationality he (and his Frankfurt School forebears) identified as the enlightenment’s dialectical twin by exiling it to Africa. In this, he might have merely followed Welles’s Mercury Theater, which aired a production of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness a week after War of the Worlds, thus linking an allegory about fascism (and radio’s dangerous complicity with irrational politics) to a Conrad adaptation that critic Michael Denning calls “a fascist parable” exalting “power for power’s sake” (376).
Yet these radio works concern themselves with fascism from very different narrative and social positions. While War of the Worlds depicts an alien invasion, his Heart of Darkness describes a journey towards the alien racial Other, presenting listeners with what had become by 1938 the more mundane miracle of radio—to bring them close enough to hear Kurtz’s haunting repetition: “the horror, the horror.”
Welles, who plays both Kurtz and Marlow in the conversation that leads up to these climactic lines, depicts here the seductive power of his own voice, able to encapsulate the story’s most important characters, and, as Kurtz, to impress even himself, as Marlow.
“Mr. Kurtz,” Marlow / Welles says with awe, “is a remarkable man.” Repeating a line heard throughout the play, Marlow’s words are slyly deflated when they are echoed, with a tone of critical distance, in the voice of one of the ivory company’s employees, a voice that stands in for the listening audience, and encourages their own distrust of Marlow’s naïve faith in Kurtz’s lust for power.
Meanwhile, the play tells a complimentary story of proximity and distance: as the boat moves back down the river, the music shifts from tribal drums to spiritual laments to a meandering jazz saxophone, tracing, in basic and exoticist fashion, a capsule history of African diasporic music.
One year later, Welles also attempted to adapt Heart of Darkness as his cinematic directorial debut for RKO, shifting the frame narrative to New York City, while planning to shoot on location in Panama, where expansion had begun that year on the Panama Canal to allow for the transportation of US warships. For this project, Welles planned a first-person camera technique, mimicking his radio work with first person address. The Mercury Theater’s program, originally named “First Person Singular,” placed listeners on the scene. In film the technique became even more immersive, plunging the audience into uneasy, inescapable identification with Marlow’s point of view.
The first person in Welles’s screenplay combines Heart of Darkness’ journey into alien territory with War of the Worlds’ alien invasion—the sense that the audience was under attack. Forced to look out through the eyes of the imperialist adventurer Marlow, the audience surprisingly became the object that everyone in the film watches. The technique could prove threatening to the predominantly white and male movie audiences in the United States of 1940, as Welles planned to enlist 3,000 African American actors to play the so-called natives on the shores of the river—2500 more black extras than worked in Hollywood at the time. When the audience fell under the black gaze in the Canal Zone, where African American men increasingly worked as part of the defense industries, the story’s imperialist theme would have pointed back to the United States’ own racist working conditions, revealing the nation’s complicity and subordination to the imperialist pursuit whose destiny is the primitivist conditions it creates.
RKO rejected Welles’s screenplay, as they did his later documentary project, It’s All True, which sought to transform his 1942 trip throughout Latin America into a tale that fused “the story of samba” with “the story of jazz” to situate African American and Afro-Brazilian musical cultures at the heart of Pan-American culture. Welles soon repurposed the material from It’s All True for a radio program entitled “Hello Americans” that attempted to complete the shift in representation towards a more lateral and dialogic notion of adjacency, positioning U.S. and Latin American culture on the same plane. The means to make these introductions included interviews with and recordings by musicians from Cuba, Brazil, and Mexico, historical tales about Montezuma, Toussaint L’Ouverture, Benito Juárez, Atahualpa and others.
In the show’s most experimental section, Welles simultaneously reinforces and mocks the idea that radio’s ability to collapse distances and transcend borders makes it the medium to communicate the idea of neighborliness.
Transporting his audience to “a clay hut somewhere in South America,” Welles introduces a small family in which the son, Juan, builds radios at a new factory, and his father, José, listens to the device. Once the broadcast begins, the listening audience within the frame—Juan, José and his mother—share the same space as the audience listening to “Hello Americans.” All listen together as a broadcast voice introduces Roosevelt’s inaugural address, then Roosevelt’s recorded voice announces his policy of the Good Neighbor, and finally static interrupts Roosevelt’s voice, and a German accented voice takes over to complain about “the republic of the Jew Franklin Roosevelt.” When José comments that the broadcast seems strange, his son Juan answers, “Oh no, they’re all like that. Señor Schmidt at the factory told us it’s uh, it’s because we’re closer to Germany.” Then, a musical curtain falls and Welles returns to reassure his audience that “Juan has learned. Today he works in another factory and he’s a member of the Latin American Confederation of Workers.”
The passage distinguishes between voices—José, Juan, the US broadcaster, Roosevelt, and the German propagandist—and reflects the imagined proximity implicit in Roosevelt’s idea of the Good Neighbor. But the technique also reveals how “Señor Schmidt” and his countrymen take advantage of the geographical confusion made possible by radio’s transcendence of borders to imply that Germany is actually more of a “neighbor” than the United States. These types of confusion between imagination and reality had once launched listeners into panic, but now Welles steps in to calmly and condescendingly reassure the audience that Juan “has learned.” Learned, that is, to join the left leaning Confederation: an untenable statement on US radio less than a decade later.
And yet, the unnamed obstacle impeding both foreign transmissions is language itself. Because everything filters through English, with accents marking the space between Spanish and German, Hello Americans imagines Pan-Americanism through one language alone. Radio’s monolingualism highlights one of the medium’s limitations. Whereas It’s All True could employ subtitles, and allow audiences to listen to a subject’s voice while reading what they said, radio faltered on its most medium-specific component – words.
Furthermore, while Welles imagines a “neighborhood” for all Americans, listeners lose the more radical racial politics he had once placed at the center of his Haitian Macbeth (1936), Heart of Darkness (1938), his theatrical production of Richard Wright’s Native Son (1941) and It’s All True (1942). Together these works place the African diaspora at the center of U.S., Pan-American, and world culture. They insist that the attack on fascism abroad must include a change in race relations at home. More ambivalently, they reveal Welles participating in acts of love and theft – a New Deal Kurtz, he draws the power to criticize fascist power from exoticized images of Afro-Caribbean, Afro-Brazilian, and African American cultures, supporting and appropriating the art and struggles of the African diaspora to bill himself as the cultural leader of, not just the ambassador for, Pan-Americanism.
Tom McEnaney is an Assistant Professor of Comparative Literature at Cornell University. His work focuses on the connections between the novel and various sound recording and transmission technologies in Argentina, Cuba, and the United States. He is currently at work on a manuscript tentatively titled “Acoustic Properties: Radio, Narrative, and the New Neighborhood of the Americas.”
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