“HOW YOU SOUND??”: The Poet’s Voice, Aura, and the Challenge of Listening to Poetry
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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Pretty, Fast, and Loud: The Audible Ali–Tara Betts
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Pretty, Fast, and Loud: The Audible Ali
Aaaaaaaaaaaaand NOW. . .in SO!‘s corner. . .writing for this month’s “Sound and Sport,” we have the scholar. . .the poet . . .the “Wordsmith of the Web” Taaaaaaaaaara Betts! In today’s post, she shares how listening influences her creative process AND knocks us out with an analysis of the importance of Muhammad Ali’s voice to his sports career and historical legacy. For an instant replay of last month’s post, click Melissa Helquist‘s “Goalball: Sport, Silence, and Spectatorship.” Next month’s rematch will feature Josh Ottum‘s research on sound and skateparks. But now, let’s get ready to ruuuuuuuummmbbble! —J. Stoever-Ackerman, Editor-in-Chief
Plap of glove against glove
Shush of scuffle and slide.
Rebuildin’, repeatin’, rebuildin’
All this repeatin’, getting’ up again & again
Discipline, routine and I keep
doing new things to prepare
my mind, my body, so my pretty
mouth keeps up with all my rhymes.
–Tara Betts, from “Repeatin’” (scene 8, The GREATEST!)
The recent Peggy Choy Dance Company production of “The GREATEST!: A Hip Dance Homage to Muhammad Ali” in April 2013 gave me cause to rethink the key events in Muhammad Ali’s life, particularly his burgeoning political awareness in the 1960s. As I wrote the libretto for the performance—which combined athletic dance performance with images, poems, and quotes from Ali—I kept thinking about how Ali had one of the most recognized, quoted, and distinct voices ever heard in the boxing world.
In the libretto, I tried to capture the nuances of black vernacular and the southern hallmark of Ali’s hometown, Louisville, Kentucky (he was sometimes referred to as the “Louisville Lip”), vocal sounds that signify an African American experience. Is there a southern drawl? A bass-filled bravado? There are certain words that sound fuller and cut short based on the vernacular that was spoken during the time period of Cassius Clay and well into his evolution as Muhammad Ali. While many of the materials that I visited for inspiration and historical context were books, to capture the look, feel, and speech of the 1960s and 1970s, I had to crate-dig for some vinyl.
A copy of a 1963 spoken word album I Am The Greatest!: Cassius Clay and the 1997 documentary film When We Were Kings served as two such sources. Both recordings represent an audible Ali, at once a man whose iconic voice sounded as familiar to me as people who I’ve known personally and a historical figure whose vocal grain content embodied his shifts in political consciousness. The difference between Clay’s 1964 recording and the samples woven into the When We Were Kings soundtrack is more than the changes that gradually developed over time. These recordings reveal how Ali’s confidence is constructed around creating an affirming, critical identity, rather than merely promoting his athletic prowess. At first, he merely sounds cocky; later he sounds as if he is fighting for a group of people that he wants to inform, serve, celebrate, protect, and uphold. My libretto was deeply impacted both by the sonic continuities in Ali’s voice across time and space, as well as its audible shifts.
The champ ain’t nobody but me!
Pretty, fast & loud, I’ll shake the world,
with a lion’s might.
My children will lift
their fists and fight
–Tara Betts, from “‘By Any Means necessary: If they met in Harlem’’” (transition from scene 14, The GREATEST!)
Before Cassius Clay joined the Nation of Islam and changed his name to Muhammad Ali, he recorded a spoken word album on the Sony label in 1963. I Am The Greatest! was released in 1964 before Clay’s two key fights with Sonny Liston and Ali’s eventual victory for the heavyweight crown. The album included original liner notes from modernist poet Marianne Moore and New York Post sports journalist Milton Gross, but it was telling that comedy writer Gary Belkin and Cassius Clay were the co-authors of the spoken word material—which is more comedy than poetry or interviews. Belkin was a comedy writer for well-known comedians such as Carol Burnett and Sid Caesar, and the comedy show Car 54, Where Are You? So, Belkin was clearly accustomed to writing sketch comedy, but Clay was used to being humorous outside of a recording studio with a staged audience.
Overall, Clay’s delivery seems to be slower–both less fluid and more staged– than his impromptu recitations at boxing-related events outside the recording studio. Clay seems to anticipate that sound effects such as roaring crowds and clanging bells will be inserted into the tracks, so he over-enunciates and pauses. Each track begins with a bell ringing as if boxing round is about to begin, and there are eight “rounds,” probably because Clay insisted that any fight with Liston would be shorter than eight rounds. As I listened, I wondered if Ali was comfortable recording this album or if he considered it simply another way to promote and market one of the world’s best known boxers? To my ear, it lacked some of the speed and ease I associate with Clay’s speech in other settings. In the boxing world, his speeches mentally challenged his opponents and entertained crowds. The recording studio left less room for spontaneity, fluidity, and even the visual interplay of sound with his quick motion.
The eight rounds/comedic sketches lean heavily on Ali’s signature boisterous braggadocio in his loud, deliberate voice, using canned laughter and other voices setting up Clay to talk about his excellence. Otherwise, they are a grab bag of influences and sound effects. These other voices and sounds create an artificial environment that is not the same as being surrounded by boxers, trainers, and others in the athletic arena. In fact, these sounds and the sources sound quite different from Clay himself. “Round 1: I Am The Greatest” and “Round 2: I Am The Double Greatest” are accompanied by violins that sound more like a serenade than a classical composition. In “Round 4: ‘I Have Written A Drama,’ He Said Playfully,” a lute plays in the beginning that hints at a spoof of a Shakespearean-style drama about defeating dragons complete with affected British accents, including one actor speaking with the theatrical lisp. The knight “Cassius of Clay” enters with the audible clanking of armor.
Clay reveals a shift in tone when he sings on the last two tracks. He begins with “Stand By Me”–a cover of Ben E. King’s classic song/then recent hit–with fervor. In the last song, “The Gang’s All Here,” Clay follows some of the words of Tin Pan Alley lyricist Theodora Morse set to Sullivan’s tune from Pirates of Penzance.
Clay tries to pick up the energy lost by his less-than-enthusiastic singing. “Is Memphis with me? Is Louisville with me? Is Houston with me. Ain’t I purty?” Each question is answered with a crowd enthusiastically shouting a “Yeah!” Here Ali relies on his enthusiastic, improvised rhymes, departing from the song’s traditional lyrics to include himself in a song that does not come from an African American writer or the Black experience.
The same country that refuses to let people eat
or use the bathroom in the same places
wants ME to go and get killed?
What does THAT sound like?
—-Tara Betts, from “The Same Country” (scene 15, The GREATEST!)
Almost 35 years later, there are clear sonic differences between Cassius Clay’s debut on Sony and the soundtrack to When We Were Kings, the 1997 documentary of the 1974 heavyweight championship between George Foreman and Muhammad Ali. This retrospective record is decidedly more centered on black experiences and black voices that speak musically, politically, and spiritually, particularly about the Black presence in Islam. There are no comedic monologues, sketches or Greek choruses; it sonically represents Ali after his conversion to orthodox Islam, after his friendship with and separation from Malcolm X, and after his opposition to Vietnam. Every spoken part on this album affirms the multiplicities of a Black presence in blues, R&B, and songs recorded live on the African continent; the huffs and rhymes are cheered for by a live African audience. As I listened to When We Were Kings, I could hear Ali’s comfort and his freedom of movement, audibly in contrast with his other album.
When We Were Kings records his time in Kinshasa, Zaire where he trains and eventually fights George Foreman. It does not simply focus on Ali’s voice, but is sonically rich with music, interviews with people who witnessed that fight and those who knew Ali personally; the soundtrack reflects these interconnections in its continuous uninterrupted flow. The role of these sounds endeavors to document what was heard in Zaire in 1974, but it also includes Ali in the surrounding sonic environment as one person who becomes a focal point for the musicians and speakers who also articulate black identity on the record.
The first thing I heard was Ali’s voice:
I’m gonna fight for the prestige, not for me, but to uplift my little brothers who are sleeping on concrete floors today in America, black people who are living on welfare, black people who can’t eat, black people who don’t know no knowledge of themselves, black people who don’t have no future. I want win my title and walk down the alleys and sit on the garbage cans with the wineheads…
This opening sample of Ali sets the soundtrack’s tone, and kicks off the only hip hop song on the album, a sonic shift that signals a new generation/genre in black music in 1997, more than 30 years after Ali’s spoken word album as Cassius Clay. Ali’s quote also informs listeners that the emphasis of this album has little do with comedy, especially since the soundtrack draws from nonfiction, rather than setting Clay/Ali in fictionalized sketches. The focus is on black people and their struggles.
In the first song, emcees look back and tell the story of “The Rumble in the Jungle” but the verses also hail Ali as a hero. When The Fugees, A Tribe Called Quest, and Busta Rhymes rap over a fairly standard bassline, their presence on this soundtrack is an important signal of Ali’s influence and the recurring engagement between artists and Ali during his athletic heyday such as James Brown. In Jeff Chang’s Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop (2005), Afrika Bambaataa points out repeatedly how Brown became a consistent presence in hip hop when New York radio stations simply refused to play his music, particularly in the 1970s. After decades of infusing a variety of soul singers and Brown’s stylistic turns on “the one” and messages of black pride into the genre of hip hop, the presence of “The Rumble in the Jungle” on this soundtrack completely makes sense. As more than a wellspring for samples throughout the large, growing body of hip hop music, Brown was also embodying and representing black consciousness in music with a Black voice, much in the same way that Ali utilized Black speech. In some ways, Ali’s couplets predate rap lyrics and perform in a similar manner; Bambaattaa cites him as an influence, along with Malcolm X.
James Brown and many others flow seamlessly into the event and its soundtrack in a way that reflects the immediacy and proximity of these events. The “Black Woodstock” of the Zaire 1974 music festival that accompanied Ali and Foreman’s fight set the tone and soundtrack in real life, not just in the documentary. In fact, the festival itself was documented in the 2008 release Soul Power directed by Jeff Levy-Hinte. At this point, it’s clear that there is a continuum for hearing the connections between black voices across oceans and continents.
Following “Rumble in the Jungle,” the record samples Ali and Drew “Bundini” Brown (Ali’s assistant trainer and cornerman), snippets taken directly from the documentary footage. Brown is a slower, more deliberate speaker; he uses rhyme like Ali. He talks about the fruit returning to the root and Ali claiming his crown back home. For African Americans to return to Africa post-slavery, this trip and clip sonically reinforce the cultural significance of Ali’s trip. Such pilgrimages fortify the idea that black people have a homeland, a continent, and a cultural continuum, much in the same way that this soundtrack constructs.
“Ali, Bombaye!” in a sea of faces just like mine,
my brothers, my parents, my cousins.
I want to go home and tell the people
in the streets this is what we come from,
what we could be.
—-Tara Betts, from “The Hard Road to Zaire’” (scene 21, The GREATEST!)
When African girls chant to celebrate Ali’s arrival, they reassert how this is a homecoming for Ali, a welcome and a reconnection that fuels Ali’s determination. The chants seem to encourage the first sample of Ali when he issues his threat: “When I get to Africa we gon’ get it on cause we don’t get along. I’m gonna eat him up…” This sample segues into James Brown’s “The Payback” as it was performed before the fight, then another chant performed by Mobütu, named after Zaire’s controversial leader, Mobutu Sese Seko.
When Ali concludes the soundtrack, he interrupts chants of “Ali, Bombaye!” with huffs and a brief exhortation of knocking you out, “sucker.” These last words fade into a snippet of African chant. This constructs a very different narrative that looks back at Ali’s career, long after the younger Clay established part of his image with hyperbolic bravado. Ali has cultivated a Pan African, global, political awareness that includes black people in America from his hometown in Louisville, KY to across the globe.
Hearing Clay and Ali–their continuities and their differences–gave me an insight into the familiar voices of some of my older relatives (and their blues records), and it also helped me channel that voice in poems of my own. It allowed me to imagine how hyperbole helped encourage Ali to energize and cheer himself on, so much that others began rooting for him as well. It did not matter what arena he was in, Ali would use his voice, his fists, and his will to conquer it. As I wrote the libretto, I thought about how I might unearth that determination in a way that respectfully embodied his tone, cadence, vocabulary, and ebullience. One of the definitions of greatness relates to the defeat of time and distance, and in the words that I wrote about Ali, I found that listening to him, and hearing his significance grew over time, helped him transcend both.
Every mile, every turn of the rope brings
me closer to telling him he’s nothing.
I hate every minute of training,
but I say
and live your life
as a champion.
I am a myth, and a man,
of my own making.
–Tara Betts, from “The Hard Road to Zaire” (scene 21, The GREATEST!)
Tara Betts is the author of the poetry collection Arc and Hue, a Ph.D. candidate at Binghamton University, and a Cave Canem fellow. Tara’s poetry also appeared in Essence, Bum Rush the Page, Saul Williams’ CHORUS: A Literary Mixtape, VILLANELLES, both Spoken Word Revolution anthologies, and A Face to Meet the Faces: An Anthology of Contemporary Persona Poetry. Her research interests include African American literature, poetry, creative writing pedagogy, and most recently sound studies. In the 1990s, she co-founded and co-hosted WLUW 88.7FM’s “The Hip Hop Project” at Loyola University while writing for underground hip hop magazines, Black Radio Exclusive, The Source, and XXL. She is co-editor of Bop, Strut, and Dance, an anthology of Bop poems with Afaa M. Weaver. In April 2013, she published the libretto “THE GREATEST!: An Homage to Muhammad Ali” (Winged City Press) written for the live performance directed by Peggy Choy.
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