Riot Grrrl, Punk and the Tyranny of Technique
For full intro and part one of the series click here. For part two, click here.
Our Punk Sound series implicitly argues that sound studies methodologies are better suited to understanding how punk works sonically than existing journalistic and academic conversations about musical genre, chord progressions, and/or genealogies of bands. Alexandra Vasquez’s sound-oriented work on Cuban music, for example, in Listening in Detail (2014) opens up necessary conversations about the “flashes, moments, sounds” in music that bear its meanings and its colonial, raced, classed, and gendered histories in material ways people can hear and feel. While retaining the specificity of Vasquez’s argument and the specific sonic archive bringing it forth, we too insist on “an ethical and intellectual obligation to the question: what do the musicians sound like” (12) and how do folks identifying with and through these musical sounds hear them?
In this series, we invite you to amplify varied historicized “details” of punk sound–its chunk-chunk-chunk skapunk riffs, screams, growls, group chants, driving rhythms, honking saxophones–hearing/feeling/touching these sounds in richly varied locations, times, places, and perspectives: as a pulsing bead of condensation dripping down the wall of The Smell in Downtown LA (#savethesmell), a drummer making her own time on tour, a drunk sitting too near the amp at a backyard party, a queer teenager in their bedroom being yelled at to “turn it down” and “act like a lady[or a man]”. . .and on and on. Today’s essay is by Tamra Lucid. Here, Tamra offers her thoughts on how both technique and expression reinforce a gendered understanding of music. When punk sound plays with extremes, how can artists who feel trapped by these polemics resist?
–Aaron SO! (Sounding Out!) + Jenny SO! (Sounding Out!)
“Don’t touch that!” a virtuoso guitarist had once told me when as a kid I reached for his guitar. The same phrase would later be delivered by a punk guitarist at a gig where I offered to replace a string broken during his performance. As noted in the book Girls Rock , women are often told not to touch these sacred instruments (18). I remember thinking that guitar was as complex as a car engine and as dangerous as a circular saw. Technique and theory are meant to liberate musicians (so that their dexterity can follow wherever imagination and inspiration may lead), but when experiencing gender discrimination from instructors and fellow instrumentalists, technique and theory can seem antagonistic. In this essay I show how the elite and virtuoso focus on technique and theory has catalyzed punk musicians to cultivate the raw, expressive, qualities of punk sound. Yet, paradoxically, I point out how movements toward a raw and visceral sound constitute a cage of their own, alienating an equally radical and virtuoso community of women in the punk scene. How do these sonic contours in the 1990s riot grrrl scene tell a story about injustice and community building through sound?
Theory and technique become a cage when they are used by sexist cliques, such as the heavy metal scene, which sought to maintain hegemony over local scenes and resources. For the gatekeepers, there are many benefits to this form of discrimination–women are encouraged to act as doting fans rather than joining bands. As a teenager I saw many young women told by male musicians that their only permissible roles were those of sex object or fan. Early in my musical career when I put out an ad searching for band mates some male musicians would call just to laugh at me.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s when canons of punk tone and composition ironically became defined by an athletics-like dedication to speed, precision and endurance, riot grrrl bands were criticized for their primitive skills. However, by removing the barriers to self-expression that this emphasis on technique and theory created, many people, not only female or female identified, were empowered to create music similar to performance art. As Liam S. Ruin of the Columbia, South Carolina hardcore band Shirley Temple of Doom (1993-1996) said in an interview I conducted with them for this essay: “I still think emphasis on technique is gross and ableist and boring and obvious.”
In this time of sonic reform, some scenes came to prize sincerity over skill. Here, a new canon of theory and technique evolved–another cage. Some related to the riot grrrl scene found themselves accepted by their community while receiving praise for abandoning a commitment to simplicity. For example Associated Newspapers News North West previewed a gig by Sleater Kinney in Manchester, UK by describing them as “too musically competent to be a Riot Grrrl band.” Likewise, the female hardcore bands Girl Jesus and Free Verse (though politically aligned with riot grrrl) found little support in a scene that viewed them as a threat. It was as if the language of technique and theory was the language of oppressors, and using it implied submission to the status quo. The directness of purpose which had liberated so many artists, became a new kind of cage for others.
As a roadie for Girl Jesus, I witnessed the immediate dismissal (including groans of disappointment) they suffered when confronting male bands at gigs many times. Despite these jeers I also saw the way their ferocious music and performance, anchored by guitarist Gina Rush’s use of middle eastern scales, Shell Davina’s unique and unusual drumming style, and Grit Maldonado’s flamenco-like bass lines, reduced many male bands to discouraged silence and listless performances. I remember thinking that riot grrrl, or what was left of it in 1993, would welcome such a powerful example of female creativity. The feeling of competence I felt as Girl Jesus approached each gig with confidence in their music and technology helped me to reinvent myself, encouraging me to graduate quickly from roadie to musician.
Gina Rush carefully chose her amps and had them modded by an expert. Shell used a vintage drum-kit that would make any collector drool. But these distinctions were rejected by the riot grrrl audience who found them elitist and classist. Though Girl Jesus was a band of working class lesbians they were treated the same way as male bands in the scene. As Shell reported in an article entitled “Queercore: Ready to Face the Market” by Brent Atwood in the May 6, 1995 issue of Billboard Magazine: “As a female band, we expected a strong network of women in music to stick together. Instead we found a lot of competition.” She also pointed out: “We’ve had more club owners be sexist to us than homophobic.” Despite their embrace of technology and technique, two domains that code as masculine, Girl Jesus nurtured into existence two of the more popular riot grrrl bands in mid-90’s Los Angeles, Patsy and my own band Lucid Nation, which began by rehearsing in Girl Jesus’s garage using their equipment. The name of Girl Jesus’s first cassette demo succinctly captured the problem: “Afraid of Our Own.”
A similar trajectory was found by the all female hardcore band Free Verse, whose first record “Access Denied” was released by the indie label Brain Floss Records. Free Verse began in Lawrence, Kansas in 1995 and in 1998 relocated to Seattle. Lucid Nation toured nationally with Free Verse in the summer of 1998. The experience was similar to what I observed as a roadie for Girl Jesus. Male bands who looked down upon female musicians with disdain were stunned by their display of skill and ferocity. However, when we played in Olympia, Washington, the riot grrrl community cowered against the back wall, clearly uncomfortable. On the road we smiled ruefully over the irony of masculinist male bands becoming fans while female fans who shared our politics turned their backs. This created a conundrum for Free Verse. Although they were able to deliver a feminist message to scenes and individuals who were hostile to feminism, they could not enjoy the community of like minded women who identified as riot grrrl.
Over time, Free Verse earned enough respect that they were able to open for leading bands from a variety of scenes. From Hardcore bands like The Blood Brothers to indie stars like Sleater Kinney. From queer core bands like The Need and The Butchies to riot grrrl supergroup The Cold Cold Hearts. Though Free Verse were chosen to participate in the Northwest Coalition For Human Dignity’s anti-racism tour October 2002, a tour sponsored by Ms. magazine and featured in ROCKRGRL magazine, the band was never able to achieve the following or recognition of the bands they shared bills with, information about them is hard to find on the internet today.
Liam S. Ruin, now one of the guiding lights of the new Riot Grrrl Intersectional movement, provides a more intimate look at how the pressures of technique and theory influenced Shirley Temple of Doom: “Not really any RG [riot grrrl] activity in Columbia SC. Um, Slant 6 played there once. Our scene was extremely nuclear. We played with our friend’s bands, The Trema, Erector Set, Guyana Punch Line. We were pretty much all in each other’s bands or dating each other or whatever. Making it up as we went along. Jessica saw me in the halls at school wearing a Pearl Jam shirt and told me ‘you’re way too cool to be listening to shitty bands.’ She made me a mix cd that was mostly D.C. Emo and Hardcore but it had Bratmobile, Bikini Kill and L7, too. Then she lent me her bass. I practiced with Joy Division and Heavens To Betsy covers till I could play along. We started a band with her boyfriend. Half of our band were really into Straight Edge H/C and the other half were into Huggy Bear, Fugazi, NOU, etc.”
Shirley Temple of Doom, despite reflecting a riot grrrl like platform in their lyrics received little attention from the riot grrrl community. Eventually the band collapsed due to internal tensions regarding technique–as if the rhetoric of extremes around technique and expression had become an expertly baited, misogynist trap. As Liam informed me: “The guys in the band were very technical and pushed me to play more technical bass lines but honestly, I get bored with proficiency. I’ve heard what guitars are supposed to sound like. I wanna hear what they’re not supposed to sound like. We split because of ideological differences. I got really into visceral bass-feels and wanted to sound like a disaster, and they wanted to be on Victory Records.”
How did the cage of technique and expression, evolve in a style of music that advanced freedom as its guiding praxis? Early on, rock musicians were considered unskilled when compared to classical, jazz and country musicians. Later, virtuosity became central to rock music as bands like Yes, Led Zeppelin, and Pink Floyd, sought radical sounds to accommodate an aesthetic cultivated by Cannabis and LSD. As What’s That Sound? An Introduction to Rock and It’s History puts it: “Rock musicians now had a responsibility to create sophisticated music using whatever means were available.” Soon after this turn to virtuosity, guitarists like Eddie Van Halen became the Paganinis of their time, displaying jaw-dropping finger speed and impressive knowledge of scales and musical theory.
Later, punk rock crashed the party. First in the hands of the MC5 and The Stooges, and then the New York Dolls, The Ramones, the Sex Pistols and many other bands, rock music turned again towards primitive and cathartic sincerity. Musical virtuosity was literally spit upon. The Ramones famously told The Clash that they needn’t worry about improving their musicianship before playing live because “as you’ll see tonight, we suck.” Ferocity replaced dexterity. Nihilistic and cathartic lyrics displaced idealistic flights of fancy. Punk quickly developed its own criteria to indicate mastery of the genre. Bands like Fugazi and F.Y.P. typified a performance style that required frenetic motion while preserving the lockstep rhythm and hand speed, if not the musical knowledge and experimentation, of the earlier virtuosos. Then riot grrrl arrived, freeing a generation of punk women who were uncomfortable with the athletic performance style of these bands. For example, one of L.A.’s favorite riot grrrl bands Crown for Athena would perform at times with one member of the band sitting on the stage singing while clinging to the pant leg of another who stood immobile and emotionless. Frenetic performance and blazing chord speed was no longer a requirement for legitimacy on the punk stage.
Riot grrrl liberated me from the odious trial of confronting sexist music teachers, store clerks, booking agents, and record companies. I learned from the movement that I could get by with simple barre chords. I could use cheap and borrowed gear and I didn’t have to worry about great tone. One of the bands I admired, Foxfire, a band of female high school students from Los Angeles, used an oven pan instead of a snare drum. Riot grrrl bands emphasized community by booking shows with each other and with activist groups like Food Not Bombs. We made our own labels to distribute each other’s records. When Lucid Nation opened for Bikini Kill at Terraza Jamay in Montebello, Kathleen Hanna took tickets at the door.
As my musical skills developed I found myself feeling restricted by the aesthetics of riot grrrl. Beginning with Lucid Nation’s DNA record (2000) we began exploring cliches of what we called “butt rock,” now more popularly known as classic rock. While we attempted to master the techniques of classic rock our intent was to deconstruct them by introducing unexpected twists of sound (like chaotic analog synth and noise pedals) and lyrics containing feminist perspectives. At this point, we had moved on to other scenes, for example, the melange of Peace Punks, Black Panthers, and riot grrrls at Koo’s Cafe in Santa Ana, CA. We played hemp rallies and non-riot grrrl political events like fundraisers for Big Mountain and other Native American causes.
Eventually I developed a fascination with improvisation inspired by freestyle rap and augmented by the writing of Gertrude Stein and the recordings of Jack Kerouac. By the time our most successful album was released, the improvised Tacoma Ballet (2002), I prized musicianship and encouraged experienced collaborators, like Patty Schemel of Hole on drums and Greta Brinkman of Moby’s live band on bass, to bring to bear the breadth and depth of their musical knowledge. I was delighted that Rick King of Guitar Maniacs in Tacoma allowed us to use his highly valuable collectible gear such as a 1967 Gibson Flying V and an array of legendary vintage pedals when we recorded the album. I was proud when Patty said in an interview about Tacoma Ballet: “…there are always ideas that I have–interesting beats and such–that I could never incorporate into Hole or any other project. In Lucid Nation I got to incorporate all my weirdness.” Though Tacoma Ballet made it to #1 on the New Music Weekly Chart of College and Secondary Market Radio Stations in December 2002 it received very little attention in riot grrrl circles. I found myself silenced again, not by advocates of technique, but by a community who valued raw expression.
Of course, in 2002 riot grrrl was less popular than it had been a decade before–it mostly consisted of isolated zine writers and bands. Still, those who remained in the scene ignored Tacoma Ballet despite its success. When I asked them why, they explained that although they admired our work and the songs spoke to their experience, our band just wasn’t riot grrrl. I was told that the skills and awareness of musical history displayed on the record were too self conscious, that I had become ambitious, or as more than one zine writer said, I had sold out. Since I made no money on that record despite the attention it got, and we couldn’t tour behind it since the music was improvised, I found it hard to understand how such a purely artistic lark could be viewed as selling out. I didn’t sell out, my increased respect for theory and technique just felt wrong when viewed from the perspective of the riot grrrl canon.
While new music hardware and software have helped level the field in ways that were not possible in the 90’s, the cage of expression and technique continues to govern a new world of highly individuated scenes. EDM continues to fetishize the drop. Live performers need no longer be concerned about vocal pitch or knowledge of vocal harmony. Hardware like the Digitech VLFX, available on Amazon for under $200, corrects pitch and provides easy and automatic harmony vocals. In this device, music’s ability to create unexpectedly cathartic experiences has been diminished, while the simple mimicry of technique has been elevated.
Perhaps new regimes of data are to blame. Specific canons of theory and technique function as points of data that help define marketing audiences. After all, bands often succeed by conforming to the sonic norms of their given scene. For this reason, there is a tension between conservation and innovation. An artist must conserve as much of their scene’s identity as possible while finding subtle ways to innovate. Today, anyone can share their music on the internet regardless of traditional criteria. Despite this, a desire for acceptance and success continues to pressure musicians into accepting limitations to their creativity like technique and expression.
Cover image is of Tamra Lucid and by TheInfinite314 @Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA.
Tamra Lucid is an executive producer of Viva Cuba Libre: Rap is War the award winning documentary about Cuban hip hop legends Los Aldeanos, a producer of Edward James Olmos Presents Exile Nation: The Plastic People, and associate producer of The Gits documentary. Writing from her riot grrrl zines was reprinted in A Girl’s Guide To Taking Over The World: The Zine Revolution by Karen Green and Tristan Taormino,and in Hilary Carlip and Francesca Lia Block’s Zine Scene. Tamra blogs for Exterminating Angel Press and for Reality Sandwich where her most recent project has been a series of interviews with water protectors and filmmakers at Standing Rock. She’s a founding member and primary singer of Lucid Nation.
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‘A Clateryng of Knokkes’: Multimodality and Performativity in “The Blacksmith’s Lament”
Each of the essays in this month’s “Medieval Sound” forum focuses on sound as it, according to Steve Goodman’s essay “The Ontology of Vibrational Force,” in The Sound Studies Reader, “comes to the rescue of thought rather than the inverse, forcing it to vibrate, loosening up its organized or petrified body (70). These investigations into medieval sound lend themselves to a variety of presentation methods loosening up the “petrified body” of academic presentation. Each essay challenges concepts of how to hear the Middle Ages and how the sounds of the Middle Ages continue to echo in our own soundscapes.
The posts in this series begins an ongoing conversation about medieval sound in Sounding Out!. Our opening gambit in April 2016, “Multimodality and Lyric Sound,” reframes how we consider the lyric from England to Spain, from the twelfth through the sixteenth centuries, pushing ideas of openness, flexibility, and productive creativity. We will post several follow-ups throughout the rest of 2016 focusing on “Remediating Medieval Sound.” And, HEAR YE!, in April 2017, look for a second series on Aural Ecologies of noise! –Guest Editors Dorothy Kim and Christopher Roman
The “Blacksmith’s Lament” is late medieval alliterative poem that rails against the disruptive, urban sounds of blacksmiths working late into the night. Catalogued by Rossell Hope Robbins in his 1955 Secular Lyrics of the XIV and XV Centuries, and now broadly anthologized, the poem is a 15th century addendum to a largely 13th century Norwich cathedral priory manuscript, now BL Arundel 292. The manuscript is comprised of Latin, French, Anglo-Norman and Middle English texts, and contains bestiaries, prayers, sermons, romances, prophecies, riddles and alliterative poems. As such, Arundel 292 might be categorized as a miscellany, what Ralph Hanna argues in “Miscellenaity and Vernacularity: Conditions of Literary Production in Late Medieval England,” is a kind of bespoke production that “represent[s] defiantly individual impulses—appropriations of works for the use of particular persons in particular situations” (37). Because each text included in a miscellany reflects one person’s desire to inscribe and compile, there are no “customary generic markers;” instead one finds a rich admixture of hands, images, texts, styles, forms, languages, and histories (Hanna 37). I argue that the inclusion of “Blacksmiths” in this miscellany is congruent with the poem’s own odd relationship to sound. In its multimodal blending of the onomatopoetic and the lyric as well as its consideration of manual labor, the “Blacksmith’s Lament” can be understood as an instantiation of specifically masculine medieval identity.
Multimodality, Presentism and the Medieval Miscellany
The theoretical concept of multimodality is rooted in late 20th-century critique of semiotic systems. As the New London Group argued in “A Pedagogy of Multiliteracies: Designing Social Futures,” “effective citizenship and productive work” in the late 20th and early 21st centuries “now require that we interact effectively using multiple languages, multiple Englishes, and communication patterns that more frequently cross cultural, community and national boundaries” and that we the best way to do so is via methods that accommodate more than mere text (62-64). This engagement with the multiple modes of text, image, and video, among others, makes multimodality an ideal critical tool with which to analyze complex, hybrid compositions.
However, many theories of multimodality privilege a historical lens primarily afforded by 20th and 21st century literacy, dependent as it is on reading and looking (at screens or pages) as opposed to listening (to human voices). Indeed, Jeff Bezemer and Gunther Kress have observed in “Writing Multimodal Texts: A Social Semiotic Account of Designs for Learning” that because images predominate in 21st-century culture, textual “writing is now no longer the central mode of representation in learning materials” (166). In short, writing and images work in tandem to educate. Yet even though they note the different modes of text and image, Bezemer and Kress do not interrogate the fact that both depend on a single sensory ability: sight. Whether or not images have supplanted printed text in pedagogical documents, this assumption of the centrality of visuality as the singular mode of representation—in learning materials and elsewhere—is itself an historical phenomenon—as Walter Ong discusses in Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word—one dependent on the technology and dominance of print itself.
People do not depend only on seeing and reading text. They might also participate actively in “listening communities,” wherein one visually literate person reads aloud a text to a group who listens, ruminates over, and perhaps memorizes that text. Medieval “reading” is in fact an aural practice of recitation, memorization and listening as well as textual examination, a hybrid practice dating to the beginning of the medieval. Evidence of this hybrid practice can be found in the opening folio of Corpus Christi MS 61, which features Chaucer reciting Troilus and Criseyde to a royal audience. Studded with images and illuminations, musical notation and marginalia, medieval manuscripts often offer a complex multimodal relationship between graphics and written text, color and music, the visual and the aural.
Long before print or digital media, “reading” manuscripts required a sophisticated multimodal form of interpretation. Arundel 292 is minimally illuminated, but it too must be understood as a flexible, multimodal form composed for a mouth reading aloud the words on the folio page as well as a group of listeners receiving those words. It offers a heterogeneity that mixes languages, genres, images, hands and modes. Indeed, there is little about this miscellaneous manuscript that might be categorized as using exclusively what Kress defines as “formalized, monolingual, monocultural, and rule-governed forms of language,” given its multilingual, multicultural, multi-genre variety of language forms, none of which take precedence over any other.
Onomatopoeia and the Medieval Lyric
The dependence of poetry upon aural and oral performance complicates the relationship between writing, sound, the body, and the intentionality of “design,” or the deliberate visual arrangement of words, images, and ideas. Like other time-bound, performative aesthetic genres such as music, dance, or theater, poetry exists in the moment of its performance as much as it does on the fixed, static page and only peripherally occupies the written mode. Ancient poetry has been preserved by manuscript and print technology, but the roots of the genre include both oral recitation and memorization. Because it depends simultaneously upon the modes of reading, writing and recitation, both historically and into the present day, poetry might be considered quintessentially multimodal. This is particularly true for medieval poetry, given its use of sound-dependent effects such as alliteration, assonance, consonance, onomatopoeia, meter and rhyme.
Edmund Reiss has argued that “Blacksmiths” is the “earliest sustained onomatopoetic effort extant in English” in The Art of the Middle English Lyric: Essays in Criticism (167). But for an onomatopoetic poem that so carefully represents in language the sounds of men engaged in physical labor—from their “clateryng of knockes,” to the ringing exertion of iron on iron heard in “tik.tak.hic.hac.tiket.taket.tyk.tak/ lus.bus.lus.das” and the “stark strokes thei stryken on a stelyd stokke”—”Blacksmiths” is surprisingly unconcerned with its own visual appearance on the page. One turns the page in Arundel 292 and suddenly there is a neat chunk of prose with no other visual indication other than faint hashmark that one is looking at poetry. This is not unusual, for as Ardis Butterfield has recently observed in “Why Medieval Lyric?”, in many manuscripts containing lyric poetry or its traces, “there is no visual fanfare; nothing marks [the poetry] out” (322). Medieval scribes instead often use scripture continua—continuous script—to record the lyric, and “Blacksmiths” is no exception (Fig. 1). In short, “Blacksmiths” looks like prose, but sounds like poetry. Its insistent use of alliterative onomatopoeia, furthermore, suggests the poem might gain performative shape if addressed to both the mouth and the ear.
An aurally derived verbal pleasure, onomatopoeia exemplifies poetry’s general obsession with sound and performativity as it depends on the representational delight of hearing sounds that are the very things that they sound like. Onomatopoeia forces us into a strange ontological space in which a word is at once both signifier and sign. The bee buzzes, in other words; it has no other voice than the sound it creates, and we have no other way to describe that sound but to do so literally. This can produce the sounds of children’s babble as well as the more figurative pleasures found in “Blacksmiths.” The mimetic allure of using words that create the very sound of their own meaning is in many ways embedded in language itself. “Blacksmiths” calls our attention to sound, noise and listening, forcing further reflection upon the relationship between what is textually recorded and what is performed.
Blacksmithing and Masculine Poetic Labor
Salter argues persuasively in “A Complaint Against Blacksmiths” that the poem’s appearance in a priory cathedral manuscript suggests that the speaker’s resistance to blacksmithing may be the result of “older religious attitudes” about night labor and rioting (200). But given the fact that “Blacksmiths” is a poem concerned with labor likely written by a man about other men, I wonder if there is room as well for an additional consideration for the discourses of gender and labor that so consumed the late medieval period and how the poem interrogates these notions. While Salter resists categorizing the poem into any clear genre, noting that the poem is so realistic that it is frequently used as historical evidence [note], “Blacksmiths” draws attention to the lyric experiences and emotional expression of a presumably masculine first person speaker and in so doing might be categorized, as Robbins does, as a lyric.
Beyond a single, reflexive pronoun, “me,” we know nothing about the poet except the evidence of his poetic making—the poem itself. In the poem, there are two literary skills at work. There is narrative exposition and description and there is onomatopoetic mimicry. Both are dependent on verbal artistry and are held together by the tensile patternings of alliteration. Narratively speaking, the poem identifies the blacksmiths by what they look like and what they wield. They are “swarte, smekyd” and “smateryd with smoke,” swarthy dirty men who “spitten and spraulyn and spellyn many spelles,” and “gnauen and gnacchen thei gronys togedyr.” They are addressed pejoratively as “knauene,” and “cammede,” pug nosed knaves, who “blowen here bellewys that al here brayn brestes.” These alliterative lines represent the work of the forge as rhythmic, repetitive, harshly sibilant. Brains might get hyperbolically blown out in blowing the fires needed to produce metal goods, and dissonance is created by the groans and cries and tooth-gnashing of the workmen. The edge of the human blurs into the flame of the forge. Men use “hard” and “heavy hamerys” and “her schankes ben schakeled for the fere flunderys;” they work so long standing near the forge it seems that their ankles are shackled to the sparks. As those fiery images suggests, there is a nightmarish element to the poem. The speaker laments: “sweche dolful a dreme the deuyl it to dryue.” And he uses that infinitive “to dryue” when he begins the poem; the workmen might “dryue me to death with den of here dyntes.” The heavy repetition of the “d” in these lines mirrors the thudding of hammers on hot metal.
It is only in the second line of the text that the speaker identifies himself. He is “me,” an “I” making a poem and speaking to an implied addressee. And in his use of the first person, he might be understood as having engaged in what A.C. Spearing has called “self-pointing,” those moments in late medieval poetry where the poet identifies himself as a poet, in a meta-commentary on vernacular poetry and its performance. Obviously, the poet does not state his profession in this line. But the fact that he speaks in the first person is significant. His is the voice, and the descriptive rage, that drives the poem. Further, the alliterative matrix of the poem’s lines unmistakably reminds us that this is a poem, a work of art, a made thing. The repetition of alliteration is a bending of ordinary language into something clearly and pointedly artificial, a rhythmic joinery that is obviously not prose, and it requires a certain sonic attention. The speaker expresses his frustration in a pattern of sibilants, voiceless palatal consonants and voiced palatal g’s, as well as hard stops at dental and palatal phonemes. Indeed, the poem mimics the sounds of the smith’s labors, placing their calls and cries and bellows within the poem. The smiths “kongons cryen after col col,” and “huf puf seyth that on haf paf that other.” The poem is ostensibly about the speaker being awoken by the night labor of “Blacksmiths.” “Such noys on nyghtes ne herd men neuer,” he says, hyperbolically. In describing this never-before-experienced problem, the speaker creates a smithing cacophony so loud that it overwhelms his own voice.
The smiths are so loud, so noxious, and I would argue, so much more manly, that they threaten to hijack the poem itself. It is through this sleight of hand, wherein the labors of blacksmithing obscure the poet-cleric’s own small voice, that the speaker makes his implicit argument about masculinity, poetry, and labor. As Kellie Robertson has argued, late medieval writing is concerned with the common profit. Some forms of labor contribute to the common profit while others do not. For the most part, profitable labor is material; it produces actual goods that can be used and sold. And profitable medieval English labor is gendered as almost exclusively masculine, as only men can be masters and authorities. Only men are blacksmiths, and only men are priory scribes. Yet the practice of blacksmithing cannot be separated from materiality. The blacksmiths, however badly skilled the speaker may declaim they are, produce goods to be used for vital purposes. The newly-shod horse will pull the cultour through the fields; the sharp scythe will bring in the harvest; the knife will butcher animals. Moreover, the labor of the blacksmiths is productive even if it is done at night. It can be done as the work demands, all night long if necessary to finish the job. But the clerical poet cannot do scribal work at night without serious consequence. His labor—copying, scraping, blotting, correcting, reading, blotting— depends on daylight, silence, and decent sleep.
The clerical poet, like the speaker of “Blacksmiths,” is engaged in “immaterial labor,” to use Italian Marxist Maurizio Lazzarato’s term, which, as he explains in Radical Thought in Italy: A Potential Politics is “labor that produces the informational and cultural content of the commodity” (133). Clerical poetic labor is abstract, one of inscription, composition and performance. Within the material economy of the later middle ages, poetic labor produces nothing of concrete value. Making, inscribing and reciting poetry, in the words of Harry Bailly, “doost noght elles but despendest tyme” (VII.931). “Blacksmiths” thus asks: what does it mean to make poems—immaterial, multimodal, performative things that are not things at all—from within society where material production is consonant with masculine virility?
The sequestered clerical maker and scribe, scratching away in the silent priory, might have been furious over being disrupted by the athletic, kinesthetic activities of the blacksmiths. The poem might be read as a kind of homosocial lament about what men’s work is and what it means. To write is to not engage in more busily productive, material labor, and the anxiety around what writing is and what it does can also be seen throughout late medieval poetry. The workers make noise and heat deep into the night, producing metal goods. But the maker of the “Blacksmiths” offers a poem that represents the “Blacksmiths”’ loud labor and that also serves as evidence of his own “travaillous stillness,” in the words of Hoccleve (RoP l.1013). In doing so, he calls attention to his own skill as a maker of verse. His labor, however immaterial, can verbally represent noise and sweat and physicality. His prosopoeia is a contribution to the common profit, in that he can make you see and hear the blacksmiths long after their hammers have been laid away. And his hastily composed poem has outlasted even the best-made medieval horseshoe.
To conclude, I’d like to point out that it is no wonder that “Blacksmiths” is set in the dark, and that the speaker himself cannot see his tormentors but only hear them. Because it is out of this darkness that the speaker can name, and in doing so—as Daniel Tiffany observes in Infidel Poetics: Riddles, Nightlife and Substance (97)—call attention to his own aesthetic power. As Martin Heidegger has argued in Poetry, Language, Thought (73), naming is “the lighting of what is,” and I wonder if verbal naming is in itself a wonderful kind of literary power. To name is to point out to another, to claim, to damn. To point out, however obliquely, who you might be and how your work might be remembered.
Featured image “Succor” by Walter A. Aue @Flickr CC BY-NC-ND.
Katharine Jager is a poet and medieval scholar. She is associate professor of English at the University of Houston-Downtown, where she teaches medieval studies, creative writing, literature, and composition. Recent publications include essays on aesthetics in Chaucer’s Sir Thopas (Medieval Perspectives) and masculine speech acts in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (Medieval Feminist Forum, forthcoming); and poetry in such journals as Found Magazine, Friends Journal, The Gettysburg Review, Commonweal and the anthology on the religious lyric Before the Door of God (Yale University Press). She was for many years co-author with Jessica Barr of the Chaucer chapter for the Year’s Work in English Studies (Oxford), and is currently editing the interdisciplinary volume Vernacular Aesthetics in the Later Middle Ages: Politics, Performativity, and Reception from Literature to Music, to which she is also contributing an essay on lyric aesthetics, manuscript placement and the texts of 1381 (Palgrave’s New Middle Ages series, forthcoming).
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