Sound Poetry

*Steve McCaffery and bp Nichol,
First West Coast International Sound Poetry Festival, San Francisco, 1977

Sound poetry has probably always been with us in one form or another: as oral tradition in preliterate and non-western cultures, words of power like the Tetragrammaton and the Logos, glossolalia of fanatics and schizophrenics, the baby talk that is lost through the phonetic limits of learned language skills, voices used for advertisements and cartoons, to cite a few of the more obvious examples. In sound poetry the conventional hierarchy between sound sense and semantic sense is modulated and often reversed. The semantic sense does not necessarily have to be completely neglected but it assumes a more democratic role with the addition of any element that can be vocalized. Sten Hanson has described sound poetry as a combination of the exactness of literature and the time manipulation of music.

As the result of a direction inward since the 16th century with the decline of manuscript culture and the rise of personal literacy, a study of language was the way to know God, his universe, the societies of man, and then the human soul itself. In the 19th century, a romantic view that the universe was a language became popular. Everything represented a collection of signs and symbols, which man could eventually interpret and understand if they worked hard enough at it. In the 20th century, a rebellion against the tyranny of print culture and its reduction of all expression to that which can be notated, occurred. Sound poetry is part of that rebellion. This is not to say that sound poetry, exists without visual notation (see concrete poetry), but if such a graphic cueing system does exist, it is often highly individualistic, and can stand by itself as a visual object. For sound poets, like most other post cognitive artists of the 20th century, the work becomes the thing in itself, not an interpretation to be abstracted into something else.

Work in this century which has been identified with sound poetry, has its beginnings in the onomatopoetic parole in liberta of the Italian Futurists. Though not strictly sound poetry, much of their activities presaged the development of the phonetic poem, and the activities of Russian Futurism and Dada. Language was not truly atomized however, until the introduction of electro-acoustic methods. This development provided both the means and a new way to hear the voice which could then be mimicked by non-electronic means.


Last Modified 21 January 1998