Michael Davidson  

By ear, he sd': Audio-Tapes and Contemporary Criticism

“By ear, he sd.

But that which matters, that which insists, that which
will last
where shall you find it, my people, how, where shall
you listen…
(Charles Olson)

At the very moment when literary criticism attempts to displace the primacy of authorial presence once and for all, a new “oral impulse” in poetry situates the author in the forefront of its concerns. Where the idea of the text as a score for a prior verbal performance is being deconstructed, poetry readings and tape-recordings reestablish a ratio between graphic sign and voice. Trends in modern literary theory, from Wimsatt’s Verbal Icon to recent post-structural developments, have sought to remove the author’s voice, whether physiological or phenomenological, from the written text and replace it with a page of strategic evasions or differential functions. During this same era, however, a poetics of radical presence has emerged which is based around the poet’s immediate physical and emotional state during the act of composition. Charles Olson’s demand for language as the “act of the instant,” Robert Duncan’s emphasis on registering the physiological energies in the poem, the emergence of ethnopoetics and “sound” poetry, the growth of varying forms of confessionalism, and the continued significance of poetry readings challenge the authority of the detached literary artifact and force the critic of postmodern poetry to interrogate the oral and textual records equally. Where the New Critic made use of the rhetorician’s handbook in the pursuit of self-enclosed text, the postmodern critic has recourse to the tape recorder as a critical tool essential to understanding the poetry of open forms.

The new “oralism” in recent poetry is characterized by a number of factors: the gradual synthesis of poetry with the other arts under a general aesthetic of process and spontaneity; the importance of bardic and romantic poetic models to offset the previous generation’s interest in Elizabethan and seventeenth century meditational poetry, the valuation of activist and participatory political roles during the sixties; the desire for an emotive, expressive language in the face of highly codified cybernetic-media jargon; the drive towards freer and more communal modes of personal expression. To speak of an “oral impulse” in poetry is not only to invoke the researches of Parry and Lord but also to suggest a large cultural attitude, a “stance toward reality beyond the poem,” as Charles Olson insisted, in which a poem is an active participant rather than a mimetic record. If the tape-recorder has become an essential device for recording the sound of the poem, it also stands as a sign of those aesthetic and cultural changes mentioned above.

But what is discovered by means of the oral record? To what extent may the sounded poem be equated with text? Is the spoken poem any closer to the author’s intention than is the printed page? These questions are necessary to the discussion of audio-criticism since they raise fundamental issues of textuality and intention. No simple correspondence exists between acoustic event and poetic meaning; what any poet “has in mind” will hardly be solved by listening to a reading any more than by reading a page. The “text” is a more complex fact than this, and is made even more complex by the oral record. My purpose in this paper is to suggest how the dimensions of the text are changed by means of the sounded poem on tape and how the act of reading is thereby transformed to become an extension of the very poetics it pursues.

Before discussing specific critical uses of poetry on tape, it would be well to consider what form these tapes take and who makes them. In most cases, tapes are made of poetry readings held at schools, coffee houses, loft spaces and, in some cases, livingrooms, kitchens and back yards. They are seldom made on professional equipment, often recorded on cheap cassette players whose microphones are placed at varying proximities to the reader. In many cases tapes are dubbed over and over again, each recording diminishing the clarity of the original. Background noise, shuffling of papers, audience chatter and ambient sounds generally add to the texture of the tape, and since the poet often moves around during the reading, the quality of the voice may fade in and out. For the live audience, ambient noise can be assimilated, but for the tape listener, such distractions may turn the reading into an incoherent jumble of sounds.

Tapes are usually made by the sponsor of the reading, if there is one, and then stored in its files, but many reading are recorded by a student or a fan in the audience and are never seen again. Since records of such tapings are seldom kept, access to them is often difficult, and it is only through the purchase of a poet’s library that large files of tapes are unearthed. Tapes are seldom indexed or labeled, and when they are, the titles are often at variance with the actual contents. When a library obtains a collection of tapes, the main problem lies in simply identifying the contents and origins of a reading and in trying to isolate the technical aspects of the tape (tracks used, speed, acoustic quality, etc.). It is little wonder, given their variable sorts and conditions that tapes are regarded by librarians as “ephemera” and are treated accordingly.

For the poet, however, a personal collection of tapes is as important as books in the library. They reflect the range of poetic interests among his or her contemporaries and serve to test the vocalic properties of the newly composed poem. The poet who makes assiduous use of the tape recorder, both for research and composition, creates an archive of language experiences intimate to the growth and development of the text.

Such a poet was Paul Blackburn. He lived in New York during the fifties and sixties when poetry was enjoying a real renaissance through readings at coffee houses, lofts and bars. He brought his tape recorder to virtually every reading he attended (and he attended many) and could usually be found setting up chairs, adjusting the microphone and preparing an introduction for those readings which he organized. The series at Le Métro, Les Deux Magots, Dr. Generosity’s and St. Mark’s Church were all formed out of Blackburn’s generous enthusiasm, and his poetry show on WBAI radio brought the new writing out of the clubs and bars of the lower East Side and made it available to a wider audience. The tapes made of these readings constitute a virtual oral history of artistic activity during an exciting period in New York’s history, and some investigation of the contents of this collection will suggest a variety of scholarly and critical uses of the tapes in general.

To begin with, a collection such as Blackburn’s provides us with representative readings by his contemporaries as well as a record of life and contacts beyond poetry. His tapes were collected randomly over the years and so reflect his shifting attitudes and interests towards fellow poets. The absence of readings by certain members of the first generation New York School like Frank O’Hara and John Ashbery indicates that Manhattan, at least in Blackburn’s mind, was divided aesthetically if not demographically into an uptown and a downtown art ambiance. During the sixties, however, he began to record readings by the second generation of New York poets associated with St. Mark’s Church (Ted Berrigan, Anne Waldman, Bernadette Mayer) which indicates a gradual merging of O’Hara-based poetry and the lower East Side scene that Blackburn helped to create. The core of the collection resides in the readings by poets of Blackburn’s own generation, many of whom in retrospect bear little resemblance to his own style: David Antin, Jerome Rothenberg, Diane Wakoski, Jackson MacLow, Armand Schwerner, Robert Kelly, Clayton Eshleman and Carol Bergé. Recordings by these poets predominate, and it is here than one can begin to identify trajectories and sympathies which define a poetic movement.

In addition to his recordings of poetry readings around New York, Blackburn taped informal conversations among poets, radio interviews, street noises, broadcasted public events (the first Moon landing, news of Kennedy’s assassination), current jazz and rock music, medieval poetry read aloud and conversations among members of his family. Since he corresponded with European and Latin American writers he often used tapes as epistolary vehicles, and his collection includes several “taped letters” from various poets. He often turned on the tape recorder at times during the course of a day, recording himself typing, whistling, talking on the phone, opening the refrigerator door and lighting a cigarette. This kind of audio ephemera provides pleasant record of the rhythms of a poet’s daily life. The fact that the recorder was always near to hand indicates its importance for Blackburn as an extension of his writing and points to its relevance in creating a poetics of the “ear.”

I have used Paul Blackburn’s tapes as a representative example of the diverse audio resources at a critic’s disposal. The use of such materials may involve the study of textual variants, compositional organization, contextual and biographical history, prosody, performative and dramatic qualities of the poem. The pedagogical uses of tapes are extensive, providing the class in modern poetry with a kind of primary evidence which reinforces the page. Most of these methods are already inscribed within conventional scholarly-critical practice, but the general implications behind studying the audio dimensions of poetry are complex. What such study means for the larger scope of postmodern criticism as well as for the analysis of texts in general will be the subject of my concluding remarks.


The most obvious scholarly use of tape involves establishing the printed text by reference to earlier versions captured in readings[.] In many cases, the recording is the only record of such early versions, the manuscript having been discarded or lost. In a reading at Le Métro in 1964, for example, Paul Blackburn read his poem, “The Net of Moon” which records, as he says, the “Impact of these splendid / things / upon the appropriate sense…” How necessary, then, that the poem quickly register the sights and sounds of the harbor and of the Brooklyn Ferry which makes up the poem’s locale. The printed version in The Cities gives such a record:

Let me tell you, let me tell
you straight, strait and very narrow indeed, encloses

Lights white
or red mark the
bell buoy’s
clang against the dark bay
over it, over . it . The tail
of a Brooklyn ferry disappears behind
an anchored tanker…|1|

The earlier Le Métro reading, however, reveals a slightly different version. After the line, “and very narrow indeed, encloses,” Blackburn adds a generalized and somewhat nostalgic commentary:

The night encloses all but the bright moon
night does not close upon the bright

The extended “night-bright” rhyme, the generality of the symbolism, the truncation of the poem’s progress from “encloses” to the specific lights of the ferry all conspire to diminish the sensual immediacy reached in the final version. Similarly, in the early version, the light beginning “over it…” continues with a further qualification: “The year falls across the bright face of…” once again undercutting the force of transition from the “bell bouy’s / clang,” rendered physically by the repetition “over it,” to the lights of the disappearing ferry. Such slight changes indicate Blackburn’s attention to the phrasing and overall conception of the poem as it moved from early to later versions. Such examples could be found in any taped reading; the main point is that in many cases we lack any manuscript record of a poem’s growth except for that caught on a tape-recorder during a reading.

A poetry reading may also reveal early arrangements or groupings of poems which differ substantially from the printed text. Such tapes are especially useful in deciphering the “ur-structure” of long poems which grow gradually toward their eventual form rather than from a pre-established structure. The various readings by Charles Olson of his Maximus Poems during the years of its composition provide a useful index of the poet’s changing sense of design. Likewise, Robert Duncan’s reading of his Passages series as a single sequence during the Berkeley Poetry Conference in 1965 indicates that, at one point, he thought of them as one long numbered series rather than as a poem which could appear variously throughout his other work. Even a selection of poems which appears random at first reveals an inner structure of its own in the light of a recorded reading. Much could be learned from Pound’s groupings of the Cantos read on his various recordings, each of which appears to chronicle the growth of a single theme: myth and transformation, economics and state policy, personal vision. The poet often treats the reading as a culmination of certain ideas about the relationship between poems, a relationship which often disappears under the exigencies of publishing. In addition to discovering the state of the physical text, the critic may use the taped reading to discover its original order prior to publication.

Perhaps the most generally useful area for the literary historian is what might be called the “contextual” dimension of the tape. This includes all of those marginal comments and asides made between and, in some cases, within the reading of the poems. Here, the critic learns the details of composition, dates, places, associations mentioned, characters referred to—all manner of “extraneous” data which ultimately help locate the poem in a larger world of the poet’s concerns. In a number of cases, the marginal commentary is absolutely crucial to the poem’s background. Gary Snyder’s comments on the structure of Mountains and Rivers Without End which appear on his various readings are among the few comments which exist on the aesthetic and structural underpinnings of this series. Jack Spicer’s theories of poetic dictation are discussed at length on either side of a reading of “A Textbook Poetry” which he gave in Vancouver in 1965, constituting his only remarks on this subject extant. Robert Duncan’s running commentary between poems serves as virtual autobiography, punctuated by the poems generated by that narrative. Among certain poets, the commentary is almost synonymous with the reading itself. I think here of performances by Ted Berrigan, Robert Bly, Kenneth Rexroth and Philip Whalen in which poems and remarks change hands equally. Of course such commentary is often offensive to the purist who demands to hear only the poem itself—who comes to the reading with the same preconceptions about the “closed” quality of the poem as he brings to the page. For this reader the oral record will yield little more than a pleasant divertissement, likable enough but hardly relevant to the poem at hand. For the reader who is curious about the con-text as well as the text, interlinear commentary will be of great interest.

Tapes made of poetry discussion in classrooms, seminars and conference lectures provide an even more extended commentary on the state of the art. Since much of this discussion is spontaneous, it is seldom published. One might say that among the most crucial “texts” for contemporary poetics is a series of tapes made by Fred Wah during the Vancouver Poetry Conference in 1963. Participants included Charles Olson, Robert Duncan, Allen Ginsberg, Denise Levertov, Margaret Avison, Robert Creeley, Philip Whalen and others. A sample of topics for one day indicates the wide range of interests shared by the poets. On Monday, July 29th, the panel discussed Pythagoras, cultural change through literature, the term “histology” to replace “history,” the idea of Charles Olson as “Maximus” in The Maximus Poems, the nature of persona, the idea of polis in Greece and in the present, the state of commodity politics and the doctrine of correspondences. On other days, Allen Ginsberg and Robert Creeley discussed their personal approaches to composition, Robert Duncan discussed D.H. Lawrence and the idea of the “numinous,” Charles Olson discoursed on the uses of history, Denise Levertov talked about Hart Crane and William Carlos Williams, and the entire panel spent an hour talking about Louis Zukofsky and the Objectivists. Obviously such discussion yields a tremendous amount of vital information about the period inaugurated by the Donald Allen anthology. |2|

The significance of poetry conferences like those at Vancouver, Berkeley, Allendale, Michigan, Stony Brook, Kent State and elsewhere is that they bring together discussion, readings and lectures at a point prior to any developed poetic stance. Tapes from these conferences provide the essential prose for a period, showing at the same time the antagonisms and sympathies among diverse poets. What is learned from such occasions is not strictly limited to textual elucidation but to biographical and historical contexts as well.

Another important contextual advantage of tapes emerges when one considers those poets who use the recorder as a kind of oral “notebook” in which private meditations and poems are spoken directly (one thinks immediately of Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs who used the tape recorder extensively in that manner). The small portable cassette machine affords a quick method of jotting down reflections, dreams and spontaneous poems. Cid Corman speaks of transcribing directly onto a tape machine as a distinct genre which he calls the “oral poem.” |3| The importance of this method, he says, lies in the uniqueness of the event “with each listener as a partaker of the ‘con-versation.’ The words of the oral poem find their counterpoint and harmonic life only in the ears of the attentive listener, the listener who truly enters the act.” The use of the tape recorder to effect such immediacy is a concrete reflection of the “immanentist” |4| aspects of post war poetics which theorize the spontaneous, creative gesture over that recollected in the tranquillity. The poet of the New Critical generation saw the page as a sign of an essential difference between poet and poem; the poet since 1950 has attempted to break down this barrier by proposing ideas of spontaneous transcription, projective verse and oral performance.

All of this may be well for poets like Charles Olson or Allen Ginsberg who give to the line a particular vocal inflection, but what about a poet like John Ashbery whose flat, laconic delivery seems not to utilize the resources of the voice? Again the tape verifies what we read on the page. Ashbery submerges the acoustic event in a voice appropriate for the wry and often sardonic pattern of his musings. If we come to his reading with expectations of high theatrics, we have missed the evidence on the page. His readings are every bit as informative as those of more dramatic readers since they define the discursive, meditational background of his poetry. Readings by poets like W.S. Merwin, George Oppen, Denise Levertov, Adrienne Rich, Ted Enslin and John Ashbery involve carefully modulated rhythms and subtle phrasings appropriate to their work. The critic must not expect of such poetry a heightened, oracular presentation but must learn the poet’s particular inflection through the reading.

Originally I asked the questions “what kind of information is discovered on a tape.” The most apparent answer would include the textual and con-textual aspects of the poem, but when we consider the area of prosody, we find another serviceable use of the audio-tape. From the time of William Carlos Williams’ oblique remarks on the “variable foot” (and probably since Whitman), a major debate has raged over the nature of modern poetic measure. When Robert Bly sarcastically suggested that young poets could now obtain an official “Charles Olson breathometor” to measure their lines, he reflected a pervasive antagonism against a physiological determinism of the line—that it should “score” the literal breathing of the poet as he writes and thereby reflect his emotional state. Readings given by Olson, however, reveal that he by no means intends a one-to-one correspondence between breath and line. Instead, the printed line appears to indicate a general emotional thrust, one to which the written line refers but does not precisely score. The shape and configuration of lines on the page “map,” to use Olson’s favorite term for notation, the pervasion mood of the poem. Forced enjambment or elision, long period sentences and long lines point to the poet’s general excitement over the matter at hand; the short line tends to be reserved for a lyric or introspective tone. The “measure’ of the line (if one may still speak in such terms) varies with the changing shape of the poet’s attentions, the evolving pattern of transition and shifts of tone, the interplay of long and short syllables, the apprehension of dramatic possibilities—in short, with the total feel of the poem as it grows. Olson’s written line, assisted by the typewriter, is not directed towards a private meditation between reader and page but towards the public, verbal performance.

Perhaps the single most obvious signature of the Black Mountain styles is the forced enjambment or “operational juncture,” as Robert Creeley calls it, which breaks the flow of the sentence into shorter phrasal groupings, intensified by the sudden break at the end of a line and the short breath required to begin the next. Anyone who has heard Creeley read knows what an intense experience this enjambment can produce:

Listen to me, let
me touch you
there. |5|

The demand expressed in these lines is evident from the page, but by giving full value to the break at the line’s end, the demand is all the more intensified. The complex spacing and notation of such poetry is part of a total design which includes the voice pacing and counting spaces as though they were “sounded” elements as well. If a double space intervenes between one line of Duncan’s “Passages” and another, it is to be respected by a pause lasting about as long as the previous line, thereby isolating and focusing the upcoming line. Duncan’s or Creeley’s use of such spacing can only be realized in full by hearing them read or by following the taped reading with text in hand.

So far I have been referring to more self-consciously “open” prosodies because it is here that the taped reading may provide a valuable adjunct to the page. The poet of open forms tends to work with a sense of multiple events occurring at the same time, events which at first glance appear disorderly but which in the poetry reading begins to form a pattern. “Metrics as it is still incoherent,” Robert Duncan remarks, “depends upon accent” by which he means stress rather than variable durations among syllables:

For the inexpert there must be reference to a ‘ruler’ in time. Hence the convention. Metrics, as it coheres, is actual—the sense of language in terms of weights and durations (by which we cohere in moving). This is a dance in whose measured steps time emerges, as space emerges from the dance of the body. The ear is intimate to the muscular equilibrium. The line endures. It ‘feels’ right. |6|

The prosody of such an attitude toward poetic form is only now being written. Since the model for this “generational” or “projectivist” [use] of measure relies on sounded relationships between elements, the prosodist must make use of the poet’s reading, if only to hear the general pattern of phrasing and vocal contours. Duncan’s remarks indicate that the poet, like the dancer whose motions are based in “muscular equilibrium,” listens carefully to what the poem proposes in the way of sounded elements and establishes his measure on this he does not suit his language to a prior beat.

Hearing a poet’s rendering of a poem helps explain more than his or her attitude towards the purely phonic qualities of language; it exposes levels of inflection and tone which may lie hidden on the page. Dramatic and performative elements come to the surface through the reading in ways which strongly affect the poem’s meaning. A poet like T.S. Eliot whose professed distance from a subjective center is one of the codes by which we read his verse, reveals an [aire of ] cultural and personal malaise through his readings on record. What we learn form his oral delivery is not how successfully his work detaches itself from a particular consciousness but rather how totally specific that mask is to Eliot’s condition. The tape or record’s ability to capture dramatic inflection or tone is one more dimension of the record’s usefulness.

Among contemporary poets, the subtle gradations of phrasing often make the difference between a two-dimensional narration and an active interchange of voices. Witness, for example, Edward Dorn’s readings of his long western epic, Slinger, where voices take on distinctive personalities. Lil’s down-to-earth debunkings, “I’s” repeated interrogations, the Slinger’s arch wit, the Horse’s laconic asides all move the flat “tapestry,” as Dorn calls his narrative, into a field of individualized voices. Dorn does not present a dramatic recitation when he reads; he simply brings out personalities enough to separate and identify them. The reader who wants a more polished dramatic version of Slinger learns, from Dorn’s performance, how all of the voices are sustained within a single consciousness. Dorn’s skill at maintaining a balance between theater and two-dimensional masque reinforces the larger theme of meditation which forms the center of the poem.

We come, through this brief characterization of tone, to the area of total performance by which the dramatic-acoustic elements of the poem become the central meaning. From Helen Adam’s ballads to Jackson MacLow’s “vocabularies” and “gathas” to David Antin’s “talk” pieces, the role of performance is central to any consideration of contemporary poetry. No longer is the issue one of a good or bad rendering of the poem; the performance replaces the text, whether or not it is subsequently transcribed from tape. When the tape-recorder becomes the primary agent of transcription as it does in David Antin’s recent “talk” pieces, the conventional relationships between page and voice are inverted. Antin talks spontaneously around a pre-established topic (and he is no mean talker) and then transcribes the attendant tape for the page. Much of the interest in these talk pieces is generated by the possibilities of randomness which occur along with the problematic relationship established between performer and audience. In order to understand such experimental work in its fullest context, attendance at the performance or at least a hearing of the tape is mandatory.

With a poet like Jackson MacLow, the page-bound critic will feel entirely at a loss. There is hardly at text at all. MacLow’s work invariably consists of a grid of words or sounds which generate a variety of … or chance happenings. The page serves as an approximate score for verbal events which may arise from any number of performances in a multitude of ways. The tradition out of which such a work arises is not new by any means but is an extension of an international avant garde movement beginning with the Dadaist events with Kurt Schwitters and Tristan Tzara and continuing with more recent “sound poetry” performances by Bernard Heidsieck, Ernst Jandi, Henri Chopin, Bob Cobbings and bp Nichol. In such work, the boundaries separating plastic, dramatic and musical arts break down into a single performance activity which makes use not only of the audio-tape but the videotape as well. It would be safe to say that such operational art represents the final break with a page-oriented aesthetic. The privileged arena of the book and the authority of the discrete closed poem are replaced by notes on performance while the text, as such, exists as sheer potential.


The range of these developments indicates a profoundly important status accorded to the audio dimension of the poem. The role of performance and oral delivery is not secondary to the poetics of postmodern poetry but has become one of its constituting agents. The poetics of “immanence” and participation which distinguishes such varied groups as the Confessionalists, the Beats, the New York and Black Mountain Schools, depends on the testamentary role of the poet for whom poetic utterance and value are one in the same. Williams’ great optimistic assertion from the “Desert Music,” “I AM a poet! / I / am. I am a poet, I reaffirmed, ashamed…” points to the romantic hubris at stake in the creative act—one which distinguishes his work from that of earlier modernists. The mediation of poetry by rhetorical models, objective correlatives, masks, ironies and complex mythic patterns is challenged by a new ethic of presentation. The growth of poetry readings, happenings and performances parallel the demand for engagement signaled by Olson’s “Projective Verse,” Jack Kerouac’s “Essentials of Spontaneous Prose,” Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl,” Frank O’Hara’s “Personism,” Robert Kelly’s “Deep Image,” and the Objectivist’s criterion of “Sincerity.” The hieratic and hierarchical Logos becomes, in Jack Spicer’s pun, the “low ghost.”

The tape-recording which runs almost continually since the mid-fifties would seem, on the surface, to liberate the poem from the page and the poet from his or her private meditation. Such a gesture towards a more public, communal style, while essential to the poetics of the period, is still an inadequate characterization of both “page” and “meditation.” The shifting of critical attention from the autonomous poem back to the author still leaves the question of the rest open. As I indicated earlier, the spoken poem, however instructive, is not the author’s intention nor does it bring us any closer to what some critics have termed the “ontology” of the literary work. It would appear that the tape recording will only serve certain types of historical, textual and prosodic analysis which have been developed over the years to account for the work of Marvell, Dickinson or Auden. To what extent does the use of the tape recorded poem change the nature of critical methodology and how broadly applicable is audio-criticism to the widest range of contemporary poetry?

My first question here applies to the debate over the nature of the literary text: does it reside primarily with the author, with the reader or with the printed page? Is any text capable of a unitary, paraphrasable content? Is the critical act mired in a circle of relationships between manifest and latent content, and if so, isn’t the infinite regression of interpretations itself the sign of a kind of critical blindness? The tape does not answer these questions, but merely adds another variable: that of the author’s voice. For the first time since literary criticism has been an established humanistic discipline, the critic is in possession of the poet's “actual” voice—not for one recitation of saga or ballad but for limitless repetitions. This means that the physical text is no longer the absolute authority in matters of textual elucidation. It means that the text may be set aside and the ear aimed towards words as they are formed by the poet’s mouth and vocal chords and as they are shaped by a particular verbal intention. This may seem so totally obvious as not to merit consideration, but it is a fact that criticism, in its pursuit of an independent or originary meaning, has lost much of its ability to hear. Since the poet “hears” as much as “thinks” (or to phrase it more accurately, since he hears his thinking), this sounded dimension is a source, rather than a reflection of poetic meaning. By listening over and over again to a readings, the listener begins to hear what the page can never render: the emphasis and character of the line, the pausing and halting of a voice among caesurae, the pattern of vowel music, the tone of delivery—and of course those points where the ear has failed and the line has gone flat. The ear hears the general trajectory of words, the large movements of syntactic play, the rhythms, which remain as much the meaning of the poem as does its semantic content. It is finally this rule of the ear that challenges the search for a poem’s dissociable content, its strategies of representation, its structural parallels, and oppositions. If the poetics of the “New American Poetry,” to borrow the title of a significant anthology, offers a challenge to positivist, new critical models, it is largely through the emphasis of form as a dimension of the ear and, by extension, meaning as “felt” intuition.

Another challenge offered to the page-oriented criticism lies to the area of performance and sound poetry. Since the page no longer constitutes the source of the text, criticism must witness a performance. Where literary study once relied upon a stable, unified text, it now depends on a variable activity suspended somewhere between notation (the instruction for performance) and documentation (the record of the event). In such a case, art becomes a hermeneutic activity itself as it interprets a set of operations. Its act, rather than constituting a meaning, simply exposes the possibilities for meaning. Coleridge called the organic conception of form, “form as proceeding,” but he could hardly have imagined the extremes to which his term would be carried.

In a similar vein, the increased importance of what Jerome Rothenberg has called “Ethnopoetics” depends almost entirely upon the performative elements of poetry. Ethnopoetry involves the study of tribal, non-literate and largely oral poetries as well as current avant garde activities which stress performance and ritual. It is aided, ironically, by the very technology it hopes to avoid; tape recorder, video camera and typewriter bring the “primitive” cultural event into a ratio with the present in an attempt to annul the distinction. Anne Waldman’s “Fast-Speaking Woman,” |7| to take a recent example is based on a Folkways record of Maria Sabina, the Mazateck Shamaness, who composes her long incantation spontaneously while in a hypnotic-psychedelic state. Waldman’s poem, while based on certain conventional formulae, could not have obtained its present form without having heard Maria Sabinas’ particular voice (or at least having read the transcript made from that voice) from a remote jungle village near Oaxaca. One would point a well to the importance of the oral “Kaddish” behind Allen Ginsberg’s great prayer for the death of his mother, a distinctly oral performance which the poet imitates in his own terms. Or consider Jerome Rothenberg’s “Horse Songs for Frank Mitchell” –Navajo curative or blessing songs heard by the poet on tapes and translated into English equivalents which match the complex phonemic play of the original. Rothenberg’s remarks on these poems states that he was attempting to incorporate an entire cultural attitude toward voice: “As far as I could I also wanted to avoid ‘writing’ the poem in English, since this seemed irrelevant to a poetry that reached a high development outside of any written system.” |8|

The field of ethnopoetics represents a synthesis of the social sciences and literature, utilizing the methods of one and the aesthetics of the other, to break down a hegemony of modern, western, capitalist literature and offer a pluralist, oral, communalist basis as alternative. It hopes to re-introduce values which, as Gary Snyder asserts, “…are just as old as the Neolithic.” |9| If such assertions are questionable in the specific, in general they offer a revision of what constitutes the nature of “literary” study. If the “text” is expanded to include chant, the oral performance, the spontaneously improvised narration and the shamanistic trance meditation, attitudes about modern literary materials will have to change. Once again, the tape-recorder is an agent as well as a sign of this shift in emphasis.

In these concluding remarks I have said little about the more conventional poetic text, formed out of regularized lines, meters, and stanzaic groupings. Its criticism will remain largely dependent on the ideal of an auto-telic text, and the taped reading will offer little more of a dramatic recitation. The real significance of the tape archive arises in consideration of avant garde prosodies and experimental forms for which the relation of graphic text and vocal delivery is more problematic. I would still assert, however, that the use of audio materials in studying the avant garde will produce new critical methods and attitudes useful for studying the broadest context of literature.


In keeping with the subject of this paper, I have availed myself of audio-tapes for most of my sources, principally those in the Paul Blackburn Archive located at the Archive for New Poetry at the University of California, San Diego. Unless indicated otherwise, all references derive from this collection or from my own personal tape collection.


1. Paul Blackburn, The Cities (N.Y.: Grove Press, 1967), p. 155-6.

2.  Donald M. Allen, ed., The New American Poetry (N.Y.: Grove Press, 1960).

3. Cid Corman, Word for Word: Essays on the Arts of Language (Santa Barbara: Black Sparrow Press, 1977), Vol. I, p. 93.

4. See Charles Altieri, “From Symbolist Thought to Immanence: The Ground of Postmodern American Poetics,” Boudary 2 1:3 (Spring, 1973), 605-641.

5. Robert Creeley, Pieces (N.Y. Scribner’s, 1969), p. 13.

6. Robert Duncan, “Notes on Poetics Regarding Olson’s Maximus” in The Poetics of American Poetry, ed. Donald Allen and Warren Tallman (N.Y.: Grove Press, 1973), p. 190.

7. Anne Waldman, Fast Speaking Woman (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1975).

8. Jerome Rothenberg, Poems for the Games of Silence (N.Y.: New Directions, 1971), p. 159.

9. A remark made at the Berkeley Poetry Conference during Snyder’s lecture, “The Poet and the Primitive,” later condensed and revised as “Poetry and the Primitive,” in Earth House (N.Y.: New Directions, 1969), pp. 117-130.



Original Publication: Davidson, Michael. "'By ear, he sd': Audio-Tapes and Contemporary Criticism." Credences 1.1: (1981): 105-120. Reprinted by permission.

A poet and critic, Michael Davison is the author of five volumes of poetry.  His critical work includes The San Francisco Renaissance: Poetics and Community at Mid-Century and Ghostlier Demarcations: Modern Poetry and the Material Word, a 1997 volume that reconsiders and deepens the concerns of this early article.  Recent work focuses on issues such as gender, the body, and the voice in deaf poetry.  Davidson is Professor of American Literature at UCSD, which is also home to the Archive for New Poetry.