Monday, July 1, 2013
Sound Poetry and Edith Sitwell’s Façade
Poetry may appeal primarily through description, wit, theme, or melody. Music is a characteristic of all poetry, though its tune may be harsh or pretty or even assertively absent. Ordinarily the sound adds the pleasure of beauty while refining and reinforcing the poem’s sense. Some poems, however, use little sound-value, while for others sound is prominent.
Pure sound poetry – Klangdichtung or bruitisme – has itself a considerable history. Much oral poetry in the indigenous cultures of the American Plains and the Australian outback consists of nonverbal sounds, often repeated over a period of time. Magic spells and religious formulae such as mantras exploit the same mysterious power. Orwell notes (in “Nonsense Poetry”) the appeal of lines in folksong even after their original sense has decayed to meaninglessness. Sound is sovereign in forms as varied as scat singing and speaking in tongues. At certain moments the characters in Greek tragedy explode with wild shrieks, while in Aristophanes strange collocations of sounds (such as the utterances of the chorus of frogs) amuse. The humorous value of semi-articulate utterance is obvious in poems by Christian Morgenstern, Lewis Carroll, Edward Lear, and Hilaire Belloc.
As an avant-garde technique, sound poetry was championed by the Dadaists and Futurists, developed in various directions by later practitioners such as Henri Chopin, Bob Cobbing, and Michael McClure. When performed, such works can savor of spectacle and cast an incantatory power often lost on the page. But what can one identify as a classic of pure sound? Hugo Ball’s “Gadji beri bimba,” which was given a concert setting by Theodore Antoniou and later recorded by the Talking Heads’ David Byrne over an African beat, might be a candidate. It has, at any rate, little competition.
Many readers, though, would champion specific works of what might be called nonsense poetry or amphigouri , in which sound is the privileged element, and conventional syntax camouflages indeterminate, absurd, or rapidly shifting meaning. “Jabberwocky” would be way out front in a poll, I am certain, but my own money would be on the brilliant and delightful sequence Edith Sitwell called Façade. Though critics have sought systematic meaning and personal references in the poems, they strike me as abstract compositions aimed at producing enchanting patterns of sound while also sketching out, with great precision a series of tones or moods. In this the “entertainment,” as Sitwell termed it, resembles, to take a more modern and popular instance, the Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in which the sequence of songs outlines not a narrative sequence but a catalogue of discrete emotional colors, arranged in a becoming succession. Either work is like an evening of elegant cabaret songs.
Though some of the poems were first published in her journal Wheels, the initial public performance in 1923 in which the performers, though on stage, were behind a curtain, and Dame Sitwell spoke through a Sengerphone, a large papier-mache megaphone, was of sufficient novelty to inspire hostile, if hasty, reviews. The author later described the general impression she made as “anything but peaceful. Never, I should think, was a larger and more imposing shower of brickbats hurled at any new work.” Noel Coward was said to stalked out, later writing a sketch called “The Swiss Family Whittlebot” satirizing the Sitwells. But such was the work’s appeal to unprejudiced ears that even the premiere attracted a good deal of appreciative comment. According to the London Illustrated News, the show “soon induced the audience to listen with breathless attention.”
Façade was first recorded in 1929, but the 1954 recording with Dame Edith herself performing with Peter Pears while Anthony Collins directs the English Opera Group Ensemble is the one to hear. (The work is also available in a version by Pamela Hunter. Kiri te Kanawa recorded three of the lyrics.)
These poems seem to me quite perfect. In each the satisfying music of the words is foregrounded, while sense hovers chimerically rather than being wholly absent. The texts are readily available, but I reprint one below for readers who do not know this singular work.
To the drum
Out of Babylon;
Foam, the dumb
Watched the courses of the breakers' rocking-horses and with Glaucis,
Lady Venus on the settee of the horsehair sea!
Where Lord Tennyson in laurels wrote a gloria free,
In a borealic iceberg came Victoria; she
Knew Prince Albert's tall memorial took the colours of the floreal
And the borealic iceberg; floating on they see
New-arisen Madam Venus for whose sake from far
Came the fat zebra'd emperor from Zanzibar
Where like golden bouquets lay far Asia, Africa, Cathay,
All laid before that shady lady by the fibroid Shah.
Captain Fracasse stout as any water-butt came, stood
With Sir Bacchus both a-drinking the black tarr'd grapes' blood
Plucked among the tartan leafage
By the furry wind whose grief age
Could not wither - like a squirrel with a gold star-nut.
Queen Victoria sitting shocked upon a rocking horse
Of a wave said to the Laureate, "This minx of course
Is as sharp as any lynx and blacker-deeper than the drinks and quite as
Hot as any Hottentot, without remorse!
For the minx,"
"And the drinks,
You can see
Are hot as any hottentot and not the goods for me!"