Article 1. POETRY WITH SOUND
Dearest reader. If your love of poetry is restricted to the formal, the purely traditional poem as it appears on a page in type, then what I am trying to explain may not appeal to you. Please accept my apologies in advance. My own particular love of poetry leans towards words that have been activated, spoken, performed, intoned, given a life separate from the page. I like the physical sound. Much of my poetry has been conceived with the object of it’s existence without a printed version, the writing merely being a step in a process. That is not to say I don’t have a great love of written poetry, I do, but for this article I want to focus on my other love, the sound of poetry, the sound of feeling, emotional connection through sound alone. I must say though, in my sometimes evangelical promotion of aural tradition, I have discovered that most people like to see a poem and because of that I have found myself typing up the rough drafts and notes that had served as a step in the process of recording into a printed version of the poem. Conceptually though, I do mostly write for the ear. http://neilwilliamholland.bandcamp.com/album/alternate-words
What I find interesting about sound, in the absence of the printed word (as on a page visually) , is that it can bring another dimension to the spoken, the uttered, word. I honestly think it’s a sadness to restrict the concept of poetry to that of print on a page. Yes, it is language, and yes, we decode it into patterns, rhythms and images, but on the page we have this incredible ability, this convenience, to skip back and forth over words, phrases, lines and stanzas. We can look at the code of a written poem and linger until we derive something from it. This ability to visually linger makes the written poem unique, we can do things mentally with written words on a page because the relationship between the mind, the eye and the subconscious facilitates so much interaction. The poem is there continually before us, it is not elusive. A sound-only poem is very different.
The way a poem is laid out visually in print helps to create expectations, sonnets look like sonnets, couplets look like couplets, a haiku looks like a haiku, and these forms help to point the mind to formal pathways. But it can also become a crutch, and if it is taken away, and if we can only listen to a poem, without seeing it, then much of what we perceive about poetry can just fall over. It is interesting to listen to recitals of poems without seeing the typed word. Under these circumstances the layout, the enjambments, the line breaks, the visual cues count for nothing. What matters is what is being said, the true creative essence of the poem.
I am fundamentally of the viewpoint that what matters in a poem, above all else, is what is said. It is what you hear that is the basic root of poetry, even if that is only in the mind. The full release of poetry may be better experienced physically through the ear. The written word seen as a typeface only, cannot contain all the nuances of physical sound, the intonations, the slowing down of passages, the speeding up of phrases, the stressed beat of one syllable within a line, to give emphasis, the aural context, silence even. Many writers on poetry have declared that poetry is best heard. One may then, further speculate on what makes aural poetry work? Is writing specifically for the ear different than writing for the page? Is the delivery different?
With pure audio poetry, including audio with added sound, I believe the listener should be kept rolling in the bow wave of it. As if the listener is caught in an undertow that keeps them in the current. It’s one of the reasons that I try to make sure the language is simple, even if the image or isn’t. The image can act like the images in a zoetrope which the listener can see clearly and process for themselves with ease. It doesn’t mean that they will particularly enjoy it, personal taste is complex, but it must be a clear experience. Conversely, the images may not flow, but may act as different strokes of the brush, forming imagery that adds to a collage effect which stimulates a reader, signposts them to their own places, rather than flows in a linear way delivering a predetermined and precise meaning..
I tend to think that this process of sound linked with or without words creates atmosphere in a multi dimensional way. Instrumental music is exactly like that. It is almost impossible not to form images when listening to music, especially classical music. There is nothing to misunderstand in music, there are no words.
It doesn’t end with music, sound itself is generally a dimension we live within. Spoken words occur in an environment and the environment colours the words. Such additional colour can be ocean waves, or simply the echo in a cathedral. If someone declares their love for you against a backdrop of surf crashing onto the beach, it is certain that the two will work together in memory, the place and the words. If those words were said in the cathedral, then the unique echo of the cathedral would no doubt link by an umbilical chord in the mind with the memory of the words.
If I put my words onto a canvas of sound, then the memory of the words and sound is going to become inseparable, especially if all you can ever do is hear the two together. I see it as painting with sound, in colour as opposed to monochrome perhaps. I want to create an experience and I choose sound for no better reason than an artists chooses oils or pastels or water colours. It’s simply another medium that I like.
Sound communicates in its own right, it does not need language, in the conventional sense of written English. Take the sound of a lone curlew at dusk, that haunting call rolling out across the moor. Not a printed word in sight, but what imagery, what feelings evoked, what poetry! Does poetry have to have an overt meaning always delivered through the written word? I believe that the poetic experience exists in many ways. I wonder if there is a higher language of life, and that the written form of poetry is just one particular way of moving towards the experience we call the poetic experience, but which no-one can define completely. I believe the same experience can be felt, without recourse to reading. An owl-call on a still night, or the flap of a sail on a boat, examples of imagery and a form of communication, or communing. Poetic? I submit that they are, especially if one‘s mind is in tune and resonance with a sensitivity to meaning in all its guises.
The reading of the spoken word alone, the reading of poetry without accompanying sound, I may try to explain as black and white photography compared to colour. Black and white photography has a tonality that is exposed to the skill of the photographer, a tight focus, a purity of interpretation much closer to that of the printed page. Wonderful in its own right. I adore written poetry, and I adore black and white photography. Yet there are even more opportunities to impart the poetic feeling I believe than through this restricted palette . Life exists in glorious environments that add colour to our experiences.
For example. In a narrow Scottish loch I visited, in the absolute wind-free stillness of the early morning my voice came back to me off the opposite shore and mountain. I was drawn to the qualities of the sound. The mountain loch coloured my words, added its own personality, gave it nature’s natural reverb, its own organic resonance and added depth. How I would love to read a poem aloud in that place and in those circumstances, and record it! What price that combination of some suitable words read back to you by mother nature herself! It is this additional dimension of sound that I am attracted to. It isn’t available on the printed page.
The attraction could be one sound, or many, or music, or sound that has been modified, created and tuned in exactly the way I feel compliments the spoken word in a creative way.
I believe that it is another form of expressive poetry. Not better, but different, and of value, and capable of creating an experience that is different, but an experience nonetheless. The latter is what is important. Experiences that can be coloured by many more nuances available through the ear, as opposed to just the eye alone.
I recently purchased an album of recordings using a solo instrument, the Didgeridoo. On one particular track I could feel the internal structure of my body vibrating to the resonance of the sound. I was in my car with it playing quite loud and I could feel my ribcage vibrating to the rhythmic drone of it. Incredible! This is significant to me in terms of the physical sensations of communication. Music is known to affect brainwaves in a physical sense. I have been searching for a Tibetan singing bowl now for about four years, but it must be one where I feel an empathetic response to the sound, the harmonics. I have sounded a great many but have yet to realise the moment when I know that I have the right one. I do not even know what key it will be in, but I will know, just as in the same way I found a place beneath a tree on a Welsh river, the River Dovey, at a certain low water level when it runs across the rocks and makes a particular sound. That spot is where I commune with sound and sights in a way that is extremely special to me. This also happens to me in a place on the edge of a conifer forest too, where the wind sometimes sounds in a special way as it passes through a small group of large deciduous trees that punctuate the pine forest. I seem sensitive to that particular sound and it is the source and motivation for writing my poem Anam Cara.
I guess I’m trying to say it makes perfect sense to me, that I should want to combine the language in which I communicate, with sound. I really do hope to consider myself to be a communicator, and that is all I aspire towards, the conveyance of a feeling to a fellow sensitive human being. I want so much to communicate, that I create and record what I want to share, and I call this strange process to which I feel driven, poetry.
I lean at times towards semiotics, the language of signs, and to the semantic connections of words. I know that I do not necessarily frame my communication in organised language as we know it, but rather I frame it as I feel it.
I think if I was a painter, I would be described as a naïve artist. All that I want is to convey something of what I have experienced or envisioned, to someone who also may be receptive to it.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this sharing of thoughts. Take a line from one of your poems, read it aloud, explore it, and invite yourself to yet another dimension of your poetry.
Since writing this article I found my Singing Bowl and you may hear it at
The Fastest Poems Ever Written
Well, the fastest poems ever written by me to be precise. I hope you don’t mind the headline grabbing title. Have you ever revised a poem to death, lost the very thing that sparked it in the first place? It’s a common enough occurrence for poets I believe. Even more common if you are revising to keep other people happy, such as workshops and the like.
Most people revise, it’s how you hopefully morph your initial spark into something that might be vaguely acceptable as a poem of merit, or at least a semblance of a poem.
Like all writers, I jot ideas down. I’ve even been known to do it in the middle of the night, jumping out of bed to get that sudden line down. What happens though if you don’t revise, if you want to keep the initial explosive event that boomed from your pen instead of refining and processing it to the point of wetting the powder? Can the original thought ever be more powerful than the edited one?
I suppose it is subjective. As with painters, sometimes that fresh spontaneous stroke of the brush can be preferable to the pedantic sure footed but lifeless colouring-in of a piece. There is a certain appeal to be had from quick sketches as much as there is from a photorealistic painting. Can it ever be the same with writing?
On Saturday 3rd October 2015 I found myself at the Lowry and Arthur Berry exhibition at the Potteries Museum in Hanley, Stoke on Trent, U.K. I was there to take part in a ‘Writing Is Seeing’ workshop run by Paul Haughton, Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing at Staffordshire University. Part of the workshop brief was to walk around the exhibition of the two artists and note things that may form the basis of future writing and later workshop discussion.
What followed for me was a rather strange experience. Perhaps I misunderstood the brief, who knows, but the very first note I made at the Lowry exhibition was in response to the figures in his paintings. They immediately made an impression on me that they looked like musical notes. So I jotted that down “Quavers and semitones.”
This impacted upon me, not as a note (pun not intended), but as a line, the first line of a poem perhaps, and I carried on in this way, preserving immediacy and freshness, going with the sheer rawness of it all. In a way it was liberating, unconstrained and instinctive. I found myself writing poetry without thinking, just getting onto the page my immediate impression, my immediate resonance, my reaction. The thought process, at least the conscious processing of thought wasn’t engaged. It was more like word association or the inkblot exercise.
My intention was to work these initial responses into a poem, but the longer I have lived with them the more reluctant I become to alter them. I believe I was subconsciously writing poetry, but instinctively. By altering the original words, developing them through replacement and rearrangement, they will surely cease to be my responses at the time of writing and become instead something far more considered and deliberately articulated, a poem. One that will more likely become a consideration, and I use the word carefully, of the two artists’’ work, not the immediate experience of an instant response that the artists’ elicited from me.
You may say that this process of refining is perfectly normal and is a logical workflow but the question I ask is do we sometimes lose spontaneity and freshness when we overwork and over-consider our original spark? Is it sometimes, maybe only sometimes, better to let the warts and all version go into the world or should we always try to make sure we produce the very best written piece? Such a piece, a poem, may though, be one that has lost its spark. I suppose editors and proof readers and some poets may be tearing their hair out reading this, but I think that reaction may be more relevant to prose writing than poetry. I think poetry is closer to painting in a way. It has more room for artistic interpretation and risk.
Here we are then. I offer my original pieces, my poems word for word. All I have done is given line breaks and space. Not a single word has been edited and if they do have any value, it may just be a novelty one, as the fastest poems I have ever written, but there is something telling me to leave them alone. They have something I might lose. Perhaps looking at photography as opposed to painting is a useful analogy. Where would we be if all portraits of people were just studio portraits? What value can be placed on the humble snapshot?
Against this more forgiving approach to writing might be the argument that it is unacceptable to the traditional academic poetry authority. You know, a good piece of writing is a good piece of writing and a poor piece of writing is just that. Or is it? For example, the writing of an autistic child may be academically poor, but just how more valuable may it be in poetic terms? (My own grandson Sam is autistic, but I would like to thing he can see the world in his own scrutinising way, a way unique to him. He may just simply need help in transcribing that into what we know to be poetry.)
Should we look deeper and wider when considering the heart of poetry? Is polish the only validity.
My tour of both exhibitions was quick, very quick, my impressions formed were immediate and written immediately and of the group I was the first one back to the room, which I didn’t deliberately set out to do, it just happened that way. I remember reacting to the content of paintings, thoughts stimulated by other non-painting exhibits and even words in the title to paintings. The two poems that follow are the result. I intend to record them. As a matter of personal development and comparison it is also my intention one day to write two more poems based on these words. I will then evaluate what I feel about both approaches. In the meantime, here are the fastest poems I have ever written.
Looking at a Lowry Exhibition by Neil William Holland
Quavers and semitones,
human notes on a scale
of hats and coats
and dabs of life
Jimmy’s lunch and Edith’s strife.
“Hey bald man,” calls the girl with a dog
here is a man looking out to sea
and a copper
looking down at me
through the mill
for a few pence
or maybe five bob.
in a Lowry paint job.
Come with me come with me
past the smoke and the mills
to a better place grown
from people talking
and kids walking
past dark window sills.
Looking at an Arthur Berry Exhibition by Neil William Holland
There’s a light on at the back
and Arthur’s seen it
crayon and charcoal
and dark thoughts
There’s a truth inside
four corners of each frame
dogs and doorways
all the same.
How it was, the truth,
painted not said
but truth all the same
and folks that are
you and me
in all but name.
You can scribble and dollop
chalk up age and youth
but stand there long enough
and you’ll see the truth.
Sometimes a bit dour,
but all through the honest eyes
of Arthur Berry.