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The Human Voice in Poetry

Some Notes on Performance

The morning radio announcer has just provided us, among other things, with this item of news: Last month the Consumer Price Index rose sharply for the third time in a row. The English language is an extraordinarily pliable medium. Here, by contrast is a line I came upon years ago in a poem by an author whom I cannot find:

Already the morning is moving with hot hands about the house. . .

These two examples have one solid thing in common: they both use the English language in a parsable way. They both convey their meanings. Yet the difference between the two is much more remarkable than their similarities. The radio announcer’s sentence is transparent; we look through it to it meaning. The second example is much more complex. Although it also gives the ‘facts’ of the situation it makes us prick up our ears because there’s something attractive about the sounds. The words, taken in their ensemble, have a certain opacity. We are aware that the line, in its alliterations and assonances is, so to speak, talking to itself. Repeated sounds are an essential part of its composition:

             a          a           b   b     (c)      b(c)
Already the morning is moving with hot hands about the house

There are other repetitions besides the one I’ve noted, such as the two ‘ings’ on ‘morning’ and ‘moving’, and all these - along with the engaging rhythm of the line as a whole - make it a ‘statement’ of an entirely different order from the announcer’s. The language has both opacity, and body, as well as a paraphrasable meaning. It is these qualities which make it memorable as a line of poetry. Archibald MacLeish’s famous dictum that ‘a poem should not mean, but be’, though it points to something interesting is surely inadequate. Here’s an example of a line that does both. It is, and it says.

I believe Yeats got closer to the truth of the matter when he said a poem should be at least as good as good prose, implying that it should go well beyond that. It’s this other dimension of opacity, body and what we might call loosely, musicality, that distinguishes a good poem from good prose, as well as a good poem from a poorer one. Good poems require a new way of listening.

To illustrate all this in a little more detail: in my own translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight I needed to find a poetic line which, though based on the heavily accented verse of the original poem, tried to make that music more natural for a modern reader. I therefore had to make a compromise. Instead of four repeated sounds to each line, as in the original, I decided to make two pairs of sounds which could occur in any order, plus one stressed ‘rogue’ sound that didn’t belong to either pair: Here are a couple of lines from the second Fitt (chapter) where Gawain sees the magic castle rising from the woods:

          (A)   A           B      A     B                       
He also caught sight of the chalk-white chimneys
That shimmered immaculately on the tower-tops

There are other echoes in the lines besides those in the pairs I’ve marked, but these will suffice to show that one has to compose, and recite such lines, so to speak, with a double-ear. The lines certainly give ‘information’; they tell part of a story. But it will be obvious to anyone who slows down a little and listens to them, rather than skims them with the eye, that the sounds in the lines are organized very differently from those of normal speech or prose, yet — and this is signally important — one can still imagine the lines could, under some circumstances, be said quite naturally.

The sound-designing that I am pointing to here need not — in fact, it ought not be obvious to anyone listening to the poem in performance, but a reader who is aware of the sounds in the lines will read them quite differently from one who can’t hear them, and the audience will sense that unconsciously. His voice will have the authority of someone who is privy to the fact that the poem is, among many other things, an artifact — something that has been designed.

My main point here can be put very simply. Anyone writing a poem or reading one for an audience has to come to terms, if only instinctively, with the unavoidable fact that, phonically speaking, language has two irreducibly basic elements: consonants and vowels. These are the essential materia poetica. A reader unaware of this and who thinks only through the eye is ignoring the fact that a poem, at one level of awareness, is a kind of antiphon or play between these two elements. Hopkins makes this unforgettably clear:

This darksome burn, horseback brown,
His rollrock highroad roaring down,
In coop and in comb the fleece of his foam
Flutes and low to the lake, falls home . .

All good poets are aware of the importance of their vowels and syllables. They are also aware that if you took all the consonants out of the above lines you would have a strange stream of vowels, and the words, having sloughed off the consonants which are their edges, would completely lose their meanings. It’s the ways in which the soft consonants (n, l, f) subtly merge with the vowels, or break them apart with hard-edged consonants (k, b, d, c) that constitute the musical organization of poem. When we hear a very skillful reader such as Richard Burton or Dylan Thomas (it’s no accident that they both have Welsh origins) it’s this intuitive sense of the musical play of consonants and vowels, as well as their intellectual grasp of the meaning of a poem that gives their performances such distinction.

There are other dimensions to the sound or ‘voice’ of poetry and in order to discuss the public performance of poems — which is my main concern — I want to explore them in more depth.

Let’s suppose you make a recording of yourself reading a passage of poetry or prose and play that recording back, listening, not to the meanings, but to the sounds. You will discover that your own voice has a ‘median pitch’. When people speak of a high or low voice that’s basically what they’re referring to. It might take a while to find your own pitch but it’s definitely there. (An instrument such as a piano or a guitar can help you hear it) Now, having found your own median pitch, suppose you play a drone or strum a string at that pitch, and at the same time recite the same passage you recorded. An interesting thing happens: the drone will pick up and give back, more strongly at certain points than others, the pitch of your own voice and, intermittently, the two sounds will merge.

It’s important to note that in this experiment the drone does not accompany your voice. The drone, which is a kind of abstract of your own voice, and your own reading voice coalesce. This leads us to a much more profound point. We all know that, even when playing the same tone, a clarinet sounds very different from an oboe. That difference is caused by the fact that these two instruments have different patterns of overtones (sometimes called partials, or harmonics). What’s not so obvious is your voice sounds different from everyone else’s for exactly the same reason. Even though you are speaking, or singing, the same words at the same pitch as someone else your own voice will be recognizably unique. Note that it’s not the overtones themselves which are different, but the pattern of the overtones.

This fact needs to be explored because it’s germane to the matters I want to raise concerning the art of poetry in performance. Teachers of lieder- and opera-singers insist that their pupils seek what’s called ‘a centered note’ and it’s true that ‘pure’ singers — Fischer-Diskau, Victoria de los Angeles, Pavarotti, among scores of others, come immediately to mind — have given us ravishing performances. It would be foolish to argue with that, but for now I want to look at something which comes at the question of vox humana in a different way from that of opera singers and their teachers.

What we forget when we talk of pure notes is that a singer working toward purity, as well as a person who listens for it is, in a special way, acting contra naturam. The startling, and little known fact is that the human voice is inherently a whole orchestra of tones and overtones. This has been known in Tibet, Mongolia, and other places for centuries, and it’s being thoroughly and brilliantly explored in the work of the American musician, David Hykes, and his Harmonic Choir.

Let’s go back for a moment to the experiment in which you read your passage with the drone. Let’s assume that you’ve found your natural pitch — which the Indians call your ‘sa’ — and which, in your case, happens to be middle C. If you go the bathroom or to a kitchen which has a good sound-reflective walls — and chant your sa as ‘oo’ or ‘aw’ you will hear, very faintly at first, other sounds emerging. If you try various positions with your lips and tongue as you do this, the sounds will get gradually stronger, partly because you are now listening for them. These new sounds, first discovered in the West by Pythagoras, are built on the laws of physics and they have nothing to do with your individual ego or the uniqueness of your voice. To be more specific: when you sing your C, embedded in the sound you make, even though you can hear only a tiny part of it, especially at first, is a pattern known as the overtone or harmonic series: C (upper C) E, G, Bb and so on.

This is not something I’m inventing. The sounds are really there in your voice when you chant an individual note even if they are mostly sub-audial. If you want to make them heard in your bathroom, or elsewhere, you will have to learn to break the overtones off from your sa, in other words to set the overtones free at the same time as you hold onto your root note. This takes some practice and some minute adjustments of the tongue and lips in order to make the overtones distinct. When you do that you will hear the overtones float above the sa and make a chord, or a partial chord, from the notes in the overtone series. Expert overtone singers can not only hold those separate sounds still in a kind of block harmony, they can also make the top ones flute or run up and down while they keep the root note firm.

What, you might ask, does all that have to do with poetry in performance? Well, I have been working for years on the assumption that the obdurate law of physics that I’ve been outlining — apart from the fact that they allow us to produce amazingly beautiful sounds that seem to ring and hover in the ether — can have profound implications for the way we read and listen to poems. I have, moreover, tried the theory out in practice, and it works.

Being interested in the whole range of what I have called Vox Humana in the art of spoken poetry and I want to emphasize two things very strongly. I don’t think that ALL poetry should or can be performed in an ambience of overtones. There are scores of ways of making poems come alive for an audience and I’m open to all of them (with the possible exception of Rap which is, for the most part, primitive in both its rhythms and its language). The second thing I want to emphasize is, for reasons I hope to have made clear, overtone chanting is not, as I see it, an accompaniment to poetry simply because overtones are already an intrinsic part of the human voice. All we do in performance is to reveal what we already have in our lungs and throats, and the whole bag of bones we call our selves. Chanting with poetry is a way of revealing that poems are first and last sounds (they are much else between) AND that our voices have potentials which have hardly been explored.

I envision a good poetry reading that runs the whole gamut of poetry as we know it. It would consist of amusing poems, satires, lyrics, ‘sound’ poems, poems for voice alone (what I have called ‘dry’ poems), poems done as rounds and fugues and cannons, and much, much else. Right now in discussing overtone chanting and poetry I’m exploring one posibility, among many, because I believe it is new to most people and it needs a little further explaining.

Let’s imagine a small group of voices — minimum four, maximum perhaps  eight — equally balanced between men and women and between the four different ‘colors’: bass, tenor, alto and soprano. If half of the group chant a chosen sa (say middle C) and half chant the natural harmonic of a fifth above that (G) you will create a plenum of sound. Let’s further imagine that into this plenum one of the group says the poem in which these lines occur:

When we come home to the good place in ourselves
There’s a brown music like the hum of bees. . .

If this is done properly something interesting happens. If we listen to these lines for the moment merely as sounds it’s clear that they contain a number of long vowels in the words we, come, home, there, brown and hum. What’s more important is that the resonant consonants as we voice them in come, home, and brown will cause the words to lose their definition as words, and merge with the sustained chant on, say, the sound ‘mm’ — so that at this point they become one with the chant. Again, the chant is not an ‘accompaniment’. The words have become sounds. To put it another way, in such a performance the words, or at least some words in the poem, act in a strange and surprising way: if read firmly and clearly they will appear momentarily as separate words with all their meanings, and then disappear into the ambient sound made by the group. The poem, as words, will then re-emerge from its sounds and become words beginning with firm-edged consonants: to, good, place, brown, like, and so on. We could say that some of the words in the poem swim in and out of their meanings. All this happens fairly quickly, but it does happen.

This dynamic has enormous implications. It points to the fact that, at root, there is no absolute difference between poetry and sound (one of whose manifestations is music). I believe this fact is one of the foundations of ancient liturgies with words such as Allelujah, Amen, and hundreds of others. It is also at the base of much plainsong, many of the psalms, and chants, both religious and secular, in all kinds of languages and traditions. I believe that it still offers up all kinds of possibilities for modern performers. It also, incidentally, leads us once again to tease ourselves with conjectures about the origins of language, about which we know next to nothing. The question occurs: did our ancient ancestors, well before the time of Homer, communicate first in sounds, or in ‘words’ with meanings? I am of the opinion that it was the former: the meanings came after the sounds. To illustrate briefly: a child left on its own quite naturally begins to mouth the sounds ‘ma ma’ simply because they are the easiest sounds to make. It’s only later when the child realizes that this pleases the ‘audience’ (generally the mother) who repeats the sounds back to the child. Those sounds soon become the ‘word’ mama, or mamma, or ma, or maman, and so on. In this case the sound clearly comes first and it may be a clear case for the argument that ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny which, as I understand it, is one of the fundamental laws of evolutionary biology: the individual repeats the whole development of the species.

Interesting as that might be it’s somewhat ancillary to my main concern here which is this: When some poems are performed in an ambience of sound such as I have described it adds a new dimension to the performance — a dimension which, as I have tried to show, is already in the human voice — your voice, and everyone else’s. I am quite convinced that what the ancients called the Musicke of the Spheares is what we hear in the chanting of David Hykes. The overtone series is a fact of nature. The whole world is literally humming with ordered sound (as well as an extraordinary amount of noise). This all has profound implications for music, especially in the tuning of instruments since the time of Bach, whose well-known tempering of the clavichord compromised the natural laws of physics. The modern piano makes no difference between the notes C# and Db, whereas the human voice, following natural, not mechanical principles, does. Much has been written about the Pythagorean comma and its implications and I don’t want to go into that now but simply say that since Bach, if we follow the piano as our fundamental tuning we are all singing or playing out of tune. Very slightly, admittedly, but still out of tune.

To return to my main theme: if what I have said so far makes sense it gives the reader of poems in a surround of overtones some special problems and challenges. Such a reader will have to work hard against keeping his performance from dissolving in what someone called a ‘honey-head of sound’, where it will lose all its distinctness of meaning. This is where the consonants come in. In marking the edges of the word-sounds they are the life-rafts which prevent the poem from drowning in itself. Two things are therefore required. The chanting in such a performance must never be too strong or the reader will have to fight to be heard against it. Second, the reader will have to enunciate each word carefully so that all the consonants are clearly marked, if only for an instant, lest the words dissolves back into sound.

Again, the effect in a good reading, though the audience won’t be consciously aware of all this, is dynamic. The poem is continually asserting itself as ‘meaning’, then becoming part of its ambient tones and overtones. All this seems to me pretty clear but I’ve been thinking about it for a long time and as some people are puzzled by what seems to be something radically new in what I’m proposing I thought it worthwhile to explain in some detail.

I believe that if we are to perform poems before a live audience with clarity and elegance we might have to do so in very different ways than is commonly heard at poetry readings, where so much is lost. Let me emphasize that I want to celebrate the whole range of vox humana as it applies to poetry in performance. What I have been dealing with so far is only one part of this whole range, but it is ‘new’ (as I have already noted it’s really very old) and it has possibilities right now which have barely been explored.

To extend my main point: I sometimes imagine a poetry reading which would call on the whole range of what we know as poetry. My imagined group of performers would give us poems with overtones such as I have outlined, jazz poems, satires and doggerel, bush ballads, border ballads (both sung and said), poems for the solo voice, Milton, Dylan Thomas, Baudelaire, Rilke, Chaucer, narrative poems in many voices, passages of rich prose and much, much else. It would also take account of the fact that some very effective poems are inherently ‘anti-poetic’ or conversational: William Carlos Williams and Bruce Dawe come immediately to mind. Some poems have to be relished in a surround of silence, and I have to add here that a poem read in the silence that follows a few minutes of chanting brings out the color of the human voice much more effectively than if it is read in the silence before chanting.

The performance of some poems can be enhanced with ‘voice’ instruments such as the tabla (Indians claim that the tabla makes ‘bols’ or words) or the dijeridu which to me is the ‘speaking instrument’ par excellence — with bells, with an Irish drum or bodran, or a 'cello. In these cases the golden rule is that the ‘voice’ instrument mustn’t be too busy or too melodic and thus create an energetic contest between meaning and music, such as used to take place in the early days of the jazzetry movement which, very soon after its inception, self-destructed. It had to. It was a war and in a war someone usually wins. The same can be said for poetry readings in which a very distinctly colored and busy instrument tries to accompany the reader. The result is usually awful because the auditory imagination tries to process two very different kinds of language at the same time. Napoleon, who was apparently an expert multi-tasker, might have been able to manage that. Most of us can’t.

Some poems performed by our imagined group could be an eclectic mixture of ‘dry’ reading, outright song, poems in the form of a fugue or canon, and much else. The possibilities are not quite endless but they are much wider than our imaginations generally allow.

For years now we have been living in the Kingdom of the Eye. We are surrounded by ‘information’, and ‘facts’ and ‘noise’ such as the radio announcer gave us this morning. These things obviously have their place. What I am plumping for and what I believe many people are hungry for is to restore poetry to its ancient status in the Kingdom of the Ear. When we hear the sounds of poetry indirectly and faintly through the eye, and poetry is mostly read that way, we catch only a faint intimation of its full power and in doing so we are depriving ourselves of the deeper music of our language — a music which, whether we are aware of it or not, is inherent in all our voices,

Keith Harrison
Minneapolis, August 2008