Class Thread on Kinetic Poetry (Week 3, Prompt 1)

From Tory:

Last week, we discussed Maria Mencia’s Birds Singing Other Birds’ Song at length and briefly touched upon Mencia’s use of audio—specifically, its significance to the meaning of the piece. We also discussed the ways the pieces pushed the definition of poetry; for example, we considered whether bpNichol’s First Screening could be considered poetry if he rarely incorporated the typical structure of lines.

With this week’s selections in mind, how does incorporated audio contribute to the meaning of an electronic text? If it doesn’t significantly contribute to the meaning, why do you think the authors would choose to use it?

Do you think this week’s selections could or should still be considered poetry? [Note from Rhg: Let’s not assume that we all agree about what counts as poetry. Be alert to places where your respective definitions differ.]

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6 Comments

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  1. Regarding the use of sound, this week’s selections offer, I think, two main uses of sound in poetry.

    One use is ambient. Just as the motion in “Birds Singing Other Birds’ Songs” was secondary to the sounds, the sound in pieces like “That Sweet Old Etcetera” and “Sooth” is secondary to the visual landscape–or maybe, a better way of putting it would be to say that the sound is another part of the landscape. It serves an illustrative or contextual role without directly contributing the core of the piece.

    The second use is far more central–the sound of actual performance. This is relevant to “Poemas no meio do caminho” but I think more clearly analyzed in the (mostly) English poem “windsound.” In both, the sound has an ambient layer to it (as in the actual windsounds of “windsound”) but also has a vocal layer, one which serves as a kind of intermediary between the text on the screen and the reader attempted to make sense of that text. In “windosound,” the vocal layer comprises three readers (all computerized) which each attempt to translate the constantly shifting text on screen. Importantly, these three roles are not just three voices but three different types of translations–three different performances. The standard male voice and standard female voice enter the poem reading an accurate version of the text, one unshifting and certain. They reenter the poem on occasion to provide a kind of clarity that the reader otherwise lacks. Between those two voices, the whispering voice reads the text not as it “should be” but as it is, shifting and bizarre and largely insensible. Strings of syllables and long pauses due to typographic space left over between lines, the computer’s automated focus on long vowel sounds and soft consonants because it doesn’t know how to sonically process the textual chaos on the screen, all this is wrapped into a performance that feels almost like a kind of windsound itself.
    More significantly than how the three performances enter and establish the piece is how they exit it. By the end of the piece, all three have decayed to reading only what is on the screen, and as the dedication (and possibly epitaph?) repeat on screen, changed each time by a syllable or two, the standard male and female voices that had been making sense of the textual chaos fall prey to it, just as the reader does. It’s a weird and oddly affecting collapse, or at least it was to my ears. The sound here, in many ways, is as important to the piece as the text itself. Indeed, the relationship between the vocal performances and the on-screen text is exactly what compels the reader into the poetic experience of the piece, and what left me with an intimate impression of the poet himself.

    Regarding the classification of poetry and the use of the line, every piece in this week’s reading used the line. Some even went so far as to format themselves like standard poetry, even if the content was anything but standard. “Sooth” explicitly emphasizes it’s use of the line structure, responding to the reader’s input just one line at a time. What remains constant in “Poemas no meio do caminho” is the lines, though the words may change at each click. Poetic structure, it seems, is much more clearly evidenced in this week’s selections than last week’s. That said, I won’t even attempt to claim or argue that poetic structure is all that’s needed to make something a poem.

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  2. I feel Geoffrey has provided an excellent analysis of the ambient and performed uses of sound in the works we read this week. I would add that, in the case of the first type of sound use, I am once again reminded of a theatrical piece (a warning: I am a theater minor and this comparison will probably come up again). Ambient noise is very significant in theatrical performance, often written into the script and always a meaningful addition despite it taking an apparent (but not actual) backseat to spoken word or physical action. Ambiance is atmosphere, which highly influences the meaning of a work. Sound is a highly emotional thing, often able to move us (especially in the case of music) at a nonverbal level that can be more potent and poignant than the visual. In a way, ambient sounds like those in “Sooth” and “That Sweet old Etcetera” do, I would argue, contribute to the core of the piece by influencing the conditions affecting a reader’s (viewer’s?) perception of the text by swaying their emotions at an almost subconscious level. Especially with those two works, as the sounds are generated by an active choice (a click) by the reader, the ambient soundscapes seem very much a central part of the action.

    The question of whether something is or is not poetry delves deeper than a blog comment can cover. I will say that on an instinctive level I am more inclined to call something like “Sooth” or “Etcetera” poems, as they are primarily text-based and could be read without the sound (although, as I have already stated, I think the sounds are very important to the reading experience). “Windsound,” on the other hand, feels like a different kind of work: a multimedia exploration of sound, speech, and computing where seeing the text is not nearly enough to begin to understand the work, which is more like a video (or, in its original form, a computer program). I wonder if establishing such a distinct dichotomy between poetry and “not-poetry” is helpful or necessary at all. If these works are ground-breaking, perhaps they will receive a new name in due time. For now, to call them poems seems neither too bold a claim nor a perfect fit. it is simply a placeholder, so why argue now over what will probably be changed soon?

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  3. I think Grace makes some excellent points about what constitutes poetry, while being respectful of the constraints that blog posts limit us with, when delving into such matters. I’ll touch on my views about poetry in a moment.

    Firstly, I’d like to say that I greatly appreciated the use of sound in this week’s poems over last week’s. As I mentioned in a previous post, I wasn’t convinced that the use of sound in “Birds” was a useful mechanic, while in “Sooth” and “Sweet Old Etcetera” I felt that i conveyed deeper meaning. In “Etcetera” the sound conjures up images of growth and life and the rustling of leaves, which is added to, of course, by the motion of the text. It complements the text, however, rather than distracting from it. In Sooth, at first I thought the sound was a bit distracting. But as I paid closer attention, I felt that it was similar to background music in motion pictures. We all know how influential a musical score can be in a movie. One scene scored with trumpets and pounding drums can conjure up images of action and foreboding, while that same scene, if underscored by flutes and nature sounds could give an entirely different sense of wonder or even melancholy.

    More than once, when reading the various sections of “Sooth” I found that the music itself greatly added to my view of a poem. Normally, with the text and video I may have found something romantic or peaceful, but when the music was added, it gave an eerie quality that added new depth to the work.

    As for poetry, I absolutely agree with Grace that a blog post simply isn’t enough to fully explore the subject. But I do think we can raise some good considerations. Poetry is a form of art, in my opinion. That said, not all art forms are types of poetry. While I have no issue with saying these pieces can be labeled as art, I do take pause when labeling them poetry. Generically, poetry requires text, intention by the poet, and some aspect that makes us question, take notice, or simply admire the beauty of language. While that’s not all poetry is, most poems certainly encompass at least these qualities, in my opinion. I enjoyed reading “Sooth” and “Etcetera” because the text actually added to the piece, and wasn’t just a background prop like old newspapers used to create poster board.

    As for “Windsound” I again agree with the posters above me, it offers a somewhat different take on what I consider to be poetry. Not that that’s bad, but it is certainly different. I believe that the definition of poetry has room to expand, in the same way painting can be redefined to include certain types of pigments and new paints or different canvases. But, as with all art forms, there are limitations to a specific “genre”.

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  4. I don’t know if I’m just being cynical but I had a lot of trouble with most of the pieces we looked at this week. In general I thought that the use of audio was either negative or I felt very indifferent towards it. I feel like the audio is put in to heighten the experience but it isn’t carefully thought out enough to actually be effective. When I started ‘Windsound’ I was immediately intrigued by the layout and the words that the moving letters revealed; it evoked a feeling of mystery. But, this was suddenly interrupted by a jarring computerized voice and I literally cringed because in my opinion, that voice ruined any aspect of enigma that the piece held. As for ‘That Sweet Old Etcetera,’ it was amusing but I always felt like I was missing out if I were to click on something different. I realize that the clicks probably all lead to the same things but, I find it odd that as a reader (or experiencer?) we are given a sense of power with the clicks but it actually isn’t real because they really don’t matter. ‘Sooth’ was my favorite and if I were to consider any of these works “poetry” it would have to be this one. I actually liked the bare words and if this were to be a printed, normal (or what we believe is normal) poem, I still would have enjoyed it. I think the ambient noise in ‘Sooth’ was not entirely cohesive as it could have stood without it and had the same effect but I don’t think the audio detracted from the piece.

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  5. Abby makes a great counterpoint to the above, I think, in that sound can be used to ruin an experience just as well as heighten an experience. In a word, sound provides depth. Traditional text has one, arguably two senses being stimulated in the user experience. The obvious one is sight, and the second one could perhaps be touch (feeling the weight of the book and the dryness of the pages). Sound stimulates a third sense and therefore serves to deepen and viewer/reader’s experience. This does not mean that it is a positive thing, however. I found the sounds of “That Sweet Old Etcetera” to be completely arbitrary while others have found it to remind them of nature and falling leaves. It then becomes a matter of the author understanding his readers and attempting to create the best environment that they can to convey their intended message. Furthermore, due to the interactivity of “That Sweet Old Etcetera”, with the clicking, the piece began to feel more like a game that I could not control. If you constantly mouse over the (), you will see a hand cursor, indicating that it is a hyperlink. However, during the vertical presentation of the leaf falling down, clicking on the () has no effect which I found largely disappointing. This emotion of disappointment inferred my perception of the sound, which went from a pleasant surprise to a consolation prize. It sounded more taunting than peaceful.

    “Sooth” on the other hand, uses sounds such as wind blowing leaves and falling water, both of which are proven to induce feelings of calmness in the hearer. Due to the visual impact of the background in each piece of “Soothe”, I became more focused on the sound in relation to the background rather than the text. The text became a distraction to the sound. Due to conditioned association, when I am presented with pictures of nature, the sounds became associated with the picture. Words are not typically associated with sound outside of pronunciation of the word, therefore staying within the boundaries of language.

    In each piece, sound did play a role in how I perceived the piece. Interestingly, I found that sound did not help the text come to life, rather, the text prevented me from enjoying the other aspects of the work.

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  6. I had mixed feelings about this week’s readings in that I either was intrigued by them or disliked them. Well, dislike might be a little harsh of a word, but I didn’t love all of the pieces that we read.

    I would say that sound definitely adds another dimension into the experience, especially as it involves another sense. However, I am conflicted as to whether it is ambient or more central, as Geoffrey mentioned. In Rui Torres’ “Poemas no meio do caminho,” I found the sound to be central in one of the most distracting and unpleasant ways. I felt attacked, in a sense, by all of the sounds and unfamiliar words that I couldn’t comprehend. I don’t speak Portuguese, which probably plays a role in my dislike for the piece, but I had a very difficult time making sense of the piece. But I am hesitant to conclude that the sound is central, as it did not seem to particularly support the piece, yet I admit that I have limited knowledge concerning the language used in it.

    On the other hand, I absolutely adored Clifford’s “That Sweet Old Etcetera.” It was fascinating to watch the text appear on the screen and have sounds accompany it. It was as if I was creating my own adventure, but I’m kind of on the same page as Phil. I didn’t feel out of control exactly, but I was, and still am, not sure of where exactly the poem ends.

    I’m also hesitant to classify it and most of this week’s readings as “poems.” The one clear piece that I would classify as being a poem would be Oni Buchanan’s “Mandrake Vehicles,” but that transcends the label of being a simple poem. The best way to describe it would be “poem-ception” with multiple poems within a single poem.

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