Lawrence UPTON (Great Britain)
Lawrence Upton (b. 1949) –
poet, prose writer, essay writer, critic,
publisher. Author of a great number of publications in literary magazines,
collections, miscellanies both in Great Britain and abroad, and also of
www-publications on various literary sites. Editor and publisher of a number of
magazines and international anthologies, author of numerous books of poetry and
prose. For many years he has been collaborating with different literary and
artistic associations and perform-groups. Chairman of the British Association of
Little Press, since 1994 he has been director of the literary association “Sub
Voicive Poetry” (London) and leader of annual poetic colloquia. For more information see
the bio-bibliography of the participant.Taken from the
© 2000 Lawrence Upton, London.
SOUND POETRY IN ENGLAND, SCOTLAND AND WALES
The term “Sound Poetry” is imprecise. It seems innately defensive, defining itself as being other than or a special case of Poetry as such.
If I could, I would do away with the term; but it is probably the best available. However, it is one thing to indicate an area of work so that it may be discussed and quite another to put a border around it. The many poetries should not exclude each other. Indeed, it seems to me that what may be called “Sound Poetry” is usually part of wider individual practice.
The work of Edwin Morgan demonstrates that. His energetic and varied output covers a wide range of forms and approaches, including those of which he says “I don’t attempt to voice or perform.”1
Similarly, Peter Finch practices a range of poetries; yet Finch and Morgan are, in many ways, unlike each other as poets. What they have in common is their awareness of the sound and visual potential of the making of poetry beyond the limited layout and onomatopoeic effects generally employed to support the denotative meaning of poems by less formally adventurous poets.
Finch and Morgan are notable for having built substantial reputations in what is known as “the mainstream” whilst being known as “experimentalists” as well; and Finch in particular has been formally inventive in both visual and sound poetry.
Some of Edwin Morgan’s “experimental” poetry, such as “First Men on Mercury”, a poem which can be regarded as a sound poem, have achieved their individual fame not so much for their innate qualities, which are many, as because they can be employed to achieve teaching objectives in schools. I am not sure how clearly Morgan’s wide achievement is recognised. One commentator has said: “[Morgan] has experimented across poetry’s borderlines with music and visual arts” which hardly does his experimental work justice. This commentator, like many, largely ignores the poems which emphasise the importance of their own sound and visual elements. He speaks of “experimental word-play, necessarily slight.” That’s nonsense, but it is typical of the context in which sound poetry and its related poetries are produced in UK.
On the other hand, “Sound Poetry”, like all poetries, attracts some who wish to assert manifestos and to define what is and isn’t poetry...
The British poets I find the most generally interested in Poetry, the poets who are extending the range of what is possible in poetry, seem to me to be much more active in making new work than in trying to define it or in imagining boundaries between their areas of work.
If one were to start from a strict definition of Sound Poetry, it might seem that in UK we have a fragmented scene. That’s the trouble with strict definition! In fact, what we have is a lively and adventurous participation in the sonic possibilities of poetry and related arts; although, in addition to “Sound Poetry”, all the poets discussed here produce poetry which could not be classified as Sound Poetry.
Ian Finlay & John Furnivall.
Tom Leonard has been working in or near Sound Poetry for many years although he does not regard what he is currently working on as sound poetry.
He has a fine ear for the particularities and oddities of speech, finding the languages within our language, especially of his own city, Glasgow.
His poetry, and all of it is inherently experimental, is witty (as well as being amusing) and learned; he is a fine performer of his work.
Bob Cobbing , in his 80th year at the time of writing, has a claim to be the most famous sound and visual poet in UK; but, to me, what seems most important about Cobbing is that, despite his age, he is still engaged in investigative and genuinely experimental work.
One could see his first “ABC in sound” (1963) as being the start of his poetic career. It was far from being his first work, but it marks a considerable departure from what he was doing before and from what almost anyone else was doing at the time.
“ABC in sound” is a work of great sophistication, inventive in form and content, although of a fundamental simplicity.
Cobbing was in his 40s when he made the work. I did not know him then; I was still at school. But it seems clear to me that a handful of poems – “ABC in sound,” “Are your children safe,” “Word row” – quickly attracted those who could see their quality, the complexity without complication: I mean people such as dsh, Jandl, Dufrene.
Bob Cobbing. 15
The new work came out of half a lifetime’s engagement with making in almost every area of artistic activity that was available; but it represents a leap, not of mad heroism in the face of useless odds, but the intelligent sideways comprehending look of inventive formal imagination.
Within 7 busy years, Cobbing had taken the experiments of “ABC” et cetera through live and pre-recorded machine manipulation of voice, producing some of the most interesting text-sound compositions that anyone had made 2; through investigations of multi-voice performance; and he had made at least one other leap, towards a kind of, or appearance of, abstraction, apparently often abandoning both the morphology of the written language and the lexicon; though really he was extending the possibilities of poetic utterance, and its written expression, and establishing a poetic idiolect which permits participation by others.
At first glance, the move from “ABC” to “Songsignals,” for instance, might seem to be enormous; but that is to do with the usual unquestioned familiarity of linear text. He has continued developing and expanding his practice in the nearly 30 years since “Songsignals,” continuing to collaborate with other artists, especially musicians – for example, with Paul Burwell & David Toop, with Laurence Casserley, with John Whiting and with Hugh Metcalfe.
Each of those collaborations has its unique characteristics; and throughout he has continued to make his own solo work.
Cobbing has had an enormous influence on many poets in these countries. It has been direct: through the example of his work. It has been indirect: he has been a channel for knowledge of what other poets are doing; an editor / publisher of a wide range of visual and sound texts; an agitator for recognition of the importance of poetic activity; and a convenor of frequent poetry workshops for over half a century, in which poets are encouraged to develop their own ideas and practice in a sympathetic atmosphere.
Dom Sylvester Houedard.
His indirect encouragement is potent. It does not breed lookalikes and it allows those it influences to adapt what they learn to their own purposes.
Maggie O’Sullivan’s poetry 3 sounds gorgeous, but uncomfortably so. It isn’t nice sound for the sake of it. On the contrary, the sound of it is often disturbing. Nor is it just sound. Maggie O’Sullivan uses words, torrents of them, patterning them, and, importantly, tracing their patterns; and she pays close attention to their sound and the patterns those sounds make.
She finds multiple meanings in her words; and, when she has need of words she doesn’t have, she invents them. She doesn’t force meaning from her words as if she were factory farming them; but she makes them highly productive. She works with her material. The sounds and the gestures of her poetry are as much a part of its meaning as is her lexicon.
Maggie O’Sullivan has learned a great deal from Bob Cobbing, but she also applies, with care and craft, what she has learned.
Cris Cheek has worked in a wide range of artistic situations – poetry, music, dance, installation – and is not, I am pleased to say, easy to classify.
He retains a fascination with “low tech” manipulation of the voice, discernible in all three founder-members of “jgjgjgjgjgjgjgjg” (1976-1978, Cheek, P.C. Fencott and myself), although he is more than capable of work of great technical sophistication – see his book / CD with Sinead Jones “Songs for Navigation”.4
Cris Cheek has produced texts in a wide variety of forms and media; but, in terms of performance, he, more than many, sees the text-in-performance as lifting or being extended from the page to take in the whole space and situation of the performance, an idea which I regret I do not have the space her to develop fully.
Alaric Sumner died suddenly at the end of March 2000. He had already selected what is published here for this purpose and it represents an area of his work in which he was showing increasing confidence and inventive ability.
Sumner participated in Cobbing’s workshops during the 1970s; but he developed his own styles and processes, using a variety of knowledge sets to his current practice, especially theory and practice of theatre and performance art. He lectured in performance writing at Dartington College of Arts. He too had a restless approach to the making of his texts, showing a refusal to be satisfied willingly with what he had done, even successfully, in the past. I think this approach arose both from an innate scepticism and a desire to be pursuing new possibilities.
He drew on a wide range of practice, including the new technologies, mixing insights from different discourses.
Although he used texts for his performances, whether as starting points or actual notations, the performance is the poem and each performance a separate poem although there may be different versions of a poem for different environments and situations. For Sumner, I think, as for many of the poets discussed here, the poem is in passing time rather than in some transcendent space.
Michael Weller is another artist whom it is difficult to categorise. He is predominantly but not exclusively a visual artist who has a strong interest in comic strips, graphic novels etc. In his work, graphic art meets and mingles with literature and, to some extent, with film.
He has learned a great deal from Cobbing and applies what he has learned both in his manner of producing cheap “artists books” of his work and in using texts (whether verbal, graphic or both integrated) which would not generally be considered entirely utterable as the basis for semi-improvised performance.
Weller’s work is often anecdotal, but he disrupts his own narratives. In its sources, it may sometimes be personally denotative; yet montage, collage, improvised utterance and disruptive readings transform such sources.
Weller’s performances are witty and entertaining without there being any artistic compromise on his part. His performances are high energy without aggression.
Patricia Farrell is a gifted visual artist and a scrupulous poet. Her work is, in medium and form, highly various. Though she often combines the visual with the verbal, her book-based graphic work is more than merely illustrative; and her verbal work is full of visual possibilities.
She has performed her linear texts with images projected from slides; and has experimented with the improvised performance of non-verbal texts as the starting point (multi-voice and solo), rather than as strict notation, to produce sound pieces which exist along the time line rather than upon paper or upon a physical medium.
Farrell frequently attended Cobbing’s workshop until her move away from London a few years ago. Though her performance practice may, in origin, owe not a little to the example of Bob Cobbing’s approach to non-semantic visual texts, Farrell’s work is distinctly her own and full of potential.
I regret that it has not been possible to include her sound work in this anthology.
Wayne Clements happily acknowledges his debt to the influence of Dom Sylvester Houedard (1924-1992) in his visual work. However, his aims and practice differ in many ways from those of dsh.5
Clements’ tape works are somewhat analogous to his visual work with typewriter and word-processor. They utilise repetition and overlay. Their making is a performance of brief linguistic alphanumeric strings, mediated by interaction with machines, fingers on a keyboard, voice at a microphone or line-in. They present relatively slow changes from one set of states to another with, in some cases, quite sudden subordinate changes which counterpoint but do not break the overall transformation of one aural image into another.
His works, both visual and aural, are contemplative in nature. They inhabit areas of tranquillity without invoking the usual (sentimental) signifiers of tranquillity.
Alistair Noon is doing extremely interesting work. Not only is he an inventive poet and a lively and impressive performer, but he is applying himself to the difficult and challenging question of notation, scoring gesture and expression within the poem.
It is an astonishing experience to watch him perform his texts, which range from the verbal and linear to the non-verbal; but their importance is their innate quality which is supported by his precise and accomplished performance.
Sound poetry in these countries is both alive and very well; and is happily mutating.
1. From Morgan’s own statement in “Word Score Utterance Choreography in verbal and visual poetry” (eds Cobbing, Upton; Writers Forum, 1998; ISBN 087162 750 4).
2. The record backlist of Fylkingen in Sweden includes some of these.
3. Lawrence Upton’s “Regarding Maggie O’Sullivan’s Poetry” (1998) is available as an issue of “Pages” (editor Robert Sheppard) magazine.
4. “Songs for Navigation” is published by Reality Street Editions, London.
5. These issues are investigated in an interview of Clements by Lawrence Upton to be published by “Documents” magazine (editors: Lawrence Upton & Peter Manson).Previous (Steve MCCAFFERY), Next (Rea NIKONOVA)