Larry WENDT (USA)
Larry Wendt (b. 1946) – lingua-artist, composer, researcher. Author of a great number of articles dedicated to the history and the present state of the international sound poetry. Started his creative artistic activities in the midst 1970s focusing on creating text-sound compositions. Curator and publisher of the anthology of the international sound poetry Vocal Neighborhoods: A Walk through the Post-Sound Poetry Landscape (Leonardo Music Journal, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1993). Since the 1970s his audio productions have been widely presented at different international colloquia and festivals of experimental poetry and music. For more information see the bio-bibliography of the participant. Taken from the poet’s manuscript. © 2000 Larry Wendt, San-Jose, CA.
SOME EARLY ROOTS OF AMERICAN SOUND POETRY
“Some day there may be invented a machine that needs but to be wound up and sent roaming o’er hill and dale, through fields and meadows, by babbling brooks and shady woods – in short, a machine that will discriminatingly select its subject and by means of a skilful arrangement of springs and screws, compose its motif, expose the plate, develop, print, and even mount and frame the result of its excursion, so that there will remain nothing for us to do but to send it to the Royal Photographic Society’s exhibition and gratefully to receive the “Royal Medal.”
Then, ye wise men; ye jabbering button-pushers! Then shall ye indeed make merry, offering incense and sacrifice upon the only original altar of true photography. Then shall the fakers slink off in dismay into the “inky blackness” of their prints.”
Edward J. Steichen, from “Ye Fakers,” Camera Work I, 1903.
For those of us who enjoy tugging on the lines of influences to see what they will bring us, the history of sound poetry is a particularly engaging subject. Like many of our other cultural pretensions here in America, sound poetry is often understood as a strictly European import which we have acquired after the fact of its invention. Though we have since tinkered and played with it to make it our own, we still are left with this sense that it is an adopted form rather than being part of some indigenous continuity which grew up in our own back yards.
My own exposure to the art, for instance, dates from the late sixties with Charles Amirkhanian’s Berkeley-broadcasted radio series presenting the works of contemporary European sound poets and text-sound composers to Bay Area listeners. These programs provided a cogent framework for concepts which I had spontaneously begun to experiment with earlier, after being inspired by other European imports of electronic music which made use of the voice as its source material. Also, my reading at the time of the writings of James Joyce, John Cage, William Burroughs, and similar writers made me more receptive to such ways of thinking and working as well. With Amirkhanian’s programs however, I finally had a vocabulary which enabled me to follow a particular tendency which was erupting in the world between literature and music at that time.
That sound poetry had its origins in Zurich with Hugo Ball’s 1916 invention of the Lautgedichte was an early “given” for me. That I was first exposed more to its Western European reemergence in the 1960s as “tape music” rather than any school of literature that its invention might have spawned, reinforced my understanding in the beginning, that sound poetry was essentially a European tradition. Living on the West Coast, I was largely unaware of various proto-sound poetry activities in the East, such as the permutation and chance poems of Jackson MacLow , or other word and language traditions in American “other poetries” from which works like MacLow’s sprang.
Edward J. Steichen.
Later, when I began learning of such things, I became aware of other perceived “early American examples” of a kind of pre-sound poetry pointed out in the writings of Gertrude Stein at the beginning of the century, or the “lost” literary experiments of such individuals as Abraham Lincoln Gilespie Jr., Bob Brown, Ernest Robson, and other obscure American writers of the 1920’s and 30’s. Then there were the poetries of our indigenous people in which one could find many sound poetry-like examples, which could also lend themselves easily to our uniquely American understanding of the art. And least we forget, there was also cartoon glossolalia, scat singing, radio advertisements, etc., which have been cited upon occasion as early examples of distinctly “pop” American examples of sound poetry (but not knowing it).
Though such traditions can give us a common ground from which to cultivate our own particularly American manifestation of the art, there is this nagging sense here that we are just observing a similarity in these home-grown examples after the fact and have distorted their interpretation to fit another notion of the world than what originally brought them into existence. After all these years, attempting to explain “What is sound poetry?” to the uninitiated American public, still remains a tedious chore. “Sound poetry? Never heard of it! What’s it like?”
Sound poetry, is often evolving into something which could be more recognizable to the general public, however as an American practice, has remained stranded largely by its own devices in the back waters of experimentalism. Unclassified by any pat definition, its mere existence exposes its dada origins at its core. That it traces its history to Hugo Ball stepping out on a stage in a seedy cabaret recently frequented by longshoremen, sailors and prostitutes in the run-down section of downtown Zurich that fateful evening on April 23, 1916, while dressed as an “obelisk” with a “blue-and-white-striped witch doctor’s hat” and intoning, “gadji beri bimba...” still forms a potent image and a “chill down the back” in the collective imagination of all sound poets.
Many of the features, techniques, and ambiguities which we hold dear to sound poetry were first articulated in the spirit of dada: the evocation of the unself-conscious “primitive”, simultaneity, synthesesia, a comedic and ironic view towards new technologies, the stripping of artistic expression into its most iconographic, mathematical, immediate, concrete, and gestural elements, etc. These were all fodder in the Zurich canon of 1916. Primarily, what was going on at the “Cabaret Voltaire” was a strategy under the conceptual aegis of anti-art, by which to escape the culture which brought about the horrors of World War I.
Though we hold our forefathers to be Dada, we also realize that their conceptualization did not spring forth spontaneously from the eye of the international hurricane which Zurich found itself in. Certainly, what the Zurich Dadaists were doing was “in the air” at the time all over Europe. Dispersed as it may be, this particular tendency still allows one to trace its strings of inspiration to several earlier sources.
In regards to Ball’s acoustical conceptualization of “Verse ohne Worte,” obvious mention can be made of earlier linguistic manifestations, such as the onomatopoetic parole in libeta of F. T. Marinetti and his Italian Futurists, the choral-like, poeme simultane of Henri Martin Barzun and Fernand Divoire, the orphic poetry of Robert Dalunay (as defined and translated by Guillaume Apollinaire), the fragmentary poetry of August Stramm and German Expressionism. Other far-reaching sources, such as the zaum poetry of the Russian cubo-futurists (through Hugo Ball’s contact with Vasilij Kandisky) have also been explored inconclusively. Undoubtedly, many other diverse activities in that brief moment of time which exercised the boundary between the communication of language and its existence as an articulated acoustical reality, whether real or imaginary, can be identified in the Zurich manifestations of Lautgedichte. However, it is in the actual conception of anti- art at the core of dada (with or without the capital) which brought about its formulation in the first place, that there is a key influence which is distinctly American in its origins.
Alvin Langdon Coburn.
New York, like Zurich, was also a refuge for World War I pacifists. The “infamous” Armory show of 1913, with its exhibition of European contemporary art, is often depicted as the starting point of America’s love/hate with the international avant-garde. That event also paved the way for several European artists to “hide-out” there when WWI broke out. The artistic endeavors in New York beginning in 1915 on the heels of the immigration of Marcel Duchamp and Francis Picabia (and eventually given the title “New York Dada” years later) are often pointed to as presaging the Zurich manifestations. However, catalytic as they may have been, Messrs. Duchamp, Picabia, and crew did not drop into culturally- poor and provincial New York, like gods from Olympus either. But rather, they had fallen in with a group of like-minded, home-grown, American experimentalists who had evolved from an earlier American continuum in art, which was very much a sharing partner in the international dialog concerning art of the times.
Particularly, we are talking about the group of artists known as the Photo-Secession, associated with Alfred Stieglitz’s 291 gallery on 5th Avenue, and who were published in his journal of the same name. The influence which this group may have had on the Zurich Dadaists, especially with the conception of anti-art, can be found outlined in Ileana B. Leavens’ 1983 study “From 291 to Zurich: The Birth of Dada.” As a journal, “291” only existed for twelve issues between 1915 and 1916, and was the capstone of approximately 13 years of avant-garde activity which had evolved into another direction by the time “291” ceased publication.
“291” was primarily a literary journal modeled after Guillaume Apollinaire’s experimental review, “Les Soirees de Paris”. Each issue was meant as a different experiment relating the verbal with the visual (with Apollinaire’s 1914 calligramme “Voyage” reprinted in the first issue) and presented material which was an “expression of today”. It was distributed in a calculated manner by Stieglitz and the artists it represented throughout the major and not-so-major avant-garde circles in Europe. Tame perhaps by the standards of graphical layout in later dada publications which were to follow, “291” nevertheless provided a sounding board for avant-garde ideas which would later have more robust articulations.
Though short-lived, “291” existed concurrently upon the shoulders of another journal: “Camera Work” – also founded and edited by Stieglitz. “Camera Work” came into existence in 1903, and though primarily focused on pictorial rather than literary arts, it in many ways was more far reaching than “291”. It is in “Camera Work” where the seeds of “the spirit of 291”, were first planted. The journal bridged the transformation of American pictorial arts from its representational conceptions defined by the Symbolist aesthetics of the late 19th century, to the non-representational, modernist schools of the 20th.
Photography, despite its European invention (in Paris by Louis-Jacques-Mande Daguerre in 1839, and replicated in America, nine months later by Robert Cornelius, a maker of brass lighting fixtures) became a uniquely American art form within Camera Work’s pages. This was in no small part influenced by the concurrent rise of the Arts & Craft movement in America. Basic training in artistic skills by the newly created public education system and the public appreciation of art in the post-Civil War era, had a much higher importance attached to it than is evident in our present era. With the widely held ideal of “art in everyday life for everyone”, amateur clubs in the various arts (particularly where a craft was involved) abounded. The increased availability of camera technology to the masses, gave individuals the possibility to “short-cut” years of technical apprenticeship (freeing them according to theory, to focus on aesthetic values) to generate a visual object which resembled a painting in its comparisons. That a machine and a chemical recipe which had everything to do with mechanical skill (abbreviated as it might be) and little to do with aesthetics, could “magically” produce something which could mimic a work of art, brought with it host of questions and controversies. The chief controversy being could a photograph be even described as ART since it was made by a mere machine?
“Camera Work” came into existence as a result of such questions. Its birth was the response and reaction against yet two earlier, late 19th century journals which Stieglitz had also been editing: “The American Amateur Photographer” and “Camera Notes”. Stieglitz had been expelled by The Camera Club (which had been recently combined from the Amateur Photographers of New York and the New York Camera Club) in a muddle of disagreements in 1902. Though essentially he had already left the group as an act of ethical and aesthetic revolt, to promote a style among like-minded artists which he had christened the “Photo-Secession.” It was so named after other European “art secession groups”, such as the Linked Ring Brotherhood (who had broke from the Royal Photographic Society in London), and similar “Sezessionen” in Vienna, Munich, and Berlin who were also reacting against the bland representational, “Sunday-painter” art groups of the time, and pursuing a new aesthetic of personal gesture, and what was being called “Post-Impressionistic” art. Stieglitz leased a space in 1905 at 291 Fifth Avenue, which was first called “The Little Galleries of the Photo-Secession” and change in 1907 to just “291.” For several years it was the premier (and often the only) spot in America, and indeed the world, for exhibiting contemporary photography and visual art.
Though “Camera Work” and the activities of the Photo-Secession were a reaction to the practices of a preceding era, many of its features betray its kinship with its predecessors. As often as is the case with such advances in 20th century art, what appears to be a break is actually a continuation that moves beyond the aesthetic limitations and contradictions of the previous generation. Likewise, the Photo-Secession, “the spirit of 291”, and Stieglitz’s preeminence in the American avant-garde, collapsed with the demise of “291”, as a result of in-fighting, financial problems, and an exhaustion of ideas with their replacement by perhaps more thought-out, though less-experimental practices.
As for the cultural predecessor of Photo-Secession however, one only has to look back at the slightly earlier American Arts & Crafts movement. One can see an Arts & Crafts aesthetics filtering though every page of “Camera Work” in such things as its hand-made appearance, use of typography, the architecture of the words on a page, and the use of florid, wood-carved appearing capitals at the introductions of the essays. Of particular note, here is the probable influences which the American painter, print maker, and some-times dabbler in photography (with his cyanotypes), Arthur Wesley Dow may have had. Alvin Langdon Coburn, Clarence H. White, Max Weber, and Georgia O’Keefe had studied with him, and were later important contributors to the environment which brought about “Camera Work” and “291”.
Alvin Langdon Coburn.
Very much part of the Arts & Crafts quasi-socialist milieu, Dow’s influential “Composition: A series of exercises in art structure for the use of students and teachers,” was a pedagogical text book (a copy of which had existed in the library of the Camera Club of New York, as early as 1901) which he began writing in the 1890’s as an art instructor at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. The text (which went through many revisions during his subsequent thirty years of teaching) describes a language of design which later reverberates in such other practical Yankee conceptions as Stieglitz’s “Equivalents” and Ansel Adams’ “Zone system.” Part “how-to-do-it” randomizing exercise and part practical aesthetics and modernist appreciation, Dow’s book “influenced more Americans than any other text of the past hundred years to think of visual form and composition in relation to artistic modernity.”
Much as William Morris had been under the influence of John Ruskin’s idealistic fantasies about Medieval art and architecture when he first conceived of the English Arts and Crafts clubs in the 1880’s, Dow had come under the influence of Ernest Francisco Fenollosa. A graduate in philosophy from the University of Boylston in Boston, Fenollosa was the Professor of Political Economy and Philosophy at the University of Tokyo from 1878 to 1886. He had arrived in Japan during a period when the traditional arts where being rejected by a majority of the Japanese leaders and educators in their head long rush towards Westernization. As an outsider, Fenollosa was strongly attracted to the rapidly eroding culture of Japanese traditions, and in turn, he became an ardent amateur sinologist as well as an early interpreter of oriental art to the Western world. His attempts at preserving Japanese arts and crafts, while seeking out the surviving old masters, led to a resurgence through out the country in the craft traditions and earned Fenollosa the title of the “Boddhisattva of Art” among the Japanese.
Despite the fact that much of Fenollosa’s analysis of oriental art in light of more “professional” attitudes in sinology, were as at least as inaccurate as Ruskin’s understanding of the Middle Ages, his theories nonetheless had a wide influence. Among his readers, was Ezra Pound who adopted several ideas from Fenollosa concerning the poetic line, its manipulation of sound, and the ideogramatic aspects of the word. Fenollosa’s text, “The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry”, was edited posthumously by Pound in 1920, and was influential on Imagism as well as the later Concrete Poetry of the Brazilian “Noigandres” group.
Dow became friends with Fenollosa in Boston, when the later had returned to teach there in the late 1880’s. Dow subsequently adopted a “new system” of teaching art based on “universal principles” which Fenollosa had set forth in a series of public lectures on oriental art as well as discussed with Dow in private. These principles in turn became the basis for Dow’s “Composition” and which were at first called the “Fenollosa-Dow System” of art instruction.
Alvin Langdon Coburn.
Rather than approach art training as “imitative drawing” which was the standard art training method of the times, Dow took a radical diversion with the understanding that the principles of structure were more fundamental to art than imitation. Under the influence of Fenollosa’s japanisme, Dow understood “space” (with its acoustical counterpart in “silence”) as being more significant than “line”. With a synthesesia borrowed from the synthetist poetics of the Symbolists, Dow proposed that the structural harmony of “good” pictorial art should be understood as music rather than just a visual mimic. That ART, no matter what the media might be, had certain universal design principles which were apparent in all its manifestations.
Not to be mistaken with just another amateur “photography magazine,” “Camera Work” in the early part of its existence, represented Arts & Crafts sensibilities that paved the way to the Armory Show and beyond. It not only presented (with the highest quality of photogravure available) the works of the best American photographers of the times, but also a variety of works by contemporary European painters. Not just bound to the visual arts either, a “special number” issue in 1912 for example, included two texts (“Henri Matisse” and “Pablo Picasso”) by Gertude Stein, publishing them a year before her profound “Tender Buttons” collection. An editorial introducing the two pieces, went on at length about the texts being a “new form” of literature: “...the Post-Impressionist spirit is found expressing itself in literary form.”
“Camera Work,” as it described itself in 1910, was the “Magazine without an ‘If’ – Fearless – Independent – Without favor.” Of particular interest here, are the various essays which wrestled with the problem of whether photography could be an art at all in an era of machine-age sensibilities, particularly with the affordable and easy-to-use box camera recently introduced to a wide public by Kodak for the taking of “snap shots.” The issue that a photograph, “capturing reality” without the aid of human intervention, as well as having the ability to exist as a multiple, could or could not by definition be ART, indeed reverberates throughout the pages of “Camera Work” and “291” to eventually be heard all the way to Zurich in 1916.
For example, Marius de Zayas’ essay “Photography and Artistic-Photography” (“Camera Work” 42/43, 1913), begins with:
PHOTOGRAPHY is not Art, but photographs can be made to be Art. When man uses the camera without any preconceived idea of final results, when he uses the camera as a means to penetrate the objective reality of facts, to acquire a truth, which he tries to represent by itself and not by adapting it to any system of emotional representation, then, man is doing Photography.
Photography, pure photography, is not a new system for the representation of Form, but rather the negation of all representative systems, it is the means by which the man of instinct, reason and experience approaches nature in order to attain the evidence of reality.
Photography is the experimental science of Form...
In another example, “The Straight and the Modified Print” (“Camera Work” 18, 1907, reprinted from the “Amateur Photographer”, London) by Robert Demachy, grapples with the aesthetic controversy which technology by its mere existence has created:
There is still a misunderstanding on the subject of the straight print, as opposed to the modified print. Some champions of pure photography, as it is called, will even deny that a modified print is a photograph at all...
Do not say that Nature being beautiful, and photography being able to reproduce its beauty, therefore photography is Art. This is unsound. Nature is often beautiful, of course, but never artistic “per se,” for there can be no art without the intervention of the artist in the making of the picture.
That the Photo-Secessionists largely moved away from experiments in chemical manipulation (such as development with gum, glycerine, carbon, platinum, palladium, etc. upon different substrates), which gave many of their photographs a “painterly” look, to pure or straight photography with its journalistic eye, is of particular interest, considering their strong support of non-representational painting styles resulting from such chemical experiments in the first place. In the hands of some one like Steiglitz, the straight photograph (such as his famous print, “The Steerage,” from 1907) portrayed a unique moment as a gritty, existential and concrete immediacy with biting social comment, that would be near impossible to attain by more impressionistic, painterly, manipulative procedures.
Man Ray (Emmanuel Rudnitzky).
Such issues remind me of similar discussions which I heard in the nineteen seventies between those who were doing electro-acoustic modification of the voice in sound poetry and those using straight vocal techniques. That the use of the tape recorder, continued to have an influence upon the kinds of vocal sound generated by those who had rejected all technology in favor of a purely natural, vocal-gymnastic style of work, is a point of similarity here. As manipulative techniques in photography had opened eyes to previously unperceived gestures, the existence of the tape recorder (and the electro-acoustic techniques which it had spawned) had modified everyone’s understanding of what the human voice could do even after many stopped relying upon technology in their compositions.
The essays of “Camera Work”, with all of their contradictions and Zen-like diversions, deal with photography as a subject which most resembles the later European notions of anti-art. Photography as a 19th century invention, was an early manifestation of the same international technological revolution in communication which included the telephone, the phonograph, the motion picture, the radio, etc., and brought the common man of the world essentially out of stone-age serfdom into a completely different way of being largely within a single generation. As such, much of what was first thought, written and produced by the Photo-Secession as art impinged and multiplied by technology, was repeated time and again as future inventions subsequently redefined art through out the century.
Apollinaire, Guillaume. Calligrammes: Poems of Peace and War (1913-1916). Translated by Anne Hyde Greet. With an Introduction by S. I. Lockerbie and Commentary by Anne Hyde Greet and S. I. Lockerbie. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980.
Ball, Hugo. Flight Out of Time: A Dada Diary. Edited with an introduction, notes, and bibliography by John Elderfield. Translated from Die Flucht aus der Zeit (1946) by Ann Raimes. New York: The Viking Press, The Documents of 20th-Century Art, 1974.
Banham, Reyner. Theory and Design in the First Machine Age. London: The Architectural Press, 1960. Second edition, New York: Praeger Publishers Inc., second printing, 1970.
Dow, Arthur Wesley. Composition: A Series of Exercises in Art Structure for the Use of Students and Teachers. 1899. Reprint, New York: Doubleday, Page and Co., Inc., 1913. Reprint, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997. Introduction by Joseph Masheck.
Fenollosa Ernest F. Epochs of Chinese and Japanese Art. In two volumes. Edited and introduction by Mary Fenollosa. New York: Frederick A. Stokes Company and William Heinemann, 1912. Reprint, of second (1913) edition, New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1963.
Fenollosa, Ernest. The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry. Edited by Ezra Pound. Instigations, London: 1920. Reprint, London: Villiers Publications Ltd. & City Lights Books, n.d.
Green, Jonathan, ed. Camera Work: A Critical Anthology. With Introduction by Jonathan Green. New York: Amperture, Inc., 1973.
Green, Nancy E. Arthur Wesley Dow and American Arts & Crafts. Exhibition catalogue, with essays by Nancy E. Green and Jessie Poesch. New York: The American Federation of Arts, 1999.
Kenner, Hugh. The Pound Era. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971.
Kuenzli, Rudolf E., ed. New York Dada. Issue number 14 of Dada/Surrealism. Iowa: The University of Iowa, 1985. Reprint, New York: Willis Locker & Owens, 1986.
Leavens, Ileana B. From “291” to Zurich: The Birth of Dada. Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1983.
Philippi, Simone, ed. Alfred Stieglitz Camera Work: The Complete Illustrations 1903- 1917. With introduction “Alfred Stieglitz, 291 Gallery and Camera Work” by Pam Roberts. Italy: Benedikt Taschen Verlag GmbH, 1997.
Rothenberg, Jerome, ed. Revolution of the Word: A New Gathering of American Avant-garde Poetry 1914-1945. New York: Seabury Press, 1974.
Tashjian, Dickran. Skyscraper Primitives: Dada and the American Avant-garde, 1910-1925. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1975.
Whelan, Richard. Alfred Stieglitz: A Biography. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 1995.Previous (Valeri SCHERSTJANOI), Next (Sergei BIRJUKOW)