In the current crisis, many things despite themselves give off a hollow sound, and not least the language pervading every public realm. This general hollowness, too, is by no means a new condition, to be sure, yet when it becomes so patent as now, one may well be prompted to call to mind moments from the past in which comparable difficulties were met with. Such moments, when the circumstances made it especially obvious that language, corroded already so far from within, could for the time being no longer really fulfill satisfactorily even its function of communicating meaning, are instructive not only with respect to language’s art of arts, that is, to poetry, but illuminate as well numerous works of that singular and sui generis art, music – as modern music, too, has shared in these paralyses of meaning. This common condition stand behind tonight’s Soundcloud selections.
Whenever the meaning within was evaporating, leaving a mere hollow shell, what path then remained for the poets – and the composers – to tread? The messenger could turn against the medium, that this very altercation be now nearly the whole of the message itself.
Towards the close of the period in which he still wrote mainly in English, Samuel Beckett, in a letter of July 9, 1937 to Axel Kaun, circumscribed both the problem as well as one quite plausible response to it, in doing so employing terms that were at once clear and yet allusive around the edges. In the course of his career thus far as a writer, he had begun to find himself confronted with the realization that “immer mehr wie ein Schleier kommt mir meine Sprache vor, den man zerreissen muss, um an die dahinterliegenden Dinge (oder das dahinterliegende Nichts) zu kommen,” and this need he felt prompted him to wait for the moment when “die Sprache da am besten gebraucht wird, wo sie am tüchtigsten missbraucht wird.” In accordance with his programmatic espousal of linguistic mischief, for the moment the extant language was for him still something like a necessary evil, and however serviceable it proved itself to be, it would nonetheless have to be handled as such. So, with a notable access of declamation, he said this about its treatment, by way of a conclusion: “Da wir sie so mit einem Male nicht ausschalten können, wollen wir wenigstens nicht versäumen, was zu ihrem Verruf beitragen mag. Ein Loch nach dem andern in ihr zu bohren, bis das Dahinterkauernde, sei es etwas oder nichts, durchzusickern anfängt – ich kann mir für den heutigen Schriftsteller kein höheres Ziel vorstellen.”
In one of the earliest enduring poems of T. S. Eliot, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” something like those holes were already being drilled into the usual language, and in the poet’s own reading of the work, if one listens well, one can hear the interior hollowness as it softly hisses out. Thanks to the Soundcloud page entitled Libraries and Archives, the recording is readily available, although in it Eliot omitted the epigraph he had taken from the Inferno, as though to underscore by the very omission its great importance to understanding his intentions; for these are lines which seem to declare how some poets may embrace frank speaking because they foresee not being heard, let alone understood. A strange shade of forthright speech (παρρησία)!
It may not stretch the terms too far to suggest that a comparable operation is performed upon the material of music in the final work of Morton Feldman, “For Samuel Beckett,” from 1987; at regular intervals the wind instruments bore into the rest of the music, sometimes with an organ-like persistence, reaching other sonic strata and releasing other sounds in the process: acoustic disclosure of a sequence of crevices that were neither fully expected nor entirely unforeseen, but whose existence was guessed at, having thus been somewhere in between. To uncover them as they deserve, a measure of finesse is required, and this the performance (now presented in part on Soundcloud) of the work by the Ensemble intercontemporain last October, conducted by Peter Rundel, nicely manifests.
In tonight’s final track, the recitation of another poem by the poet himself, “Anyone Lived in a Pretty How Town” by E. E. Cummings, the opening up of the caverns where meaning once was, is accomplished by the utilization of words as parts of speech other than those they commonly had been – here pronouns become proper names, while verbs, adverbs, or adjectives get made into nouns, and so on, and always wittily and with great feeling for the new resonance, melodiousness, and rhythmicity issuing forth from it all. Here the linguistic holes – and probably only the poet himself could know just where to drill them – permit deposits of joy in the language to bubble up to the surface, and thanks are owed to the Soundcloud page of Maria Popova’s “Brainpicker” project for making his reading freely available to the public.
On the same Soundcloud page one can also come across a cheeky snippet from an interview Gertrude Stein gave shortly after she arrived back in the USA for her 1934 lecture tour, and as a bonus I’ll include it here. (Despite an unfortunate amount of static in the recording, her speech can still be followed.)
Quite mischievously indeed, in these brief remarks she propounds a novel concept of comprehension. On the face of it, it is an unabashedly hedonic one – with obvious repercussions for the perception of music as well as of poetry. “Look here,” says Stein. “Being intelligible is not what it seems.” Apparently, then, in her usage of them the meanings of words are made to shift, while nearly everything comes to depend on the tone and the timing of the tongue. “I mean by understanding, enjoyment. If you enjoy it, you understand it.” An oracular word whose clarity is itself obscure? More than likely. But what the very notion of enjoyment might be understood as signifying, will have to remain a question to pursue on other occasions.