Listening to Ted Berrigan

Sunday, April 13th, 2014 by contromal

On Friday, I heard Eric Baus deliver a talk entitled “Listening to Digital Archives: Poetics & Recorded Sound” (this link is not the talk, but outlines much of the theoretical grounding for it). Baus outlined three modes of listening, which he cites from a French composer Michel Chion’s book Audio-Vision: Sound on Screen: 1- causal listening (applied to determine a sound’s origin), 2 – semantic listening (used to decipher meaning), and 3 – reduced listening (what Pierre Schaeffer calls “the traits of the sound itself, independent of its cause and of its meaning”).

I was really taken with this idea of listening to the recording itself. I believed that, if I could experience a poem through “reduced listening,” perhaps I could augment my experience of that poem. Baus recommended the use of “repetitive listening.” He references an essay by Michael Davidson entitled By ear he sd’: Audio-Tapes and Contemporary Criticism. Davidson writes,

“By listening over and over again to a reading, the listener begins to hear what the page can never render: the emphasis and character of the line, the pausing and halting of a voice among caesurae, the pattern of vowel music, the tone of delivery—and of course those points where the ear has failed and the line has gone flat. The ear hears the general trajectory of words, the large movements of syntactic play, the rhythms, which remain as much the meaning of the poem as does its semantic content.” (par. 26)

So with this project in mind, I scoured Ubu until I came across a recording entitled “Ted Berrigan: To Jack Kerouac.” I listened to it 20 or so times. It’s important to note now something I did not know until the end, because I didn’t want my listening to be disrupted by the visual at this point. Berrigan’s poemis much shorter than this recording:

to Jack Kerouac

Bye-bye, Jack.
See you soon.

At first, I wanted to fill in the narrative that went along with this short (49 second recording). Who exactly was Ted Berrigan? (late beat poet) How did he know Jack Kerouac? (friend and contemporary) When did each live and die? (Kerouac 1922-69, Berrigan 1934-83) Were they friends? (seems that way) This poem was written for Jack Kerouac, after his death. But this wasn’t really important for what I was TRYING to do.

I fought the urge to follow this narrative line of questioning and trained my musical ear on what I heard:
– The first half of the recitation primarily takes on a “leading” tone (almost an interrogative tone). However, whenever Berrigan refers to something that sounds finite the tone of his voice “goes down” (still working on the lingo). For example: “died,” “to go to him,” “to send to him,” “to Jack Kerouac,” “Thank you.”
– Berrigan’s voice cracks slightly in three places (added a truly emotional element to the reading): “writer,” “died,” “far away”
– Berrigan’s breath was short. These quick inhales punctuated the recitation in a way that made it seem somewhat frantic or hard to repeat.
– Berrigan sets a rhythm with the first lines of the recitation “Beautiful / American Writer” and disrupts this flow with “Died.” Perhaps how he viewed Kerouac’s death: unexpected, but following something beautiful.

Then, I thought about media archaeology. For me, the most obvious concern was the telegram. Why a telegram for a dead man? Telegrams signify urgency. Telegrams require a recipient. The natural form of a telegram shaped the staccato of those single-syllable lines. This telegram, in particular, carried a message that, out of context, might sound eager or excited. But spoken, Berrigan’s lines convey grief and the complexity of the emotions he experienced. Certainly an unanswered telephone or a lengthy letter would not have had the same, abruptly succinct effect on the reader/listener (or on Berrigan). Perhaps Berrigan could have written “Postcard,” instead. But urgency was key. I wonder if he really sent Kerouac a telegram or if it was only a prop for his poem.

I wondered, too, about the role of the microphone. Berrigan’s t’s and s’s pierce the recording, making the listening experience that much more jarring. But the background is completely silent, as if the recording occurs in a studio. This silence, paired with Berrigan’s “thank you” at the end of his recitation, completely confused me. Whom was Berrigan thanking? Kerouac? A live audience? The sound recorder?

Repetitive, reduced listening complicated my response to “Telegram.” What strikes me most is how bonded I feel to the Berrigan and this poem. It’s like living in 2D, experiencing 3D, and wondering how I can go back.


2 comments on “Listening to Ted Berrigan

  1. sdileonardi says:

    That’s so cool, what a great experiment. I wonder if any of our theoretical readings for this week could inform us of your reaction to your repetitive readings of the poem. I’m thinking of how Kittler reacts to Ebbinghaus’ repetition of syllables so that they actually lose all meaning, creating a void in the brain where traditional knowledge of language resides, thus making it possible to have a tabula rasa kind of interaction with language.
    Did repeating the poem enhance its meaning or strip the words of meaning? Were you paying such close attention to listening, sound, noise, microphones, etc that you lost touch with the poem itself, and maybe in a good way?

  2. Your post gets me thinking about whether a poem can truly lose semantic meaning if listened to enough times, and be heard “anew” in some way. I think it’s possible with a single word..I’ve done the trick before of repeating one word aloud over and over again until it “turns into” sound or just feels bizarre and void of meaning. (Or, given our class discussion from several weeks ago, would that be noise over sound?) But I wonder if even a short poem, such as the one you’ve provided, would ever make this such a turn for me. I feel, as word after word links together, it becomes increasingly different to transcend the structure we’ve been so engrained to recognize. I feel my experience would first be a deepening of the poem’s meaning, followed by boredom shortly after…perhaps the process with a longer work just takes even more repetition….but then again, who has the patience for that?

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