Surrealist Doodle

Surrealist Doodle
This was used as the cover of Karawane in 2006 and I have included it in on a number of bags and postcards over the years. Someone on the subway asked me if it was a Miro. I was very flattered!

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Tracie Morris, Sartre, and Sound Poetry

In Sartre’s What is Literature, he says that painting and poetry cannot be political. This is because , “it does not transmit . . . .clear and unambiguous meaning. ” In other words, it is poetry’s lack of transparency that bothers Sartre. Sartre prefers language that lays it out, that spells out what it intends to do that interests him. In poetry, he argues, the poet serves words rather than utilizing them toward a political end. To a poet, words are signs, they are things to make use of, to point to other things. They are, for poets, “natural things which sprint naturally upon the earth like grass and trees. ”

But it is precisely their imprecision that poets can use to lay bare not only the world itself, but the very abuse of language, the ambiguities which today and in Sartre’s time as well, are used by corporations, governments, and demagogues to hide their actions and intentions. George Orwell wrote about this toward the end of his life, in both Politics and the English Language and then later in 1984.

Further, Sartre is overlooking the unique function that the image, which is what both forms truly work in, can play. And poetry, having the dual role of presenting verbal images has a very special role to play of bridging the linguistic and the visual. When the added component of performance is added, the image can be manipulated before our eyes, cut up, reorganized, rearranged, and it can be done uniquely and freshly every single time, something that avant-garde painters have been unable to do. Consider, for example, Tracie Morris’ poem Project Princess.

Project Princess is one of Morris’ most commonly anthologized poems – both on the page and in performance. In the 1990s it was published in Aloud: Voices from the Nuyorican Poets ’ Café (1994), The Outlaw Bible of American Poetry (1999), and in the booklet and on the website accompanying the cd and video documentary United States of Poetry (1996). Morris describes Project Princess as the first poem where she began to experiment with sound. terms of imagery and poetic language, the piece is relatively “straightforward,” particularly for a piece designated as a “sound poem.” That is to say sound poems have generally been associated with avant-garde practices, usually based on sound over meaning, breaking down of syllables, non-sense used for its sonic properties. Reading this in print, it is full of metaphors and visual images, rhyme schemes, all the things we have come to expect in a poem. This would not be a particularly difficult poem for an average reader of poetry to pick up and understand. It may be a particularly gratifying poem, especially for someone looking to see themselves, their childhood growing up in the projects, reflected on the stage.

Jed Rasula’s “Understanding the Sound of Not Understanding” focuses on sound poems as existing almost exclusively outside of intelligibility and emphasizes the sonic in poetry to the virtual exclusion of a literary genre anchored in meaning. In fact, Morris herself has cited “the work of Kurt Schwitters . . . which I first heard of via Edwin Torres” as one of the major influences on her sound poems. “Project Princess,” while thick with the “usual” poetic devices of description, metaphor, and the properties of rhyme, alliteration, etc., is a much more intelligible work than either of these two early Dada examples. The piece starts with a description, from the ground up, of this young woman:

Teeny feet rock layered double socks
The popping side piping of
many colored loose lace-ups
Racing toe keeps up with fancy free gear,
slick slide and just pressed recently weaved hair.

Jeans oversized belying her hips, back, thighs that have made guys sigh
for milleni-year
Topped by an attractive jacket
her suit’s not for flacking, flunkies, or punk homies on the stroll.

The actual performance of “Project Princess” is significantly different and I have attempted here to transcribe the United States of Poetry version for the point of comparison, notating emphasized words with boldface and indicating tempo and style of performance as best as I can:

Teeny feet rock layered double socks
So-so-s-s-s-socks [soft whispering s sounds]
Teeny feet rock layered double socks
So-so-s-s-socks [harder cks sound—almost moves into a cha cha cha sound]

Teeny feet rock layered double socks
The poppingsidepiping of many colored loose lace ups
Racing toe, keeps up with fancy free gear
slick slide, just pressed, recently weaved hair

[Scatting/jazz style]
Jeans oversized
Jeans oversized
Jajajala jeans ova jeans ova jeans oversized
bely her hip, back, thighs have made guys sigh for milleni-year

Topped by an attractive jacket
her suit’s not for flacking, flunkies, junkies or punk homies on the stroll .


This has, to my mind, a similar effect to that of Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase or say one of Picasso’s Paintings of Dora Maar. It is not, as Rasula asserts, completely outside of intelligibility. It is still recognizable as an image, but the image has been interrupted, cut, redrawn in a new way that forces us to look at it differently. When you hear this piece performed, you perform the listening equivalent of a double-take, a second look. Like looking at a Picasso painting, you can focus purely on the aesthetics, in this case, the sound of Morris as she performs this poem, glossing over the changes, but for those who want to dig deeper, you can find meaning in the ways that the poem/image is disrupted. With Morris, each time she performs the poem, it’s different, allowing endless revisions and permutations.

1 comment:

danaShore said...

wang dang doodle!