LINER NOTES: Ideas & Discoveries
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TWO SIDES FOR WALLACE STEVENS


SIDE A:
IMAGE, RECONSTRUCT, ERASE NOISE, ETC.


On October 8, 1954, Wallace Stevens recorded a series of poems, including “An Ordinary Evening in New Haven,” at the Transradio Studio in Boston, at the behest of Jack Sweeney, then-curator of the Woodberry Poetry Room. The performance of “An Ordinary Evening” was left off of a subsequent remastering of the recording (the version that was cataloged) and was lost to researchers until current Woodberry Poetry Room’s curator Christina Davis and assistant curator Mary Graham rediscovered it in 2014. [1] The recording, available here, presents a slow and stately but also rough-hewn and cough-interrupted performance by Stevens. It is also significantly cut and reordered. [2]

But the record does not end there. As a result of the Poetry Room’s inclusion in a recent pilot project organized by the Northeast Document Conservation Center, the 33 1/3 microgroove recording of Stevens was “read” by the new audio-visualization technology, IRENE (short for: Image, Reconstruct, Erase Noise, Etc.). IRENE “sees sound” by creating images of the grooves etched into old recording mediums and using a “digital stylus” to transform those images into sound. [3] The technology can thus reconstruct sounds preserved on damaged media (broken glass records, cracked cylinder recordings) and other delicate materials, such as the Stevens microgroove disc. IRENE’s digital transformation of visual information into acoustic information opens the possibility not only for a new wave of archival preservation and discovery but also for a theoretical return to the origin of phonography as sound-writing and sound-reading. Listen here:

The visualization and subsequent audio playback of the Stevens recording—which Davis and Graham brought to our attention on a recent visit to the Poetry Room—produced many anomalies: not only a high degree of surface noise but also a series of ghostly repetitions, digital “skips” of the digital stylus. I hear the “noise” and “skips”—products of a one-off experiment in digital playback and recording—as felicitous deformations of both the text and Stevens’ reading. They open up a way of listening to the poem’s own difficult re-reading of the substance of experience. [4]

In other words, in this recording I hear IRENE practicing a kind of unconscious deformative criticism. [5]

The first way in which it does this is by foregrounding mediation itself. For Theodor Adorno the acoustic images grooved into a substrate are a kind of writing that “relinquishes its being as mere signs: [it remains] inseparably committed to the sound that inhabits this and no other acoustic groove.” [6] This “inseparable commitment” suggests a relationship of indexical association rather than symbolic reference. Indexes produce significance by proximity and causality. The sonic inhabitation of “this and no other acoustic groove” indexes the variety of transductions (all the various conversions of one kind of energy to another kind by acoustic, visual, mechanical, and electronic means) enfolded within the sound.

IRENE’s sounding out of the record’s writing out of Stevens’ sounding produces a layering of traces: Stevens’ coughs index a bodily substrate of the voice; the pops and crackling sounds index the surface of the record itself; the droning background noise indexes the shadows, dust, and other atmospheric inconsistencies between imaging camera and vinyl surface.

This layering of traces produces a set of rhythms embedded within IRENE’s recorded “reading”: 1.) the audible change in the frequency-envelope as the record turns, 2.) the continuous high-frequency static, 3.) the occasional distortions when Stevens voice enters, 4.) the mechanical interpolation of silences in the track, and 5.) the rhythm of the vocalized text itself. Adding to this complex of periodicities, the machine—in a kind of “skip”—sometimes re-reads segments of sound-text again. It thus “folds in” [7] Stevens upon Stevens, such that the iconic opening lines

The eye’s plain version is a thing apart,
The vulgate of experience. Of this,
A few words, an and yet, and yet, and yet—

become:

The eye’s plain version is a thing apart,
The vulgate of experience. Of this,
A few words, an
And as yet, the vulgate of experience. Of this,
A few words, an
And as yet, and yet, and yet—


These repetitions are not the traces of the Stevens who coughed and wheezed his way through the poem back in 1954, with Jack Sweeney looking on. Rather, they help reveal a “voice function” that parallels the “author function” of the text.

In the original recording, “Stevens” exists as an anthropomorphic and ventriloquized mask behind which a complex set of technological, auditory and cultural processes are at work. IRENE’s repetitions present a ripple, or cross-rhythm, that interrupts this ascription of “voice” within the recording.[8] Sure, there is the recognizable set of timbres we associate with a particular person—Wallace Stevens—but IRENE’s re-voicing and re-arrangement of the text breaks down the figurative nature of that metonymic association.

In this optical digitization, this “reading” (and hence, “interpretation”) of Stevens’ “An Ordinary Evening in New Haven,” indexical excess, multiplied periodicity and metonymic breakdown produce a rather noisy syntax. Or, to use Stevens’ language: a rebarbative “vulgate.” And yet these sounds—imagined as a reading and writing through Stevens’ language and voice—enact “an and yet, and yet, and yet” that sutures invisible intricacies to the “eye’s plain version.” We sense an expanded syntax beyond the text alone: a syntax of etched-out sound waves, acoustic patterns, speech, mouth sounds, coughs, room reverberation, microphone distortion, electromagnetic interference, hum, buzz, plastic polymer resistance, scratched vinyl, caked dust, atmospheric conditions, shadow and light.

 

SIDE B: WALLACE STEVENS AND IRENE | A CASE STUDY

The machine, writes Roland Barthes, constitutes “the most serious of threats: the loss of the body.”[9] And yet, like the body itself, every effort to preserve the body, is doomed to fail—and every representation is the presentation of this fatality. It is the (originary, recurrent) temporal rupture whereby the “bringing forth” of poesis is interrupted through its exposition—creating the traumatic breach techne then compels itself to fill.

In an effort to preserve the record (or, more accurately, to slow its inevitable deterioration) IRENE encounters the object as an image—a technological innovation not so dissimilar, perhaps, to the ordinary processes through which the human being “reads,” and thus renders intelligible, the phenomenal world. It is, after all, neither objects nor ideas in themselves, but the “fleeting, flickering, blurred images” of our immediate sensory experience that constitute both the “miserable beginning of the activity of thought” and the continuous territory of dreams. [10]

And just like ordinary human perception, IRENE has proved limited; rather than a copy of an original, we are presented with an imperfect translation: a creative, collaborative effort all its own, in which the breach between “reality” and the “imagination,” so crucial to Wallace Stevens’ poetics, is rendered audible through the repetition compulsion of the machine.

Taking for granted the accidental nature of the material generated through this unique collaboration (involving Stevens, a recording device, IRENE, and time), within a “secondary speech genre,” which must, after Michael Eskin, be understood as structurally “fictional” [11], we may say that “it is no accident” that the first point at which the record snags, and is compelled to repeat itself, is itself a point of repetition. [12]

The eye’s plain version is a thing apart,
The vulgate of experience. Of this,
A few words, an
And as yet, the vulgate of experience. Of this,
A few words, an
And as yet, and yet, and yet— (0:40 – 1:20)

Like all verbal repetition, this repetition simultaneously seeks to emphasize and diminish meaning. It strives to literalize the poem as the “never-ending meditation” to which it refers, to eliminate the distance between life and “the theory of poetry,” between poetry and “the theory of life.”[13]

Of what is this house composed if not of the sun,

These houses, these difficult objects, dilapidate
Appearances of what appearances,
Words, these difficult objects, dilapidate
Appearances of what appearances,
Words, lines…. (1:30 – 2:05)

It is not the sun—both origin and end—and neither is it the refracted, reflective space between, but the object that is “difficult,” here, which snags. Which resists its own imagination (literally: its becoming image), and repeats itself, stalling (again quite literally) for time.

Like a dream, techne (a category into which of course we must include language) functions allegorically, and “cannot clearly distinguish between what is and what ought to be.”[14] It generates nothing on its own, but can only repeat itself in a double effort: on the one hand, to distance itself from the rupture between the present and the past, and on the other, to recuperate what has been lost.

Much like a new resemblance of the sun,
Down-pouring, up-springing and inevitable,
A larger poem for a larger, much like a new
Resemblance of the sun, down-pouring,
Up-springing and inevitable,
A larger poem…. (2:29 – 2:56)

“Poetry is a revelation in words by means of the words,” wrote Stevens in The Noble Rider[15] It is not only, that is, despite, but precisely because language refuses to adhere to the real, and is as driven as the body away from its origin toward its more or less literal end, that it presents us with the material possibility both of redeeming the past (even as it retreats ever further from view) and inventing the future (even as it remains impossibly out of reach).

Reality is the beginning not the end,
Naked Alpha, not the hierophant Omega,
Of dense investiture, with luminous vassals,

It is the infant A standing on infant legs,
Not twisted, stooping, polymathic Z,
He that kneels always on the edge of space

In the pallid perceptions of its distances,
polymathic Z,
He that kneels always on the edge of space

In the pallid perceptions of its distances…. (3:47 – 4:43)

It is what reality is not that repeats here: a reminder that the fatality of language is also our own. That however stridently we insist on the reality of “the beginning,” “Reality” always returns in “the end.” (In the guise of an old man, perhaps, who repeats “endlessly” the same old story…Who interrupts reality to announce “some knowledge” of reality; of having “been there, let me tell you….”)

These characters are around us in the scene.
For one it is enough; for one it is not;
For neither is it profound absentia,

Since both alike appoint themselves;
for one it is not; for neither is it profound absentia,
Since both alike appoint themselves the choice…. (4:43 – 5:35)

Here it is the rupture itself, a “profound absentia” between the record and the real that functions as the obstacle over which language cannot pass. And yet it does pass. Via a double negation (as elsewhere in Stevens’ work [16]): “For neither is it profound absentia,” suggests, of course, at least the possibility of “profound” presence—a possibility both affirmed and denied by the machinic stutter.

Machines inherit the compulsive, reflexive effort by which the body attempts not to restore but to invent from the fleeting and flickering images of its immediate sensory experience some object. The history of machines is therefore the history of the assemblage and dissolution of the body. No technological advance in communication has yet eliminated the essential “stammer” of language: “What has been said,” writes Barthes, “cannot be unsaid, except by adding to it.” [17]

We keep coming back and coming back
To the real: the hotel instead of the hymns
That fall upon it out of the wind. We seek

The poem of pure reality, untouched
By trope or deviation, straight to the word,
Straight to the transfixing object, to the object

At the exactest point at which it is itself,
Transfixed [18] by being purely what it—straight to the
Transfixing object, to the object

At the exactest point at which it is itself
Transfixed by being purely what it is….  (6:27 – 7:19)

But at increasing distance. Just as the universe, expanding ever-outward, creates an “arrow of time,” connecting the present to the past.

Perhaps it is this—this constant, uncertain relation—that constitutes Stevens’s “Poem of pure reality.” A relation that is “fixed,” but across an inconceivable and shifting distance. A gradual dissolution of edges—of an “exactest point” from which to read the difference.

The eye made clear of uncertainty, with the sight
Of simple seeing, without reflection. We seek
Nothing beyond reality. Within it,

Everything, the spirit’s alchemicana
Included, the spirit that goes roundabout
And through included, Everything, the spirit’s

Alchemicana included, the spirit that goes roundabout
And through included, not merely the visible…. (7:30 – 8:10)

So, even the transforming thing—that which “goes round about and through”—is compelled to repeat. It is not just lack, then (the gap between signifier and signified, present and the past, the anticipated or actual loss of the body) that cannot be absorbed by language, but also spiritual excess: “the coming on of feasts and the habits of saints, / The pattern of the heavens and high, night air.” [19]

And yet:

The phrase grows weak. The fact takes up the strength
Of the phrase. It contrives the self-same ev-

The phrase grows weak. The fact takes up the strength
Of the phrase. It contrives the self-same evocation…. (9:25 – 9:52)

Detached from the body, the phrase breaks down. Each word, each syllable, each grain of breath, becomes a fact of itself, assumes an identity, hopes secretly that it will be the repeated thing.

Rather than carelessness or inattention, the record’s stutter indicates an assiduousness bordering on obsession. It is the paroxysm by which the voice is seized in an effort to overtake the word, to finish the sentence in a single breath.

For though finite, material, and confined to the limits of interpretation, the record, like the poem, wants to take place now and only now:

The poet speaks the poem as it is,
Not as it was: part of the reverberation
Of a windy night as it is, when the marble statues
Are like newspapers blown by the wind. He speaks

By sight and insight as they are. There is no
Tomorrow for him. The wind will have, by the wind
He speaks. By sight and insight as they are. There is no

Tomorrow for him. The wind will have passed by,
The statues will have gone back to be things about…. (11:42 – 12:38)

It could be said that the strange acoustics of the wind itself are enacted in the repetition of this phrase: a rendering audible of the invisible play of light upon the object of the past.

And leaves in whirlings in the gutters.

Leaves burnished in autumnal burnished trees,

And leaves in whirlings in the gutters, whirlings
Around and away, resembling the presence of thought,
Resembling the presences of thought, as if,

In the end, in the whole psychology, the self,
The town, the weather, in a casual litter, together,
said words of the world are the life of the world, in a casual litter,
Together, said words of the world are the life of the world…. (13:03 – 14:13)

Is there “an escape from repetition”? [20] A way, if not of redeeming the past and of securing, revising or staving off the future, at least a way of revealing, within the space of the repetition itself, some verifiable—artless—commitment between what appears and what fails to appear? Between thought and language, speech and the body, the past and the present? Between what has been and is, and what “ought to be”?

A more severe, more harassing master would extemporize
Subtler, more urgent proof that the theory
Of poetry is the theory of life,

As it is, in the intricate evasions of as,
that the theory of poetry is the theory of life,
As it is, in the intricate evasions of as,
In things seen and unseen, created from nothingness…. (21:24 – 22:11)

But what more proof do we need?  Than this, unmastered—unmasterable—record? Than to be transfixed, like this, across ever increasing distances, by

…the less legible meaning of sounds,
The less legible meaning of sounds”?

(25:12 – 25:32)

 

ENDNOTES:

[1] See more at: https://blogs.harvard.edu/houghton/2014/11/07/re-sounding-wallace-stevens/#note

[2] More information about the recording’s provenance from Christina Davis: “Because the early 1950s was a transitional period for recording technology, it remains unclear whether the Stevens recordings were originally made on magnetic tape or lacquer disc. The Poetry Room has discovered a series of ‘master tapes’—also dated October 8, 1954—that suggests that the initial recording format may have been reel-to-reel. It was a practice of the Poetry Room in the mid-century to transfer recordings originally made on tape to disc for more convenient playback.”

[3] More at the “Seeing Sound” blog: https://www.nedcc.org/audio-preservation/irene-blog/

[4] It is important to emphasize that this IRENE version of the recording was a “first draft” in the process of working with this particular format. The NEDCC pilot focused primarily on earlier formats (cylinders, lacquer on metal or glass discs), and the Poetry Room gave them this recording because of the rarity and importance of the content. NEDCC’s experiments with challenging formats allowed them to discover new solutions for problematic or seemingly “unlistenable” objects. Their work has dramatically opened up the archival possibilities for sound studies, and they have been successful in making available important archival recordings from microgroove discs, coarse groove discs (like lacquer on glass or metal), wax cylinders, and more.

[5] see Jerome McGann and Lisa Samuels, “Deformance and Interpretation.” New Literary History 30.1 (1999): 25–56.

[6] “The Form of the Phonograph Record” Essays on Music. (Berkeley: California UP) ed. Richard Leppert, p. 280.

[7] A technique in deformation practiced by William Burroughs after Tristan Tzara. See:  http://www.writing.upenn.edu/~afilreis/88v/burroughs-cutup.html

[8] Yopie Prins and Charles Bernstein (among others) draw attention to this anthropomorphic listening. See Yopie Prins, “Voice Inverse,” Victorian Poetry, Vol. 42, No. 1 (Spring, 2004), pp. 43-60, and Charles Bernstein, “Making Audio Visible: The Lessons of Visual Language for the Textualization of Sound,” Text, Vol. 16 (2006), pp. 277-289.

[9] “The Rustle of Language.” The Rustle of Language. Trans. Richard Howard (Berkeley: California University Press), 1989. p 76.

[10] Türcke, Christoph. Philosophy of Dreams. Trans. Susan H. Gillespie. (New Haven: Yale University Press), 2013. p 35

[11] “On Literature and Ethics.” Poetics Today 25:4 (Winter 2004). p 586.

[12] All of the block quotations that follow are transcriptions of the IRENE recording of Wallace Stevens’ “An Ordinary Evening in New Haven.”

[13] Stevens, Wallace. Collected Poetry and Prose. Eds. Frank Kermode and Joan Richardson. (New York: Literary Classics of the United States, Inc.), 1997. p 415.

[14] Türcke, Christoph. Philosophy of Dreams. Trans. Susan H. Gillespie. (New Haven: Yale University Press), 2013. p 34.

[15] Stevens, Wallace. Collected Poetry and Prose. Eds. Frank Kermode and Joan Richardson. (New York: Literary Classics of the United States, Inc.), 1997. p 663.

[16] In “The Snowman,” for example, it is the double negative, “the nothing that is not there” (Collected Poetry and Prose, New York: Literary Classics), 1997. p 8), that clears the way for the immaculate copula.

[17] “The Rustle of Language.” The Rustle of Language. Trans. Richard Howard (Berkeley: California University Press), 1989. p 76.

[18] This innovation may be Stevens’s own: the published text reads “transfixing,” but Stevens can quite clearly be heard to say “transfixed”—emphasizing, through the difference, the traumatic break between the embodied present and its re-presentation. It is “the exactest point” of a thing, after all—the point at which it is “purely what it is”—that refuses re-incorporation.

[19] Stevens, Wallace. Collected Poetry and Prose. Eds. Frank Kermode and Joan Richardson. (New York: Literary Classics of the United States, Inc.), 1997. p 402. (In IRENE recording, 8:18-8:30.)

[20] Stevens, Wallace. Collected Poetry and Prose. Eds. Frank Kermode and Joan Richardson. (New York: Literary Classics of the United States, Inc.), 1997. p 412.

John Melillo & Johanna Skibsrud

John Melillo & Johanna Skibsrud

John Melillo (author of "Side A") and Johanna Skibsrud (author of "Side B") are Assistant Professors in the English Department at the University of Arizona. Melillo’s critical work focuses primarily upon the relationship between poetry, noise, and the mediation of sound, and he is completing a book project entitled "Outside In: Noisescapes from Dada to Punk." Skibsrud is currently working on a critical monograph on the relationship between poetry and philosophy in the work of Wallace Stevens. She is also a novelist and a poet; her most recent novel, QUARTET FOR THE END OF TIME, was published by W.W. Norton in 2014.
John Melillo & Johanna Skibsrud

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John Melillo (author of “Side A”) and Johanna Skibsrud (author of “Side B”) are Assistant Professors in the English Department at the University of Arizona. Melillo’s critical work focuses primarily upon the relationship between poetry, noise, and the mediation of sound, and he is completing a book project entitled “Outside In: Noisescapes from Dada to Punk.” Skibsrud is currently working on a critical monograph on the relationship between poetry and philosophy in the work of Wallace Stevens. She is also a novelist and a poet; her most recent novel, QUARTET FOR THE END OF TIME, was published by W.W. Norton in 2014.

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