UC Elliston Workshop Outline - Pedagogy and Poetry Audio

Kenneth Sherwood
5 October 2013

But the meaning of a poem is not already there latent in the pattern of words, as a dictionary definition is available as a ready equivalent of any ordinary word in circulation. The production of meaning by a poem is an intersubjective process extended over time, many individuals, and only ever partially available for cognitive reflection. (Peter Middleton, Distant Reading xv)

During the past forty years, more and more poets have used forms whose sound patterns are made up--that is, their poems to not follow received or prefabricated forms. It is for these poets that the poetry reading has taken on so much significance. For the sound shapes of the poems of such practitioners are often most immediately and viscerally heard in performance (taped or live), even if the attuned reader might be able to hear something comparable in her or his own (prior) reading of the text. (Charles Bernstein, Close Listening 6).

I. Overview: Uses of Poetry Audio

Teaching Poetry

What do we teach when we teach poetry?

Teaching Audio

How is audio relevant? It can:

The Aural Backstory

Digitization and public archives have recently made audio recordings of poetry more widely available to readers, students, and teachers and American poetry of the last fifty years has arrived at a "new orality." However, the relevance of audio to the study and appreciation of poetry is as much a product of the oral roots (Foley) of poetry as a genre. John Foley explains that if the hundred thousand years of human history were imagined as a single species year, alphabetic literacy doesn't emerge until late November; "so writing is recent and literature is rare." Even today there are nearly 7000 living languages but only 78 living print literatures. A minority of languages spawned a print literature, but many have poetry. For instance, of the 55 recognized languages spoken within China today, all 55 have a poetic tradition.

"As much as we prize the textual phenomenon of litearture, and as firmly ensconced as it is in both our academic instutions and our everyday lives, this letter-based species of verbal art proves statistically the rarest of cultural phenomenon. (Foley, How to Read an Oral Poem 24)

The genre conventions of poetry vary from culture to culture but nearly all are grounded in oral performance and aural reception. In academic study, this crucial oral/aural dimension is often neglected as a dimension of poetry appreciation, teaching or scholarship. Outside of the coffeehouse, poetry is often read silently and alone. Audio recordings suggest teaching benefits.

From Close Listening Transcription to Audio Remix

Audio Poetry Spectra

We might think of the possible approaches to poetry audio in terms of several spectra:

a.) close to distant listening; b.) micro-analysis to inspired extensions
c.) set towards the poem-text to a set towards the social

Discussion of a Range of Approaches

In the next two sessions, we will look at two specific forms of engagement with audio recordings. But first, let's explore an outline of 9 different approaches

Learning Activities - 9 Approaches to using poetry audio in teaching.

II. Close Listening Transcription

The pedagogical uses of tapes are extensive, providing the class in modern poetry with a kind of primary evidence which reinforces the page. . . . By listening over and over again to a readings, 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. It is finally this rule of the ear that challenges the search for a poem’s dissociable content, its strategies of representation, its structural parallels, and oppositions (Michael Davidson, "By ear, he sd': Audio-Tapes and Contemporary Criticism.")

What is transcription?

In terms of the aural spectra, transcription tends to emphasize: close listening; micro-analysis; and a set towards the poem-text.

Poetry, transcription involves repeated listening and notation of content plus the paralinguistic features that accompany words in oral speech (tempo, pauses, tone, pitch/intonational contour). Various methods tend to recognize a trade-off between notational precision and legibility. Scholars in linguistics and other fields have also developed methods for transcribing speech. However, in literary studies I propose that there are two families of approaches, aligned, respectively, with digital humanities and ethnopoetics: standardized and expressive transcription.

Learning Via Transcription

Standardized transcription:

Simple Creeley transcription

Expressive transcription:

Sample Transcriptions

Expressive Transcription Workshop Activity

  1. Select a poem audio file
  2. Use Audacity to trim the file to just the poem
  3. Listen once through
  4. Determine 3-5 types of features you will notate
  5. Determine how you will mark these features (illustrate or describe the key)
  6. Transcribe the verbal content of the text
  7. Visually mark the paralinguistic features
  8. Share

(You can use Word, Paint, Adobe, or even a simple pen and paper. Audacity or other visualization tools such as Sonic Visualizer can also be helpful in navigating what may be difficult to hear.)

Share draft transcriptions


III. Creative and Critical Podcasts / Audio Response

It is precisely because sound is an arational or nonlogical feature of language that it is so significant for poetry--... Sound is language's flesh, its opacity as meaning marks it material embeddendess in the world of things. Sound brings writing back from its metaphysical and symbolic functions to where it is at home, in performance. (Charles Bernstein, Close Listening 21)

Why Podcast?

What kind of podcast? Or what are the goals of making a podcast?

Poetry audio podcasts can take a variety of formats, ranging from critical commentary in audible form to instuctional/ expository remixes, maships or creative compositions only loosely inspired by the primary texts. In the teaching of literature, we are well advised to entertain possibilities at the far end of the spectrum. The native digital practices of our students provides one rationale; further, digital humanities practice emphasizes the potential for new methods and tools to destabalize practices of reading and interpretation, what McGann and Samuels have sometimes called deformation.

Poems, after all, aren't transmitters of information, and if we usually read them in a linear mode, we know that they also (and simultaneously) move in complex recursive ways.... In this perspective, the critical and interpretive question is not "what does the poem mean?" but "how do we release or expose the poem's possibilities of meaning?".... As Dickinson elegantly puts it, "A Something overtakes the Mind," and we are brought to a critical position in which we can imagine things about the text that we didn't and perhaps couldn't otherwise know. (Jerome McGann and Lisa Samuels, Deformance and Interpretation from Radiant Textuality: Literature After the World Wide Web) fuller quotation


There are a range of podcasting possibilities, from critical commentary and instructional/expository pieces to remixes, mashups and creative compositions.

Brief Discussion

Steps to Making a Podcast

  1. select a poem
  2. download and isolate the poem audio
  3. decide on a podcast format / purpose
  4. optional: tag audio; outline the main elements, or script it
  5. optional: record additional voices
  6. edit and mix down to Mp3
  7. share projects (2-3 mins. max)

IV. Access, Derrivative Uses, and the Digital Repository

Discuss Podcasts

The Pedagogy of Remix

A second value in remix extends beyond the value of a community. Remix is also and often, as Mimi Ito describes, a strategy to excite “interest-based learning.” As the name suggests, interest-based learning is the learning driven by found interests. When kids get to do work that they feel passionate about, kids (and, for that matter, adults) learn more and learn more effectively. . . . As Henry Jenkins notes, “[M]any adults worry that these kids are ‘copying’ preexisting media content rather than creating their own original works.”36 But as Jenkins rightly responds, “More and more literacy experts are recognizing that enacting, reciting, and appropriating elements from preexisting stories is a valuable and organic part of the process by which children develop cultural lit- eracy.” Parents should instead, Jenkins argues, “think about their [kids’] appropriations as a kind of apprenticeship.” They learn by remixing. Indeed, they learn more about the form of expression they remix than if they simply made that expression directly. (Lawrence Lessig, Remix).

Human culture is always derivative, and music perhaps especially so. New art builds on old art. We hear music, process it, reconfigure it, and create something derivative but new. . . . Twentieth-century recording technology brought this pervasive culture of reuse to a new level. . . . Digital recording technology revolutionizes and democratizes this recycling process, making complex manipulation of recorded fragments easy and relative affordable. . . .The cultural practice of sampling meshes very poolry with copyright, the body of law which turns creative expression into private property. (Daphne Keller, "The Musician As Thief" in Miller, Sound Unbound.)

Closing Discussion