Poetry doesn’t always age well. Several traditional forms of poetry seem to be on their last dying breath. I run a literary journal. If anyone submits a sonnet or a villanelle to us, it’s a safe bet that the form is used somehow ironically.
I’m generally in favor of poets moving beyond traditional forms. But author Lane Chasek does the world an important service by reviving one nearly forgotten form of poetry: sound poetry. Unlike most established forms of poetry, which are based on strict structural rules, sound poetry is exactly the opposite, insisting on no formal structure whatsoever. Sound poetry goes so far as to do away with syntax and semantics entirely. This enables sound poems to explore musical and theatrical elements unlike any other form of poetry.
Although sound poetry was officially invented in the 20th century, it’s also an ancient form, with its roots in oral poetry traditions. In his book, “Hugo Ball and the Fate of the Universe: Adventures in Sound Poetry,” Chasek unites the ancient form with its 20th century figureheads, and then pulls it all into the present day. His book is also a reflection on the creative process more broadly, offering a personal narrative about the struggles of a poet in the modern world.
Below is an interview I conducted with Chasek via email about the making of his new book.
What got you interested in sound poetry?
Lane Chasek: I learned about the Dada movement from a friend I used to attend poetry open mics with, and I learned about sound poetry soon after. I never attempted writing a sound poem back then, but the idea always lingered in the back of my brain until I started writing this book. This was during my freshman year of college, so that would have been 2013.
But my fascination with nonsense dates back to childhood. I used to invent long, meaningless words when I first learned to read and write, and I’d plaster those words on my bedroom walls and the pages of any notebook I could get my hands on. It was fun, but I really think this phase was my way of testing the limits of language. I was only six or seven, and the idea of words was still fresh to me. I didn’t know what they could do, so I went a little wild with them.
What was the writing process for the book? Was it different in any way from your usual writing process?
This was my first attempt at long-form nonfiction. Given the nature of the Fair-Minded Fraud & Forgery series, I always thought of this project as creative scholarship. Compared to past projects, I was surprised by how much of my time writing this book was spent . . . well, not writing. Most of it was spent researching. I’d often go weeks without writing a single word. This was agonizing at first, but this process took me to some unexpected places.
For instance, I wrote a chapter where I combine the legend of the golem with the story of how my paternal great-grandfather came to the U.S. I never thought I’d write something like this, but it makes sense: an Eastern European city, mass carnage, an unpronounceable word that can create monsters. It’s a story about needless violence, heritage, and the power of language — themes which ultimately came to dominate my book.
The original working title for the book was “Notes of an Aspiring Sound Poet.” How did the book evolve from when you first sat down to start writing it?
Initially this book wasn’t going to focus so heavily on religion or science. So at the time, Notes of an Aspiring Sound Poet made sense as a title — I was (and still am) an aspiring sound poet, and these are my notes. But as my research expanded into cosmology, religion, and thermodynamics, I realized there was more at play here than sound poetry.
When Hugo Ball and the Fate of the Universe was suggested to me, the focus of my book suddenly made more sense. Hugo Ball is sound poetry’s earliest protagonist, but beyond Ball and his work, I’d found myself writing about entropy, randomness, number theory, warfare, theology, etc. By studying sound poetry I’d opened my mind to topics that involve our fate as a species and the fate of the universe.
The book is partly about your journey in writing your first sound poem. Did writing this book help you become a better sound poet?
It hurts to say this, but no. If anything, my research and my attempt at writing sound poetry proved how much I still have to learn. Sound poetry is a deceptive topic. It looks simple, but beneath the hood there are so many intersecting webs of music, politics, theatre, and history — very daunting. I wasn’t an expert when I started this book and I’m still not an expert. I’m a sound poetry novice, and I’m fine with that.
However, one thing that’s holding me back is the performative nature of sound poetry. It’s one thing to read a sound poem, but listening to one adds new dimensions and nuances. It’s like tasting artificial watermelon flavoring versus eating an actual slice of watermelon. Theatricality, I believe, is integral to great sound poetry, and a good sound poet always has some kind of performative flare. That flare is something I haven’t developed yet.
Sound poetry is a form of language but without semantics or syntax. How can you judge a good sound poem from a bad one? Is it mostly about the performance?
That’s a tricky one. It’s hard to put into words what works and doesn’t work in a poem that doesn’t use words. But I think I’ve developed a sense of what I prefer in a sound poem. For example, I prefer Hugo Ball’s earlier sound poems to his later ones. The later ones are so jagged and cacophonous, while his earlier attempts felt like an otherworldly imitation of human language. Noise is noise, but nonsense that sounds like it might have meaning is more interesting.
Otherwise, the line between good and bad sound poetry seems to be in the performance. I’ve never read any of Jaap Blonk’s sound poems, but I’ve listened to his work and I love it. I’m not sure if I’d enjoy his work in print, but when you listen to his albums, you lose yourself in the sonic elements of the genre. For that reason alone, I think Blonk is the best starting point for anyone interested in sound poetry. I’d especially recommend the album Five Men Singing.
Your book introduces a cast of historical figures who are all distinct and fascinating. Would it be fair to say that sound poets are some of the most colorful figures in the history of poetry?
If we limit ourselves to Dada, a touch of color seems to be a defining characteristic of many artists in the movement, not just sound poets. And it makes sense — Dada was ultimately a movement for people who were fed up with what Western Civilization had been peddling for the past five centuries. The anti-structural, anti-authoritarian ethos of sound poetry and Dada attracted the disaffected, the angry, and the eccentric. In terms of today’s sound poets, I’m not sure. Every sound poet I’ve encountered has just looked and acted like a poet. The only unusual thing about them is their genre of choice.
There have always been artists who are drawn to nonsense, or pure expression without any clear meaning. Famous writers who dabbled in nonsense include Lewis Carroll, Alfred Jarry, and of course Hugo Ball. Do you know why nonsense is such an enduring quality of art?
A lot of it’s probably frustration. At least in literature, there’s this gulf between writer and reader that isn’t present in other media. You have to translate events and phenomena into words, which are imprecise. Sometimes you can’t find the right word or phrase, and even if you do, you can’t guarantee that the reader will understand what you meant. Theatre, painting, and music are more direct — the medium is the experience. Having to think about that gulf as a writer is discouraging. I often feel like a painter with my hands cut off, and that frustration is probably universal.
I think artists who embrace the nonsensical have grown tired of the limits of their medium. Nonsense is both a creative and psychological outlet for them. They want to break things. When I finally wrote a sound poem, it felt like a creative temper tantrum — uncontrollable, but oddly liberating. I didn’t care if the world understood me. I could finally write and not worry about what a hypothetical reader would think.
Hugo Ball viewed sound poetry to be a partly political art form. Can you explain the political side of sound poetry? Also, do you have any opinion about the role sound poetry — or art in general — should play in politics?
Sound poetry is (basically) language, so I’d say it’s inherently political.
Historically, though, the political dimension of sound poetry stems from the science and art of propaganda. Propaganda has always existed, but in the early 20th century, propaganda became a mobilizing, destructive force that could end millions of lives in a matter of months. To artists like Hugo Ball and Tristan Tzara, this had to be horrifying. Governments were suddenly using words and images, the domain of writers and artists, to end human lives. We take propaganda for granted now, but Dadaists back in the day probably felt disgusted and appalled. Sound poetry was Ball’s way to redeem human language: you remove meaning, you defang the language. Or at least that’s what he thought.
In our post-truth world, I’d say we’re in a crisis similar to that faced by the first Dadaists. Like Ball and company, we’re witnessing the terrifying power of language. We live in an age where a few inflammatory Tweets feel like they could tear our country apart. What can sound poetry do to solve this? Not much. Our president talks and writes nonsense all day, so what would more nonsense accomplish?
Do you think sound poetry has a future as a poetic form?
Sound poetry will be around forever, I think, but it probably won’t gain popularity anytime soon. In its purest form it just doesn’t appeal to a mass audience. It’s always been a niche genre, but I don’t mind. There’s something special about discovering a writer or performer like Jaap Blonk and only one or two of your friends really “get” what he’s doing. You can share that forever.
However, even if sound poetry isn’t popular in its own right, its children certainly are. And by children, I mean the ways in which sound poetry has influenced music. Scat singing, for example. Even if someone doesn’t know about sound poetry, they’re probably familiar with scat singing, whether it’s Mel Torme or Scatman John. But let’s face it, even jazz has become pretty niche.
I think where we’re really seeing sound poetry’s lasting effects is in the newer generation of rappers, especially the ones who get labelled as “mumble” rappers. Which isn’t a fair label. “Mumble” implies that their style is lazy just because it’s occasionally nonsensical. If there’s anything I’ve learned, it’s that nonsense can be an artform. When someone complains that an artist like Lil Uzi Vert doesn’t use complex, sprawling rhyme schemes like Pharoahe Monch, I can’t help but laugh. It’s like comparing Hugo Ball to Alexander Pope. They’re different artists, they have entirely different goals. A lot of this newer music focuses on mood and the sonic experience more than the lyrics themselves. This isn’t the devolution of rap — it’s proof that the spirit of the first major sound poets is alive and well in the 21st century.
What are you working on now? What’s your next writing project?
I’ve been juggling two ideas for a while now. For the past six months I’ve been working on an autobiographical analysis of T.S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. A lot of Eliot’s theological and political themes from works such as “The Hollow Men” and Ash Wednesday, oddly enough, feature heavily in Practical Cats, and they make an interesting backdrop for a story about exploring sexual identity in the Midwest.
Otherwise, I’ve been busy revising and organizing some of my recent poems into what will (hopefully) be a book soon. They mostly revolve around family history and collective guilt, but they all stem from a story that’s been passed down in my family for years. According to years of rumors, the sole reason my maternal great-great-grandmother left Sicily for the U.S. was because the Mafia wanted her dead. The working title is Mafioso.