The primal violence and utopian trill of the rolled r, the most rrresilient of locutions. (Please use headphones.)
FOR A LONG TIME,
Charo enters the room, preceded by her trill. It is no longer an r, but a pure phonic abstract force.
I thought that in order to have any business doing what gets called “sound poetry,” I had to sound like Charo
. Any Latin bombshell—like the bombardiers of the phoneme in Futurism and Dada—knows that the rolled r
is central to the arsenal, and this r
I cannot muster. Over the years, I have been similarly shamed by the butterfly stroke and by my inability to produce Oscar Peterson–esque runs up and down the keyboard. Unable to marshal such combinations of coordination, focus, and energy for what seemed merely ornamental, yet seductive, excess, I learned (for example) to do scales more like a drunk stumbling up the stairs of his flat only to be kicked back down by the landlord. My tongue, when faced with the r
, is not even that mobile. It goes nowhere when buon giorno
attempts to rouse it and thus, embarrassedly, tends toward ciao
They say you can learn to roll your r
s—what’s called the alveolar trill. Why, then, does my tongue remain incorrigible? While English does not require this trill, sound poetry—a sub-subgenre of poetry and sound art—seems to demand it, especially as an efficient way to energize the sonic properties of language at the particulate level of the letter. From the first Dadaist simultaneous poem in 1916—which included, according to Hugo Ball, “an rrrrr
drawn out for minutes”—to today’s arrière-garde
heritage-dadas, the hyperextended r
is well nigh inescapable. Poet-performers like Jaap Blonk and Christian Bök have brought this doggedly underground practice to a larger public, by reinterpreting its earliest works and creating new ones with a crowd-pleasing vigor to compete, avowedly or not, with hip-hop—sound poetry’s estranged, affluent, and amped-up brother. In doing so, Blonk and Bök have recalibrated the levels for hearing sound poetry; rolling their r
s with such a preternatural intensity, they can’t help but create new performative standards, which sanctify the rolled r
as a sine qua non. I say with tongue only halfway in cheek that latter-day sound poets do a disservice to the form by maintaining such gaudy r
s and other apoplectic athleticisms, ensuring that sound poetry forever will be only the literary equivalent of a loopy guest on The Merv Griffin Show
I am, then, suspicious of this r
drawn out, not for minutes, but for almost a hundred years, without a good examining. While sound poetry has always been a scarce, ephemeral practice, new archives allow for reconsiderations, recontextualizations, and rereadings, and of these archives I have availed myself, resurrecting the rolled r
from various historical and contemporary instances by editing performance recordings and stringing their r
s together. Both with the morbid curiosity about what would result from the monstrous reanimation of these amputations and with the properly scientific attitude a new form of media analysis warrants, I proceeded to assay the unique properties of this remnant as it has passed from artist to artist. As perhaps a shibboleth of loyalty to the first sound poems, these r
s could be the sonic sigil of a secret society. Or they could be merely an unquestioned gimmick, pure cabaret corn from our avant-garde forebears. Notwithstanding, since this r
trundles between the dark corridors of the avant-garde and the ostensibly sunnier avenues of culture at large, as a backdrop to these art r
s I will unscroll a historical panorama of popularly rolled r
s and of r
itself, in the hopes that our histoire
will serve as an appropriate distraction from my less wholesome body-snatching activities.
THE R HAS NOT ALWAYS BEEN ENSCONCED
The ur of the r: The rs of Ursonata, here performed by Jaap Blonk, forever link the vibrations of r to the exploration of pure sound.
in the affections of the avant-garde, or those of poetry generally. Oulipian writer Georges Perec called the r
a “non-letter,” and in his “History of the Lipogram” (1969) he points out that “in the eighteenth century, the letter R was renounced by poets.” On the tradition of the R sbandita
—texts with the r
“disbanded”—he says that “the whole of the Italian school evinced a profound distaste for the letter R, and most often for that letter only.” The Italian disdain for the r
here is surprising, not only because of the rolled r
’s Mediterranean pedigree but also because of the importance of the r
to the Italian Futurists (of whom, more later). Some clue as to the meaning of this prohibition might be found in an odd eighteenth-century biography called Hesperus; or, Forty-Five Dog-Post-Days
, which uses the R sbandita
in a outrageously elaborate metaphor about finding love in the alienating city, prickly with r
In the noisy foundery and mill of the city he felt as if in a dreary forest. Accustomed as he was to tender souls, the city ones appeared to him all so thorny and unpolished; for love had, like tragedy, purified his passions in exciting them. All hung over so ruinous and moss-grown as if on the verge of a collapse, whereas the clean mirror-walls of Maïenthal rose firm and radiant. For love is the only thing which fills the heart of man to the brim, although with a nectar-foam that soon sinks again; it alone composes a poem of some thousand minutes without the rattling repetitions of the letter R, as the Dominican Cardone executed a poem upon it quite as long under the name L’R-sbandita without a single R,—hence, like crabs, it is finest in the months without an R in their name.
Perec’s own fascination with these forgotten prohibitions goes to the core of his writerly identity. This distasteful letter lucky-pierres between the two e
s of his patronym, an apt conjunction for a writer who in A Void
absented the e
into thin air, formally mirroring a more fundamental disappearance of the self.
Perec: This distasteful letter lucky-pierres between the two es of his patronym.
IF THE ABSENCE OF THE E
Marinetti: R is paradoxically caught between self-presencing through force and
the self-erasure that this force, pushed to its limit, initiates.
in A Void
stands for the absence of the self, the e
even when there
tends toward silent but ubiquitous presence—like the void, perhaps more etherized. The r
, in contrast, is naturally self-assertive, both of itself and of the self
, if only because of the energy it requires to articulate. David Sacks, in his history of the alphabet, says that “R takes effort to say: It has a relatively demanding pronunciation, requiring a stiff tongue tip.” Charo can enter the room with the r
as her avatar, the moi
in her hummingbird oscillation between flamenco self-assertion and cuchi-cuchi maternalism. James Joyce, in the section of Finnegans Wake
that parodies the alphabet, goes as far as to attribute to the ontological “stiffness” of r
a militant fervor; as well, Virginia Woolf, in her imagining of an alphabetical scale of being through the agency of Mr. Ramsey in To the Lighthouse
, posits r
as that level of dubious excellence that would serve one when leading troops into battle. When Joyce writes, “next those ars, rrrr! those ars all bellical, the highpriest’s hieroglyph of kettletom and oddsbones,” he is extending this militancy of r
even to the priesthood, since the ecclesiastical symbol for Christ is a Greek r
with an x
over it—a high priest’s “skull and crossbones.” While it refers to the first two letters of christos
, this combination also implies the mystery and paradox of Christ’s human status. To put it crudely, his individuality is “crossed out,” or, in a more theoretical idiom, the x
over the r
puts being sous-rature
If the r
encourages reflections on being and, by association, the peremptory status of identity in language, it may be because, historically, it represents a quite literal localization of being specifically in the apparatus of the head.
“…next those ars, rrrr! those ars all bellical, the highpriest’s hieroglyph of kettletom and oddsbones…”
Immigrant laborers in ancient Egypt got it into their head
to translate the Egyptian hieroglyph for “head” into a reverse P
—the Phoenician “resh,” which, continued in Hebrew, would be the transitional mark between this ancient head and our contemporary r
. If, then, this historical memory of the human head slowly whittled down to mere r
still impinges on our consciousness, could we not also say that when one rolls the r
, the tongue rattles a head within the head, and within that head is another head rattling, and within that head…etc., etc.? The rolled r
instigates the infinite regress of language reflecting back on its origins. Could that be what Roland Barthes was saying, in “The Grain of the Voice” (1972), when he seemed to hallucinate “voices within the voice” set off by the r
of an opera singer who
carried his r’s beyond the norms of the singer—without denying those norms. His r was of course rolled, as in every classic art of singing, but the roll had nothing peasant-like or Canadian about it; it was an artificial roll, the paradoxical state of a letter-sound at once totally abstract (by its metallic brevity of vibration) and totally material (by its manifest deep-rootedness in the action of the throat). This phonetics—
am I alone in perceiving it? am I hearing voices within the voice? but isn’t it the truth of the voice to be hallucinated? isn’t the entire space of the voice an infinite one?
contains within it—in the secret channels between demotic Egyptian and Barthes’s pleasure of the text—the movement of language itself. Resh is the atomic particle of language that means “all movement, good or bad, [the] original sign of renewal,” as Johanna Drucker puts it. But what do we do if this movement, this change, is a hallucinated reality, the fundamental and total hallucination of language entering its own “head space” and rematerializing as pure vibration? Could we also add that r
is movement both real and irreal, both a clacking of the tongue in the hollow of the mouth and the ghost of whole being left out when resh is beheaded?
For language to truly move, after all, the head might be the very source of congestion. Well before his infamous suppressed radio broadcast—which would attempt to extirpate all being in the quest for a radiophonic body without organs—Antonin Artaud claimed in “Position of the Flesh” (1925) that “with each vibration of my tongue I retrace all the paths of my thought within my flesh.” For this to work, the r
must rid itself of head, even
in the caca-phony of the world’s arse, or—as it
Artaud: “hearing death in the voice.”
would be pronounced on French radio—go on-“r
” to shake the body out of its automatisms. Without r
rolling, the insistence, instead, of Artaud’s k
s in “To Have Done with the Judgment of God” (1947) opens up a literally scatological critique of being. “Hearing death in the voice”—as Allen Weiss describes this radio excoriation—would require not the infinite self-referential regress of a trill rolling up the centuries, but rather the tongue replaced by the anus, r
blocked by k
, what’s left out of Being challenging what is (or are
Whether the r
is present becomes an unconscious “To be or not to be” for the speaker, an attitude or a stance regarding the way one inhabits language. The simple fact that rhotic—or r
-emphasizing—language requires an extra expenditure of energy draws attention to the non-indifferent act of speaking itself when the r
rings out. This exertion, which whole linguistic communities in the southern US, New York, and New England have chosen to opt out of, asserts a modern nomadic self; when we don’t hear the r
, as in phrases like “the Waah Between the States,” “Pahk the cah in Hahvahd Yahd,” and even “The city’s clamour can never spoil / The dreams of a boy and goil,” we can imagine it’s inaudible because of long-standing sociolinguistic ties that are suspicious of those who are too ambitiously individualistic. Old boys from, say, Brooklyn or South Philly become odd provincial confreres to Artaud’s antihuman shaman.
Yet while the r
posits an energetic self-presence, its hyper-extension heralds the opposite—a dissolution of self in pure vibration. Nowhere is this conflicted r
trill more evident than in the r
s of F. T. Marinetti. To our ears, his disarticulated r
s may sound bubbly and light; but his rolling tongue in its day was a particularly militant linguini, clearly a celebration of the vibrational machines—the machine gun, the radio, the rotoriferous universe of the gas engine—that inspired the Futurist desire for immolation of a coherent self, local language, and spatial boundedness. At the same time, though, in his r
he has the cockiness of one classically trained in elocution, perhaps even opera. In contrast, a sound poet like Raoul Hausmann—perhaps because of the more pacifist orientation of Dada, or its more anarchic aesthetic, or because many of its practitioners, Hausmann included, gravitated toward the visual arts rather than poetry and music—has r
s that collapse in on themselves, flail like hooked fish, try to get started like old jalopies. His tongue is dead matter enlivened so as to carry out his scenario of “language wreaking revenge on poets.”
Rodgers and Hart: “The city’s clamour can never spoil / The dreams of a boy and goil.”
OUR CURRENT ARS POETICA
Hausmann’s rs: dead fish, old jalopy…the material instantiation of “language
wreaking revenge on poets.”
seems to have forgotten these collapsing r
s, these failed r
s that don’t extend the Übermensch
’s dominance across the linguistic terrain or reenergize the quest for a cosmic over-soul, but rather revert to the body, the prelinguistic, the monstrous, or the animalic. The r
is sometimes called the dog’s letter because of the sound it makes alone when extended but not
trilled, and this sound should be one of many with which a performer could interpret the Dadaist/Futurist cliché of rrrrrrrrr
typed in boldface across the page of a poetic score. However, only one series of r
s comes off as a pit-bull growl in Blonk’s version of Kurt Schwitters’s Dadaist masterpiece Ursonata
(1922–32); there is a sequence of barks at the end, but those are from short triple and double r
s, the lyric extension of being here again blocked by the caca k
: “EkeEke ekeEke ekeEke ekeeKe / EkeEke ekeEke ekeEke ekeeKe / EkeEke ekeEke Rrrumm!/ EkeEke ekeEke Rrrumm! / EkeEke ekeEke Rrum Rrum / EkeEke ekeEke Rrum Rrum.” In Blonk’s defense, this paucity of the littera canina
is an accurate interpretation of the original, although Schwitters’s own recording of Ursonata
is much mellower.
, inspired by some of Hausmann’s work, is in more ways than one the ur-text of sound poetry. Nevertheless, in its virtuosity it’s also a well-groomed Jazz Age compromise of the form, its flight out of being disguising a restitution of being in the new world of machines and speed, rather than a pointed critique. Schwitters’s riff on an earlier typographic deconstruction by Hausmann is thus closer to the Futurist Marinetti’s output than to that of fellow Dadas, albeit bringing with it the Symbolist mysticism that Marinetti disavowed. Sound poetry, whether engaging the Futurist or the primitive imagination, has always carried within it the dream of reinventing sacred language or creating a common global tongue; the sounding of the rolled r
s in Ursonata
takes the performer on a utopian-mystical flight into the firmament of a vibrational cosmos, and as such may be the source of some Dadaists’ disdain for Schwitters as too bourgeois. (Or maybe it’s the fact that he performed Ursonata
at military garden parties.)
Hausmann: his typographic flarf that inspired Ursonata.
Blonk and Bök’s punker versions may avoid the bourgeois tonalities of the original, of which, according to Julian Cowley, Hausmann “disapproved [because] of the classical mould into which the subversive implications of his act of provocation had been channelled.” But Blonk and Bök’s reinstatement of a tightly crafted trill continues a legacy that subsumes more anarchic tongues. Since no theater of the r
is complete without a “return of the repressed,” the spirit of the Hausmannic flailing r
has had to emerge, albeit somewhat more covertly, in something like the “Poème-partition H1+H2, or ‘Le Quatrième Plan’” (1963) of Bernard Heidsieck, who unfortunately has largely disappeared from any detectable scene. Heidsieck asserts the limitations of the tongue; when repeating the words plus vite
(“faster”), he gets close to the same motion as the rolled r
, ironically slowed down even as the words repeat faster and faster
. Yet “plus vite, plus vite, plus vite
,” straining toward the purr of easy mechanical speed—more feline than canine, after all—never jump-starts into some cosmic vibration machine but remains rooted in an inexpert tongue. Plus vite
does not stage an escape from language, but rather exemplifies, as in Giorgio Agamben’s description of the poetry of Giovanni Pascoli, “the site in which he can capture language in the instant it sinks again, dying, into the voice, and at which the voice, emerging from mere sound, passes (that is, dies) into signification.”
This site between what Agamben calls “the infinite sea of mere sound” and articulate speech is the particularly generative, albeit ambiguous, site of sound poetry, if not of poetry itself. Yet sometime around 1950 (for poet Steve McCaffery), or even at the turn of the twentieth century (for media theorist Friedrich Kittler), something happened to take poetry away from the word, and by extension the letters that compose it, as recording technology allowed for an aestheticization of “mere sound.” Indeed, the rolled r
—puncturing the line through its pure sounding—promised this return to the infinite sea of the real, presaging more effective disruptions of symbolic networks by way of the proliferation of reproduced sound. This r
was resolutely avant la lettre
Heidsieck: “plus vite, plus vite, plus vite.”
However, with the growth of recording and transmission technologies, such rhotic acrobatics would no longer be necessary to explode or deform word-based practices. Phonograph and radio would create a network of voices realized beyond their written materializations; later, tape manipulations would open up a veritable subatomic universe beyond the letter. So, why is the rolled r
Bök’s r from his performance of Hugo Ball’s “Seahorses and Flying Fish”: No sense of the dog in the r, but the voice strains the signal-to-noise ratio, less reminiscent of animal or savage and more of tape overmodulation and digital clipping.
Henri Chopin’s response to Ursonata: nothing but the organization of pure sound articulated by the tape cut.
I HAD A DREAM ABOUT MY GRANDMOTHER.
I was trying to make pasta and beans, but it wasn’t pasta and beans, was it? it was pasta e fagioli
, but who spoke Italian anymore so it was pastafajole…no, pasta fazool
, but I was calling her from my freshman dorm so I was embarrassed that this was perhaps the wrong way to say it I’m grown up now and this is just baby talk right? But I can’t look it up anywhere. Is it pasta fazoola, basta vazul, pastafazoo? I see it in print for the first time—some smart-ass named Thomas McGuane (not even Italian) has it in The Bushwhacked Piano
as “pasta fazoula,” but still I am having trouble making it and the recipe eludes me, when my grandfather takes the phone and tells me how the Sicilians cut off the French’s balls if they weren’t able to pronounce the word for “chickpea.” And as he says the word CHEY-CHED-DEE
in a way I know can’t be right, the line goes dead. This all happened in the thirteenth century.
Correct language: dream or hallucination? Is it based on earth sounds and mother tongue, or is it the inhuman correctness that allows for flight but also bureaucracy and separation from lived reality? Official language falls apart, or rather softens, becomes linguini or just plain lazy when localized. Witness the disappearance of the r
up and down the East Coast, especially in, as David Sacks says, “longtime local families of traditionally lower income.” There is something comforting and seductive in the entropy of immigrant patois, but this comfort could easily be a trap. Marinetti was faced with something similar when he placed his poetic practice in conflict with an Italy insufficiently modern, too in love with its multiple unstandardized dialects to accede to the world stage. His rolled r
, then, is a performance of linguistic energy and forward-looking uprightness, standing in for his hatred of all pastas and pastafazoolas, those heavy, deadening noodles of dreams.
But here is where I get confused. Because it seems to me that while the rolled r
is a cultured skill that Henry Higgins might have tortured Eliza Doolittle into mastering, it also comes to my ear as emerging from the very peasant culture and dialect practices that Marinetti was shaming by his ripping r
. The rolled r
is correctness itself
, but relative to what? In France, we can speculate that the whole history of the Revolution can be read in the parler gras
, or “fat talking,” characterized by a more guttural (non-rolled) r
sound. An 1806 manual of oratory by Gilbert Austin tells us that a trilled r
is desirable to counter this guttural, or uvular, r
, “an imperfection which it was formerly the fashion in France for pétit maitres
to affect.” At first an affectation of the court, this throaty r
has taken hold as the official French r
, notwithstanding any elocution manuals…a subtle victory for the royalists. Yet the trilled r
holds out, in all its “peasantlike, Canadian” splendor. A “Petite Histoire de r
” from the Web tells us, “One attributes to the rolled r properly irrational virtues: linked to the past of the rural, the provincial, the peasant, the rolled r becomes the guarantor of an ancestral pronunciation exempt of all metropolitan, intellectual, and Parisian defilement, a metric of authenticity and innocent beauty dating back to the crack of time! The mythification of the rolled r would assure neighborhoods of nobility for the speaker, which would be anchored in his earth and in his family history.”
We can surmise, then, that the rolled r
would be particularly important to the phenomenologist, and the same website tells us Gaston Bachelard was a big roller of r
s. Imagine him saying this with a few ripe ones!:
In the resonance we hear the poem, in the reverberations we speak it, it is our own. The reverberations bring about a change of being.… This grip that poetry acquires on our very being bears a phenomenological mark that is unmistakable. The exuberance and depth of a poem are always phenomena of the resonance-reverberation doublet.
Yet the “properly irrational virtues” of the rolled r
also bring to mind the aestheticization of the Volk
in fascism. Poor Ezra Pound, his rolled r
s had to have been an affectation, for a Pennsylvania boy does not roll them naturally. What could have started as a simple putting on of European “airs” got caught up in a genocidal gambit for the heart and soul of Europe. Imagine his pal William Carlos Williams back in Rutherford rolling his r
s, with a Spanish mother looming in the background of his heroic modernism; think what that would have meant for poetry! The pure energy of r
would not only have made Williams more multiculti than he let on; if, for Hugo Ball, “reality only begins at the point where things peter out,” an indefatigable r
would have left Williams no time to seek out a clear image of reality, his famous “no ideas but in things.”
Bachelard: “In the resonance we hear the poem, in the reverberations we speak it, it is our own.”
Williams: More multiculti than he let on?
WHETHER WE ARE EZRA POUND OR CHARO,
A Pennsylvania boy does not roll his rs naturally: Following
from Ursonata, the rs of Ezra Pound’s “With Usura” (Canto XLV).
Between Brooklyn and the stars? Charles Bernstein’s zaumish rs.
when rolled encourages a kind of sonic deformation of a language. Whether this deformation is seen as correct (yet outmoded) or déclassé (yet virtuous), a harbinger of the future or an echo from the past, when we follow the r
we see how language moves—that is, a continual deformation in the unfolding of time. Deracinating forces caused the Phoenicians to take a hieroglyph that stood in for their very selves and produce a glyph much more mobile, thus attuned to their nomadic existence. But the move from hieroglyph to alphabetic script, as a movement from a language based on visible resemblance to something more abstract and manipulable, dramatizes how in order to represent ourselves, we engage with inhuman materials. What in ancient times were the discrete and motile properties of the alphabet are today those of the digital, which, while increasing the speed and efficiency of communication, also produces vast amounts of unreadable posthuman compositions emerging from the data fallout of the Web (much like the typographic flarf of Hausmann’s that Schwitters ran with). Subsequently, our own nomadism is a function of the lettristic motility in this particular system, unhinged from its connection to a sensible world.
Could the r
and all it might mean for holding on to identity, for “keeping one’s head,” in the digital maelstrom be an anxiety formation, and would it be better to err than r
in our ear? Or is our belle
the first that helped us understand where we were heading
? While the modernist r
’s ostensible purpose was to highlight the materiality of language, we’re now faced with the apocalyptic notion that writing is so beyond us, its material totality so vast and unthinkable (yet at the same time instantly searchable), that the rolled r
is a puny alphabetic nothing on the lips of a supermaterialist data god. In the age of the easily produced and accessible MP3—a writing by other encoded means—a whole poem, nay, a whole database, can be shot through with a single, energetic trill.
Because all poetry, and even all text, must tend toward poesie sonore
in order to call attention to itself in this context, obsessive sonorization on the Web might be a return to authentic, essentialist being by another name. Yet if one wishes to maintain a concept of a practice specific to poetry, sound or otherwise, it may be useful to keep in mind our incommensurable noodles. Charles Bernstein, in his “Poetics of the Americas” (1996), describes the field of poetic experimentation as existing between work that embraces unofficial dialect—our local varieties of the p. fazoo—and work that, evading complacent identity categories, creates its own ideolect, or “ideologically informed nonstandard language practice.” These two poles of experimental poetics are akin to the arrows of a rolled r
—one direction goes to the heart of self-identification in rooted communality, the other toward an invented future: a future that may, dangerously, be without humanity or community. But what form could sound poetry take without this r
—for that matter, in the absence of recognizable letters in general
, each with its sordid and conflicted attachments—if the genre wanted to remain separate from the “mere sound” of music and sound art?
BECAUSE SOUND POETRY
is, above all, as McCaffery points out, “a practice of freedom,” the flight of the r
escapes a deadening ersatz reality that encroaches on our movements, poetic and otherwise. But if with colder eyes we look at the actual means of this flight, the lowercase r
is the letter most resembling a Luger. In 1920, Richard Huelsenbeck wrote, “To make literature with a gun in hand had, for a time, been my dream.” As an important weapon in the Dadaist “congenial hatred” toward static language practices, and notwithstanding the perceived funniness of sound-poetry antics, r
is a particularly humorless letter. In its trill, however, the archaic, primal violence of r
risks dissipation. Vibrating through and past the alphabetic into some finer-grained reality, we are, after r
, left comically abandoned—in the air, as it were—to our own devices.
Page 6: F. T. Marinetti on train reading aloud to soldiers and nurses, ca. 1942 (Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University). Page 8: Georges Pastier, Artaud, 1947 (Larry Qualls Archive).
Page 10: Raoul Hausmann, ABCD: Portrait of the Artist (detail), 1923-4, photocollage. Page 11: Raoul Hausmann, fmsbwtözäu, 1918, poster poem.
Page 13, left: Christian Bök, “S-Fractal,” Crystallography (Coach House Books, 2003); right: Henri Chopin, Toupie, 1984, drawing.
Page 16, left: Richard Avedon, Ezra Pound, Poet, Rutherford, New Jersey, June 30, 1958; right: Charles Bernstein, photographed by Cecilia Grönberg.