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Poetry Guide: Sound Poetry

Sound poetry is a form of literary or musical composition in which the phonetic aspects of human speech are foregrounded at the expense of more conventional semantic and syntactic values; "verse without words". By definition, sound poetry is intended primarily for performance.

While it is sometimes argued that the roots of sound poetry are to be found in Oral traditions, the writing of pure sound texts that downplay the roles of meaning and structure is a 20th century phenomenon. Early examples include F. T. Marinetti's "Zang Tumb Tumb" (1914) and a piece performed by Hugo Ball in a reading at Cabaret Voltaire in 1915:

"I created a new species of verse, 'verse without words,' or sound poems....I recited the following:
gadji beri bimba
glandridi lauli lonni cadori..."
(Albright, 2004)

Kurt Schwitters' Ursonate (1921-32, "Primal Sonata") is a particularly well known early example:

The first movement rondo's principal theme being a word, "fmsbwtözäu" pronounced Fümms bö wö tää zää Uu, from a 1918 poem by Raoul Huasmann, apparently also a sound poem. Schwitters also wrote a less well-known sound poem consisting of the sound of the letter W. (Albright, 2004)

Later prominent sound poets include Henri Chopin, Bob Cobbing and Ada Verdun Howell.

The poet Edith Sitwell coined the term Abstract poetry to describe some of her own poems which posessed more aural than literary qualities, rendering them essentially meaningless: "The poems in Façade are abstract poems--that is, they are patterns of sound. They are...virtuoso exercises in technique of extreme difficulty, in the same sense as that in which certain studies by Liszt are studies in transcendental technique in music." (Sitwell, 1949)

Text-sound may be used for sound poems which more closely resemble "fiction or even essays, as traditionally defined, than poetry" ([1]).

Famous postmodern artist Michael Jackson derives a form of sound poetry from lyrics he writes to his songs. He does not sing words, he creates unique, new sounds by his voice that are based on lyrics, but what he sings is actually rather far from words: to degree where a listener can not understand what Jackson had to say. For the singer, voice is not instrument to bring sense to the music, it is instrument of the music.


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