And what is the purpose of writing music? One is, of course, not dealing with purposes but dealing with sounds. Or the answer must take the form of paradox: a purposeful purposelessness or a purposeless play. This play, however, is an affirmation of life -not an attempt to bring order out of chaos ... but simply a way of waking up to the life we're living, which is so excellent once one gets one's mind and one's desires out of its way and lets it act of its own accord.
John Cage ('Experimental Music', Silence, 12)
For well over a quarter of a century, Peter Finch has been the leading (and, at times, virtually the only!) avant-garde poet writing in Wales. His output has been prodigious, and currently amounts to some twenty-five volumes of poetry, a collection of short stories, numerous reviews and critical essays, as well as a highly acclaimed, comprehensive guide to The Poetry Business. And yet, in spite of Finch's impressive stamina and achievement, his experimental work remains relatively little known and even less discussed in his own country. This may be due not only to the conservatism of the postwar poetic scene in Wales (upon which Finch has obliquely commented) but also to the fact that the whole aspect of 'the tradition of the new' with which Finch is associated continues to be little understood in Wales. In order, perhaps, to get on his wavelength, so as to appreciate his anti-conventional practice, it is useful to understand something of the background and rationale of radical modernist experimentalism. In this essay, particular attention will be paid to those aspects of Finch's work that relate to the group of disparate practices roughly describable as 'sound poetry'.
Since the beginning of anthropic history, when human beings first entered the world, gulping and shrieking, they have been emitting noise. Before the evolution of language such emissions were unmeditated, instinctive responses: grunts of satisfaction, sobs of distress, long drawn-out 'mmm's of sensual pleasure. These emotional signals still form the only international language. The scream, for example, cannot adequately be translated using conventional linguistic terms, yet it can (as the howling Olivier famously demonstrated when playing Lear) render fear or pain far more dramatically and convincingly than any number of wordy descriptions. It has the visceral immediacy and raw power of direct emotional impact, unimpeded by any sort of intellectual evaluation. The sound poet, then, seeks to communicate at least in part through this most evocative and fundamental of universal media: noise. This may be achieved within the bounds of conventional language, incorporating sound and sense simultaneously, or alternatively through sound alone, whether this be produced by the unaided voice, by various parts of the body, or with the assistance of electronic equipment.
And from the moment human beings invented language, they learned to speak nonsense. Nonsense verse is a perennial feature of our cultural heritage, from the meaningless refrains of the earliest recorded anonymous lyrics of the fifteenth century ('Lullay, by, by, lullay'), to folk songs ('Fee I ficky fie, fee foe foe') to Gaelic mouthmusic ('Diddle daddle') to rock'n'roll ('Be bop a lula') to contemporary pop ('Turalura turalur I A!' sang Dexys Midnight Runners in 'Come on Eileen') to techno (that is, contemporary computer-generated dance music). More specifically literary examples include Lewis Carroll's invention of a topsy-turvy language appropriate to the topsy- turvy world that Alice discovers Through The Looking Glass, in his most famous nonsense rhyme, ‘Jabberwocky’ (1871). Although Carroll manipulated and juggled with conventional spelling, he retained customary grammar, syntax and verse arrangement, unlike the German poet Christian Morganstern who took the concept one stage further, dispensing with any familiar formal structure. His experiments found their logical conclusion in The Fish's Nightsong, a poem which contains no words at all, only alternate symbols for long and short syllables, arranged in the shape of a fish.1
In 1913 Luigi Russolo, pioneer of the 'new phonics', wrote in his ground-breaking manifesto, The Art of Noise:
There are richnesses of timbre in the spoken word which no orchestra possesses. Nature has endowed that magnificent instrument, the human voice, with subtle tone qualities for which music has no equivalent. Even poets have not been able to draw from the inexhaustible noise-sound wellsprings of spoken language the expressive and emotional elements capable of imparting human resonance to their poetic message.2
Russolo had thrown down the gauntlet and subsequent generations of sound poets have responded to the challenge. In answer to Russolo's demand for a new mode of expression, Raoul Hausmann developed the genre of 'optophonics', the use of a variety of typefaces to denote differentiating sounds, with the creation in 1918 of his 'poster-poems', which aimed to 'entirely liberate the phonetic poem from the bondage of the book'.3 In the same period, the Dadaist Hugo Ball produced anarchic sound works accompanied by visual interpretations, folio-sized orchestral sheets scored in red. His most infamous piece of aurally explosive nonsense verse, a bizarre incantation including permutations of the word 'rhinoceros' and entitled Gadji Beri Bimba, was first performed in 1916.
In 1945 the Letterists4 declared the alphabet the material of their abstract poetry and set about inventing new letters to denote the extensive range of sounds which could be produced by various parts of the body, such as whistling, spitting, kissing, farting, heavy breathing or tongue- clicking. Francois Dufrêne, a former member of the movement, expanded on the principles of the Letterists by introducing tonal, timbral and temporal limits to the articulation of the 'new letters' and was the first to record sound poetry as historical document on magnetic tape rather than via the medium of visual scores. He called these taped sound pieces 'crirhymes'. Such developments led to the audiopoésie of Henri Chopin, who processed recorded sounds by manipulating, superimposing, reversing, or slowing down and speeding up the tape. He performed his experimental Espace et Gestes in Paris as early as 1959. Chopin argues for the internationalism of sound poetry in a sequel article to 'open letter to aphonic musicians' of February 1968, reminding the sceptic:
- how the whole planet is influenced by sound poetry, ... that thousands of years of oral tradition have preceded us, in tribes, and in ethnic groups working together, using the mouth and corporal expression, and indeed dance, and in all this there was already sound poetry. Which means that it is a need to live fully, transcending writing. ... For sound poetry belongs to a universal language, a language of human waves and sensoriality.5
The first festival of sound poetry was held in Sweden in April 1968, presented by Fylkingen and Sverige Radio. Top of the bill was the leading British exponent of the art, Bob Cobbing, supported by the likes of Bernard Heidsieck and Francois Dufrêne. Technically sophisticated though the Swedish scene was, it somewhat lacked immediacy and excitement:
- Cobbing and his associates were concerned to change this. For him sound poetry was a hot, improvised activity - like jazz. With Paula Claire he began to work on the sound interpretation of objects. A typical performance would have the pair reading the ink smears of the backing sheets from Cobbing's Gestetner duplicator, bits of bark, stones and on one memorable occasion leeks.6
Bob Cobbing, in particular, has been a significant innovator in the field of soundtext poetry, not only in the scope and variety of his own pieces, but also in his practical support of other experimental writers through publication of their work by his small press, Writers Forum. Peter Finch's own more unconventional, avant-garde collections have been published by Writers Forum, including O Poems (1981), The Cheng Man Ch'ing Variations (1990) and 500 Cobbings (1994), a carnivalesque tribute to his inspirational mentor. Finch, then, hails from a distinguished lineage of practitioners in the art of noise, sound enthusiasts who cannot stop shouting about it.
Of course, these practitioners make use of the form for a variety of disparate ends. Finch himself is interested both in sound per se, as a corporeal phenomenon (its musical properties and physical articulation), and in sound as political weapon or as a vehicle for spiritual expression. His sound poetry, therefore, can be broadly divided into these three categories, though they are certainly not mutually exclusive.
Peter Finch has demonstrated an abiding concern with sound and an emphasis on the physicality of language in his work, in which the old linear rhythms are replaced by new forms: the poem's relationship to space (the page on which it is printed) or to time (the sequence in which it is read or heard). The raw material of such poetry, then, is language itself, words reduced to their constituent visual and aural elements: letters and syllables. His is a celebration of words by and for themselves, often independent of socio-political context and conventional meaning, an emphasis on the shape and sound of poetry. In this way, many of Finch's experimental pieces are simultaneously both visually and aurally 'concrete', designed to be responded to with either, or both, senses. Direct sensory impact is more important than semantic content. Comprehension is immediate. As Steve MacCaffery has argued in his article 'For a Poetry of Blood':
- Sound poetry is the poetry of direct emotional confrontation: there is no pausing for intellectualization ... sound is a respect for the purity of immediacy & an utter faith in the human capacity to grasp the immediate.7
Perhaps Peter Finch's most notorious sound/concrete poem is 'antarktika', which began humbly as 'an experiment to find how far you could go with a cassette player'.8 The genesis of 'antarktika' was somewhat different to that of Finch's other sound poems. Instead of preconceiving a written text and then subjecting this text to an aural interpretation as was his usual method in the creation of a sound work, he produced an improvisatory cassette recording and then proceeded to translate these taped sounds into a visual linguistic score. This compositional method had evolved as a result of playing the piece to Bob Cobbing, who had enquired as to the whereabouts of Finch's text. Of course, at this point there was no text. So Finch set about inventing one.
The work had been occasioned by Finch's abiding fascination with all things experimental. Just as he had been testing and traversing the boundaries of visual poetry in its concrete and typewriter forms, so now he sought to apply this artistic philosophy to sound poetry. Thus 'antarktika' is
- a sound-text composition made on a stereophonic cassette recorder using that machine's limited controls and devices to their full.9
In creating these aural effects Finch employed such methods as placing the microphone in a plastic bag and immersing it in a bucket of water, turning the power off mid-recording, interfering with the cassette tape and attaching a length of rope to the microphone then recording whilst whirling it lasso-like around his head. The components of water, wind and echo which these methods manipulated conjured up for Finch images of the continent of Antarctica. Hence the title of the piece and the presence in the visual score of the words 'blue' and 'yellow' which Finch associated with the colours of water and ice comprising the great polar expanses: pure blue as opposed to polluted yellow.
Here, in the printed version of the poem, Finch emphasizes the schizophrenic character of language (visual/aural/semantic) by drawing attention to the visual appearance of the words by printing them larger or smaller than the standard text, non-linearly or in bold in order to indicate changes in tone, timbre and volume. Of course, there are also the aural puns of 'yell' (as in 'shout') in 'yellow' and 'blew' in 'blue'. As Bob Cobbing has explained in his essay 'The Shape and Size of Poetry':
- Communication is primarily a muscular activity. It is potentially stronger than everyday speech, richer than those monotonous seeming printed words on the page. The moment an O becomes larger and fatter or an S more rhythmically snake-like, at that moment does drama enter into the score.10
This dramatic aspect is clearly apparent in both the concrete score (fig. 1) and the cassette- recorded version of the poem. In 'antarktika' Finch is literally and thematically demonstrating the physicality of language in celebrating its diversity of articulation by the human voice as well as the creation of new and equally expressive modes of communication through the manipulation of both humanly and non-humanly produced sounds with the aid of the tape recorder. Bob Cobbing goes on:
- Sound poetry ... is partly a recapturing of a more primitive form of language, before communication by expressive sounds became stereotyped into words, when the voice was richer in vibrations, more mightily physical. The tape recorder, by its ability to amplify and superimpose, and to slow down the vibrations, has enabled us to rediscover the possibilities of the human voice, until it becomes again something we can almost see and touch. ... Gone is the word as word, though the word may still be used as sound or shape.11
The use of a square frame enclosing the visual text in ‘antarktika’ indicates the limited communicative and performance capacity of the cassette player. In addition, the relegation of the 'action' of the poem to the interior of a box is reminiscent of film stills, whereby movement and continuity are implied. In fact, there is a definite kineticism here which is echoed by the spatial positioning of the letters themselves within the frames, which provides the illusion of motion and which corresponds to the sound movement of the original cassette recording. Furthermore, Finch's use of boxed art follows in the tradition of the Dadaists, Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray's Pechage right down to Sixties pop artists such as Yoko Ono, Richard Hamilton and Roy Lichtenstein, under whose influence boxes became repositories for dreams transposed into objects, rather like language itself.
In his introduction to the selection of poetry chosen as his contribution to the anthology of contemporary poems from Wales, The Bright Field, Peter Finch notes his preoccupation with issues central to contemporary Welsh life: the fate of the Welsh language and of Welsh culture. He explains:
- Wales, of course, remains a permanent undercurrent to almost everything I do. It was not always but it has become so.12
One has only to glance through some of the titles in his Selected Poems to find evidence for this: 'Wales', 'A Welsh Wordscape', 'South East Wales as Characterized by its Phone Book', 'Influence of the Welsh on the History of Dada'.
The second part of Finch's statement, 'It was not always but it has become so', refers to his gradual conversion to nationalism, a conversion that was 'belated', in the sense that it owed surprisingly little to a whole notable decade of turbulent political and cultural awakening in Wales. The 1960s had witnessed organized campaigns, angry scenes and national debate as the language issue was brought vividly to the forefront of Welsh politics by eminent ideologues such as Saunders Lewis and was held in the spotlight of media attention by the controversial pro-active policies of the Welsh Language Society. During this period, however, Finch's concerns lay elsewhere.
His change of attitude dated from 1973, when he began to learn Welsh, not through any political awareness but as a requirement for his new job of managing 'Oriel', the Welsh Arts Council bookshop in Cardiff. This experience both reinforced his awareness of the peculiarity of language per se and added a new dimension of politicized purpose to his experimentations. After all, as M. Wynn Thomas observes, 'Nothing makes us more aware of how interwoven with consciousness language is than our attempts to learn and use a "foreign" language.'13 Finch is today a fluent Welsh speaker and enthusiastic campaigner in support of bilingual legislation. Indeed, several of his poems are overtly political, dealing satirically with the fortunes of the Welsh language, the gradual but systematic erosion of indigenous Welsh culture, the steady creep of anglicization, and the stifling conservatism of contemporary Anglo-Welsh literature. These works range from the mocking irony of the early 'A Welsh Wordscape' (SP 15), which relocates a line from R. S. Thomas in the contemporary context of a backward-looking nation yearning for a return to the glories of the past, to the surreal pseudo-intellectual spoof account of the 'Influence of the Welsh on the History of Dada':
- First dada film ‘Le Retour de la Pyjama’ starring Clark Gable, Tony Curtis and Peter Finch. Duchamp abandons his translations of early Welsh gnomic poems on the grounds that they are not funny enough. Schwitters begins his first Merzbau on a cliff top at Aberystwyth. (PFG 62)14
- Of course, the culturally pointed joke (apart from the irony that both Finch himself and contemporary Anglo-Welsh poet Tony Curtis share a name with latter-day Hollywood film stars) lies in the absurdity of the suggestion that staid Wales, notorious for its cultural timidity and political 'prudence', could be the spawning ground of any daring avant-garde artistic revolution.
Finch's insistence on unconventional forms in such pieces is to some extent a reaction against both mainstream political writing and the tradition of campaigning poetry which had flourished during the 1960s, at the height of the Welsh language campaigns, in the work of poets such as Harri Webb, John Tripp and Meic Stephens. Although Finch did himself at one time appear alongside such notable Welsh-language performers as singer Heather Jones and singer and poet Geraint Jarman, he has in general rejected agitprop and other forms of directly politicized artistic action in favour of a more oblique, sophisticated approach, conveying his implicit political message through devices such as humour and irony. Idealistic campaigning manifestos are redundant in the disillusioned, cynical Wales of the 1990s. Instead, in 'Language' (PFG 41) the poet slyly provokes reaction by replacing the Collins-Spurrell Modern English-Welsh Dictionary not in the language but in the history section of the bookshop's shelves.
Finch also uses sound poems in his critique of what he sees as the stifling orthodoxies of the Welsh cultural scene. 'On Criticism' (SP 107) is a particularly unconventional challenge to those orthodoxies. Here he seeks to draw attention to the propaganda inherent in any culture, the fact that all art, not to mention art criticism, is, of necessity, political. Eric Mottram, in Towards Design in Poetry, argues that:
The work always installs freedom. Hence the state's and the patron's need to own the artist. All professional and unprofessional criticism is politics and morality, where it is not analysis of response to structure, which includes the critic's own need to 'communicate' rather than create. Coercive criticism is propaganda to induce need or rejection; it does not help the true artist; it is a dictation from the Right or the Left or from some self-styled centre.15
Finch's target in 'On Criticism' is clearly the Establishment Right. From the outset he makes his position on this issue arrestingly clear. The reader is primed by the initial presentation of three images of crumpled balls of printed text, the visual depiction of a physical action of violence and contempt for the written word which is echoed in Finch's use of non-verbal communication to make his own statement: these pontificating criticisms are literally and metaphorically worthless rubbish (fig. 2).
That the original texts were pages of critical review is apparent from portions of the paper fists still decipherable: 'Here are three offerings ... cheapness of publication ... gross heap of dross ... significant poetic talent ...' (SP 108). The 'witty' (tired, hackneyed) deprecations, literary jargon and knowing banter are in Finch’s view typical of this genre. 'On Criticism' is itself an unconventional critique of conventional mainstream literary journalism and what Finch perceives as the narrowness of (particularly Welsh) accepted literary taste which it reflects. The poem is, to an extent, a found poem (though manipulated beyond recognition) and Finch acknowledges his source as:
a variety of reviews and critiques taken from literary reviews and small magazines especially Poetry Wales and in particular its review of Nigel Jenkins' Practical Dreams by Stephen Tunnicliffe.16
Of course, the irony here is pointed since Finch is himself a veteran reviewer for such literary journals as Planet and Poetry Wales. In order to avoid any hint of the staid conventionality which he is deriding, it is therefore necessary that the poem be couched in an experimental, nonconformist style.
The piece then evolves from found poem into a series of sound evolutions, beginning where Cage's Empty Words leaves off, with only letters:
ff ff ff ff alse else dross (SP 110)
Words and non-words mined from the critical texts follow one another without pattern or distinction in the form of an egalitarian list so that any attempt to impose a meaning is thwarted, just as there was no depth or meaning in the original criticisms only empty sounds signifying nothing except destructive negativity. This is emphasized by the choice of words which stand out from the mire of sound associations. For example, 'wrong' jarringly occurs in the midst of an 'ess' and 'eck' sound series and 'MISTAKE' is printed in capital letters. However, there is humour in Finch's revamping of the damning judgements of the critic, such as the seemingly unintentional repetition 'arse arse arse'.
Then, gradually, words become interspersed with the list, words which, one must conjecture, were not present in the original critical review or its permutations: 'shithead', 'the buggers', 'they can't tell me this'. The series becomes an exchange between reviewer and reviewee, culminating in the line
- nah nah nah nah NAH NAH (SP 115)
the familiar sing-song refrain of childish defiance thumbing its nose at the adult authority of the establishment, a repeated rejection, the definitive Welsh 'na'/no. This is counterbalanced later by the prolonged chant of
- heap of dross, heap of dross, heap of dross, heap of dross, (SP 122)
persistently battering away at self-worth in the repetitious manner of kindergarten taunting. Finch is exposing the childishness of the literary world and its petty considerations and pretensions.
The format changes, becomes prose, the words of the critic revealing the egoism and prejudices of his kind:
- What effrontery! Who does this inept scribbler think he is? What right has he to foist his boring friends and his stale language on us. Can you hear that? On us. (SP 117)
Do the poets rebel 'on the evidence of all this self indulgent narcissism'? Do the dissenters, innovators and experimentalists stand up to be counted? Not a bit of it; 'this is Wales' where they all stay
sitting sitting down sitting down. (SP 123)
The poem is summed up in the section which begins,
- "All this is snow", it says, "All this is snow." (SP 119)
where the line is broken down into its component sounds and scattered the length of the page:
sssss n ow (SP 120)
slowing down the speed of articulation until it reaches a complete halt at the border of the following page, which is blank but for the solitary word 'snow' in the bottom right hand corner. This empty plane is devoid of both the sight and the sound of language, representative of both space and silence. In addition, the white expanse of paper is like a white expanse of snow. 'All this is snow', all these words are empty, all these sounds mean nothing.
'On Criticism' is at once a sound, found, visual and concrete poem. A version of it has been recorded by Peter Finch accompanied by Bob Cobbing in an anarchic noise/silence duet reminiscent of John Cage's experimental music. 'On Criticism' appears alongside Finch's sound poem 'Difficult Discs', Bob Cobbing's 'E Colony' and excerpts from 'A Processual Double Octave' on The Italian Job, a cassette electronically processed by John Whiting.17
Peter Finch combines sound and found elements in several collections, notably Reds In The Bed and Trowch Eich Radio 'Mlaen ('Turn Your Radio On', the title of a punk record popular at the time). The latter again reflects Finch's concern with the Welsh language and the decline of indigenous Welsh culture, a concern expressed through his use of the techniques of sound poetry. 'Cymoedd', meaning 'valleys', reenacts the transition made over very few generations by the people of the South Wales valleys from using Welsh as at least part of their common vernacular to using only English. Thus the poem begins with a series of simple, everyday Welsh words and phrases, which translate as: 'I like', 'here we are', 'by here', 'isn't it', 'okay', and so on. Gradually, English words become interspersed with their Welsh counterparts and by the time the reader reaches the bottom of the page, the text is entirely in English.
As in several other poems which deal with the language issue, in particular 'A Guide To The Dialect' which explores this theme of 'valleyspeak':
but like to say for the valleys they speak here different again to us, don't they. (PFG 71)
Finch draws attention to the idiosyncratic English spoken by the people of the valleys of South East Wales, draws attention to the fact that it is in part an adopted or hybrid language. It is sometimes grammatically or syntactically ‘incorrect’. It is certainly not what one might call 'the Queen's English'. Thus in 'Cymoedd' the poem culminates in typical phrases such as 'over by there' and 'we starts by ear' (TERM 11). The latter both puns on 'ear' and 'here', words which are usually identically pronounced by local valleys residents. The phrase also reminds us that our initial and formative experience of language is through sound (speech), 'we starts by ear': hence the importance of spoken language, of the shift from Welsh to English, to personal and cultural identity. Furthermore, Finch is self-reflexively referring to the mode of communication he has chosen to convey this theme, the sound poem itself: 'by ear'.
hoffwn dyna ni fan hyn, ffordd 'ma os 'na? debyg iawn ie reit ma'n iawn ynte ynte? os os boy'ma sy'n iawn ond yw e 'na ni ondywe nawr'te reit'te 'mlan dechra'ma lico'r un, boy'ma ynte? na okay yw e? reit by'ere ych dere'ma 'machen now 'na yw upthen hon? isntit right 'mmm yeah this one? 'right mate? over by there we starts by ear yes yes 'nt it
The poem also works on a visual level. The words are closely grouped at the beginning (in Welsh) and spread out as the poem progresses (into English). This fragmentation represents what Finch perceives as the transition from the formerly tightly-knit community of the Welsh valleys, united by language, politics and work ethic, to the present remnant population, divided and disenfranchised by mass unemployment as the consequence of a new economic regime.
Finch approaches his theme of Wales and the Welsh in Trowch Eich Radio 'Mlaen from a variety of different angles. 'Fel Y Dwedodd Meri Ifans Wrth John Davies' ('As Mary Evans Said To John Davies') is a surrealist piece. Mary's simple question, 'sut byddwch chi'n licio'ch _y?' (TERM 9), 'How do you like your egg then?' or 'How do you like this egg by here?', repeats and disintegrates until it becomes an endless mantra, 'na na na na na na na na na na'. In Welsh 'na' (short for 'fan'na' or 'yna') can mean 'there' or 'that', colloquially, as well as 'no'. The original question is drowned out by extending the single word 'na' until it completely obliterates everything else in an overwhelming wave of negation. How do you like your egg? I don't. Peter Finch has explained:
It doesn't mean anything. It's no good looking for some kind of conventional value in this. The words don't provide a narrative. They provide a pattern. You recognize the pattern.18
So too with 'Mor Ddistaw Â'r Bedd' (TERM 4), the idea of 'quiet as the grave', in which the poet takes the component letters of the idiomatic phrase and extends them over a distance. Towards the end of the phrase, and the end of the poem, the spaces between the letters 'dd' become greater and greater until there is nothing, only space and silence. The poem disintegrates visually and aurally, it decomposes, becomes literally as quiet as the grave. Another example of this patterning is to be found in 'Camgymeriadau Thomas Jones, 1688' (TERM 10). Thomas Jones was a seventeenth-century linguist and the poem is based on a list of grammatical mistakes he made in his books, which Finch found in an appendix. The sheer oddity of the words ('gwraigr', 'llywordraeth', 'murdwrwr') provides the pattern.
Several of Finch's sound pieces juxtapose Welsh and English, usually to make a political point, and some are written entirely in Welsh. The question of the extent to which Finch has been influenced by Welsh language literature, then, inevitably arises. Certainly there are no explicit examples of 'cynghanedd' to be found in the body of his work, although there may well be some truth in the suggestion that the emphasis on aural articulation, so important to Welsh language poets, has in some way seeped into the contemporary national collective subconscious. Finch's concern to prioritize sound, albeit through very different methods, might be thought to echo the emphasis on the sound quality of words, so prominent in the Welsh language literary tradition:
The Welsh generic term for 'cynghanedd' is 'cerdd tafod', that is, the 'music of the tongue'. The notes of this music are, of course, words - language - but, as the term 'cerdd dafod' implies, words function in 'cynghanedd' according to their sound, according to the aural images of the words and the sound patterns which can be created from their combinations, as much as, if not more than, according to their meanings or conceptual significance.19
What is certain, however, is that Finch became preoccupied with the sensuous particularities of verbal sounds and the sheer physicality of language long before he learned to speak Welsh. In other words, the tradition of 'cynghanedd', however relevant it may be as a point of artistic comparison, had no direct influence on Finch's development as a sound poet.
Peter Finch has been interested in Buddhism for some years, since he first read about the religion in the novels of Jack Kerouac, particularly The Dharma Bums. Here were references that led Finch on a journey of discovery, through Zen and Taoism, right back to traditional Buddhism. He read widely in the works of D. T. Suzuki and Alan Watts and still attends a weekly Buddhist class.20
An understanding of the Buddhist philosophy which informs it is crucial to an understanding of Finch's work. His rejection of Symbolism owes as much to Buddhist notions of the oneness of all things (the woman is not like the tree, the woman is the tree) as it does to the influence of such modernists as William Carlos Williams and Gertrude Stein. Similarly, a wish for denial of the ego accounts for the impersonal and non-emotional content of the later work and the Buddhist cult of non-involvement in part underpins Finch's extensive employment of chance operations and indeterminacy.
In the Foreword to M, John Cage, a fellow Buddhist sympathiser, describes 'Mureau' (1970) as follows:
It is a mix of letters, syllables, words, phrases and sentences. I wrote it by subjecting all the remarks of Henry David Thoreau about music, silence, and sounds he heard that are indexed in the Dover publication of the Journal to a series of I Ching chance operations.21
Finch utilizes a similar combination of sound and found poetry in the manipulation of material relevant to his own work and artistic philosophy in pieces such as 'Breath', 'The Gripvac' and 'Doing It Again'.
'The Gripvac' is the mutation of an exchange between the Mock Turtle and the Gryphon from Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland, a series of sound-associated nonsense lines which occasionally stumble upon sense, by accident as it were. Thus 'a plack attack at it turk ticker' develops through permutation into 'explain all that said the mock turtle' (SP 105). In such poems Finch explores the relationship between the spoken and written word in conjunction with the possibility of unconventional modes of communication in order to demonstrate that language is only an approximation of meaning and not a logical symbolism for it. Another example would be 'Some Blats' which, Finch explains, 'systematically reduces language to below the threshold of meaning' (SP 8). 'Some Blats' consists of a sequence of questions, beginning with ones that are relatively straightforward, ones that seemingly have answers, such as 'is Tzara a Dadaist', 'is Barry really an island', 'is money yellow' (SP 56). Gradually the questions become absurd ('is moss small hair', 'is chess a product of bicycles') and then they go beyond absurdity ('is a toomwow a yearnowf tort', 'is sflossfgssssjss sssss ssss sshgs') until all that remains is pure sound, 'ssssssssssssss'. Finch is asking questions for which there are no answers. He replicates this by producing a sense of decomposition through the breakdown of words into syllables and then letters as well as the disintegration of sound produced by the voice when the piece is performed.
This technique is similar to that utilized by John Cage in such compositions as 'Mureau' and 'Empty Words'. Marjorie Perloff recounts her experience of a performance of the latter at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art on 27 March 1979 as follows:
During the first three movements, the lights are on and Cage begins by reciting and chanting recognizable phrases. But almost immediately, the language is, in his words, "demilitarized": linguistic units are broken down and become increasingly nonsensical, until, in the long fourth part, the audience hears only sounds in all possible combinations. Silence now becomes an obsessive element, the effect of the sound/silence pattern being wholly hypnotic. ... The relationship of sound to silence and of both to visual image creates a unique and complex rhythm.22
This is exactly what happens in 'Some Blats' as well as numerous other of Finch's sound poems. The incantatory effect is reminiscent of a Vedic mantra, concatenations of words often meaningless in themselves which are chanted during meditation. Buddhist principles underlie much of the work of both Cage and Finch.
The principle underlying 'Some Blats' is similar to that of Japanese Zen 'koans', on which the format of the poem is based. The 'koan' is an irrational question given to Buddhist students as a subject for meditation, a test of 'satori' (wisdom). There are any number of these but the most well- known include, 'What was your real face like before you were born?' and 'What is the sound of one hand clapping?'. The latter appears in 'Some Blats' as 'is the sound of one hand clapping no more than silence'. Such questions cannot be answered logically in the Western manner; only through intuitive knowledge can the koan be 'solved'. One has to not think about them. This interested Finch because of its parallels with the problems of sound poetry, which people insisted on trying to understand using conventional narrative. But there is no question of understanding it, no hidden code. Sound poetry, like the koan, is of a completely different order. There is nothing to understand. As with the koan, this realization is the key.
Like Peter Finch, John Cage has also created his own version of the Zen koans in the inconclusive and unresolved stories and 'lectures' included in Silence (1967) under the aptly named title of Indeterminacy. As Marjorie Perloff comments in her critical study, The Poetics Of Indeterminacy:
- Silence celebrates the quintessential non-sensicality of the universe, a non-sensicality that Cage curiously enjoys.23
Finch undoubtedly shares this enjoyment.
The influence of Finch's studies in Buddhism can be felt throughout his work. 'Blues and Heartbreakers' (BAH, unpaginated) is an adaptation of the meditational technique of focusing the mind on a single point, of concentrating on a solitary idea. Thus Finch repeatedly comes back to one word here: 'blues'. 'Blues and Heartbreakers' is the result of the poet's 'brainstorm', an amalgamation of all the references to and associations of the word 'blues' that he could think of, which accounts for the prominence of blues record label associations that are to be found in the poem. Finch developed this idea into a performance piece, provisionally for two voices (he probably had Bob Cobbing in mind). Of course, in typically Finchean manner, the poem works simultaneously on several levels. As an introduction the reader is given the stage direction, 'tom petty talking. tv faulty.' The title therefore refers to blues music, the rhythms of which fascinated Finch and of which Tom Petty is a veteran practitioner. 'The Heartbreakers' is the name of Tom Petty's band. The medium of the poem is identified with that of television, at once both visual and aural: the deliberately square page of the booklet becomes the screen, the text becomes the script. The stuttering effect created by the fragmentation of the phrase 'Blues and Heartbreakers' is similar to the repetitious and sporadic, uncontrolled rewind or fast forward of a malfunctioning video tape loop (fig. 3).
visual from Blues & Heartbreakers
At the same time, the piece is, according to Finch, a response to John Ormond's poem about the colour blue, 'Certain Questions For Monsieur Renoir', and it shares the ludic spirit of the orginal: ' ... this blue you made/For your amusement', as Ormond puts it.24 Ormond had approached the subject one way; Finch wanted to approach it another. Ormond examines the resonances of the colour in the context of high culture (impressionistic art), Finch in the context of popular culture (television, rock 'n' roll). A performed version of 'Blue' using the voices of Peter Finch and Bob Cobbing is included on the audio cassette Big Band Dance Music.25
Another sound poem that exploits Buddhist practices is 'Breath' (SP 129), which draws on the meditational technique of emptying the mind and concentrating solely on the sound of the breath: 'and the breath came', 'and the breath went'. At the moment when the breath stops coming in and turns around to go out again there is a point of absolute nothing, a point of complete stillness. In the poem this is recreated through the interval imposed between phrases by the line break: the stillness between movements, the silence between sounds (rhythm). The experimental composer Steve Reich's sound pieces are similarly comprised of cycles of phase relationships. Of the 'mechanical' aspect of performance of his work he has written:
The momentary state of mind of the performers while playing is largely determined by the ongoing composed slowly changing music. ... The extreme limits used here then have nothing to do with totalitarian political controls imposed from without, but are closely related to Yogic controls of the breath and the mind, maintained from within...26
The physical act of inhalation and expulsion of air provides the mesmeric rhythm of Finch's 'Breath'. In his article 'For a Poetry of Blood', Steve MacCaffery argues that,
- rhythmic sound is not an artifact but a profound instance of the human self. it is our simple rhythmic identity: our regular organic processes (heartbeat, pulse) our semi-voluntary actions (respiration, propulsion) our simple emotional signals (foot-tapping, hand-clapping) it is the spirit of our thighs, it is the basis of every sexual act rhythm = the basic life force ...
Breath is the purest sound. sound is the awareness that direct sensory involvement/impact is a greater thing than indirect communication to & through the intellect.27
Thus, in ‘Breath’, Finch is clearly drawing on our common 'simple rhythmic identity', particularly the rhythm of the breath (but also heartbeat, pulse, sex with its implications of heavy breathing and breathlessness) in order, once again, to emphasize the physicality and sensory immediacy of pure sound.
'Breath' is overlaid by a number of other influences, for instance, the cadences of the street preacher. At this time Finch had become interested in environments in which forms similar to sound poetry occurred. He encountered one such example in the public addresses of Evangelical preachers, who used the breath and full vocal range to dramatic effect. This is, to some extent, what the poem is 'about' (as far as Finch's sound poems are 'about' anything):
lord o lord o lord o lord o lord breath came breath went breath came breath went You want the Lord? I don't know what I want (SP 133)
Peter Finch makes similar use of the booming crescendos and compelling, almost hypnotic primal rhythms of the street preacher in 'Bright Wind', which was recorded and included on Balsam Flex's audio cassette Dances Interdites (1982)28;
The evangelist (((preach)))ed for more than an hour everynight you shine so bright wuz um ah bulum um ah boomboom bulum ah meestar moon do oo do do oo do do oo do (SMLW 45)
Clearly, there are close affinities between the art of the street preacher and that of the sound poet; both are acutely aware of the human voice as an instrument capable of a range of articulations with correspondingly diverse effects. Steve Reich was also interested in the possibilities of evangelical cadences. In 1965 he recorded the voice of a black preacher in a San Francisco square and produced two tape pieces, It's Gonna Rain and Come Out (1966), based on the manipulation of a single phrase of the preacher's sermon, a technique much used by Finch himself. 'Breath', however, was more influenced by the compositional methods of Philip Glass than of Steve Reich.29 Glass's pieces work by taking a very short phrase or idea and subtly altering it, so that as the piece progresses the subtle alterations themselves alter in the manner of mathematical fractals. A small increment plus a small increment plus a small increment leads to a slightly bigger increment, and so on. So Glass's pieces are based on repetition, but the relation of one figure or phrase to the text is an additive one (it is no coincidence that Glass's most famous composition is entitled 1 + 1, 1968).
The effect that Glass achieves musically is interpreted poetically by Finch. He repeats and extends the simple idea of the inhalation and expulsion of breath so that the audience becomes in a sense mesmerized and hardly notices the changes that are occurring. In performance Peter Finch drones
.. on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and God damn it (SP 133)
- all of a sudden change bursts out on the audience when they least expect it. Complacency is disturbed. By the end of the piece one finds oneself concentrating hard on the sounds, listening out for the changes, sensitive to intimate aural distinctions. A heightening of perception has occurred. This chimes with the Buddhist interpretation, which promotes enlightenment through the discipline of a meditational technique such as breath control:
breath's a circle and if you go far enough ... you'll meet yourself and the breath went coming breath came coming back. (SP 135)
Finch comes closest to the spirit of the experimental musicians in 'droochant for 4':
a chant for four voices two male and two female each participant starts and finishes together
- chant must last for at least five minutes. (W 16)
The notation is similar to that of the word-scores used by the composers involved with the Scratch Orchestra, a group of skilled and unskilled musicians dedicated to the performance of experimental pieces. It is also a notation which anchors the poem in duration, to lengths of time rather than the usual limits of the page, rather like the Indian 'tala'. The influence of John Cage, whose own compositions rely on this system of durations (for example, his notorious 4'33''), can be felt here, as well as that of experimental musicians such as Philip Glass, Steve Reich and Terry Riley, whose works rely on repetition and the interpenetration of phase relations. The nonsense words chanted by each of the four members of the ensemble chime in and out of synchronization with one another, the choice of volume, timbre and tempo are dependent on each individual and therefore make each performance unique. The interest for Finch is in the aural chance collisions, multilayering and superimposition which occurs. The poem is a celebration of the sensual qualities of sounds, which may be heard for what they are and not what they mean.
As John Cage has advised:
... living takes place each instant and that instant is always changing. The wisest thing to do is to open one's ears immediately and hear a sound before one's thinking has a chance to turn it into something logical, abstract or symbolical.30
This view of words as so much sound material is to be found over and again in Peter Finch's work. For example, 'Rock 'n Roll Poem' emphasizes the musical properties of words and the rhythms that can be produced by the arrangement of long vowels and short consonants, along with the exploitation of natural vocal cadences. By placing the familiar nonsense-lyrics of rock and roll in an alien arena (a visual one), Finch defamiliarizes them, draws attention to their very meaninglessness, to the fact that we can and do accept sound without sense as a viable art form:
be bop a ropity bop bop a bop bop she rop bop a rama lama ding doop doo waa. (SP 23)
A similar point is made in 'The History and Post History of Music in America' (SP 32), a comprehensive inventory of musical progression which begins with primitive onomatopoeical 'grunts' and 'chants' and ends with fantastical new modes, 'sumbid', 'fleckan' and 'chig'. The sound of the words used to describe the diversity of musical genres has a distinct sensual appeal: 'dixie', 'be-bop', 'jazz', 'acid rock'. As the reader progresses down the list the words gradually become divorced from meaning, however, their status as sounds in their own right remains undiminished. Peter Finch is also emphasizing language as an arbitrary man-made device; there is no reason why future generations may not choose to dub their new musical styles 'sterik' or 'chroman' just as we have chosen 'pop' and 'rock'. Language is, after all, like music, no more than a system of differentiating sounds.
John Cage wrote in 1952:
I imagine that as contemporary music goes on changing in the way I'm changing it what will be done is to more and more liberate sounds from abstract ideas about them and more and more to let them be physically uniquely themselves. This means for me: knowing more and more not what I think a sound is but what it actually is in all of its acoustical details and then letting this sound exist, itself, changing in a changing sonorous environment.31
The work of Peter Finch clearly bears the imprint of Cage's aesthetic.Under Finch's influence, according to Cage's progressive predictions, sound becomes a chameleon, adapting according to the changing sonorous environment and the poet's demands upon it. Finch celebrates the versatility of the sound medium which, as we have seen, can act in a physical, political or spiritual capacity, or any combination of the three. His choice of the genre is itself an overtly self- conscious political gesture. For this innovative Welsh poet, whose work continues to be underestimated, and is perhaps still imperfectly understood, the art of noise is, then, at once cultural celebration and cultural criticism.
- Christian Morgenstern, "Fisches Nachtgesang" in Galgenlieder Gingganz Und Horatius Travestitus (Basel: Zbinden Druck, 1972).
- Quoted in Raoul Hausmann, "The Optophonetic Dawn", Stereo Headphones 4 (Spring 1971) unpaginated.
- Raoul Hausmann, "The Optophonetic Dawn".
- The Letterist movement originated in France in the 1940s. They were interested in the visual representation on the page of all human sounds, whether produced by the voice or some other part of the body, as an integral part of communication. They increased the 26 letters of our alphabet to over 130 by including additional signs for noises such as the kiss, the fart, etc. See Paul de Vree, "Sound Poetry", Stereo Headphones 4 (1971).
- Henri Chopin, "Sequel Article to 'open letter to aphonic musicians'", Stereo Headphones 4 (Spring 1971) unpaginated.
- Peter Finch, from an unpublished paper delivered at Ty Llên on 21 October 1995, provisionally entitled "Sound Poetry: A Brief History".
- Steve MacCaffery, "For a Poetry of Blood", Stereo Headphones 4 (Spring 1971) unpaginated.
- Peter Finch, Introduction to Selected Poems (Bridgend: Poetry Wales Press, 1987).
- Peter Finch, Selected Poems (Bridgend: Poetry Wales Press, 1987) 33.
- Bob Cobbing, "The Shape and Size of Poetry", Kroklok 2 (September 1971) 33.
- Bob Cobbing, "The Shape and Size of Poetry" 33.
- Meic Stephens, ed., The Bright Field: An Anthology of Contemporary Poetry from Wales (Manchester: Carcanet, 1991) 97.
- M. Wynn Thomas, "Anglo-Welsh poets and the Welsh language during the 80s", Writing Region and Nation, ed. James A. Davies and Glyn Pursglove (Swansea: Department of English, University of Wales, Swansea, 1994) 516.
- Hereafter, sources of direct quotation from Peter Finch are indicated in the body of the essay, abbreviated as follows:
SP, Selected Poems (Bridgend: Poetry Wales Press, 1987);
PFG, Poems For Ghosts (Bridgend: Poetry Wales Press, 1991);
SMLW, Some Music and a Little War (London: Rivelin Grapheme Press, 1984);
TERM, Trowch Eich Radio 'Mlaen (London: Writers Forum, 1977);
W, Whitesung (Solihull: Aquila, 1972);
BAH, Blues and Heartbreakers (Newcastle upon Tyne: Galloping Dog Press, 1981).
- Eric Mottram, Towards Design in Poetry (London: Writers Forum, 1977) 32.
- Peter Finch, Selected Poems (Bridgend: Poetry Wales Press, 1987) 123.
- Peter Finch and Bob Cobbing, The Italian Job, processed by John Whiting (London: New River Music, 1988).
- In an interview with Peter Finch conducted at "Oriel", Cardiff, on 24 October 1994.
- Jane Aaron, "Echoing the (M)other Tongue: 'Cynghanedd' and the English Language Poet", Fire Green as Grass, ed. Belinda Humphrey (Llandysul: Gomer, 1995) 5.
- Interview with Peter Finch, 24 October 1994.
- John Cage, M, Writings '67-72 (Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan U.P., 1973).
- Marjorie Perloff, The Poetics of Indeterminacy: Rimbaud to Cage (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton U.P., 1981) 336.
- Perloff 316.
- John Ormond, "Certain Questions for Monsieur Renoir", Anglo-Welsh Poetry 1480- 1990, ed. Raymond Garlick and Roland Mathias (Bridgend: Seren, 1982) 248.
- In addition to "blue", recordings of "miss skin", "four times as many" and "seasonal cycle" appear on the audio cassette Big Band Dance Music, produced by Balsam Flex.
- Steve Reich, from Music as a Gradual Process, 1970, cited in Michael Nyman, Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond (London: Studio Vista, 1974) 133.
- Steve MacCaffery, "For a Poetry of Blood", Stereo Headphones 4 (Spring 1971) unpaginated.
- Peter Finch, Dances Interdites, produced by Eric Vonna-Michel (London: Balsam Flex, 1982).
- An assertion made by Peter Finch in private conversation.
- John Cage, quoted in Nyman, Experimental Music 1.
- John Cage, quoted in Nyman, Experimental Music 42.
The Art of Noise: Peter Finch Sounds Off by Claire Powell appeared originally in Welsh Writing In English A Yearbook of Critical Essays Vol 2 / 1996 edited by Dr Tony Brown and published by the New Welsh Review. Text Copyright Claire Powell 1996.
Claire Powell is a postgraduate tutor at University of Wales, Swansea, where she is currently engaged in research for a Ph.D. on experimental poetry. She graduated in English from University of Wales, Bangor, where she was awarded the John F. Danby prize, and gained an M.A., with distinction, in Modern Welsh Writing in English at Swansea.
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