As part of the exhibition and events program A Model of Order: Concrete Poetry, the Scottish Poetry Library facilitated an afternoon of sound poetry at the end of November. I was keen to attend, as this year I have learned a lot about concrete poetry through evening classes and various exhibitions and events, but still knew very little about sound poetry.
I was surprised to discover that the Dadaists were at the vanguard of sound poetry. I first learned about Dadaism at school, but only in relation to visual arts. Dadaism was primarily influenced by both World Wars. The events of, and surrounding these wars were so horrifying that the Dadaist reacted by creating anti-cultural works. They actively rejected what was considered worthwhile within an artistic context. They tried to ridicule what they saw as the meaninglessness of the modern world by creating art without meaning.
The first recordings listened to during the afternoon of sound poetry appear to reflect this idea. They appeared to be a bit of a joke, were very humorous, and one could even detect tones of the Goons or Monty Python in them. However it was still difficult to reconcile these works with the idea that they could be poetry. As with my introduction to concrete poetry I found that the definitions and boundaries that I had decided to place upon the way I experience culture were challenged, and it left me questioning if I was right to have such boundaries in the first place.
We were then played a piece called Ursonate by Kurt Schwitters. Although Ursonte did in parts have the light-hearted touch that is found in other poems, it had further resonance. Although these pieces are not means to have any discernable meaning in Ursonate I very clearly heard the voice of a woman who I had known when I worked in nursing homes. She was at the very end of Alzheimer’s, and could no longer use language, but she could make one sound, ba – repeatedly. Her predicament was horrendous, pathetic and chilling all at the same time, and in the meaningless babble of sound poetry I could hear it all again.
So within this rather amazingly constructed piece of nonsense I could make sense. Schwitters had been able to express something that I could never truly put into words. By discarding the boundaries of language he expressed the inexpressible. He has also illustrated, for me, one of the ideas which I hold as fundamental truth about mankind. It does not matter what we are confronted with – we can not help but find meaning within in, in fact, we have to. This is the fundamental flaw in Dadaism – nothing can be meaningless. The lack of meaning, which they tried so hard to invest their art, poetry and music with signifies so much more now we can look back over the times with hindsight.
You can find out more about the works of Kurt Schwitterz, at the Merz Barn Project, which hopes to further promote him and also restore his last work.