The Politics of Delivery (Against Poet-Voice)

Holly Pester

Smirking at ‘poet-voice’, the so-called auto-tune of more or less uniform, up and down notes that a poet uses to tumble along a line of poetic clauses and conjunctions until… it reaches… a possible verandah of resolution… indicated mainly through the recognisable key change and programmed-from-elsewhere pauses – is a little trite, if not a pointless point of contention. Poets from all camps, scenes and aesthetic traditions do it, or a version of it. And after a succession of literary festivals I’ve heard poet-voice enough times to think that maybe there’s something about this common spoken tune that kindly coheres the voice of poets…? But, no. Following a political impulse that I cannot shake, I want to oppose poet-voice. Not to smirk, but to suggest that poet-voice, that is, to lay a given mutual voice on top of the text, is a kind of opting out. It’s a self-absolving move. What’s being opted out of is the rough stuff of delivery and the ethical shrapnel in intonation. Such materials of poetic intonation are not, I will argue, irrelevant to the political questions of one’s speech in society and its disputed freedoms.

I have a fully felt and fraught relationship with delivery. I care about delivery compositionally; I enjoy the affects of composition working on and into my voice. Sometimes it feels as if my voice is the victim of some impossible contract with the text. The effort and timbres of delivery are therefore potentially very significant to a political poet. This sounded aspect of my work often gets shorthanded as performance, but it’s not that. Performance art and performance poetry are distinct artforms with histories and styles, learned and studied by talented performers. Delivery is as banal or as eccentric as the material, but not necessarily correspondingly. It is part of the craft of poetry that isn’t unrelated to the intrinsic vocal identity of the poet (accent etc), yet has as much to do with tensions within the communities, heritages and civics of poetry as with the individual. Delivery is also an opportunity to continually reassess the integration of one’s self with speech. How blent are self and speech in a poem, and how indicative of each other should they be? Is the self that emerges in each poem, cultivated by its linguistic system, at odds with the persona of the poet? Aren’t these the complexes that poetry wants as its vegetation?

The study of delivery, as literally heard in the melodies of intonation and also delineated in the written flexes of prosody (and this for me is where it gets interesting) is caught between the discourse of formal analysis (see the many many close readings of prosodic form in free verse poetry) and the intuitively understood premises of expression (persona, character, style). In other words, the technical form of poetry is conjoint with the contingent manifestations of its social and bodily extensions.

It’s within this hybrid of analysis that I want to discuss delivery, and to hook observations of poetic composition to questions regarding the practices of speech-ridden citizens. In other words, I want to use a mode of prosodic analysis alongside and as a means to consider a citizen’s participation in public speech with a mind to all the privatised networks of language, linguistically organised power structures, and language-based systems of governance into which we speak. That is to say that while delivery is (or should be) coordinate with the mechanics of the poem as a formal aspect of the composition (line breaks and their discord with grammar for example), delivery is also inherent to the mechanics of thought that embody the pressures of being linguistic and how it feels to function in society; the nervous static of subjectivity or, as Lisa Robertson has termed it, “the movement of subjectivity in language”, is heard in intonation. So this is my stand against poet-voice, that it’s an opting out of putting yourself at stake within, and letting your voice get churned up by, the real-world materials of prosody and intonation, stress, pitch and cadence.

This mix of close reading/hearing with speculative imagining entails mixing prosody as a tradition of technical analysis with prosody understood as a meeting point between the poem and the world. In Derek Attridge’s formalist reading of the sound-structure in William Blake’s ‘The Sick Rose’ (The Singularity of Literature, 2004), studying what is ‘obvious’ about the action and gesture of sounds, reveals the covert subversions in the poem’s meaning. In Lisa Robertson’s ‘Untitled Essay’, from her book Nilling: Prose Essays on Noise, Pornography, The Codex, Melancholy, Lucretius, Folds, Cities and Related Aphorias (2012), prosody is unleashed from poetic interpretation altogether and set as a co-movement of peoples with and within polity: “‘prosody’ describes the historical and bodily movements of language amongst subjects.” In his essay, ‘Mental Ears and Poetic Work’ (2010) J.H. Prynne hears the histories of English in Wordsworth – in a way that is close to both Attridge and Robertson’s methodologies – where the poem is in beat with something other than itself – but his reading is still an act of excavation that contrarily rebuffs material delivery, indeed the culture of live poetry readings. This is what I want to know about poetry: how is composed and crafted poetic intonation also the sound of the work of the historical present on intonated speech? And can intonated delivery be heard as a comment and critique of institutions that produce and oppress speaking subjects? The politicisation of intonation is not such a leap after all.

Let’s consider pitch and its vertices. When a line of poetry creates intonation that in turn creates pitch and the voice is angled upwards, can we hear in this an analogue of the possibility of speaking up? To make this leap we may think of the line of poetry as a public forum, or as an environment of speaking-tones, or as a spatialised history of things said. Something about the line’s architecture will push up certain notes, and this might correspond with an event of speech against a backdrop of monotone or even silence. And for the sake of argument I’m going to say that it does, yes it does correspond. While there is no inherent goodness in speaking up or in speaking out, as it’s always structural, always a question of power and platform, delivery plays into this situatedness of speaking. To what truths or meaning are ‘you’ pitched and postured, and through pitched intonation how will your voice open up a space for more questions; where upwards intonation creates a space for an alternative continuation or futures; room for completion; a demand for attention and so on?

We can extend this out of the poem into the politics of speaking out and up for something. Sara Ahmed, in Living a Feminist Life (2017), has described how the act of speaking out can lead to the speech of speaking out itself becoming the object of complaint, as sound. The speech and the contours of its reach are materially and distinctly heard as pitch, or (high) pitched (but perhaps not listened to). There is risk in putting speech into action, depending on the frameworks and context that meets the speech that is speaking out. The supposed ‘freedom’ of the freedom of speech is always contingent on these structures that codify how that speech is received. Such structures belong to the method of privilege and systemised inequality. The university – the supposed domain of free speech – in particular stresses this inequity by lubricating and igniting certain speech acts, whilst limiting and stressing others. We are never outside institutions that produce and reproduce forms of power and oppression within which every act of speech is heard differently and there is no neutral space for its sound. A poem and its delivery should acknowledge this institutionalised disparity of speech, otherwise why do we bother?

This is to place the social act of speaking up against a measurement of intonation, where speaking up – raising the voice up into a pitched and less grounded space where it can appeal to other voices or sounds – becomes more of a song, unsure of itself, therefore open. Not into the lofty non-resounding sheet of divine knowledge, but as an instrument to prick and freak the membrane of a word’s ideal form. Here intonation becomes escapage from the scene of a supposed truth, through an act of being heard differently. The question: what am I prepared to say and am I prepared to speak against what I hear, parallels the formation of subjectivities bubbling up in the vertices of pitch within the vibrant texture of a line of poetry. Therefore when constructing a line of poetry, a question that drives the process is, now that I’ve said that, what next? Where will I take my voice and what meaning will my heart pitch onto it? When and where will I fall? (And I’ll come to cadence soon.) Diction is not our only resource to respond with. When you break a line you might create an intonation, it might scale the voice up into the tone of a question: what grace is that word reaching for? Or what gravity does it otherwise fall for? Or what second in history does it stay still with? It is mischief to mix these scales out of sync with ‘natural’ speech, but that is the craft of poetry. Here’s William Carlos Williams’ other plum poem, ‘To a Poor Old Woman’:

They taste good to her
They taste good
to her. They taste
good to her

This is a relatively simple act of generating affective surplus through the shifting of breaks to create intonating stresses; stressing what tasted good, that they did taste good, and that it was her for whom they tasted good. This is for Denise Levertov (who uses this example in an essay, ‘The Function of the Line’, 1979) a process of intensification of sensation through melody – where pitch and rhythm coordinate with experience. But as well as intensifying, prosody is where the poem recreates and also undermines its truth statements – therefore, where prosodic interference can shift experience, delivery in and of a poem constructs vibrant movements of orientation (sexual, political, phenomenological), and histories (told and untold) and selves (partial, mourned, multiple, in becoming).

The delivery of these alternating pitches can also be seen as an expression of the variously different speeds and rhythms of order and control that are operating on any one group or any individual at once. Take this Deleuzian equation: Things happen to us in different rhythms and at different speeds as they happen in history; therefore we get stressed. Gender is happening to you; the state is happening to you; debt is happening to you; climate change is happening to you, but at different speeds and tempos. The equivalent planes of difference – manner, style, form, random swerves and contours – that cut through and create a poem create prosody. Delivering a poem as a prosodic machine is to be in contact with these various speeds and rhythms, narratives and truths.

Verity Spott’s book, Click Away Close Door Say (2017) translates a place of work into linguistic space that questions what can be said in a time where speech is owned and valued within a system (a workplace) that articulates it through prisms of use-value capital. The notes at the back of the book describe how the text was composed over two years during which Spott worked in a specialist support service for young adults with high-functioning autism and related/mixed diagnoses. The text was added to and worked on every workday during that time, assembled non-chronologically over the workdays, yet still as a narrative of the conditions of employment, its institutionalising of language and its insidious insistences on the body.

The first section of the book-length poem attempts to articulate the instruments of work – focusing mainly on the doors and their mechanisms. We hear a lot about entering the two doors to work, a process which is effortful and orchestrated requiring multiple codes, keys and others’ hands. The entrance is described through the worker’s bodies (not one singular person speaking), bodies which are complicatedly related to the doors by way of their awkwardly discoursed usability. What’s insisted on also is that in between the doors there is an airlock.

[…] Both doors

in the airlock are paneled and transparent,
and I watch as one of my colleagues
appears on the other side of the second
door. There are two doors and an airlock space
a meter and a half between us.

The airlock becomes a way of explicating the position of being at work and what this space is as a position from which to speak. This freighted gap between the two planes of order, between being and not being at work – and how the various users of the door are figured in relation to it as users, as employees, or as the serviced – is a prosodic pocket (also created in the poem by the repetition of “door” and the intonational innovations on the structure of the poem) from which a new subject position creates a voice.

Situated to the right of the second door of the airlock, burning

(the name I give it) the two doors with two
locks and two codes for the second door, as you go

There are lots of shifts in intonation, hurried and then halted speeds (as if the voice is escaping and then pulled back into work-time); the line breaks in the scored delivery of the lines make us feel the body as something manipulated. The gravitational pull of the “doors”, the pervasive forces, and the suffocated subjectivity of the gap that mediates them, is the prosody for this poem. Voices crushed into spaces and forms of user-identities: the door/s, the hand sanitiser, the rota, the message book – the stresses and breaks. We hear voices switching between second-person instruction, first-person testimony and what we can assume to be the voice of the “service users”.

Am I going to be sick? Are you sick? Were you coughing? Do I have a demon in me? Am I going to be sick?

The poem’s prosodic texture of multiple pitches, mimics the stresses and breaks of a working day, in an institution designed to hold people in various ways, and in doing so demonstrates how voices are managed. The book is in a cadence of labour and care, as oppositional planes, and the way they are put into a damaging tension under capitalism for the sake of production. The prosody of working under pressure, where body-time is pitched against work-time, creates a static that we hear as sound and can imagine in delivery. The gaps and pauses in the notational breaks that are smuggled in are like escape routes. As Spott says in the notes as a message back to her colleagues, “There are hidden exits”.

Prosody is not just effect therefore; prosody is both what creates and also breaks open a statement with pitch and pauses – putting the statement into different kinds of action, as poetic truth. Delivery is to be in relation to the poem’s process of splitting the self into component and oppositional voices. Prosody is all contact and boundaries. Listen to the way Édouard Glissant describes Saint-John Perse in The Poetics of Relation (1990) in terms of prosody and intonation:

His voice comes from beyond the seas, charged with the movement of those African countries present in their absence; it lingers in the night, which draws trembling children into its womb.

[…] There are no torches surrounding his words; there is only a hand stretched toward the horizon that rises up as the ocean swells or high plateaus. It is the always possible infinite. The ring made by the voice diffracted into the world.

Therefore when I ask, “What are you prepared to say and, next? And how will that change what you just said?” I am asking you to think about what the scored delivery of poetry says about speech as an ongoing and provisional practice that is as much limited by as it is responsive to the environment and the materials we speak into. The question then is how to use poetry’s framing of speech to rethink the idea of the freedom of speech.

To interpret prosody and its affect on delivery as a condition of history and experience is to see how various routes of thought, and life, exist in a poem. Owning up to the work and role of delivery is therefore a necessary self-critique that we need to open plots in the narrative sequencing of ordered speech into new species of cognition and particular auditions. Furthermore, the delivery of each word carries different kinds of accountability / of bearing weight / of bearing witness / of the possibilities of commonality by creating difference in meaning, by being both call and style. We are working in the metrics of experience against speeds of historical time and the poem’s duration. The sound a poem makes, and the sound voiced people make through the poem, registers in relation to crises, collectivity, rage, orgasm: the up-and-down of pitch is the erotics of words against each other as sound.

I mean that sound occurs in thought not as a literal acoustic event of delivered speech in a distinct performance (a single poetry reading say) but rather more discursively, as the setting of a poem, in distinct and distant relation to the possibility of its delivery. They will cross over (“they” being sound as the thing that happened and sound as a remembered aspect of language, always in its every recording) but while one points to the evidence of the sound-shape of a poem (the phonetic, forensic of speech), the other idea of sound, of looser, less tangible and more variable phonology (if you like) enacts relations between and across the text, with the world (and all its sounds) with history (and all its cadences) and with evolutions of language (and all its covert subjectivities). Consider that sound in poetry is a cradle in speech that carries complex histories (literary and cultural) – that are colonial, economic and peopled all the way down.

The sub-lexical aspects of speech and a word’s sonority are not accidents of what was said / what is said / what might be said – they are part of composition that continues the remodelling of speech that a poem does as a way to be both part of common speech and a critique of public language. Not much of what I have just said hasn’t already been said. Shelley for example spoke on the creative co-movements of the shape of a poem and the shape of action, as well as sound and thought, where poetry is “the creation of actions according to the unchangeable forms of human nature”.

Prosody isn’t a neutral architecture, it is freighted and situated. The prosodic acts of a poem bring it into contact with temporalities and histories of lived experience; Milton’s cadences go down to hell; Édouard Glissant’s cadences listen to “underground understandings” from the recent past of the Atlantic ocean; for John Wilkinson cadence is the “life- and-death-tempo” strung into poetry. Prosodic writers write into the risk of sound, into whatever morphological reservoirs and resources might open up. Even the insistence of the same word in the same voiced intonation shows us the difference in the same; it is the call of Other latent histories, and prosody moves us towards a communication with that latency in speech-sounds.

We can hear it when poets are prepared to jab into that latent space of a word, where the poem is a radical mark on language. But it’s never a straightforward – and neither should it be – channel between delivery and declaration. What is that link? We associate a citizen with someone with a voice, or with the voice itself – and the capacity to speak, make speech against, with, up – a voice heard is democracy. Isn’t it? For the poet Joe Luna, a poem is always an act of sabotage on the presumed possibility of say-ing-some-thing (‘Poetry and the Work of Sabotage’, 2015). Prosody recreates the means for survival of a thought from that sabotage; the conditions of survival for an active thought live in poems because of the work of prosody.

Let’s pause for a quote from Simone Weil:

Creation is composed of the descending movement of gravity, the ascending movement of grace and the descending movement of the second degree of grace.

Gravity is the inevitable baseness. That second grace is the downward movement that isn’t an effect of gravity but a will to descend. I recently made a typo in a text message about attending a demo, writing “descent” instead of “dissent”. I now think this was an intellectual thought about the poetics of cadence. The point is, there is a point at which we fall. This is clausula, the melodic micro-conclusion of cadence, where the voice cultivates and pools with other materials – where it goes after the stresses and ascendances and tilts of a plea or a question – within clausula is the proto code of a termination, where a voice gathers and reforms.

And line breaks – are they breaking points? Do they offset the possibility of syntactical logic, and therefore a logical, ordered self of genteel expression? Line breaks create intonation in delivery where there might be fluency, smuggling in mutable conclusions and questions and other lyric selves where there was fluent sovereignty. And speaking of positioning your voice as your self in certain subversive prosodic forms as identity deconstruction and reconstruction, Nat Raha’s poetry is in itself a posturing of incendiary oppositions in the body of the text. Raha writes and delivers divisions that break open to create new perspectives, perspectives held in the intonating pitches of the voice and the breaks of breath that open a space of microscopic silence. Silences that themselves might be read as performative in relation to protest or in a dialectics with passive silence. Perhaps the pauses in poetry are sounded silence that always play into the politics of when to speak and when not to. For instance ‘white silence’, that is tacit complicity, is very different to the active abandoning of voice or silent yielding as a means to relinquish privilege.

Raha is a poet who is prepared to say and to un-say common language, to create new spaces of speech, subjectivities that form in language – on the basis of what it’s possible to utter yourself as. Raha rediscovers/recreates agency in the uneven power dynamics of state and subject especially in the collection de/compositions (2017), a text that actively pulls apart the common logic of linguistic meaning – the lyric is radical but somehow protective in the peaks, troughs and stitched lines, protective of the identities that are on the line – namely, transgender sex workers – in the wounded membrane of speech crafted out of a politics of survival.

A certain line from a section of de/compositions reads:

loser . liar . comes to court

We can hear the metric shape of a nursery rhyme. It has a trochaic rhythm, two cadent dips of different tones, making each noun rooted, sedimented. The two overtly big caesuras between loser and liar seem to plot a grave or a ghost space for the figures. In that marked space is a kind of death that is also part of the fabric of the trochaic beat; caesura is a silence that is there and not there. Punctuated silence is active; pinned, acute; an unyielding silence.

The poem continues,

loser . liar . comes to court
recreation for blank stars / / too

“[C]ourt”, a satisfying accented sound, is the terminal point of the incongruent merry rhythm. We could end there – the loser liar comes to court, where “court” is a noun at the settling inflexion. This court, as all courts do, produces a halt.

But the next word, “recreation”, restarts the clock, a new tune is opened up, and recreates the preceding tune. This reminds us that prosody, like experience, is non-linear. We can hear the tune in various ways and in various orders at once (a poem that impels us to do that is politically radical). Do they (whomever the subject of this action is) come to court, or to court recreation? Is “recreation” the beginning of a new phrase and perspective, or a prosodic defracting of singular narrative? In that acute moment between court and recreation sits history, the law, creation, the social and the natural, neither letting the other be.

In the following lines more political delivery unfolds and calls back to the previous lines,

loser . liar . comes to court
recreation for blank stars / / too
much white in the stars & , tie
him   naked & stern & merciles

In the phrase “blank stars” meaning is irreducible, but I can hear the court in that spondee stress, its legal absolving and dissolving of preliminary beings. Then another, alternately coded, pause for breath (or gasp). Because of the line break “too” is pulled up and down at once, cast into the ether (where it might mean “as well” and where it belongs to “stars”), but it is also twisted round into “much”, a gravitated qualifier, making it overburdened. Then “stars” is heard again. The first star was loose, this one is tethered, its sound is stopped by “and” and followed by nothing. We hear “tie” in another register that pulls the sound back to “too”. Since “tie” is italicised, it might belong to another text, but it hooks into this line so that when we hear “him”, he is the clearest subject so far (he’s not quite as stressed as he might be, he’s not quite there…). The blank space saves him from the not-quite attributed nakedness and the brutality of what follows (or does it root him to it?). That “naked & stern & merciless” breaks the silence, makes it more brutal; something took place in that moment that we couldn’t witness and only hear as breath. Then we’re back to a liturgical beat or chant rhythm. We are back in the present moment but where a historical time (a man in chains) in a glibly bounced beat is time’s affliction running unstoppably to and from the future.

This is cadence in the material world; the poem is cadent with it because of its sprung deaths, its cosmic and ideological castings, the violent but broken corporeality, spells of delivery in custody, reassigning voice in intonated un/broken testimony, the poem is the conditions and the prosody is the reaction to its conditions.

Let me finish with an attempt to defend this politics of delivery from the position of a poet whose speech falters, trembles and climbs, in writing as in life. If the cadent tune of a list (of names on a register or items for shopping, for instance) is so uniformly tuned that it is heard as a marching chant, while complex clauses and sub-clauses in an utterance have an open, improvised jazz-like melody, if you can hear what bits of speech belong in a parenthesis, then prosody is the recreation of escape routes, of shelters, of sites of resistance and of bodies entwined, and bodies on the line. In those types of grace where we hear tones meet each other and analogous pitches with analogous desires and pains (with desire being analogous to pain) – we hear the mechanics of society and living thought surviving. Prosody creates spaces and moments for what can be said. The poets I listen out for recreate that space through an insubordinate rhythm against the condition of the day.

Holly Pester is a poet and lecturer at the University of Essex. This essay was first published in The Poetry Review, 109:2, Summer 2019. © The Poetry Review and the author.