New York

“Glossolalia"

Anthology Film Archives

Hans Schuldt organized and introduced this series of six late-afternoon poetry readings, in which he participated along with Richard Foreman, Robert Kelly, Stephen-Paul Martin, Howard Stern, Paul Schmidt, and Harry Mathews. The Oxford English Dictionary defines “glossolalia” as “the faculty or practice of speaking with tongues,” meaning ecstatic religious babble. When applied to poetry, the term suggests, on the one hand, Plato’s idea, in the Phaedrus, of the “divine madness” of the poet, and, on the other, Karl Shapiro’s idea that poetry is an “antilanguage” rather than a language. In this series of readings, however, it was used to mean poetry that derives from arbitrary rules’ of method designed to neglect, either fully or partially, the issue of meaning.

Homophonic translation is one glossolalic approach. The translator from, say, German, attempts to make the English sound as much like the German as possible, without attention (or with only secondary attention) to meanings. Meanings are produced as epiphenomena of sounds, emerging randomly; language itself produces meanings that are not intended by any specific author. Robert Kelly read his “Unquell the Dawn Now,” a partially homophonic translation of Friedrich Hölderlin’s “Am Quell der Donau” (At the source of the Danube). The piece involves at least three different principles of translation. Some phrases are translated literally; “für uns,” for example, becomes “for us.” Others are translated homophonically, as in the title. Still others are translated on the basis of their visual appearance on the page: the German word nicht (not), for example, becomes the English word “night.” The interweaving of these three modes (Kelly says the literal translation is the least satisfying to him) with the poet’s sensibility produced a strong lyrical poem which was read both seriously and passionately.

Other methods involve oblique structural shifts, such as acrostics. In one poem read by Harry Mathews, for example, the first letters of the words in certain passages spell out the alphabet, over and over again. Another of Mathews’ poems is an actual recitation of the alphabet, but as words (“hey, be seedy . . . ”), recalling Louis Aragon’s Dada gesture of presenting the alphabet as a poem (Suicide, 1924). Schuldt read poems in which the letters of common short words repeat over and over as initial acrostics.

A prominent theme in this work is the subversion of the function of the metaphor and/or simile. Stephen-Paul Martin, in “Hypercomparatitis,” tells a boy-meets-girl story that, at every opportunity, digresses into almost endless similes. The image-world made up of the vehicles, or second terms, of the comparisons far outshadows the world of the tenors, or first terms, the world which in traditional literature is to be accorded what Coleridge called a “willing suspension of disbelief.” Here the foreground story is of no interest and invites no suspension of disbelief. Its acknowledged inadequacy is mocked by the towering similes that surround it.

Mathews intervenes in the structure, more than the function, of the metaphor. Sometimes, for example, he derives the second term of the metaphor from the first, not by a perceived similarity between the things the words signify, but either by a homophonic echo (“the ash of her lashes.. the ice of her thighs . . . ”), or by an orthographic parallel which may not be homophonic (“the ouch of her touch”), or by a respelling of all or part of the first term (“the pins of her nipples”). Surprising meanings emerge without interference from any author’s intentions.

Another major theme is the critique of translation and paraphrase. Howard Stern’s “A Hundred Smackers” offers seven different translations of a poem by Rainer Maria Rilke, “Persisches Heliotrop.” Each version translates the poem from a different point of view or through a different persona, incorporating the projections of each persona as formative forces on the meaning. The post-Modern nature of this poetic project is indicated in various ways. Language is presented as a transpersonal force that needs only a tiny definition—any rule, limitation, methodological principle whatever—to produce meanings (or lack of meanings). Roland Barthes’ idea that it is language, not the author, that speaks in literature is here not merely nodded to but embodied or acted out.

The various glossolalic rules and methods recall the tactics of conceptual art in several ways, from Marcel Duchamp’s introduction of chance procedures to Vito Acconci’s rigorous application of arbitrary rules, to Joseph Kosuth’s stated desire to “construct the . . . meaning . . . below the surface of the fragments of other discourses . . . ” Homophonic translation in particular echoes Duchamp’s fascination with complex puns, the “translation” being, in effect, a huge interlinguistic pun. The public performance of such works also recalls Dada performance as practiced by Hugo Ball and others, which similarly involved the public recitation of nonsense poems and the introduction of chance into the production of meaning.

The Dada movement was concerned with the primitive and magical ambition to “rediscover,” as Ball put it, "the evangelical concept of the ’word’ (logos).” Ball may have felt that, by speaking in tongues, he was contacting some primally authentic experience that predated the separation of word and action—a primitive verbal moment when word was action. For these contemporary glossolaliacs, on the other hand, it is not a primal or authentic experience that is at issue so much as the demonstration of the lack of primality and authenticity in any particular voice. Still, there is a certain residual or implied claim of authenticity in the authors’ reverence for chance. In this work, language produces meanings the way water produces rust. There is an authenticity as of nature, though without the religiosity that claims of authenticity often carry. Meaning as the rust of language is perhaps even more primal than the ceremonial howl.

Thomas McEvilley