Utterance and notation of poetry / Lawrence Upton

Visual poetry..

I have been making visual poetry most of my adult life, nearly 30 years, often to be performed. During that time, I have become interested by computer science, studied it and taken it up professionally. But my use of computers has centred on building databases. I have been so engrossed by "traditional" means of making poetry that I had largely neglected the discoveries and inventions which have been made using html and other systems. I taught myself basic html in order to set up text-based web sites and left it at that.

Another thread: initially, responding youthfully to influences, I expended a great deal of energy on using the effects of machines such as tape-recorders and non-digital studio equipment, for sound, and ink duplicators and photocopiers, for visuals. I have always got on very well with machines, but have become less and less enamoured of them. In performance, I moved steadily away from the machine-enhanced voice towards what I can do with the unaided voice.

Recently I have been experimenting with what more I can do with computers, having worked with the damn things for nearly 20 years. I spent a great deal of time writing code to make visuals until I realised that graphics programs had caught me up and passed me by; and all the time, Bob Cobbing, for instance, produced work at least as interesting and often more interesting using a photocopier. (I should say that I have also been using computers for alphabetical textual permutational effects for about 10 years, but that would take me in another discursive direction entirely.)

Initially, I learned to exploit some of the functions of package programs to assist my work with copiers, collage and painting... Slowly, I have become interested in seeing what can be done with animations and scripts though most of such work has been kept between me and my cpu.



House (housepress, canada, ISBN 1-894174-08-9), which you'll find reproduced here, was made using the planned output of a word-processor and a heat-transfer copier. It "describes" / is the potential score for what I imagine to be a tape-piece (by which I also mean a digitally-recorded piece, but when I started out making sound pieces it was done on tape on open reels)... At present, I make more, by a long way, visual pieces than potential sound pieces because of the nature of the facilities I have and the facilities I lack.

There are two sets of changes running through House, running in opposite directions, and each double page spread would represent a sample, a point in time, in a continuum.

I would like to make it as a sound piece, but I do not feel a strong drive to do so. With some of my work, say the work on Domestic Ambient Noise with Bob Cobbing, the performance is an adventure, as we both find out exactly what a page would sound like. With this kind of work, however, I have a fairly clear idea of the effect that I am after. I am more interested in what the next piece will look like.

When the images of House had been scanned and sat before me on the screen, I felt it was a different poem, a caricature of the one that I had made, which led me on to a great deal of thought about the nature of what I have been and am doing. But two thoughts came almost immediately: that a different realisation of the original idea was needed for the web and that I would not like to record a sound track to go with the scanned images of the original.

This isn't, I hope, an attachment for the sake of it to paper as a medium of presentation and distribution. I have found that in performance it matters a great deal where the paper bearing the image(s) being performed is in relation to the performer(s). Almost all of an afternoon of Bob Cobbing's London workshop was devoted to this topic. Bob tends to hold the paper in his hand or to try to remember it whereas I prefer to throw the paper on the floor and read it from there. (It suits the limitations of my eyesight, but not Bob's; and Bob may find it intrusive that I wish to litter the floor with what I am reading!) It is important to me that I am not holding the paper because the utterance of many texts is, for me, more than a normal reading vocalisation. I want to be free to move and I don't want to be limited by having to be looking up and down at a piece of paper in my own hand - I want to be able to wave my arms around... but, the paper is nearly always there, tangibly, a point of performance.

But where is the Electronic Point of Performance? The presentation of an image on the screen changes its textures and tones so that a performance made with a paper-based image sounds wrong when that image becomes screen-based. Also, the set up of my desk is such that I am uncomfortable performing at the screen - my desk layout is very much the data entry model of computer use.

The proposed solution, consisting of twelve simultaneously and asynchronously animated semantic gif files, uses much the same materials but takes another approach to the basic idea. Here, at one level, the electronic text performs itself, leaving the reader their reading-cum-performance. They are free to vocalise, but there is actually nothing in the piece for the maker to sound.

The metrics are quite different, electronically-timed changes, slowly slipping out of and back into phase with each other, although the limited number of semantic elements in each gif limits the degree of dislocation; but the eye determines its own pace. The text is presented horizontally in two vertical columns and so could be read top down left to right, but that is not what one does because the words are changing as one reads them.


Metrical Experiments

The Metrical Experiments are just that, techniques in progress, and so do not deserve to be here in some aspects of my own analysis. 3 of them (#1, #3 and #4) use a text in progress currently called Huming 3 (which is potentially a follow up to Huming (published as Potepoettextseven (edited by Peter Ganick), USA, 1997 and Queuing, due out as Huming Queuing later in 1999 from Writers Forum).

I am still, yes, experimenting with that text, in an attempt to decide what it is becoming. It will probably be more different from Queuing than Queuing was from Huming, assuming that it isn't abandoned or cannibalised for something else.

Similarly I am trying to find out what will bring out the sometimes tenuous connections between the verse (they aren't prose) lines and between the individual words of the lines. Jim Rosenberg, for instance, has thought deeply about the issue of metrics across links, but the poetry screen raises questions about the metre of reading between sections of a text shown at the same time. And that is what I am beginning to look at here. I have no theory, or not yet anyway. I am plugging texts into each other and measuring the result subjectively.

One of the texts (#2) is almost a pastiche of some older areas of my writing. Whereas, with the Huming 3 texts, I was working with existing writing, here I largely mocked up a text as I went along, knocking together a kind of mimesis, just to see what would happen. One must of course resist the temptation to put on a soundtrack of the sea or seagulls. That is not what it is about at all.



NAMING is such a large project that I can make no general comment upon it. The impulse to make the images shown here was the necessity of finding a cover of Jeff Nuttall's issue of RWC, as I describe elsewhere in this set of pages.

Unlike House, these images were produced on the computer screen with the idea that they might be presented on a screen at some time in the future. The main problem that I faced was in simplifying them and converting them to a state where an image could be copied on to the magazine's card cover with a black and white photocopier.

The extravagant use of colour, apart from anything else, raises serious questions about the validity of sound interpretation. So much is possible with black and white, that one wonders what is left to indicate with colour. My other previous extensive use of colour was in collaboration with Bob Cobbing on the book fuming and that has been performed. It was possible to do something quite useful with the colour with two voices, but both of us agreed that there were suggested depths to what we had made on the page that we have yet to do vocal justice. Perhaps similarly, there are things in the texts from Naming pictured here which I have not been able to find the words to express, but which I believe are expressed by these images.

What I have made, is, I think, more responsive to Jeff's innate artistic exuberance. I'd rather have a recording of him playing music than a recording of myself. These are, I have decided, poems best sounded inside the head.

Alaric Sumner, in his editorial role, has been very supportive during this period of questioning; but I have also detected a certain frustration as I have amassed poem after poem for possible inclusion only to announce that it should be viewed in silence when what he had asked for was work showing the link and alliance between sound and image.

As a solution, therefore, I offer a recording of myself reading a poem dedicated to Jeff. Really the poem has no title at all, which means that it is not called Untitled. "for Jeff Nuttall" is a dedication only, although it serves as a title when the needs of the world demand one. The printed version, or something like it (the typesetter there managed to put "bums" where I put "burns", an easy visual mistake although somewhat difficult to understand, in context, in terms of common sense) was published in Poetry New York # 11

What is published here is a performance version, an aural version, which was recorded in St Ives, in Alaric Sumner's kitchen, on 13th August 1999, the day after the recording, in the same place, of Game on a phrase of Scott Thurston, Series 2a which I shall discuss presently. It was produced by a fairly straight-forward reading of a copy of the correct version of the printed version.

Unlike Game on a phrase of Scott Thurston, Series 2a, "for Jeff Nuttall" is intended to be read from top to bottom, left to right, with every word uttered as printed, with lineation and spacing guiding utterance by demanding brief silences

To some extent the performance failed in that, at several points, something only like what was intended was uttered rather than exactly what was intended, especially in terms of pacing the silences in the poem.

Some silences in the recording occurred not by skilled reading but by a difficulty in reading. The printout copy from which this uttered realisation was made had been printed with an almost empty toner cartridge and letters had dropped out of words, making them partially illegible and creating a silence while the illegibilities were decoded by the reader.

There was no need to open the audio recording system to local ambient noise. However, there was no reason to seek to exclude serendipitous additions.

What was not considered by either performer or editor was the degree to which it was appropriate to give both recordings to be published here the same background if only by default.


Game on a phrase of Scott Thurston

Game (sometimes written "Games") on a phrase of Scott Thurston came about in similar circumstances to the Naming for Jeff Nuttall. I published a Thurston issue of RWC magazine and Scott left the cover to me. I decided to use his own words, but to pick up on his expectation, recorded in the magazine, ["Think I'll leave it up to you for the cover - possibly give the texts a once over crush gyrate across the copy glass to shake em up a bit? in your capable paws"] that I would subject them to transformational treatment. I had, of course, read the text carefully, and one section stood out for me as having the greatest potential:

an increase
                    incoming where
              becomes us
              flay what part last
         line senses my breath
                 or plans to

After experimentation, I cut it down to "line senses my breath" as the actual content and began. The piece has been through many stages since then, the details of which may not be of great interest; the point is that these texts were made with the computer screen in mind &, with that, I embark on the next investigation, to what extent can someone used to improv performance satisfactorily give you tidy sound bits to accompany these pages?

Games on a phrase of Scott Thurston Series 2 was made, initially, for the page. The set of series started its life as collages.

Were one to think of it in those terms, it might be said that they are works for the wall as much as for the page, although the approach was always to produce something which would be most effective when copied, rather than when displayed.

Later additions employed photocopier and computer manipulation to some extent.

It should be made clear that the ordering and grouping of the images in no way indicates order of composition and is for convenience of indication only.

When the results were scanned and reviewed, it seemed that there was a kind of sameness to them - sameness isn't quite the appropriate word but is the nearest I can remember - and that was odd because there is a great deal of variety in the work. The effect, which may well have been idiosyncratic, only occurred after serial screening of the Series 2 images.

Experimentation suggested that the effect could be avoided by standardising the sizes of the images and there was a great attraction to standardising images in order to make them less apparently the same as each other.

The Series 2 were, in terms of sizes and aspect ratios, heterogeneous; whereas in the reworking, Series 2a, they are of identical size and proportions. In some cases this has been effected by a considerable alteration of the images' proportions and by dealing with undesirable knock on effects of those changes in order to accommodate them to their new medium.

Now that they are all of one size and shape the individual differences are very clear.

Poems of this type - it's a type that I recognise if you don't, it's a classification based on variety and density of detail - I regard as two voice. So much can be done when one is engaging not just with the text itself but with an extension of the text by someone else's voice which is also realising the text - their performance becomes part of the text or perhaps part of the text's domain within which one performs.

Yet even with such help and prompts, the text is more open than one would wish were the aim to "do" it all, like a general subduing an enemy, like a cartographer.

I prefer to be more as I imagine a hunter-gatherer and to treat my (the texts'?) domains sustainably, even though I may never forage in them again.

One varies the route one takes and one is selective.

It had been my intention to be my own second voice, using tape. Finding myself called upon to make a recording without such a facility, I agreed to use my own unaided voice.

But where to record? There was no studio. In the kitchen, perhaps, with the window closed and the microphone turned to the wall

and myself before it, so that the sound would not echo.

Very good; and so it might have been. But such a "clean" recording is only one way of doing things. To aim for a clean recording is an aesthetically ideological approach. I prefer serendipity.


Won't you please crawl out your window?

There is an enormous range of work done under headings such as sound poetry and visual poetry. (I am not at all happy with such terms, as I have indicated elsewhere. I am currently trying out "visually emphatic" in an attempt to resist the categorisation.) Often what the practitioners have in common is a willingness to incorporate the graphical and / or to go beyond the linear and / or to go beyond the verbal; so it is a very wide category indeed; but they may learn from each other...

The sort of text that I have been making, including those made collaboratively with Bob Cobbing, is an opportunity to explore unknown and being-made-up areas. I take it as a jumping point. I read it, but I do not read it as that term is usually used.

I do not see it as a code or the visual aspect of a sound, any more than I regard the sound as the sonic aspect of a mark or set of marks. I do not believe that every shape has its own innate sound. I take the shapes as suggestive and I work associatively and improvisationally. The problem is not keeping going but starting and stopping, especially starting because one is not reading top down left to right and it is difficult to know where to start AND

part of the text is what the other performer is doing; it sets a context; so the process is one of feedback and reinforcement...

one of us has to step off

it's a bit like patterns in the clouds and patterns in a dying fire

it's about listening and watching

increasingly I use gesture, not so much to explain what I am doing as to counterpoint it and as a way of modifying the utterance

full body message

you can't step into the same text twice, but it's far from random.

What is the relationship, in performance terms, between text in its wide sense, on the page, and what is performed? Is that text? What is the relationship, in performance terms, between text on the screen (in the screen?) and what is performed?

Imagine a printed poem, published in a book, consisting only of verbal elements, words, and punctuation. There are no graphics. The words run left to right at 90 to the vertical. If there are visual aspects to the poem, we shall ignore them. This surely will allow us all to speak together without worrying about what constitutes poetry.

But an assumption has been made. Because the "words" may refer to marks on the paper of the book and / or marks on paper elsewhere (e.g. in a lexicon) as well as words which have been spoken or are being spoken or will be spoken. The punctuation - well the punctuation is different, isn't it? Let's leave it. Where are the words?

Let us take a poem consisting only of verbal elements, a poem that the majority of people would agree is a poem... For this purpose almost any poem, which we are agreed is a poem, will do. We might even nominate a poem to discuss, one of Keats' or Shakespeare's, one with which I can be fairly sure when I say that many of us will have a copy of it on our shelves.

Am I correct when I say that each of us have copies of that poem on our shelves. That poem? Or would we be more correct if we said that we have copies of the text of the poem?

This could be a pointless question. Maybe you think it is - though I hope not because the question is meant rather seriously; and I want to extend it. Supposing there is uncertainty over the exact text so that, for that or other reasons, we have different versions of the text of the poem. Are they all the poem?

Or, to come back to an earlier question, is the poem what is spoken; and, if so, in whose speech? Accents will alter it. Does that matter? If I read aloud a poem by Chaucer and mispronounce much of it, as I surely would, is that still the poem or a version of it or something less than the poem?

Many variations on this question(s) could be asked. What constitutes a poem?

I want to think about what happens when we move a poem between media and, in particular, from paper-based media to electronic media: what is actually stored is quite unlike our experience of words and graphics, magnetic states representing electronic states, arranged on the basis of a binary system, ready to be loaded as a program within a personal computer to show us a representation of the marks and sounds that we recognise as writing and its utterance. Are we moving a poem or are we just moving from one state / aspect of a poem to another? Or is it something else?

People who cannot read know poems.

People who cannot hear know poems.

People who cannot see know poems.

People who cannot write know poems.

I raised the matter of accent - the same poem, if it is the same poem - but with a slightly different pattern of sounds. And if we decide that it isn't the same poem then we are confusing ourselves with a rather large classificatory difficulty. But that's a small part of it, of The Difficulty. Even in the same speech community we'll tend to read the poems differently and the likelihood is that we'll each read the same poem differently on different days.

The same poem? A different poem?

If it's a different poem each time a different person reads it, then where is the poem?

I know a man who can, from memory, recite poems he learned in the Ukraine before the first world war. He doesn't always know what they are. Where are those poems? Perhaps I might as well ask where his memories are, a pertinent question because you'll no more be able to point them out to me than you can point out an electronically-stored poem or this piece of writing on my hard disk drive although perhaps the storage system of both can be described.

The written or typed word, even when it is easy to read, well-punctuated and sensibly formatted, is a lousy notation / storage system. It's as if, at the next level down, having prepared a well-formatted document, we had stored it as plain text.

It tells us nothing about accents and other variations from standard pronunciation. Nor does it let us know what its author considers to be standard pronunciation. It tells us nothing about pace and change of pace and very little about how we should pause between words, sentences and paragraphs. It tells us nothing about volume. It tells us nothing about tone.

Much of this missing information may be deduced from the lexical content of the writing. That is, one interprets the score to supply instructional performance information which is not in the score.

Generally, we have to read a piece of writing in order to decide if it is intended for performance.

It tells us very little about how to stress words or anything about any other form of emphasis.

And that's not all.

If it were widely recognised how much the performer has to bring to a poem and how many decisions they have to make, the performance of poetry might be greatly improved.

Thus, if I ask what it means for an interpretation if I tilt my text out of the horizontal, enlarge some, or change its colour, as I have, my question may be unintentionally deceptive.

We expect our texts to go from left to right horizontally and we fill in the deficiencies of our alphabet and punctuation systems as a notational system when we have to, hardly noticing that we do so. Because we hardly notice, we are confused when, implicitly, we are asked what they signify.

Back to the deficiencies of writing as a notation. I said that there is more. I spoke of accent. The sound values given to letters and combinations of letters are arbitrary and they have to be learned.

The a in apple and the a in ape, for me, are different sounds, but we write / type them with the same letter. So, when we meet the letter on its own, a, unless we regard it as a form of the English indefinite article, we have no certainty as to how to pronounce it. In fact, even if it is the indefinite article, we may pronounce it both as the a in apple and the a in ape in my version of modern English.

Because of the overlapping variety of systems of pronunciation, it is not possible to write down non-verbal utterance with any assurance that others will know how to utter what has been written. Writing is good enough providing it is notating a fairly predictable use of language, providing also we are on top of what we are reading and providing we use all of our faculties.

Where is the poem?

What is the poem?

Is the poem the marks on the page? or is it what is uttered?

It might be the idea of the poem, but that does not seem to me to be how poems are made, at least in general.

Now here is an interesting possibility... If we think of the words as separate from their marks on the page then there is an analogy between the magnetic patterns on the computer's storage media and the marks on the page, because both point to the poem rather than being the poem.

I am writing this section in an underground train carriage at a time when the train is running approximately north to south and there are two people arguing about which way to go, because the train company classifies trains as eastbound and westbound.

This poem or is it that poem? - what is the difference in terms of trying to score for utterance between underlining a word and emboldening it?

I am saying - This poem, that poem, the poem you may have read as you entered this part of the site, this poem is not intended to be sounded; nor is it intended to be read silently: I wish it to be read whilst you imagine what it might sound like if it were sounded. This is not an urgent wish; it doesn't need explaining or emphasis, outside of an explanation such as this. If you do something else in response to my poem, so be it.

The poem does not have a title. The poem is not untitled.

Here is a linear poem which, while I shall, from time to time, read aloud, might be read silently:

Intransigent smile

Lips parted to allow screams


It was published in NHI and my thanks to editor Gerald England for that. It has no external title. It is of a type I call 575s, that is, it has a line of five syllables, followed by a line of seven syllables, followed by a line of five syllables. I could call it a haiku, but then there remains the question of the degree to which I am following or even aware of other aspects of a traditional andor Japanese form and so on and so on and so on. Also, calling it a 575 opens the possibility of using other configurations.

Here is a visually empathic poem which is not intended to be sounded; nor is it intended to be read silently:


I wish it to be read whilst you imagine what it might sound like. I signal the oral silence of some syllables by putting them in brackets; yet, by giving them a count, I am giving them an aural dimension, which is silent, imaginary, virtual. THUS, the second and third lines are there. That's clear, of course, because their syllables are counted: 0 and 0! And they are sounded syllables. What is the sound of no syllables (to be) uttered? I do not know, but I am thinking about it and this poem is one of my provisional answers.

The title is incorporated in the image because these matters are a part of the poem. The image might be prettier without the title label in its top; but, while I wish the poem to be pleasing, the source of the pleasure is not intended to be entirely visual. The risk here is that the poem may seem to be or actually become a puzzle; it is a risk I hope to avoid. There is, so far, no printed version of the poem; it exists only in the real-imaginary space of my computer and the computers to which a copy of it has been transferred; and, of course, because the original is a pattern and a pattern which is being renewed repeatedly, each copy is the an/the original.


Copyright all texts © Lawrence Upton 1999.