STEVEN HITCHINS: Poetry: Music: Space

Thoughts on recent work by Zoë Skoulding, Susan Howe and Richard Skelton

Increasing numbers of musicians are creating works which grasp at the transparency of water, seek to track the journeys of telematic nomads, bottle moods and atmospheres, rub out chaos and noise pollution with quiet, concentrate on sonic microcosms, absorb quotations and digital snapshots of sound into themselves, avoid form in favour of impression, concoct synthetic wilderness in urban laboratories … depict impossible, imaginary environments of beauty and terror. Music that aspires to the condition of perfume, music that searches for new relationships between maker and listener, maker and machine, sound and context.  Music that leads the listener into a shifting zone, which Peter Lamborne Wilson has described as the ‘sacred drift’, a mode of imaginal travel “in which the landscape will once again be invested with meaning, or rather with a liberatory aesthetics”.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          (David Toop, Ocean of Sound)

When I started writing, I wanted my poetry to be some sort of literary equivalent of the music I liked, which was electronic music, ambient, electronica.  I liked the way that these musicians could take samples from different sound sources and mix them together to create a new space.  I wanted to work with words in ways that were as exciting as the ways that contemporary musicians were working with sound.  This led me to explore collage techniques as methods that seemed similar to the sampling and sound manipulation techniques incorporated in such music.  I began to siphon materials from the place I inhabit to concoct my own imaginary landscapes.  Recently I have been fascinated to come across three contemporary artists who have combined poetry and music – Zoë Skoulding Susan Howe, and Richard Skelton – each in works that explore notions of place and space.

Overlaps between poetry and music have long been apparent.  It is often commented that many early poetries were recited, sung or chanted to music.  ‘Symmetry or strophic forms,’ wrote Ezra Pound in ‘Treatise on Metre’, ‘naturally HAPPENED in lyric poetry when a man was singing a long poem to a short melody which he had to use over and over’ (Haüblein, p. 10).  If poetic form derives from the traditional musical forms over which the lyric was sung, then consideration of the more amorphous forms of contemporary music might help towards new conceptions of poetic form.

As Steven Brown comments, ‘the similarities between music and language are not just the stuff of metaphors but a reflection of something much deeper.’ (‘The “Musilanguage” mode of music’, in Wallin, p. 272)  Trying to write poetry as if it is music might be a pointless task.  Perhaps these are simply two separate spheres – poems are made of words and music is made of notes – and it is impossible to apply the methods of one to the other.  But maybe, as Jean Molino suggests, such hybrids give us a better sense of what language is and bring us closer to an idea of where language comes from: ‘the first forms of something that was at the same time music and language’ (‘Toward an Evolutionary Theory of Music and Language’, in Wallin, p. 172).

Zoë Skoulding and Alan Holmes: Species Corridor and You Will Live in Your Own Cathedral

A good example of what happens to poetic form when a poem is sung is Zoë Skoulding’s ‘City in the Intermediate Realm’ which appears as a song on Parking Non-Stop’s Species Corridor album and as a poem in Skoulding’s collection, The Mirror Trade.  The text of the poem is not the lyric of the song, though phrases from the poem do appear in the lyric.

Between ground and sky

its streets unfold a crumpled

plan of another city,

one you haven’t been to

where cafés fade in smoke

behind peeling plaster

with bullet holes suspended

in fractions of a second

(The Mirror Trade, p. 38)

Phrases from these opening lines of the poem appear in the second verse of the song lyric:

Just around the corner,

if you follow me,

streets unfold between the

ground and sky;

a crumpled map of where you

want to be;

lost in the City of the

Intermediate Realm.

It’s worth noting how the text changes from one form to the other.  The poem doesn’t have a strict syllabic metre: though the lines tend to be of similar length, with predominantly three stressed syllables per line, this is not heard because the enjambment allows the voice to flow conversationally as if prose.  The lyric acquires the loose metre of the song’s melody – tum-tee-tum-tee-tum-tee / tum-tee-tum – and the stanzaic structure, while silent in the poem, is emphasised by the end-stopped lines and the rhyming ‘me/be’.  It becomes less like conversation, becomes something more stylised, a different use of words and voice.  When listening to the song, I don’t register the meaning, or even the words themselves immediately, the breathed vocal bringing the melody to the forefront.  The rhythm is also slower than the speed of normal speech, drawing the words out, turning them into tonal syllables.

If Skoulding’s lyric demonstrates how language becomes shaped to the rhythm and melody of song, Holmes’ use of found sounds as the basis for the music draws attention to what melody and rhythm are and where they come from.

Found melodies, such as birdsong and church bells, and the synthesised doorbell tones and prerecorded voices of railway and subway station tannoy announcements, raise questions of what melody is and what it is used for.  Birdsongs come in many varieties: flight calls, alarm calls, territorial calls; they all are announcements.  Church bells may also be considered as an older version of the announcement tone: announcing church services, events.  They also can be territorial, defining the area of the parish.  As well as space, they mark time, sounding the hours.

Throughout Species Corridor, drum patterns are sculpted from samples of recordings of slate being smashed on the mountains of North Wales.  These rhythms emerge from the post-industrial landscape of North Wales, the disused slate quarries: scattery clattering ricochets, the ghosts of quarried chippings poured from trams.  As well as industry and work, rhythm is connected to movement and travel.  Many rhythms on the album derive from recordings of subway and railway trains, their repetitive rhythms creating a static repetition, a sensation of moving yet staying still.  This is characteristic of the amorphous musical forms of ambient and electronic music, where the verse-chorus structures of traditional song give way to structures based on building up and breaking down patterns over long durations.

Species Corridor is thus both a deconstruction of the traditional song and an attempt to break out of its formal constraints in order to engage with the modern experience of movement through space.  While Species Corridor explores how sound and poetry change when they become song, You Will Live in Your Own Cathedral attempts to combine sound and poetry without becoming song.

The city in this work is a living thing, bodily and mechanical, artificial and organic: ‘boundaries collapse in a rush of / security as cells multiply and break through stone / translucent grit cracks the skin open to the elements’ (‘The Old Walls’, You Will Live in Your Own Cathedral, p. 14).  Holmes melds ominous resonances and scuttling crackles foraged from Wales, the Czech Republic and Germany to build a soundscape of this living city.  It reminds me of Burroughs’ Interzone, the city scenes in Naked Lunch written under the influence of the hallucinogen Yagé, where the city becomes his body, the room vibrating with motion, the blood of its past lives passing through him.

This is appropriate to the source of the project’s title – Ivan Chtcheglov’s early Situationist text ‘Formulary for a New Urbanism’: ‘In a way everyone will live in his own “cathedral.”  There will be rooms more conducive to dreams than drugs…’ (McDonough, p. 38)  The proposed future city is itself conducive to hallucination.  ‘Architecture is the simplest means to articulate time and space, to modulate reality, to engender dreams’ (ibid, p. 36).  It is the remains of this city that Skoulding and Holmes traverse.

It is a city constantly creating and destroying itself: a demolished building rising from rubble in ‘The Building Constructed from its Own Fall’.  A city built out of language: a ‘wind tower’ built out of lies, perhaps, or a call to prayer, or disembodied radiator-pipe voices.  A city that speaks in glass, metal, concrete: ‘Between the buildings / trees reach down / to languages / of soils and worms, / leaves gloss argots of glass and steel’ (‘Building Site’, You Will Live in Your Own Cathedral, p. 8).

In Holmes’ sound sculpture, we hear such argots: the reverberating vowels of a dropped girder; the brittle consonants rustling in the sound of breaking glass like some alien insect lingo.  On Species Corridor, language set to music becomes sound; here sound set to poetry becomes language.  But it is more complicated.  Notions of background and foreground, music as accompaniment to voice and vice versa, break down when Skoulding’s poems, after being read in English, are subsequently read in Czech and then German.  Now I get the same experience in reverse.  Shifted from my linguistic habitat, the clink of Polish š, ? and ž, the brush of German f, v and w, become part of the soundscape.  As the referential dimension drains, I hear language as sound.  This raises interesting questions regarding what sound is; a sense that all sound has the potential to be language, that all sounds have meanings.

Susan Howe and David Grubbs: Souls of the Labadie Tract

In Souls of the Labadie Tract, Susan Howe has also combined poetry and music in a project that has close connections to place.  The first pages of the ‘Souls of the Labadie Tract’ sequence, and the opening track on the CD, explain, in Howe’s characteristic blend of dry fact and poetic prose, that ‘the Labadie Tract’ refers to the area in Bohemia Hundred, Cecil County, Maryland settled in 1684 by members of ‘a Utopian Quietist sect consisting mainly of Dutch followers of the French Separatist Jean de Labadie’.

Howe points out that a ‘labadie popular’ was labelled on Dennis Griffith’s map of Maryland in 1795, by which point the Labadist community had already dispersed.  For Howe, the fact that it is the single tree on the map highlights its significance, as trees are rarely labelled on maps.  She draws attention to this as a way that a trace can be left in language on a representation of space.

Howe is precise in her location of this space as consisting of 3,750 acres of land where Pennsylvania, Delaware and Maryland meet, yet the poems themselves are not specifically concerned with describing any particular place.  Howe comments that the sequence began simply with the word ‘Labadist’, which she encountered in reference to the genealogical research of Wallace Stevens.  The space in which the poem moves is thus rather one of language, texts, books.

In ‘Personal Narrative’, the prose section at the start of the Souls of the Labadie Tract book, Howe suggests the relationship between landscape and writing throughout her work: ‘In Sterling [Library]’s sleeping wilderness I felt the telepathic solicitation of innumerable phantoms … I wish to speak a word for libraries as places of freedom and wildness’ (Souls of the Labadie Tract, p. 14).  Souls of the Labadie Tract, then, is a séance with place conducted through books.

Now go back to sleep we

can’t be crazy the truth is

we couldn’t we couldn’t

we’re the past – we’re too

close – to covet – you’re

not to be afraid – breathe

(Souls of the Labadie Tract, p. 39)

There are plays on presence and distance throughout the sequence, through use of the pronouns I, you and we.  Occasionally visual images flit past, but Howe’s hypnagogic monologues tend to favour the general and the vague – what John Cage might call ‘empty words’ (see Perloff).  It is not what they describe, but the voices themselves that create the sense of space.  It’s as if I’m blind and have walked into a room where people are talking.  I orient myself by where they are speaking from.  But these voices speak across distant stretches of time.

The text is made up of short poems (usually 5-8 lines) placed one-per-page in the centre of each page.  David Grubbs’ long, flat tones, provided by khaen and synthesizer, respond to this minimalism in Howe’s textual presentation.  He comments that Howe told him at that start of the project that ‘she could show me a photograph of a cemetery in Ireland where the stones were every bit as regular as the short poems that make up the piece’.  It is interesting that Grubbs’ music echoes the visual appearance of the poems.  While Pound suggests that the poetic stanza formed when poems were sung over melodies, here the stanza is a visual shape on the page, which the musician responds to with a block of sound.

The sustained tones recall the early minimalist composer La Monte Young.  Young’s drones seem to derive from Cage, whose 4’33’’ might be seen as the original minimalist composition.  This is clearly appropriate to Howe’s poetry, which isolates words and sentence fragments amid white space, so that the reader experiences them with heightened vividness as visual and aural objects, in a similar way to which Cage’s silent composition draws our attention to sound-events going on around us that would otherwise be ignored.

The regularity of stanza-shapes in Souls of the Labadie Tract is in contrast to the scattered arrangement of Cage’s poetry.  While Cage’s poems are characterised by juxtapositions of single words, a loose syntax threads through Howe’s unpunctuated stanzas, inviting the reader to read across the different speaking voices.  Yet there is a strong sense that these poems have been shaped spatially and with just as much attention to the space of the page as those of Cage.

Like Howe, Grubbs seems to have taken silence, white space, as the foundation to work from.  His drones seem to hold the short fragmentary poems together by sustaining flat tones between them.  Grubbs refers to this as the vine on the trellis, drawing a visual analogy between a trellis and the ‘grid-like’ blocks of Howe’s poems.  The use of the khaen, a Laotian reed instrument resembling pan-pipes but sounding more like a harmonica, draws attention to the breath.  Dissonant chords of overlapping notes are drawn in and out with long inhalations and exhalations.  The slow rhythm of the music seems to respond to the pace of Howe’s reading.  While Howe’s ‘empty’ spaces build an atmosphere without any definite sense of location, Grubbs builds an ambience through the poetry; he tints the silence, the breath, the white space around the voices.

Richard Skelton and Autumn Richardson: Wolf Notes and Landings

Musician and poet, Richard Skelton’s works are both textual and auditory explorations of place.  In a typical project, the poetry and music are separate engagements with the same landscape (Angelzarke in Landings and Ulpha in Wolf Notes).  They form an assemblage, into which other sensory elements sometimes enter: birch twigs, stones, grasses collected in the place.  The addition of tactile and olfactory elements to the auditory and textual ones suggests a desire to produce an immersive experience of place.

The music is often recorded in the landscape.  ‘In some oblique fashion this music has come to work its way into the moor itself,’ he writes in Landings:

Bowed plucked and chafed steel strings.  The sound of stones gently rubbed together.  Soft soil sprinkled on resonant wooden bodies.  Grasses intertwined around neck and fretboard. Bone and wood plectra.  Sound folded on sound.  A collusion of place and instrument. (Landings, p. 50)

The instruments become part of the landscape, sometimes buried or left out to be exposed to the elements.  These processes of transformation through decay evoke the way the space is formed and reformed through the combination of human construction and nature: old farmhouses reclaimed by vegetation.

A similar sense of change layered through time is present in the poetry.  Wolf Notes, a collaboration with poet-musician Autumn Richardson, mines the etymologies of the place-name Ulpha:














“The hill frequented by wolves”

(Wolf Notes, poem 2)

Layers of sound are fossilised in language when a place-name is written down.  Change becomes visible through writing.  Writing is the landscape that preserves the imprint of past forms of language.  He talks of ‘the litter trail of a name caught in different places’:

How are names fastened to places?  Do they chafe at the tether, become unmoored, catch in grasses and along walls, snag and tear? … Attrition.  Atrophy.  Change.  Written into the landscape. (Landings, p. 83)

Skelton collects language materials in the same way as he collected sticks and stones, his ‘thing-poems of the moors’.  ‘Where before I collected fragments found on my visits to the moor,’ he comments, ‘I now gather words that were once used to call upon the landscape’ (Landings, p. 137).  Wolf Notes teems with names: farms, land formations, grasses.  In the act of naming, possibly one of the first uses of language, sound becomes tied to space.

It is interesting that while the poetry emphasises the visual and physical material of written language, the music is not a direct vocalisation of the text.  Autumn Richardson provides voice on the recording, but her singing is without words, her repeated vocal tones like another instrument.  As Richardson and Skelton point out, however, ‘although the voice is an instrument, it is also undeniably a voice.  As listeners we can’t help but feel that it is saying something, if only we knew how to interpret it’ (email to author).  It shows how language can convey meaning without words.  Wordless singing demonstrates language’s capacity for emotive rather than referential meaning: we don’t have to interpret; we feel what the voice is saying.

While the performance is wordless, the text remains silent.  It’s a visual, mute music of letters; but that ghost of a sound in our silent reading might form a spectral melody of the place.  Skelton notes that, ‘To sound the changes that a place-name has undergone is a form of incantatory, transformative poetry.’  When a word, a melody of vocal sounds, attaches itself to a place, the sounds lose their original meanings and come to denote only the place.  The fact that such sounds are intimately connected to the space is important to Skelton.  ‘Could I reconstruct the landscape from its stress pattern?’ he wonders. ‘Is there a clue within each subtle voicing, which, when gathered together, provides a key with which to sound the landscape?’ (Landings, p. 149).

Sounding a place-name’s changes leads us back to its etymological roots.  Skelton and Richardson tease out remnants of Gaelic and Norse buried within words.  Ulpha is found to be made up of the Old Norse ulfr, meaning “wolf”, and haugr, meaning “hill or grave mound”.  Etymologies defamiliarise the word, allowing us to experience it as sound, but while the word loses its meaning as a place-name, its syllables take on new meanings: where ‘ulph’ was pure sound, it now takes on traces of ‘wolf’; where the word ‘Ulpha’ previously only denoted a place, it acquires new meaning as ‘wolf-hill’.

Skelton has broadened the concept of melody to include any process of change over time.  He and Richardson return language to the landscape, like an instrument left out to the elements.

Each of these artists approaches the combination of poetry and music in a different way, but some common conclusions might be made.  Rhythm and melody forged the stanza, but as music moves toward ambience more amorphous shapes emerge.  Where the poetic stanza was previously an imprint of the musical structures over which it was sung, the stanza is now a primarily visual and spatial form.  A fossilisation of sound: layers revealing the way a sound once attached itself to space and how it changed over time.  The new stanza acknowledges white space as silence and breath, and it is in this white space that the music now moves, not behind the stanza but around and between.  For me, these works open the page out into space, showing the way to a poetry of music in language.  Place-names sung, I now go back to dreams.  Origins, defamiliarish.  Set the page, territorial and human, the use of the poem shifting as it reforms.  A poem is the rhythm, how houses are.  Englished.  Built out regulary.  Its struction of modernesses: olded.  Artificians of wilderness.  Combinated space.  Poet-music.  A séance in Yagé.


AR*, Wolf Notes, Corbel Stone Press 2011

Grubbs, David, and Susan Howe, Souls of the Labadie Tract, Blue Chopsticks 2007

Haüblein, Ernst, The Stanza, Methuen 1978

Howe, Susan, Souls of the Labadie Tract, New Directions 2007

McDonough, Tom (ed.), The Situationists and the City, Verso 2009

Parking Non-Stop, Species Corridor, Klangbad 2008

Perloff, Marjorie, ‘The Music of Verbal Space: John Cage’s “What You Say”’, online at

Skelton, Richard, Landings (3rd Edn.), Sustain-Release 2011

Skoulding, Zoë, The Mirror Trade, Seren 2004

Skoulding, Zoë, Remains of a Future City, Seren 2008

Skoulding, Zoë, and Alan Holmes, Richard Hopewell, Huw Jones, Monika Rinck, Eva Klimentová, Alexandra Büchler, You Will Live in Your Own Cathedral, Seren 2009

Wallin, Nils Lennart, Björn Merker, and Steven Brown (eds.), The Origins of Music, MIT Press 2000

Steven Hitchins read at the Hay Poetry Jamboree 2011. His poetry has appeared in Poetry Wales, Fire and Chimera. He occasionally edits The Literary Pocket Book and produces homemade pamphlets.


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