An introduction to the issue of listening to the literature

In the withdrawal of the Forgotten from the language of signs and from memory, justice, in fact, is born for man, and only for him. It is born, not as a discourse to be passed over in silence or made widespread, but as a voice; not as a testament’s in one’s own hand, but like a heralding gesture or a vocation.
Giorgio Agamben, Idea of Prose

Listening to the Literature. The Initial Reconaissance

Interpreting numerous poems in terms of their rhythmic and intonation structure, I have drawn attention to two problems in literary studies. First, that reading is a solely visual activity in these studies. Meanwhile, it is worth seeing that each poem, and not only one oriented on musical perception, intends to be listened to since it constitutes a graphic voice representation. It this perspective, the sound is embedded and embodied in the literary text. This means, in turn, that it does not emphasize the meaning of the text, enrichening it phonically (for example, by harnessing phonetic stylistic means) but adds another layer of meaning to this text. Contrary to vision, listening appears to be more about affectively perceiving than analytical one. Following Jean Luc-Nancy, this sense will always be on the edge of the meaning, what it means that we cannot hear to catch a sense beyond sound. Hence, it is so important to realize that, unlike reading, listening provides another kind of experience, which is close to a sensual one.

Second, the existing tools in poetics (even if it binds up with a phonic analysis of the literary text, such as Eduard Sievers’s ‘Philology of the Ear’ Ohrenphilologie) are insufficient to investigate the tensions between the literal meaning of the text and its sound, especially in the latest poetry. If the invention of sound-reproduction technologies changed the way we listen or hear, and processes for manipulating and converting the sonic texture affected the twentieth-century western culture, the mode of our writing and producing knowledge altered as well.

From this perspective, I would like to outline the problem of the latest Polish political poetry, which exposes the tension of this sort between reading and listening to literature. According to Polish literary critics, the political function of this poetry is connected more with the content than with the phonic organisation. However, from the other side, if the phonic organisation is the way this poetry exists, it means that its political character reveals through it. Therefore, I will attempt to demonstrate that is not the political meaning of these texts but sound that make them a significant voice in social discourse.

Presentation of the book “Nie” by Konrad Góra. Realization: Matěj Frank, Konrad Góra

Voice of Representation

Over the last couple of years, it has been assumed by Polish literary critics that we are dealing with a sort of generational shift in the latest Polish poetry, namely, with the generation of the poetry of political involvement. Its beginning symbolizes mainly literary works of three poets: Szczepan Kopyt, Konrad Góra, and Kira Pietrek. As Marta Koronkiewicz and Paweł Kaczmarski (critics responsible for constitution this category in Polish poetry) have encapsulated, the notion of involvement implies two things. The first one is this poetry raises directly the current sociopolitical issues, and the second concerns their aiming for social change through it. Its fundamental aim is to oppose capitalist exploitation and take the floor on behalf of those whose voice is not represented in social discourse. The other identification mark of this poetry appears to be its idiomatic language, which is prevalently interpreted as the language of sabotaging capitalist narrations. It means that this language can capture some power mechanisms from the privileged capitalist discourse and harness them to express the issues of excluded communities.

Therefore, one of the most common descriptions of this poetry is through minorities’ voice of representation. Currently, that metaphor has grown into a concept, which organizes the category of political involvement. However, in this case, the question arises that such a defined voice represents anybody or anything, and can we still name it as a voice? As Jonathan Sterne puts it, in postmodernist discourse, the voice appears to be overburdened by various critical studies. As seen, it illustrates that voice brings clearly defined connotations; for instance, that voice gives you the right to participate in a public sphere. Nevertheless, in fact, voice, which signifies, is just speech. Paradoxically then, instead of releasing the voice of representation, critical discourses appropriate it by new possibilities of meanings.

From a sonic perspective, the voice is possible solely to listen. In the phenomenological approach – which in many ways underlies sensory studies – voice is considered for its sensuality. It exposes that its meaning can capture solely in resonating of particular words. In literary studies, such comprehension of voice sheds new light on the political function of the poetry, the definition of political involvement, and, finally, on the critical discursive practices in interpretations. Pragmatically, it means that if we perceive sound for the sake its sounding in this the political Polish poetry, we could conceive the other, kind of politics, in which the sense is hidden away in resonating.

Voice Itself

Hence, I propose an interpretation of this poetry (especially of the Szczepan Kopyt and Konrad Góra) through the voice par excellence, which does not subordinate to speech and exists in his bodily, phonic shape. In this view, however, the fundamental question is how such a comprehended voice can challenge the notion of political involvement in the latest Polish poetry. The best example of this seems to be Konrad Góra’s ‘Nie’ (2016). For the majority of the critics, the poetic volume was entirely incomprehensible. It was only when they read the author’s commentary for his poetic volume, they realized that it says about the collapse of the Rana Plaza building in Dhaka in Bangladesh, which housed five garment factories, and killed at least 1137 people. In my point of view, the widely held view that Nie’s incomprehensibility aims to release the so-called essential voice. Given his intangibility in terms of significance, I determine this voice as the voice of the Other; especially, when you allow for its phonic shape, which protects this poetry against semantic appropriation by the receiver. In this case, the audial space of the text creates a space for experiencing the Other.

My interpretative practices under my current research have demonstrated that it is possible to differ some poetic mechanisms, which enable us to remove our attention from an excessive analysis of the literary text. In short, we can call this a strategy of creating excess, which is perceptible in the syntactic and phonic layers of the work and its semantic layer as well.

In the first case, the reader encounters so much rhythmic and phonic richness that it is difficult for him to focus on reading, which implies an analytical process at the same time. In this perspective, the only solution appears to be following the rhythm of text, i. e. listening to it interiorly and intimately. For example, Konrad Góra’ s ‘Nie’ – which I have mentioned above – is composed of 1137 distiches (this number refers to the number of victims in the collapse of Rana Plaza). Each of them or their particular groups, consisting of about 3 or 4 distiches, distinguish themselves their melodic (intonation) and rhythm line, tempo, tonality, etc. In addition to that, the act of reading is complicated by the specific phonic structure of this text. Most of these distiches consists of voiced and hard consonants, which makes this poem hard to read.

In the second case, in turn, the reader deals with excess in the semantic layer. To follow the already mentioned poem ‘Nie’, each distich brings a new metaphor, which belongs to other syntactic and semantic groups. Moreover, the author uses many anachronisms and occupational words from the working class that are not understandable for most people, especially for academia or the literary-critic community. Apparently, in this case, the voice is released by an accumulation of meanings. Their excess makes that our brain unable to keep up with the processing of information. As a consequence, the number of messages overload and the act of reading itself becomes impossible. All that remains is to listen to the poetry.

“Nie” by Konrad Góra. Performance based on based on the literary text

(Non)involved Voice

As seen, the category of politics in poetry is not stable and unambiguous. Depending upon a chosen perspective, it implies different meanings. The comprehension of the notion of politics in the latest Polish poetry by literary critics was definitively visual. It made the political character of the poetry rested upon a presence of direct socio-political comments. From a sonic perspective, the notion of politics in the poetry is embedded in its sonic texture. It means that the category of politics binds with the necessity of its experience. If you can hear a voice itself (the voice, not appropriated by speech) in this poetry, you can experience being in the middle of the intangibility. In this sense, phonically comprehended voice is politically involved since it enables you to meet with the Other (or, as Giorgio Agamben puts it – the Forgotten), who does not own our language.

Katarzyna Ciemiera is a Ph.D. student at the Doctoral School of Humanities at the Jagiellonian University. She is currently preparing a doctoral dissertation on the connections between sound, literature, and politics.