When I read poetry I’ll occasionally try to listen for the voice of the poet in my head. Trying to visualize — or whatever the equivalent for hearing something that you can’t hear is — someone’s voice is a fun proposition, but in the end your no closer to knowing what the person sounds like than you were when you opened the book.
Hearing the inflections and the nuances that an author gives a piece sometimes makes a world of difference in how you interpret a person’s work, and it can help you understand a little of how he or she sees the world. The closest analogy I can think of is watching a play versus reading a script off the page. You might think you’ve got the meaning of the words, but then you hear the actors speaking the lines and gain new understanding and depths of perception.
Now, there are some poems and poets where the meaning isn’t that far below the surface. It doesn’t take a post doctorate in English literature to figure out the meaning of a Hallmark card or the equivalent that passes for emotional truths in most of today’s world. But there are still writers and work out there where hearing a reading does add another layer of meaning.
It’s recently been my good fortune to receive a number of books from Perceval Press of the work of poet/painter/photographer/actor Viggo Mortensen. Leaving aside his work as an actor, although a case could be made for that as well, Mr. Mortensen’s work is that of an observer of those things that most of us would walk by and not give a second thought to.
Specifically in his photographs and poetry, the impression that comes across is that the scene under observation, or the object on view through his lens, was simply waiting for him to wander by with pen and paper or camera. What it is that attracts his eye or his ear is what he is attempting to communicate to us through his work.
Dennis Hopper says in his introduction to Viggo’s book, Recent Forgeries, that art in the twenty-first century has hopefully reached the point where we are beyond fascination with technique and are content with allowing it to inspire reflection. In other words we should be able to sit, listen, look, hear, and feel without having to particularly understand what the artist has done to achieve an affect.
Now that’s all very well and good of course for the visual arts, but for poetry and writing of any kind, concessions have to made for intelligibility. If no one can understand a word of what you’ve written you might as well have not wasted paper and ink. So the object for the poet is to be able to express the emotions he or she wants to convey by putting together words that may or may not have anything to do with the end result individually, but together generate or convey a feeling.
Of course, what I’ve written could also be a load of crap posing as an intellectual dissertation on the nature of art, or it could actually stem from an effort to communicate an idea to you. How did it make you feel? Did it piss you off? Did it make you feel like I was a jerk off? Or did it strike a chord of recognition?
You don’t know if I’m sitting here typing this with a self-satisfied smirk on my face thinking, “Doesn’t that sound great, aren’t I brilliant, and nobody is going to understand a word of this so I’ll sound even smarter.” Or maybe I’m sincerely trying to communicate an idea that I find really important. Wouldn’t it be nice if you could hear me saying the words so you had an idea of whether or not I’m sincere?
Which is the point I’m trying to make about Viggo Mortensen and listening to him read his poetry as opposed to just reading it on the pages of a book. If we go by the thesis proposed above about the reader or the viewer just reacting, then you can argue both for and against hearing him read as opposed to reading it yourself.
There are people who would make the argument that after an artist finishes with a creation, he/she surrenders it to the interpretation of others and they should have no say in the matter, let alone offer spoken renditions to cloud the observer’s ability to form an impression.
I personally think the argument that listening to the writer read his work is erecting a barrier of interpretation between the audience and the work is a load of crap.
This That And The Other is a compilation of tracks assembled from four amazing discs that Viggo and Buckethead (the musical genius with the KFC headgear and mask preserving his secret identity, and the mind behind Bucketheadland) have produced over the years combining Viggo reading his poetry over musical compositions that their two minds, plus some friends, have come up with.
Listening to Mr. Mortensen read his work, as far as I’m concerned, brings words that were dormant to life. What I get from hearing him speak the words is a deepening of appreciation for what he has to offer as an artist.
Mr. Mortensen’s poetry is not your typical verse and rhyming couplet-type thing, or even the more acceptable modern version of free verse. He creates something more along the lines of prose pictures, imagery forged in words that seek to define, in the words of Joyce that he quotes so appropriately in one of his books, the conciseness of his race.
That could encompass an observation on relationships, love lost, and our reactions to those incidences. How we react to the day to day of existence says more about who we are as a people then any grand statement by politicians making patriotic proclamations of pride and prejudice. Listening to the words of Viggo Mortensen one might be tempted to dismiss them as mundane or convoluted, but if listened to closely they have more to say to the heart than is comfortable for most people to hear.
It is easy, as I’ve shown in this article, to get caught up in intellectualizing art and what it should and shouldn’t do. Listening to Viggo Mortensen and Buckethead’s renditions of Viggo’s works on This That And The Other is to be brought back to the direct immediacy of art and to be given the opportunity to experience a creation firsthand from its creator.
(Image to right is a thumbnail click with mouse to see full size – “Contemplating Viggo”: Original photo R. Marcus, Digital treatments and graphic design, E. Marcus)
In my opinion there can be no finer gift that an artist can offer his audience. No matter what your opinions of art and its role or how best to appreciate it if you can’t accept that simple truth when listening to This That And The Other, then I think you’ve missed point of art altogether.
So, sit back, put the disc in the machine, put on your headphones, crank the volume, and go for a trip with Viggo and Buckethead.