Sound Poetry

So und Po etry

all these words are only sounds   i dance with the sounds  i sing with the sounds   the sound is all the meaning that there is  the sound is the loving   the sound is the longing  oh god i am so full of sound   i open my mouth & sound escapes... my body fills with it   i vibrate with the sound... the sound flows around me i am lost within it   oh surely this is knowing to live & breathe & celebrate sound

— bpNichol, Journal (1978), pp.17-18

bpnichol's sound poetrybpNichol's friend Pierre Coupey introduced him to the work of Henri Chopin, which opened a new dimension of poetry to him. From there, he also came into contact with the work of Bob Cobbing, bill bissett, Ernst Jandl, and Cavan McCarthy.

Nichol's sound poetry moves back and forth between verbal meaning and vocal sound. In his sound poetry, Nichol explores the possibility of rendering language abstract. Words are always significant and always inherently refer to something else; thus language tends to resist abstraction. Nichol attempts to subvert or circumvent the referentiality of language by either placing words in a context that would drastically qualify, undercut, or cancel its function as a signifier; or by working with the sub-vocal elements of speech, like individual letter sounds, phonemes, morphemes, and pre-verbal vocalizations (e.g. grunts, yells, whistles, heavy breathing).

Nichol suggests that he started working with sound poetry in order to find a context in which he could let his emotions out. For him, sound poetry opened up new ways to get different kinds of poetic effects and reactions from the audience. It was for this reason that performing his poetry live was so important to him.

bpNichol believed that the voice and language were deeply resonant with the material world and that the kinesthetic senses and affect were important to meaning construction. In this sense, he felt that the voice which visible language carried on the page connected still to a broader reality, tying the speaker to the physical realm. Thus, it would appear that Nichol was moving, at least intuitively, away from the arbitrariness of signs towards meaning through embodied motivation and perception.This is reflected in a 1968 essay that he wrote about sound poetry and a Hopi creation myth (the myth of Palongahoya)where sound was responsible for creating and maintaining the Earth's harmony with the universe and the Creator. In this myth, it is only when the people misuse their sounds in speech that they fell out of tune with the universe. Similarly, Nichol believed that

"sound--human sound--has become dignified. the scream is a social taboo. music and singing tend to take us far away from our own sounds. THE POINT, THE PURPOSE, THE CREATIVE REASON FOR SOUND POETRY IS TO SET THE BODY'S AXIS BACK IN TUNE WITH THE UNIVERSE obviously intially with the hearing audience. it paves the way for a rebirth of the poem as a universal form of expression." [1]   

All of bpNichol's sound work is a reaffirmation of the presence of the voice in the body. This is why he preferred not to record his sound poetry performances on tape; although there are a few exceptions to this including his albums/cassettes/singles Borders (1967), Motherlove (1968), ST (1971), Appendix (1978), Ear Rational: Sound Poems 1966-1980 (1982), and several compilation albums. From the 1970s onwards, bpNichol also performed and recorded with The Four Horsemen, one of the very first sound poetry ensembles with Steve McCaffery, Paul Dutton, and Rafael Barreto-Rivera. To poets like Nichol, who preferred the purity of the unassisted human voice, recordings were considered to be only secondary to live performance. Sound poetry performances were meant to be flexible fields for live experimentation, and a recording would freeze the performance into a fixed entity.

ARC only has a few examples of bpNichol's early sound poems in the Special Collection of Modern Poetry.