25 July 2012
Field recording and Philip Larkin on poetry
ON THIS SITE’S About page there are a few paragraphs which try to rationalise the existence of the London Sound Survey. Among them are these sentences:
Listening to a recording of the sounds of a place or event gets the imagination working and recreates some of the sense of being there. It feels like a worthwhile end in itself simply to share those experiences with whoever’s willing to listen [. . .] I hope the results will eventually be archived in a durable form so that someone decades hence might make use of them.
The poet Philip Larkin put it much better:
Some years ago I came to the conclusion that to write a poem was to construct a verbal device that would preserve an experience indefinitely by reproducing it in whoever read the poem.
What Larkin called his ‘working definition’ of a poem is taken from his 1964 essay Writing Poems, although it was one he’d thought of earlier in his writing career. By the time of the essay Larkin judged it to be under-powered:
As a working definition, this satisfied me sufficiently to enable individual poems to be written. In so far as it suggested that all one had to do was pick an experience and preserve it, however, it was much oversimplified. Nowadays nobody believes in ‘poetic’ subjects, any more than they believe in poetic diction. The longer one goes on, though, the more one feels that some subjects are more poetic than others, if only that poems about them get written whereas poems about other subjects don’t. At first one tries to write poems about everything. Later on, one learns to distinguish somewhat, though one can still make enormously time-wasting mistakes. The fact is that my working definition defines very little: it makes no reference to this necessary element of distinction, and it leaves the precise nature of the verbal pickling unexplained.
Many of the best-known recordists return time and again to the mother-lode of sounds found in the natural world. Other subjects yield poor results: fountains almost never sound as good as they look, rush-hour traffic is banal, wind-noise on the mic is unlikely to make a compelling focus. But what is known to work and not to work must amount to little compared to everything that possibly can be recorded. So much remains to be explored.
Perhaps there are also implicit rules, like the ones of pictorial composition which exist independently of subject matter, and which determine if the arrangement of sounds within a recording is satisying or not. These can be discussed and argued over, but how one makes the choice of what to record is harder to pin down. Larkin thinks it’s a mystery when it comes to deciding what to write poems about:
This means that most of the time one is engaged in doing, or trying to do, something of which the value is doubtful and the mode of operation unclear. Can one feel entirely happy about this? The days when one could claim to be the priest of a mystery are gone: today mystery means either ignorance or hokum, neither fashionable qualities. Yet writing a poem is still not an act of the will. The distinction between subjects is not an act of the will. Whatever makes a poem successful is not an act of the will. In consequence, the poems that actually get written may seem trivial or unedifying, compared with those that don’t. But the poems that get written, even if they do not please the will, evidently please that mysterious something that has to be pleased.
This is a more interesting question than the one of motivation in general. For amateur recordists it likely comes down to straightforward pleasure, beyond which the reasons become opaque and the hunt for them seems less compelling than finding new sounds in the world.
Meanwhile telephones crouch, getting ready to ring
In locked-up offices, and all the uncaring
Intricate rented world begins to rouse.
The sky is white as clay, with no sun.
Work has to be done.
Postmen like doctors go from house to house.