On PennSound


Al  Filreis

Kelly Professor

Director, Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing

Co-Director, PENNsound

University of Pennsylvania

July 11, 2007


The contemporary American poet who works most interestingly if not most consciously in the tradition of Emily Dickinson is Rae Armantrout. Teachers of U.S. poetry who are seeking a way of explaining to their students the connection between today’s poetry and Dickinson’s quirkily compressed, non-sequential, fragmentary notebook-style poetics will fairly easily come across—or be told about—Armantrout. But then what? How best to demonstrate to one’s students or colleagues this line of continuity?  Only through PENNsound, a digital audio archive of poets reading their own poems and of recordings of discussions about poetics, can that teacher, anywhere in the world, find the resources to make such a vital connection and literally the materials she would need to teach it. Charles Bernstein and I had five or six reasons for creating PENNsound in 2003, but surely one of them was pedagogical: we wanted to make free, downloadable audio files in a standard format (we’ve chosen mp3, at least for now) available to anyone who could take five or ten minutes to explore the archive and build—in effect—a poetics playlist where differences and lineages both can be made apparent to the ear.

            PENNsound’s Rae Armantrout author page – one of 240 author pages currently in the archive – presents a link to an event that took place in October 2000 at which Armantrout read her own work “through” Dickinson. For our teacher seeking today’s Dickinsonian, this is the perfect way to begin. As with most PENNsound author pages, recordings of poetry readings are given in long whole files (typically an hour long) and as “singles” – each recited poem segmented into a relatively small mp3 file. One can stream (and thus not download) the file; one can download the file, move it to a portable mp3 player, reload it to the web, email it to a colleague or student. (All 8,000 recordings on PENNsound are fully permissioned. Since PENNsound is a nonprofit project and is intended for educational use, poets have given authorization to have the files move freely around the internet. They are surely correct in their assumption that the increase in readers, or at least in listeners, far outweighs the potential for true piracy.)  Of the Armantrout singles, one would inevitably notice a stunning poem called “The Way,” 27 seconds of found, dissociated, and yet personal language. It just happens that—in yet another recording linked on the Armantrout page—Charles Bernstein has interviewed the poet for his “Close Listening” series, co-sponsored by WPS1.Org and PENNsound. One of PENNsound’s editors noticed that during this 28-minute discussion there are 4 edifying minutes in which Bernstein asks Armantrout to comment on “The Way”—its linguistic origins, its pronoun problem, its line breaks.  Now Armantrout’s discussion in 2006 of that poem is a click away from her performance of the poem published in 2001.  In the fall of 2007, a podcast program, also sponsored by PENNsound, will feature a round-table discussion by poet and critics talking for twenty minutes about the same poem, part of a new series called “PENNsound PoemTalk.”

            PENNsound is certainly thus a tool for teachers and learners, those seeking to make aesthetic connections formally or informally. It is also, of course, an archive intended to suggest breadth and comprehensiveness. The latter quality is difficult to achieve: if there are 8,000 files currently available, and several thousand waiting to be produced, there are tens of thousands of cassettes, LPs, reel-to-reel tapes and other recordings in the basements of bookstores, in music libraries with their LP collections, in poets’ attics. The directors and staff of PENNsound are selecting new acquisitions weekly, and setting priorities for digitalization.

            PENNsound already features a number of first-generation American modernists, including the complete recordings of Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams, as well as selections of Vachel Lindsay, H.D. (reading “Helen in Egypt”), Gertrude Stein, Charles Reznikoff, Carl Rakosi, George Oppen, and others. There is a major collection of Robert Creeley, which will be significantly enhanced in the coming year, and Allen Ginsberg’s 1956 reading of “Howl” at San Francisco State University and his 1969 performance singing Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience.  All of Ted Berrigan’s Sonnets are here as well as Jack Spicer’s famous 1965 Vancouver lectures on the serial poem and other topics.

            Aside from “author,” archival taxonomies include “series,” “anthologies/collections/groups,” and “classics.” The “series” section features the 19-part “PhillyTalks” project (1997-2001) in which two avant-garde poets—usually an unlikely pairing—interact; the Segue Series readings at the Bowery Poetry Club (2002-present), in itself a collection of more than a hundred poets’ readings; Leonard Schwartz’s 138 “Cross-Cultural Poetics” shows originally aired on KAOS-FM in Olympia, Washington; and others. In “classics” one finds scholar John Richetti reading Swift and Pope, David Wallace reading Chaucer, and Thomas McEvilley, an expert on anti-art as well as a classicist, reading Homer, Sappho and Aeschylus in Greek.

            Because a main goal of PENNsound is to enable detailed library catalogue entries to be made of the media files, bibliographical information is carefully embedded in each file itself (meta-data).  Since at the moment of downloading files will be separated from their home library web site or catalog, information on that web site or in a catalog will not necessarily be retrievable (although the URL for the catalog can also be embedded in the mp3). Accurate meta-data in the file itself will retain the source information and tend not to efface the poet’s creation or the context in which the recording was first made.  For similar reasons, the naming conventions used to name each file are elaborate and consistent. The filename itself can give a third- or fourth-generation listener a specific sense of the recording’s origin; so too, a library’s programmer can extract the embedded data for the making of a catalogue database from the filenames alone.

            I began by suggesting, by way of Rae Armantrout’s iterative engagement with Dickinson, that such an archive can serve as a site of convergence for the reader/listener and the poetic tradition, but it must also be observed that the new availability of recordings of the major modernists—such as Pound—can tend to remind the poets themselves of their aural influences.  Peter Gizzi, who is featured in a PENNsound author page, rediscovered in the Pound recordings a particular syntactical connection to modernism he had begun to forget. The sound of Pound’s voice triggered the conjunction. “I am taken aback,” Gizzi wrote to PENNsound’s editiors, “just how his late syntax has totally affected me. . . . I w[as] listening and . . . could hear my poem ‘Homer’s Anger’ loud and clear, for instance.” 

            PENNsound can be found at writing.upenn.edu/pennsound. PENNsound’s editors can be reached at pennsound@writing.upenn.edu. PENNsound podcasts are available here - http://writing.upenn.edu/pennsound/podcasts.html - or in the ITunes Music Store for subscription.