The Sense of Sound, in French and Wardwesan

I’m standing in the rain in a French public square, protected only by a thin plastic hood. On a stage before me, a man who looks like a ginger Alan Davies fallen on hard times is repeating the phrase ‘Très grand gel’ (which might translate as ‘Heavy frost’), while next to him an electronic composer jiggles knobs and wires to give the impression of a blizzard in motion. Neither is wearing any kind of waterproof; but then, their storm isn’t real.

The whole thing reminds me of a moment in a Luke Kennard poem, where the narrator ‘sprinkles instant coffee granules into our cups of real coffee’ in ‘a post-structural drink I liked to call “the simulacra beseiged!”‘ but beyond this touch of unreality, what catches my attention most is sound. In a sense, what we’re dealing with as attendees at any poetry reading is sound – unless the texts being read are pieces we know intimately in their printed form, then they arrive first and foremost as vibrations in the air, some of which chime and harmonise, some of which jar and clang. But when the reading is in a language which is not your own – in this case, French, at the MidiMinuitPoésie festival in Nantes, where I have offered my services as a volunteer – the phonic element of a reading takes on absolute primacy.

My French is good, but not good enough to follow the sinuous turns and lexical curveballs of what, on the page, might seem the simplest verse. Without the page, hearing is all I have. Which makes me wonder what we actually mean when we say someone is a good reader – is it that their voice has a certain dynamism, like the lively performances of Lemn Sissay? Or that they present their words in a clear, crisp tone, like those early recordings of T S Eliot, with their brittle diction and their medical precision? Is it a natural fluency, as if the fact that the words spoken form a poem were incidental to their existence as speech; or an insistence on rhyme and rhythm, the incantatory quality that foregrounds the phonetic properties of the language, even at the expense of sense?

Not yet having read the poems I heard over the weekend, I can only rehearse and re-experience them on a phonological level – like a half-heard melody, they only exist as certain sounds and rhythms repeating in the basement of my brain. I know that one of Thierry Rat’s poems was about the narrator watching his mother urinate – it’s the kind of detail that’s hard to forget – but beyond a simple narrative fact, what I retain about the poem is its short, clipped, repeating consonants and vowels (‘maman’, ‘pipi’); essentially, a cascade of babytalk.

Similarly, with the far more lucid, less language-drunk Camille de Toledo, who insisted on being timed to half an hour exactly as he read in sequence from a long poem about conflicting visions of modern Europe, the moments that registered were the repetitions. In relatively neutral, plain language, the poem circles around one central image; a mother in a Fellini film, who loses sight of her child on a carousel, and shouts ”Ettore!’, so close to ‘Terrore!” Like a baby bird, my mind imprinted on this single phrase; I followed some of the work’s larger arguments, but as that sense of the shape of the poem fades, the image that piece of wordplay encapsulated is the main thing I will take away.

And, as if in confirmation of the path down which these vague impressions were leading me, I attended a reading by Frédéric Werst; a French author whose first novel, Ward, centres on the texts left behind by a fictional civilisation, and goes further than most fantasy world-building, written as it is entirely in the ‘original’ Wardwesân, with a facing-page French ‘translation’. Much of the reading thus took place in a wholly invented language; we listened attentively to combinations of sounds which, springing from the mind of a single creator and with no surrounding speech community, are effectively meaningless.

The only meaning of these texts is what Werst chooses to tell us they mean; to get any alternative semantic substance out of the phonetics of Wardwesân – phonetics which, again, are merely a matter of its only speaker’s personal preference – would require as much work as the twenty years Werst has apparently spent developing the book, and more, without the notes he must have used to guide him.

So what can we get from a Wardwesân reading? It either sounds good, or it doesn’t; without the expert guidance of Frédéric Werst, the sense of the sounds is a closed book. It’s an anti-intentionalist’s nightmare. It’s also, perhaps, in one reading – and whether you find this liberating or disturbing will depend on a number of criteria – a logical extension of what we do as writers when we put together sounds into words, and those words into poems. It might well seem that Wardwesân is the emperor’s new clothes; but if so, how sure can any poet be that they got fully dressed before leaving the house this morning?

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