An exploration of the possibilities of eco-acoustics as an artistic/poetic listening practice in relation to a reading of poetry by Alice Oswald.
The Pastoral – Things heard and not heard
“What’s important is that listening, and gardening as a form of listening, is a way of forcing a poem open to what lies bodily beyond it. Because the eye is an instrument tuned to surfaces, but the ear tells you about volume, depth, content. The ear hears into, not just at what surrounds it. And the whole challenge of poetry is to keep language open, so that what we don’t yet know can pass through it.” – Alice Oswald. ‘The Universe in time of rain makes the world alive with noise.’
This essay is formed against the backdrop of a restless landscape, the ‘Beast from the East’ simultaneously stopping and animating the world outside. I note that meaningful sounds often take place when you are concentrated on doing something else. From a place of inside the exterior sounds are oddly soothing, immaterial and abstracted. Beyond the floating, intangibility of the sound, I know that at this moment people without shelter are experiencing its deadly force and that (extreme weather being related) the Arctic is melting. The exterior sounds heard from a rural idyll of home conflict with an anxiety of interior knowledge.
Alice Oswald in her poem ‘Dart’ approaches her own lived landscape with a gardener’s sensibility of listening to its sounds combined with a learned knowledge of environmental history, cultural geography and an awareness of an ethical human responsibility for its dilemmas. Oswald combines the heard sounds of the landscape with an array of voices that usurp any one dominating view of the natural environment. By composing multiple elements of the soundscape found along the river into a single art form perhaps we glimpse the means to better able to ask ‘what is the right relationship by which people and planet can live together.’ T. Gifford (pastoral)
Alice Oswald’s gardening with its rhythmic toiling of the earth, eyes fixed on the ground, lends her ears as the sense most attentive to the surrounding world.
“It’s certainly true that when you’re digging you become bodily implicated in the grounds world, through and earth continually passing through each other. You smell it, you feel its strength under your boot, you move alongside it for maybe eight hours and you spades language creeps and changes at the same Pace as the soil. You can’t help being critical of any account of mud that is based on mere glimpsing”. (40. The Universe in Time of Rain)
Pure physical moving through, rather than being engaged in the landscape through activities or associations, influences our potential for perception. As Tim Ingold observes of the potential of travel to be “enforced immobility and sensory deprivation.” (2007, pp10) Whereas ‘dwelling’ according to Heidegger’s philosophy points to participation and the potential to perceive a place from within as well as outside. For Merleau Ponty, ’the presence of this world is precisely the presence of its flesh to my flesh’. Adopting similar paradigms of being in and experiencing the world Oswald’s recorded voices of felt and integrated bodies enter the larger discourse of the river ‘Dart’ and become part of the presence of nature, ”all voices should be read as the rivers mutterings”. (Oswald)
In the ‘Perception of the Environment ‘Ingold (2007), further expands on theory of the soundscape by warning against an “emplacement” in listening and a kind of positioning that he views as “a form of deafness.” He argues that sound “flows … along irregular, winding paths, and the places it describes are like eddies, formed by … movement around rather than a fixed location within.” Therefore, in order to listen or to “follow sound,” one must “wander the same paths.
In this respect politically and culturally effective post-pastoral art the must be brought unmediated or undominated by any one sense, or placement, but be kept moving with constantly shifting sound and landscapes which holistically engage all our senses in stimulating thoughts and feelings about place.
Representation / Mimesis/ Echo/ Dark Ecology
In the Platonic idyll the copy was always inferior to the source. Meanwhile contemporary cultural representations of the landscape in any form have to contend with the legacy of two hundred years of a romanticised and power privileged view of the pastoral. The current drive for moving beyond this cultural concept is one of survival.
‘Today the very survival of our species depends upon, not just this debate itself, but our ability to find the right images to represent our way of living with, and within, what we variously characterise as ‘nature,’ ‘earth,’ ‘land,’ ‘place,’ ‘our global environment.’– Terry Gifford pp7
Similarly to many sound artists Oswald uses the technology of a recorder to gather sounds from the landscape. It appears to be mimesis but when considered the art of field recording is a subjective document, subject to choices made and to technologies afforded and also informed by a politics of listening that (consciously or unconsciously) ‘hear’ a place. Many artists use their records to put the viewer/ listener in a place that they could otherwise not inhabit, and thus ask them to empathise with an unfamiliar situation. Field recordings act on the world and are demonstrative of the transformative and transportative power of the acoustic and the experiential to transmit us to another place or time. Like Oswald’s losing of her punctuation to remove the boundaries of syntax, and Heidegger’s request that we lose our conceptual impositions on the world thereby letting things arise in their own terms, found sounds and various listening’s flowing into the world thus acknowledging our dependency on each other and our situatedness.
Oswald’s recordings are unlike most field recordists as they are obtained purely for reference to add precision to her notes. Her experience of lived sound (and the inaudible) is echoed in the poet’s body, they are infused with a creative imagination akin to an oral tradition in which images are understood by cultural constructs that seem to define external nature but by which our inner nature is understood. Images and sounds resurface in ‘Dart’ with meanings anew in a many-layered echoed memory of a place tapped and mapped into a flowing being of time and matter and open-ended processes. Only the text itself is ‘closed’, and unchanging, remaining intact so that we can re-peat re-tune and re-turn.
The Perception of the Environment. By Tim Ingold
The Tuning of the World by Schaefer, R. Murray New York: Knopf, 1977.
Sinister Resonance by David Toop
Bristow, Tom. ‘Contracted to an Eye-Quiet World’: Sonic Census or Poetics of Place in Alice Oswald.” Symbiosis: A Journal of Anglo-American Literary Relations. 10.2 (2006): 167-85.
Oswald, Alice. Dart. London: Faber, 2002.
“The Universe in time of rain makes the world alive with noise.” A Green Thought in a Green Shade: Poetry in the Garden. Ed. Sarah Maguire. Lon- don: The Poetry Society, 2000: 35-48.
Voice(s) of the Poet-Gardener: Alice Oswald and the Poetry of Acoustic Encounter, Mary Pinard , Interdisciplinary Literary Studies Vol. 10, No. 2, Ecopoetics and the Eco-Narrative (Spring 2009), pp. 17-32
Terry Gifford – Pastoral
Heidegger – poetically dwelling
Merleau Ponty – Visible Invisible