Poetic Voice and Materiality / Introduction / Zoe Bursztajn-Illingworth and Julius Greve

Illustration from the Aratea of the lyre, representing the constellation Lyra, filled in with text.
Courtesy British Library Shelfmark 647.

“Verse again can carry much larger material than it has carried in our language since the Elizabethans. But it can’t be jumped.
—Charles Olson, “Projective Verse”1

“Yet as the individual voice contains within it its own disappearance, its fragility and impermanence, so in its fleetingness, does it bear a kind of aural imprint of its history, its ancestry–in the voice is the voice of all first voices.”
—Susan Stewart, Poetry and the Fate of the Senses2

Among the most pressing questions for poetry and poetics today—of the lyric, in particular—concerns the materiality of the poetic voice, in the context of both literary practice and its sister arts, such as music, new media, painting, photography, and film. The theme “poetic voice and materiality” pertains as much to the environmental humanities as it does to social and racial issues, gender and sexuality, insofar as the material in the poetic voice—as in: the summoning of absent figures, voices, and traditions, the (re)animation of the non-living or non-human—and the materiality of the poetic voice—as in: the formal properties as well as the conception of the voice according to the “laws and possibilities of the breath”3—are thoroughly intersectional.

When it comes to “poetic voice and materiality,” the question seems not only “who is speaking?” despite the construction of “a space into which the writing subject constantly disappears,”4 but, essentially: Who is breathing, and who is still able to breathe? What matters—literally, but also metaphorically—in the voicing of the lyric, in the articulation of the speaker, in each poem, in the wake of racially determined normativity and structural violence?5 More than half a century ago, projective verse, which Charles Olson also called “objectism,” promised an increasingly social function for poetic practice, and, arguably, the notion of “carrying the material” of cultural expression not only was central then, but has never been more essential than today, in any discussion of what the act and form of poetry consists in.

Critics from John Stuart Mill in “What is Poetry?” (1833) to Jonathan Culler in Theory of the Lyric (2015) have posited voice in poetry as a largely closed system: immaterial, atemporal, and self-reflexive. History and the social might seem tacitly important, at times, yet secondary to the communicative situation of the given poem and its formal intricacies. Above all, Culler states, “it is the unpredictability of lyric’s efficacy and the different kinds of framings to which it is subject that make any reflection on lyric and society a process in which the analyst cannot but be humbled and dismayed by the contingency of his or her own discourse.”6 Contrastingly, many writers on the subject have suggested the openness of poiesis with respect to thinking (through) sociality—among them, Audre Lorde, Susan Stewart, Daniel Tiffany, and Jahan Ramazani to name but a few—by highlighting the necessarily material-historical concerns of a poetic voice that is collective and thus unable to be divorced from the material and media-technological world. “Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought. The farthest horizons of our hopes and fears are cobbled by our poems, carved from the rock experiences of our daily lives,” as we read in the strikingly material, working metaphors of Lorde’s 1977 essay “Poetry is Not a Luxury.”7 Far from a poetic voice composed by requisite formal features, voice in Lorde’s work and the poems that are examined by the writers in this cluster, is inextricable from thought as an act of embodied making, “cobbl[ing]” and “carv[ing],” demarcated, in part, by the horizons of lived experience.

In his magisterial study Infidel Poetics (2009), Tiffany explains how “lyric poetry played an essential role in modeling and disclosing the configurations of obscurity essential to the clandestine—and heterogenous—community of nightlife”8 from, roughly, the sixteenth to the early twentieth century. Tiffany’s preliminary conclusion in this examination of both literary subculture and poetry as subculture is that “all social configurations or societies—all crowds—are rhapsodic and fateful objects, susceptible to lyric expression”9: a highly productive take on (if tacitly) Olson’s “objectism,” one might argue. From a slightly different perspective, Ramazani’s Poetry and Its Others (2013) presents an argument against the purity or atomization of poetic voice, removed from materiality via other discourses outside of literature.10 In thorough examinations of the ways that poetry shapes and is shaped by the titular discursive modes, Ramazani counters Mikhail Bakhtin’s infamous argument that poetry, unlike the novel’s dialogism, is monologic by asserting a “dialogic poetics” combining Roman Jakobson’s sense of self-reflexive “poetics” with the close examination of how the titular discourses, such as journalism and prayer, shape modern poetry.

Rather than cordoning off poetic voice from prosaic communication and other discursive modes, it seems important to emphasize the situatedness of poetic voice in the archive, across media, in the racialized, gendered, and disabled body, in late capitalism and the environment. Voice “carries with it the aural imprint of its history” and, as Susan Stewart suggests, this depth to voice calls for looking outwards because the voice, like the eyes, “take[s] part in the more general truth that I cannot witness my own motion as a whole;” one cannot listen to one’s own voice except in recorded form just as one cannot see one’s own eyes except in a mirror or photograph.11 Thus, the contributors to this project look at the extra-poetic—in the environment, songs, technology, films, biographies, and computational methods—in service of understanding the site-specific and time-specific materiality of poetic voice.

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Politics of the Material

Without exaggeration, modern, modernist, postmodern, and contemporary poetries—that is, grossly simplified, poetic styles starting, respectively, in the mid-nineteenth century with Leaves of Grass (1855), in the early twentieth century with Des Imagistes (1914), in the middle of the twentieth century with “Projective Verse” (1950), and in the early twenty-first century with Don’t Let Me Be Lonely: An American Lyric (2004)—can be characterized as practices of verse production and conception in which the speakers reflect or respond to, endure or battle against, the modernizing structures of feeling in their time. “Modernizing” here refers to the way in which the political economies of industry, slavery, patriarchy, and cultural production intersect and correlatively emerge in increasing fashion.12 Situating lyric subjectivity within and against violent social structures, Theodor Adorno’s formulation of the poem as “the philosophical sundial telling the time of history,” insists on language’s materiality as a necessary part of this ideological timepiece, crystallizing in poetic voice: “It is a moment not of violence, nor of violence against the subject, but reconciliation: language itself speaks only when it speaks not as something alien to the subject but as the subject’s own voice.”13 For the abovementioned poets (and many others), voice uneasily reconciles subjectivity with multiple linguistic modes and historically determined materialisms.

In these four periods, then, suggested by the partially random list of beginnings, via Whitman, Imagism, Olson, and Rankine, “poiesis signifies insofar as its material environments, its literary and non-literary media, render such signification possible”, as Julius Greve argues in his piece in this cluster. The list is meant to show that this kind of verse production is not only highly diverse, but that it is also indicative of how poetic expression might survive, or not, in the face of the modern. Today, vis-à-vis the question of poetic voice and materiality, as James Dowthwaite notes in his contribution to this cluster, this issue is doubled by the relation between materialist discourse and materiality itself: “The grand abstract question of how literary texts respond to new materialism is precipitated by the more anterior question of how they respond to material reality.” The politics of poetic materiality also respond to the way in which material reality is culturally inscribed, leading to what Zoe Bursztajn-Illingworth elsewhere calls “a key problem in the study of poetry and poetics, namely: is poetry a set of special formal features or a reading practice?” Does the concept of “poetry” correspond to a form or an act? Either way, what is the function of the material in poiesis?

In this cluster, Bursztajn-Illingworth contends that David Cronenberg’s recent film “Crimes of the Future offers its own theory of the lyric when it literalizes the study of the lyric poem as a corpse undergoing autopsy: a poem is a textual body bearing meaning through the word that performance and the act of looking closely with one’s own eyes, especially at the materiality of language, renders available to an audience.” Which is to say that the default intersectionality of poetry and its projected voice finds its silences in the corporealization of the poem as text and texture. Reading is cutting and making speak.14 Writing, meanwhile, looks to the non-human to materialize what Greve describes as a voice “which belongs to that of which it speaks, as words that rest on wood, as pitch that rests on pine.”

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Concept, Complication, Media Technology

This cutting, amplification, and materialization of the poetic text in order to summon its voice, entails the problematics of conceptualism’s “uncreativity and non-expressionism—made possible, in part, by technologies of information, and the digital cutting and pasting of literary and non-literary texts,” as Greve suggests. The politics of this twenty-first-century anti-Romanticism reflect a particular (peculiar?) kind of conception of the body (textual or otherwise), and the reception to the works of Kenneth Goldsmith’s oeuvre, above all, has been mixed, euphemistically speaking. Criticisms of the controversial performance of his poem “The Body of Michael Brown,” based on the victim’s autopsy report, “frequently employ the language of embodiment”, Bursztajn-Illingworth notes, “as a tool to criticize the structures facilitating Goldsmith’s decision to poeticize Brown’s autopsy report. Many of these responses call for a renewed attention to structures of privilege in American poetry and society, which are embedded in poetic reading.” To be sure, these “structures of privilege” are also in place in recordings of the poetic voice that are not, firstly, mute or textual, but auditory; meaning, actual sound recording, not reproductions and/or misappropriations of (non)poetic text.

In pondering the material in the poetic voice and the materiality of the poetic voice, the reproduction of the latter seems key in any consideration of it. Sound recording and vocality reproduced has led to the materialization of literature’s ghosts, as multiple accounts of spectrality in modern poetics have shown.15 These, too, do not come without their political undercurrents and social inscriptions, in terms of the intersectionality that poetic voice constructs. Along the lines of Christina Sharpe’s work, Sally Hansen argues that “The predatory consumption of Black bodies inaugurated by the transatlantic slave trade is extended […] through the platforms and media of Black performances, contemporary poetic performances included”; so that “the slave ship, the radio, and the English language [figure as] instruments that instrumentalize Black bodies.”16 Conversely, Black performance actualizes the phenomenon not of the ends of submission, but of its limits, as Fred Moten has stated: acknowledging “the historical realities of commodities who spoke,” in slave narratives, in the Harlem Renaissance, in the Black Arts Movement, as well as in more recent books of poetry, such as Douglas Kearney’s Mess and Mess and (2015) and M. NourbeSe Philip’s Zong! (2008), as well as in Rankine’s American Lyric series of long poems, also means “remembering that the object resists, the commodity shrieks, the audience participates.”17

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Voicing Lyric Expression “Against Expression”

In this view, Black performance resists the traditional understanding of “lyric” as “any fairly short, nonnarrative poem presenting a single speaker who expresses a state of mind or a process of thought and feeling,”18 insofar as the utterance that is, in the last instance, incommunicable in and by dominant discourse will, therefore, remain unexchangeable—imperceptible as expression by the reader. From a slightly different angle, however, one might argue that the standard caricature of the unified speaker-self is always already demolished, or at the very least suspended, in the wake of sound recording.19

A recovered mid-century genre, the song-poem resonates and reifies this disunity of voice but also points us to its essentially shared quality. As Matthew Kilbane states, “The song-poem makes extravagantly literal a first principle of poetic writing: the alienation of the voice from the speaking poet. The song-poet, in sharing their “voice” with the world, entrusts their lyric to the unscrupulous care of a song-shark who realizes the song only for profit.” In this instance of voice made material through reification in the frequently freaky song-poem-for-profit, the writer participates in a capitalist exchange that points us toward a more essential exchange in lyric voice. “When a writer writes a song-poem,” Kilbane notes, “they fashion a linguistic vessel they want others to fill—with a performer’s voice, yes, but not only with voice” because, while vain in both its meaning as self-admiring and as empty, this vacuity reaches towards connection of the “profoundly reciprocal kind, one that is the precondition for contact and interested acknowledgement between lyric’s writers and readers, exactly because it is shared.” For Dowthwaite, too, the song-poem, like reading poetry as autopsy in Cronenberg’s Crimes of the Future, provides an example across the arts of the material poetic voice meeting the ideal of poetic reading and reception: “The poetic voice becomes the singular meeting place of the ideal and the material, the one transforming the other in a dynamic interrelation.”

This uneasy meeting of the ideal and the material in poetic voice has long been associated with a digital method of conceptualism, generative poetry: such as Alison Knowles and James Tenney’s formative 1967 work “A House of Dust” (recreated here), the uncanny Deep-speare (Natural Language Processing, NLP, trained to recreate Shakespeare’s sonnets), and many such experiments in computation poetics by Nick Montfort, like Dial, created in collaboration with Lai-Tze Fan. Most recently, Werner Herzog has used his famously grave and deadpan voice to read aloud an audiobook of AI generated poetry I Am Code.20 Sarah Berry theorizes that, “Poetry, like NLPs, creates what Culler calls ‘effects of voicing,’ the impression of a speaker.” There is something essentially poetic in the meeting of the materially human—the texts written by people that train NLP, replete with human biases and prejudices—and ideal: the posthuman or even cyborg in computational poetics. Moreover, a poem need not be electronic to be generative or comment upon the generative. Joyelle McSweeney’s verse play Dead Youth, or the Leaks adopts the feel and form of NLP without employing NLP as the author animates a group of dead youth and Henrietta Lacks, “Anthropomorphism is not the right word for what McSweeney does; it is more like automatomorphism, a sham of artificial intelligence, rather than human subjectivity. It creates an interface, not a human face.” For Berry, in the play’s opening and closing sections, McSweeney parallels the story of Henrietta Lacks—a working-class Black woman whose cancer cells were harvested without her or her family’s consent to create a cell line which is still used in cancer research—and the way “[o]ur words can get away from us, surviving—sometimes in garbled form—after our deaths, just like the cell line Lacks ‘authored.’” Unequal exchanges of differing types and degrees of damage—stolen texts and data, stolen bare life and autonomy—frequently typify the materiality of the poetic “voice displaced into nonhuman matter”, as Hansen’s suggests.

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Another version of these material exchanges of poetic voice occurs in a more chiasmatic form: correlatively reading a poet-critic’s poetry in light of and against their theory, understanding lived experience through another’s very different biography, and the problematic-to-say-the least chiasmatic transformation of reading poetry as autopsy into reading an autopsy as poetry.

The modernist poet-critic (or “village explainer” as Gertrude Stein described Ezra Pound) has been described as not merely a critic of culture, politics, and the arts, but an administrator with indelible ties to academia as an institution.21 In contemporary American poetry, it looks more like a reified sense of poetic voice that “marries expressivist Romantic theory to certain suspect dogmas of the creative writing workshop: ‘you have a ‘voice’ all your own; find it (and sell it!)’,” as Kilbane incisively suggests. Exploring the work of Craig Dworkin, whose Radium of the Word (2020) is a generative text for this cluster, yields another path forward for the poet-critic. As Greve offers, “If there is a ‘pleasure of the text,’ Dworkin seems to posit tacitly, yet unmistakably, it is grounded in the desires produced by sounds made in, and by, the woods: ‘the pitch of the pines.’ In turn, the demarcation of such production has consequences for the poet-scholar’s position concerning the opposition between concept and expression, or intellect and sentiment.” Rather than an administrator-of-culture, Dworkin’s material ecopoetics offers something closer to a literary practice that literally imbricates language and oikos.22

In a very different mode of poetic reciprocity and exchange, a mother, caring for her son struggling with opioid addiction, understands her son’s condition and its paradoxes—his freedom juxtaposed with his dependence on drugs, his joy and depression—through the figure of Thomas Jefferson in Kate Daniels’s poem, “Reading a Biography of Thomas Jefferson in the Months of My Son’s Recovery”. For Dowthwaite, “The poem turns on its blending of Jefferson’s biography with the reality of the speaker’s son’s reality in the clinic, the material reality of his life framed by and framing an understanding of Jefferson; the speaker is thus driven by two-mindedness: Jefferson’s and her own, Jefferson’s and her son’s, Jefferson’s sense of the tension between the ideal and material reality; her own sense of the same.” Jefferson, who authored the Declaration of Independence and raped an enslaved woman, Sally Hemings, fathering Black children born into slavery, is the contradictory touchstone for Daniels’s understanding of material suffering through the ideals of her subjective experience. Here, as elsewhere in modern American poetry, lived experience correlates with historical trauma. How much suffering can verse take and convey? How does it contribute to personal and intersubjective recovery and, perhaps, reparation?

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Poetry’s Vocal Mattering

“Verse again can carry much larger material than it has carried in our language.”23 It can reflect the social by means of demonstrating the brutality of modernization; it can proclaim newness and emancipation, invoking progress by not “only” including history (as in high modernism) but also diversity, as part of its agenda; it may express the revelations of a given self as speaker and it may equally exemplify the unknowing of a self that speaks or has ceded to speak. There are, in any case, multiple potentialities pertaining to contemporary verse and its outlook on the future of poiesis. “Yet as the individual voice contains within it its own disappearance, […] in its fleetingness, does it bear a kind of aural imprint of its history, its ancestry.”24 The past speaks and writes on in each new poem of whatever type, and its imprint is aural, metaphorical, medial, and material, all at the same time. Perhaps reading the word matter for its polysemy—as in: the verb, to matter, to be of importance and the noun, matter, the substance of which a thing consists—leads us in two distinct yet related directions.25 We consider both the matter of poetry (its literary materials qua sources and its aesthetic, political, and ethical valences qua styles and lineages) and why poetry matters (its potential for agency in the world, determined partly by extra-literary materialities). From the question, therefore, of “how discourse comes to matter” arises “how matter comes to matter,” in Karen Barad’s words.26 “What about the ‘material limits,’” rather than the merely discursive ones, when it comes to the making of poetry? How should we account for “the material constraints and exclusions, the material dimensions of agency, and the material dimensions of regulatory practices? Doesn’t an account of materialization that is attentive only to discursive limits reinscribe this dualism by implicitly reinstalling materiality in a passive role?”27 cautions Barad in her magnum opus that splices gender studies and quantum physics, Meeting the Universe Halfway (2007). Not concerned with any type of verse whatsoever, Barad’s interests in the literally material rather than the metaphorically corporeal, nonetheless seems highly productive vis-à-vis the realm of poetry, its voices, and its material and medial dimensions.28

When we use or examine the phrases of past and present poets, such as Olson and Stewart, Kearney and Dworkin, then, the carrying of material in verse, and the transient voicing of the social in the line and paragraph alike, are to be understood literally, rather than in terms of the carrying across of meaning according to generic rules and regulations. As poetry’s material construction of voice interacts with other texts and media (one incarnation of poetry’s mattering)—among them, generative computing, the cinema, and audio recording—this materiality becomes more evident viewed in relief and through such exchanges. Again: Reading is making speak, writing is rendering material what is given vocally in each poem. This is the irreducible process of poetry’s vocal mattering, the process of “how matter comes to matter” in verse.

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This is part of the cluster Poetic Voice and Materiality. Read the other posts here. 

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  1. Charles Olson, “Projective Verse,” in Selected Writings, ed. Robert Creeley (New York: New Directions, 1967), 26.
  2. Susan Stewart, Poetry and the Fate of the Senses (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002) 108.
  3. Olson, “Projective Verse,” 15.
  4. Michel Foucault, “What Is an Author?”, in Aesthetics, Method, and Epistemology: Essential Works of Foucault 1954–84, vol. 2 (London: Penguin, 2020), 222, 206.
  5. See Christina Sharpe, In the Wake: On Blackness and Being (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016).
  6. Jonathan Culler, Theory of the Lyric (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2015), 348.
  7. Audre Lorde, “Poetry is Not a Luxury,” Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches (Berkeley, CA: Crossing Press, 2007), 37.
  8. Daniel Tiffany, Infidel Poetics: Riddles, Nightlife, Substance (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2009), 214.
  9. Ibid., 136.
  10. Jahan Ramazani, Poetry and Its Others News, Prayer, Song and the Dialogue of Genres (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2013).
  11. Stewart, Poetry and the Fate of the Senses, 107.
  12. We do not use this term in the strictly sociological sense, but more broadly as a constellatory marker of material and historical circumstance. Compare Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s adjacent account of “postmodernization” in Empire (Cambridge, MA: Harvard U P, 2002), 280, emphasis in original.
  13. Theodor Adorno, “Lyric and Society,” Notes to Literature: Volume One, ed. Rolf Tiedeman, trans. Shierry Weber Nicholson (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991), 44, 46.
  14. Compare David Goldblatt’s account, in Art and Ventriloquism (London and New York: Routledge, 2006), of Foucault’s This is Not a Pipe, in which the philosopher “qua viewer ventriloquizes Magritte’s painting, making it talk” (82).
  15. See, for example, Daniel Tiffany, Radio Corpse: Imagism and the Cryptaesthetic of Ezra Pound (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995); Jeffrey Sconce, Haunted Media: Electronic Presence from Telegraphy to Television (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2000); Katy Shaw, Hauntology: The Presence of the Past in Twenty-First Century English Literature (London: Palgrave Pivot, 2018).
  16. See, too, Christina Sharpe, In the Wake: On Blackness and Being (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2016).
  17. Fred Moten, In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003), 6, 12.
  18. M. H. Abrams, A Glossary of Literary Terms, 3rd ed. (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc., 1971), 89.
  19. On the correlation of Black poetics and sound reproduction, see Alexander G. Weheliye’s, Phonographies: Grooves in Sonic Afro-Modernity (Duke University Press, 2005).
  20. Joseph Bernstein, “A New Role for Werner Herzog: The Voice of A.I. Poetry,” The New York Times, August 14, 2023.  
  21. Evan Kindley, Poet-Critics and the Administration of Culture, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2017) 1, 8.
  22. See Craig Dworkin, Radium of the Word: A Poetics of Materiality (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2020).
  23. Olson, “Projective Verse,” 26.
  24. Susan Stewart, Poetry and the Fate of the Senses (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002) 108.
  25. Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. “matter, n.¹”, July 2023. <>
  26. Karen Barad, Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning (Durham: Duke University Press, 2007), 192. See also Butler’s Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex” (New York: Routledge, 1993), which Barad critically discusses.
  27. Barad, Meeting the Universe Halfway, 192.
  28. Consider, for instance, the way in which they Barad posits a relationship between the material and the discursive that is itself chiasmatic rather than dualistic: “Materiality is discursive (i.e., material phenomena are inseparable from the apparatuses of bodily production; matter emerges out of, and includes as part of its being, the ongoing reconfiguration of boundaries), just as discursive practices are always already material (i.e., they are ongoing material [re]configurings of the world). Discursive practices and material phenomena do not stand in a relationship of externality to each other; rather, the material and the discursive are mutually implicated in the dynamics of intra-activity. The relationship between the material and the discursive is one of mutual entailment” (Ibid., 151-152).