Caught on tape


Illustration by Lizzie Gill.

For avant-garde poets, audio recording was both a breakthrough and a threat.

In the winter of 1965, Allen Ginsberg hit the road in a Volkswagen camper. The trip was a speaking tour, of sorts, as Ginsberg was scheduled to read his poetry in cities all over the West Coast and the Midwest, but it was also an experiment in composition. Ginsberg brought with him a portable Uher tape recorder, then an expensive novelty (bought with $600 given to him by Bob Dylan), and used it to dictate what eventually became part of The Fall of America: Poems of These States, 1965–1971 (1973). Moving “through a range of shifting American environments,” Lytle Shaw writes in his new book Narrowcast: Poetry and Audio Research (2018), “Ginsberg could capture his own voice, and make almost instantaneous notations, without having to scrawl in a notebook or type on a typewriter.” He could also record radio transmissions, effortlessly incorporating the transistor buzz of contemporary history into his pocket epic. Here, for instance, is the opening of “Hiway Poesy L.A.–Albuquerque–Texas–Wichita”:

up up and away!
                     we’re off, Thru America—

Heading East to San Berdoo                        
                     as West did, Nathanael,
California Radio Lady’s voice
                     Talking about Viet Cong—
Oh what a beautiful morning
          Sung for us by Nelson Eddy

Two trailer trucks, Sunkist oranges / bright colored
                     piled over the sides
          rolling on the road
Gray hulk of Mt. Baldy under
          white misted skies
Red Square signs unfold, Texaco Shell
                     Harvey House tilted over the superhighway—

Afternoon Light
                     Children in back of a car
                     with Bubblegum
a flight of birds out of a dry field like mosquitoes

“ … several battalions of U.S. troops in a search and destroy operation in the Coastal plain near Bong Son, 300 mi. Northeast of Saigon. Thus far the fighting has been a series of small clashes. In a related action 25 miles to the South, Korean troops killed 35 Viet Cong near Coastal highway Number One.”

The tape recorder picks up everything: Ginsberg’s lyrical notations of the American landscape, but also the background noise of a “California Radio Lady’s voice,” music by Nelson Eddy (and, a few lines later, The Kinks), a news report detailing carnage in faraway Vietnam. The end result is a kind of automatic parataxis: the poem has the busy, fragmented look of one of Ezra Pound’s cantos, but where Pound needed to stitch together textual quotations “by hand,” as it were, in order to achieve the same effect, Ginsberg lets the machine collect evidence for him. (Some of this ambient data is even meaningful: note the poignant contrast of two coastal highways, one in California, where Ginsberg is traveling, one in Vietnam, where 35 Viet Cong have died.)

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