Sound Poetry

Sound Poetry in the UK

When Bob Cobbing suggested that we should aspire to birdsong I don’t think he meant that we should actually sing like birds but rather we should adopt the same attitude they have towards the making of sounds. Loosen the connection between word and meaning, let consciousness’s iron control slip back, allow the air back in. I’m standing with Cobbing in my long thin study and he’s murmuring, as he does. Small vocals. Slow sounds at breath level. He stares at the stacks of lps that line the left wall: vertical markings, slashes and separators, letters L and I, time breaks, pausual brackets, sliding measured stutters. He’s reading them. Lllllll iii lilll lilll liiiii iiiii iiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii. The sound solidifies, increases. He’s performing them. It can be done. Read and then forget reading. The room fills with Cobbing’s great master voice. Rises. Rips. Roars. When he’s done he just stops. No acknowledgement. No sweat. “Lot of lps here,” he says.

Bob Cobbing (1920-2002) was the link between the mantras of the distance past and the performing poetries of today. Almost single-handedly he took dada and its poetries of destruction and desperation into the English mainstream and made them his own. He was the voice that locked the 1950s concrete international concrete poetry movement into British counter-culture. Without him, in the 1960s and 1970s, there was a strong chance that the popular poetry revival of that time would have ended up gutlessly simplistic. Poets would not have learned to let their tongues slide. The culture wouldn’t have allowed it. Say that straight, boy. Cobbing is the link we underrate.

Sound poetry began with the dawning of language itself. Tribal chantings, group wailings, rhythmic mumblings in celebration of gods and victories. These were the pre-literate verbalisings that are actually claimed as a common source by all poetries. Through the centuries they became mantras, meditational repetitions, sonic meaninglessness: Try this – Om Amkhara om om. Or this – ababra abrakakraka abrakal abrakal abrakal abraka abra abrabcadarrab era abaracadabara. Recognise them? Of course you do. In Babylonian times spells like these were installed in the corners of houses as traps for demons. The text was written in the shape of an inward turning spiral. The demon, only ever able to read in one direction, would follow the spell in its irresistible progression and end trapped, hard in the centre. The first ever visual poetry. And one with a purpose. What is poetry for? For catching the dark things at the back of our heads and fixing them for all to see.

Put your ear to the insides of old folk songs – rite fol-er rol-er rite too-ra-li do, rite fol-er rol-er rite. Listen to ancient Scottish and Irish mouth music. The dumdum doodly meaningless mumblings the Celts could dance to. Doo be doo be do. Dizzy Gillespie did the same thing centuries later as he scat sang the chorus of Ool Ya Koo, making his voice sound like a trumpet. So did Ella Fitzgerald. So much later did the Scat Man, Leo Watson, but for a different purpose.

Mouth music can be found at

Henri Chopin (1922-), Cobbing’s French contemporary, wrote “Always the aim was to achieve harmony by oral improvisation with no particular meaning. A pure phonemic projection, the imitation of natural sounds with the onomatopoeic sounds that exist in all languages.” Henri called Bob Bob Cobaine. Bob called Henri Henry Chopping.

In 1760 Laurence Sterne was pastiching prose conventions. In his novel The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy he represents Uncle Toby’s feeling of confusion by the insertion into the text of a sheet of marbled end-paper and later describes his state of loss in love by a complete blank page.

In 1872 Lewis Carroll composed his Jabberwocky. “Twas brillig, and the slithy toves / Did gyre and gimble in the wabe”. Rhythmic nonsense, or nearsense. The idea was extended by, among others, the German poet Christian Morganstern. In 1800 he invented his own language, Laloula, a kind of poetry gibberish which he deployed with great gusto:

Krowlokwafzi? Semememi!
Seiokrontro – prafriplo:
Bifzi, bafzi; hulalemi:
quasti basti bo ….
Lalu lalu lalu lalu la!

A nonsense much more intense than that of Lewis Carroll, a vital harbinger of what was to come.

When the twentieth century arrived poetry, indeed art as a whole, came up against unsuspected challenges. Rooted as they were in a pastoral past nonsense and mysticism were clearly not enough to cope with the demands of an increasingly industrialised world. In 1910 Russia Velimir Khlebnikov (1885-1922) was working with onomatopoeic linguistics. In Italy, in 1913, the Futurists, Filippo Marinetti (1876-1944) and his disciples Ardengo Soffici, Umberto Boccioni, Carlo Carra, Luigi Russolo and others wanted to “Destroy syntax by arranging sounds according to where they happened to have originated. To do away with the adjective and the adverb. To replace punctuation with mathematical and musical signs. To throw the orchestration of the image into confusion, indicate the weight of objects and their smell. To invent untrammelled imagination. To kill solemnity and brazenly to make literature ugly.” This was a theatrical literature designed to accommodate the world of railways, turbines, steamhammers and airships into which it was born.

In the face of the Great War and an increasingly reactionary art world Dada arrived. Dada – Futurism without the purpose – antiart. Easy to cope with now, totally revolutionary at the time. In 1916 Hugo Ball (1886-1927) read his poem Gadji Beri Bimba at the Cabaret Voltaire held at the Zunfthaus zur Waag in Zurich. Advertised to include music, dance, theory, manifestos, poems, pictures, costumes and masks – all in the name of Voltaire – the utterly off the wall show was pitched at a bourgeoisie of retired generals, local politicians, well-to-do merchants and their wives. Encased in a special cylindrical costume of shiny blue cardboard and looking like an obelisk Ball recited his poem from various music stands set up around the stage. The poem, an extreme form of the nonsense originated by Morganstern, was chanted in majestic voice but with increasing volume.

Gagji beri bimba
glandridi laula lonni cadori
gadjama gramma berida
bimbala glandri galassassa laulitalomini …..

Hans Richter describes the evening evocatively in his Thames and Hudson book Dada Art and Anti-Art (1964): “This was too much. Recovering from their initial bafflement at this totally new sound, the audience finally exploded.” Ball was faced with a storm of reaction from an audience consisting of applauding pretty girls, solemn bourgeois, motionless red-faced generals, and shrieking women in furs and hats. He flapped his cardboard wings and continued, his voice rising higher. The storm of reaction went with him. It was the high spot of Ball’s career and the starting point for a whole host of performance poetries, although no one knew to call them that yet.

Information on Hugo Ball can be found at

As Ball retreated from the form Kurt Schwitters (1887-1948) picked up the baton and made it entirely his own. His great work, the Ursonate, was a masterpiece of early sound poetry. Its first performance, in Potsdam around 1925, had a similar affect on its straight-laced audience as Ball had had on his Zurich followers a decade before. The shock of the new keeps on shaking. George Melly is reputed to have recited this poem at a group of muggers who were holding him up against a wall and demanding his wallet.

Oooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo Bee bee bee bee bee bee bee bee bee Oooooooooooooooooooooooooooo Zee zee zee zee zee zee zee zee zee …….

God, who is this nutter? His assailants fled.

For more on Schwitters go to

The field was opening. Hans Arp (1887-1966) with his automatic poetry, Raoul Hausmann (1886-1971) with his montaged verse, Pierre Albert-Birot (1876-1967), with his poems for shouting and dancing, caterwauled in.

Raoul Hausemann calls these works optophonetic. They get printed in various typefaces and using a variety of sizes of type. When read the eye uses the changes to interpret the sound. These were the first steps “towards a totally non-representational poetry.”

A number of experiments followed. Michel Seuphor (1901-1999) in 1927 with his verbal music. Arthur Petronio, Antonin Artaud and others began to change the visual face of verse.

By the early 40s Camille Bryen (1902-1977), a poet and engraver, had come up with the first of what he called “frenzied non read poems”. This was executed with the help of a corrugated glass frame which, when placed over a given text, distorted the words visible beneath. These Bryen called “ultra words”. His work led directly to the formation of the French lettrist movement of the post-World War Two years.

Information on the movement is at

Maurice Lemaitre, Jean-Louis Brau, Jacques Spacagna and others invented “unheard-of” letters as a basis for their new poetry. The group’s prime mover, Romanian born Isidore Isou (1928-), extended the alphabet to include signs for such things as inhaling, exhaling, the clicking of the tongue, the fart, the hawk of spitting, kissing, whistling, etc.

Isou’s web site at

Although the tape-recorder had been invented as long ago at 1893 by a Dane called Poulsen (he produced a “magnetic wire recorder” under the name “telegraphone”) commercial machines as we know them were not available until the advent of plastic tape in 1947. Two poets were the first to take creative advantage of the device. One was Gil J. Wolman whose magapnumes (literally large breathings, huge body sounds) completely ignored the idea of a written text. The other was Francois Dufrene (1930-1980), a former member of the lettrist group who in 1953 took what he called “a half-left turn towards the automatic cry”. This was sound poetry’s next major development. Dufrene began on a long series of Crirythmes which were phonetic poems created “beyond any concept of writing, directly onto the tape recorder. Listening to Dufrene is an amazing experience. Here are non processed sounds which come over as if they’ve been through a complete studio mix. The most that Dufrene ever allowed for his voice was for it to be double-tracked.

Information about Dufrene (in French) can be found at Sound samples are at

In 1955 Henri Chopin (1922-) and Bernard Heidsieck (1928-) began a series of what they called audiopoesies arrived at by processing the tape recorded human voice by various means. Chopin, a Parisian exile, ran the review OU which was at the forefront of both visual and sound poetry. Issues from the late 50s and early 60s were multiple packages which contained booklets, pull out posters, original art works and, inevitable, a 10 inch album of the latest in poetry’s sounds. Chopin had a mission to uncover language’s micro-particles. He’d appear on stage, record a few chanted words onto a Grundig and then proceed by use of slice, cut, inversion, speed change and then the sticking of the plastic stiffener from a shirt collar into the machine’s record head to transform the simple to the amazing. “The sounds produced by the human voice are absolutely incalculable. They exist both above and below the audible range. Every voice in itself is an orchestra of infinite variety. The word is no longer the beginning.”

[ Chopin can be heard at

It is at this point, historically, that sound poetry began to move out from the rarefied reaches of the European avant-garde and to touch the UK mainstream. In Austria Ernst Jandl (1925-2000), perhaps the most accessible of all sound poets, developed a contemporary phonetic poetry far removed from the shock tactics and nonsense sounds of the dadaists and their followers. Jandl was one of the stars of the great Albert Hall poetry reading in 1964 and was let loose in what was then known as the BBC’s radiophonics workshop. His resulting 30 minute radio programme was a landmark in sonic innovation and joy.

A tribute page to Jandl (in German) is at
sound samples are at

Jandl had arrived at the height of the concrete poetry movement. Poets were busy adding space, shape and sight to their verbal musings. Bob Cobbing, who had been making visual poems in London since the late 1940s began vocal interpretations of visual works while in a flat in Tangiers William Burroughs (1914-1997) and Brion Gysin (1916-1986) were experimenting with new techniques of composition and in an episode of total stoned-ness had developed the cut-up. Although not essentially a sound medium Brion Gysin chose to interpret it as such. His I Am That I Am brilliantly combines cut-up with permutation.

Gysin information along with sound files can be found at:

Poets with an interest in sound were clearly not satisfied with the pageless sonic cul-de-sac that Chopin had discovered. The text, the interpreted, manipulated, adapted text was still valid. Performance would be king. The word was not to be lost in a machine powered blur. Bob Cobbing’s synthesis of visual, sound and found works which incorporate the full range of phonetic and post-phonetic interpretations exemplifies this. His importance in the history of sound and performance poetry should not be underestimated. Like most artists of the avant garde Cobbing was no stranger to the creation of manifesto and the publication of statements of intent. In 1969 he published one of his most significant, We Aspire To Birdsong. In it he says: “We are aided in our search by sophisticated instruments, the microphone and the tape-recorder, Our human voices extend the range of the tape-recorder’s abilities by their demands upon it. Conversely, the tape-recorder’s treatment of the voice teaches the human new tricks of rhythm and tone, power and subtlety. We are in a position to claim a poetry which is musical and abstract; but however hard we try to do can we escape our intellect. In the poetry of pure sound, yes.” This is where we came in. Hear the machine do it and let the voice imitate and extend. Poets have been doing this with increasing ability ever since.

There’s an excellent archive of Cobbing material at the University of Buffalo
My own tribute is at

The poetry scene in Britain in the 60s was one of rising interest with poetry reaching out into ever increasing new spheres. The poetry reading was moving from the academic platform towards the pub bar. Poetry readers, indeed poetry listeners, were hunting for more than just text. They wanted insight, personal information, verbal pleasure, excitement, entertainment. Cobbing and his followers could contribute to all of these.

Elsewhere a more aesthetically cool, structured approach was being made to sound poetry. The Swedes Arne Mellnas (1933-), Ilmar Laaban (1921-), Sten Hanson (1936-), Bengt Emil Johnson (1936-), Svante Bodin and others cantered around the studios of the Fylkingen radio station in Stockholm created their text-sound compositions (NB we are talking here of text not poetry) using sophisticated equipment and multi-channel sound. No interfering in an unplanned way with the record heads. Everything was planned, structured and made using studio technicians and copious amounts of time.

Fylkingen Records are at
More information at Sound samples from Sten Hanson at

The Swedish enthusiasm led to the establishment of the first International Festival of Sound Text Composition in Stockholm during 1967. Poetry readings by sound poets at this time were characterised by the poet arriving to announce the name of the piece. The poet would then walk off to leave a tape recorder with decks spinning in the centre of the stage. Some 45 minutes later the poet would return to turn the Grundig off. At this point the small and often somnambulant audience would awake and softly applaud.

The ubiquitous Bob Cobbing, however, was concerned to change this. While perfectly happy to participate in what turned out to be an almost essentially middle-aged male activity he wanted to go further. He perceived sound poetry as an extempore art, like jazz, begun at a common place and then interpreted as circumstances demanded. The common start would be returned to, or maybe not. His texts, and those of the poets working around him – Paula Claire, Charles Verey, Peter Finch, Andrew Lloyd, Cavan McCarthy, Clive Fencott and others – became increasingly visual. The form moved into Something Else Press’s founder Dick Higgins’ (1938-1998) intermedia, the area between the named arts. Paula Clare read from sections of tree bark or sliced up leeks. Peter Finch turned to collaged comic strips. Charles Verey experimented with spidery writing. Cobbing vocalised the smears of ink left on the backing sheets by his Gestetner duplicator. It became accepted that sound poetry would be performed by poets reading together, live, generating multi-voiced versions of imperfect sonic texts.

Fixed performance groups developed – Cobbing’s own Konkrete Kanticle, abAna, JGJGJG, Crash Bang Wallop and others. Sometimes added instrumentation was mixed in with the voices, free music and poetry blurring. Cobbing’s groups of the 70s often featured percussionist Paul Burwell and multi-instrumentalist David Toop. I worked on Big Band Dance Music with sax player Barry Edgar Pilcher. This was the time of Cornelius Cardew and the Scratch Orchestra. Of John cage and his compositional experiments. Of the free jazz of Sun Ra and Pharaoh Sanders. Of the boundaries being off limits. Where could you go? Anywhere.

By the 80s sound poetry had spread itself beyond its text-sound confines to become incorporated into LANGUAGE poetry and the work of the left-field British counter culture, at least what was left of them. Cobbing would take the stage with Allen Fisher, with Maggie O’Sulivan, with Johan de Wit and with others. The world outside, however, was no longer the free place it was during the 60s. Liberalism was retreating, violence on the increase, the freedom of ideas evident in the 70s defeated by a Thatcher driven rebirth of right-wing ideal. Nonetheless sound poetry still managed to sneak in the odd shock. Punk had Yurine Burns playing his Hot Skills Keep The Mouth Open (Balsam Flex). Cobbing teamed with the increasingly excellent Cris Cheek, Lawrence Upton and others to present a poetry which has a much to do with conceptualism as it did to pure sound.

Brian Eno working with David Byrne recorded Mea Culpa on the innovative My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts (1981). Quite a distance from sound poetry it might be but the compositional methods and results are similar. The piece takes an inflamed caller and smooth politician replying from a New York radio call-in show and lays under them a solid dance beat. You can make out no clear word but from the tone of the voices can hear exactly what’s being said.

For much of the 90s poetry was to become increasingly polarised – not between the traditional opponents, the experimenters and the traditionalists but between the book-based mainstream and the dub poets, stage-based performers, slammers and ranters. Rhyme-based Rap was the world’s most popular music. You did it out loud. You didn’t write it down.

In the cool parallel world of the internet hypertext poets are trying to find new ways of creation. Dada put the words in a hat and performed then in the random order they came out. The hypertext poet uses the web to achieve a similar effect. In the 1980s I owned a BBC B computer. Top of the range. Every home had to have one. 32K memory, no disc drive, no printer. I showed Bob Cobbing how easy it was to make the thing select words at random from a given word pool. As the text flew across the screen his eyes lit up. “They’re little films,” he said. “Poetry films”. New world. It was.

Peter Finch


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