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Sound Writing

Experimental Modernism and the Poetics of Articulation

Sound Writing

Experimental Modernism and the Poetics of Articulation

Considers the avant-garde rethinking of poetic language in terms of physical speech production.
Avant-garde writers and artists of the twentieth century radically reconceived poetic language, appropriating scientific theories and techniques as they turned their attention to the physical process of spoken language. This modernist “sound writing” focused on the bodily production of speech, which it rendered in poetic, legible, graphic form.
Modernist sound writing aims to capture the acoustic phenomenon of vocal articulation by graphic means. Tobias Wilke considers sound writing from its inception in nineteenth-century disciplines like physiology and experimental phonetics, following its role in the aesthetic practices of the interwar avant-garde and through to its reemergence in the postwar period. These projects work with the possibility of crossing over from the audible to the visible, from speech to notation, from body to trace. Employing various techniques and concepts, this search for new possibilities played a central role in the transformation of poetry into a site of radical linguistic experimentation. Considering the works of writers and artists—including Raoul Hausmann, Kurt Schwitters, Viktor Shklovsky, Hugo Ball, Charles Olson, and Marshall McLuhan—Wilke offers a fresh look at the history of the twentieth-century avant-garde.

272 pages | 5 color plates, 39 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2022

Art: European Art

Literature and Literary Criticism: General Criticism and Critical Theory

Media Studies


“This excellently researched and lucidly written study will make a substantive contribution to modern literary studies. Through wonderful formulations and analyses, Wilke illuminates fascinating technical innovations in sound writing and links them to poetic engagement and practices. This is in every respect a delightful and important contribution to modern literary and cultural studies.”

Johanna Drucker, author of Inventing the Alphabet

Sound Writing presents a new understanding of what is often called the ‘nonsense poetry’ of the early twentieth-century avant-garde and its intellectual background, as well as its echoes in later avant-gardes. In telling this story, Wilke draws on underexplored sources and draws out new causal lines. With Language Poetry, translingualism, collage, conceptual writing, and artificial intelligence on our minds, the topic of the book cannot be ignored, and Wilke’s contribution is sure to be widely read and discussed.”

Haun Saussy, author of Are We Comparing Yet?

"Along with studying 'multiple avant-garde strategies for reducing poetry to its most elemental conditions in vocal sound production,' Wilke also carefully explores scientific approaches to the production of vocal sound in order to demonstrate how poets 'appropriat[ed] scientific-experimental concepts and techniques.'"

Modern Philology

Table of Contents

1. Voice Figures: Visible Sound and the Poetics of Articulation (1787–1965)
   Oaoa, or The Eidophonetic Poem
    Vibrating Disks and Primary Letters
   Photographing Speech
2. Toward a Science of Verse: Speech Movements, Graphic Inscription, and the Study of Poetry (1871–1915)
   Writing of the Mouth
   “The Art of Reading Curves”
   Symbolic Sounds
3. Mama—Papa—Dada: Poetic Expression at the Threshold of Language (1916–1947)
   Remaking Verse in the Vocal Tract
   From Babble to Gesture to Word (and Back)
   E dada: Reading Graphic Articulations
   Birdsong in Translation
4. Verbi-Voco-Visual Explorations: Experimental Modernism in a Technical Age (1947–1967)
   “Visible Speech” between Body and Bits
   Rearticulating Poetic Experimentation
   Beyond Lineality, or The Expansion of Writing

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