G.C. Waldrep: “Poetry as Non-Diegetic Speech”

This paper was originally presented at AWP 2014 as part of Karla Kelsey’s “Poetry as Sound’s Potential” panel.

I want to speak this morning about the soundscape occupied or invoked by the poem, as reading praxis, and the level of diegetic investment the reader brings to this experience. By way of introduction, this rendering of Emily Dickinson’s poem 733, by the Texas-based sound artist Christine Olejniczak:

In ancient Greek, “diegesis” meant narration, narrative; in a speech, the statement of the case. In cinema, “diegesis” refers to the narrative presented by a cinematographic film or literary work: the fictional time, place, characters, and events which constitute the universe of the narrative. Elements of the film that contribute to the shared (if imagined) universe into which the film obtrudes are “diegetic.” Elements of the film that are added subsequent to shooting—score; special effects—are “non-diegetic.” Gerard Genette described the “diegetic metaphor” as a metaphor that is derived from the narrative context in which it appears, instead of a metaphor that depends upon the viewer stepping out of the frame of the film to make the connection—that is, a metaphor captured within the scene or frame, where both elements of comparison exist independently and ontologically within that shared universe. “Diegesis,” then, may be viewed as the line between created and creative worlds, something like Lewis Carroll’s mirrored surface.

The relationship of any poem to any field of direct human action or endeavor is fraught; we can go back to Creeley and Levertov’s exchange over form and content, or the contention that the poem is the essential event, rather than a recording or redaction of an event. What I want to argue today is that within the shared realm of human endeavor—the “real world,” as we usually mean it—nearly all speech is diegetic, because it occurs within the narrative frame of our lives. Poetic speech is the exception; it steps out of (or away from, or into) the narrative fabric of shared experience in precisely the same way a cinematic soundtrack (non-diegetic sound) steps out of or away from or into the narrative body of the film. Every poem, then, in referring to things or ideas or feelings that lie outside a shared experiential frame, may be said to be “non-diegetic.” This covers nearly all poetry, with the exception of narrative poetry that hews so closely to its source and is so shorn of figurative language that it is, in effect, broken prose of the most basic form.

When the poet reaches, poetically, away from the shared physical, externally verifiable, autobiographical materials at hand, he or she is reaching into non-diegetic space.

My own creative background lies almost exclusively in music, rather than in the study or practice of literature. In part this includes the classical vocal repertoire, with an emphasis on early music (Tallis, Lassus, Victoria), but in part this includes the American folk music tradition known as Sacred Harp or shapenote singing. I’m interested in this tradition in part because I was raised in it and in part because I find the aesthetics and theology of the music conserved through folk performance to be valuable and moving. But I’m also interested in it for another reason, and that has to do with the way the tradition has historically separated tune from text.

In the tradition of early American hymnody, tunes and texts were separate. Hymnals published before 1820 in New England and the Civil War in much of the rest of the country were typically compilations of hymn texts, without musical notes or instructions for singing. Typically the texts were identified either by their first lines or by their stanzaic pattern—Long Meter, Short Meter, 7’s, 6’s & 8’s—which would enable singers to match texts to any similarly prescribed tune. The prevalence of some of these stanzaic patterns, such as Common Meter or Hymn Meter, is why we can famously sing Emily Dickinson’s “Because I Could Not Stop for Death” to either “Amazing Grace” or “The Yellow Rose of Texas.”

The tunes were the music. 18th- and early 19th-century Americans drew on an oral folk tradition of tunes, as some groups still do (Primitive Baptist, Amish, my own denomination). But beginning with the New England tunesmiths of the Revolutionary period and extending down the Appalachians into the Southern backcountry and Ohio valley, American tunesmiths began turning out their own tunes. Tunes had their own names, and were written and published as such. The tune historically associated with the hymn “Amazing Grace,” for instance, is “New Britain”; it’s an old tune dating back to medieval Europe, but it was first recorded as associated with the John Newton stanzas in 1835, in South Carolina.

This is worth unpacking. In ways that prosodists and musicologists wouldn’t begin to explore independently for a century more, these folk musicians understood that the tune and the text were separate. They referred to the text—the linguistic artifact—often by a string of numbers, and to the musical score—the musical artifact—by a text, that is, a name. The diegetic experience of singing a hymn in this way actually draws on at least two levels of non-diegetic discourse, that of mathematics and that of the field of meaning associated with the tune name.

Tune names are various; they can be named after just about anything, including people and places. Tunesmiths often depended on a traveling circuit of “singing schools”—ad hoc choir lessons—which they conducted for pay in rural districts; often a place-name at the head of a tune served to acknowledge a particular locale where he or she had worked. Thus when Southern Harmony singers sing CARN(E)SVILLE, they are not only diegetically invoking the music associated with that tune and an appropriate hymn text, they are also non-diegetically invoking the ghost of a place (as it happens, a small town in northeastern Georgia), which unfolds outside the musical performance of the hymn, as a sort of signifying ghost.

It can be argued, of course, that ALL poems are signifying ghosts, just all poems are love poems, all poems may be read as ars poeticae, etc. etc. Certainly all poems are artifacts, texts independent of the body but around which the body (and mind) may circle. The body may also take them up in the same way that a singer takes up a hymn—a text or a tune—and vocalize them, that is, ingest the artifact, run the artifact back through the instrument of the body.

Suddenly the poem becomes diegetic to the life of the reader. It may be, in fact, be caught on film, in real time.

This is why it seems important to me that poetry live in the tongue, at least on occasion. To merge the non-diegetic into the diegetic plane is to align the uncanny with the canny, to site the ghost within the living body. There is a brief congruence.

But the beauty of poetry is that it is larger than the limited context of a single reader or performer, that it extends over time and in imaginative space in such a way as to transcend the possibilities of the diegetic body, of diegetic action and shared experience. Poetry gestures from or towards (sometimes both, sometimes one or the other) a realm of un-shared experience, of non-sharable experience, even as the poem itself is shared, via sight or sound.

When Hopkins presses forward with his sprung rhythm and his inimitable alliteration and assonance, what he’s doing, precisely, is using sound to share the un-shared and non-sharable, by providing a text the body—someone else’s body, anybody—can render diegetic for a brief and shining moment. The poem proceeds from and returns to the non-diegetic, which we may define variously as silence, the page, or (as Hopkins would have had it) God.

In my own work, sound precedes text—sometimes by a millisecond, sometimes by a rather longer period. I know the sound-shape of my poem before I know anything else about it; I can feel its non-diegetic properties taking shape (as sound or as image) in the diegetic theater of composition. Craft is diegesis: craft is indeed the statement of all that IS the case, all that may be fixed and reproduced on the page, all that constitutes the Artifact. I’ve often wondered if poetry works this way for me because I trained myself as a young person to sing in languages I did not speak or understand. But it’s just important, I think, to recognize, a la Spicer, that all poetic language is unspeakable—it all comes from the outside—until the moment it speaks us.

What speaks me also, in the event, is place. Place is not a poem, but I would argue, alongside those early American tunesmiths, that it can be a non-diegetic element of a poem, that is, a trace that stands outside the sharable fact of the poem, the artifact. When I call a poem of mine “Swatara,” or “Tulpehocken,” “Scunthorpe,” or “Cwm Gwaun,” I’m neither labeling nor locating the poem; I’m introducing a non-diegetic element to the poem, a text-string that may be vocalized by any reader but which signifies (if it signifies) from beyond the shared (that is to say, diegetic) experience of poet, reader, and poem. If you know that “Swatara” is a township in central Pennsylvania where Wallace Stevens spent part of his childhood, or that “Cwm Gwaun” is a narrow valley in southwestern Wales, good for you. But—you are no closer to the poem, the essential poem, as a poem, as non-diegetic speech, than someone who cannot make that connection.

Part of the poem is closed off to you.

It’s the terms of that refusal that interest me, that which cannot be said and, in being gestured towards, enters the reader’s field sonant, as a ghost. I can explain to you the history of a tune like PACOLET; I can share the text most commonly associated with that tune; I can tick off the publication history and some details of performance practice, fill you in on the composer (or arranger’s) biography, etc. I can even sing the tune, either on the traditional shaped notes or on the words I learned alongside the tune. But I cannot—and the tune cannot, and the words cannot—fully invoke, for you, the Pacolet River, from which I have just traveled to be here, and on or near the banks of which my family lived for a few hundred of years. The ghost in the music is place, and the means by which the ghost manifests is sound. We may call it up:


…and thus expend the diegetic sphere of the music’s interface, its wave pattern of experience, sound, and signification. But what is non-diegetic about the experience—of performing, singing, listening, hearing—is where the poetry lies, stretches, sounds, and rests.

the Keowee River sound recording is reproduced by permission of the author from Philip Lee Williams, The Flower Seeker: An Epic Poem of William Bartram (Mercer University Press, 2010). The recording was made in 1967, before the shoals (where Bartram crossed) were drowned by what is today Lake Keowee.

Christine Olejniczak is a Marfa, Texas-based sound artist. She says of her work, “I have been performing the sound of drawing on instruments of my own making since 1994. Sound has become the final product of a creative process that begins with journaling and research. The investigation pushes me to work through several different mediums before distilling the experience into something that can be performed and shared. My instruments are primarily percussive and subjects for the compositions are chosen for the potentially rhythmic, linear quality produced from the drawn scores. A Van Gogh sketch, a shadowgraph of a gun blast and a patch of grass have all provided a map for the melody line in unique musical performances. Musical scores for accompaniment are sometimes created strictly for the sonic quality, leaving the drawing as a record of the performance.” For another piece—Duet for Pen and Pencil—see https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/66973814/DuetForPen%26Pencil.mp3

20140311_133913 G.C. Waldrep’s most recent books are Your Father on the Train of Ghosts (BOA Editions, 2011), a collaboration with John Gallaher; The Arcadia Project: North American Postmodern Pastoral (Ahsahta, 2012), co-edited with Joshua Corey; and a chapbook, Susquehanna (Omnidawn, 2013). BOA Editions will release a long poem, Testament, in 2015. Waldrep lives in Lewisburg, Pa., where he teaches at Bucknell University, edits the journal West Branch, and serves as Editor-at-Large for The Kenyon Review.