Listening between the lines : poetry and sound technology, 1816-1914

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Our thinking about poetry has come to rely upon concepts such as speaker, voice, format, and medium. Concepts like these, I show, are rooted in the material conditions of nineteenth-century sound technology. My dissertation theorizes the relationship between such technology (stethoscopes, telegraphs, phonographs) and transatlantic poetry, from Romanticism to World War I. My research reveals that much of our current way of analyzing poetry, descended from modernist theory and practice, is based on largely overlooked nineteenth-century material conditions. These conditions changed the way we hear poetry, which I treat as a sound technology in its own right. Using documents I have uncovered in British and American archives, I show how certain shared imperatives shaped both poetic and mechanical innovation during this period. For example, the pursuit of immediacy and compression promoted speed, achieved by abbreviating and fragmenting verbal communication. And reproduction and fidelity emphasized speech's acoustic features over mere semantic intelligibility. More generally, the rise of sound technology, I argue, is entwined with nineteenth-century poetics so that an account of one cannot fully be told without the other. Poets and inventors conceived their respective crafts in tandem. The dissertation comprises three main chapters: "Stethoscopy, " "Telegraphy, " and "Phonography." Chapter One, "Stethoscopy: A Poetics of Listening and Voice, " examines stethoscope manuals and poetry together. Mediate auscultation—the medical technique of listening to the body's interior through the stethoscope—was devised in 1816. It was ostensibly the first form of professionalized listening, entering the Anglophone world in the 1820s, when late Romanticism was drawing to a close. Stethoscopy led to the concept of "thoracic voice, " the sound of the voice auscultated through the thorax. Medical manuals incorporated poetry as a mnemonic device, which medical students could use to memorize new anatomical knowledge. Additionally, I show how new auscultative categories, such as "amphoric buzzing, " suggest that paradigms of surface and interior in poems such as John Keats's "Ode on a Grecian Urn" descend from medical discourse. Not long after Keats, nineteenth-century critics coined the phrases "poetic voice" and "to find one's voice." Reading Keats alongside Alfred Tennyson, Anna Laetitia Barbauld, and Irish physician-poet James Henry, I show how these expanding concepts of voice in medicine engendered special kinds of listening in poetry. Chapter Two, "Telegraphy: A Poetics of Immediacy and Compression, " focuses on Emily Dickinson's poetry and the impact of electrified transmission. Telegraphy was idealized as long-distance instantaneous communication, and the drive for immediacy compelled the compression of telegram text. Ultimately, acoustic telegraphy—the practice of translating dots and dashes by ear instead of by hand—sped transmission even further, and the technique of "sound-reading" was often learned through traditional poetic and metrical methods that emphasized bodily repetition. Unlike many contemporaries, Dickinson could not see telegraphy as an unambiguous sign of progress, but instead sought to articulate the more nuanced relations it produced between people and media. For example, the poem "[F595] The Lightning playeth -- all the while --" explores the divide between those included in and excluded from telegraphic communities. And "[F1379] How News must feel when travelling" forecasts unprecedented global information diffusion and its attendant entropy, the same concept that later prompted twentieth-century information theory and cybernetics. Dickinson treats such concepts in her characteristically intimate manner, and their universal implications serve to construct a telegraphic model of lyric poetry. Chapter Three, "Phonography: A Poetics of Reproduction and Fidelity, " analyzes Gerard Manley Hopkins's work to show that the supposed modernist break from tradition is actually an extension of sound recording's influence on poetics. Phonographers used poetry's aural qualities, such as meter and rhyme, to construct the fidelity of sound media. Inventors also used poetry, such as Robert Browning's botched recitation, to elevate the cultural status of phonography to attract consumers. In turn, sound recordings disseminated poetry faster and wider than ever before. I show that the various textures and utterances surrounding the poems (applause, asides, mumbling) become part of the poetic artifact. Hopkins himself cites phonography as a model for the oral transmission of cultural memory, and consequently makes aposiopesis, stuttering, and repetition integral to his poetic idiolect. Throughout my work, I engage with theorists of orality and literacy, such as Jacques Derrida and Walter Ong, and with media theorists, such as Jonathan Sterne, Katherine Hayles, and Friedrich Kittler, to tell the archival story of how sound technology was constructed within existing concepts of linguistic formalism dominated by poetic discourse. This story shows how sound technology and poetry shaped each other's trajectory from the nineteenth century onward, and it illuminates the way audiobooks, podcasts, MP3s, and more continue to shape and be shaped by the production and consumption of literature today.


Type of resource text
Form electronic resource; remote; computer; online resource
Extent 1 online resource.
Place California
Place [Stanford, California]
Publisher [Stanford University]
Copyright date 2018; ©2018
Publication date 2018; 2018
Issuance monographic
Language English


Author Tackett, Justin C
Degree supervisor Greene, Roland, 1957-
Thesis advisor Greene, Roland, 1957-
Thesis advisor Jarvis, Claire, 1977-
Thesis advisor Ngai, Sianne
Degree committee member Jarvis, Claire, 1977-
Degree committee member Ngai, Sianne
Associated with Stanford University, English Department.


Genre Theses
Genre Text

Bibliographic information

Statement of responsibility Justin C. Tackett.
Note Submitted to the English Department.
Thesis Thesis Ph.D. Stanford University 2018.
Location electronic resource

Access conditions

© 2018 by Justin Tackett

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