Outside Voices: An Email Correspondence

Jake Berry and Jeffrey Side

Outside Voices: An Email Correspondence

Review by Ami Kaye

It has been a long-standing tradition for publishers to sell books made up entirely of literary correspondences. Often the letters contain passages written in a brilliant conversational style, a wealth of literary history and trivia, and insights regarding human and artistic development. With the advent of email and its lightning fast delivery of written communication, writers have shifted their correspondences to this relatively new platform. Compared with the linguistic virtuosity of a literary correspondence in the pre-internet days, the tone of an email correspondence can be informal, terse, and certainly less poetic.

When approached to write a review for Outside Voices: An Email Correspondence, I admit to having felt some qualms. Aside from the rather voyeuristic feeling of reading private letters, one can also become desensitized to the frenetic, social networking chatter and the massive volume of personal information channeled daily over the Internet. However, in this compilation of their email correspondence, co-authors Jake Berry and Jeffrey Side discuss the various implications of contemporary poetry and music, both topics of particular interest to me, and I found myself reading through their letters with a rising interest. The first few emails in Outside Voices, introduce the topics that run through the rest of the correspondence, pausing to explore an amusing sidetrack-a conversation discussing various accents. By the sixth email, Berry and Side are firmly back to speaking of poetry and their perception of its state today. Also, Berry mentions a newly released Leonard Cohen DVD that has been reigniting interest in his work, and this thread comes up various times over the course of their conversations.

Jeffrey Side, who edits The Argotist Online, verbalizes his recent disenchantment with the poetry scene: "I sometimes wonder why poetry matters anyway, when you have singers like Dylan who do it better and with more beauty than most poets these days." While many poets would respond to this statement with a knee-jerk denial, Side effectively provides a foil for arguments in favor of poetry, contributing a more balanced flow to the conversation. Berry speaks of the different influences of poetry and music on an audience:

A singer or band can usually find a small audience because people will come for the music. They associate it with entertainment. Poetry is perceived as the domain of specialists. After a century of modernism it's easy to see why the average person would think that, but poets believe it too and revel in it...

Side's view of the future of poetry based on historical trends is less than optimistic as he tells Berry that he finds "much of academic poetry and the discourse on it pointless." Side further elaborates:

It is difficult to be taken seriously if you belong to no recognised school of poetry. Also, if a poet is not part of a school, the chances of his/her inclusion in accounts of poetry's history will be slim. Such accounts only mention poets who were allied to movements or schools...True outsiders like Blake and Keats went to their graves largely unpublished and unknown, yet Wordsworth became famous partly because he was loosely categorized as part of what was known as The Lake School of poetry.

In a later email Side argues in favor of music, stating:

Songs have the ability to create a sustainable mood, which poems can't do, in my view. This is because the music maintains the mood despite what the lyrics indicate. So you have a sort of thematic counterpoint going on. You see this all the time in Dylan whose vocal mood will be in one register while the music will be in another register.

On the popularity of song, Berry writes: "You're right, large audiences will always choose song over poetry... The great mass of people always prefer what is easiest to access." He mulls over these ideas and responds:

I think that poems in a book can sustain a mood as well as a song, but they demand a little more initial effort. One has to be willing to spend as much time reading and rereading a poem as one does listening to a song over and over.

Berry goes on to speaks of his work Brambu Drezi:

The ominous, haunting quality you hear in the Brambu material is not entirely unintentional, but it is more an aspect of the blend of elements - the poetry coming from the darker, less explored regions of the psyche combined with bass and drums and guitar that have their origins in Africa and the culture Africans created in the Americas - blues, jazz, vodoun, gospel. And there is the chant as well, which is not what we've come to expect from poetry.

Side agrees and continues, "Ironically, poetry probably started as incantation. Music is incantation as is song." In one of his emails, Side describes the effect of a reading he attended:

I did get to hear John Ashbery reading in Liverpool in 1991. It did, after a while, put one in some sort of semi-trance-like state that I found pleasant-which he may have, perhaps, intended. I think, also, the fact that the reading was held in an art gallery (in a beautiful low-ceilinged room with expressionist paintings on the walls) contributed to the pleasing affect the reading had.

In a couple of their exchanges, Berry and Side speak of what the word "poet" means to them. I could not help smile at the following line from Berry's email:

The word poet slowly becomes a way to compliment someone in any genre, except perhaps poetry. Scorsese is a cinematic poet of urban violence and so on.

Berry and Side continue their discussion about poetry and music through the entire book, trying to articulate their thoughts about the perceptions people have of both arts, and how they are intertwined, especially from the point of their origins. Berry makes a case for why some of these perceptions do not work in favor of poetry:

Critics of high art still try to make distinctions and rate one above the other, but it doesn't play that way. We listen to both. We understand one is more sophisticated, but that really doesn't make any difference. We don't always feel sophisticated. We don't always want to be elevated. Sometimes we want the raw emotion of popular song. It is impossible for poetry to compete. Not many people are willing to sit down and surrender to the depths of a strong poem in a book or even listen to a great poet read a poem extremely well. Ezra Pound could really make his poems sing, but given the choice most people would rather listen to whatever's on the radio rather than old Ez. I think they're really missing something.

Toward the end of the book, both authors speak of the role of Internet publishing. Jeffrey Side ponders the duality of the Internet, and its role in propagating writers and their work:

Whilst the Internet has allowed anyone to become widely published and read without having to get accepted by the official publishing gate keepers (which is a good thing) it has also minimized the chances of those writers escaping relative obscurity.

Berry, in a fitting conclusion to the book, articulates some of the philosophical reasons for creating art:

A star blasted into oblivion, became a nebula that spawned new stars with new planets and on one of them a species of life evolved that make noises and shapes they call art. Eventually another star will blow itself apart and all of it will be gone. The important thing is to tie into the greater process, to find some way of allowing it to live through your work. That way we serve our little bit of infinity for a tiny increment of eternity...All we can do is make the best noise we can while we can and make it public as best we can. If that means global distribution in all forms of media, or just a few pages on the Internet we can't let that distract us from the reason we started doing it in the first place-because we loved it, because it gave us a sense of purpose and a connection to something as old as culture, maybe as old as the species, maybe as old as the music of the spheres.

Readers will find themselves drawn into the debate of whether music is more accessible than poetry as they navigate this book and sift through the various stances put forth by Side and Berry who traverse a range of ideas and beliefs about song writing and its relation to poetry, and where each of these arts stands in contemporary culture. In one of his letters, Berry states: "In my opinion we have to start bridging the supposed gap between music and poetry in both directions." At the very least, this book will make readers wonder if they should be saving their more interesting correspondences rather than hitting the delete key.