I haven’t written much on this blog about oral poetry, slam, sound poems, or other forms of poetry that rely on performance to achieve their effects. I’m still learning and exploring as a reader/listener in these fields, and this essay is part of that exploration.
Kaie Kellough is novelist, short story writer, and poet, who has had success in a number of styles and genres, including winning the Griffin Prize for his collection Magnetic Equator in 2020. He also collaborates with jazz musicians in really interesting ways that you can watch here.
The recording posted below is 10 years old, and so is older than what I usually write about here. But I only just discovered it, thanks to my friend Jake Mooney, who re-posted it on Twitter recently. Thanks, Jake.
If this is your first encounter with something like this, you’re probably wondering, What’s happening? What should I be listening for? Where’s the imagery, the sentiment, the actual words?! There’s clearly something very playful about the piece, but the artist also seems to be quite serious. What sort of poem is this? These are not unreasonable responses. But let me repeat my mantra about “meaning” being only one of the things that poetry does as it moves across the page or, in this case, through time. Again, if your first question when you approach this poem is, “What does it mean?” you’re probably going to be frustrated. Instead, I’m thinking about what the poem is doing. So, what’s it doing?
First off, it’s a vocalization of the alphabet. That’s in the title, and as soon as we get accustomed to Kellough’s approach, the “text” of the poem is quite clear and familiar, even when he turns it around and starts heading backwards. (One of my favourite moments from the crowd is when the poet starts working his way backwards, and someone shouts out, “Oh no!” knowing where the performance is now going.) If you’re quick enough you can even begin to anticipate some of the sounds Kellough is going to use and how they might blend together. In that sense you can predict the text even as it occurs, which is unusual in a poem you’re encountering for the first time.
You can also tell right away that Kellough is an outstanding, confident performer – he interacts with the audience, changes tone and stance to engage different sections of the room, uses his hands to emphasize but not to distract, and maintains a pretty fast pace. When I reached out to him to ask permission to write on this piece, Kaie revealed to me that the night this recording was made was only the second time he had performed it live, so there was still a “raw element to the performance,” as he put it. I therefore want to call some real attention to his virtuosity: the clarity of his articulation so that we can clearly hear all of the letters in succession, the elements of discovery, surprise, range, and a kind of vocal muscularity that is on display.
Quick bit of background: sound poetry goes back at least as far as the beginning of the 20th century, when it was allied with the surrealist Dada movement that deliberately abandoned meaning for various artistic and political reasons. If you’re curious you can dig in and learn about Hugo Ball, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, and Tristan Tzara. The PennSound archive has some great recordings of more recent sound poetry, including Christian Bök performing a Hugo Ball poem, and the contemporary sound artists Jaap Blonk and Tracie Morris.
There’s much more to say about this – about poetry’s attraction to jazz, especially bebop, and about the blurry line between performance poetry and musical genres like rap. This isn’t the space – and I don’t have the expertise – to say too much more. I just want to suggest that Kellough is working in some well-established poetic traditions that are worth exploring further.
But let’s talk truth: if this fella’s going to try to pronounce the alphabet, he’s also got to contend with the performance that truly dominates this space. The Alpha Precedent, the ORIGINAL alphabet vocalization, you know the one. It’s by that inimitable performer, Big Bird:
Big Bird’s performance is attached to a conventional chipper melody, but it is similar to Kaie Kellough’s in that it posits the alphabet – what we usually think of as the tools used to make language – as a pronounceable piece of language itself. There are also important differences, though. While Big Bird repeats the whole word over and over again, and lyrically articulates his struggles to understand it, Kellough sticks to the text itself, works his way through it, plays with different parts, repeating some, and then of course doing the whole thing backwards. It’s a more fluid reading, and a more creative response to the materials, as if he’s rediscovering or re-examining the alphabet while traveling through, and allowing his audience to draw inferences of what is at stake in the poem.
Another thing I notice is that Big Bird keeps insisting that the thing is a word – “it’s the most remarkable word I’ve ever seen.” He also seems to desire some coherence – “If I ever find out just what this word can mean, I’ll be the smartest bird the world has ever seen!” Even for children watching, this desire makes Big Bird seem naive and quaint – Susan will have to correct him after the song is complete. abcdefghijklmnopqurstuvwxyz isn’t a word any more than a pile of bricks, wood, nails and a hammer is a house. For Kellough, “what it means” is not a primary concern, although there are some remarkable moments when coherence seems to momentarily emerge. Around the 1-minute mark, when Kellough lands on PQR, he almost seems to land on a word, “pakwera,” pakora?, that seems to interest him so that he repeats it a few times. And near the end, around 3:50, going backwards, he comes to FEDC, which he repeats enough that I can hear “for etiquette” bursting to get out. I can’t help but occasionally try to assign meaning to the sounds that emerge from Kellough’s mouth – it’s just a natural instinct of my mind. But I’m aware that that reaction is not necessarily in the text itself; it’s my imposition on the letters. The fact that Kellough repeats those pieces of near-words a few times lets us know that he can hear it too.
One final difference I notice is in some of the pronunciations: Big Bird’s a is the vowel you hear in flat or hat, exaggerated even further by Caroll Spinney’s pronunciation and emphasis. Kellough’s is more like an “ah,” as in palm or Mama, but also like it is usually pronounced in other languages – portage in French, or adios in Spanish. From the beginning, then, Big Bird’s alphabet is recognizably American, or at least North American, whereas Kellough’s seems more worldly. Is there an implied critique in Kellough’s version of the alphabet for those of us who might incorrectly assume that it belongs to a single language or culture? Perhaps. Other letters – H, around the 0:26 mark – get connected to the body and the breath in ways that we aren’t always aware of when we pronounce them: watch how Kellough’s abdomen forcefully contracts as that H gets vocalized.
So if Big Bird’s song is meant to help children learn the alphabet, to feel comfortable and familiar around its shapes and sounds, then Kellough’s performance seems intent on the opposite. Even if we could anticipate his pronunciations of the letters, his repetitions and reversals would throw us off balance. In a sense then, my experience is a defamiliarization with the letters, making me newly aware of their contours and suggestions, so that I don’t just take the sounds and order for granted. After all, the alphabet is the most basic tool of our written language, and yet in many ways we are disconnected from that tool’s range, history, and limitations. Why is P after O but before Q? Why, when I want to suggest the sound my closed lips make when humming, do I make a shape with two humps? Why do I have one letter that can represent a “ks” sound, but need two letters to represent the phoneme “sh”? And then, on the other hand: could Arabic, Hebrew, Hindi and Thai speakers create parallel performances of their various alphabets to the same effect? What would they sound like to my Anglophone ears?
The first time I watched Kaie Kellough’s performance of “alphabet,” the source of my delight was one of pure discovery – I’d never heard the alphabet spoken, almost sung, in that way before. But the more I listen to it, the more seems to be suggested and explored. And yet I still get the same rush of pleasure at the sounds, the combinations, and the dynamism of his delivery. The poem seems to me to ask fascinating questions about our basic linguistic structures, all in a dynamic sonic package that feels full of humour, critique, and surprise. Not bad for just a bunch of letters.