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You are here: Home > Writing in Education > Writing at University > Writing in Practice > Previous Issues > Vol. 3 > “Where is the music?”: Remediation and slow poetry
“Where is the music?”: Remediation and slow poetry
Author: Jen Webb and Paul Munden
Jen Webb and Paul Munden attempt to answer a question posed by Philip Gross' poem, “The Musical Cottage”, through a new, collaborative, multimedia work.


In Philip Gross’ poem “The Musical Cottage” (1983) [1], a child explores “the whirr and tick of cogs, precise machineries circling on themselves”, and wonders “Where is the music?”. The poem answers him, “Elsewhere”. In the same mood of equivocation it ends: “The final note hangs frozen at the lip of being. Thirty years. It will not drop.” This project attends to both to the “elsewhere” and to the arrested note of that poem, by transforming an analogue work (an artist book involving new poetry, imagery and music) into a digital object through the process of remediation.

Keywords: poetry, remediation, analogue, digital


Creative expression is intrinsic to human beings: we have been producing songs, images and artefacts, apparently, for as long as there have been humans (Lewis-Williams 2009). But despite the antiquity of the practice, creativity—and particularly the origins of both the creative impulse and inspiration for a particular creative project—remains something of a mystery. In this paper we attempt to render the latter a little more transparent, by explicating both the generative stimulus for a poetic work we recently completed, and the process we pursued in the making of that work.

One of the enduring stories of creative inspiration is that it is a product of an individual’s own genius, imagination and drive. This notion arguably starts with Aristotle, who argued in De Anima (432a; 210) that the mind is the “form of forms”, and that all thought is therefore the product of the individual’s phantasy (image/imagining). Later, in the Romantic period with its celebration of capital-I Imagination, creative work is identified as emerging from and pertaining to the individual. But this is a very limited view of the process, given that from the days of Homer (Fowler 2004),[2] artists have borrowed, appropriated, stolen, interpreted and otherwise remediated the work of artists who preceded them (Shawcross 1991). Creative inspiration, it seems, is not generated ex nihilo by an individual genius, but builds on what came before. As Ross Gibson observes:

Whereas Bloom portrayed the great poets as sui generis entities struggling, Vulcan-like, to stoke atavistic fire for hammering paradigm-shifting creations out of their non-pareil subjectivities, Eliot’s exemplary poets are not so much makers as melders. (Gibson 2014, 9)

We begin from this point: exploring the idea of the maker as melder, one who draws on available materials to produce a new work out of what already exists. Our intellectual framework is built on the scholarly, philosophical and critical literature of creative practice and representation, starting with Aristotle; and our method is creative practice: reading and writing poems, listening to and constructing sound scapes; publishing and installing our work. This offered the space for a phenomenological engagement with the matter of creative thought and expression, one that allowed us to test out the affordances of remediation in the domain of poetry.


On remediation

We start with the term “remediation” which is in the title of this paper. Remediation, in the context of creative and cultural practice, is generally considered a term of fairly recent origin. Bolter and Grusin date its emergence very precisely as May 1996 (1999: viii), and most scholars of digital humanities and media seem to agree. Remediation as described by Bolter and Grusin is a characteristic of late 20th century digital media, which operates according to a double logic. On the one hand, it offers its viewers immediacy, in that through a sleight of hand that obscures its own production, it presents as a kind of reality coming to them unmediated. On the other hand, it is manifestly hypermedia, in its combination of sound, still and moving images, with textual and graphic content, woven together to form something new.

While we acknowledge the double-logic of Bolter and Grusin’s remediation, we are less committed to its location as a digital media practice, and more interested in how it might operate in older, analogue forms. Certainly “remediation” has a genealogy that extends well before May 1996; an older definition stems from the root word remedium, meaning remedy, or cure, and therefore references problem rather than repurposing.[3] Remediation is also associated with weaving; the Latin word plectere, which translates as “weave”, is a root for the word “complex”; and complexity, Melanie Mitchell writes: “is itself an entwining of many different fields” (2009: 4).  She is referencing computer science, but the notion of complexity as a model of entwining provides an analogy for remediation, as the term is used by Bolter and Grusin.[4]

While we draw on and are informed by all these meanings, our approach is primarily remediation as translation; the repurposing of an earlier work, or re-citing it, in a new form or language, and in a way that honours and explicitly references the original. This concept of remediation/translation is aligned with contemporary scholarship on remediation and cultural memory (see, e.g., Eril & Rigney 2009). Our interest in this approach is that it affords the opportunity to address the translation from individual memory to creative expression, and from that creative expression to cultural memory. As Eril and Rigney argue (2009: 2–5), this is a dynamic process, with memory narratives being constantly remediated and repurposed, and with the products of memory being less relevant than the processes in and through which they are made to circulate.


“The musical cottage

 Our project begins with our remembering, and rereading, a poem that was apparently motivated by a memory: Philip Gross’ “The Musical Cottage” (1983). This is a poem in which music is both captured and lost, one in which the ineffable takes centre stage. It begins:

An endless Sunday. In the attic room
the solitary child sits. The tune
deliberates each note, each stepping stone
across depths of silence. (Gross, 2002: 29; lines 1–4)

The tune that steps out so deliberately is produced by pre-digital technology: a musical box driven by a spring-powered system, pins on a revolving metal cylinder that strike a series of lamellae to pick out the tune. The poem tells us that it is playing “Edelweiss”, a song often mistaken for an Austrian folk tune, but which was written by Rodgers and Hammerstein for The Sound of Music (1959).

Megan Garber describes “Edelweiss” as “a love song to a person, a love song to a country, a love song to all that is swept up in the phrase ‘way of life’”, and one that “has always, in its way, insistently merged the personal and the political. And it has always functioned as a kind of elegy”. The decision Gross made to use this song rather than any of the many other popular or kitsch pieces used in musical boxes is an interesting one. For Garber, the use of the song in the movie for which it was written, The Sound of Music, performs two functions. On its first appearance it conveys the safety and comfort of home and family: it appears in a scene where the Captain joins his children in the song, and in doing so rediscovers his love both for his family, and for music. On its second appearance—sung by von Trapp in the course of the Salzburg Festival concert scene—it enacts an expression of political resistance or refusal. In choosing that “folk tune” for his performance, von Trapp both affirms his love for his homeland—and hence his refusal to serve the Fascist military regime—and, by encouraging the Austrians in the audience to join him in the song, offers an act of defiance to the soldiers of the Anschluss that surround them. This song, then, combines popular sentiment with political engagement, memory with loss, love with elegy. As such, it is an ideal choice for a poem that begins with a solitary child playing in his attic, and goes on to illuminate difficult philosophical questions, both epistemological and ontological:

… He sees more than he knows
as he hinges back the roof on the whirr

and tick of cogs, precise machineries
circling on themselves, clinched and
slowing. (lines 7–11)

These lines conjure up both the confined space that is the inside of the cottage, and the space of unknowing occupied by the child, and as such draw our thoughts to the prisoners in Plato’s cave (Plato, 1992: s514), and to the dupes of Adorno’s culture industry (Adorno, 1991: 165). The subjects in both Plato’s and Adorno’s accounts lack the capacity to engage critically with the world: the former because they are chained in place, seeing only the flickering of shadows on the wall; the latter because mass media has confined them, so that they now see only the flickering of media representations. In each case they are absorbed by colour and movement, and not able to question the stories, the “truths”, presented to them. Gross’ child, by contrast, is neither prisoner nor dupe: he may “see without knowing”, but nonetheless he looks intently, observing the winding down of the machine, noting the hesitation in the tune. Nor is he passive: instead, he moves to reflexive questioning: “he shuts his eyes, wonders ‘Where is / the music?’” And the poem provides the answer: “Elsewhere” (lines 12–13).

In fact it is more than elsewhere; it is “gone: beyond him, or too close to touch”, and he will never be able to grasp it:

The final note hangs frozen at the lip
of silence.
                              Thirty years.
                                                                  It will not drop. (lines 17–20)

The poem leaves him there, solitary in the attic, with a musical cottage that has ceased to play, and with music that is always out of reach. He is learning, perhaps, what poet John Berryman—in another poem about a solitary boy, and a disappointment—calls “the epistemology of loss” (Berryman, 1989: 11; line 16). This is what must be learned if the child is to grow into an adult who can understand that “gradually light returns to the street” (line 19), and who can therefore cope with life and its vicissitudes. The two poems are not rehearsing the same context: in Berryman’s, it is the boy who is left “fixed”; in Gross’, it is the music that hangs frozen; in Berryman’s, it is the random bounce of a ball that causes the problem; in Gross’, the problem is the failure of mechanical processes. In each case, though, the boys are left with significant epistemological and ontological questions—what is responsibility? where is the music?: questions that are posed, and then left unanswered. Just as the final note will not drop, so too any final resolution remains “frozen at the lip of silence”, a silence as potent today as it was thirty years ago.


A new remediation

We pick up the story after a lapse of a further thirty years, in our remediation of that earlier work (Webb and Munden, 2015). Our interest was captured by the way Gross’ poem juxtaposes apparently contradictory elements: concrete machinery with ephemeral memory, for example, or failure alongside persistence. In our reading, “The Musical Cottage” also explores the uncertainty of past and present: that the present is less secure and less self-contained than it should be; that the past intervenes at unexpected moments and unpredictable ways in the present. We decided to respond to that poem and transpose it in a number of ways, first of all by writing a new poem—one that explored similar themes of music, machinery, elegy and discovery, but over which we held full licence to manipulate the content.[5] Like Gross’ poem, which has a song from a musical remediated through “the whirr / and tick of cogs”, the new poem, “Fugue”, itself embodies a remediation: the fugue is derived from a preceding hymn at the end of a cathedral service; moreover, the organ on which it is improvised is also seen as an evolving instrument, the powering of air through the pipes having once been “the work of seventy men” but now operates through electronic support.

“Fugue” takes flight from “The Musical Cottage”, the movement from poem to poem being the first of our remediations, and a fundamental part of our research. Poetry is a particularly good form in which to develop what Clive Cazeaux (2000: xiv) terms “the sensuous embodiment of conscious enquiry [that] invites us to reassess our understanding of the way we interact with other objects and minds”. Over many centuries, poets have attempted to express that which cannot be said through the use of “ordinary language”, written in a highly intensified way, and supported by acute observation. The poets have been joined by philosophers, and scholars of art and literature, who examine the ways in which poetry can be understood to be a device for thinking about, and attempting to know, the world in which we live, and for considerations of the unreachable, the unsayable, that which lies beyond empirical observation (e.g., Derrida 1974; Heidegger 1971; Reisner 2009; Harries 2009).

Our further acts of remediation resulted in a hybrid work: a multimedia installation (centred on the new multipart “Fugue”) titled “Where is the music?” Attempting to answer that question, our new work moves from a poem about a musical box into a multimedia poem presented through the medium of musical boxes. In this we identify with other practitioners who use found objects, juxtapose possibly unsympathetic elements, and cross disciplinary borders. While the concept for our installation was a mode of cultural memory, remediated through more personal memories, its production involved a variety of creative practices (poetry, installation art, musical composition, musical performance, and digital art) and a variety of materials (found musical boxes, repurposed technical documents, captured and created sound, various types of paper).

Though it is by no means uncommon to see poetry presented in the context of an art gallery, multimedia installation poetry is less common, but is increasingly becoming a part of the poetry/art space. In the UK, for example, a 4-year exhibition titled “The Poetry Installation” was held in London (1998–2000). The product of the Poetry Places scheme funded by the Arts Council, it incorporated sound, image and objects along with recordings of previously published and new poems. In Kochi, a major work titled “Poetry Installation”, conceived by P. Raveendranath and designed by Vinod Krishna, involved three-dimensional installation, performance, and the recitation of poetry. The show was described as the first such work seen in India (Sunil 2015). In 2016 Bologna was the site for a public installation of poetry as part of the DialogArti festival of street art. Our work is smaller in scale than these and similar installations, but it is attempting something similar: the remediation of poetry; the hypermediation of poem, object, sound and image; and the translation of an individual impression or memory into a cultural product.

The work was included in the group exhibition, Traces and Hauntings, at the Belconnen Arts Centre in Canberra, Australia, in mid-2015. As the title of the exhibition suggests, our installation was marked by the traces of the other existences and media that it translated, and haunted by the evocations of the earlier works. The key haunting was, of course, Gross’ poem, a work that emerges from a pre-digital age.[6] It was haunted too by the presence of found and repurposed elements: old musical boxes, found photographs, borrowed media items. And while it traces some of the concerns found in Gross’ poem, it is itself traced by the interweaving of digital and analogue technology: like Gross, we centred our poem on an object of pre-digital technology, a musical box, and like him, we sought to build an affiliation between “the whirr and tick of cogs” and “the music”. But where his poem is firmly located on the page, ours migrates across the various media employed; and where his inhabits a pre-digital world, ours marries the analogue and the digital. The installation incorporated sound and music; digital and analogue photographs; old and new musical boxes; and words—stanzas and sections of the poem, lists of technical specifications, and a scattering of word tiles. We raided junk shops and our own memories to source the found materials; translated analogue materials to digital, and digital to analogue; and juxtaposed historical periods. We also combined digital and analogue technologies, using word processors, image editors, sound editors, and electronic signals along with more ancient technology: found photographs, manually composed and performed music, and handmade books produced by means of paper cutting and folding, handwriting, gluing and matting.

The sonic elements were a combination of analogue and digital: short contemporary musical compositions performed on guitar and piano, and then recorded and edited on a digital platform. We combined this series of compositions with street sounds captured while walking through London: emergency vehicle sirens, the noise of construction, trains rattling over bridges, lines of traffic all starting and stopping and grinding through their gears. We hoped, in this combination of composed musical works and the racket of the random street sounds, to highlight the affiliation between what Gross describes as “the whirr and tick of cogs” and “the music” that the mechanism produces.

The visual elements were found photographs, along with more recent digital and analogue photographs repurposed for the installation, and digital photographs taken specifically for this work. All were scanned, and then altered, through the use of image editors; and then they were printed onto various paper types and stocks, and worked into handmade books: concertina-folded, looseleaf, looped, and simple folds. These books contained the digitally rendered photographs, the multipart poem, and found texts: church records, biographical elements, an obituary. All the texts focused on a particular musician, and the cathedral organ he played; and we printed out their content onto 110gsm white paper, and then sliced the sheets up to form a stack of individual words and phrases—a further remediation, one that translated poetry and narrative into random bits.

The final element was a collection of old musical boxes. One was altered to house the sonic element: this we played through old headphones connected to a microcomputer that was installed in the body of the box. Another—which still had a working musical box mechanism—housed a tiny concertina book. A third held the organist’s obituary, printed and overprinted onto transparencies; and, in one of the jewellery compartments, the pile of individual words and phrases. This, during the course of the exhibition, was gradually dispersed to form a scatter of words across the boxes and the separate books, and the plinths on which they were all arranged. We hoped, through our remediation of Gross’ poem and the combination of elements—digital and analogue, visual and audio—that we could offer an homage to the earlier work, and also imbue our work with tactile, phenomenologically-charged elements and objects.


Figure 1. “Where is the music?” (installation), Jen Webb and Paul Munden, Traces and Hauntings, Belconnen Arts Centre, Canberra, August 2015


There are questions about whether the digital domain is a good affordance for phenomenological experiences. Largely because the digital domain is marked by abstraction, some scholars have expressed anxiety that it will result in the loss of the capacity for material apperception: Michael Heim, writing as long ago as 1993, laid out and analysed such concerns. These concerns are of course not new: throughout human history, as new modes of making emerge in culture, people have had to learn to see in different ways, these new ways often attended by expressions of anxiety. McLuhan reminds us that Bishop Berkeley, in 1709, “was denouncing the absurdity of Newtonian space as a mere abstract illusion severed from the sense of touch” (McLuhan 1962: 17). While we can raise a wry eyebrow at Berkeley’s anxieties, it is still fair to say—as even Michael Heim does—that  “Virtual worlds can threaten the integrity of human experience” and that therefore, “We need to learn how to do occasional virtual reality checks” (Heim 1993: 131). People do have phenomenological experiences in relation even to objects they cannot touch or taste or smell; and, as Richard Rorty (and many other philosophers) have pointed out, worlds are representational forms, and if our worlds are digital, we will imbue them with material properties. Still, we were keen to translate the two-dimensional poem into a three-dimensional, material, tangible, and handle-able object.


Figure 2. “Where is the music?” (detail): poem as material object


Blended matter

Our remediation of Philip Gross’ poem attempts to do this, drawing on all three senses of the word to produce a translation-cum-homage. It weaves together media and materials and technologies from the original, and from other sources (including our own practice) to make a more complex system; and in its concern for loss, loneliness and failure, it attempts to find a way to mitigate problems: to speak hope into being. More particularly, though, it involves the consideration of the forms of affiliation that obtain between objects, texts, and practices. This is a view of remediation that does not confine the concept to differences between technologies, but includes an awareness of how, more generally, human beings engage with technology: remediating practices, thought and media. Marshall McLuhan explores this in depth in his Gutenberg Galaxy (originally published 1962), where he traces the ways in which new technologies map onto cultures. Each new innovation, he writes, initiates a “mutation of culture” because of the radical changes it causes to what he terms “sense ratios”: the balance of perception between, say, eye and ear, or eye and hand. New modes of production and consumption initiate new sensory practices, and it takes time for these to become commonplace, and hence “second nature” (McLuhan 1962: 22). The first revolution is, then, the shock of the introduction of the new; but “the real revolution”, for McLuhan, is “the ‘adjustment’ of all personal and social life to the new model of perception set up by the new technology” (23).

This is a high-order sense of remediation: one that is focused not on individual projects, but on technologies that afford major social changes. Although it has little to say about “writing digital” per se, it draws attention to the process of remediation as a form of making. McLuhan points out that there is never a simple or one-off translation whereby, say, analogue shifts to digital. Rather, the old and the new forms co-exist; the two modes of technology push against and weave through each other, changing the other and being themselves changed. This also draws attention to human interactions rather than technology, a perspective that is shared by Raymond Williams, who similarly insists on the imbrication of earlier and later forms, making the point that it is not feasible to segregate periods of time or technologies of production as though they were discrete. Rather, he argues that they exist in a broader tapestry of human practice (Williams 1961: 54). New media do not, therefore, erase old media; rather, the various forms intersect and interact, the old being intertwined with the new, the analogue with the digital, and the residual with the emergent (Williams 1977).[7] Nothing is lost in this view of technological change. As Bolter and Grusin argue, remediation of text does not necessarily efface the earlier text any more than repurposing of objects effaces the original objects. Rather, they write, “the new medium remains dependent on the older one in acknowledged or unacknowledged ways” (2000: 47): as we found in our remediation and repurposing, the older modes are tucked away, like Gross’ musical cottage in the attic, available to be remobilized when required.


Figure 3. “Where is the music?” (detail): the old and new workings of the musical box—the whirr and cog of the player, and the microcomputer—both tucked beneath the handmade book


Absences and affiliations

Our weaving of digital and analogue, old and new, required us to pay attention to the affiliations that obtain between objects and practices; and also to the ways in which creative practice may explore, or address, the gap at the heart of experience that is identified in the work of so many poets and philosophers. Philip Gross describes this gap in his depiction of the child of the poem finding and losing not just the linear flow of the music, but time itself: thirty years passing as that final note hangs on the edge. The same notion of a gap is evinced in his depiction of the musical box growing more hesitant as it plays out its tune: slowing, and then, at the end, frozen in silence.

Hesitation and ephemerality appear also in Michael Donaghy’s “Machines” (Donaghy 1988: 341), a poem that focuses on machinery, its processes, and its interrelationship with human agents in what can be seen as a sort of remediation. The act of remediation is in the work done by the poem to translate archaic forms (pavane; harpsichord) to the present, and to weave them together with a newer technology—the twelve-speed bicycle—to offer the “remedy” for the incapacity of the machine: human beings, and acceptance of chance. The pavane is a dance whose slow steps have grown slower over time, and which now survives primarily in the dance movement known as the “hesitation step” (Brown 2001). The harpsichord too is, like the pavane, from an earlier period—for Benjamin Carlson (2010), it is the piano’s “elder cousin”—but similarly survives under a more contemporary identity. Its very mechanical structure produces a brittle sound, and this has been attractive to contemporary rap and hiphop musicians. Carlson mentions in particular Eminem and Massive Attack, whose samplings of the instrument offer further remediations, translating an 18th-century sound to the 21st century). The harpsichord does not offer the subtle textured tones of a piano, which is the result of fingers stroking keys that then strike strings. The harpsichord is sounded by means of a complicated mechanism that plucks the strings, and this introduces a sound that is something between music and the “whirr and tick of cogs”.

Donaghy draws attention to this machine quality in the first stanza:

Dearest, note how these two are alike:
This harpsicord pavane by Purcell
And the racer’s twelve-speed bike.

The speed and responsiveness of a well-made bike, a machine “Which Ptolemy dreamt of and Schwinn perfected” (line 7) is not obvious, at first; but perhaps the point is to juxtapose two machines, harpsichord and bicycle, which seem capable in their elegant construction of self-reliance, but which work only when a human being intervenes; as lines 8–9 read, “The cyclist, not the cycle, steers. / And in the playing, Purcell’s chords are played away.” It is not machines and their complexity but “The machinery of grace” which “is always simple” (line 4) that matters, in this poem. The important thing is the thing that is introduced by awkward halting humans. The child who cannot find where the music has gone, the poet who must try to find a way to turn the poem into something that can “work its effortless gadgetry of love”; they are what provide the true motive power.

The poem itself is characterized as a machine, or invention: indeed, referring to Donaghy’s public readings, David Mason (2009/2010) writes, “Anyone who heard him perform—always from memory—will never forget his spontaneous gestures, the way his recitations felt like inventions”. However, Donaghy’s poem-as-machine does not have the same orientation as the more commonly known version offered by William Carlos Williams, which reads: “A poem is a small (or large) machine made of words. When I say there’s nothing sentimental about a poem I mean that there can be no part, as in any other machine, that is redundant” (Williams 1969: 256). For Donaghy, the poem-as-machine is “this talk, or touch if I were there”, which is machine in that it “Should work its effortless gadgetry of love” (lines 10, 11); and if it fails to do so, leaves the poem—like a clumsy cyclist—”fallen” (line 13). Donaghy shares with Williams a concern for the meticulous care that must go into any poem’s construction, but observes that care is not enough, because poems rely as much on technique as on “chance”, and on the always-ephemeral nature of a poem’s encounter with the world and with its readers:

So much agility, desire, and feverish care,
As bicyclists and harpsicordists prove

Who only by moving can balance,
Only by balancing move. (lines 13–17)

Like the frozen note of “The Musical Cottage”, this poem too points to the unattainable, and to the hesitant, and to the deferred. In our own new work, we wanted to explore this sense of chance, contingency and mutability, even while emphasizing physical construction. We sourced three old musical boxes, replacing their workings with shape-shifting poems, some spilling out, some hanging in the air.  The sound encountered is an entirely unpredictable match, recordings of street sounds emerging from the boxes without moving parts, the “effortless gadgetry” of the digital world.

The new poem is in three parts, to match the three boxes. It chronicles three separate scenarios in the life of a remarkable musician, former sub-organist at Winchester cathedral, Clement McWilliam, a musician possessed of such an extraordinary talent that he could improvise a fugue based on the theme of a preceding hymn, at the end of a service. When the position of organist became vacant, he was not promoted to that post, and the subsequent trajectory of his life was a troubled one. We were eager to translate his biography to artwork as a way of celebrating his marvellous music, and his commitment to chance in his life and work. We also wanted to focus on the fugue, not only because it was his form, but because it is one of the most demanding of musical forms, as well as one of the most mathematical (and McWilliam was indeed also a mathematician). Whether studying a score or listening to the music, one can register the intricate interweaving and interlocking of the various parts, all playing variations on the same theme. Playing such a work on a cathedral organ is a massive mechanical undertaking, involving a time-lag as the air is forced through pipes some considerable distance away. McWilliam’s improvised fugues were, by definition, one-offs, and never recorded. They afford no scope, therefore, for replication, let alone digitization. All that is available is memory, which cannot be captured by any extant technology. A musician—another organist if he or she had such phenomenal skill—might of course produce a new improvised fugue, but that is not the same thing as capturing what happened, all those years ago, and reproducing the particular relationship between man and music, time and location, audience and impact. New art, of a wholly different type, is perhaps our best available gambit.

Paul, who attended the Cathedral and was a student of McWilliam, is possessed of these memories. In “Fugue”, he attempts to catch the “after-trace” of McWilliam’s work and his extraordinary influence on those who heard him, and who were taught by him. No one will ever again hear him perform or experience that direct influence, as the poetic voice in “Fugue” observes:

I shuffle through a million tracks
on my ipod, but there’s nothing—
nothing to match the subtle thunder 
of your fingers in full flight.

There is, though, the dream that the music has gone elsewhere, as it has in Gross’ “The Musical Cottage”, and still exists in the beyond space:

… does the fragment
of an echo still linger
high in the vaults,
a memory inaudible
to the human ear
but still rippling
through human lives
as they make their way
over the river, heading
for home or other long
dark evenings ahead?

This poem—this remediation of the sense of Gross’ and of Donaghy’s poems, as well as McWilliam’s musicianship—is an attempt to prolong the echo, to give it new weight. The placing of such an ephemeral wish in solid musical boxes is both an irony and an act of faith. Even so, this poem, which is composed of sets of stanzas placed in and upon and around the musical boxes, effectively asks the reader to sit down and play, to become the child in the attic room, to “wonder” about the “elsewhere” where the music now resides. The digital soundtrack that forms part of our new work matches that mood. The composed pieces are fragments, often in a minor key, often ending abruptly rather than seeking resolution; the captured street sounds are the noise, the clatter and mutter, of everyday life. The soundtrack runs for 20 minutes, though it would be a very unusual museum visitor who would listen for more than a minute or so; and as such we hope it asks visitors to locate memories and wonderings in such a soundscape: one that weaves the composed with the captured, the engineered with the random, the haunting/haunted with the everyday. It is a soundscape designed to evince the art that is in the everyday and the everyday that is in art; and designed too to reflect the “endless Sunday” of Gross’ poem—the stretch of time that baffles or bores, that leaves us feeling at a loss—and to show it as the creative space that it can actually afford.

The two poems we have referenced here, and the new poem “Fugue”, have in common the idea of the cycling patterns of machinery, the failure or insufficiency of those machines, and the contingency involved in being human. The child in Gross’ poem, the lover in Donaghy’s, and indeed McWilliam himself—as signalled by the details of his biography—seem to long for something that eludes them; something that is elsewhere and beyond them. This is, for Lacan, an effect of being alive and human. Loss and lack are at the core of being for those who are within what Lacan calls the Symbolic: that state we enter, when we enter into language, that separates us from the fullness of being. It is what we give up in order to become individual speaking agents. The exchange of fullness for symbolic capacity leaves a gap, or wound in the subject, because it is attended by a necessary loss of connectedness, or affiliation, to the world. A second consequence of this is that whatever lies beyond language, beyond signification, and beyond the symbolic order not only escapes knowledge, but always presents as the “un-canny”, the thing “beyond our ken”. This is, we suggest, the place of the unattainable music of Gross’ poem, and the incomplete love of Donaghy’s poem: it is the gap in reason and being that drives us to perform, again and again—and is perhaps what drove McWilliam to his fugal performances (ultimately unappreciated by the Cathedral hierarchy). Several of the sections of “Fugue” treat his organ music and its passions; but one of them treats his equally compulsive and repetitive playing of fruit machines at the local pub. This activity reflects much of what comes from understandings of Lacanian psychoanalysis—the search for satisfaction, an attempt to fill the gap in being or happiness, the inability to break free from such compulsion. To render this, we produced the “fruit machine” section on heavy grade fruit-coloured paper, twisted into Moebius strips, as a way of signalling the repetition, and the absence of a way out, of compulsion.[8]


Figure 4. “Where is the music?” (detail), with Moebius strips


Lacan offers a convincing argument about how this absence at the heart of the self drives human activity—which is: it induces in us a longing to plug the gap, and to take action to do just this. He writes:

Desire is a relation of being to lack. The lack is the lack of being properly speaking. It is not the lack of this or that, but lack of being whereby the being exists. This lack is beyond anything which can represent it.

. . .

Desire, a function central to all experience, is the desire for nothing nameable. And at the same time this desire lies at the origin of every variety of animation. (Lacan 1988: 223)

The variety of animation that we call language is, in Lacan’s account, a way to seek satisfaction for desire; but that attempt is probably misdirected since it is language that caused the problem in the first place. Given that desire cannot be named, but only felt, it is probably feeling or affect rather than symbolic signification that offers the best possibility of finding a remedy. The introduction into animation of affect would, arguably, be a remediation that translates the wounded individual away from language and toward being; away from an affiliation with words, and toward an affiliation with the world.


Conclusion: material poetics

We do not recommend that individuals eschew language altogether in an attempt to seek remedy for loss, lack and absence. The constant effort to become is marked by linguistic interaction, that to-ing and fro-ing by which people orient themselves to one another and to the meanings and understandings they make. But it is not only linguistic interaction; as Maurice Merleau-Ponty argues, the body “can sense itself and this anonymous tacit cogito is the foundation for the explicit cogito, the emergent experience of selfhood and subjectivity which set the body apart from objects” (1993: 148). Certainly, as the neurologists tell us, human beings are formed as much by the experience of affect and qualia—Antonio Damasio’s the “feeling of what happens” (2000)—as by “explicit cogito”. Such feeling-ness depends on phenomenological existence: on the ability of people to interweave their lives and ideas with others, and on developing a relationship with that which is beyond representation in order to practise ways of knowing and affiliating that are not confined to language.

Poetry is a very good way to approach this because although it is self-evidently a linguistic practice, for the most part it does not attempt to achieve transparent communication. It is a mode of meaning-making that, as Raymond Williams suggests in The Long Revolution, offers “literally a way of seeing new things and new relationships” (Williams 1961: 40): which is to say, an immediate remediation. Add to the language and imagery of poetry the experience of its rhythm or music, and we are likely to experience, as Williams again writes, “not merely as an ‘abstraction’ or an ‘emotion’ but as a physical effect on the organism – on the blood, on the breathing, on the physical patterns of the brain” (Williams 1961: 41). This is, in short, a sort of reiteration of Keats’ famous statement that axioms are not axioms “until they are proved upon our pulses” (Keats 2002: 88).  The task of poets and other artists is, therefore, to communicate as effectively as possible through voice and presence and sense, and in that way, as Raymond Williams writes, “to alter existing real relationships” (Williams 1961: 43).

Conventional poetry—poetry on the page, or in the journal—does not necessarily afford this because writing qua writing introduces a separation between the author and the reader; the body of each disappears into the made space of the text. There is little room for touch in this sort of encounter; but there is, as Wittgenstein complained, a whole series of traps, “an immense network of easily accessible wrong turnings”.

The remediation of written language, we suggest, might help to avoid some of those wrong turnings, and help people pay more attention to the world around them, and to the interplay of elements in that “immense network”. To attempt this, we have moved from poems on the page to a material poetics, one that offers the possibility of exploiting the richness of poetic language and imagery, and its rhythms and shapes, while juxtaposing the material and the abstract. Kristen Kreider writes that material poetics “is able to relate to its context not only through an arbitrary linguistic relation, but also through the physical and existential relation that the artwork’s material properties have with the world of objects and things” (2015: 82). Our installation aimed to allow us to engage both these sets of relations simultaneously: the “arbitrary linguistic” through the necessary reliance on words and sentences that make up poems; and the “physical and existential” through the juxtapositioning of a range of material artefacts. In the process, we hoped to collapse the distinction between the time-bound literary arts and the space-bound visual arts that G. E. Lessing (1984 [1766]) instituted, as a further exploration into the ways in which remediation can enhance the affiliations that obtain between time, space and media. We aimed to do this through several of the interventions on the objects used in the installation: setting the soundtrack on an endless loop; building poems in the form of a Moebius strip; and interrupting the possibility of a linear reading of the sections of the poem “Fugue”.

It might be argued that our remediation offers an even greater number of “accessible turnings”, the sorts of traps that Wittgenstein deplored. However, we were pleased to set these traps in place, and the materiality of the installation certainly encouraged a multiplicity of personal responses. (Such acts of “interpretation” were, after all, at the heart of our own makings.) In sifting and repositioning the fragments of text from one of the boxes, visitors became makers themselves, experiencing something of the creative play that McWilliam’s high artistry engaged with in his ephemeral fugues. They were lured into this engagement, perhaps, by putting on the headphones, allowing the familiarity of contemporary technology to transport them to another place, where they—like the boy in the attic with the musical cottage, or the chorister witnessing the organist’s fingers move between stops and keys—were helped to see art from the three-dimensional inside, and could not resist manipulations of their own.

the one familiar phrase
building in the air
like a cathedral
hanging in a cathedral.




[1] The poem was first published in Familiars (Peterloo, 1983) and subsequently included in two further collections by Philip Gross: The Ice Factory (Faber, 1984) and Changes of Address: Poems 1980–1998 (Bloodaxe, 2002).

[2] We acknowledge, of course, that Homer is not a unitary identity but the name given to the idea of an author. See James I Porter 2004, “Homer: The history of an idea”, in Robert Fowler (ed.), for a full discussion of this point. 

[3] This is the denotation used most often in environmental and geological studies, but we too find it compelling as a logic of research, given our concern to contribute to the problem of understanding the sources, for creative practitioners, of their ideas and the artefacts they create.

[4] Bolter and Grusin use the term “weave” only once in their 1999 volume, but they frequently use synonyms, such as “link”, “connect”, “combine”.

[5] This poem is available on the website of the University of Canberra’s International Poetry Studies Institute,

[6] In fact, it emerges twice from this period: first because it remediates a song presented in a 1959 movie, and next because the poem was written in 1983, and published in 1984. Digital typesetting and printing as we now know them date from the mid 1980s, so although the printers of his book would almost certainly have used computer-supported layout and typesetting, it would be some time before fully digitized book production was widely in use.

[7] This work of course focuses more on technologies of reading and meaning-making than remediation or art-making, but his account of the interrelationships of the dominant, residual and emergent in cultures is useful for our thinking.

[8] We made a bagful of these Moebius strip poems, and encouraged gallery visitors to take them away as souvenirs of the exhibition: partly because they were small and transportable, and partly because the shape of the items acted as reminders—remediations—of the logic of the installation: the endless spiraling of desire/music/art; the impossibility of securing it in one place.



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Paul Munden is a poet and Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Canberra, where he is also Program Manager for the International Poetry Studies Institute (IPSI). He is Director of NAWE and author of Beyond the Benchmark: Creative writing in higher education (HEA 2013). His book of new and selected poems, Analogue/Digital, was published by Smith|Doorstop in 2015, and a new collection, Fugue, will be published by UWAP in 2017. 

Jen Webb is a poet and maker of artist books. She is also Distinguished Professor of Creative Practice, and Director of the Centre for Creative and Cultural Research at the University of Canberra. Her current research includes an investigation of poetry and creative excellence, and an analysis of vocational outcomes for creative arts graduates. Recent publications include: the poetry chapbook Stolen Stories, Borrowed Lines (Mark Time Publishers); Researching Creative Writing (Frontinus Press); and Art and Human Rights: Contemporary Asian Contexts (Manchester UP).