Sep 11 2023
WILD TRACK: John Lucas admires Sean Street’s eloquent exploration of possible responses to birdsong – from the poet’s to the sound engineer’s
Wild Track Sean Street Bloomsbury Academic, 2023 ISBN HB 978-1-5103-9794-3, ePDF 978-1-5103-9796-7 eBook 978-1-5103-9795-0
This is a marvellously good book. In the Prelude, Sean Street tells us that Wild Track ‘is entirely about listening as an active occupation: conscious listening, awareness, attention to sounds under sounds, all the noises and murmurs of the shouting and whispering world.’ Well, up to a point, Lord Copper. But the noises and murmurs to which Street pays most attention are those loosely called birdsong, and Wild Track comprises among other matters a kind of unofficial history of how poets have tried to register such song, from ancient Greek to present times, from Hesiod to Jeremy Hooker.
I had, as it happens, come across the term Wildtrack before. In 1965 John Wain gave me a copy of his then newly published long poem, and in response to my puzzled glance at the title he explained that a wildtrack was the term given by film directors and technicians to sounds recorded during production – squeal of tyres, guns being fired, doors slammed shut – but not necessarily to be included in the final cut. John’s long poem was intended to register the words of people who had been edited out from official histories of modern times, especially the millions murdered under Stalin. A worthy ambition, though sad to say the result was a kind of Picture Post account of shuffling peasants, starving villagers, and choric voices recruited from Blok’s The Twelve. At best a charivari of 1066 And All That for modern times. In absolute contrast, the songs in Street’s book are wide-ranging, both historically and geographically, exact rather than bogus or ersatz, and are accompanied, and articulated, by the insistence on listening which the author, himself a good, much-published poet, exhibits throughout.
Street is also someone with a life-long knowledge of radio who has regularly made or edited broadcast programmes featuring sound, and he has an intimate knowledge of how recording methods began – with Edison in 1889 – and have grown to their present sophistication. At one point he reports that in his own back garden and with the aid of a Tascam digital recorder, ‘At around eleven this morning I captured, within less than a minute, the songs of Greenfinch, Chaffinch, Bullfinch, Robin and Willow Warbler.’ I don’t suppose many of us could have identified all those songs, but it should be said that the morning in question was one in March, 2020, when the post-Covid lockdown was in operation, and a time when many of us will recall that birdsong became, quite suddenly, and almost overwhelmingly, a powerful, uplifting presence. I can remember walking down a road of the outer suburb of Nottingham where I live and being astounded by what felt to be birdsong taking possession of the circumambient air. It was as though the birds had newly arrived in the world and were celebrating the fact that they were now in charge.
Soon enough, of course, that came to an end. The skies were re-filled with the sounds of traffic, of aeroplanes overhead, of all the noises of our busy, peopled world. All the noises, that is, but for bird song. That was now once again pushed into the margins as the anthems, plaintive or joyous, faded away. Street quotes from the opening of Rachel Carson’s great work, Silent Spring, and its foreboding of ‘a spring without voices.’ The voices of birds were here again for those few weeks in Spring, 2020, and paying attention to them, or their equivalents, is what Street’s book records – in various senses — and celebrates. Hence, the chapter he devotes to Ludwig Koch (1811-1974). Koch deserves an especially honoured place in any history of sound recording, partly for his innovative Sound Books, which began to be issued in the earlier part of the 20th century, and were bought in their thousands by people wanting to engage with the new world of recorded sound, especially sounds of and from the natural world. But there is also the fact that this brilliant, obsessed German Jew brought to radio and gramophone recordings new ways to encourage public appreciation of the multisonic world we live in. That the BBC took on this fugitive from Hitler’s killer thugs is one of the great, good moments of 20th century history. That Koch, an as-good-as illegal immigrant, was saved from the extermination camps (are you listening Lee Anderson, Priti Patel, Suella Braverman) owed much to the development of sound radio to the point where it became, as it still is, an essential part of our culture, an interpretive means of understanding the world we all must share. Koch was foremost among those who developed techniques for recording outside broadcasts, and because of this he was invited to travel to various European countries in the later 1930s where he showed off examples of what he called his Soundbooks. As a result he learned in Switzerland that the Nazis were after him – he had made some incautious remarks about Goebbels – and so fled to England. I remember as a small boy hunched by the radio in order to hear programmes in which Koch would talk about and play examples of his recordings of a variety of birdsong, and how thrilling it was to hear such sounds, though it was only post-war that I first heard one of the most famous of all of these: Koch’s recording of RAF bombers as they set off on a night raid over Germany, the planes’ drone and rumbling roar interthreaded with the song of a nightingale that may, just may, have been singing in Berkeley Square.
By then outside broadcasts had become, if not commonplace then at least far from unusual. It was very different when, getting on for twenty years earlier, on 19th May 1924 to be precise, the cellist Beatrice Harrison, took her instrument out into her London garden one evening and played while a nightingale sang in accompaniment. ‘I think he liked [RimskyKorsakov’s] Chant Hindou best for he blended with it so perfectly,’ Harrison recalled, ‘I shall never forget his voice that night, his trills, nor the way he followed the ’cello so blissfully.’ Whether BBC sound engineers managed to record the sound of the two musicians is a story that Street tells so compellingly that it would be reason alone for wanting to read Wild Track, but there are many others.
There is, for example, a superb chapter, ‘Paths Through the Green Wood’, which has much to say, all of it fascinating, about how and why poets through the ages have wanted to ‘capture’ or recover or imitate bird song, and not merely song but action. Street quotes from Titus Andronicus by way of noting that ‘the sounds and actions of the natural environment belong to all life across time, and while we may make metaphors, at the end, we are all, even subconsciously, straining for sounds we either understand or do not …. we hear in terms of beauty or fear, beneficent gifts or potential threat.’ And reading those words I think of Elizabeth Bishop’s great poem, ‘Roosters,’ that hugely witty, excoriating account of those who think of themselves as cocks of the walk, generals in their glittering finery, but who are at length thrown onto the dung heap.
Street writes about American poets in the chapter ‘North American Sublime’, and although Bishop doesn’t feature there, Emily Dickinson does, and, as we might expect, he discusses her work with great sensitivity, noting her ‘knowledge of both natural history, and her precise eye and ear,’ and bringing out her exact account of such birds as the hummingbird and bobolink, before remarking that ‘her emotional responses had the capacity to absorb the tiniest visual and auditory clues around her, and interpret them in a totally unique way.’
Reading this chapter and the equally informed, penetrative account of John Clare (in the chapter ‘Honest John: the Sound World of John Clare’), I want to say that anyone the slightest bit interested in poetry should make it their prime responsibility to read Wild Track. And then I think of the wasteland of the past thirty or so years as far as writing about literature is concerned, years dominated by the attention-grabbing semi-illiterates of critical theory who can scarcely get through a single turgid sentence without genuflecting to the shibboleths of Derrida (who could at least write), or Lacan (who couldn’t), and their numerous epigoni, self-proclaimed ‘rigorous enquirers’ who between them acted as though sent to destroy any interest in or love for creative achievement. Don’t read them, I want to say to any student (of any age) interested in knowing about good and great writers. Go to the writers themselves, and if you want commentary that genuinely illuminates their work, then read such books as Wild Track.
But there’s the problem. Yes, Sean Street’s book is wonderfully entertaining, informative, well-written, a must for anyone at all interested in its subject.
But it costs NINETY POUNDS. Rub your eyes if you will but you haven’t misread. NINETY POUNDS. How on earth can students or, for that matter the general reader, be expected to pay NINETY POUNDS for a book that common sense, common decency, suggests should be available for a third of that price at most. Don’t Bloomsbury want the book to be available to the kind of reader most likely to benefit from it? It seems to me nothing short of disgraceful that Street’s publishers should have done their damnedest to as good as put his book on a list of proscribed texts. What to do? March on London’s Bedford Square and stone Bloomsbury’s premises? Or photocopy and sell pirated editions at the cheapest possible price? Whatever, find some way to get hold of a copy of Wild Track. You won’t regret it.