On YouTube you can watch clips of John Giorno talking his work. There’s a longer one made by Rirkrit Tiravanija and filmed in JG’s studio where he’s talking hands-free and bouncing lightly on his soles—“everyone gets lighter in the end”—and his hands twitch out in a language of their own or join his to convey unvoiced details in the poem, pointing like he might do in friendly conversation, or gesturing an image. In a part where he describes the body as a kind of private jet his palmed hands flatten out to form a sea of clouds, then he brings his fists together to mime the mind as an iron nail. His knees cushion his body, and his thoughts, and then his hands flick out again as he continues along the line of words, pausing at times to replay a part, to mark it or maybe regain his balance; though the objective if anything seems more towardss trusting a kind of imbalance between words and their sounds, or between language and life itself: life recounted in memory or its opposite in unsettling apparitions that descend whenever we remember our own imprecise future. In the poem “Berlin and Chernobyl” a curved flick of the left arm and hand adds an impression of John running with William Burroughs along a Berlin street to their hotel so they can duck out of a particularly dark shower of rain, as forecast in the poem’s title.
JG’s performed poetry embodies so humanly the influence of all those people he knew, got high and danced with, fell in love or just in with, or ran with through life’s deadly rain. Some were the famous artists of his time, others are people like you and me who, who knows, he may have brushed anonymous shoulders with in shops or on the buses; in the waiting room at the health center or from the other end of the same café table where we might even have exchanged a few words—to ask if I could pass the Tabasco or the salt—and in which case the action of his body and the sound of his voice surely meant that we were right then also receiving a part of a work of John Giorno. Thank you John, I keep it with mine, as they say. From the beginning, even asleep, famously asleep, or while working as a stockbroker or an activist and fundraiser, John’s voice and body has been the essential material of his work: a material that responds emotionally in itself to experiences and things just as much as it might be used to shape or recall them.
John’s transatlantic friendship with the French poet Bernard Heidsieck seems particularly helpful to this idea of a work taking the almost bare form of walking across a room, picking up a phone and talking to someone else. In the mid 1950s Heidsieck used the term “Poésie Sonore” for the voiced expression of vocal sounds, with or without language. By the 1960s he preferred “Poésie Action,” and a poetry in which movements and presence, including the presence of technology, are equal components of a speaking body. There are clips of Heidsieck performing his poems, walking and gesturing, eyes alert, posture shifting, silent for a while then talking in the manner of a public announcement, then voicing outwardly what seems more like a very privately inner monologue, or reads a poem in a disjointed and re-embodied duet with a recorded reading of the same text. If it has to be named—it wouldn’t today —a poetry of action is better. Heidsieck describes how a text should be allowed to present itself as a living and immediate thing, an unpredictable thing. A physical texture of breath, movements of the body, constantly renewed inflections of the voice, even the general clutter of the space in which a body happens.
JG has spoken about the impact William Burroughs and Brion Gysin had on his work after meeting them in 1964, during one of their visits to New York from France or North Africa. John was working with found texts, sourcing a poem directly from the pages of the New York Times or from signage, graffiti, and advertising on the street or in subway stations and used this approach to write a poem called “Subway.” Gysin suggested including ambient sounds recorded in the same places and John performed the poem to a looped soundtrack of field recordings from the New York subway. Gysin then sent a recording of this work to Bernard Heidsieck and it was included in the 1965 Paris Biennale.
These are friendships and events that act as a catalyst for JG’s unrestrained interests in channeling poetry through the media of ordinary life; to be heard on the radio or vinyl recordings, after setting up the Giorno Poetry Systems production company and the revolutionary Dial-A-Poem telephone poetry service. Yet John’s instinct for language always situates the immediate present as part of an ancient trajectory. As a long-term practitioner of the Nyingma (Old School) tradition of Tibetan Buddhism’s chanting, breathing lineage of teachings, his interest in the sound of language seems to come from here rather than from more recent distinctions made on behalf of a sound poetry: “I’d use my breath in a way that has to do with sound, and in my mind, the words would form in breath and through the vocal chords became sounds. When I’m writing verses, as they come to my mind, I think about what they sound like.” Words come from sound; sound comes from wisdom; and wisdom comes from emptiness (as he says in the poem “Welcoming the Flowers”).
Unsurprisingly, the form of his poems has been compared to the Sadhana, a kind of tantric meditation involving the chanting of a mantra. In post-Vedic literature, the term refers to a ceremonial sequence of performative utterances intended as symbolic offerings to the ritual fire of the divine Agni, a messenger of the gods. Vedic oral tradition, possibly the world’s oldest, consists of several pathas: ways of chanting Vedic mantras that can take a variety of forms. Wayne Howard, a scholar of Vedantic recitation describes the four Vedas (Rig, Yajur, Sama, and Atharva) as tonally accented verses: “Hypnotic, abstruse melodies whose proper realizations demand oral transmission. Their essence is lost in print, without the nuances and intonations.” The texts require very different ways of recitation. Pada-patha, for example, involves a conscious pause after every word. In Vedantic literature language can form closer links be-tween the mind and the meanings and values of a physical world. Following a belief that all of cosmic creation began with sound, the sound of language, the speech act itself, is a spiritual tool.
PAUL ELLIMAN is an artist based in London.