Eric Rettberg

Postdoctoral Preceptor, University of Virginia

My dissertation, “Ridiculous Modernism: Nonsense and the New in Literature Since 1900,” focused at once on the charge that modernism represented nonsense and on instances of poetic language in modernism that approach nonsense—including work by Hugo Ball, Gertrude Stein, and Bob Brown.

My immediate interest in sound emerges from that research. I’d noticed that most digital humanities “big data” approaches had focused on content-level search, and I became interested in what digital humanities “big data” approaches can do with messier forms of language and data. My big example here is Hugo Ball’s dada sound poem “Karawane”—what can the digital humanities say about a poem that intentionally tries not to mean and whose primary ontology is in sound rather than in writing?

I’ve proposed a few projects in relation to HiPSTAS. The first has to do with poems like “Karawane”—I’ve become interested in just how nonsensical most nonsensical language actually is, and I’m wondering if the HiPSTAS tools might help me figure out which types of language “Karawane” sounds like.

Second, I’m interested in how this kind of approach relates to a longer history of English prosody. In 1948’s Theory of Literature, Rene Wellek and Austin Warren talked about “acoustic metrics” “based on objective investigations …which allows the recording and even the photographing of the actual events in the reading of poetry.” For the most part, however, such experiments failed, and in prosody we’re still mostly stuck with George Saintsbury’s “stress-unstress” notation for prosody. I’m interested in figuring out how the HiPSTAS tools might help revive the study of poetic sound as an actual phenomenon, not just as an abstracted ideal.

Finally, I’m hoping to consider how the HiPSTAS tools can help us rethink the relationship between poems in the ear and poems on the page. I’m in the very early stages of a book project I’m calling Vision and Resonance in the Digital Humanities, which investigates how computers can help us think through visual and sonic poetic materiality (it borrows its title from John Hollander’s Vision and Resonance, which tries to think about similar issues before digital methods).

As much as anything, though, I’m excited for the conversations we’ll have at HiPSTAS toward new vocabulary for thinking through the recorded sound of poetry.

In the weeks ahead, I’ll be blogging some preliminary thoughts about poetic sound and the HiPSTAS tools at

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