You can’t communicate noise. Noise never stopped for one moment—ever.
—Graves (1971: 86)
Robert Graves’s inability to communicate noise does two things at once: it indicates the problem of representing the conditions of noise on the Western Front during the First World War while at the same time presenting noise as a special kind of knowledge that combatants experienced. The very fugitivity of noise—and its implicit sensory cost on the body and psyche—undergirds the authority of the soldier to depict life and death at the front. During the First World War, the experience of noise became a limit case for the senses, and combatant poets are both ear-witnesses for and exemplary sufferers of this experience. In this sense, reporting or relaying noise fits into the truth-telling that Wilfred Owen famously argues for in one of the first statements of a poetics of witness in the twentieth century:
Above all I am not concerned with Poetry.
My subject is War, and the pity of War.
The Poetry is in the pity. …
All a poet can do today is warn. That is why the true Poets must be truthful.
(Owen 1985: 192)
Owen inaugurates a position in which poetry becomes a mechanism for truth and warning. The poet’s report on experience can create co-feeling as opposed to the indifferent forces of “Poetry” with a capital “P.” Truth-telling resists a poetry that led to, and participated in, the destruction wrought by the First World War.
In this chapter, I want to examine the ways in which those who experienced noise at the front translated—carried over—that noise from experience to text, from sensory world to poetic form. Rather than suggesting that only certain poets and memoirists have a special access to a specific truth about the experience
of war, a “combat gnosticism” that could directly express the truth, I want to describe the work of a variety of poets and writers at the front who used the impersonal mechanics of verse form to register the fact of noise. This is done not by directly communicating or reproducing noise so much as communicating its effects to create a space of empathic response. As an experience of sounds at the limits of human sensory, cognitive, and emotional capacities, noise indexes failure in language, sound form, and figuration. It also remains a site of potential connection in the midst of communication breakdown.
Soldier poets like Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, and Isaac Rosenberg, as well as noncombatant poets like Mary Borden, do not use verse as a transparent medium of reportage nor as a symbol of an achieved tradition. Rather, they revalue the mechanisms of poetic form that can both verse and reverse noise. That is, they improvise metrical, rhythmic, and phonemic orders against the noise engendered by the chaotic totality of trench warfare while at the same time emphasizing the disfiguring effects of noise on the poetic organization of language. In this sense, the disfigurability of noise remains a constant “tactical” recourse for poets with a “profound suspicion of claims to represent the totality of battle, or to show the spectacle of modern warfare” (Deer 2009: 28). Ultimately, these writers refuse the creation of a comprehensive “voice” for communicating a fixed meaning or experience of the war. They reject the given means for figuring and enacting voice that they inherited from a broad nineteenth-century metrical and lyrical tradition. They embrace incommunicability, breakage, and muteness even as they continue to sound out poems against and within the noise.
Soldiers and civilians had to improvise new orders of experience in the midst of the war’s unprecedented concentration of human bodies, industrial machinery, and destructive weaponry. After only a few months of combat, an ideal war of quick and easy victories taking place on fixed and delimited battlefields gave way to the reality of a defensive war of attrition in a vastly expanded zone of combat, a war zone. The trench “system” of the First World War was a 400-mile-long conglomeration of holes, ditches, and underground shelters stretching through France from the North Sea to Switzerland (Keegan 1976: 310). Soldiers dug into the ground in order to defend themselves from the rapid fire of machine guns
and the explosions of heavy artillery. In light barrages, about half a dozen shells fell on a company sector (about 300 yards) every ten minutes. During heavier bombardments, thirty shells or more would land every minute (Ellis 1989: 62). A transformation from battlefield to war zone meant an expansion of the “front” of battle not only along the ground surface but also below ground and, with the advent of planes, in the air.
In this zone, “the link between sight, space, and danger” was broken (Das 2006: 80), and combatants and noncombatants alike had to adapt to a world where nonvisual senses—especially sound, smell, and touch—took on new importance. As Patrick Deer writes, “in the anti-landscapes of the trenches, seeing, in the traditional sense, has become defamiliarized, uncoupled from perception and emotion” (2009: 21). Here, a new “geography of senses” came into being: the Front created a phenomenology in which the body became a site of constant haptic awareness, where the relative denigration of sight created a new set of responses to touch imagined not simply as what one does with one’s fingers but as a “sense spread all over the body that helps in the perception of space” (Das 2006: 73). In the closed-in world of the front, sound also became a kind of touch. Subjectivity transformed into an intensified and concentrated version of what Steven Connor calls the “modern auditory I:” an ego “defined in terms of hearing rather than sight, … imaged not as a point, but as a membrane; not as a picture, but as a channel through which voices, noises, and musics travel” (Connor 1997: 207). This stretched and sensitive membrane of the self becomes exposed and frail in a place where listeners perceive “every sound as physical collision and possible annihilation” (Das 2006: 81).
With their sense of space, safety, and self-awareness called radically into question, those at the front had to create new orders of meaning and narrative in conditions of utter passivity. Sound, in particular, took on new importance for combatants and non-combatants who had to listen closely in order to understand their surroundings. A passage from the French soldier Henri Barbusse’s memoir novel, Under Fire, shows this mechanism at work:
A dull crackle makes itself audible amidst the babel of noise. That slow rattle is of all the sounds of war the one that most quickens the heart.
The coffee-mill! [Military slang for machine-gun] One of ours, listen. The shots come regularly, while the Boches’ haven’t got the same length of time between the shots; they go crack—crack-crack-crack—crack-crack—crack—
Don’t cod yourself, crack-pate; it isn’t an unsewing-machine at all; it’s a motor-cycle on the road to 31 dug-out, away yonder.
“Well, I think it’s a chap up aloft there, having a look round from his broomstick,” chuckles Pepin, as he raises his nose and sweeps the firmament in search of an aeroplane.
A discussion arises, but one cannot say what the noise is, and that’s all. One tries in vain to become familiar with all those diverse disturbances. It even happened the other day in the wood that a whole section mistook for the hoarse howl of s hell the first notes of a neighboring mule as he began his whinnying bray.
(Barbusse 1917: 217)
In the effort to “become familiar with all those diverse disturbances,” those on the front became experts in categorizing and locating the different sounds of ordnance and gunfire. Listeners learned to identify the type of shell and gauge their relative danger.1
They also could transform these sounds into an ironic music:
A German shell came over and then whoo—oo—ooo-oooOOO—bump—CRASH! Landed twenty yards short of us. We threw ourselves flat on our faces. Presently we heard a curious singing noise in the air, and then flop! flop! little pieces of shell-casing came buzzing down all around. “They calls them the musical instruments,” said the sergeant. … Another shell came over. Everyone threw himself down again, but it burst two hundred yards behind us. Only Sergeant Jones had remained on his feet “You’re wasting your strength, lads” he said to the draft. “Listen by the noise they make where they’re going to burst.”
(Graves 1981 : 90)
This is a classic trope of war experience: the ability to hear in a way that can parse the ambiguous and ever-present noise of war in order to manifest a sense of safety and control. Shells become “musical instruments” and undifferentiated noise—the “babel of noise” in Barbusse’s words—gives way to knowledge.
In his book on listening in wartime Iraq, Martin Daughtry discusses four zones of “belliphonic” audition: they range from the distant zone of the “inaudible-audible” to the ever-closer “narrational,” “tactical,” and “trauma” zones (2015: 77). In the zone of the “inaudible-audible,” experienced soldiers have learned to shut out the sounds of war by recognizing which sounds demand attention and reaction and which sounds are merely in the background. War is not all noise but a differentiated set of possible reactions to sound in the midst of varying degrees of distance, danger, and attention. Noise comes to represent not the particular belliphonic
sounds of war but a complex set of relationships to randomness, violence, and unknowability. For the writers of the Western Front, figures of onomatopoeia, figures of indexing or referencing, and figures of ambiguous yet threatening presence model these relationships to the unknown and reproduce noise’s effects in the body of the poem. Noise becomes the other of identification, a movement of sound between and outside of organizing zones of audition.
Barbusse moves through these figures in another description of noise from Under Fire:
Crack! Crack! Boom!—rifle fire and cannonade. Above us and all around, it crackles and rolls, in long gusts or separate explosions. The flaming and melancholy storm never, never ends. For more than fifteen months, for five hundred days in this part of the world where we are, the rifles and the big guns have gone on from morning to night and from night to morning. We are buried deep in an everlasting battlefield; but like the ticking of the clocks at home in the days gone by—in the now almost legendary past—you only hear the noise when you listen.
(Barbusse 1917: 6)
As with the passage from Graves above, there is a movement between a mimesis of sound in language and the naming of the sound emitters, “rifles and big guns,” but the author also develops the metaphor of a “melancholy storm [that] never, never ends.” Noise takes on an expanded temporality: it is endless and, though the rifles and guns are named, it becomes detached from its various causes and takes on a life of its own.
Many descriptions of the noise at the front use a complex of rhetorical effects that attempt to speak noise’s contradictory presence and absence. In particular, comparisons to nature—storms, hurricanes—become a common trope. Ear-witnesses attest to the wild and topsy-turvy nature of storms. At times, this takes on a surreal, supernatural quality:
And it did not move. It hung over us. … And the supernatural tumult did not pass in this direction or in that. It did not begin, intensify, decline and end. It was poised in the air, a stationary panorama of sound, a condition of the atmosphere, not the creation of man.
(quoted in Ellis 1989: 63)
This anonymous NCO of the 22nd Manchester Rifles detaches noise from cause: the “supernatural tumult” exists on its own. The seeming stasis and inescapability of noise compares with a supreme nature perceived as a vast, unknowable, and random totality in which a body remains small, disoriented, and exposed.
The endless, nameless, and autonomous “super-natural tumult” becomes deeply involved in the poetics of listening at the front. As the “roaring chaos of the barrage effected a kind of hypnotic condition that shattered any rational pattern of cause and effect,” those at the front developed an improvisatory poetics of counteraction and even “magical reversals” (Leed 1979: 129). Where the listening membrane is in danger of rupture, it no longer focuses on particular identifications and narratives. Where listening for a particular sign gives way to the constant, overwhelming possibility of death, noise becomes an anti-figure or blank space to be filled in by little, irrational language acts that contend with such noise on the level of the individual psyche and an embodied sense of space.
Those under bombardment had to work to maintain the limits between meaningful sound and noise in order to maintain their sanity. A soldier reports: “Sometimes the terrible noise makes me nearly mad, and it requires a great effort to keep cool, calm and collected” (quoted in Ellis 1976: 64). Often, this “great effort” involved a return to memorized utterance—to little repetitive chants that could project a different acoustic space and time in the face of the seemingly interminable atmosphere of noise. The recitation of such incantations could act as a way of projecting oneself against (and protecting the self from) the onslaught of meaningless, unutterable noise. Prayers, mnemonics, even advertising slogans, acted as self-sustaining forms of voicing that pressed back against the terrifying sounds. Some soldiers repeated well-known Biblical verses (“I will fear no evil … no evil … I will fear no evil”) or rote recitations like a “school mnemonic for Latin adverbs, beginning ‘Ante, apud, ad, adversus …’” (Fussell 1975: 169). Siegfried Sassoon unconsciously remembered and repeated an advertisement:
They come as a boon and a blessing to men,
The Something, The Owl, and the Waverly Pen.
(Sassoon 1930: 46)
In his memoir, Sassoon emphasizes that he could not remember what that “something” was in the jingle. “Something” is nothing in particular, but it sustains the metrical movement of the couplet. It is this metrical movement that, in turn, sustains Sassoon: repeating this verse becomes for him one answer to noise’s indifferent attack on the body and senses.
For bodies inhibited and inhabited by noise’s dangers, these memorized rhythms—known by heart—enact the possibility for sound form and meter to
produce, as Susan Stewart puts it, “volition towards mastery” (2002: 67). They also remake the grounds by which attention, will, and mastery function. And yet memorized and internalized rhythms also give themselves up to a “certain exteriority of the automaton, to the laws of mnemotechnics, to that liturgy that mimes mechanics of the surface” (Derrida 2014 : 289). In other words, these moments of incantation demarcate a fragile and contingent space in which language and noise simultaneously reject and interpenetrate one another. The autonomous, detached, unrepresentable totality of noise feeds the self-affecting power of memory, prayer, and song. It is not the magic of the speech act at work here, but rather the simple mechanics of the voice. The canons, codes, and wisdom of Western life are reduced to the rumbling of the throat. The body holds itself together with a vestige of a rhythm, and “mastery” is merely the “mystery” of repetition.
Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari write an allegory of the origins of rhythm through a situation that parallels this scene of terrified poesis in the war zone:
A child in the dark, gripped with fear, comforts himself by singing under his breath. He walks and halts to his song. Lost, he takes shelter, or orients himself with his little song as best he can. The song is like a rough sketch of a calming and stabilizing, calm and stable, center in the heart of chaos. Perhaps the child skips as he sings, hastens or slows his pace. But the song itself is already a skip: it jumps from chaos to the beginnings of order in chaos and is in danger of breaking apart at any moment. There is always sonority in Ariadne’s thread. Or the song of Orpheus.