Bob Cobbing: ABC in Sound
Exhibition Research Centre, Liverpool
9 October - 22 November 2013
Curated by William Cobbing and Rosie Cooper
Review by Benedict Clarke
‘ABC in Sound’, a recording of the epic sound poem of Bob Cobbing, booms across the gallery floor. Cobbing steals the alphabet, elongating it with guttural associations that warp the surface of the spoken word. The recording is more a visitation than a recital. Hearing Cobbing chant his way along the alphabet, it is as if poetry becomes a medium for drawing language back to its origin in myth and ritual, rescuing it from its communicative function in everyday speech. In a Zurich nightclub during the First World War, the Dada poet and mystic Hugo Ball dressed up as a magic bishop and performed his now notorious poem ‘Gadji Beri Bimba’ to perplexed faces. It has been said that Cobbing never strayed far from the Cabaret Voltaire in his work, and it is the formal influence of Ball’s sound poetry which he insistently brings to bear upon the English language, by way of experimental recordings and impromptu art group performances.
His journey into sound was not at all confined to the English language - just look at the bookshelf he owned, with its compendium of foreign dictionaries. An esoteric collector, his work absorbs strange words and fragments, refashioning them in sound with his cavernous voice. This refashioning spills out into his experimentation with the printing press, producing visual works which play with obscured text through the synthetic arrangement of the word and image upon the page. Some of this print work shares a correspondence with the concrete poetry of Edwin Morgan, a contemporary of Cobbing - most notably ‘Square Poem’ which contains 12 variations upon the sentence ‘this is a square poem’. Yet it is perhaps the way in which Cobbing systematically collapses a distinction between the visual arts and poetry that he departs from many of his contemporaries in concrete poetry.
While the exhibition shows a wide selection of creative work undertaken throughout Cobbing’s life, it just as significantly gives an insight into experimental art circles that came to the fore in post-war London. Cobbing, in many respects, was a man of letters, whose resourcefulness brought many practicing artists in the city together. His capacity for organisation led him to play a formative role in various North London arts groups, managing the tremendously important bookstore Better Books on the Charing Cross Road, setting up the Writers Forum, and serving on the council of the Poetry Society during the so-called ‘poetry wars’ of the 1970s. He was the first to bring the poetry of Allen Ginsberg to the country, and later performed alongside him at a charged sound poetry reading in the Royal Albert Hall. The exhibition ‘ABC in Sound’ (open weekdays) is a unique event, and for those interested in experimental poetry, a chance to engage with one of its foremost practitioners.