Sonic Poetics: Sound, Listening and Polyphony in the Work of M. NourbeSe Philip and Sean Bonney

Simon Pomery

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis


I give the name ‘sonic poetics’ to my study of sound and listening as each operates in the reading of a poem. This thesis gives case studies of two contemporary poets in order to test out sonic poetics: M. NourbeSe Philip (b.1947) and the late Sean Bonney (1969-2019). My analysis balances Philip’s polyphonic use of voices lost in the Zong massacre (1781) with Bonney’s developments in representing listening in the avant garde tradition. I address Philip’s wider cultural influences and show how they inform Zong! While the influence of music on Bonney has been acknowledged, I centralise key acts of listening within his poetics. How is sound presented in these poetries and how
does this inform our own listening within poetry? I frame sonic poetics for our contemporary moment, contextualising Zong! within a tradition that includes Édouard Glissant’s Poetics of Relation, Amiri Baraka’s writing about Black music, and Harryette Mullen’s theory of spirit writing. Philip appropriates the text of the ‘Gregson v Gilbert’ case as a structural foundation in order to elegise the lives, and languages, of murdered Africans. In the first half of my thesis I analyse Philip’s polyphony in the representation of imagined voices. Then I give readings of what I term Sean Bonney’s ‘sound spectrum’, analysing moments of temporary individual autonomy within dominant cultures, and tracing an avant garde tradition from Baudelaire, Rimbaud, and
Lautréamont in poetry, to Pierre Shaeffer, Iannis Xenakis and François J. Bonnet’s concept of ‘desiring-listening’ in Sound Studies. I show how each discipline can inform and learn from the other. Both Philip and Bonney engage in the practice of ‘desiring-listening’. However, Philip’s polyphony is multi-lingual and explodes and re -assembles words into fragmentary minkisi, or African ‘visionary objects’, that work to imagine sound and listening in the slave ship Zong, while Bonney’s lyric voice speaks of sonorous spaces through ‘apophenic objects’. I give close readings of both poets to show how through a consideration of the inner the ear, poetry can resist dominant
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Royal Holloway, University of London
  • Montgomery, Will, Supervisor
  • Hampson, Robert, Supervisor
  • Olsen, Redell, Advisor
Award date1 Sept 2022
Publication statusUnpublished - 21 Oct 2021


  • Poetics
  • sound
  • sonic
  • apophenia
  • desiring-listening
  • antifascism
  • Black Radical Tradition
  • spirit writing
  • minkisi
  • sound spectrum
  • polyphony
  • Xenakis
  • M. NourbeSe Philip
  • Sean Bonney
  • Francois J Bonnet
  • Blood Music
  • block poem
  • block poetry
  • fragments
  • silence
  • noise
  • black noise
  • Black Quantum Futurism
  • Afropessimism
  • Franz Fanon
  • Baudelaire
  • Rimbaud
  • The deregulation of the senses
  • Pierre Shaeffer
  • Zong!
  • Amiri Baraka
  • Édouard Glissant
  • poetics of relation
  • London
  • Berlin
  • Microsound
  • Schwartz, Hillel
  • Reverberations
  • Formant peaks
  • Frequency
  • Black Marxism
  • Cedric J. Robinson
  • Pasolini, Pier Paolo
  • African Traditional Religion
  • Hackney
  • Katerina Gogou
  • Nielsen, Aldon Lynn
  • Black Chant
  • minorities
  • class
  • British working class
  • Anarchism
  • Fred Moten
  • Will Montgomery
  • Robert Hampson
  • Marriott, David
  • Lorde, Audre
  • drumming
  • drum
  • drumvoices
  • strings
  • no borders
  • open borders
  • A Dying Colonialism
  • The Wretched of the Earth,
  • the death drive
  • Vulnerability
  • DuBois, W.E.B.
  • Aimé Cesaire
  • performance
  • sonic poetics in performance
  • resonance
  • a theory of resonance
  • Dimock, Wai Chee
  • riot
  • Exarchia
  • free jazz
  • improv
  • improvisation
  • Decolonisation
  • Literature of Decolonisation
  • Tony Conrad
  • apophenic object
  • sound object
  • scream
  • screaming
  • inaudible
  • the inaudible
  • capitalism
  • feminism
  • the commons
  • Attali, Jacques
  • Arom, Simha
  • African music
  • Hölderlin
  • parataxis
  • praxis
  • Sun Ra
  • John Coltrane
  • Bob Cobbing
  • Charles Olson
  • The Fall
  • Mark E. Smith
  • Joy Division
  • Ian Curtis
  • Thomas Tallis
  • Nathaniel Mackey
  • Timothy Thornton
  • David Grundy
  • Forensic Architecture
  • Tories
  • Conservatives
  • death
  • law
  • logic
  • love

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