Friday, February 28, 2003
Jason Earls asks some questions. I’ll offer some responses (if not exactly answers) below.
I have a question concerning found poems. Not too long ago I saw a program about the mathematician John Nash called "The American Experience: A Beautiful Madness" and for a few moments they flashed some of Nash's (I assume unpublished) postcards across the screen, and on one of them he had written the phrase: "Consider Beautiful Buddhist number 22*Pi + 4*e which is a little less than 80" and then another postcard flashed across the screen with the words: "revenge (justice(mercy(" and some mathematical formulae. Well, seeing that inspired me to write a weird poem. I computed the number he mentioned and imbedded some of his words and my own words within the decimal expansion (the formatting will probably be distorted by the time it reaches you)--
Beautiful Buddhist Number
22*Pi + 4*exp(1) =
Then I thought, If I were to publish this, would it be considered plagiarism? What do you think? Should the author cite the source for a "poem" like the above?
Awhile back in your blog you did a close reading of John Ashbery. This led me to read more of Ashbery's work. After a while I ended up reading Michael Leddy's article "Lives and Art: John Ashbery and Henry Darger" in Jacket 17. Then, I became very interested in Henry Darger and other "Outsider" artists and read everything I could find on them. Do you know of any poets who would be considered outsider artists equivalent to Darger?
One more thing. In The Collected Books of Jack Spicer, p. 380 it says "*Book of Magazine Verse - Poem 1 of "Two poems for the Nation" and Poem 2 of "Six poems for Poetry Chicago" are the same. This curious duplication seems to have been an instance of word for word dictation of the same poem some days apart." That is very hard for me to believe. Do you think it's true?
1) Plagiarism is a wobbly concept at best. In one of her early books, either Studying Hunger or Memory, probably the latter, Bernadette Mayer quotes an entire Jerome Rothenberg poem – sans linebreaks if I recall correctly – as an instance of what she’s reading. I remember asking Jerry about that at the time and he was fine with it, saying something like it “it’s not the same poem when it’s in her work.” A poet like Jackson Mac Low, for example, always has notes that detail his sources, perceptible or otherwise. I don’t sense that your number above is precisely what Nash had in mind, even if the math of it proves identical. Rachel Blau DuPlessis wants me to write a note here about the underworld of other artists who have utilized the Fibonacci number sequence in their works, such as sculptor Mario Merz or composer William Duckworth. The strangest in this regard for me is a Danish poet by the name of Inger Christensen, who in 1981 published a short booklength poem based on Fibonacci entitled Alfabet. Tjanting, my own work utilizing Fibonacci, was completed in 1980, after which I turned my attention to composing The Alphabet*. I didn’t know about Christensen until I picked up the Susanna Nied translation, which wasn’t published until 2000.**
2) It depends mostly on how you define “outsider.” At
one level, all poets – even James Merrill (of the Merrill Lynch etc clan) – are
invariably outsiders, just because we write. But Darger was an escapee from a
“home for the feeble minded” who held the same janitorial job for many decades,
spending much of his time at mass when he wasn’t producing his works – the
novel is apparently every bit as strange as his watercolor illustrations for
it. There certainly are a lot of poets who live/lived on the edge, either
psychologically, socially or economically – Emily Dickinson, Hannah Weiner,
John Wieners, Frank Kuenstler, Peter Seaton, Bob Kaufman, Jack Hirschman, even
Charles Bukowski or Julia Vinograd come immediately to mind. Besmilr
Brigham, whom I’ve written about here, was something of a nomad,
considering that she was a journalist with a family, drifting between
3) Again, it depends on what you mean by “true” and “dictation.” If my memory serves me in this – I have no way of checking – the original Book of Magazine Verse published shortly after Spicer’s death omitted the terminal period from the second of the two poems. I recall being surprised at finding it in the Collected. Even if they are identical as texts, I think that Spicer is making a Heraclitian point about the same poem not being that if it should occur in two different contexts. Viz. my discussion of “Engines” on Monday. That poem is a part of The Alphabet, except when it isn’t.
* Only Lit utilizes Fibonacci in The Alphabet, and then only in part. Everything in Lit is based on the number 12.
** Even more curious, I later discovered that a linguist I know spent part of her years growing up as Christensen’s next door neighbor.