Monday, August 03, 2009
Photo by MorBCN
Is poetry written to be read? That seemingly no-brainer of a question was roiling my half-sleep in that shadowland the other morning between the first sounding of my alarm clock & the moment, 30 minutes later, when I actually dragged my poor self out of bed. The answer appears obvious & yet it’s not, at least not once you start to tease out the assumptions implicit in such a question. Perhaps even stranger, the answer may be changing even as I write.
Homer, to pick an author, even if it is one that we agree represents a construct at least as much as it does an individual, never “wrote” with the presumption of a book. The meaning of the word text in an oral culture is one of those problematic horizons that French theory loves to gaze upon without end. The much more recent poet of Beowulf was no different in this regard. Chaucer, not quite 700 years ago, seemed to envision the Tales as texts, something that might be read & passed on even after he is gone, but his conception of the book does not include moveable type, let alone mass production. Shakespeare’s utter disregard to the preservation of his plays makes clear just how marginal the concept of a book was to his own textual practice, tho it is arguable that this is less true in the case of The Sonnets.
I would suggest that the first English poets to really write with the book – and all the implications for distribution & consumption that the book entails – always already as part of the package, indeed the primary location for the life of the poem, are the likes of Wordsworth & Coleridge.¹ The distance between Lyrical Ballads and Walt Whitman’s self-published first edition of Leaves of Grass, complete with photo of the author, is less than 60 years. In another 60, you will find Ezra Pound contemplating The Cantos as a keystone to his imagined five-foot bookshelf containing the Great Works. For Pound, the first English-language poet to make use of the typewriter not just as a site for writing, but as a compositional element in the spatial construction of his works, the book is thoroughly a given. It’s unquestionable.
But what is the book with regards to poetry? Anyone who spends any time in used book shops will know that it’s hardly a static thing. The classic hardback form of the 1950s consisted of one longer poem or sequence surrounded by shorter lyrics of a page or two, a format codified in that decade by the Wesleyan series & mimiced by all the trade & university houses. It was the apotheosis of the School of Quietude’s presentation of verse & seldom exceeded 120 pages.
Allen Ginsberg’s Howl was the first “paperback original” to have a defining impact on the writing of its time. As revolutionary as that book was, Howl really didn’t stray all that far from the big poem-as-regent ringed by a court-of-lyrics mode. Robert Creeley’s For Love, which pointedly omitted The Big Text in a notably fatter collection, was in this sense a more radical production. Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s first true revolutionary impulse was to start a bookstore predicated on the primacy of the paperback. His second was to start a series of paperbacks that could be carried around in one’s back pocket. By the 1970s, the paperback was the principle mode for poetry, with the notable exception of that reactionary sliver of poetry presented by the New York trade publishers. For awhile, the SoQ was able to characterize its social dominance over an increasingly diverse writing scene by pretending that it was the poetry important enough to come out in hardback.
Today it is the hardback that is the afterthought, a calculation as to how many copies might be destined for libraries, and when a press like Wesleyan, perhaps the only press of the 1950s stalwarts to have evolved with the times, moves back to hardback originals, its authors groan over the retro & backward-looking implications of that shift. But the one thing that virtually every poet in the last century – with a handful of notable exceptions² – has agreed upon is that poems go in books. Even the concrete poets mid-century made works primarily for the page, a page that could be printed, bound & distributed. One of the more radical projects of the seventies was Richard Kostelanetz’ Assembling, a magazine that was produced by inviting contributors to send pages that would be bound, etc. Tom Phillips created one of the more radical projects of the century, A Humament, by transforming a book. Ronald Johnson “wrote” another entirely by redacting lines from a particular edition of Milton’s Paradise Lost.³ Louis Zukofsky began his career with “Poem beginning ‘The’,” a parody of T.S. Eliot right down to the footnotes, a textual element that places both LZ & TSE thoroughly within the terrain of the book.
Poets since Wordsworth & Blake have not focused on the role of the book itself simply because, for them, it was a given. The great theoretical move of the preface to Lyrical Ballads, after all, is its declaration for speech. And, indeed, one could track innovation in writing for the next two centuries by its evolving focus on the materiality of the signifier, whether it plays out as a surfeit of run-on mad spoken word, a la Ginsberg’s Howl – let alone “Wichita Vortex Sutra” actually composed via audiotape (a device learned from Kerouac’s Visions of Cody) – or the notational palimpsests of Olson’s Maximus. Language poetry could be read as a logical next step in that chess strategy, but notice already that James Joyce, in Finnegans Wake, has gone everybody one better – he already imagines (and manifests) the book as unreadable.
One might think that the arrival of the printed book should have moved texts away from the idea of speech – and in some sense it did so, as spelling & grammar became standardized in the 1760s with nary a comment from anyone. Yet the declaration for speech in Lyrical Ballads also is a recognition that the printed book has become a democratic thing, and that books are no longer the shut-ins of a few institutional libraries controlled by popes & kings. Again, Whitman takes this idea quite a bit further. One can imagine him celebrating what poets in the 1960s used to call “the mimeograph revolution.”
But what now unites both conceptual writing & flarf – not to mention tendencies within the videopoem movement, aspects of vispo such as the use of Java flash & GIF technologies, & even the retro-to-the-metro spoken word dynamics of slam – is that each, to one degree or another, seems predicated on some glimpse of poetry after the book. After, that is, the age of mechanical reproduction.
Until recently it has been easy enough for the School of Q to simply act as if those alternative poetries just did not exist. Sound poetry was neo-dada Euro-nostalgic & otherwise Other & slam poets for the most part were notoriously ill-read, unschooled (or, worse, wrong schooled) & didn’t much look like your typical pledges from Greek Week in Cambridge or Amherst.
But as Official Verse Culture – to use Charles Bernstein’s term – has expanded in recent years to include the likes of Charles Bernstein & others like him, some (not all) of its institutions have shifted toward recognizing greater diversity than previously had been acknowledged. The journal Poetry pointedly has had features on vispo & on the conceptual-flarf alliance in the past year. Can a CD of slam champions or portfolios of haiku &/or cowboy poetries be that far behind? And if not, why not?
Each of these poetries has a different relation to the book. If it has been the traditional distillation & repository for the poetries of both the School of Quietude & the historical avant / post-avant traditions, this is not necessarily the case for any of these others. And one could take the hubris of Kenny Goldsmith & the Flarf Collective as indicators suggesting that the post-avant tradition may be opting out forthwith as well.
But even within an aesthetic we see some significant differences. Kenny Goldsmith’s books are icons of conceptuality, but are they written to be read? Not in any sense one might traditionally have associated with literature, although it is conceivable that somebody with an abiding interest in weather or in baseball might find the volumes devoted to those topics of interest, much in the way that a memoir by Jim Brosnan or Jose Canseco might be. In this sense, Goldsmith’s wry polemics on conceptualism give him something he’s not really had before as a poet: readers. As distinct from audience, or buyers.
But with Christian Bök, we find a very different sense of conceptualism. Anyone who has ever heard Bök read aloud cannot fail to recognize that his works are most fully captured & presented in performance. It’s no accident that Eunoia is also available in CD format, an unusual option for a small press, even one as well-appointed as Coach House Books. As the website for the CD states,
Now you can invite that jazzman into the comfort of your own home! Reading Eunoia to yourself was fun, sure, but now you can hear it as it was meant to be read - by the author himself! Listen as he wraps his mouth around page after page of the most convoluted tongue twister you've ever heard! You can even follow along in your copy of Eunoia as he trips the vowels fantastic!
Recorded in the studio by Torpor Vigilante and Coach House author Steve Venright, this CD features Bök reading Eunoia in its entirety - in his uniquely energetic, well enunciated dadaist style.
Bök’s books, however, are themselves fully realized projects & eminently readable & pleasurable in text format. It’s almost the perfect hybrid (to use that slightly toxic term) of a performative project in book form. Which is why it became the best-selling book of poetry in Canadian history.
To date, most conceptual writing – at least if I judge it from the brief bibliography of “book-length examples” at the back of Fitterman & Place’s Notes on Conceptualism - tend to bunch around Bök’s end of the spectrum.
Flarf approaches the problem from the opposite end of the telescope, by fundamentally questioning – if not outright attacking – received concepts of The Literary. Here the spectrum seems to run between those works that make use of the Standard Flarf Toolkit (Web-based appropriation, Google-sculpting, the use of traditional [albeit often post-avant] exoskeletal structures as tho they were the purely plastic moulds proposed by New Formalism) to render a work that reads as if it were entirely literary – Michael Magee’s My Angie Dickinson would be a case in point – and works that seem predicated on the idea of disrupting the reading so as to push the reader away from the text – K. Silem Mohammad’s Deer Head Nation might be an example. Some of Kasey Mohammad’s texts strike me as nearly as unreadable as the work of Kenny Goldsmith, albeit for different reasons.
Thus conceptualism, at least near its outer limits, seems to call into question the social functions of the book as fetish – something about which flarf has thus far been mute – while flarf brings into question what goes on within the page as such.
Like the sound poetries of the seventies, animated vispo & videopoetry operate outside of the book by focusing on features – sound & motion – that are excluded by the book & printed page. The implicit problem that these tendencies have thus far failed to solve in any consistent manner has been the formal definition of their own territory, as such, as distinct from the various other art forms that often influence & inform them. Much the same is true with the mounted (or sometimes projected) minimalist scrawls of Robert Grenier, which approach the status of mounted language that has become familiar through the works of Lawrence Weiner, Jenny Holzer & Ed Ruscha. To fully challenge the literary swamp from which Grenier’s scrawls have emerged, they have to steer clear of being captured by the gravitational pull of The Art Scene, even if there are real financial reasons to wish this were not so.
So the role of the book, and of The Literary, are definitely up for grabs going forward, and not every kind of poetry has anything like the same kind of commitment to these institutions as we have inherited them. Not everyone is bemoaning the death of the bookstore, for example, or of the daily newspaper and traditional journalism. And I sometimes think that the emotional energy I see in various critiques of newer types of poetry has as much to do with despair over the potential historical fate of just such institutions as these, and with the implicit fate of the work of anyone committed to these older forms. Maybe that’s as it should be – one way to register the success of flarf or of conceptual poetics, just as was the case with langpo 30 years ago, is by the volume & pitch of the howls of outrage that accompany any expression of their success or their entry into the polite society of the SoQ page.
But those howls really are irrelevant. To the degree that we get bogged down in such backward-looking battles, we fail to look hard & long & dispassionately at what makes the new new, and what differentiates its various tendencies going forward. Those are the questions that, once we begin to see & understand them, will begin to tell us where poetry is today, as well as just where it’s heading.
¹ Both of whom likewise wrote theoretically, something I suspect is directly related. Blake likewise is quite conscious of the book, but, first, it’s not the sole locus for the poem or at least his poem, & Blake’s conception of book form differs materially from that of his peers.
² Such as Ian Hamilton Finlay, some European dadaists (plus the dada nostalgics of Fluxus), & the mostly Canadian sound poets of the seventies.
³ Milton’s own relation to the idea of the book is more complicated than I could attempt to sort through here.