Thursday, April 15, 2004

Readers of this blog will know by now that while I am interested in most aspects of the post-avant writing landscape, one sector that I have tended to be less enthusiastic is that segment of retro-avant-gardism that tends to employ new technology in order to generate post-rational texts, ranging from tossing dice to the latest in flash technology. I often feel that such writing is too in love with techné & not with the text, sort of an avant-gardism at all costs strategy that can yield works as lumbering as anything the school of quietude could produce. This is ironic, given that such work, to proceed at all, generally must ignore Blake’s Law – that all good poetry must be platform independent. Ironic because Blake, as the first intermedia poet, is something of a father figure – 200 years removed – to this poetics.


& ironic, perhaps, in another sense as well. It’s not that I haven’t done a little of this myself – you will find a (partially) chance-created work in Crow, my very first book


what high lurking hornets buick the moose


– and one could argue that my own use of mathematics, such as the Fibonacci series, or the disruptions between syntax & context that account for the cognitive dissonance at the heart of a work like 2197 play into the very same ethos. Yet it’s precisely my own encounters with such indeterminacy that drives my own view that such poetry is best practiced in moderation, for what it can teach about the limits of meaning & intention, not as the central project of anyone’s work.


Indeed, it is partly my take on the retro-avant world that pushes me to prefer the term post-avant to describe contemporary progressive poetics, to point to what renders progressive poetry progressive – the sense that art continually evolves, expands, transforms. Recreating zaum in 2004 is hardly any different than recreating the Italian sonnet, just a little more interesting. Certainly there is no word to describe poetry that is more antiquarian than “experimental.”


The result is that I tend to approach certain venues – Augie Highland’s Muse Apprentice Guild, the email journal Poethia, Geoffrey Gazta’s BlazeVox, even UbuWeb – with some caution. As I do writers who primarily associate with such locales. Thus when I write something positive, say, about the poetry of Peter Ganick, as I have done & just may do again, it is not because he is such an integral part of the retro-avant scene, but almost in spite of that.


Which leads me to Jeff Harrison. Harrison is a poet I know about mostly through exactly the publications I’ve just listed. And when I look at the work itself, I mostly find that I like it. Here is the piece that provoked me into writing this note:


the tall-parody crook

tells me his dog is one

of the central zeroes




WW breaks quills,

seems however

fabled flesh really




red ready read

cut with a gurgle

a back pile of puddles

cut with a gurgle


tub meat untended




who said a nightmare's


a sly kind of counterwish




still they continue -

referred to as A,B, & C

mumbo jumbo types





the surface / of carcasses

he's a good sort





his best,


caught its breath




he did,


wonder the work

at the other




with shame

a last leave

to waylay him












zero, spume

verge on yet,

stamnos, lemmings' wiles

toast w/out crust for

1. one

2. reef

3. star

4. for who folds

          the sheet




fresh decks of

several basic






snatches up the broom

can't be! QUIZ:

what was his name?




did you know his loot

listens to me when he's laughing?

his poor little worried loot!




his impression

washed with

dark olive suggestion




Wormswork in the world?



Wormswork in the world?

for them!






Harrison sent this piece, which is titled “50,000,000 Wormswork Fans Can't Be Wrong,” to the Imitation Poetics listserv, which is where I saw it. He may well have sent it elsewhere as well. If you click on the link under the word “work” above, you will find another “Wormswork” piece, one that connects it a little more directly to a certain contemporary of Blake’s.


I don’t know whether or not Harrison used any system or technology to generate this work, tho I doubt it. Frankly, tho, I don’t care – the piece works on its own terms, as it should. The first stanza, whose first line rises & falls around the word parody immediately brought me in & the contrast between one & zeroes – it’s a misnomer to call it a joke, although humor is one of its levels – hooked me.


Indeed, much of what is good about this is how sparingly each stanza or section is written – there is no excess. Individual sections are mostly abstract, but revolve sufficiently tightly around a core set of terms & frames to never seem pointless. My favorite –





-- has an almost Grenier-like quality to it, the two terms perfectly balanced off of one another. If I were teaching, that stanza would be a good one for a demonstration of the parsimony principle – there are a lot of possible narrative frames that can be generated out of such minimal details & it would be fun to see who would incorporate the other sections into their projected reading & just how they would go about it.


This spare approach to abstraction combined with a discursive range that is tight enough to let it all “cohere” is something you cannot concoct through chance save, in fact, by chance. I don’t think that Harrison accomplishes this in everything he does – see this selection from Moria, where the excerpt from “Postmortem Series” feels like a stew with so many ingredients that it’s lost any distinctive taste, but where the excerpt from “Accuracy” feels quite sharp, eye, ear & mind fully functioning. Overall, tho, Harrison’s work seems to have many more highs than lows & even if I don’t get all of it all the time, he’s got me interested in whatever he tries.