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section two On Technology & the Writerly LifePage 86
chapter 6Poems and Pixels: The Work of Art in an Age of Digital Reproduction
Technology emerges to satisfy desire. Over time, this technology meant to gratify instead creates new desire, eliciting within us yearnings of its own making. Herein lies the evolution of art and of marketing campaigns. In popular culture, our hankering to see and to be seen via digital video has been generated by technology’s ability to make it so. In the province of art, what was once valued for its uniqueness is now valued for its ubiquity. Reproducibility, once the bane of the artistic object, now seeds mass audience for mass products. In short, in an era of instantaneous and omnipresent digital reproduction, what we consider to be artful and the ways we encounter art have evolved dramatically since Walter Benjamin’s magisterial essay, whose title here I humbly adapt.
More deeply than his contemporaries, Benjamin, the Jewish writer-critic who fled Nazism only to commit suicide when refused entry into Spain, understood the implications of evolving artistic creation and conveyance. In his 1936 essay, “The Work of Art in an Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Benjamin addresses the ways technology affects human interaction with art and more basically with the physical laws of nature. He also intuits more change waits in the offing, citing poet Paul Valéry’s hyperbolic pronouncement that beginning with the twentieth century “neither matter nor space nor time has been what it was from time immemorial.” Under the guise of accessibility, the very basis of the individual’s contemplation of and interaction with art has been altered in a manner promising effects both immediate and evolving.Page 88
For the art of poetry, its bookish star eclipsed by technological advances of film, digital video, recorded music, and the Internet, this issue proves to be particularly keen. How will poetry—arguably the world’s first art form— respond to technological upheaval threatening to make the book’s means of artistic expression and delivery as outdated as the eight-track player’s? In the answer to that question rests poetry’s vibrant future or its slippage into irrelevancy, a venial form of extinction. More than seventy years following the publication of Benjamin’s landmark essay, one would do well to revisit his conclusions, updating technology’s implications for the way art—particularly poetry—is created and received.
1 / Artistic “Aura” and the Hierarchy of Aesthetic Experience
Like the wondrous transporter of the Star Trek television series, technology of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries has focused its energies inexorably upon overcoming the constraints of space, time, and matter. Though we still can’t effectively Star Trek–transport one form of matter—human beings—we can instantaneously transmit digitized forms of text, video, and audio, thereby altering human conception of space and time. For artists, and for those who receive and value art, this capability has changed not only how art is created and conveyed but also how we regard the very notion of what is artful.
All artistic and intellectual heavy lifting was heretofore performed by human beings using (thus limited by) the reach of their voices and hands. Now, with the advent of digital technology and the allure of the Internet, the intent is not so much to defy space, time, and matter but instead to conspire with them against themselves, conveying matter universally in space and simultaneously in time. In the arts, the effects are notable. No longer is painting, musical performance, or drama bound by place and time for a limited audience. The mode of delivery and reception of art has moved casually from the auditorium or gallery to one’s home and, even more intimately, to the palm of one’s hand. The multifunctional gadgetry of the cellular telephone—evidence the hubbub surrounding Apple’s iPhone—has become either our portal to the larger world or evil’s contemporary 666.
For Benjamin, with the advent of mechanical reproduction “that which withers . . . is the aura of the piece of art.” In his view a work of art’s “aura” sets its roots in the domain of tradition, in the viewer’s solitary contempla- Page 89 tion of a painting or an audience’s hearing a chorale presentation in an auditorium or in open air. That interaction depends upon a particular blend of object, event, place, time, and the historical tradition of both object and viewer. Benjamin believes mechanical reproduction removes the viewer or listener from the tradition and its particularity, supplanting both with a copy, a likeness not wholly vested in either realm. In this way, Benjamin equates proximity with intimacy when it comes to an audience’s response to original art. And he conflates proximal distance and aesthetic distance—suggesting if one’s not in the physical presence of original art or the artist, then one cannot truly inhabit an artistic work.
Benjamin is onto something about the relation of proximity and aesthetic intimacy for many art forms. No doubt one’s encounter with art is affected greatly by the environment in which one receives it. Standing alone in a gallery before a Rothko strikes an experience different not only in means but also in quality from that afforded by viewing the painting on one’s computer screen. Insisting on the primacy of intimate experiences with art, music, and drama, Benjamin proposes a hierarchy of aesthetic encounters that holds some experiences superior to others in form, quality, intensity, and purity. Here’s how I configure such hierarchy. Imagine that the most intimate experiences with art lie at the pinnacle of an immense mountain, while all the other, less intimate forms of encounter rest below the summit, shouldering up this highest point. One’s acme aesthetic episodes vivify the human experience. They reveal what is fundamental to one’s self, what is durable not ephemeral, what is core not tangential, what is defining not incidental.
Admittedly, the notion is elitist. This hierarchy is frequently determined less by human choice than by one’s access and proximity to art (and too often by one’s economic status). Somewhere along the flanks of this looming peak, well below the apex, lie the locales where and how most of us experience art most of the time.
Acknowledging the reality of this hierarchy of aesthetic experience ought not to devalue utterly those occasions that reside below the summit. How, then, explain one’s rush of joy listening to a compact disk version of Mozart’s twenty-eighth or the pleasurable edification of hearing Yusef Komunyakaa’s reading a poem on one’s iPod? What makes that symphony thrill us via its mere digital presence, the poem resonate without the poet’s being there? Where on this hierarchy falls one’s listening to the poet’s digitized voice via ears too small to drink in his baritone? In short, the existence Page 90 of hierarchy surely does not imply all recorded music or poetry or video is aesthetically bankrupt. If so, only those who heard Mozart in the flesh, sat at the feet of Longfellow as he recited “The Cross of Snow,” or viewed the Mona Lisa in person could be said to have enjoyed a worthy artistic experience. Let us agree, then, that a hierarchy of aesthetic experience implies a range of what can be regarded as primary and secondary encounters, some more evocative than others.
Benjamin’s conception of an art’s peculiar aura differs markedly from our current compulsions. Is not the Internet our culture’s effort to make every known thing available to everyone at all times everywhere? To view the Mona Lisa, one need not travel to the Louvre, buy a ticket, stand in line, and then elbow one’s way to the front. Instead, simply click Google images. Sooner or later, amid the Frisbee-catching dogs, the huddled and starving Sudanese, the paparazzi shots of Lindsey Lohan’s car wreck and Britney’s newest rehab, there you’ll find her coy smile, digitized, enlargeable with a mouse click, and printable in full rainbow array if the printer’s color ink has not gone kaput. Consider the utter efficiency of the digital copy in achieving these sorts of ends, whether via audio or video reproduction. Consider as well the laudatory intentions our current culture commonly applies to such reproduction, viewing it as generous agent of democratization in the arts. In many ways we’re right to think so.
Benjamin might well complain we’ve killed artistic aura through “the desire of contemporary masses to bring things ‘closer’ spatially.” But of course. We humans are trying—feverishly and perhaps clumsily—to put ourselves in the presence of art, overcoming the constraints of proximity as means to intimacy. Benjamin envisions works of art received and valued in two polar modes: as ceremonial objects where “the accent is on the cult value” or as objects to be exhibited for larger public viewing. The former is represented by the ancient human’s painting of an elk inside the cave or a statue meant for religious veneration and ritual in situ. The object and its place posit a context not amenable to duplication. The second is the sort of thing made to be sent around for display, say, the painted cows that adorned Chicago street corners one summer not long ago.
Mechanical and now digital reproduction mean if one can’t actually see the real thing, one can see copies that differ from the originals in ways largely undetectable to the human eye. Certainly, these copies lack the authenticity not to mention the patina granted by time and aging, but they’re expert Page 91 knockoffs, some capably reproduced by hand but most by machine or now by computer. For example, Johannes Vermeer’s wonderful Girl with a Pearl Earring, valued at roughly $100 million, hangs in a museum in The Hague, available for viewing by those with tickets and patience. Last summer, however, a new Vermeer museum opened in Delft featuring only reproductions. And for those who can’t make it even to the museum of assembled fakes, one can order copies online, essentially, a reproduction of a reproduction. Still, what gives these copies value remains the value of the original, safely tucked away in a museum, viewable daily by hundreds as opposed to the hundreds of thousands afforded access by the Internet.
What’s more, in our, as opposed to Benjamin’s day, cult status and exhibition status have morphed into the same thing, one force giving birth to as well as feeding off the other. What else is a celebrity but one who has earned cult following not on the basis of art but by virtue of being forever on exhibit? Those without talent argue their uniqueness by their ubiquity. Their talent, if you will, is being seen. Paris Hilton is forever before our eyes because she is forever before our eyes. More to the point, Ms. Hilton has curried cult following not only by being on exhibit but also by being an exhibitionist. In the obvious titillation of her bedroom tape and her televised quest for a new BFF, one might well posit within the public’s appetite for Hilton some deeper revelation of their own desire to be seen and thus to be noticed.
Such fame used to come in small doses, played before an audience limited in scope by the size of the venue itself. This was particularly true of staged drama. Now the film and video industry enables actors to reach a worldwide audience instantaneously, as well as in the dribs and drabs of DVD rental, video downloads, and pirated copies. Admittedly, the image of the actor appearing on screen exhibits merely a copy, a reproduction, a replica. But staged drama has always been dependent equally on illusion and on the audience’s willing suspension of disbelief. As Barbara Hernstein Smith notes, when the audience of Hamlet witnesses a queen drinking poison, audience members do not jump from their aisle seats to wrest the foul cup from her hand. We understand these events are not happening but are merely being represented as occurring in real time. Still, our emotions rise and fall in unison with the dramatic action. Do we feel the same about the two-dimensional figure we know as “James Bond,” a copy of a make-believe man played by an actor we know as Connery or Moore or Dalton, and so on, when some madman bent on world destruction ties him below a descending pendulum? Page 92 Is it not possible that humans have adapted to technology, or that technology has adapted us, in such a way that we accept the two-dimensional copy as both illusory and real? Is not a similar willing suspension of disbelief at work when we read a poem? We readers understand there’s a person behind the voice who speaks both as poet and as character speaking to us the poet’s poem, itself a made thing, a work of art. Yet we knowingly savor its layers of illusion, both accepting and dismissing them in service of art.
In 1998 Peter Eriksson of Sweden’s Sahlgrenska University Hospital discovered the human brain undergoes continual regeneration of neurons throughout the life cycle. Now scientists understand that brains of persons well into their seventies continue to experience “neurogenesis,” a kind of rewiring of the hippocampus. One can thus assume repeated exposure to film, video, and other digital delights modifies the brain’s wiring as means of reception as well as of enjoyment. New technologies create new human receptive abilities. In turn, these abilities generate new human desires.
2 / To Be Seen
That’s the new yearning, the restless call for attention. It’s akin to the child’s nighttime crying from the crib. This time, however, the comforting comes not from caress or lullaby but simply from being acknowledged amid the black crepe curtains of the faceless night. New technology creates not only new forms of expression but also, and importantly, new ways to satisfy human cravings.
Mass reproduction and mass distribution of digital media have changed the way we recognize ourselves and others. First, technology that makes us seen actually fuels our primal human burning to be seen. Because we can be seen, we must be seen to be real in our own eyes and in others’. Second, technology that shows us the lives of others accentuates our corollary desire to pry into those private lives made public. The result is a heightening of individual and cultural voyeurism. In general, getting oneself filmed and thereafter displayed is akin to what getting one’s name happily in the newspaper meant for those in predigital video culture. Each instance brings a rush of communal and self-recognition. Video itself has become a social organ, a detached mode of interaction that keeps one before the public eye. And this, remember, matters most in a culture where the “eye” rules.
What happens, however, to our conception of art, and of acting itself, Page 93 when the action is removed not only from the dramatic stage but also from the movie production studio? Undeniably, one upshot is reality TV, the arena where real people act like real people acting real. Viewers suspect much is scripted, edited, and realigned to create drama that may not have been there in the first place, but still we watch with rapt if ironic attention. Our doing so manifests the culture’s confusion about what’s art and what’s life. In total, this confusion diminishes the value of both.
Benjamin was struck by film’s intrusion into everyday life, so much so that even an ostensibly journalistic venture such as the newsreel offers “everyone the opportunity to rise from passerby to movie extra.” Presciently, he foresaw the day “any man” might “find himself part of a work of art.” In short, Benjamin recognized the muting of the line between actor and audience, expert and amateur. Given the rise and omnipresence of video equipment, that day has birthed full-grown from the Zeus’s head of the digital camera. It’s not knowledge this modern Athena brings, or the slightest akilter wisdom, but a way to be seen, to be exposed, to be a star reveling in one’s fifteen minutes of Warholian fame.
Now a throng of video mavens rakes in huge sums by making everyday folks “part of a work of art.” No doubt this notion has salvaged the careers of B-actors such as Bob Saget, reading camp introductions to yet another round of America’s Funniest Home Videos while screwing a smile upon his pancake-makeupped face. These programs exemplify an even more vital evolution in the making and distribution of video art. In a nutshell, that amounts to the blending if not inversion of the roles of actor and director. Now everyone can produce, direct, and star in his/her own video masterpiece. No Experience Necessary. Seven decades ago, Benjamin isolated this new reality and presciently spelled out its current terms: “The greatly increased mass of participants has produced a change in the mode of participation.” Indeed, in a remarkable twist, those rank amateurs who upload their videos to the Internet’s YouTube have wrested artistic control from the hands of “experts.” They have become artists empowered to reach an ever-broadening audience of the like-minded. Yes, most have still not cornered the profits from such a venture. In fitting capitalist fashion, the money still graces someone else’s palm.
No matter. The real goal here is not wealth as much as notoriety. Surely this motivated my daughter’s friend Craig to be filmed while gulping down a full bottle of Mrs. Butterworth’s maple syrup in one bottoms-up binge (mim- Page 94 icking a scene from the stoney comedy film Super Troopers). That stunt landed him happily on YouTube. Another corollary if unintended result was Craig’s post–mama-Butterworth’s sugar-induced, trembling, hyperactive bad trip. This venture into worldwide digital culture did not establish Craig’s stardom nationally, as it has for others who have parlayed YouTube “lonely girl” videos or self-created bizarre ethnic characters into larger television and movie roles. Instead, he merely secured his local status as a wild and crazy guy, an achievement in itself.
Craig’s stunt is not high art, but I’d lay claim to its attempt to make art with a small “a,” humor in the crude mode of Jackass, where Steve-o wears a diaper packed with crawfish or drunks box while tilting akilter on stilts. The urge of both video ventures is less to outrage their audiences than to be outrageous as a way to be seen.
Consider the everywherenicity of the camera. It’s now part of every street corner, supposedly keeping us safe. It’s the agent of our alleged defense against terrorist plots in airports as well as bus and train terminals. It’s how parents film (and thus remember) a son’s first goal or a daughter’s horseback-riding blue ribbon. It’s both the source of keepsake photos we scrapbook away and the means of carrying those photos with us at all times on our laptop or cell phone galleries. It is our way of recording the chimera of daily existence, impossibly various and overwhelming in its velocity. And the video camera is the first technology able to keep up with that frantic pace, to play back for us what happened to happen while we were looking elsewhere, thinking elsewhere, being elsewhere. Who now resolves, as my mother once urged me, to “take a picture with your mind” to remember a distinctive scene? Why, Mom, when my camera phone’s in hand?
While the desire to validate one’s existence may not be new, the means— as well as the compulsion—to do so via digitized media quite assuredly is. As Narcissus was once seduced by his watery reflection, have we not become enamored of our own video likeness? The second generation of psychoanalytic theory known as object relations theory (Donald Woods Winnicott, Heinz Kohut, Harry Guntrip, et al.) focused on the developing self’s desire to have self-worth “mirrored back” to us by a loving parental object. Over time, we seek out other objects to do the same—one’s god or art or a loving spouse—but the yearning is the same: to have one’s sense of being valued and safe underwrite our ability to venture out into a frightening world. This primary narcissism is a core ingredient of one’s mental health.Page 95
When this narcissism becomes pathological, however, we show a desperate need to have others confirm our self-worth; we brag, show off, and generally exhibit desperate need for affirmation from others. Our culture’s love of video expressions of self may be less narcissistic intoxication than fear. That yearning drives our looking for ourselves outside ourselves, our dependence on a mirror that follows and replicates our every action. In doing so, we hope to make others see us in the way we wish to be seen. We see and are seen, verifying our existence in the midst of creation’s jumble. Likely, one’s having been bombarded by filmic expressions of others, the waterfall of faces that spills over contemporary society, has fed an inner wish to situate one’s own face amid that Heraclitean cascade and thus momentarily to blend with it. Technology provides the means.
3 / To Be Seen. To Be Heard.
These, the twin darlings of contemporary digital culture. What the camera has done for one’s need to be seen, the Internet has done for one’s corollary yearning to be heard. In the realm of poetry, to have one’s words acknowledged by publication was heretofore a mark of some distinction. Even charlatans long ago caught on to this. These unsavory folks prey on the aged and the youthful through the scam of world poetry anthologies proclaiming their eagerness to discover, reward, and publish the work of the uninitiated. How many American coffee tables sport a gold-filigreed hardbound anthology that features a poem by Grandma or little Jennifer? Accepting all entries, these publishers bank on selling Grandma the gaudy, $199 collector’s edition to commemorate her inclusion in this rare compendium of verse. Then there’s the Florida poetry festival she’s won her way to—food and accommodations available at a verse package rate, of course—where she can meet other aspiring poets and pose for a picture with a special guest TV personality, say, Bob Barker, chosen for appeal to the geriatric set. There’s no end to the angles these guys ply.
Now, Grandma, if she or her grandson is Web-savvy, can simply publish her work in an online e-zine, or better, start up her own poetry blog. On the face of it, what’s not to like in this sort of democratization of art? Aspiring poets, fiction writers, essayists, and the like no longer have to kneel at the fortress walls of big-name journals and presses, sliding their manuscripts under the great iron gates and affixing SASE with proper return postage. Via Page 96 the Internet, they reach a truly worldwide audience of readers, serious and dilettante alike.
For many in po-biz, this situation threatens havoc. Now, the barbarians are not merely at the gates; they control the gates and have cranked them wide open. Benjamin noted the coming of this brave new world, cautioning “the distinction between author and public is about to lose its basic character.” Somewhere near the end of the eighteenth century, the longstanding proportion of writers to readers exploded, ending an extended era where a few (mostly male) authors wrote to the large audience of readers. In sum, great numbers of readers abruptly became writers. That access was gained in forms as various as letters to the editor, technical reports, specialized business documents, and so on. In droves, women began to write, a gaggle Nathaniel Hawthorne labeled “a damn mob of scribbling women.” Aldous Huxley sums up the situation aptly: “It follows from all this that in all the arts the output of trash is absolutely and relatively greater than it was in the past; and that it must remain greater for just so long as the world continues to consume the present inordinate quantities of reading-matter, seeing-matter, and hearing-matter.” What would Mr. Huxley say about the Internet’s virtual virtual-cornucopia of stuff to read, see, and hear?
More to the point, now there’s no single editor with gavel at the ready to judge one’s work unworthy of publication or even of rebuke. There’s only the viewers’ approval or disdain. The Web’s a free-floating Wild West of messy and utter democracy, a wilderness unbroken by fences, judges, sheriffs, or notions of hierarchy. One need not have studied at university, toiled in research among the dusty catacombs of libraries, or memorized Latin verb conjugations in a drafty dormitory. One need have no demonstrable skill, for there is no juror to whom or no committee to which one must prove such ability. Even in his day, Benjamin bemoans this turn: “Literary license is now founded on polytechnic rather than specialized training.” Perhaps the only requirement for self-publishing on the Web is one’s having a modicum of technological savvy.
4 / The Gates, and Who Needs Them
Having been one of those outside the gates, I appreciate the notion of learning how to get around if not over them. And I affirm the obvious good graces resulting from a more diverse writership, one not bound, say, to sufficiently Page 97 ivied universities or beholden to old money or to internships at the best presses, currying the favor of an aging senior editor soon headed for permanent horizontal. My own experience has given me reason to question the wolf warnings of honchos such as Joseph Epstein, a learned man who frets over the decline of poetry’s high culture in his provocative essay “Who Killed Poetry?” Poetry, it turns out, is alive, thank you, though surely its face is changing shape and color. America is a pluralistic society, composed of an increasingly ethnically diverse populace. This variety of voices and experiences must be heard if America is to speak for herself as herself.
Still, it can be infuriating to rake through the democratic haystack to find the authentic needle one’s been searching for. There, the bloviators and the bloggers and the simply uninformed stand shoulder to shoulder with the expert and the well-skilled. Sorting them out is a full-time job in itself. Even my university students, whom I assumed would love the Wild West spirit of the Web, flinched at its chaos when researching poetry Web sites for a class project. These students, the voices of rebellion against authority, paradoxically yearned for some authority to stratify the good from the bad, to make their search more fruitful and, yes, a bit easier. Side by side: teenage Roberta’s poetry blog, replete with saccharine-rhymed couplets for her poodle, and Robert Pinsky, he the translator of Dante and former U.S. poet laureate.
Most times sifting through this blather is time consuming but not injurious to one’s learning or one’s health. It’s another matter entirely when the Internet milieu “collective intelligence” and “citizen journalism” dispense flawed or inaccurate information, as Andrew Keen notes in his The Cult of the Amateur. Keen calls such sites such as Wikipedia, YouTube, and the plethora of blogs a “dictatorship of idiots” drowning out the voices of expert and sage. Wikipedia is a case in point. Even the esteemed New Yorker was victimized by one of Wikipedia’s so-called experts, praising “Essjay,” the author of some sixteen thousand Wikipedia entries, and describing him as holding “a Ph.D. in theology and a degree in canon law.” This “tenured professor of religion” told the New Yorker he devoted “fourteen hours a day” to the site and was routinely the object of death threats from overzealous Wikipedia users whose work he had corrected or challenged. Cautiously, all this frantic dispensing and maintaining of the truth he had kept secret from “colleagues and friends.” No doubt he had. Turns out, the fellow is a twenty-four-year-old university dropout. Making matters worse, when con- Page 98 fronted with this truth, the site’s cofounder Jimmy Wales is said to have spouted, “I don’t really have a problem with it.” So much for journalistic and editorial integrity. Later, perhaps after a trip to the woodshed with a bevy of adult accountants, bankers, and lawyers, Wales reconsidered and sacked Essjay.
For the moment, egalitarian freedom stirs chaos that in turn ladles more disorder, thereby spoiling the soup for us all. For the moment, digitized media positions everyone as equally author and reader, everyone as equally actor and audience member. We crave to be seen and to be heard as a way to confirm our worth as human beings, and we need the new arts of the Internet to answer our hankerings. What’s more, if we still we deem our “real” lives insufficiently scintillating, we can concoct and market an alternative personality owning more moxie and oozing sex appeal. For instance, via the Internet’s “Second Life,” one can create an alter ego and an entire substitute world for one’s avatar to rule as he/she sees fit. Great mobs of young and old are said to engage in self-fabricated, digital whimsy worlds. In fact, it’s said that real human beings make real money—enough to make a decent living—designing digital costumes for other folks’ avatar characters. In this way an individual’s fantasy life breeds a fantasy world that breeds someone’s banking real money off both. To underscore the ways current technological culture both breeds and promises to ameliorate social anomie, one need only submit January–February 2007’s 11.5 percent increase in visits to social-networking sites MySpace and Facebook. Digital social networking substitutes for actual society of real folks. There, we can count our “friends” not in the dozens but in the thousands who click and ask to be admitted to our circle. We eye them and they eye us, making us both real.
How do we sort through the chaff to find the wheat? As yet, Google does nothing to aid us in this quest, nor do sites such as Wikipedia that only blur the line between knowledge and sophistry. Let’s hope the next versions of Google and other search engines effectively discriminate among levels of expertise and professionalism. Let’s hope some judge enters the Internet’s Wild West town and fashions a workable civility not obliged to irresponsible gunslingers or herds of brainless cattle.
One hopes the capitalistic future will produce a means of rewarding the knowledgeable and dismissing the hacks. If it means someone pockets money on the venture, bet on it.
5 / The Kingdom of the Eye and Our Polyfocal Attention
In digital video culture, the eye rules as both benevolent king and churlish despot. The visual has come to circumscribe the landscape of our aesthetic, intellectual, and emotional lives. In his Tractatus, Wittgenstein wisely notes that one can’t see the periphery of one’s world because one is in it. One can’t step out of oneself to see oneself seeing. One can’t look beyond oneself to look in on oneself looking. Wittgenstein considers this point so fundamental but thorny he even provides a sketch to illustrate the impossibility of this means of perception, an eye perceiving an eye-shaped world like this:
Because film and video duplicate this view offered by the human eye, apparently replicating reality as we know it, the camera’s eye readily becomes our own, both trustworthy and paradoxically seductive. The video camera’s eye shows us the world we’re accustomed to receiving through our own eye, so viewers forget the camera shows only what it wants us to see. This, of course, offers a key element of film’s technique as aesthetic. Benjamin loathes the way viewers cede their own eyes to those of the cameraman. But in giving our eyes over to the camera, we experience what Benjamin admits is an “enriched . . . field of perception” through the use of close-ups, slow-motion, and other techniques not available to the human eye alone. In effect, the new technology of art has delivered fresh modes of perception, as well as created within us the expectation of such enriched perception. The result: video technology has created within us new forms of visual awareness and thus generated desires that heretofore did not exist. Let’s slow-mo a car crash, a baseball meeting an opened mitt, even the bullet piercing flesh.
In the home, our need for visual stimuli has expressed itself in the proliferation of TVs, where one TV begat two begat three begat four, every room wired for stereo sound. This necessarily includes bathroom and bedroom TVs, so even in our most intimate moments we need never be disconnected from our need to be connected. In similar fashion, one home computer Page 100 begat two home computers begat the laptop we can, if we wish, trundle with us everywhere, its fullest extension being the Internet-capable cell phone enabling us to carry our office (and the world) in our pockets. It has become a commonplace to say our homes are “wired” for more than electricity, but given recent technological leaps, it is more accurate to say our homes are becoming “wireless” for our ability to be connected without the constraints of power cord or transmission line. Paul Valéry foresaw this invasion of the attention-snatchers: “Just as water, gas, and electricity are brought into our houses from far off to satisfy our needs in response to minimal effort, so we shall be supplied with visual or auditory images, which will appear or disappear at a simple movement of the hand, hardly more than a sign.”
This movement of the hand indeed amounts to a kind of sign, a language of accessibility and dismissal. It is the language of the television remote and the cell phone text-message pad. It is the dialect of the thumb in action. It says enter and be gone with equal relish, characteristic of those possessing kingly power or those who’d like to think they do.
In our case, it is mostly the latter. For in surrounding ourselves with an increasing number of attention-snatchers, we may find ourselves decreasingly able to pay attention to any one thing for long. Collectively, have we become a generation of multitaskers, perhaps accomplishing a lot of little things in little time but finding ourselves bamboozled by the long project demanding an extended period of full attention? Sounding an alarmist siren, Maggie Jackson’s Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age warns that various technological allures of contemporary culture now erode our fundamental ability to focus our attention. Multitasking is one boogie man, as Jackson asserts: “The addictive allure of multitasking people and things, our near-religious allegiance to a constant state of motion: these are markers of a land of distraction, in which our old conceptions of space, time, and place have been shattered.” We wander the brightly lit path of electronic temptations, flitting from email to voice mail to YouTube, and thus risk losing what Jackson describes as our “capacity as a society for deep, sustained focus.” Nicholas Carr’s feature article in the Atlantic—”Is Google Making Us Stupid?”—blames the Internet and the brain-rotting, high-sugar efficiency of Google for “chipping away” his aptitude for “concentration and contemplation.” He complains of his fresh inability to enjoy the kind of “deep reading” and sustained meditation that formerly enabled him to draw inferences and make associations. In essence, Carr mourns the loss of his capability to Page 101 ponder a subject. Of Carr’s lament, one may remark that it is encouraging, if perhaps unintendedly so, that he was able to marshal sufficient concentration to compose a lengthy rumination on his lack of concentration. Perhaps the effects he bemoans are more superficial than real, or perhaps more transitory than lasting, but still Carr admits feeling the effect I’ve noted: that use of digital technology is “remapping the neural circuitry” of his brain.
This digital rewiring of the brain, Dr. Gary Small suggests, affects not only one how one works individually but also how one relates to other human beings. Small, in his book iBrain: Surviving the Technological Alteration of the Modern Mind, argues that too great of an immersion in Internet and smart-phone technology causes the individual to lose face-to-face social skills such as the ability to read facial expressions during conversation. In turn, the inability to interpret nonverbal messages may lead to social awkwardness and thus to social isolation, especially in those “digital natives” who have been raised since birth in a digital world. Acknowledging that he lacks a definitive case for his claims, Small believes it’s nonetheless a good idea to work with those at both ends of the digital spectrum—sharpening digital natives’ social skills while improving the technological dexterity of older folks less familiar with electronic modes.
To say we are distracted is not altogether on target, despite the blooming orchard of ADD and ADHD diagnoses. Perhaps contemporary digital video culture has itself occasioned a new configuration of neurons rewarding multiple-and-brief rather than singular-and-prolonged attention. Living in a state of “continual partial attention,” as former Microsoft techno-geek Linda Stone describes it, makes distraction itself a mode of attention. In a world bombarding us with innumerable stimuli at every waking moment, patient contemplation might well come to be seen as unnecessary if not self-defeating.
Distraction as a mode of aesthetic attention explains the way many of us receive art nowadays. Distraction has fostered what I call “polyfocal attention”—paying partial attention to a plethora of things at once. Or is it “polyfocal distraction,” one’s attention suffering the distractions of a multitude of things simultaneously? Or might it be “polyfocal-attention-distraction,” a state in which lines mute between paying attention and being distracted? My college-aged daughter—mature, articulate, and technosavvy—stands as a case in point. Like most twenty-two-year-olds, Kirsten displays what to me is an amazing capacity to filter multiple stimuli and yet Page 102 retain the ability to act on each of them with surprising efficiency. Here’s Benjamin on the subject: “The distracted person, too, can form habits. More, the ability to master certain tasks in a state of distraction proves that their solution has become a matter of habit.” To illustrate this point, I need only adduce an emblematic scene. Her typical night involves simultaneously talking on the land phone line, watching a TV program, listening to music on her iPod, instant-messaging friends on the computer, and texting friends with her cell. In that mix may well fall studying for a chemistry exam or writing a philosophy paper. This ability, not uncommon among her compatriots, characterizes her generation at large. In fact, the 2007 NEA report “To Read or Not to Read” cites a study indicating 58 percent of United States seventh- through twelfth-grade students use other media while reading “most” or “some” of the time. Not surprisingly, the two largest culprits are watching TV (11 percent) and listening to music (10 percent), but the list of distractions students welcome during reading also includes playing video games, emailing, surfing Web sites, and instant messaging.
While time and use will reveal the qualitative results of polyfocal attention for us and for our children, a cadre of scientists and psychologists has already begun to research the subject—resulting in the usual armloads of papers reaching conflicting conclusions. After scanning the brains of eighteen- to forty-five-year-olds who were bombarded with audible beeps while trying to learn flash cards, UCLA’s Russell Poldrack and other scientists there posit, “Multitasking adversely affects how you learn.” Learning while multitasking, they suggest, leads to learning that is “less flexible and more specialized, so you cannot retrieve the information as easily.” David Meyer of the University of Michigan argues that kids learning while multitasking simply learn “to be skillful at superficial learning.” To the contrary, Clifford Nass of Stanford finds multitaskers do indeed allow in more potentially distracting information but seem able to store that information in short-term memory and “keep it separated into what they need and what they don’t.” They seem curiously able to pan the informational gold from the slurry, thus mysteriously compensating for distraction while processing what most matters.
Thus, it’s possible to put a more positive spin on this matter, suggesting a change of habits indicates a corollary alteration in the multitaskers’ abilities and perhaps as well a transformation of their brains’ physiology. One suspects this cadre of skills likely results from rewiring of the digital generation’s individual and collective brains, a type of specialized neurogen Page 103 esis occasioned by immersion in a sea of digital multitasking experiences. Perhaps Benjamin was right all along about the mind’s ability to adapt and thus to “master certain tasks” while surrounded by distraction.
In The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future, Mark Bauerlein laments Gen Y’s inability, or disinclination, to accumulate nuggets of knowledge—for our purposes, let’s say the name of the author of A Modern Instance, our country’s first major novel to broach the then-indelicate subject of divorce. He sees the matter as a sign of cultural disintegration. One wonders why, given the worldwide pervasiveness of digital culture, Bauerlein argues only American youth are headed to hell in a digital handbasket. In doing so, Bauerlein, well intentioned and well read, confuses knowing things—rote memorization—with knowing where to find out things (i.e., trolling search engines such as Google). But is such knowledge the same thing as the capacity to think? Probably not. Moreover, as commentators Begley and Interlandi note, since the 1930s, IQ scores, which measure thinking capacity, have steadily risen in all countries using the test to gauge intelligence. So the kids are not, strictly speaking, getting dumber. Who was that American novelist? William Dean Howells.
Despite the Chicken-Littleism of books suggesting digital culture is destroying our youth, maybe, after all, the kids are all right, as The Who loudly pronounced while destroying their instruments on stage in what Pete Townsend called “pop art auto destruction.”
6 / Immediacy, Velocity, and Simultaneity
The characteristics listed earlier delineate the much-desired and thereby representative qualities of contemporary life. These define the ways we interact with our world, and they in turn define our artful representations of that world’s experiences. Having breeched the threshold of mechanical reproduction of art, the artist has further accelerated that process since the introduction of digital reproduction. These technological advances—giving us capabilities we did not previously possess—have created new human desires for what was not heretofore available. Technology, as usual, has erased distinctions between want and need. We want to see and to be seen across the globe, to hear and to be heard simply because now we can. The pervasiveness and pertinacity of that individual-cum-social desire have become perilously confused with need.
Recent developments with cell phone technology present a similar irony. Increasingly, the cell phone is becoming the platform for delivery of artistic content. One can download, store, and play music, as well as a growing library of film and television video. Smart phones boast Internet accessibility, opening, depending on one’s view, either the vast blue heavens or the sordid wasteland of the World Wide Web in one’s sweaty palm. Now, given the agency of a cellular telephone, not only has the home become infiltrated with digital technological reproduction, but so also has one’s person. One might say we are never-not-connected, which is not to say we are genuinely connecting with the surfeit of images, sounds, and messages entering our sensory portals. The compulsion is so seductive that once one receives the cell phone’s first kiss, one can’t imagine ever being without it. Ever. It goes with us everywhere, even into the restroom.
Witness how many cell phones, slipping out of a pocket or off the belt, find a watery grave in the toilet. The image is apt, for many would say that’s exactly where digital culture is taking us—into the toilet. Faced with the dilemma of losing one’s connectivity or reaching one’s hand into one’s own waste, it’s instructive to note how many of us fish out that cell phone, thinking we’ve saved it and us. Befouled, we are shamed—then doubly so, when we learn what havoc water wreaks on digital circuitry. One might well suspect there’s a camera phone video of someone caught in this dilemma, an irony underscoring its postmodern absurdity. We are watched, watching. Watching ourselves watched. In such a world, with nearly every instant subject to being sound recorded or filmed, our attention to the moment is both heightened and deadened. If every moment is epic, none truly is.
The everywhereness of art, or what many consider to be artful, has altered both the creation and the reception of art. Immediacy is its characteristic notion. Benjamin posits a key element of art “has always been the creation of a demand which could be fully satisfied only later.” I say the same holds true for technology. Technology creates demand that is fully satisfied only as new technology evolves to meet that new desire. Both film and photography created the “demand” for action and simultaneity that could be met only with the later invention of digital technology and its means of immediate, far-reaching distribution. Velocity is its primary agent. Immediacy and velocity of delivery proffer a drunken-sailor, vertiginous experience of simultaneity. Everything happens at once, seemingly without sequence.
One time-tested goal of poetry is to negotiate that velocity and to fash- Page 105 ion order out of chaos. Poetry operates by connecting readers to opposing notions of flux and stasis. In the process, poetry creates the appearance of one to produce the other. A poem has to move if it is to be thought of as moving, as intellectually and emotionally transportative. But a poem also has to lend itself to the polar experience of landing one’s feet on revelation, what Frost called a “momentary stay against confusion.” Momentary, indeed.
7 / The Poem as Work of Art in an Age of Digital Reproduction
Given this discussion, what lies ahead for American poetry in this digital age? Let’s address the pessimistic possibilities head-on. Over time, poetry in book form has lost the “aura” Benjamin believed accompanied poets’ speaking their words in ritual or tribal ceremony. Poets are, Dana Gioia suggests, “priests in a town of agnostics,” earning some vestigial respect but not much cultural agency. Within the past 150 years, poetry has seen its place at the height of social arts slip with the emergence of the novel, as the novel has likewise since given way to film and to various modes of popular music. Yes, many in our culture are less likely to quote T. S. Eliot than to chatter movie dialogue or chortle hip-hop lyrics. And one might unfavorably compare the statistical probability of finding a citizen on the street who can quote William Wadsworth Longfellow, 150 years after the death of America’s last universally beloved poet, against the likelihood of finding someone at the mall who can spout a few lines from Tupac or John Lennon.
As chapter 1 attests, American poetry currently displays yet another petulant iteration of its century-long bifurcation. It’s not exactly the “Beats and the Slicks,” as poet James Wright labeled the opposing camps of Beat and academic poets in the 1950s, but the split’s terms remain familiar even as technology offers new ways to manifest aesthetic polarization. One version pits polar opposites preaching for well-behaved accessible verse against those on the other end relishing poetic qualities of difficulty, experimentation, and indeterminacy. This bifurcation widens even more notably when one considers the parallel aesthetic chasm between print-centered poets and those pursuing digital, computer-based poetries, as the following chapter details.
Raising poetry’s national media presence is thus especially thorny when its major parties disagree as to whether poetry really needs or truly benefits from broad public saturation. The accessible brand of American poetry yearns to reestablish a broad, general readership for poetry, not unlike the Page 106 nineteenth-century variety that gave us the newspaper poets. On the other hand, the opposing camp professes to keep poetry pure by maintaining— perhaps accentuating—its marginal status. In a December 2006 New York Times Book Review piece, Joel Brower, in fact, praises poetry’s supposed lack of wide audience as “poetry’s good fortune”—suggesting a paucity of mass market means American poetry faces “no call to pander.” The concern is that poetry is cheapened by the quest for public audience, especially if this quest is attended by dumb-downed versification. What, then, is one to make of the star status afforded poets in many European and Latin American nations? Are those poets shameful, mass-culture sellouts?
Often overlooked in this discussion are performance, spoken-word, and Slam poets, those who long for (and often achieve) both wider audience and social relevance. They welcome technological advancements of audio and video recording to achieve those ends. Marc Smith, for instance, has fashioned the poetry slam into a cross-cultural poetic happening in many American cities and universities, and the slam movement is increasingly gaining international momentum. On the Web the venerable sites “Poetry Daily” and “Verse Daily” afford print-based poetry a reasonable presence, registering the tens of thousands of daily hits necessary to give poetry a discernible national online pulse. In addition, numerous Internet sites such as the University of Buffalo’s Electronic Poetry Center feature innovative digital poetries of all stripes. Poetry, modern media’s stepchild, has indeed languished off screen for the most part, but TV’s Def Poetry Jam and MTV’s Unplugged series have successfully appealed to young viewers for whom poetry is both relevant and hip. A couple other TV poetry ventures warrant mentioning, one for its aesthetic conservatism—Bill Moyers’s PBS series The Language of Life (a look at mostly conventional poets and poetics)—and the other for its multicultural and often strident sociopolitical attitudes—Bob Holman’s The United States of Poetry (an overview of those poets mostly outside of the network of so-called official verse closeted in university-supported creative writing programs). The former gave soccer moms a sanitized poetry suitable for polite home reading, while the latter churned up lace-ruffling issues of homosexuality, homelessness, and racial anger. Perhaps neither succeeded in installing poetry as a major player within televised culture, but these ventures asserted the resiliency and relevance of poetry’s public appeal.
In sum, I’d wager there’s cause for modest optimism. How does one account for the undeniable reality thatPage 107
- well over three thousand poetry books are printed each year
- innumerable clubs and poetry societies and workshops abound across the land
- summer writers’ workshops thrive in considerable numbers
- a seemingly unstinted proliferation of university MFA and low-residency MFA programs cater to ever-growing parades of traditional and nontraditional creative writing students
- a plethora of Web sites gather and present both video and new media poetries for digital consumption via computer
- video and new media poetries abound on YouTube, Facebook, and the like
- and a burbling gaggle of literary journals survives in print and online?
Despite the odds, public appreciation for poetry has survived aboveground-underground, if you will, flourishing below the radar of national media and the purveyors of broad-scale cultural enterprise.
What’s more, literary reading among the populace has enjoyed a notable rebirth within the past decade. For the first time in the twenty-six-year history of the NEA’s periodic survey of Americans’ reading habits, overall reading rates both for adults and for eighteen- to twenty-four-year-olds have risen instead of declined. Though each rate hovers distressingly just above the midpoint—50.2 percent for all adults and 51.7 percent for eighteen- to twenty-four-year-olds—the increase in readers aged eighteen to twenty-four who read novels, stories, and poetry has turned around from a 20 percent decline in 2002 to a startling 21 percent increase in 2008. Even more encouraging is the generalized uptick in reading rates across racial lines among whites, African Americans, and Hispanics. Enjoying a 20 percent increase in readers since 2002, Hispanics have tallied the sharpest climb, with reading among African Americans levitating 15 percent. Although adult reading rates still languish behind 1982 levels, literary reading among all American adults grew by 7 percent between 2002 and 2008, after twenty years of steady declines.
My own experience with public poetic outreach suggests there’s a surprisingly pervasive social yearning for poetry. As Illinois poet laureate, traveling the state’s rural roads and urban streets to offer in four years’ time well over one hundred school visits, public library poetry readings, nursing home Page 108 presentations, radio interviews, and the like, I have found palpable craving for the heightened contemplation poetry both offers to and requires of its readers. Poetry rewards patience, asking for attention both to the part and to the whole. Even though poetry seldom cracks the major media venues, its magnetic pull permeates wide strata of American society from our youth to the blue-haired set.
Given the hierarchy of aesthetic experience, and notwithstanding my qualms about the quality of the artistic experience engaged via computer, television, or Internet, I wonder if this quite different (perhaps inferior) experience of art is better than none at all. What do we poets, wrapped in unsullied robes of the uncorrupted, achieve for our art form by relegating its conveyance to outdated modes?
Poetry has always been largely about performance and “voice”—and digital technology proffers new methods to embody and convey both, ways that curiously reassert a measure of “aura” inherent in the performativity of human voice. Let us acknowledge the truth of a hierarchy of aesthetic encounters with art. Let us also admit the validity of Benjamin’s equating proximity with intimacy when it comes to some human encounters with original art. Let us agree as well for some arts proximal distance can impact aesthetic distance. Agreement on these matters, however, does not imply all alternative means of delivering and receiving art are without merit or consequence. Instead, for those not in the physical presence of the original art or the artist, let us investigate innovative ways to inhabit an artistic work.
It’s long been known the brain is malleable, subject to structural change brought on by our experiences and practices. The area of the brain devoted to individual tasks, say, playing the guitar, increases with utilization. Beyond that, human beings are no longer regarded as subject to what Norman Doidge calls “neurological nihilism” in his book The Brain That Changes Itself (New York: Viking Penguin, 2007)—the sense that well before kindergarten one’s brain is permanently set in form and function. Now it is commonly believed that the brain can rewire itself, and our experiences have a hand in that rewiring. Our abilities, at least as the brain is concerned, are not predetermined and unalterable, so it’s not far-fetched to imagine the growth of our brain’s capacity to enjoy art forms that come to us via newfangled digital means. This need not be the death of art as we know it. Rather, it offers an expanded if altered way of creating and receiving that art.
Suffice it to say, if technology has created new ways for humans to experi- Page 109 ence an ancient art like poetry, poetry must adapt or risk going the way of the dodo bird and the eight-track player. Mercilessly killed off, not even a single, stuffed bird exists to show the masses what once roamed those islands. Only a sere dodo head and one bony foot remain, stored on the back shelves of an Oxford museum. Once state-of-the-art technology, the eight-track has itself become a museum piece, an object of techno-derision or stoney nostalgia. One of these was a creature of creation, the other a mode of distribution and reception. Both are now irrelevant except as object lessons. Poets and our dusty poetry books take heed.
Though one may harbor reservations about mode of delivery, can one reasonably argue to sustain the art in any meaningful way by refusing to publish online, to digitally record poetry, to Web-broadcast poetic events, and to experiment with electronic, computer-based poetries? In the desire to keep poetry pure—purely bookish—would we not be falling upon our swords— and impaling poetry as well? Remember, the book was once the iPod of its generation.
8 / Offerings with a Shaker of Salt
Poets must supplement not necessarily replace current modes of literary delivery and reception. I do not wail mournfully for the book’s fast-approaching demise. I heard those shrieks of doom twenty-five years ago on the cusp of the digital age. To this day books and (corporate) booksellers are doing rather well. Yes, the book’s format will unavoidably evolve, but for the moment there’s a sensuous indulgence about the book, a tactile delight uniquely linked to the intellectual and emotional pleasures that give the book itself the cachet of a bottle of wine, a cup of coffee, a good cigar. It’s both tangible and otherworldly; it’s portable and yet boundless. There’s something about the book’s scented pages and the texture of its cover, something about its art and copy, that has survived even the bookseller’s insinuation of the bar code upon its back cover. In short, the book’s wholesale evolution into a widely accepted newfangled digital form is inevitable but not imminent.
Still, poets must also satisfy contemporary audiences’ fresh “demand” for aural and video experiences. How? They can do so by applying the new digital technologies that have fed these very desires within the larger public. They can do so by representing the broad pluralism of voices and aesthetics, of modes and manners, characteristic of contemporary poetry’s vibrant Page 110 mélange. They can do so as means of connecting poetry to its ancient roots in song, dance, and music. Finally, they can do so without resorting to watered-down poetry or a bland milquetoast of accessible verse.
If poets can entice individuals to experience print-based poetry via digitized means or to encounter electronic poetry’s new media forms, perhaps those same folks will return to poetry for the pleasures found in a book. In doing so, they may be seduced into sophisticated and nuanced study. If poetry wishes to reach outside the academic community, here’s how to start.
1. Give poetry readings. “Groovy” in the sixties, the poetry reading has worn well over the years for reasons Benjamin would attribute to maintenance of the art’s “aura” in the body and voice of the poet. The venue is real and alive, and the audience’s experience of art is both collective and individual. Poetry readings offer an intimate and proximal encounter with art that—in an ideal blend of poet, poetry, location, and audience—may well rise to the hierarchal pinnacle of aesthetic encounters.
2. Enhance the reading’s setting and performance by including other art forms. In essence, satisfy a digital audience’s desire for variety and immediacy of artistic experience. Give them something that engages their emerging poly-focal attention. Arrange for live music to be performed before the reading while the audience settles in, as the North Central College jazz band did before my reading there. Display visual art in the venue, adding a blend of artistic performance, as public libraries around the state have done. Doing so mingles the various arts into one larger artistic experience for the audience. Doing so also highlights ways one art form often steals from another in service of its own expanded expression, something I fondly call “artistic kleptomania.”
3. Remember we inhabit the Kingdom of the Eye and the Realm of the Ear. Expose oneself to fresh poetic forms utilizing the computer screen as opposed to the printed page—varieties of so-called video poetry, e-poetry, Cin(E-) Poetry, rich.lit, Web.art, and so on. These experimental new media poetries blend word, image, sound, and music within the poetic act, as the following chapter discusses at length. These forms may reasonably complement not eradicate traditional print-based forms.
Consider as well my children’s sage advice regarding the allure of audio and video: “Our generation worships video and sound. If we first hear a poem or see the poet reading it, we’re more likely to spend time alone reading that poem.” In curious but undeniable fashion, people become deeply Page 111 invested in poems they hear or see the poet read. Use the Internet’s digital audio and video resources to enable this outcome, as well as the audio CD or other digital formats. I can’t begin to count the number of times I’ve heard an audience member with even a passing interest in poetry remark, “I understood your poem better when I heard you read it aloud.” In this way the poet returns poetry to its aural origins in song, dance, and music. In spite of the centuries-old ascendancy of poetry in written form, due to the then-new technology of the printing press, poetry is best a mode of auditory performance and reception. This notion leads directly to the following proposal.
4. Employ contemporary poetry audio and video in classrooms. One salutary effect of audio and video poetry amounts to bringing before the audience examples of poems written during the audience’s own lifetime. Most who don’t read contemporary poetry simply don’t expect to find Wheel of Fortune, global warming, Kanye West, South Park, and Mozart in a poem, let alone in the same piece, as one is likely to do reading many contemporary poems. Most nonreaders of poetry conjure up unpleasant school memories of clotted poems rife with hidden meanings they could never uncover to their teachers’ satisfactions. Many of America’s poetry classrooms have never jettisoned the nineteenth century’s fetish for moral didacticism and goo-googoogly sentimentality. A poem’s meaning is cudgeled onto students’ lumpy heads to the exclusion of celebrating its pleasures of music, rhythm, humor, and verbal play. Some poems’ meaning can be understood only as pleasure.
Most students don’t have the opportunity to hear a poet read her/his poem in person, perhaps the highest-level poetic experience, and they’ve yet to learn the gratification of reading a poem alone in solitary contemplation, an aesthetic experience often equal to hearing a poet reading her/ his works live. Therefore, introducing students weaned on MTV, iPods, and YouTube to the domain of art via audio or video poetry may well open them to an entirely new realm of artistic appreciation. It may entice them to read poems more carefully and with greater enjoyment. They may discover, to their astonishment, that “poetry doesn’t have to suck,” as one student announced to me with epiphanic verve.
In this spirit, I edited Bread & Steel (http://www.bradley.edu/breadandsteel), an audio CD anthology of twenty-four Illinois poets reading from their works. The CD gathers together poets of various voices, modes of delivery, and levels of reputation. The goal was to place the CD into as many Illinois classrooms and libraries as possible, heightening the chances a knowing Page 112 teacher might deliver students to just this sort of epiphany. In addition, two laureate sites (http://www.poetlaureate.il.gov and http://www.bradley.edu/poet) offer a score of contemporary poems both in text and in digital audio performance, each represented by a separate icon. Site visitors can choose the manner in which they want to experience the poems—whether first via text and then by audio or, more commonly, by listening to and reading the poem’s text simultaneously. The same option holds for the digital video poetry selections, some recorded before a live audience (my preference) and others filmed alone. Site visitors most often view the video of the poet’s reading his/her poem, then read the poem’s text while listening to (and sometimes glancing at) the poet’s audio-video performance.
5. Reacquaint oneself and others with the power of poetry’s oral performance via recordings. The book has long held sway as the dominant mode of receiving verse. Once the sore-handed scribe gave way to the printer, the book was cutting-edge. Consider the centuries-long effects of technological creep. One can surely imagine ancient and medieval oral poets bemoaning the injurious effects of poems presented in print rather than spoken in person by the poet before a clan, tribe, or chosen audience. One can hear their complaints about poetry’s demise brought on by the dry pages of technology’s then-new darling—the book. Reading is, above all else, a learned activity. Humans adapted to the book’s once-pioneering technology to such a degree it’s now the current gold standard. Given digital culture’s apparent rewiring of the brain or at the very least its reshaping of human desires, is it too far-fetched to say audio technology may resuscitate interest in the aural pleasures of poetry?
It has for Sue, the middle-aged assistant office manager of my village’s U.S. post office serving the 950 good citizens of Dunlap, Illinois. Recently, Sue informed me she’d downloaded a couple of my poems from a recent NPR interview and placed them on her iPod. There, on the alphabetical playlist, not far from Kiss and Kenny Loggins, is my reading of “On Being a Nielsen Family.” Ponder that over your morning coffee.
6. Co-opt the very audio/video technology that would at first glance seem to sound poetry’s death knell. New technology can supplement not replace the book as means of delivering poetry to its audience. Poets and presses should make common the practice of publishing poetry collections in both text and audio versions simultaneously, so one form complements the other. Short of that, give readers something good to hear if not to read. Satisfy the public’s appetite for hearing poets recite their own poems. At the very least, presses’ Page 113 and journals’ Web sites ought to contain both audio and video poetry by a range of their contributors. The once-stodgy Poetry boasts a Web site replete with such selections, a veritable poetry cornucopia: http://www.poetryfoundation.org.
7. Pay attention to the growing popularity of “spoken word” poetry and “performance” poets whose “readings” are not really readings at all. Instead of politely reading from a text, these poets recite their poems in spontaneous, sometimes partially ad-libbed performances that often include the audience’s participating by echoing refrains or response phrases. Yes, these events can be just as ruinous for their over-the-topness as those snore-inducing readings by Pulitzer winners whose noses cleave to their books’ half-inch gutter. But keep in mind that in ancient Rome the accepted mode for “publishing” one’s poetry was to read it before a group.
Performance and spoken word poetry may offer a welcome alternative to the poetics of bifurcation discussed earlier. In essence, it problematizes the division of our poetry into poles of mannerly, accessible verse on one hand and verbally playful poetry of indeterminacy on the other. Doing so, it draws elements from both camps—offering one clique’s firm belief in audience and the other’s linguistic liveliness. Of course, one tires of the predictable sniping between performance and so-called academic poets of all stripes. Excesses on both sides nauseate those who are equally for words and for their apt performance. Perhaps a more efficacious approach is to investigate diversity of presentation within an ancient art form that surely would benefit from blending of tradition and innovation, the aesthetic tug of war underwriting all meaningful artistic evolution.
In sum, our task is to find ways for technology’s speed and omnipresence to conspire against themselves in favor of art. In that way we readers discover means to contemplate the poem in our own time and at our own measure, no matter the flux and chaos our world washes over us. Those of us who appreciate a poem’s weird magic also understand poetry’s true powers actually are not dissimilar from that of the Star Trek transporter. Reading a good poem, or hearing it recited, we are ecstatically transported to new realms of awareness and fresh ways of seeing. This lurch outside the self is as pleasurable as the musical language that occasions transport. As an art form, poetry both recognizes and depends upon its powers for delivering immediacy, velocity, and simultaneity. After all, the poem’s ecstatic instant—itself engendered by contemplation—is founded on these principles.
chapter 7A Digital Poetry Playlist: Varieties of Video and New Media Poetries
The advent of digital technology has given birth to video and new media poetries both created on and received via the computer. Each bristles with revolutionary fervor. These electronic progeny aspire to resuscitate poetry not only by expressing the moment’s dizzying array of word, image, and sound but also by thrusting verse culture into new potentialities of awareness. Still, there’s much disagreement about how digital poetry forwards such ends. Brian Kim Stefans and Tom O’Connor suggest the qualities that distinguish new media poetry exist as much in the poetry itself as in the technology by which it is conveyed to readers, whether the mode is page- or computer-based. Others such as Adalaide Morris contend digital verse itself fosters meaningful interchange between oppositional discourses of the old-school print-based lyric and the newfangled programmable poem. Still others such as Loss Pequeno Glazier believe emergent electronic poetics extend Modernist and Concrete poets’ prior experiments with print-centered poetry. Wide-eyed, Glazier imagines the electronic realm as poetry’s true home in the twenty-first century, elevating its digital modes as means not to complement but rather to supplant print-centered verse as poetry’s ultimate “space of poesis.”
Again, artistic evolution’s pendulum swings into play—a matter discussed at length in chapter 1—but this time fresh forces have been set in motion. Traditional “academic” verse here finds itself challenged not by the habitual insurrections of radical page-oriented poetries but by innovative expressions of computer-based poetry. In this instance, the issue is not so much the usual aesthetic wrangling over what printed-text poems say and Page 115 the manner in which they say it. Rather, the matter is more finely a question of how, via new technologies, poems come to be conceived and embodied by the poet as well as how they come to be received by contemporary audiences.
The computer screen’s emergence as site for making and distributing poetry tests the public’s unquestioned, five-hundred-year-old acceptance of the materiality of the printed page, asking bookworms to rethink the very terms of the reading act. For many practitioners and proponents, digital technology represents the twenty-first century’s verse alchemy, its transformative agent and its ineluctable future. In their view, the poem as printed-word artifact gives way to the poem as alchemic blend of word, image, sound, and motion displayed by means of the screen’s kinetic materiality. The poem’s literal and figurative “space” has therefore transitioned from the confines of the printed page to a purely digital realm. There, the word mingles with filmic and technological expressions to create fresh poetic language. Electronic poetry is thus occasioning expanded definitions of just what a poem is and what it might become. In short, the new mode’s rebel prince has arrived on the scene to contest and perhaps dethrone art’s monarchial aesthetic geezer.
Poetry Is Dead. Long Live Poetry.
The context for this rebellious rebirth invokes both familiar funereal metaphors for the “old” poetry and hyperbolic birth announcements of the “new.” While informed readers have rightfully become inured to yet another declaration of poetry’s morbidity, this time terms of the art’s demise have been narrowed. It is not all poetry that has assumed proverbial room temperature but merely the old-fashioned variety now dominating academic verse’s book and journal scene. Friedrich Kittler, for example, solemnly clangs the “death bell” only for printed-text poetry as a central, functioning, social art form in his important Gramophone, Film, Typewriter. What shall take its place? Loss Pequeno Glazier posits that poetry’s salvific ship appears via the “making of poetry” founded “on a matrix of new shores”: “From hypertext to visual/kinetic text to writing in networked and programmable media, there is a tangible feel of arrival in the spelled air.” Glazier’s flamboyant poetic metaphor exudes the palpable excitement and sense of play one encounters in the creative work and criticism of new media poetry commentators. In Page 116 meaningful ways, the notion of “play” is rooted in electronic poetry’s wires, bits, programs, languages, images, and codings. Much of this poetry ascribes to the belief that poetry is play that nonetheless carries serious, consequential implications. In fact, one cannot rightly be said to read many of these works, as one merely pushes the play button to set them in motion, often then interacting with and entering their spaces by clicking the computer’s mouse as a mode of play itself. In e-literature’s fondness for image as well as wordplay, for sound as well as silence, one encounters a multisensory form that one plays as one would a film or an iPod and that one interacts with as one would a game. Such fooling around evokes in poet and reader the self-sufficient joy of reshuffling the perceptual deck of cards one has been handed by previous reading.
Inclusive rather than exclusive, this chapter addresses two complementary categories of electronic poetry that heretofore have not been discussed side by side. It’s curious that previous commentaries have neglected to assert and examine the common heritage of these forms:
1. Video Poetry
- Filmic poetry/Cin(E)-Poetry
2. New Media Poetry
- Fixed-text, computer-based poetry
- Alterable-text electronic poetry
- Collaborative/participatory media poetry
Each digital poetry mode makes use of technology to varying degrees and with varying purposes, even within these loose categories. One useful way to position these various electronic expressions is to articulate ways these poetries extend or reject the aesthetic qualities of traditional page-based verse to which they presumably respond. In short, given the aesthetic history that precedes them, these poetries are defined as much by what they don’t do as by what they do. These poetries’ relationships with the current dominant mode of the printed page thus can be figured by constructing a Page 117 set of sliding-scale metrics. The measures following range from the left pole’s conventional aesthetic assumptions to the right pole’s set of contrasting principles favored by e-poets:
|Printed-Page Poetry||Video/New Media Poetry|
||=Investment in a single authorial "I" …||… Acceptance of polyvocal expressions=||
||=Insistence on single authorship …||… Preference for collaborative authorship=||
||=Fidelity to fixed, unchanging text …||… Pursuit of nomadic, changeable text=||
||=Reliance on closed textual page …||… Dependence on readers' participatory input=||
||=Loyalty to page's performative space …||… Fondness for computer screen/gallery site=||
In practical ways this schema informs my ensuing discussion of video and new media poetries. For the neophyte fresh to the scene, these measures serve ably as an introduction to the aesthetic theory undergirding electronic poetry. Using such scales also enables the more sophisticated reader to acknowledge e-poetry’s real variety as well as the breadth of difference among its heterodox positions. In fact, some digital poetries can be shown, as we shall see later in this chapter, to share qualities with the page-based forms they ostensibly reject.
Corralling Digital Poetry’s Wild Horses
Such a variety of video and new media forms has evolved—and continues to advance—that erecting an overarching definition for these digital poetics proves to be unwieldy. The slew of names that users and critics employ to describe these modes provides ample evidence of the multitude of forms spilling from this digital cornucopia: hypertext, cyberpoetry, Cin(E)-Poetry, cybertext, net.art, click poetry, rich.lit, Web.art, technotext, e-poetry, and so on. In fact, strict adherents to one e-lit form may deny another e-lit form’s legitimacy as a digital mode. Seeking an umbrella classification, one tends therefore to focus less on the particulars of execution and more on the general reliance on technology permeating these various approaches. Talan Memmott, practitioner and critic of digital forms, proffers an appropriately inclusive definition: “that the object in question be ‘digital,’ mediated through digital technology, and that it be called ‘poetry’ by its author or by a critical reader.” Such expansive definition highlights the eventual product as much as the source and process of its creation—which is to say, under this Page 118 classification, one may start with printed text and then transform, enhance, enlarge, and reimagine it into digital expression.
This characterization, however, fails to satisfy digital purists such as N. Katherine Hayles. Hayles, an acute proponent/critic of electronic literature, contends that e-lit is “generally considered to exclude print literature that has been digitized.” Her definition of electronic literature limits the field to works that are “digital born,” that is, a “first generation digital object created on a computer and (usually) meant to be read on a computer.” In doing so, Hayles definitively rejects print-lit given new digital expression, but she also—by stipulating computer reception—privileges the computer screen over large-scale gallery digital installation works that occupy a space considerably more expansive. So thorny is the topic that the Electronic Literature Organization saw fit to convene a committee to come up with a viable definition. Here’s what resulted: “work with an important literary aspect that takes advantage of the capabilities and contexts provided by the stand-alone or networked computer.” This kind of taxonomic nitpicking demonstrates the difficulty of finding a workable definition that remains open to the multiplicity of digital poetries.
The Institutional Scene
What’s astounding, although perhaps not surprising, is the fashion in which this revolution is taking place almost completely unseen beneath the (upturned?) noses of traditional, academic poetry circles. Most normative university creative writing programs have, either by artistic choice or by simple inattention, set themselves against the digital poetics challenging their disciplinary authority. Many university creative writing instructors—most of them poets themselves—blithely reject the terms of this challenge, and still others linger sleepily incognizant of their supremacy’s being contested at all. Only a select few Language poets, chief among them Ron Silliman and Charles Bernstein, have drifted onto Glazier’s “matrix of new shores.” And Bernstein is perhaps the exception that proves the rule, as he’s also comfortably ensconced in academe as professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania. The bulk of major players in the digital poetry world are, as Alan Filreis puts it, “productively unaffiliated with the academy.” Inside the academy, poets interested in new media poetry look not to fellow members of the creative writing faculty or even to the radical theorists among Page 119 their English Department colleagues. Instead, they wander the hallways of Instructional Technology departments, digital hat in hand, hoping for chance encounter with a computer programmer or multimedia maven who takes kindly to the notion of poetry as an admixture of digital word, image, and sound.
My own case maps the relevant academic terrain. When I, as print-based poet, developed an interest in exploring the potential of digital poetic expression, not a single departmental colleague even vaguely knew what I was talking about. What’s more, when I cast a line among other university-based poets, many of them big fish in academic poetry’s smallish pond, I got nary a nibble. None of the dozen I approached had the least inkling that the field existed. Digital poetry looms beyond the periphery of their attention and thus outside the borders of what they consider to be poetic art. Most of them shrunk from me as if I’d professed to sell my poetic soul to the digital devil, to the computer, for heaven’s sake.
That’s because print poets look paradoxically upon the personal computer, gazing Janus-like upon the quaint analog past while simultaneously squinting into an abstruse digital future. On a working level, page poets view the computer as a tool akin to the pencil—albeit one offering more subtle word-processing capabilities than the mere eraser. To them, the computer amounts to a dutiful, voiceless slave that faithfully processes the poet’s oeuvre. Click it on, click it off—in this way poets imagine themselves masters of technology. On a more esoteric plane, many poets simultaneously regard the computer as an embodiment of our silly, shallow, crass, and hopelessly commodified world that values poetry less than YouTube or a long-life battery. Tellingly, many poets not-so-secretly fear the computer is actually their master, a demigod whose technologies elude and thus control them. The results of this intellectual tug of war are notable and lingering. While I harbor my own reservations about technology, none of my traditional-poet friends regards new media creations even to be loosely poetic, let alone considers such expression to constitute a poem. The single university faculty member who entertained the idea of collaborating on some sort of media poem was James Ferolo, director of the school’s multimedia program. And to be honest, he first responded to me guardedly, suspiciously eyeing me as a spy behind the lines of his digital kingdom.
Admittedly, to the printed-page classicist and digital tenderfoot, much e-poetry can seem merely vacuous or oddly ostentatious, a kind of electronic Page 120 showing-off that valorizes not the poem but the process by which it comes into being. Marjorie Perloff, herself no adversary to the movement, cogently summarizes this view by suggesting much digital poetry today seems “to fetishize digital presentation as something in itself remarkable, as if to say, ‘Look at what the computer can do.’” In sum, I suggest one should resist canonizing the digital in favor of the poetry it is meant to embody and express. One should guard against substituting the vanity of antipoetry for the poetic thing itself. What the medium can proffer is means to poetic ends. In this way the best current digital poetries modify our poetic inheritance and contribute to our greater appreciation of the form.
Video and Cin(E)-Poetry
The generic label “video poetry” encompasses wildly various aesthetic and technological terrain, so much so the uninitiated benefit from a map to guide their virtual travel. There are two basic manifestations of video poetry: docu-video-poems and filmic poems. The first video poems arguably can be said to be humble videotapings of poets reading their works alone against a gray backdrop or in front of a seat-shifting audience. These docu-videos seek nothing more than to record a poet’s voice and figure as she or he intones the poem, giving literal body and voice to what readers (and bored schoolkids) had heretofore experienced only as strings of letters upon a printed page. The departure point for what has since become a fairly exotic sojourn, these videos may seem tame, if not altogether domesticated. However, this first attempt to break the page barrier, if you will, was part historical record— hence the documentary aspect—and part aesthetic experimentation that aspired to poetry’s oral roots by moving off page into performative space. Poetry’s performative, not merely textual, experience was foregrounded, recalling poetry’s original bardic offices—the skald giving forth for royalty and the assembled tribe. These modest beginnings were in actuality rather revolutionary. They desired to use technology to make the in situ performative experience of the poetry reading available at anytime to anyone with access to the then-current technology’s evolving cutting edge of the VCR, DVD, or Internet. Gradually, one’s notion of the tribe moved from one’s close geographical peers to the world at large, a global poetry clan of fellow believers.
One notable result of the docu-video-poem was its ability to scale the Page 121 fortified walls of the nation’s school system. Suddenly, visionary teachers had means to engage students with living poetic art, a human and febrile performance that was literally and figuratively moving. This freed poetry from the textbook page and gave it body and voice. My own use of the docuvideo poem in classrooms elicited energetic student response to the musical power of language. Strangely, the most disengaged students directly engaged what they had regarded formerly as merely dry dead words of dry dead poets. What’s more, in nearly every classroom, students remarked upon the ways hearing and seeing the poet read a poem enabled them to enter the work’s textual subtleties. This reception encouraged them not only to appreciate such verbal nuance but also to aspire to the same in their own writing. Reading poetry became not the usual Where’s Waldo? hunt for meaning but a lively response to performative art. Indeed, the most popular aspects of the two poetry Web sites I’ve created are their video and audio poetry selections; those pages garner nearly triple the number of visitor hits compared to the Web sites’ pages offering mere textual poetry.
A good example is African American poet Allison Joseph’s video performance of her poem “In the Bookstore.” The poem recounts the black teenage speaker’s experience of being followed around a Bronx bookstore by the shop’s white owner who was certain the teenager was there only to “steal her store / out from under her.” Why else, the racist owner wonders, would an African American teenager come to a bookstore? Surely not, as the teenage speaker admits of herself, because she was “greedy for the life of the mind.” My summation of the poem pales in comparison to Joseph’s inimitable and feisty video performance, as her rendition further contextualizes the poem’s print version available online.
Other Web sites featuring such work have been created by Chicagoan Kurt Heintz and University of Pennsylvania professor Alan Filreis. Heintz’s Videotheque, one element of his e-poets.network, parades a sheath of docupoems amid poets’ video and audio poetry. Elsewhere, Filreis has collected more than fifteen hundred audio recordings of contemporary poets reading representative poems in song-length MP3 format. His hope is to induce university students to choose iPod poems over music during their daily walks to class. Perhaps the most compelling Internet archive of audio and video poetry can be found at UbuWeb, an independent and not-for-profit resource “dedicated to all strains of the avant-garde, ethnopoetics, and outsider arts.” Focusing on the work of outlier artists decidedly beyond the mainstream— Page 122”opposing” poets, if you will—UbuWeb’s library of arts-related audio and video rivals or exceeds that of any other such repository, both mammoth and ambitious in its scope.
This sort of documentary-based video poetry owns artistic limitations, as Heintz and multiple others have discovered. For one thing, viewers of docupoems may tend to focus their attention more on the performers and less on the works being performed. The second broad category of video poetry, what I call “filmic poetry,” responds to these constraints by presenting an amalgam of spoken or written text, imagery, and music. In a gesture not far removed from MTV’s groundbreaking venture into music video, practitioners of filmic poetry blend word, image, music, sound, and performance into an expanded conception of poetic possibility. It’s one thing to hear and see the poet speaking word and image, but it’s quite another to hear and see the poem as word and image visually interpreted as one does in film or cinema. As Jean Cocteau believed the language of the cinema was the language of the poet, in filmic poetry the language of the poet inversely becomes the language of cinema. Advocates of the form assert that this mode does not represent the death knell of reading, as some might fret. Instead, they suggest the form constructs the architecture of a new kind of literacy that Heintz describes as “visible, audible, temporal, conscious, tactile, bonding author and reader by their gaze.” In short, image, sound, and music function as words in filmic poetry. Image is word. Word is image.
One of Heintz’s first ventures into filmic poetry was his 1995 version of Quraysh Ali Lansana’s “Passage,” a print-based poem examining “the rites of passage” among generations of African American males. Set in wintry Chicago, the video poem opens with a blurred shot of the poet’s voicing his poem askance before the skittery camera’s eye. The setting is urban nighttime, as edgy and nervous as the gyrating poet and the equally urgent camera, while the poet intones, “Sirens scream, / another nighttime episode of themes.” Soundtracked by a thumping jazz bass, the poet gives forth on the urban scene while a scat-voiced singer wails a haunting vibe.
Cascading images of downtown bus stops and street corners, the video moves among the accustomed frustrations and temptations of urban life: all the “waiting” for a bus, for meaning, for directions to somewhere redemptive that seems evermore elusive, a “sad, sad repetition.” Highlighting the intergenerational nature of this passage, images of 40 oz. malt liquor bottles fade in and out of school hallway scenes of young black men, waiting Page 123 their own endless wait for “change,” for “tomorrow” amid “broken dreams,” exams, and “manhood” checked at the door.
What’s curious here is how much the poem remains only one man’s art, in spite of its bevy of urban scenes and characters. Because the poet as speaker voices the poem and frequently reappears on camera in body, a black Tiresias whose blurred vision sees what others are blind to, the video valorizes the single authorial I and “eye.” Despite its wide cast of jump-cut-imaged characters and its nearly frenetic scene-shifting, the video poem, in effect, offers up a singular vision of one voice and one poet. Technology has given us a body of images to flesh out the spoken voice of the unseen text, but all of them issue from a solitary authorial source. Surprisingly, one may argue this quality is less avant-garde than characteristic of the traditional academic lyric.
Other filmic expressions deviate strikingly from this one-person/one-vision approach. Many filmic poems seem not the expression of individual voice but rather a collective hallucination given digital reality. Whether in reality these pieces are collaborative, they give viewers just such an impression through their blending of forms once thought to be discrete. One way to do so is to eliminate individual human characters altogether and replace them with animated figures and digital stills. Likewise, the poet’s spoken voice is swapped with nomadic text that shifts about the computer screen’s material space, appearing and disappearing in random or sequential patterns. To add the sonic component lost when the poet’s spoken voice is silenced, digital music frequently soundtracks the visual display.
One natural extension of filmic poetry is its inclusion in an international array of video and film festivals. No doubt the overlapping of technological and lyrical interests between poetry and film partly accounts for this, but so also does the ubiquity of the Web as distribution means for such work. Even a quick Google search turns up a plethora of video poetry international festivals, including those in San Francisco, Chicago, Buenos Aires, Vancouver, New Delhi, Barcelona, and Aix-en-Provence, France.
Perhaps no one has done more to fuel the interaction of poetry and film than digital artist and filmmaker George Aguilar. In fact, Aguilar coined one of the more prevalent terms for the mode: Cin(E)-Poetry. Aguilar works in a variety of video technologies, among them digital still photography, animation, 3-D animation, and Machinimation—and each of his Cin(E)-Poems augments its visual features with a dynamic soundtrack of music and sound Page 124 effects. Aguilar, while often drawing inspiration from the natural world, say, sunrise in the Grand Canyon, or from the world of Impressionistic art, shows particular fondness for literary texts. A representative sample of sources for Aguilar’s works includes an ancient Chinese story from the Spring and Autumn period of 700 b.c.e., the work of World War I poet Wilfred Owen, and even a poem by the relatively unknown contemporary Minnesota poet David Bengtson. Both by practice and by inclination, Aguilar examines the interplay of printed text and video expression.
Aguilar’s “Frozen Blistered Hand,” an homage to Wilfred Owen’s poignant World War I verses, can be usefully described as “digital painting.” It incorporates digital stills, animation, and Machinimation technology with battle-zone sound effects and a lilting Brahms violin composition. Rather than reproducing in total a single Owen poem, Aguilar favors literary “sampling,” excerpting lines from several Owen poems in the fashion of a contemporary DJ’s penchant for stealing bass lines and guitar hooks. And Aguilar doesn’t lift excerpts as intact verse units; instead, he works in fragments, shoring them against his ruins à la T. S. Eliot’s methodology. In “Frozen, Blistered Hand,” for instance, Aguilar creates a fresh textual experience by stealing the fifth line from Owen’s “Strange Meeting” and splicing it onto line ten from the same poem. In this way, the Cin(E)-Poet serves as literary as well as visual editor, juxtapositioning and realigning original printed-page verse. Aguilar’s “Frozen, Blistered Hand” opens with a digitized photo of a World War I pilot against whom Owen’s words progressively appear in slow-motion reveal:
While a digitized solder plays the Brahms on violin, scenes of trench and aerial warfare animate the computer screen. Intermittently, lines from several Owen poems emerge on screen, text formatted as centerpieces of the home front’s flickering wartime newsreels produced by Pathe-Gazette. The effect is to deliver to the reader poetic lines in the historically accurate cinematic manner that home-front citizens received news of the war. Later, as an animated aerial dogfight plays out, one plane spirals down, smoking its death spin to the ground it meets with a flash and bang. To close his Cin(E)Poem, Aguilar adds a further element of intertextuality by inserting seven Page 125 well-known lines from William Butler Yeats’s “The Second Coming” splayed in ghostly white letters against a solemn black screen, beginning with “Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world” and closing with “Surely the Second Coming is at hand.” All the while the Brahms plays achingly, both counterpoint to and confirmation of the black silence that swallows the poem.
One other Aguilar composition warrants attention as much for its author as for its execution. Aguilar took retired high school English instructor David Bengtson’s page-based poem “Blackbirds” and gave it digitized audio and visual life. Bengtson is hardly the kind of chap one would even loosely associate with Cin(E)-Poetry endeavors. He hails not from either fashionable coast or from an urban center offering the poet an eclectic soup pot of avant-garde artists from which to ladle his aesthetic broth. No, Bengtson’s roots finger down into the loamy soil of Long Prairie, Minnesota, where he seems a video-making isolato among wheat and sunflowers and the long horizon of the nation’s Northern plains. Even more notably, Bengtson came to video poetry equally from an esoteric longing for writerly expression and from his devotion to teaching high school creative writing workshops. A fellow used to open spaces and limitless horizons of north central Minnesota, Bengtson chafed at the confined space and literal materiality of the printed page. In the realm of image as word and word as image, Bengtson found a hospitable form as borderless and fenceless as the land he moved across. Notably, Bengtson became among the first American high school instructors to design and teach a video poetry course in which students combined the writing of poetry with the creation of video poems. For his students, an Apple computer’s iMovie program became both means and lens through which to reenvision what for them had been a purely print-based form.
Aguilar gives us Bengtson’s “Blackbirds” via the poet’s on-screen emergent text, animation, and Aguilar’s digital (colorized) stills photographed in Long Prairie. The Cin(E)-Poem initiates with an image of a prairie church, its bell clanging funereally against an explosively orange sky, a symbol of the shades of violence about to ensue. Aguilar affords the poem a kind of pre-text pretext before it appears, one that establishes the tone and sets up a soon-to-be-realized parallel between these birds and their human counterparts, by opening the Cin(E)-Poem with these lines: “At this final service / all heads are bowed. / The relatives have gathered.” Then a flurry of farm images appears, upon which the poem’s beginning lines waver and disappear:Page 126
The “whole field” referred to is one of ripe sunflowers, bent-necked with the weight of their full heads of seeds, and “they” references a flock of keening blackbirds descending like bombers from a sky so bright it looks aflame. When the birds land, they alight with vengeance upon the tipped neck of each plant, one to one, coupled in their hunger and their providence, each bird pecking away the sunflower’s open face. When three gunshots ring out, off go the screeching birds, leaving the field to the poet who walks its rows, touching “the fine / white hair that grows on each neck.” Then the poem quick-cuts back to the church scene, where the pre-text lines reappear, this time cueing viewers to the scene. These relatives who haven’t “spoken for years” have gathered to fight over the dead kin’s possessions, especially a large “brooch.” When blackbird keening gives way to the rush of human voices arguing unintelligibly, readers note the parallel established between two kinds of ravenous creatures indicted here. Slowly, the brooch’s twin digitized human faces disassemble and reemerge into paired sunflower faces, as both human and plant suffer the common fate of being picked over by the greedy. Its digital space fading to black and its credits shimmering on screen, the Cin(E)-Poem’s symbolic tolling rings disturbingly true.
Lest you think Aguilar and Bengtson’s collaboration appears provincial in its homely setting and stark digital imagery, let me adduce proof to the contrary. Aguilar and Bengtson entered the Cin(E)-Poetry version of “Blackbirds” in the 2004 Berkeley Film and Video Festival; there, the poem garnered Grand Prize Winner honors in the Experimental category. Evidence thus suggests that festival judges, denizens of West Coast chic and its technological cutting edge, were captivated by a Midwesterner’s vision given poetic digital expression. Score one for Long Prairie.
New Media Poetry
Among the first literary scholars to suggest ways the “electronic word” was changing our conception of literature and the literary, Richard Lanham noted in 1989 the computer’s knack for breaking down barriers between creator and critic. The computer itself, in fact, came to constitute for Lanham Page 127 “the ultimate postmodern work of art.” As a result, he championed the enlarging of literary studies to encompass other art forms. Much new media poetry extends from this understanding that the computer simultaneously dismantles the old order while also bridging the gap to an entirely new conception of what constitutes the literary. Both means to create art and art object itself, the computer insists that new media poetry readers engage the materiality of the poem in ways that printed-text readers have come to ignore or simply to take for granted. Centuries of reading practice literally hardwired into the human brain have accustomed us to accept the poem’s presentation on the printed page as a given, a mode unalterable and trustworthily forthright. Encountering a printed page, few pause to consider the visual coding inherent in the poem’s appearance on the page. As Jerome McCann argues in his cogent Radiant Textuality: Literature after the World Wide Web, print texts employ—in their use of italics, indentation, line breaks, and the like—a manner of formatting mark-up language not far removed from that of the digital text’s background code. Still, most readers, lulled into readerly somnambulism by longstanding print conventions, fail to think of printed-page text as a highly coded field, an arena bringing together vortices of writerly and readerly choices at play.
Precisely this assumption underlies the making and reception of new media poetry, a realm where poet, poem, and reader interact within a digital locale rather than upon the flat plane of a printed page. The result, Talan Memmott proposes, is that the new media poet is “not writing on a surface but writing in a space.” The technological nature of that space opens up avenues of convergence among the word and multiple art forms, including music, film, sound, and still image. If any notion can be submitted as foundational among the great variety of new media poetry expressions, it is the belief in merging art forms whose functions and capabilities overlap. New media poems work best—or perhaps only—if the reader comes to envision word and image not only as complementary but also as interchangeable. Network artist Adrian Miles suggests the primacy of this view in his own work, which he claims has been “primarily about getting rid of this distinction between words and pictures. For me, writing hypertextually is always a postcinematic writing. . . . While pictures work differently than words, their networks . . . or the differences in their networks are erased.” All new media poetry aspires to envision word, sound, and image as unified not discrete entities. Support for this claim can be found in multimedia texts archived at Page 128 what is arguably the finest repository of e-poetry: the University of Buffalo’s Electronic Poetry Center Web site, founded by new media poet and critic Loss Pequeno Glazier. This site gathers a wide array of digital poems, including work by notable e-poets such as Jim Andrews, John Cayley, and Brian Kim Stefans.
One expression of new media poetry can be positioned as an extension of experimental print literature of earlier periods, experiments that met their limits upon the circumscribed boundaries of the page. In Digital Poetics, Glazier traces e-poetry’s lineage in print-based poetries, including Modernist innovations with the polyvocal “I” and multiple referentiality, Charles Olson’s Projectivist theory of the page as an energy field for splayed textual expression, various “mimeo” poetry practitioners, and Concrete poets’ insistence on the interplay of the visual and the verbal. With the arrival of digital technology, the playing field, however, was allowed to migrate off the page into electronic space. What, for example, the Concrete poet could do only in fixed form of shaped language on the stable printed page, the e-poet can now do in nomadic, changeable text migrating in and out of the digital space.
In significant ways some e-poems show their heritage in the printed page by their adherence to textual fixity. That is, although the e-poem’s text may skitter wildly about the page, appearing and disappearing with seeming randomness, this textual performance is fixed by the poet and programmer. What appears in one reading/viewing will appear in similar fashion in subsequent readings. Peter Howard’s “Xylo” offers an instructive example. The poem opens with flashing red words scrolling frenetically upon a white screen. All the while techno music soundtracks the movement of what appears to be a rifle sight—a circle intersected at its quadrants by short, straight lines—as it flits about the screen. Additionally, several eruptive sights spew words upon the screen, changing colors and fonts and moving with nervous alacrity. The reader’s eye is faced with an increment of choices. Should one follow the crosshairs, the tiny red words, or the large, more colorful text that animates the page then vanishes with frustrating speediness? That bevy of choices, mostly absent from a printed-page text, offers much of the poem’s allure. Readers confront the sense they will never be able to catch up with the text’s Heraclitean flux, an image no doubt meant to evoke the bewitchingly episodic flow of human existence. Gradually the red words begin to assemble lineated text in various spots around the screen, and the Page 129 reader is comforted at last to make out something vaguely reminiscent of the printed poem and its means of dispensing language as meaning:
Over time, the flitting verbiage gains a certain tonal consistency identifiable in word strings such as “seduction,” “Venus,” “Cupid,” “covet,” and readers imagine romantic interplay between a couple immersed in a natural setting. When the following lines coagulate, readers assume they have entered a conventional love poem presented through unconventional means:
When subsequent bracketed text urges readers to “close up” on a “piton” pulling loose, a rope drawn tight, granite giving way, readers suddenly see the rock-climbing metaphor as emblematic of the fragility of human relationships, as one lover dissolves into another and each partner has “no memory of being attached.”
What’s curious, and wonderful, about the poem is how its text—despite its nomadic movements and evaporations—retains an aura of fixedness. Its Flash media design allows for the poet’s fixed text to play only as the poet programmed it to appear. In this way its text is thus as controlled and controlling as the typical page-oriented poem. The text does not alter its performance from one viewing to the next, and its readers do not participate in its making by altering its performance or contributing lines of their own. Readers, by their initializing act of clicking “Play,” consume the poem as they would ingest a meal made wholly by another. Although readers engage the poem’s text in fresh digital ways, one might also argue that fixing the text and closing it to readerly changes replicate similar manners of a printed-page poem. What at first may seem strikingly radical is shown, upon closer examination, to owe much to an earlier poetic mode whose aesthetic the poem imaginatively expands via digital means.
Other forms of new media poetry are founded not on the concept of Page 130 textual stability but instead on counternotions of textual instability. These e-poems valorize textual variability and its resultant offering of surprise, employing the computer’s technological possibilities to produce this effect. One such text is Glazier’s “White-Faced Bromelaids on 20 Hectares,” which utilizes Java Script to alter its welter of Latin American images and Spanish/ English text. Mixed by a computer algorithm, fresh textual phrasings are generated every ten seconds, so line variants blend with the original text of this eight-poem sequence. Glazier offers the first-time reader a set of “reading notes” as guideline for engaging the text of his eight-, nine-, and ten-line poems: “Allow this page to cycle for a while, so you can take in some of the images and variant titles. When you are ready, press begin. Once there, read each page slowly, watching as each line periodically reconstitutes itself regenerating randomly selected lines with that line’s variant. Eight-line poems have 256 possible variations; nine-line poems have 512 possible versions.” Thus, the poet’s original text is made malleable, restless, and evolving—suggesting a fundamental distrust in fixedness of any text or idea. Many freshly mixed phrasings prove to be inventive, striking, even humorous. Others strike one as Frankensteinian restitchings merely digitally cobbled together. The poem therefore results from the collaborative effort of poet and computer program, for the poet makes an original text that the algorithm continually remakes. In this way the poem’s invisible coding is made visible to the reader as an imaginative wellspring of generative possibility. In effect, this coded algorithm becomes the poem’s inventive Dr. Frankenstein, randomly unfixing the body of formerly fixed text.
This regenerating process problematizes the reading process, making it nearly impossible for a reader to “read each page slowly” with the triggered alteration approaching untiringly every ten seconds. Patient readers are rewarded with surprising juxtapositions carrying considerable suggestive import. The lush Latin American scenes (of Costa Rica?) mesh nicely with the blended English and Spanish text, which not so subtly hints at a necessary reappraisal of “colonial” attitudes and politics. In the first of eight poems, readers encounter both real and imagined visions of a “white housed land,” juxtaposing the presidential White House of Washington, DC, with more humble dwellings native to Latin America. The smashing together of native scenes and lifestyles with the “Big Mac” culture of North America slowly creates, disassembles, and reassembles a raft of meanings. Many of these are electric with political/cultural charge inherent in phrases such Page 131 as “reading the Pre-Socratics in Havana” or becoming a “social flycatcher.” Glazier’s poem recalls for me the cut-up poem experimentation of Dadaist poets who were fond of disassembling text—literally cutting up the paged text—and then randomly regenerating fresh text by pulling the new poem’s verbal parts one by one from a bag or hat. In a metaphor both telling and on target, e-poet Jim Andrews labels his own versions of this form “Stir Frys,” citing as well the adventurous prose writer William S. Burroughs’s and the artist Dali’s earlier fondness for similar cut-up remixings.
Another type of e-poem operates as a site for participants’ interactivity with a changeable text. A good example is Andrews’s Arteroids 2.5, which combines text and readerly play. Here, the author’s own brief texts and textual excerpts from other sources, say, Charles Olson’s esteemed essay on poetic method and form, “Projective Verse,” are subject to the reader’s ability to click and move that text by moving the computer mouse. As its name implies, the poem knocks off the popular video game Asteroids; however, in this version, the player flies around deep space in a spaceship chosen from a storehouse arsenal of poetic and critical terminology. If the player’s ship is struck by one of the cascading words or phrases, it blows up to become a “circular letteristic spray of letters.” If the player successfully shoots the fragmented text, that text will “vaporize into ideas.” Andrews describes the process this way: “When you ‘win’ or ‘lose’ at Arteroids, a short text is displayed. There are about 500 such texts in Arteroids. Some of those texts are quotations; most are my own work. And there are blue and green texts that appear in Arteroids. Most of these are mine, but there are also texts by Christina McPhee and Helen Thorington that are selectable in Word for Weirdos in ‘play mode’ of Arteroids.” Andrews has found innovative digital means to conjoin the act of thinking about and making poetry with the essential act of play, and thus the player interacts with text- and image-making in a kind of art-game.
Part of the allure here surely is the notion of e-poetry as mode of literary liberation, occasioned by hypertext’s interactive properties. Still, that interaction operates—as does Glazier’s poem discussed earlier—within explicit boundaries of text, image, and motion—not within an infinitely various world of possibility. The reader’s limits of poetic variation are established within boundaries demarcated by the poet’s original text. The user cannot truly be considered to be boundlessly free. Lynn Wells wisely notes that such a user interacts “with a previously established set of parameters” that limits Page 132 the user’s supposed “autonomy.” Both the world the user moves through and his agent of engagement with it have been created (and thus fenced in) by the poem-game’s poet/programmer.
Some e-poems stretch the idea of alterable text and collaborative creation even further from the normative conventions of traditional page-oriented verse. In response, some contemporary poetry readers may well dispute whether the thing created is a poem at all. The piece may be playful and even defensibly artful, but is it a poem? Consider the matter of Seb Chevrel and Gabe Kean’s “You and We,” a piece originally appearing in the Web journal Born Magazine and one that its creators call “a collective experiment.” Interacting with the piece, visitors participate by uploading texts and images that then become part of the poem’s mixed-media presentation. Since the sequences appear in an algorithmic order, the work continually evolves in terms of arrangement and content. A driving techno beat, the favored soundtrack genre of many new media poems, spills over the feverishly changing text and image samplings, resulting in weird, humorous, and occasionally meaningful on-screen juxtapositions of text and image. Fairly innocuous text such as “Jeff Steiner I remember you,” for instance, blends with a photo of three young men standing arm-in-arm to create a quaint sort of family-photo-album effect. Then, in the next instant this formerly bland text is charged with emotive meaning when “Jeff Steiner I remember you” is superimposed over the face of a dead man laid out horizontally across the screen. Here, chance content and algorithmic design combine to make a stunningly evocative event. Still, among lines that readers rightly would consider passable attempts at hip poetic, say, “I’m growing flowers in my head,” the reader is bathed with mere text-message content of this sort, “Hi T.M.” This flat intrusion likely annoys most readers whose initials aren’t T.M. Regardless, there seems no shortage of readers tempted to join the piece’s collective artistic endeavors. On the December 2008 date of my viewing, the poem boasted 9,996 “txts” and 4,428 “imgs,” a slew of them uploaded from users’ own troves of word and image.
The site cautions participants to be “patient” after uploading their contributions to the collective experiment. One can easily imagine visitors enduring the site’s flood of image, text, and techno music (which thankfully can be silenced with a click) only long enough to see their own text and images displayed. “Hey, Kirsten, I just saw your note,” we imagine T.M. exclaiming from the other room, as he clicks off the screen and departs the Page 133 site. Who lingers for a sufficiently prolonged period for the work’s flood of image and language to suffuse the reader with any sense of wholeness? Or is that just the point? The work’s poet/programmer has assumed the role of facilitator whose invention enables others to engage in a creative act. In this way the work’s creative performance is founded largely in the collectivity of visitors’ (momentary) participatory acts. One might rightly deem its participants to be the work’s authors, thus decentering the “poets” as creative agents and equally foregrounding the question of what actually is authored in the process.
The question of authorship is further complicated by recent developments in what has come to be known as Flarf poetry, a loose “movement” of poets favoring the collage mode of composition. Where the issue of authorship gets knotty is in the source of the very text collaged into a poem: much of Flarf poetry originates outside of the author, culled from writing available through a variety of Internet venues such as blogs and chat rooms as well as through Google searches. In short, much of Flarf writing is made of others’ writing. What’s more, the raw material favored for sampling in Flarf poems may resemble in form and content the basest of Internet drivel. That content habitually exudes sentimentality, spews offensive social or sexual commentary, and bandies about its ranting as if in mortal combat with traditional, sedate, moralistic verse. The results frequently can be seen as hilarious ripostes to the notion of staid verse itself.
The form got its start, Flarf legend has it, when Gary Sullivan resolved to expose the International Library of Poetry (ILP) as a publisher more intent on making money than on printing quality verse. Indeed, many accuse the ILP of preying upon unschooled poets by accepting almost anything sent its way and then charging these overjoyed poets outlandish fees to publish their works in anthologized format. The International Library of Poetry may be fairly regarded as a vanity press for unwitting poets who do not realize they are paying to play. To unmask the fraud, Sullivan submitted a purposefully dreadful poem for consideration by the ILP. In short order Sullivan’s truly awful collage poem was accepted for publication. Thus, the theory and practice of Flarf were born with Sullivan’s poem “mm-hmm,” which opens with these (pun intended) crappy lines: “Yeah, mm-hmm, it’s true / big birds make /big doo!” Over the form’s brief five-year history, Flarf has expanded its crosshairs to target mainstream poetic art and to call into question the very concept of good taste. In this way Flarf resembles the early twentieth- Page 134 century Dadaist rebellion born in response to the horrors of World War I. Dadaist poets often (literally) cut-up text in order to reassemble and remake it, thereby accentuating the absurd in an age when all social order appeared bankrupt. Employing fresh technology, Flarf poets have tweaked this method of creation via disassembly. Flarf practitioners selectively sample spoonfuls of others’ texts to fill their own poems’ plates, satisfying their hunger for language and expression by feeding at the Internet’s unlimited-trip verbal smorgasbord. Doing so, Flarf employs the digital innovations of its moment to needle the era’s prevailing aesthetics.
That the movement attracted the attention of the dominant mode’s most revered venue—Chicago’s Poetry magazine—both validates its insurgency and arguably signals its death throes. Flarf would do well to consider the implications surrounding the appropriation of its rebellion by poetry’s mainstream forces. How anti-aesthetic can one be when one has been published by the very institution one seeks to dethrone? The July/August 2009 issue of Poetry devotes lavish attention to sampling the work of Flarf poets and Conceptual poets (the latter a loosely corollary movement). Among Flarf poets included are K. Silem Mohammed, Mel Nichols, Drew Gardner, and Sullivan himself, whose work is featured in cartoon format. There, using others’ words as a substitution for one’s own, as both personal and poetic strategy, is championed by Mohammed’s “Poems about Trees”: “when I get nervous I get hyper and bump into people / I read to them what MapQuest gave me.” And Mel Nichols’s “I Google Myself” does double-duty Flarf by referring directly to Google as means of writing and of self-definition. By hip allusion to The Divinyls’s song “I Touch Myself,” the poem gains an even more sexy intertextuality, a self-referencing that is both cultural and personal: “When I think of you / I Google myself.” As these poems build a tentative notion of what Flarf poetry may be, they simultaneously dismantle that view. Flarf poems revel in the instability and variability of context, purpose, and meaning that underlie the form.
As introduction to the Poetry feature, Kenneth Goldsmith, a Conceptual poet who practices a brand of “found” poetics, offers his take on what it means to be a poet in the Internet age. Goldsmith gives context to Flarf (and to some extent Conceptual) poets’ propensity to nibble from others’ works as opposed to wholly serving up their own: “Identity, for one, is up for grabs. Why use your own words when you can express yourself just as well by using someone else’s? And if your identity is not your own, then sincerity must be Page 135 tossed out as well. . . . Disposability, fluidity, and recycling: there’s a sense that these words aren’t meant for forever. Today they’re glued to a page but tomorrow they could re-emerge as a Facebook meme. Fusing the avant-garde impulses of the last century with the technologies of the present, these strategies propose an expanded field for twenty-first-century poetry.” In this way, the means and definition of poetry—as well as human identify itself— come to be altered by technological creep. Here technology offers Flarf both the method and the content to express evolving poetic practice.
Replay and Revision: Summation and Prognostication
This discussion commenced with a set of sliding-scale measures that illustrates e-poetry’s oppositional relationship to “academic” poetic practice. Those metrics have been useful in detailing digital poetry’s departure from standard poetic manners that invest largely in the voiced language of a recognizable “I,” single authorship, the fixed text closed to collaborative participation, and loyalty to the printed page. But scrutiny has also shown unexpected ways some electronic poetries share qualities with print-based forms against which they supposedly rebel, say, for example, some filmic poetry’s reliance on the author-centered lyric “I.” To varying degrees of choice and execution, the digital examples examined earlier demonstrate the working principles of a counteraesthetic fairly summarized here:
- Polyvocal expression
- Collaborative authorship
- Nomadic and changeable texts
- Participatory user input
- Preference for the computer screen as performative site
By means of this ostensibly antipoetic poetic stance, e-poetry hopes to establish its own legitimacy, partly by extending forms of experimental printed-page verse and partly by repudiating conventional verse’s dearest assumptions. As the Russian critic Juri Lotman notes, all artistic rebellions root themselves in negating the prior mode’s accepted qualities by use of what he calls “minus-devices,” acts of consistent, conscious rejection of previous artistic principles. However, by defining themselves in negation to the conventional mode, all such rebellions inextricably tie themselves to the Page 136 manners they refuse. Without its necessary other, the countermovement’s heretical rebelliousness drifts unmoored amid a sea of possibilities. Floating too far from charted land, the revolution risks losing track of where it was headed in the first place. Worse yet, if the mutinous work sails radically too far from the aesthetic regime it has tossed overboard, readers may lose this useful context and fail to see the piece as literature at all.
One wonders if that fate may befall some works included in the “Electronic Literature Collection” compiled by the Electronic Literature Organization to archive and present digital works. Katherine Hayles accurately describes most of these pieces as exhibiting “important visual components” and “sonic effects” blended with language. Open-minded readers will regard much of this work, experimental though it may be, as unequivocally literary if not as purely literature. What’s at issue here is the roughly one third of these works that present “no recognizable words.” How will current and future readers welcome those pieces as literature when they lack the fundamental literary ingredient of language? As one has come to expect, Perloff puts a fine point to it: “However we choose to define it, poetry is the language art; it is, by all accounts, language that is somehow extraordinary, that can be processed only upon rereading.” The new digital techniques enabling language to move around a computer screen and to disappear in a programmable Flash, Perloff argues, “become merely tedious unless the poetry in question is, in Ezra Pound’s words, ‘charged with meaning.’”
Many of us know the aching disappointment that issues from perusing the lyrics of a favorite song we have giddily hummed and jammed and danced to. How often we find that those words lack the voltage with which they bristle when accompanied by horn and flute, violin and timpani, guitar and drums. Listening to music, as well as making it, is thus a holistic experience in which constituent parts dazzle decidedly less than the work’s unified whole. The same can be argued for reading—and for making—poems. Reading and commenting on e-poetry thus necessarily demands attention to the whole as much as to its parts. A playlist of the best electronic poems, whether video or new media in form, amply rewards this type of global aesthetic consideration.
Reflecting on digital poetry also obligates the critic to become conversant with the ways these works are created via word, image, and code. Memmott calls this newfangled critic of the newfangled poetry the “poetician,” commentator intent upon discovering the ways language and technology come Page 137 to “play” together—his word choice echoing our initial talk of play as essential to e-poetry. If considerable numbers of fresh readers are ever to engage new media poetry in worthwhile ways, the gulf between digital literary works and print-oriented responses to those works must be bridged by knowing commentators from both realms. In that regard, one hopes this essay is but the vanguard of other print-based poets’ ruminations on digital verse.
It may be that new media works exist in a realm for which we currently have no sufficiently reliable taxonomy, a kind of art that may be regarded as possessing poetic qualities but that may not be definitively classified as poetry. Engaging that realm’s possibilities and limitations may enable poets the luxurious necessity of unceasing growth, an evolutionary aesthetic bearing the art form into its future. To occasion such advance—which ought to be the fervent goal of poets of all aesthetic stripes—each side of the digital divide must both speak to and learn from the other. While the two sides may not now, nor perhaps ever, stand together upon those “new shores” Glazier believes e-poetry sails from and toward, poetry has begun a digital voyage from which there is little chance of turning back.
chapter 8 These Drafts and Castoffs: Mapping Literary Manuscripts
Outside Madrid’s Reine Sophia Museum, night’s pregnant belly spilling over the city’s belted horizon, I too was heavy with arrival. Picasso’s Guernica had delivered me from paella and red wine. Spanish teenagers cascading off a bus soon engulfed me. In unison they lifted the black hoods of their Oakland Raiders hoodies, a cross-cultural sign of street cred and disaffection. I rolled up my collar. Inside Reine Sophia’s blend of contemporary glass and the old stone of Madrid’s first hospital, all the birth- and death-beds had given way to the province of modern art. “Second floor, room 6,” I mumbled, locating Picasso’s great work in space if not time. Then, sudden compadres, we stood before the painting, iron filings drawn by its shadowy magnet. Arm by lifted arm, the boys dropped their hoods, leaves unleafing from the windswept branch, their hair black as tree trunk, mine as gray as week-old snow. Ruffled quiet of shuffled feet. A sigh. The lights’ theatrical hum. In the presence of art, only the painting spoke.
Twenty minutes, an hour, who knows? By chance I wandered through a doorway into an adjacent room. There, behind glass, lay Picasso’s rough penciled studies for Guernica. Smallish against the painting’s eventual sprawl, the sequential studies held hands—their line a bloodline. Sketchbook size, his pencil’s graphite gray against gray paper, they seemed at first glance so unimpressive I wondered who thought to save these, mere drafts and castoffs. The first was hardly more than squiggled shapes, something tornadic rising up from chaos left center. In the next that tornado became a raised fist, gesture of defiance to Franco’s fascism. Later, came Spain’s national symbol, a great bull looking first in my eyes and then away. Gradually, village build- Page 139 ings half in rubble, a roof akilter and giving way. Now here, where the fist once fisted, one wide-eyed horse swallowed a dropped bomb, its rider dead upon the ground. Then the fist was gone, and the dove of peace, wings flown from right to left center, now hovered nearly painted over amid the drear. Finally, the Basque mother cradling a dead child, akimbo and limp in her frail arms. Innocents, welcome to twentieth-century warfare, whose victims were as likely civilians as soldiers.
The painting astonished me even more once I witnessed the process and dross of its making. Where Picasso had traveled, how he wandered, got lost, and eventually turned up at Guernica now loomed as beautiful as the ultimate emergence of his painting.
It’s said great artists transport the viewer, reader, and listener. Picasso had sent me reeling, vertiginous and ecstatic. Standing among his painting’s studies, I sensed kinship of process and product. I remembered as a graduate student thumbing James Wright’s Amenities of Stone, the suppressed 1961 poetry manuscript Wright withdrew from publication. There, in Wright’s draft revisions, elisions, and diaristic commentary, I had first caught sight of the personal, cultural, and aesthetic vortex of artistic creation. There, Wright had dismissed the manuscript’s aesthetic schizophrenia, its mixing of “old” and “new” poetic modes. With Wright’s failed book in hand, clutching a dead man’s work, I had wondered then who thought to save these drafts and castoffs.
Art lovers are hedonists of the first order, beautifully selfish with their eyes and ears. In a world where varieties of ugliness circle like vultures hungry for one’s attention, who is to be blamed for taking beauty as its own reward? Many who appreciate art’s capability for aesthetic transport naturally care less about the journey than its destination. For the nonspecialist—which is to say for most of America—that the poem, song, or painting conveys beauty is sufficient unto itself. In short, it’s not process but result that captures one’s attention. Surely this is true for one’s own route to pleasure— how one got there looms less critical than the matter of one’s having arrived in the first place.
It’s a shame if this lack of curiosity suffices also for one’s attitude to the artist’s journey, the thorny creative path an artist seldom trollops happily from A to Z. Both Wright’s manuscripts and Picasso’s studies map the topog Page 140 raphy of imagination. They plot a terrain where one powerful tectonic force slams against another, shaping the artistic landscape in volatile and unpredictable ways. They reveal artists tugged this way by human emotion, hauled that way by artistic invention, discovery, and surprise. A penciled GPS of the artists’ turns, backups, and swerves, their manuscripts and studies compose an ex post facto map for a trip that cannot be repeated. Through their chronicling of both artists’ journeys, these studies and drafts transported me to understanding unattainable without them.
Rather than diminishing the artist’s achievement, the act of pondering the artist’s fumble in the dark screwups, silly missteps, and blockheaded wrong turns actually accentuates our appreciation of the creative process. This notion ought not to be inhospitable for a culture such as ours, one enamored with beauty wrought from lumpy clay. Evidence the current spate of televised home makeovers and plastic-surgery before and afters. Why not a much-watched Swan for poems and paintings?
For poets the matter is especially keen. Their brave sallies and tail-between-the-legs retreats follow them in a wagon train of musty cardboard boxes. This paper trail means their desert wanderings and failed ascents record a history of not-quite-rightness with a perpetuity unavailable in many art forms. (The painter, for instance, simply paints over her misshapen forms or gauche colors.) For the past three centuries poets have both generated and maintained a vast quantity of paper drafts, a hulking body of work that floats unseen beneath the publishable tip of the iceberg. What’s more, recent poets have enjoyed a veritable panoply of means to create these hard and digital drafts. And libraries have taken notice, securing huge caches of poets’ manuscripts in burgeoning special collections. Given this welter of paper and computer drafts, one would do well to contemplate the contemporary phenomenon of poetry manuscripts, especially what those worksheets may reveal of writers and thus what they may in turn reveal to scholars. To do so, let’s examine several representative James Wright worksheets for what they disclose of the poem’s and the poet’s journeys into being.
Amid the Collected Cardboard Boxes
There’s ore in poets’ collected cardboard boxes, gold as weighty as the duct-taped, seam-split boxes themselves. Manuscripts interest us for several reasons. First, they reveal poets’ creative topography, the terrain of their aes Page 141 thetic struggles and the paths they take along the way to making a poem, a book, an oeuvre. Manuscripts also display the collision between poets’ individual aesthetics and the era’s literary history, that is, the interplay of personal vision and larger communal pressures. They unmask poets’ literary influences in the process—in effect, letting readers in on which writers living or dead had (or have) the poet’s ear. In addition, manuscripts show writers messily and vulnerably at work behind closed doors, providing a portal to the plagues of uncertainty and audacity that beset them.
Of the many insights provided by manuscript materials, the most compelling is the view proffered of poets’ (re)defining their art. Drafts of familiar works exhibit the poets’ tinkering well-loved, familiar poems into being in ways readers never imagined. And they may also open up new work unseen by readers’ eyes, offering readers a breathtakingly fresh horizon tinged with the palette of the voyeur’s rainbow. These materials come in the form of “fair” copies unsullied by the writer’s revisions and “foul” copies bearing the poet’s cross-outs, arrows, and occasional editorial remarks. These drafts may well constitute a previously unknown map of what a writer was up to, why, and how—something especially true of James Wright’s manuscripts.
In the months following the 1959 publication of Saint Judas, Wright should have been waltzing on literary air. His first book The Green Wall (1957), had been awarded the prestigious Yale Series of Younger Poets Award by the venerable W. H. Auden, and his second had garnered critical praise. In a relatively short period, his poems had appeared in many of the nation’s best literary magazines, he had secured a teaching position at a major university, and he was being hailed as the American Keats for his line’s deft musical touch. What young poet might find fault with this? Wright surely did, as his manuscripts and worksheets make abundantly obvious. They bare a poet in the throes of remaking himself.
Audacity of Artistic Redefinition
Wright’s manuscripts and worksheets show he had begun to tire of the odd sort of ventriloquist act he had been performing, speaking his poems in the blended voices of Donne, Frost, E. A. Robinson, and other poet forebears. He had begun to doubt the rigid exigencies of the rational mind and prescribed form, suddenly imprisoned within the very classical modes whose castle he had labored mightily to build and to inhabit. The undergraduate years Page 142 studying Latin at Kenyon College had not washed the coal dust off the work-ing-class kid from Martins Ferry, and the Ph.D. had not thoroughly cleansed the cracked diction of his “Ohioan”—a voice his poems to this point had admitted only in brief syntactic flashes. What’s more, Wright’s reading of foreign poets such as Georg Trakl, Lorca, Neruda, Vallejo, and others introduced poetry that privileged intuition over reason and that refused human separation from natural forces. To top it off, Wright had fallen blindsided victim to the “anthology wars” pitting traditional against more experimental aesthetics. For instance, poet James Dickey, reviewing the fairly conservative anthology New Poets of England and America (1957), had relegated Wright to dubious membership in the poetic “School of Charm.” Not to be outdone, Richard Foster had needled Wright for his anthologized poems’ “pompous and heavy poetic mannerisms.”
Wright saw himself trapped between two equally unappealing poles— the wild chanting of the Beat poets and the polite versifying of the academics. He wished fervently to avoid association with either group, as this unpublished ditty makes toothily clear: “The beat and slick / Are boring, yapping fleas. / They make me sick.” Stung emotionally and beset with artistic doubt, Wright decided to risk it all. Instead of resting on his proverbial laurels, Wright reexamined the modes and values that had brought him recognition. In short, he resolved to seek a redefinition of the poetic self. That redefinition required the poet to interrogate his dearest assumptions about what a poem is and might be and, even more fundamentally, to interrogate also his notion of what a poet is and might become.
Between 1959 and the 1963 publication of his groundbreaking The Branch Will Not Break, Wright tinkered with not only Amenities of Stone but also five other potential manuscripts. All in all, Wright auditioned 113 different poems for a role in his next collection, slowly rewriting, reimagining, or simply rejecting those that did not suit his emerging aesthetic. At one point Wright appears to have thought his remaking of poet and poem was complete, submitting Amenities as a March 5, 1961, manuscript of 67 poems to Wesleyan University Press for publication and release in January 1962. But the black dog of aesthetic doubt would not release its grip on Wright’s leg. He alerted Donald Hall, his Wesleyan editor, and withdrew the book from publication.
Wright’s arrangement of Amenities’ poems demonstrates awareness of his own—and the era’s—evolving aesthetics. Letting loose a roundhouse punch and ducking his head at the same time, Wright thought to quote Whitman Page 143 on the book’s August 10, 1961, frontispiece: “I note Whitman on the defense of the past: ‘If he does not provide new forms, he is not what is wanted.’” Wright hoped to fashion his new manuscript truly new. Still, as we shall see, that pledge proved hard to follow for numerous reasons. Of the book’s three sections, the first is titled “Academic Poems.” Not surprisingly, given its self-conscious title, this section contains fourteen rhymed and metrically regular poems (including two sonnets). As its name implies, “Explorations” gathers forty-eight poems exhibiting a fresh mode open to flat diction, Deep Image invention, and immersion in the natural. Of these forty-eight poems, twenty later appeared in Branch. The poems of the third section, “Fictitious Voices,” are just that—voices Wright was trying on for size—and none survives within his subsequent book’s pages.
Wright envisioned an even more overt means of bidding his solemn goodbye to academic verse. On the flyleaf of Amenities, the book’s flagpole, if you will, Wright was to print the poem “His Farewell to Old Poetry,” just in case the dense reader missed Wright’s flying different colors. On a 1961 draft of the poem, Wright, intoxicated with his radical conversion, even contemplated printing the poem “in prose.” Elegiac, the poem begins by invoking the memory of Philip Timberlake, Wright’s former teacher at Kenyon, who first taught him “the Muse survived in trees,” an oddly sylvan notion of classical literary tradition. It’s the poem’s second section, however, that lays down the score, invoking for the initial time the recurrent image of Wright’s muse “Jenny”:
Wright had apprenticed to the poets of English, classicist tradition, a mode that had brought him quick renown. However, for the newly evolving Wright of 1961, those poets and that tradition “say nothing now.” In the poem’s third section, one can detect vitriol in Wright’s declaration of independence and identify, too, a sadness bending on gloom:
As this material makes apparent, Wright’s redefinition of the poetic self was not to be easily occasioned. It demanded artistic and intellectual courage surely, but it also called for a full measure of emotional strength. Claiming to be done with the “old poetry” is one thing, but actually killing off the old and identifying exactly what’s “new” is something altogether different.
Throughout his career Wright enjoyed tweaking the upturned noses of the competing cliques seeking to delimit the aesthetic boundaries of his poems. In fact, until his early death at age fifty-two, Wright continued to compose poems in both free and fixed forms. For Wright, the solution to his artistic troubles (and potentialities) went beyond simply rejecting rhyme and determinate meter. In what turned out to be his posthumous collection, This Journey, Wright had plotted one last shot at these factions, giving them a dying man’s punch in their collective guts. If carefully scanned, “May Morning,” one ostensible prose poem printed there, turns out instead to be a Petrarchan sonnet with a decidedly tight rhyme scheme. How Wright must have savored the chance to illustrate that good writing transcends arguments about mere form, frustrating at once the noisy proponents of both polar modes.
But back in 1962 Wright was still trying to recognize the face of what to him was the new poetry. It seemed Protean, an aesthetic shape-changer. On a May 21 draft of “Holding a Pearl in My Hands, April 1962,” Wright noted how the poem “hidden” within the draft “needs to be weeded free.” That he had begun to delete lines and individual poems from his working manuscript seemed to Wright to be “the clearest sign so far” that he was “learning what the new poetry is” and also that he had “obtained at least enough emotional strength to feel reassured about deletions.” Sometimes that strength wavered, as manuscript drafts confirm. In that case, the poet fell back on the protectiveness of what I call the aesthetic rope-a-dope.
Among Wright’s work, “A Blessing” has received nearly universal critical acclaim and captured innumerable anthologies’ attention, including that of the hallowed Norton Anthology of American Literature. Norman Friedman goes so far as to say that “for sweetness, for joy, for precision, for rhythm, for eroticism, for structure, for surprise—for all of these things, this poem is nearly perfect.” Chapter 2 has already addressed the poem’s central epiphanic incident. The speaker’s and his friend’s communing with Indian ponies invokes considerable ecstatic reverie—just the sort of thing for which a man might be subjected to much badgering by his buddies or by tough-minded critics. Here’s a reminder of the crucial lines:
Here’s what interests me. Even faced with what many regard as a poem “nearly perfect,” Wright felt the aesthetic and emotional risks of publishing such an overtly Romantic poem in an era proudly draped in mordant skepticism. After the poem’s acceptance by Poetry, Wright defensively revised the poem, replacing the “blessing” of its title, striking the speaker’s touching of the horse’s ear (and thus the merging of human and natural sensibilities), and recasting the final epiphany as the equivocating “Suddenly I think.”
Though Wright may indeed have been “learning” what the new poetry was, his drafts reveal he’s not yet resolute enough to stay the course. Instead, he engages in an aesthetic rope-a-dope reminiscent of Muhammad Ali, who’d slump against the ropes while covering his head and torso with his arms. While his opponent swung wildly, Ali would remain safe behind his Page 146 raised arms’ protective wall. So, perhaps, would Wright, if he excised these lines from his poem. He’d not be wounded by conservative critics ready to count out the glass-jawed Romantic, those who’d rebuke him for his jejune communing with a horse. Wright had already covered up, removing the lines that left him most exposed.
To be sure, Wright’s emerging aesthetic had much to do with vulnerability, a disposition of unguardedness that opened him to the possibility of ecstatic experience. To reject that possibility was to leave Wright mired in the old mode he was fervently seeking to adapt, evolve, or reject. An unpublished poem from Amenities illuminates how Wright risked vulnerability of a different fashion, hazarding his being labeled not only a hop-headed Romantic softie but also a political agent provocateur. “The Continental Can Company at Six O’clock” strikes a bold political stance by imagistically conflating the polluted Ohio River and the area’s exploited workers, implying their mutual victimization at the hands of the wealthy and powerful. When the speaker observes workers driving away from a day’s labor, he witnesses a pernicious transformation:
No doubt Wright understood the conservative social climate of the early sixties, a buttoned-down scene yet to fracture beneath rock-tossing rebellions forged by the Civil Rights, antiwar, and youth movements. No doubt he recognized how the era’s conservative poetic establishment would respond to the “high voltage” of his calling-out America by name, shaking the country’s citizens by their limp shoulders, and imploring them to wake up to the sorry fate of workers chewed up and spit out by America’s industrial base. In Wright’s poem, the workplace itself is bestial, its workers bloodied by their day’s labor. Worse yet, Wright’s poem negates even the stereotypical escape of the workday’s end, its promise of a cold beer and a warm supper. Instead, these workers head out the factory door to take the wheels of cars-becomeboats-become-coffins, fated zombies unaware of their shared death-in-life. This striking image fashions a powerful statement about American industrialization and economic class, so one wonders why Wright never published the piece in journal or book form. Perhaps Wright may have mistakenly believed his volatile poem was simply not good enough. Just as likely, Wright judged the electrical charge from this poem was too hot to handle—another expression of Wright’s plying the Aesthetic Rope-a-Dope.
The Nehru Jacket and a Tweed Sport Coat
What’s notable here is how Wright’s poems rejecting “academic” verse have now become emblematic of the very mode he sought to escape. For instance, critic Hank Lazer points to Wright’s 1963 “image-oriented transformation” as displaying “his revulsion at abstract critical thinking” and the sort of imagistic “decorativeness” that also dominated the moment’s work of W. S. Merwin, Galway Kinnell, Bly, and numerous others. It’s true Wright’s work and that of his fellows was frequently pictorial, favoring personal epiphany and intuition over the prior New Critical era’s penchant for rational modes of irony, tension, and paradox. In short, this was their works’ aesthetic context. Like the era’s fleeting affection for the Nehru jacket, the “Deep Image” and its counterparts became all the rage, an aesthetic fashion statement. The image poem’s visual surface was meant to be strikingly fresh, for its outward presentation reflected an equally innovative inward reliance on intuitively connected images to convey states of awareness. In fact, the rhythm of such a poem was the rhythm of its images, suggested Robert Kelly in the little maga- Page 148 zine Trobar. As with fascination with the Nehru, the image poem signaled a countercultural quest for mystical manners of being and seeing. Both the Nehru and the Deep Image offered an exterior sign of an interior state that stood in marked contrast to the then-dominant social and aesthetic order.
Deep Image poetry enacted its own mutiny against the status quo of academic verse. And Wright’s version of this mode was strikingly political in tone and content, not unlike many of the more adventuresome poetries at play in our current moment. Still, to contemporary eyes the image poem may appear as quaint as the oddly collared Nehru. But only aesthetic myopia would see it as the establishment’s tweed sport coat. Surprisingly, that is just what has happened. Today, this former poetry of rebellion is derisively dubbed “academic” or “workshop.” For many such as Lazer, a generally intelligent critic, it has become an aesthetic expression of The Man, a mode complicit with realms of conservative power rejected by recent Language, feminist, slam, and performance poets outside the mainstream. Ironically, Wright’s aesthetic uprising has now been consigned to membership in the very dominant mode he refused to abide by. What’s more, the terms of his rebellion—and his artistic choices—remain as febrile as they were nearly fifty years ago. Invoking the protectiveness of the aesthetic rope-a-dope would have done little to save him, then or now.
Rhetoric, Revision, and the Fumbled Line
Manuscript drafts also make known the keen attention poets must lend to individual lines. We readers love to see the poet fumble a bit on the way to a fluid line because we see in that small foundering our own struggles to say it right. There’s an odd sort of satisfaction in knowing that what for the poet in the end appears so graceful (and thus seems to have come so effortlessly) in truth demanded casting and recasting. It’s akin to sneaking a peek at Michael Jordan’s lifting weights, running laps, sweating his way through dribbling drills, and practicing his daily three hundred three-pointers. Later, when he glides down the lane to hit the game winner, the triumph seems more earned than merely bestowed.
Wright’s “Lying in a Page 149 Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota” is a case in point when it comes to the poet’s occasionally fumbling a single, crucial line. Variously revered or reviled for the way its quick flurry of nature images resolves in startling confession, “Lying in a Hammock” emanates technical confidence and élan. It’s the type of poem one simply can’t imagine the poet having second thoughts about, especially its revelatory closing line. The head-spinning closer erupts volcanically, as if from the deepest realm of the poet’s psyche. Tell me, though, how would one respond to the final line’s lightning if it did not flare but merely blinked, as we have seen earlier in this version Wright first cast and then selectively crossed out:
I seem to have wasted my whole life.
Wright was also working against his own technical competency as a formal poet, skill acquired by much study and attention to metrics, rhyme, and florid diction. Here’s the opening lines of “The Mating of Dreams,” an unpublished poem Wright tinkered with on “Aug. 18.” (presumably 1960), as his handwritten notation indicates:
The poem as a whole continues in largely unremarkable fashion, so its having never appeared in journal or book form is perhaps a measure of Wright’s own estimation of the poem’s worth. However, his note to himself makes a finer point, as he frets about the poem’s generalized way of saying nothing but doing so with superficial mechanical grace: “Do it again, but get rid of the rhymes and the purely ‘technical’ ‘required’ padding. Off with their heads!” Wright’s openness before the merits and demerits of his own poem, gifted to readers via his handwritten dialogue with himself, provides specific context to the era’s larger aesthetic wrangling.
That aesthetic wrangling is fleshed out in Wright’s “The Barn in Winter” in an entirely different body. This time it is not a matter of cold metrical precision but of its near-poetic opposite—slack syntax and flat word choice. And if the earlier draft can be disparaged as amounting to mere verbal hubbub lacking any emotional investment, the March 6, 1962, draft following carries the polar burden of sensitive attachment to a precious locale and the people who inhabit it:Page 150
A hard critical eye, either the poet’s or that of a trusted editor, would surely regard these lines as emotively honest but flaccid. Only the speaker’s implicit sense of homelessness, whether real or imagined, charges the poem so it rises a bit above the aesthetic flat line. But for Wright, who had tossed aside well-wrought lines for fear of their vapid technical proficiency, these lines brought an uncommon satisfaction. Listen to the exposed remarks of a poet who was hardly ever pleased with a line he penned during those years of redefinition: “I like the above. . . . I love that barn full of corn—it is rich with Robert & Carol, with red-tailed squirrels, and with welcome. . . . I think the above typescript pleases me as I have been pleased by only 2 or 3 poems I have ever attempted to have done. It is thrilling to name beloved names in a poem.”
Wright must have come to see that these lines loomed large with emotion but little else, as they remain unpublished. Even though these lines failed to make the poetic cut, in them Wright came to something keenly important to him as poet and human being—the electric rush he felt speaking loved ones’ names in his poems. Over the remainder of his career, Wright spiced his poems with names of poets, friends, and places that he loved, so this key gesture of “The Barn in Winter,” if not its actual lines, came to live on.
On a March 6, 1962, draft of the poem “A Small Elegy at Night in the Country,” Wright puts the matter plainly: “To keep the issue clear: I would reduce the typescript above to a single line, if such would let the poem emerge. . . . I am not afraid to abandon rhetoric, but I still can’t judge which is rhetoric & which is true imagination!” Later, Wright references another poet’s hand in his redefinition of poetic self, pondering if he should show the draft to Bly. But Wright cautions himself that he can’t “go on depending” on others, even fellow poets and dear friends, to make the decision for him. Every writer, he understands, stands alone before the page.
The aesthetic problem Wright makes clear is not so much a matter of syntax as a matter of rhetoric behind that syntax. Saying something mellifluously is not the same as saying what one means—or as saying too much in the process. Wright’s politically charged “Eisenhower’s Visit to Franco, 1959” Page 151 shows the pitfalls awaiting poets trying to learn to speak via poetic image and not through traditional rhetoric. That poet must risk the passivity of pictorial display and wager that the poem’s images muscle enough weight to transport the reader to fresh awareness. If he fails, the poem becomes merely drab landscape, atmospheric at best. But if the poet’s artistic nerve falters and he succumbs to outright statement, the poem pounds its political shoe upon the podium as the Soviet leader Khrushchev did to such poor result when visiting the UN. Few readers enjoy being subjected to a lecture, wellintentioned or not.
Wright’s poem opens with the American president “having flown through the very light of heaven” only to find Franco awaiting him “in a shining circle of police.” The dictator promises Ike “state police” will hunt down “all dark things” while the Spanish poet Antonio Machado, one of Wright’s favorites, instead “follows the moon / Down a road of white dust.” In image only, Wright has set the political stakes: while a beloved poet follows the redemptive moon, Eisenhower shakes hands with the fascist Franco, complicit in the dictator’s bloody suppression of democracy. It’s not Picasso’s Guernica, but its message is similarly political. Here, the poem’s closing images rebuke Eisenhower’s unholy alliance:
Wright understood the risks inherent in political poetry, the boring rants they often scream in the voice of the oppressor they seek to silence. In fact, on a September 1961 draft of the poem, Wright expressed his determination to avoid just that sort of shoe-thumping: “I must be careful not to yield too easily to talk and statement.” Still, for Wright the temptation to get in one last brickbat of rhetoric proved too tempting to refuse. One of the poem’s many worksheets concludes by the poet’s confessing what any good reader ought to have already decoded from the poem’s images:
I am ashamed of my country.
Readers not drunk on politics’ thinned gin wince at that line. The line’s at once bland and outlandish. Nothing about its syntax raises the poem’s ante, yet it spills the poet’s cards face-up on the table. If anything, readers ought to take heart at Wright’s overplaying his hand, cheered to learn they’re not the only ones to have babbled when they should’ve been quiet. All in all, Wright’s line-by-line reworking shows the perils of a poet’s yielding not to his second but to his twenty-second thought. It also confirms the rightness of Paul Valéry’s admission: “A poem is never finished, only abandoned.” Ah, but to abandon the poem at the moment’s equipoise of gain and loss— there’s the rub.
A poet’s worksheets can lend insight into work that resists readers’ best candlelit incursions. Some work by a poet is so fresh or simply so shockingly innovative that readers struggle to make sense of it in the old-fashioned thematic way, let alone understand its strange application of theoretical advancements. Readers admire writers who take risks of theory and application, but they also hanker to appreciate what’s going on here and why. Wright’s Deep Image poem “Miners” exemplifies the terms of this conundrum. Written in elusive and allusive imagistic sections, the poem’s spider threads of association remain unseen to the inattentive reader’s eye. Faced with its Deep Image mode, many readers conceivably throw up their hands and surrender.
The poem’s redefinition of the term “miners” and its social commentary initiate in the first section’s assault on suburban values. Both the suburban kids and the polluted Ohio River might be said somehow to be victims of our culture and its capitalistic greed. But how they might be “miners” in the sense of those introduced in section 3 and what associations they have with American women awakening in “tottering palaces” probably elude the untrained reader. Likely, these notions sidestep many trained readers as well. Wright no doubt understood the risks. Once, perhaps a bit perturbed during an interview, Wright claimed the poem is in point of fact “extremely formal” in its use of “parallel” images. That clue may help identify the poem’s deployment of Deep Image poetics, but it hardly fingers the thread that links them.
Here’s where literary manuscripts can prove to be invaluable. For readers, a poet’s manuscript commentary can illuminate the poem in a lightning flash. In his characteristically pinched penmanship, Wright notes on a “Miners” worksheet these few words: “Two kinds of miners here: 1. real miners, a social class, a depressed social class, 2. spiritual miners.” Given this gloss, even the most New Critical reader dismissing authorial intention will risk intuiting what links a depressed social class of miners with the socially well-off but spiritually impoverished suburban American mothers. Each seeks release from strictures both societal and economic. On another undated draft of the poem, Wright adds biographical commentary that further enriches the poem’s context, noting this above the poem: “John Skunk, the ‘professional diver,’ in Martins Ferry when we were children. His name was always in the newspapers when somebody drowned & they had to ‘drag’ for the body.”Page 154
Given these manuscript clues, readers now bring to their experiences with the poem a name to match the action it alludes to, a historical footnote that situates the poem’s abstractions within the Ohio River’s muddy waters.
These comments also offer broader context for Wright’s poetry of social engagement. The poem depicts other citizens’ struggles, not those of the speaker. Its socially relevant epiphany arrives within readers via their engagement with the poem’s images, not through the speaker’s self-aggrandizing pronouncement of expanded awareness, for the speaker makes no such declaration. In fact, the poem contains not a single “I” pronoun; its focus is not the poet’s experience but that of his fellow Americans. Despite the needling of those who reprove Wright for his poems of self-epiphany—and indeed he wrote his share of those—Wright’s scribbled manuscript notes on “Eisenhower’s Visit to Franco” and “Miners” underscore the poet’s larger communal concerns with politics and working-class life.
One final element often present within writers’ assembled manuscripts is their potential for exposing artists’ personal and aesthetic struggles. In this way manuscript materials amount to a diary containing admissions of doubt or personal taste writers mostly keep to themselves. We readers relish the voyeurism of looking over the writer’s shoulder as he or she spills out some untamed remark not meant for public consumption. We feel momentarily in on something, privy to a secret. The effect is to humanize an aesthetic issue that may seem otherwise merely abstract or ethereal—in effect, humanizing the poet as well. As Juri Lotman reminds us, the diary’s purpose is for the “auto-organization of the individual,” a way, essentially, for the diary writer to plot his or her journey through life. Wright’s worksheets proffer a particularly apt example of such diaristic tendencies; throughout these materials Wright proved to be unguarded and vulnerable. In Wright’s remarks regarding his own work and the frustrating process of poetic creation, readers encounter a brutally honest artist. Take, for instance, this assessment Wright scrawls across an undated draft of the poem “Twilight”: “This is junk—a perfect specimen of ‘contemporary’ phoniness in America.” What poet has not at one time thought something similar of her own work, but who has the temerity to write it down—even if it’s meant only for her own eyes?
Wright’s comments on his worksheets often pull back the curtain so Page 155 readers might gaze upon the puny man working the Great Wizard of Oz’s levers, bells, and whistles. The poet whose many flamboyant poetic gestures seem to readers to exude self-assured swagger is instead unmasked as someone lost, searching, and wounded. In this way the poet serves as his own Toto, reducing the Wizard to mere artist in quandary. Since one is unlikely to share one’s diary with another, these remarks would at first seem meant only for the poet’s benefit. But then there’s the matter of the poet’s saving these worksheets as aesthetic documents sure to find their way into the hands of some critic, poet, or literary executor. Perhaps the need to speak to himself, maybe the part of himself not bound up in the quest of making a poem, is what fuels these confessions. If Wright the poet is thus bifurcated into artist-at-work and human-in-the-world, this dialogic conversation may well benefit both in their separate realms. The artist needs his twin’s feet on the ground; the simple human being wishes for his other’s feet in the air. Here’s Wright on a March 6, 1962, draft of “A Small Elegy at Night in the Country,” deliberating over the deletion of four lines from the poem: “Damn! That question! If I could truly answer it—I could become a poet. I would like very much to be a poet. I really would. . . . If the answer is yes [to cut the lines], then I am learning. If no, then I have to submerge again. But I should record the fact that I am happy to see and feel the problem!” Liberally spritzed with exclamation points, these comments come off as both emphatic and playful. Wright, of course, knows he’s a poet. But he also realizes he’s not yet the poet he wants to be. Still, he relishes the simple act of recording his progress along the way to his version of the “new” poetry. Keep in mind, dear reader, all of Wright’s artistic angst, all this furor and hubbub, swirls around a poem that would never see its way into print. Any accountant would surely call for a cost/reward analysis of this and similar artistic expenditures. Luckily, the poet’s bottom line resists quantification.
That Wright was rife with doubt about his aesthetic choices and his future as a poet seems clear to us now, given our access to these manuscripts. Back then, while Bly praised Wright’s aesthetic renovation, Louis D. Rubin huffed that Wright’s work “had gone way off on a tangent,” chiding him for rejecting rational thinking in favor of imagistic mysticism. It seemed to others Wright was under the influence of a powerful intoxicant—Robert Bly’s literary guru–ism or some other bottomless aesthetic bottle. Still others wished ardently to believe Wright’s artistic behavior radiated confidence and assurance. Tellingly, for them to judge so was also to trust in the gen- Page 156 eral principle of aesthetic sea change and in the particular possibility of its magic occurring in their own work. If Wright were to achieve his conversion experience, might not they hope for the same? Little did readers know then that Wright doubted his every aesthetic move, beginning with the decision to suppress Amenities. On the same May 21, 1962, draft of “Holding a Pearl,” Wright further opens his literary trench coat: “I was afraid last summer that the withdrawal of the previous version of the book from Wesleyan might be just another neurotic, self-destructive move on my part. Well, the dread I felt was real—but I am so glad, so relieved . . . because the book that is still emerging from the deliberate wreckage of the old one is what I most deeply wanted to write in the first place.” Faced with such exposed musings, might one ever again consider artistic certainty without invoking its twin—aesthetic doubt?
Our appreciation of Wright’s achievement is augmented by our knowledge of his personal and aesthetic struggles. We know this mostly (and best) through the mining of Wright’s literary manuscripts. Wright, it turns out, saved nearly everything, even his naked musings. These manuscript materials plot an aesthetic terrain where one powerful tectonic force slams against another, shaping Wright’s work in explosive and lasting ways. Heaved this way by emotion, yanked that way by artistic invention, discovery, and surprise, Wright left readers a predigital GPS map of his turns, backups, and swerves, a route for a trip embarked upon only once. Here’s it’s useful to be reminded of David Baker’s summary of critics’ responses to Wright’s journey of redefinition. Baker suggests Wright is viewed now as either “one of our age’s great lyric poets” or a “sentimentalist and egoist.” Wright’s awareness of what is at stake for him, as well as for any artist open to possibility, infuses his literary papers with elemental power—the bristling, electric energy of aesthetic risk. Wright’s drafts and diaristic commentary make clear he understood the consequences of the redefinition he had undertaken, consequences that reverberate within his work and its critical reception to this day.
chapter 9Death by Zeroes and Ones: The Fate of Literary “Papers”
The widespread use of computer and digital media is transforming not only how poets compose their work but also how they preserve it, or fail to. Denizens of the digital age, we inhabit a historical moment where much exists only as codes of zeroes and ones. It stands to reason current literary manuscripts will likely be affected by technological innovation in ways we can’t yet imagine, as technology—like rust—never sleeps. Its forward movement continually alters the terrain of art’s creation and reception.
Consider how a poem’s draft comes into being. Over the past three centuries, poets wrote by hand in ink and more recently in pencil. They plodded through however many drafts until the poem seemed to have revealed itself fully and tinkering with its imperfections seemed only to break things in new places. The poem was then said to be done, or as Paul Valéry tartly puts it, was ready only to be “abandoned” by its author. Poets would preserve their work as fair copies from which to read in front of a group, should that occasion arise, or to distribute among friends and patrons. Once book publication became the norm, poets’ writing habits followed a fairly standard path from handwritten draft to typeset book copy, including as well the then-new stages of editorial revisions and authors’ proofs.
When the typewriter appeared, poets mostly kept to handwritten first drafts and then moved, when the poem’s solidity seemed to call for it, to the more tangible format of the typed page. Revisions on paper ensued, mostly in pen or pencil, the typed page itself accretively resembling a treasure map of arrows, cross-outs, additions, and the like. Most poets developed their own systems of revising the typed page, say, a circled word signifying one thing, Page 158 a cross-out meaning something else entirely. Once sufficient handwritten revisions appeared on the typed page, the poem was retyped, and that clean copy underwent the same process until the poem was “finished.” The arrival of computerized word processing facilitated revision, making it faster and easier to revise on screen as well as to churn out fresh hard copy subject to even more amendment. As always, technological advancement brought with it unforeseen complications to the realm it was intended to simplify. These changes fundamentally altered not only the ways poets pursued their craft but also the means by which their work was made manifest to them and others.
For the last three hundred years, poems have enjoyed a tangible presence as they came into being through the poet’s knuckled hand. No longer. Now many poets skip the handwritten stage altogether and compose directly at the computer’s keyboard. Those that do begin by hand often move to the computer keyboard after a single draft, revising everything on the electronic screen as opposed to the paper plane of hard copy. So much of our lives nowadays revolves around a keyboard that this compulsion seems natural if not inevitable. When James Wright took a “typewriting” course at Kenyon College after World War II, he was ahead of the learning curve for most of those who did not envision careers in office or secretarial work. Today, most young folks are proficient computer typists by fifth grade, if not to please their teachers then better to accommodate conversations with their pals on AOL’s Instant Messenger.
This writerly (and undeniably technological) decision to forego the handwritten and typewriter stages sends ripples through the creative process. One result is that the poem coming into being has no actual physical reality. There’s nothing penciled on paper, nothing inked blotched and held up to the sun. Nothing to read, write on, curse, crumple, and toss across the room into the trash can. Now, the poem is merely digital code splayed across a glowing screen, and its reality is perilously momentary. Until the poet clicks “save,” the poem does not possess a lasting (if purely digitalized) form. One wrong stroke on the keyboard or an unexpected power outage may mean the poem exists nowhere but in the writer’s imperfect memory. Zapped into the ether, did it ever really exist? (A similar fate befell this essay, resulting in an afternoon’s worth of lost revisions.) The poem merely flickers, its string of encoded zeroes and ones stored within a memory itself electrically charged and vulnerable to the hard drive’s crashing—until the poet pushes “print.” Page 159 Then out spews a neatly printed version, not perfect but enticingly perfectible. Still, one wonders how many draft poems live evanescent lives only upon the computer screen, deleted and thus disappeared with a quick click of a key. No draft—digital or otherwise—remains to testify to its brief electronic being.
Even if a version of the poem is eventually printed out, giving it physical reality, much of what was once part of the poem may never show up on that page. The ease of computer revision means so much of what is amended, deleted, or added appears only upon the pixeled screen. Imagine if T. S. Eliot had been a computer poet assiduously reworking his epic “The Waste Land” only on screen. If Eliot had tried ten different words to describe just what kind of month April is before landing on “cruelest,” we’d never know. Even if the poet does choose to run off drafts, accustomed to hard copy as a revision mode, what decides how much revision necessitates a fresh hard copy? While changing a single line break hardly seems worthy of clean paper, how many adjectives replaced, phrases recast, or stanzas deleted in a working draft summon a new copy from the printer? For instance, would James Wright, were he working solely on computer, have simply deleted on screen the excess verbiage from the final line of “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota,” or would he have printed a fresh copy to consider the revised line’s merits, as he did in typescript, crossing out the offending words (“I seem to have wasted my whole life”)? Most poets, no doubt, develop their own standards for such things, and those who merit the label of literary pack rats might well save more than we readers care to see. But others, say, the tidy or the simply insecure, may print few if any drafts they regard as flawed.
Over time the production of fewer handwritten, typed, and computer-printed paper drafts could mean a reduction in what’s typically available among writers’ manuscripts for inclusion in library special collections. That may not be such a bad thing. Not everything in these stratospheric stacks merits keeping. After all, woodcutters heat their homes with their artistic flubs. (I know of a poet who yearly mails his cardboard-boxed “literary papers” to a library that buys them by the pound.) But the loss of permanence afforded by paper also means a concomitant loss of possibility, not only for the scholar but also for the poet. Where would Wright have recorded his characteristic diaristic commentaries on his poems if his working drafts were mainly digital not paper? How would we know he thought this piece to be “junk” and that Page 160 one he would cut to a “single line” were the true poem to emerge from his elisions? Those notions would possess the impermanence and privacy of daily musings, gone at sunset perhaps, and gone surely when he left this earth.
What eventually finds its way into literary archives may well be altered over time. Today it’s the poet’s worksheets, manuscripts, drafts, and letters— maybe even her notebooks and scribbled back-of-the-envelope verses. Given the current situation, however, one wonders if soon computer diskettes and flash drives will become germane to the notion of literary “papers.” But keep in mind how quickly obsolescence overtakes technology once thought to be cutting edge. Now, who has the computer capability to read those once-ubiquitous 5 1/2-inch floppy disks that writers of the 1980s regarded as both vanguard and permanent? Those media and their various technological progeny carry new poems and drafts that never made their way onto paper, so they ferry invaluable digital cargo. Sure, hard-copy drafts may be printed from each for storing in special collections, but what does it mean to take the original and present it in form the author never felt comfortable enough to give it? Maybe the poem as digital object must be retained as such. Of course, similar arguments could be made about typing up and printing a poet’s unpublished, handwritten drafts—something a number of critics, myself included, have guiltily done. Perhaps what is saved in one form may be regarded as fair game to reproduce in another.
Such talk of hard versus digital copy itself skirts the larger issue of how composing and revising work on computer modifies the poet’s fundamental creative process. Say, for example, does the effortlessness of computer revision actually encourage the poet to do more not less of it? Does the immediacy of computer writing enhance current poetry’s increasing ellipticality, promoting what Tony Hoagland calls our era’s “skittery” poem unwilling or unable to stay on topic? That feverish discussion is best left for another essay. Suffice it to say we are entering unfamiliar digital waters.
The ways poems are written and received will evolve dramatically over the next twenty years, so much so that the paper book as gold standard of publication might well be supplanted by some electronic gadget. For that to happen, the gadget will have to claim some of the book’s physical and sensual charms in ways current electronic models, say, Amazon’s Kindle, presently don’t proffer. Even then, the electronic book may be something warmed to only over generations. I am not yet ready to mourn the book’s imminent demise. Scribes copied books by hand for a century after Gutenberg.Page 161
Keep in mind, however, a new machine is now being marketed to the public that allows one to “rip” a hard-copy book into digitalized format at the rate of five hundred pages per hour. At a cost of sixteen hundred dollars (and requiring the additional purchase of two five-hundred-dollar Canon digital cameras), the Atiz BookSnap isn’t cheap. And consumers may balk at the unwieldy process currently necessary to capture picture images of book pages and transfer them to a computer where specialized software enables the text to be read. Still, the invention may usher in a digital book Wild West fraught with possibilities as well as outlaws. Think of what havoc similar technology exacted upon the music industry, and it’s not hard to imagine “ripped” books being shared among friends, distributed via the Internet, or downloaded in copyright-busting Napster fashion.
If—or better when—the paper book loses its privileged position as both aesthetic creation and object, how might hard-copy literary manuscripts fare in this mix? Will hard-copy drafts become more valuable as they become rarer? Will libraries, as a result, pursue paper drafts with even more zeal than they do today? Or will poets’ use as well as librarians’ hoarding of paper drafts and manuscripts fall out of favor, tossed to the technological wayside like the LP album, eight-track player, audio cassette, and eventually even the CD—anachronistic and shamefully old-fashioned? If so, the current era’s obsession with saving paper manuscripts may be notable for its brevity as much as its intensity. Paper drafts are going unborn daily in each poet’s sun-washed study.
We should remember that not all poets are inveterate savers. Some just toss away their drafts and worksheets as matter of habit. It’s either cleanliness or privacy at work. If the latter, those poets probably regard their papers to be as private as their privates, things meant to be seen by intimates only. For example, among the several thousand Wallace Stevens items housed in the Huntington Library, no worksheets are to be found. Stevens may have been both cleanly and private. Whatever the case, the current burgeoning of literary manuscript holdings faces an approaching challenge and redefinition. Scholars and librarians must learn to recognize manuscript materials among the new media blink-blinking in the digital blue. Given poets’ changing work habits and technology’s evolving means of creation, those things we now think of as draft, worksheet, and manuscript may fade like stars at sunrise.Page 162