I guess I’m a few weeks behind on this internet sensation, but on a blog (that nobody reads) purporting to be about computational poetics, I feel obligated to say something. Chad alerted me yesterday that my thunder may have been stolen by Stephen McLaughlin and Jim Carpenter (of Erica T. Carter and The Prosthetic Imagination, I just remembered) with this poetic event–or parody, stunt, statement, conceptual art piece, as you like. I don’t think they stole whatever thunder I may have, but they have certainly shaken up much of the poetry world with this gesture.
If you’re even more behind than me, get it from for godot and see it for yourself.
I browsed sparingly through the 3,000+ page “issue,” and the first thing I noticed was a great deal of Joseph Conrad showing through the fly. It seems pretty obvious to me that this was a computer-generated project. Erica T. Carter is Jim Carpenter’s baby, after all. I’ve spent some time using that program (it’s a great project), and having worked for a year now on a series of “sonnets” with Heart of Darkness and the Gnoetry 0.2 program (see Beard of Bees), its impossible to miss the signatures of cut-up Conrad. The intention and point behind Issue 1 is very different from what I’ve been doing, though, so I don’t see how this impacts my own project, except perhaps for more people to be aware of the computer process behind it.
The poetry itself feels trivial to me, intentionally, I assume. The sheer volume of it, and it sounding all the same, undermines the meaning of any particular line or poem in order to make its point: others have already interpreted this as a statement about poetry all sounding the same, or something like that. You can read Jim Carpenter’s own statements of intention here on his blog. Their “parody” of anthologies, as he puts it, or their “plagiarizing” as its “victims” have put it, has upset enough poets to make it a significant enough statement.
Of all the responses I read in comment streams, I have found myself agreeing most with Nada Gordon’s on Silliman’s Blog:
Whoa. It’s OBVIOUS that this is an art project. A rather clever one, to my mind. It’s anarcho-flarf, maybe, but not vandalism. It’s not “playing with other people’s reps.” The poems in this anthology will neither make nor break the reputations of anyone except perhaps Stephen and Jim, who should be lauded for the grand scale of their conceptual art piece, which no doubt entailed a lot of work.
Maybe it’s just because you, Ron, actually make a little money off your work that you care so intensely about this. The financial tough talk at the end of your post would seem to support this notion. You seemed to have a similar reaction to Google scanning books a while back. You are a man with influence and power, Ron, and these are COLLEGE STUDENTS, you are threatening COLLEGE STUDENTS. Is it really warranted?
For myself, always condemned to (revel in) triviality and utter monetary profitlessness, this is merely… amusing.
At heart, fear of loss of name seems to me to be connected to a fear of Thanatos, of having one’s “singular identity” merge into a great pool of indeterminacy. This will certainly happen to all of us, to our physical bodies firstly, and secondly to all of our “literary reputations” when human history finally (and maybe, blessedly) ends.
The massive scale of the thing neutralizes any “reputation- destroying” potential that a more targeted hoax might have. I might be peeved, honestly, if someone had written an entire book and passed it off as mine (although… wait… someone did that… and I liked it! I even wrote the preface to it!). We’re all thrown into identity soup here, though, and that changes the game.
It would behoove us all, therefore, to untwist our knickers. It’s not… NOT… a big deal. It is an art project.
This may not be a big deal as a collection of poems, but it has exposed A LOT of poets to one example of a compositional process and aesthetic which is gaining momentum in the poetry world. Kenneth Goldsmith’s conception of the contemporary poet as a “word processor” is a powerful one for me and a growing number of poets who see new technologies as a way to move out of the stagnation of poetry in our times.
And so, without further ado, here is my rant:
I think this poetic event should make all poets ask themselves (again, I hope) what function poetry serves and what means work best to serve its ends. In the current environment of poetry, especially for young poets, there is a growing sense of irrelevance (or is it hopelessness) regarding the established institutions of the trade: journals, book presses, anthologies, contests. I am not kept going as a writer out of any expectation of reward for my toil through such mediums, or of acknowledgment for it through the dominant economic and cultural institutions, though I accept their still necessary role for us. I hope vaguely to have some beneficial impact on the lives I may interact with through my work, but beyond this I expect nothing in the way of fame, career, or money. Is it right that it should be this way? I don’t know. Will new institutions and media emerge that give poets greater cultural presence? I certainly hope so. At this point in time, though, I partially agree with Nada Gordon that, for a poet getting started, to cling so vehemently to name recognition and the hope of making a “career” of poetry seems inappropriate. For myself, I feel this would get in the way or working productively towards something greater than the current institutions allow. The Language poets made their own journals and presses, and worked in other ways to resist the forces that would have buried them. I don’t believe, though, that these same techniques alone will work now for the emerging generation of poets. We need to stop worrying just about our own words and our own reputations and start working to create new venues and mediums for the experience of poetic language and imagination. This is the most important kind of creativity needed from poets right now, and it is good to see so many poets displaying it through their work–including both Carpenter and McLaughlin as well as many of the poets “included” in their anthology.
Haven’t posted since June, but I’ve been busy, trust me. I’ve begun a new mchain project (his&hers, available online as it is written), a series of one line visual/aural poems (Lines) and I’ve gotten closer to completing the Heart of Darkness Gnoetry Sonnets (still no set title). Carrots and Sticks is still in the works, and will likely be done in 8 or 9 one-page sections.
Work on my thesis has begun. At this stage it will likely take the form of a collection of chapbooks (five or so), most of them long poems or sequences. Some of the pieces are computer-assisted, some are not.
I’ve recently expanded my collection of books on general poetics, digital poetics and hypertext theory, so I’ve decided to keep some record of these in case any readers of this blog are interested in or unaware of them. I’ll likely post more about individual essays or sections of the books later on.
Reading List [last update 10-26-08]:
- Contemporary Poetics, edited by Louis Armand. Northwestern University Press, 2007. An excellent collection of essays focused mainly on concrete, language and digital poetics (or technopoetics, as the back cover calls it). Also contains essay on “Precursors” for valuable literary-historical context.
- Prehistoric Digital Poetry: An Archaeology of Forms, 1959-1995, by C. T. Funkhouser. University of Alabama Press, 2007. A detailed “documentary study and analytic history of digital poetry.” I just got this one, but I already love the Chronology of Works in Digital Poetry. I had no idea that Robert Pinsky was involved in such work until now.
- Virtual Muse: Experiments in Computer Poetry, by Charles O. Hartman. Wesleyan University Press, 1996. Hartman developed the DIASTEX5 program that Jackson Mac Low used compose his Forties and Stein Poems series. This is only one of his contributions to computer poetry. This book documents and reflects on all of his experiments in this field.
- My Mother Was a Computer, by N. Katherine Hayles. University of Chicago Press, 2005. A posthuman exploration of the intersections of language and code–human and machine–and the effects of this on “creative, technological, and artistic practices.” I haven’t got to this one yet, either, but it sounds exciting.
- Hypertext 3.0, by George P. Landow. A landmark update of a landmark book in hypertext theory.
- p0es1s: Asthetik digitaler Poesie. The Aesthetics of Digital Poetry, Block, Friedrich W., Christiane Heibach and Karin Wenz, eds. Hatje Cantz, 2004. A bilingual (or is it multi-lingual?) collection of poetics articles on digital aesthetics.
- Einladung zu einem Poesie-Automaten, Hans Magnus Enzensberger. This is in German. I don’t know German. If anyone knows of an English translation of this, let me know.
- Digital Poetics: The Making of E-Poetries, Loss Pequeno Glazier, University of Alabama Press, 2002. Glazier founded the Electronic Poetry Center with Charles Bernstein in 1994. If you want to know just about everything about that, you can get a copy of his PhD Dissertation. This book covers a wide range of topics in digital poetry and theories behind its practice and propagation.
Thank you again Wikipedia. I found this article on Digital poetry that contains a great list of links to “examples” on the Web. One of these is EBR: electronic book review, which is filled with essays and reviews on a range of topics associated with the development of electronic media and publication. The setup of the website is innovative along with its content. I’m just discovering it, but its exactly the kind of resource I’ve been looking for.
I’ve been having a lot of thought “moments” lately when I space out. Tonight I drifted off and had the thought again (I had forgotten about it) of the mchain program and programs /tools like it (Gnoetry, Google Poem or Erica T. Carter) as learning tools. Computational poetics obviously brings up issues of authorship, but it also questions ideas of what a poem is in a way that is very approachable and immediate. I know that I have discovered a lot of authors and poems that I would not have even thought of looking into if I had not been working with Markov chains, and I wonder if this has been an even greater benefit to me than my work with the program itself. I think young poets could learn a lot in a class setting from demonstrations and discussions of computational poetics and its implications. Of course, I’d have to first figure out what those implications are myself.
This is only the first of what I assume will be many posts on the program Gnoetry and the experiments surrounding it at Beard of Bees Press in Chicago. I suggest you go there and read some of the different chapbooks from poets who have collaborated with the program. They all use the program in their own ways. This is something that I hope to do with this blog: show and discuss different approaches to using computer programs to write poems.
If only I had found out about them last October, I could have gone to their exposition, Standing Close to the Machine: an evening of computational poetics, live at LOCUS in Chicago, only a two hours drive from here. File under regrets.
For now, I’m only posting about a selection of six poems by Gnoetry & Eric P. Elshtain from the Spring 2006 issue of Chicago Review. It was the first place I’d ever heard of Gnoetry, and at first I thought it was just a poet with a bizarre pen name, like Ai, or like Sirone the bass player, or Sun Ra.
It took me until last month to actually do the single web search I needed to find out about this Gnoetry. Turns out these guys are WAY ahead of me, though I can only discern a few differences between what Gnoetry does and what the mchain program I use does.
But, back to the poems: when I read them I thought it was amazing how similar they read to the mchain output I had been working with. They share a lot of the same characteristics. Here’s one of the poems as an example:
Then you are quite as much
freedom as one has
to those men and things which
passed over the face of the
arm of the law, the infant
death rate of two worlds! Not a thing
could be. The fact to be found that it
is the exact point of
basic difference from the bride’s
point of view, I ask you this
mistake if you would normally
call love somebody?
The line breaks have the feeling of what I call the seams of mchain output: those points where a familiarized user of the program can see that two different segments of the output have been connected by the program.
It is also common to see long strings of what I teach my composition students to avoid in their writing whenever possible: puffy connector phrases. Ridiculous and often parodic examples of puffy connector phrases regularly appear in mchain output, similar to the lines in this poem “The fact to be found that it / is the exact point of.”
The last similarity I’ll point to here is the unexpected and often evocative exclamations that will pop up, like “arm of the law, the infant / death rate of two worlds!” This is followed, artfully, with another hallmark of mchain like output: deep philosophical statements. “Not a thing could be.”
I’ll be writing more about my thoughts on Gnoetry and computational poetics later. Right now, there is a lot of information to sift through before I post anything more. I’ll definitely be responding to The Gnoetic Manifesto on the Beard of Bees page. How could I ever resist?