Word Toys: Poetry and Technics

Word Toys: Poetry and Technics

by Brian Kim Stefans


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780817358952
Publisher: University of Alabama Press
Publication date: 07/25/2017
Series: Modern & Contemporary Poetics Series
Pages: 368
Product dimensions: 5.80(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Brian Kim Stefans is the author of several books of poetry, including Viva Miscegenation and What is Said to the Poet Concerning Flowers, and the creator of digital text works that include “The Dreamlife of Letters” and “Kluge: A Meditation.” He is an associate professor of English at the University of California, Los Angeles.

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Playing the Field

Figures toward a Speculative Prosody

The Field

For readers of Anglophone poetry of the twentieth century, the concept of the "field" as the true ground of poetic composition, in contrast to a false ground of meter, rhyme, and formal patterns such as the sonnet, will have some resonance. Charles Olson advocated the "composition by field" predicated on his understanding of Alfred North Whitehead, whose philosophy transformed the concept of "field" in particle physics to an entire metaphysical system, while The Opening of the Field was the title of a major book by Robert Duncan, the first of a trilogy he published with New Directions in the 1960s, foregrounding his particular blend of the techniques of Pound and Olson, his deep reading in a variety of literatures, occult philosophies, and emancipatory politics. The argument by these and other practitioners of "New American" poetics was that the page could operate like a plane of appearances, as a foundational bed or ground in which objects, namely clusters of words, could be situated and in which experiments in spatial organization, reading temporality and semantic indeterminacy — the page as "score" — could be enacted. Olson, inspired by his reading in Whitehead, would understand the page as a field of processes, of "actual events" or "actual occasions," terms Whitehead employed to collapse the binary between objects and events (or subject and predicate), favoring instead a metaphysics that rendered events or occasions as in a state of constant destruction and renewal — which he called "prehension" — and to a degree undecided until observed (like the particle/wave distinction in physics). This concept is central to Whitehead's notions of time, which he understood as having extension like space, and explanatory of why things appear to change. Keith Robertson writes (in the context of a comparison with Deleuze's "plane of immanence"): "Prehension is a noncognitive 'feeling' guiding how the occasion shapes itself from the data of the past and the potentialities of the future. Prehension is an 'intermediary,' a purely immanent potential power, a relation of difference with itself, or pure 'affection' before any division into form and matter" (219). The central issue in Robertson's essay, and much writing about Whitehead, is whether or not Whitehead's "process" philosophy is a philosophy of "flux" in the Bergsonian sense; the theory of "prehension" seems to argue for a sort of pulse, a "rhythm of life," a sort of temporal atomism, that would argue against it. "[E]very element in an open poem," Olson wrote in "Projective Verse," "must be taken up as participants in the kinetics of the poem just as solidly as we are accustomed to take what we call the objects of reality" — "accustomed" being the key term, as in the Whitehead worldview, "objects" are really events, their static stability a mere illusion.

Refiguring the classic clash of the "raw" and the "cooked," of Whitman against the traditional poetries of the Old World, Olson dubbed formal poetry the "verse which print bred," in which form seemed to be imposed from outside, like the form of the brick on the matter of clay, maintaining the hylomorphic dualism of "matter" and "form" characteristic of Aristotle and later Medieval scholastics. Olson argued instead that poems were "direct transfers of energy" between the writer (not the subject but "some several forces") and reader, and in fact a physical inscription of the bodily (breathing) act of the poet. To this degree, poems for Olson were in constant states of becoming, both in the writing (the cybernetic loop that requires the typewriter to provide precise feedback to the poet engaged in the process) and for the reader who adjusts his/her reading according to the marks on the page, and not final states of being following some predetermined pattern such as a sonnet. The page could, to this degree, be described as merely the place where these transfers were stopped, burning their energies into a hindering medium, like the canvas upon which Pollack captured his arcs of paint or the plane that checked the three pieces of thread, dropped from the height of one meter, in the Three Standard Stoppages of Duchamp.

Olson's poetics in particular seemed to suggest that the page simply existed as a place where a series of seemingly random, and largely disordered, processes were "recorded" if only because they were halted in their motions through space. Syllables, that most granular element of language below which exists only the sound or the stroke, were the building blocks of this form of poetics, even as Olson never experimented with the types of deterritorialized (in Deleuze and Guatarri's sense) or "ideolectic" (some would say merely nonsense) poetries that Charles Bernstein among other Language poets have advocated (Bernstein 1996). There are, however, significant moments in Olson's writing in which he did, indeed, turn to formal patterns, notably in the charts and diagrams that he drew up to clarify his understanding of the transformations that he was requesting be made in general thinking about the relationship of, for example, history to the present, or the Cartesian "self" to the Whiteheadian "actual occasion." A diagram known as "History" ("me fecit" on January 7, 1955) is one of the more intriguing of these occasional charts (see fig. 1.1). The chart describes the convergence of several vectors onto a single rectangular plane, perhaps that of the page, but equally like that of the person Ed Dorn, whose name stands at the center of it. The vectors are, roughly:

• that of "history" seen previously as "static" travelling across "millennia, 12,000 BC to 1955 AD" to form (once inside the plane) the "field";

• that of the "individual," formerly understood as a "soul" and now given, contra Descartes, extension ("as round as is long, as wide as is down"), being the "result" inside the plane;

• that of the "soul" or "spiritual" life which, like above, is depicted as somehow acquiring extension ("a measurable quantum") but this time as a "process" and not as the round, wide object of before, understood inside the plane as the "act"; and

• that of the "environment" or "society"— perhaps the milieu of Bernard Stiegler's pharmakon, as we shall see later — that, through the growth of population and the expansion of technology, is depicted as having merged into something he calls "quantity," later as era or "time" (in square quotes with a trailing question mark, as if Olson himself didn't know), on the interior of the plane.

His note on the bottom of the chart outlines some of the less apparent symmetries — that "time" is quantity and "field" is millennia, "process" is soul and "person" is the science of soul — none of which I hope to unpack here. My concern is simply with Olson's use of a diagram, a formal and symmetrical structure, to describe a poetics that is predicated on a multiplicity of processes that could never be reduced to the sorts of abstractions he contends draw us away from our particularity. There are many points in the diagram that seem classically Olsononian — the eccentric rhetoric ("how — how — how"), the etymological insertions ("meta + hodoes = TAO"); and the resistance to a total symmetry (the writing is simply too indeterminate and idiosyncratic for that) — and for this reason one must ask: is this diagram actually a poem. My guess is that most readers of Olson would simply say, yes, of course, but to do so would beg the question: is it then no longer a diagram? If it's so easy to think of a diagram as a poem, can we then think of poems, even or especially lyric poems, as a species of diagram?

Olson's direct influence on American poetry is a bit hard to discern today, but his poetics offer a way to rethink what is often thought of as a convergence of "avant-garde" or "Language" poetries with those poetries known as "lyric," serving as an anticipatory unifier of literary "fields" in this way. Though it has hardly become a common term, the "new lyric" was mostly related to the poetry of Jennifer Moxley and her journal The Impercipient (1992–1995), and others who had some affiliation with the Brown University creative writing program in the 1990s, and was understood at the time as a lyric "after" Language poetry — the return of the subjective "I," passionate affect, and the rapprochement with a sort of Romantic tradition (though not the Tradition as known through Eliot). Influenced perhaps by Bernadette Mayer's engagements with classical literature, Moxley was particularly bold in affecting a Romantic posture and exiling the difficulties and "ironies" one associated with postmodernism, even as she flirted with the campy excesses, the "moral exhibitionism" (as Benjamin wrote of the Surrealists) of Frank O'Hara. She writes in "Æolian Harp":

Ribboning dreams unspool in a discarded heap of oppressive gravity, remember when life was still compelling, your talents in truck for fealty, the luxurious future at hand, pastoral lack of capital in the vernal fervor couched; "make something of yourself," for example a man or a picture of archaic pride atop an old armoire, "pull yourself up by your bootstraps," as did those bargained away first sons whose whims were nursed by sins far worse than sacrifice ... (56)

The run-on syntax and heightened verbiage, not to mention declamatory pose, of O'Hara's "Odes" is readily apparent, but so is a strong pentametrical base, with lines like "bargained away first sons whose whims were nursed" only straying slightly from a string of clear iambs. Other journals with slightly different emphases, such as Apex of the M (1994–1997) and The Germ (1997–2005), were also seen as emblematic of this turn from constructivist poetics. However, it was not until the turn of the twenty-first century that lyric poetry, in guises far from traditional, made a resurgence, not just as a reaction against the excesses of Language poetry but also against the ascendance of "digital culture"— the textuality of blogs, spam, algorithms, all sorts of machinic creativity characteristic of the Internet. A plethora of presses have formed around the interests of these poets, such as Wave Books, Flood Editions, and most importantly Ugly Duckling Press, which has worked against the trend of digitally-created and internet-distributed books by crafting each volume like a fetish-object. If one end of the poetry-publishing spectrum takes McLuhan as their guide, pouring out e-books and PDFs on the web (ubu.com's "slash ubu" series, Gauss PDF, and Troll Thread are three examples), these presses look back to the artisanal practices of William Morris, the Russian avant-garde of the twenties, and the small presses of the seventies.

One could generalize and say that this merging of the "lyric" and the more indeterminate forms of "Language-centered" writing brings us back to what Olson proposed: the composition of deeply novel poems, point by point rather than as a way to fill a prescribed form, using the entire energies of the poet's mind/body to make "high energy constructs." However, I'd like to suggest that a different set of poets are reviving some of the poetics of "field," even as the page is not being understood as a medium that makes visible (or captures photographically) the activities of the field, but rather points to a field that remains invisible. Among these poets engaged in a revival of the "lyric," many, even if they are instinctually allergic to traditional meters and forms, are nonetheless investigating the very object-nature of poems, their autonomy as things in the world (and not as constellations of fragments), as identifiable patterns and not congeries of traces. While still eschewing composition by "field," these poets opt variously for highly rhetorical (as opposed to Romantic), procedural (as opposed to "organic"), decidedly unnatural modes, characterized by the uses of arbitrary constraints, word lists, syllabics and exhaustive reworkings of precedent texts. Books consisting of shorter lyrical works (some authors include Matthea Harvey, Harryette Mullen, Susan Wheeler, Christian Bök, K. Silem Mohammad, Ben Lerner, and Aaron Kunin) and "novels" such Mark Z. Danielewski's Only Revolutions (his follow-up to the widely acclaimed House of Leaves) and Jonathan Safran Foer's Tree of Codes, both of which strike me as narrative poems, exhibit these tendencies.

My sense is that, though the term "open form" was often used as a synonym of "composition by field," one could argue that the page-as-field is where poems in both "open" and "closed" form could exist — a sonnet, for example, would run there in the way a train engine could run on tracks and yet be an object in opposition to another object on the same page — and, indeed, in Olson's Maximus poems, several elements of "closed" poetry appear ("Aloofe, aloofe; and come no neare, / the dangers doe appeare," a transcription of "The Sea Marke" by John Smith), not to mention archival documents that couldn't possibly represent a "direct transfer" of energy (an aspect Susan Howe would fruitfully exploit). What would have to be asked, then, is whether it is ever truly possible to escape the "field" upon which literature is based — the plane of appearances that we call "poems"— and if there could be a composition by a-field, a field beyond literature (or consciousness-of-literature). Is there a way that a theory of the page-as-field has been preserved, even as the apparatus of Projective Verse — the composition by breath, the liberation from the left margin, the inclusion of undigested bits of documentary matter — has become unfashionable? (Bernstein's understanding that Maximus "fares best when it is released of the demands of information, its cargo load jettisoned: when its content is not like vitamins added to bread which has had its bran removed" [Content's Dream 336] is probably commonplace.) Has a paradigm shift occurred, and are we no longer able to understand the page as intensely private, an enactment of specific energies between writer and reader, because of the ubiquity of the present tense from all quarters of society — the technological milieu — today? Finally, is the new emphasis on the ludic nature of communications systems — the database logic that underlies all instances of digital communication and that Lev Manovich identifies as constituting a new "symbolic form" (Language of New Media) — forcing us to rethink the divide between "formal" and "experimental" verse? Can the use of fixed (even if invented) forms be understood as aspiring to be evental — as pulling from the invisible — rather than merely the rehearsal of a "tradition"?

A Note on Prosody

Prosody has traditionally denoted the study of rhythmical patterns in poetry, a search for a universal set of terms with which to describe its pre-semantic underpinnings through sound and pattern. Some poets, like Thomas Gray, Adelaide Crapsey, and John Hollander, have written detailed treatises on poetic meter, but for the most part studies of prosody are associated with non-poets, with a particular swelling of the practice in the late nineteenth century culminating in George Saintsbury's Historical Manual of English Prosody (1908), which was over fifteen hundred pages long. Joost Daalder, in a recent study of the tome, echoes what is probably the view of most poets and scholars today when he notes that Saintsbury's "remarkable theory of the English language, and of versification ... in its very unsoundness [is] a provocative challenge to those of us who would like to describe the facts of English prosody" (1), concluding: "The 'feet' which lie at the heart of Saintsbury's system ... provide an inadequate concept in the analysis of almost any kind of English verse. The chief merit of his monumental book is that its very erroneousness forces us to think more clearly than he did" (19).

Contemporary treatments of prosody in the Saintsbury tradition are notable for their chapters on "free verse" and American variations on somatic metrics ranging roughly from Whitman to Williams and Olson, suggesting that some serious attention to the "variable foot" and the "line by breath" is warranted but ultimately cannot be reduced to system. This continued reference to notions of form and pattern in verse suggests that something of the technicity of a poem lies in the discernible mechanics and patterns lying beneath the level of affect and proposition, even if it's not describable in the language of stress and "feet." By technicity, I mean the properties that a poem shares with those machines that Gilbert Simondon and Bernard Stiegler describe as constituting a "third order of being"

between those orders of the inanimate (stones, wind, sunlight) and the living. The prosodists are, to this degree, correct in believing that there is an invisible (or insensible) element grounding poems, but wrong in thinking that the only way we gain access to this grounding is through examining stress patterns, phonetics, metrics, and so forth.


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Table of Contents

List of Figures vii

Introduction: Beyond Estrangement 1

1 Playing the Field: Figures toward a Speculative Prosody 13

2 The New Commodity: Technicity and Poetic Form 49

3 Pilots of the Pharmakon: Bodies, Precarity, and the Milieu 83

4 Fictions of Immanence: Undigests and Outsider Writing 119

5 Terrible Engines: Toward a Literature of Sets 158

6 Miscegenated Scripts: The Gramme and Transpacific Hybridity 191

7 Discompositions: Troubling Ground in Graphic Design 228

8 Just Ask Lattice: A Poetics of Grids, Numbers, and Diagrams 260

Appendix: "Objects" in Programming and Philosophy 299

Notes 309

Works Cited 321

Index 333

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