I don't regret so much the dissemination of Johnson's (or Lucas Foss's, or Tom Phillips's, whoever you want to name the "originator") method – tho there's always the inevitable slope of interest (when the Sex Pistols have blazed a trail, can Fear and the Anti-Nowhere League be far behind?) – as I do the loss of the sheer labor involved in Johnson's and Phillips's practice: those hundreds of hours pencilling out and erasing options in RJ's chance-acquired copy of Milton, followed by the hundreds more of typing up mock-up pages of spare, scattered words, testing how they look; for TP's Humument, the many more thousands of hours spent painting over the original pages – hours that will soon be abridged by some nifty combination of Erasures and Photoshop.
On the other hand, there's this, from the new Chicago Review:
18:54:16Not bad, you're thinking – tho not too great, either. The beginning has a whiff of J.H. Prynne, while the syntax of the middle almost strides into Geoffrey Hill territory, until that cheeky Jeff Clark reference ("the little door") in the final stanza. What does it mean? Who knows, but that's a pretty passé question to be asking of much contemporary verse.
I am able to, and
carried on at great
speed. Marriage is broken.
They break the ice at these two
creatures, united by the
way in which you must take it for
me to be overcome before the
meeting. That people who
come to take leave of him to put
it in his breast the little
door, where they do not regret the
Turns out this poem is the product of Eric P. Elshtain (proprietor of the excellent Beard of Bees ePress) feeding some passages from A. Maude Royden's Sex and Common Sense (1922) into Jon Trowbridge's Gnoetry 0.2, a program that generates poetry in much the same way the Laputan's word-loom of Gulliver's Travels III did.
CR editor Joshua Kotin raises questions in a "note" on the poems:
Because Gnoetry replicates and refines a period style, instantly, ad infinitum, it threatens to render that style obsolete. For why write poems a computer can generate more efficiently? Why labor over unsolicited submissions when you can fill a journal over lunch? Gnoetry evacuates craft of meaning. When every MFA graduate has Gnoetry on his or her desktop, verbal pyrotechnics will no longer indicate a creative, skilled mind at the end of the poem. By flooding the market with linguistically innovative poetry, Gnoetry asks us to reconsider what we value in the period style, in poetry. And as it satisfies our appetite for surprising syntax and brilliant word combinations, it challenges poets to invent a new style that means, a style that cannot be replicated by a computer.Hmmmm. I wonder. Elshtain's experiments, it seems to me, must be placed in the Duchamp/Warhol camp – bits of language that challenge the ontology of the poem as traditionally conceived, ie the production of a single creative intelligence. But does Gnoetry really do so in any way beyond that of such modernist experiments as "automatic" writing, or Burroughsian cut-ups, or the collaborative writings of the Surrealists? I'm tempted to respond in bullet points:
•Dunno about you folks out there, but Gnoetry doesn't at all satisfy my appetite for "surprising syntax and brilliant word combinations"; there are some neat turns in the handful of Gnoems in CR, & if I had the software on my computer I bet I'd be using it to generate some "seed" texts, but on the whole these strike me as rather limp bits of imitation LangPo.
•Therefore, one still labors over poems because it hasn't been demonstrated to one's satisfaction that the computer is yet able to generate anything that pleases one as much as what one comes up with oneself, even in terms of the disjunctions and surprises that Gnoetry does indeed seem to produce.
•While I don't think I want to spend the rest of my life reading nothing but Gnoems, I very much admire the project itself, insofar as it serves the same purpose that Warhol and Kostabi did for easel painting: it questions the relationship between traditionally formulated product and means of production; the product of such projects is nugatory – everyone knows that everything Warhol did from that late 70s on was mechanical, & that Kostabi was crap from the start.
Perhaps most importantly, as Josh K rightly implies, the existence of Gnoetry – aside from the amusing and sometimes interesting texts it produces – means that one can no longer take striking disjunction as the mark of experimentation (or, in that hoary old military metaphor, the "avant-garde"), or as the mark of anything in particular. Alt-poetry reading habits, already as slack as the ones IA Richards castigated in Practical Criticism, will have to tighten up. A "return to meaning"? Depends on what you mean by "meaning," I guess; but this post has gone on long enough already.
Gilbert Sorrentino, 1927 – 2006. Ron Silliman comments on GS's Something Said, which includes one of the most hilariously vicious essays I've read since Mark Twain on Fenimore Cooper, "John Gardner: Rhinestone in the Rough."