Monday, May 22, 2006

mechanical production

Two bits of data crossing the screen lately. On the one hand, this rather cool compositional tool – "Erasures" – brought to you by the folks at Wave Books (incorporating what was Verse Press): I was being conservative, it turns out, when I speculated some months ago that the compositional process Ronald Johnson used to produce Radi Os – erasing most of a previous text (in his case Paradise Lost) in order to "reveal" the minimalist poem within – might become a workshop tool. No, it's gone beyond that: it's become a hip, handy, & above all easy method, now codified as a computer program. I guess the next step will be a version of "Erasures" that lets you pour whatever source text you want into the program, which then dishes it up to you for erasing.

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:

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
Not 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.

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."


Michael Peverett said...

This comment is actually about the question you raised about UK tendency to use "modernist" in a diffuse way. Firstly, yes it's true. The usage may actually originate (as most such terms do) with non-sympathisers in the poetry world who don't really like anything except traditional verse and who speak politely of the "modernist tradition" as a way of grouping writings that they uneasily fear they ought to respect but would rather not spend too much time with.

Two other factors emerge in Andrew Duncan's indispensable burn through other people's accounts of British poetry here.

Under Item 28 (Alan Robinson, Instabilities in Contemporary British Poetry) he remarks:

'...Related to Crawford's books and to the "conservative post-modernism" thesis, whereby poets like Andrew Motion and Paul Muldoon are defined as "post-modernist" and so as more advanced than the "modernists" like Fisher and Prynne.'

The usage he's talking about certainly existed and was briefly fashionable around the time of Raine and Motion's anthology (early 90s). But this general misunderstanding of "post-modernism" (by people who had not read Olson or Ashbery, but had read in the papers that it was witty and had no values, and who worked out that postmodernism ought to involve a rejection of modernism, so perhaps it was a cool sort of traditionalism?) meant that even people who did know what they were talking about were in some public contexts compelled to use the word "modernism" since you could at least rely on the audience grasping that this involved a certain amount of experimentation.

See also Duncan's comments on Keith Tuma, Fishing (Item 55):

'[His] thesis is an attack on fanatically historicist linguistic militias in the USA who have narrow views of poetry and forbid any British poets. Tuma is attacking resurgent American nationalism in its cultural form. No attempt at an overview is made, and therefore no chronology is established. Possibly the thesis is that poets are either "modernist" (=good) or "not modernist" (=bad), and this reassuring criterion applies in very much the same way in around 1915 (for Mina Loy) and around 1998 (for cris cheek). The book offers a series of exceptions without linking them in a counter-history. Discusses Loy, Macleod, the Guyanese poet ER Brathwaite (who did visit Britain once), cris cheek. To be perfectly honest, these poets have nothing to do with each other.'

In truth both these -isms lead (or led) their public flourishing life mainly in media contexts and I imagine are not often used privately when British poets talk or think about other British poets.

Anonymous said...

In re: Gnoetry. It's interesting to consider the use of the term "imitation" here ("limp bits of imitation LangPo"). There is no imitation at all--since imitation implies conscious effort and intention. While a lot of Gnoetic output can be understood as "poetry" only through the lens of Language, there's more to Gnoetry than the pieces in the CR suggest.

For example, this gnoem made through the statistical analysis of Edith Wharton's _Custom of the Country_)

Sat Feb 19 20:44:38 2005

He held out a hand
on hers without speaking, and
felt a devotion.

The girl exclaimed, with an air
of injured pride she started

up. Their glances met
in a mist of bargaining
and hyperbole.

That's not LangPo at all, is it?

Mr Kotin's note and Mr Scroggin's reflections are spot on regarding the fact that certain assumptions about contemporary poetic practice need be re-thought in light of the existence of Gnoetry0.2; but I wonder, how helpful are Mr Scroggin's comparisons to Warhol and Burroughs? The software is not a cut-ups machine, for one. Its statistical analysis is non-trivial and works on the word, not phrase level. Also, Warhol never created a mechanism for wide-spread use--Mr Trowbridge is working on a Web-based version of Gnoetry which will fulfill the whole point of this project. Getting Gnoetry into everybody's hands, so everybody can be a poet at her or his work station, instead of just playing another round of Freecell.

In the mean, I would urge people to visit Beard of Bees, and to read the many different ways Gnoetry makes poetry.