William Irwin Thompson Interview: Consciousness, Occupy Movement and Planetary Culture
N. Katherine Hayles
Katherine Hayles has another book out on new media, technogenesis and the emerging field she calls the digital humanities. A short review of the book from the University of Chicago follows at the end of this section.
Here however I would like to post an excerpt from the chapter in Hayles’s book called from: Technogenesis: Telegraph Code Books and the place of the Human in which she explores one theme that has run through her work since “How We Became Posthuman” namely, the shift in thinking about the human from embodied subject to placeholder for information.
In the following passages from a chapter on the history of the telegraph in citing the work of Paul Gilmore’s the Telegraph in Black and White (2002) Hayles explores how the telegraph helped construct in the cultural imagination the notion of a dematerialized human body. She writes “In the new regime the telegraph established, a zone of indeterminacy in which bodies seemed to take on the attributes of dematerialized information, and information seemed to take on the physicality of bodies. ” The earliest expression of this indeterminacy of bodies that the telegraph facilitated in the cultural imagination often found expression in imperialist and racist ideologies. The example used here is taken from the Stephen Foster’s well known song “O Susanna” which is chilling not only for its insidious racism but also for locating white supremacist and imperialist thinking in the earliest formulations of what can be called transhumanist ideology.
“The racial implications of the dynamic between information and the cultural imagination of bodies are explored by Gilmore in relation to Stephen Foster’s well known song “O Susanna” the first verse includes such whimsical lines as:
” It rain’d all night the day I left.
The weather it was dry
The sun so hot I froze to death
Susanna don’t you cry “
Gilmore points to the second verse is much less known than the first. The rarely heard second verse is also much less charming:
“I jumped aboard de telegraph
And trabbled down the ribber
De’lectric fluid magnifies
And killed five hundred nigger.”
Focusing on the grotesque and violent nature of the imagery, Gilmore argues, “Because electricity was understood as both a physical and spiritual force, the telegraph was read as separating thought from the body and thus making the body archaic, and as rematerializing the thought in the form of electricity, thus raising the possibility of a new kind of body. …. The telegraph’s technological reconfiguration of the mind/body dualism gave rise to a number of competing but interrelated racially inflected readings (806)”
Gilmore’s argument is compelling, especially since the telegraph was used by imperialist powers to coordinate and control distant colonies on a daily basis, a feat that would have been impossible had messages traveled more slowly by ship or train. In this sense too, the telegraph was deeply implicated in racist practices.
His (Gilmore’s) reading of Foster’s song, however, is at best incomplete. He does not cite the remainder of the second verse, which suggest a very different interpretation:
De bullgine bust, de horse run off
I really thought I’d die
I shut my eyes to hold my breath
Susanna don’t you cry!
“Bullgine” was shipboard slang for a ship’s engine, usually used in a derogatory sense. Ships were often pulled along shallow sections of the Mississippi and other rivers by horses. Electric fluid, although associated with the telegraph was also commonly used to describe lightening, which became an increasing hazard as shipbuilding moved from wood to iron construction, with the result that lightening strikes became common occurrences on riverboats, killing in several instances hundreds of people. In Old Times on the Upper Mississippi, George Byron Merrick (1909) reports that Telegraph was such a common name for riverboats that there “was a great confusion of any one attempting to localize a disaster that had happened to one of that name in the past” These facts suggest a more straightforward reading of the enigmatic second verse. The speaker jumped on a riverboat named Telegraph, which was struck by lightening, frightening the horse pulling the boat and killing “five hundred nigger”
This interpretation does not of course, negate the racial violence depicted in the verse, nor does it explain why the speaker uses the rather obscure phrase “de ‘lectric fluid magnified” rather than simply calling it a lightening strike. Rather, the gruesome imagery, the nonsensical nature of the first stanze, and the paradoxical line in the second (“I shut my eyes to hold my breath”) suggest that both interpretations are in play, the commonsensical and mysterious. There is an oscillation between reading “telegraph” as a ship(in which case there was nothing magical about the disaster) and “telegraph” as a communication technology in which bodies could be transported along telegraph lines as if they were dematerialized messages, albeit with fatal consequences if the ‘”lectric fluid” “happened to magnify”. The whimsically paradoxical nature of the lyrics now can be seen in another light. They insist on the necessity of holding two incomplete thoughts together in the mind at once, as if anticipating the oscillation between commonsensical understanding of telegraphy as an everyday technology and as a mysterious reconfiguration of human bodies and technics.
Telegraph code books embody a similar kind of ambiguity. On the one hand, they were used in straightforward business practices to save money. On the other hand, through their information compression techniques, their separation of natural language phrases from code words, and their increasingly algorithmic nature of code construction, they point the way toward a dematerialized view of information that would, a century beyond their heyday, find expression in the idea that human minds already exists as dematerialized information patterns and so can be uploaded to a computer without significant loss of identity (Moravec 1990, 2000). Norbert Wiener writing at the dawn of the computer age in The Human Use of Human Beings (1954) , carried this dynamic to its logical extreme when he speculated whether it would be possible to telegraph a human being (103). A number of writers have pointed to the risky nature of such a dematerialized view of human bodies, ranging from Francis Fukuyama in The End of History and the Last Man ((2006) to Greg Egan in Permutation City (1995). In historical context they are recapitulating in other keys the explosive (racially inflected) disaster conjured in Stephen Foster’s minstrel song.” (Hayles 2010)
“How do we think?” N. Katherine Hayles poses this question at the beginning of this bracing exploration of the idea that we think through, with, and alongside media. As the age of print passes and new technologies appear every day, this proposition has become far more complicated, particularly for the traditionally print-based disciplines in the humanities and qualitative social sciences.With a rift growing between digital scholarship and its print-based counterpart, Hayles argues for contemporary technogenesis—the belief that humans and technics are coevolving—and advocates for what she calls comparative media studies, a new approach to locating digital work within print traditions and vice versa.Hayles examines the evolution of the field from the traditional humanities and how the digital humanities are changing academic scholarship, research, teaching, and publication. She goes on to depict the neurological consequences of working in digital media, where skimming and scanning, or “hyper reading,” and analysis through machine algorithms are forms of reading as valid as close reading once was. Hayles contends that we must recognize all three types of reading and understand the limitations and possibilities of each. In addition to illustrating what a comparative media perspective entails, Hayles explores the technogenesis spiral in its full complexity. She considers the effects of early databases such as telegraph code books and confronts our changing perceptions of time and space in the digital age, illustrating this through three innovative digital productions—Steve Tomasula’s electronic novel, TOC; Steven Hall’s The Raw Shark Texts; and Mark Z. Danielewski’s Only Revolutions.
Deepening our understanding of the extraordinary transformative powers digital technologies have placed in the hands of humanists, How We Think presents a cogent rationale for tackling the challenges facing the humanities toda
This Novel is extensively reviewed by Katherine Hayles in her latest book How We Think/Digital Media and Contemporary Technogenesis – that itself is arguably the single best exploration of Digital Humanism, Techno-genesis, and Education in the 21st century and which we hope to provide some more information on soon.
The digital Novel “TOC” (whose utterance brings its relationship to “TIC” into being aka Tic Toc) is a very Bergsonian exploration of Time, that is made possible due to its multimedia content.
You can check out the Novel at Tocthenovel.com
From the web site:
“You’ve never experienced a novel like this. TOC is a multimedia epic about time—the invention of the second, the beating of a heart, the story of humans connecting through time to each other and to the world. An evocative fairy tale with a steampunk heart, TOC is a breath-taking visual novel, an assemblage of text, film, music, photography, the spoken word, animation, and painting. It is the story of a man who digs a hole so deep he can hear the past, a woman who climbs a ladder so high she can see the future, as well as others trapped in the clockless, timeless time of a surgery waiting room: God’s time. Theirs is an imagined history of people who are fixed in the past, those who have no word for the future, and those who live out their days oblivious to either.
A new media hybrid, TOC re-imagines what the book is, and can be. Produced as a DVD for playback on personal computers (both Macs and PCs), TOC retains the intimate, one-on-one experience that a reader can have with a book even as it draws on the power of other art forms to immerse readers in an altogether new multimedia story”
The authors are:
Not Just Text
An interview with Steve Tomasula
by Yuriy Tarnawsky
Last year, FC2 published Steve Tomasula’s “new-media novel” TOC, an assemblage of text, film, music, photography, the spoken word, animation, and painting that comes on a DVD for “reading” on a computer. A multimedia epic about time—the invention of the second, the beating of a heart, the story of humans connecting through the lens of history—TOC is an evocative, steampunk fairytale. It also represents a new literary genre: a marriage of conventional narrative and image use with the possibilities for fiction that are opened up by the computer. Now in its second “printing,” TOC was awarded The Mary Shelly Award for Excellence in Fiction, and a design award from the Association of American University Presses. For excerpts and a closer look, see www.tocthenovel.com.
Steve Tomasula’s short fiction has appeared widely in magazines such as Bomb, The Iowa Review, and McSweeney’s. His previous novels are VAS: An Opera in Flatland; IN & OZ; and The Book of Portraiture.
Yuriy Tarnawsky: Tell us a little about TOC and the “new-media novel.”
Steve Tomasula: At first I thought of it as sort of a ”chamber opera” — a story told to an audience of one, on a tiny stage, as if a 12-inch monitor were puppet theater—and told, through its staging, music, and sets, the way operas, or graphic novels, or other word-image hybrids are staged—except I didn’t want any of it acted out, or even illustrated, as in these other forms. Rather, I wanted the images and the rest to work as text, the way I used them in my earlier print novels; I wanted to use all these languages we use to make stories—text, images, graphs, data, ads—as other ways to speak. For me it always starts with asking, what are the things a book can do? In this case, the book could include music, and animation, and the programming that makes it richer in texture and layers, hopefully, than it would be with words alone.
YT: Since the reader/viewer drives the process of reading TOC, the work bears some resemblance to computer games. Did you consciously pattern TOC on computer games, hoping to engage the user in the same way?
ST: Yes and no. The interactive nature of TOC came more out of “C-U See-Me,” a short story I originally wrote for print, but then adapted to the web. The story is about surveillance, so I wanted to give the reader a sense of being watched as he or she reads, and to let the reader watch or spy on others. I tried to weave the unease of watching and being watched into the story in a way that wasn’t possible in print: for example, at one point, the story asks the reader to supply his or her name, then the software of the story checks the reader’s computer to see if it was registered in that same name—that is, the story spies on the reader to see if they are stealing software or lying about their name. At another point, the story has the reader do the spying by letting them watch people at work through web cams.
Something like that was the experience that I was going for in TOC, and while to me it is still a book, and its “user” is still a reader, I guess these terms would have to be thought of more broadly: it is a “book” in that the reader experiences it one-on-one, and reads it as they would any novel, but it uses graphics, video, and music to help set the mood and to help tell the story.
YT: There is a well-known novel that encouraged the reader to select his own path before the availability of personal computers—Julio Cortazar’s Hopscotch (Rayuela). Were you influenced by this book or other predecessors in any way?
ST: Yes, very much so—I don’t know if I was consciously trying to model TOC on those earlier novels, but they make up the backdrop in which we understand formally adventuresome literature. I’m thinking here of Hopscotch, but also of Raymond Federman’s Double or Nothing, Walter Abish’s Alphabetical Africa; George Perec’s Life A User’s Manual, Gilbert Sorrentino’s Mulligan Stew, and other image-text novels like William Gass’s philosophical Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife, Lee Siegel’s great (and fun!) Love in a Dead Language, the first wave of hypertext novels, of course, and many, many others. . . .
YT: Much of TOC is narration accompanying still photography and animation; in this, it feels very much like a film. Were you influenced by film? Writing TOC, did you think of yourself as writing a movie script?
ST: No—maybe more like a graphic novel, or poetry that uses space as part of its poetics, as Apollinaire does. As with my earlier image-text novels, I did consciously write using images as part of the narrative, so it’s not like the novel is written and the images added in afterwards. I’ve always used imagery as another form of “text” that can add layers to the story. Once upon a time, all books were like this: children’s books, of course, but also Victorian novels and illuminated manuscripts. That is, thinking of a novel as a construction that can be made of lots of things, not just text, is liberating, and this is even more true when sound and motion can be included. So from the start, I’m thinking of how images, music, sound effects, can be part of the narration. I guess the influence of film did come in as I began to imagine what would happen on screen as the story was read or told. And decisions about what to present as text and what to present as a voiceover to be listened to began to push it toward a hybrid of film and book. Maybe that’s the best way to think of it: as this hybrid, in that the writing was very much like writing a novel, but with stages that novels don’t usually go through. For example, I had to storyboard out what was going to happen, and when or how, and tie it all to the programming—when to scroll, when to click, etc.
YT: A number of other people contributed to TOC. Stephen Farrell provided images and design, and you use video and other art, animation, and lots of music, including some by Eric Satie. How did you manage to meld all of this into a cohesive work? Was there much of going back and forth between you and the collaborators?
ST: Yes, there was a lot of back and forth with the artists who contributed work to TOC, most of whom never actually met each other. I think I and Chris Jara, the programmer, were the only ones who saw the entire novel before it was published. A lot of time was spent recruiting people to be voice actors, or musicians, or one of the other kinds of artists needed to pull this off, with some collaborators joining the band, so to speak, and eventually dropping out, and then others coming on board as the needs of the project dictated.
The core of the novel is a 30-minute animation that was originally published as a text-only story. At the time I was working with Stephen Farrell, the graphic designer, on a literary magazine, and thought it would be kind of cool as a word-image story, so we put in a lot of time together developing it that way. Some of the photography I shot—the astrolabe that is sort of an icon or visual motif that runs through the novel—came from the storeroom at the Planetarium in Chicago; I shot the photos of the Mayan calendar in the National Museum of Mexican Art. He used found footage and created artwork, and we worked together to come up with ideas for the layout and graphic design, which he created. Since the story is about time, it seemed to be a natural step to incorporate time into the story, to animate it—and of course animation asks for music, and music for composers and musicians. You can see how the project began to grow. It was a lot like putting a band together, or maybe an indie film.
With the writing finished, my role as author shifted from one of writer to conductor, or producer, or director, or grant writer—and sometimes mediator, music and art director, and programming director. Over fifteen people, spread out across three countries, contributed work to this, so I spent a lot of time coordinating their work. For example, Tim Guthrie did the final animation, which is kind of a solar system fly out: I would give him a match frame, a frame of video (which was made by Chris Jara from my storyboard sketch) that Tim was supposed to match the first frame of his animation to, and describe what I’d like him to do; he’d go off and work, then come back with what he’d done, and then we’d discuss what was working or not working with the overall conception for the novel, or with parts of the story that other artists were working on. When his piece of the puzzle was done, I’d give it to the programmer to fit into the overall structure he was creating. So TOC came together mostly through years’ worth of exchanges like that; most of the time it was working in this fashion, though in a few cases—Zoe Beloff and Chris Speed, for example—I’d seen work they’d already made. The whole book in this way is a gigantic mosaic, with the individual pieces made by lots of hands.
YT: When you started to work on the text, did you know that it was going to be “illustrated” so to speak? Did you already have a visual conception of the final work?
ST: For the core story, no. I wrote it like any other text-only story for print publication, though it did have a collage structure, so its form lent itself to thinking of it in frames or panels. After I worked with Stephen to turn it into a word-image story, though, I started writing the other pieces of the novel with visuals in mind. At the time a general rule of thumb for writing for computer screens was to limit text to the words that could fit on an index card, because that was about all the text on screen that most readers could handle comfortably. So I tried to write short sections, though not necessarily sticking to cards. As with VAS and The Book of Portraiture, my other word-image novels, I tried to use visuals as part of the story, especially in terms of what parts of the narrative I was going to tell through words, and what parts of the narrative would be carried by images. I did have a conception of what this would all look like visually—you had to in order to storyboard it out—but sometimes this consisted of just brief descriptions; for example, I described a clock-tower that would incorporate lots of devices people have used to measure time—water clocks, sundials, etc. —then Maria Tomasula made the oil painting of it that Chris Jara animated. So it went through transformations each time another artist was involved, and at each stage these collaborators brought their own ideas to it, made refinements, suggestions, gave it form. YT:Speaking of time, “toc” of course asks for “tic” to precede it. Why are you interested in time? Novels are typically written about people, or at least about living things. What made you write a book about time, and how does time reveal itself in human beings?ST: I don’t really write autobiographically, but at the time I began working on the story that would become the longest animation in the piece, both of my parents were dying. There was something eerie about that synchronicity—like a whole way of life being swept away the way a village at the bottom of a dam might be if the dam bursts—and that was sort of the genesis of the piece. While my father was ill, we’d talk a lot about his life, and about “his time,” as he put the era he lived through—the Depression and WWII—and you could see how “his time” shaped who he was, how he lived. He could see “his time” passing into “my time” —the time of those who didn’t live through all of that, who thought in terms of different histories or contexts—the progression gradually making him and his way of thinking an anachronism, as time will make all of us anachronistic. So I guess that ultimately I do think of the novel as being about people, though the approach is to get at things by making visible something that is as invisible to us as the air.
YT: Let’s go back to the formal aspects of TOC. It seems to me that TOC is not nearly as “individualizable” as a typical computer game. The user has two basic choices—the Chronos path or the Logos path. The Chronos path offers a film that one can skip around in but probably won’t, because it feels like a film. In the Logos path there are more possibilities—you can go clockwise, which reveals that “Tic” means “the people” and “Toc” “the non-people,” or counterclockwise, which gives you the opposite definition of the words. You can also go nonsequentially through the various stages, but since there is no logical interdependence between them this will not produce significantly different readings. Are there more fundamental consequences?
ST: The short answer is that TOC is a novel and not a game, so though it might have some elements in common with a game, it has a lot more affinity with a novel: the main navigation screen, for example, the screen where you can select a path, is essentially an animated table of contents, eliciting different paths through the book, but also recording which parts have been already visited. The main differences are in the reading experience itself and in what story is ultimately told: it is possible for readers to take a direct line through the novel and reach its end without seeing some of the sections that would change their understanding of the story. On the other hand, a reader could take a more meandering path through the novel, and at the end have had a very different experience. As in theater or other time-arts media, the experience of the novel is very much part of the novel.
YT: You provide an on-line user’s manual which may or may not be referred to. How do you expect readings to differ between the naïve and the initiated user?
ST: How readers would read was the big mystery when bringing the book to production—how would people actually use it, how much direction they would need, and how much could they be left to their own devices. To try to answer these sorts of questions, I mainly followed my own experiences with hypertext and print books, trying to avoid the things I’d always hated about hypertext—e.g., not knowing when I was done, not being able to tell how much of the book was left, not having a sense of the whole. Getting caught in loops where links keep sending a reader back to a section they’d already read was another frustration I wanted to avoid; in TOC, it’s pretty clear what you’ve read. You can revisit it, as in a print book, but it’s just as easy to skip ahead and keep moving.This seemed especially important in a novel about time, since the ability to tell where you’re at in a book shapes how you understand the section you’re in (just as an awareness of where you are in time shapes how you understand the past). But I felt like I also needed to build in some “directions for reading,” cues that would tell the reader when to just sit back and enjoy the parts that the computer performs on its own, or when they need to use the mouse, or do some work to move the narrative forward. (In VAS I’d tried to build in similar “directions”: one section has bold headings along the tops of collage pages that tell the reader it is okay to keep turning pages, or to go down into the collages as one would read footnotes.) But really, my hope is that these sorts of directions would be subliminal, the way furniture in a room can direct traffic without calling attention to the fact. I’d prefer people to just start reading TOC, without consulting anything.
YT: Have you had any interesting feedback from readers you could share with us?
ST:In addition to what I mentioned above, I will say that along with genre expectation, there seems to be a generational divide—or maybe it was a media-orientation divide, which just happens to break down along generational lines. But the older, book generation were most likely to sit on their hands, only using the mouse to “turn the page” and read fairly linearly. Those born post-PC would use the mouse to race through the entire work, to get the lay of the land, to see what was there and what did what; then they would come back and read, dipping in here and there according to those sections that had piqued their interests most. They also thought they “caused” things to happen in the novel much more than print-oriented readers, who thought that the ones who “caused” things to happen in the novel were the characters, and they, the readers, were just spectators. I think this illustrates something about the nature of reading and readers and the nature of the book, especially as books move into an electronic format, but I’m not sure what.YT: Tell us a little about the history of TOC. How does it relate to your earlier work? What stages did it go through? How long did it take for you to write it?
ST: A poet once told me that novelists are lucky because they only have to come up with one idea every five or six years. I always thought that I must be even luckier than that as it seems like I’ve only had to come up with one idea at all, as all my novels seem to deal with different aspects of representation: how we depict ourselves and each other, who has the right or power to depict others, and how this plays out both across time and within the different means we have to do so, be they scientific, literary, visual, or whatever . . . So TOC is an extension of this. It’s also an extension of how I’ve always incorporated the materials of the book into the story. In VAS—a novel about the bio-tech revolution we are living through—I made a conscious effort to use the body of the book as a metaphor for the human body and vice versa; if you look at the edge of The Book of Portraiture, the pages appear as strata in an archaeological dig, which evokes, I hope, the central idea of that novel: the archaeology of human representation through layers of history that make up its chapters. “C-U See-Me” was another early work that incorporated things like interactivity and tracking and links—things you can’t do in print—into the telling of the story itself. There’s that concern with materials in TOC, too, except the materials in this case include the clock of the computer, the 1s & 0s of machine language, as well as the text of human language: it’s a time-arts piece in that it is both read and plays out in real time, and given that it’s about time, these materials are central to the telling of the story, and the experience of reading it. They might be used to elicit a meditative mood, for example, or, at other times, a more accelerated experience of time, such as a person might have while playing a game.
The main story of TOC was originally published as a text-only story in Literal Latte in 1996; a year or so later I worked with Stephen Farrell to make a word-image version, which came out in Émigré. Spreads from Émigré were hung as a Moebius strip from the ceiling in an exhibit at The Center for Book and Paper Arts (in Chicago), where Maria and I also did a reading of the story with images projected on a screen behind us, and this was sort of the genesis of TOC as a multimedia piece—theater, in a way, was always part of it. I began thinking of it not just as a stand-alone story, but as a piece in a multi-media whole: I began to write brief chapters around it, basically using that story as the “present” and extending the story back towards mythic time, and forward toward a future. I began to write other sections, thinking about how they all relate as part of a matrix of stories about customs, and history, but a history in which characters don’t know all the parts because some parts haven’t happened yet, while others are so old they’ve been forgotten. Mapping it out was pretty much just taping paper sheets together and creating a flow chart for how things would link together, sketching out a storyboard for how they would fit together, as well as create a flowchart for the commands that a reader would activate to move through the story.
YT: Do you envision the “new media novel” becoming a new genre, with many writers/artists working in it? Do you think it will eventually replace the paper novel?
ST: Nothing will ever replace the paper novel, any more than film replaced theater, or photography painting. They do remediate each other, though, to use Bolter and Grusin’s insightful concept, or as Sukenick put it, they make each be more essentially itself: once photography was invented it allowed painting to be more painterly, less about documentation (depicting kings and queens, for example) and more about painting itself. I imagine something like this will happen to paper books once electronic books are ubiquitous: there will have to be a justification for printed paper—they will become more about their materials, the experience of reading, or maybe back to something like artist books, or one of a kind books made by a scribe, or some other form that gives an answer to, Why not just read on a Kindle?
TOC is a different genre, somewhere between reading and film—a Frankenstein of a book I would love to see more of—a genre of literature in the way theater is a genre of literature. I love theater but I also love to read printed novels; they’re different experiences, but lucky us, we don’t have to choose only one or the other, and I imagine that’s what will become of books like TOC: there will still be lots of authors working as authors long have, in print, just as there are those who write for the stage or screen, but there will also be some who create multimedia novels, and these novels will be very cool given the increasing ease with which something like this can be done. As the materials themselves become more fluid, authors will be able to focus on the story or poem itself rather than on the technical challenges. And of course, if there’s money in it, the way there is with video games, you’ll see big commercial interests moving in to make hybrid best sellers by Tom Clancy, etc., the way they already turn those kinds of novels into games. Hopefully the money won’t squeeze out books as art, or the indies, as it has tended to in film.
YT: What are your plans for the future? Will you continue working in this genre or will you go back to something more traditional?
ST: Right now I’m working on a collection of word-image short fiction, and a novel, Ascension, which traces our relationship to nature through our depictions of it—from naturalist sketchbook to folders of genetic information. Both will be image-text print books; all the maps, gene sequences, networking maps, and other visuals associated with subjects like this are just too rich not to draw on, and given the historical sweep of the story, it seems like paper has to be involved—at least for the first chapters. Maybe the last chapter, which is set today, should be an app.
Rainer Marie Rilke
The First Elegy
Whom if I cried out would hear me among the Angelic
Orders? And even if one were to suddenly
take me to its heart, I would vanish into its
stronger existence. For beauty is nothing but
the beginning of terror, that we are still able to bear,
and we revere it so, because it calmly disdains
to destroy us. Every Angel is terror.
And so I hold myself back and swallow the cry
of a darkened sobbing. Ah, who then can
we make use of? Not Angels: not men,
and the resourceful creatures see clearly
that we are not really at home
in the interpreted world. Perhaps there remains
some tree on a slope, that we can see
again each day: there remains to us yesterday’s street,
and the thinned-out loyalty of a habit
that liked us, and so stayed, and never departed.
Oh, and the night, the night, when the wind full of space
wears out our faces – whom would she not stay for,
the longed-for, gentle, disappointing one, whom the solitary heart
with difficulty stands before. Is she less heavy for lovers?
Ah, they only hide their fate between themselves.
Do you not know yet? Throw the emptiness out of your arms
to add to the spaces we breathe; maybe the birds
will feel the expansion of air, in more intimate flight.
Yes, the Spring-times needed you deeply. Many a star
must have been there for you so you might feel it. A wave
lifted towards you out of the past, or, as you walked
past an open window, a violin
gave of itself. All this was their mission.
But could you handle it? Were you not always,
still, distracted by expectation, as if all you experienced,
like a Beloved, came near to you? (Where could you contain her,
with all the vast strange thoughts in you
going in and out, and often staying the night.)
But if you are yearning, then sing the lovers: for long
their notorious feelings have not been immortal enough.
Those, you almost envied them, the forsaken, that you
found as loving as those who were satisfied. Begin,
always as new, the unattainable praising:
think: the hero prolongs himself, even his falling
was only a pretext for being, his latest rebirth.
But lovers are taken back by exhausted Nature
into herself, as if there were not the power
to make them again. Have you remembered
Gastara Stampa sufficiently yet, that any girl,
whose lover has gone, might feel from that
intenser example of love: ‘Could I only become like her?’
Should not these ancient sufferings be finally
fruitful for us? Isn’t it time that, loving,
we freed ourselves from the beloved, and, trembling, endured
as the arrow endures the bow, so as to be, in its flight,
something more than itself? For staying is nowhere.
Voices, voices. Hear then, my heart, as only
saints have heard: so that the mighty call
raised them from the earth: they, though, knelt on
impossibly and paid no attention:
such was their listening. Not that you could withstand
God’s voice: far from it. But listen to the breath,
the unbroken message that creates itself from the silence.
It rushes towards you now, from those youthfully dead.
Whenever you entered, didn’t their fate speak to you,
quietly, in churches in Naples or Rome?
Or else an inscription exaltedly impressed itself on you,
as lately the tablet in Santa Maria Formosa.
What do they will of me? That I should gently remove
the semblance of injustice, that slightly, at times,
hinders their spirits from a pure moving-on.
It is truly strange to no longer inhabit the earth,
to no longer practice customs barely acquired,
not to give a meaning of human futurity
to roses, and other expressly promising things:
no longer to be what one was in endlessly anxious hands,
and to set aside even one’s own
proper name like a broken plaything.
Strange: not to go on wishing one’s wishes. Strange
to see all that was once in place, floating
so loosely in space. And it’s hard being dead,
and full of retrieval, before one gradually feels
a little eternity. Though the living
all make the error of drawing too sharp a distinction.
Angels (they say) would often not know whether
they moved among living or dead. The eternal current
sweeps all the ages, within it, through both the spheres,
forever, and resounds above them in both.
Finally they have no more need of us, the early-departed,
weaned gently from earthly things, as one outgrows
the mother’s mild breast. But we, needing
such great secrets, for whom sadness is often
the source of a blessed progress, could we exist without them?
Is it a meaningless story how once, in the grieving for Linos,
first music ventured to penetrate arid rigidity,
so that, in startled space, which an almost godlike youth
suddenly left forever, the emptiness first felt
the quivering that now enraptures us, and comforts, and helps.
Die erste Elegie
Wer, wenn ich schriee, hörte mich denn aus der Engel
Ordnungen? und gesetzt selbst, es nähme
einer mich plötzlich ans Herz: ich verginge von seinem
stärkeren Dasein. Denn das Schöne ist nichts
als des Schrecklichen Anfang, den wir noch grade ertragen,
und wir bewundern es so, weil es gelassen verschmäht,
uns zu zerstören. Ein jeder Engel ist schrecklich.
Und so verhalt ich mich denn und verschlucke den Lockruf
dunkelen Schluchzens. Ach, wen vermögen
wir denn zu brauchen? Engel nicht, Menschen nicht,
und die findigen Tiere merken es schon,
daß wir nicht sehr verläßlich zu Haus sind
in der gedeuteten Welt. Es bleibt uns vielleicht
irgend ein Baum an dem Abhang, daß wir ihn täglich
wiedersähen; es bleibt uns die Straße von gestern
und das verzogene Treusein einer Gewohnheit,
der es bei uns gefiel, und so blieb sie und ging nicht.
O und die Nacht, die Nacht, wenn der Wind voller Weltraum
uns am Angesicht zehrt , wem bliebe sie nicht, die ersehnte,
sanft enttäuschende, welche dem einzelnen Herzen
mühsam bevorsteht. Ist sie den Liebenden leichter?
Ach, sie verdecken sich nur mit einander ihr Los.
Weißt du’s noch nicht? Wirf aus den Armen die Leere
zu den Räumen hinzu, die wir atmen; vielleicht daß die Vögel
die erweiterte Luft fühlen mit innigerm Flug.
Ja, die Frühlinge brauchten dich wohl. Es muteten manche
Sterne dir zu, daß du sie spürtest. Es hob
sich eine Woge heran im Vergangenen, oder
da du vorüberkamst am geöffneten Fenster,
gab eine Geige sich hin. Das alles war Auftrag.
Aber bewältigtest du’s? Warst du nicht immer
noch von Erwartung zerstreut, als kündigte alles
eine Geliebte dir an? (Wo willst du sie bergen,
da doch die großen fremden Gedanken bei dir
aus und ein gehn und öfters bleiben bei Nacht.)
Sehnt es dich aber, so singe die Liebenden; lange
noch nicht unsterblich genug ist ihr berühmtes Gefühl.
Jene, du neidest sie fast, Verlassenen, die du
so viel liebender fandst als die Gestillten. Beginn
immer von neuem die nie zu erreichende Preisung;
denk: es erhält sich der Held, selbst der Untergang war ihm
nur ein Vorwand, zu sein: seine letzte Geburt.
Aber die Liebenden nimmt die erschöpfte Natur
in sich zurück, als wären nicht zweimal die Kräfte,
dieses zu leisten. Hast du der Gaspara Stampa
denn genügend gedacht, daß irgend ein Mädchen,
dem der Geliebte entging, am gesteigerten Beispiel
dieser Liebenden fühlt: daß ich würde wie sie?
Sollen nicht endlich uns diese ältesten Schmerzen
fruchtbarer werden? Ist es nicht Zeit, daß wir liebend
uns vom Geliebten befrein und es bebend bestehn:
wie der Pfeil die Sehne besteht, um gesammelt im Absprung
mehr zu sein als er selbst. Denn Bleiben ist nirgends.
Stimmen, Stimmen. Höre, mein Herz, wie sonst nur
Heilige hörten: daß sie der riesige Ruf
aufhob vom Boden; sie aber knieten,
Unmögliche, weiter und achtetens nicht:
So waren sie hörend. Nicht, daß du Gottes ertrügest
die Stimme, bei weitem. Aber das Wehende höre,
die ununterbrochene Nachricht, die aus Stille sich bildet.
Es rauscht jetzt von jenen jungen Toten zu dir.
Wo immer du eintratst, redete nicht in Kirchen
zu Rom und Neapel ruhig ihr Schicksal dich an?
Oder es trug eine Inschrift sich erhaben dir auf,
wie neulich die Tafel in Santa Maria Formosa.
Was sie mir wollen? leise soll ich des Unrechts
Anschein abtun, der ihrer Geister
reine Bewegung manchmal ein wenig behindert.
Freilich ist es seltsam, die Erde nicht mehr zu bewohnen,
kaum erlernte Gebräuche nicht mehr zu üben,
Rosen, und andern eigens versprechenden Dingen
nicht die Bedeutung menschlicher Zukunft zu geben;
das, was man war in unendlich ängstlichen Händen,
nicht mehr zu sein, und selbst den eigenen Namen
wegzulassen wie ein zerbrochenes Spielzeug.
Seltsam, die Wünsche nicht weiterzuwünschen. Seltsam,
alles, was sich bezog, so lose im Raume
flattern zu sehen. Und das Totsein ist mühsam
und voller Nachholn, daß man allmählich ein wenig
Ewigkeit spürt. Aber Lebendige machen
alle den Fehler, daß sie zu stark unterscheiden.
Engel (sagt man) wüßten oft nicht, ob sie unter
Lebenden gehn oder Toten. Die ewige Strömung
reißt durch beide Bereiche alle Alter
immer mit sich und übertönt sie in beiden.
Schließlich brauchen sie uns nicht mehr, die Früheentrückten,
man entwöhnt sich des Irdischen sanft, wie man den Brüsten
milde der Mutter entwächst. Aber wir, die so große
Geheimnisse brauchen, denen aus Trauer so oft
seliger Fortschritt entspringt : könnten wir sein ohne sie?
Ist die Sage umsonst, daß einst in der Klage um Linos
wagende erste Musik dürre Erstarrung durchdrang;
daß erst im erschrockenen Raum, dem ein beinah göttlicher Jüngling
plötzlich für immer enttrat, das Leere in jene
Schwingung geriet, die uns jetzt hinreißt und tröstet und hilft.
Link to the other Duino Elegies
Rainer Marie Rilke
from the Poetry Foundation
Widely recognized as one of the most lyrically intense German-language poets, Rainer Maria Rilke was unique in his efforts to expand the realm of poetry through new uses of syntax and imagery and in the philosophy that his poems explored. With regard to the former, W. H. Auden declared in New Republic, “Rilke’s most immediate and obvious influence has been upon diction and imagery.” Rilke expressed ideas with “physical rather than intellectual symbols. While Shakespeare, for example, thought of the non-human world in terms of the human, Rilke thinks of the human in terms of the non-human, of what he calls Things (Dinge).” Besides this technique, the other important aspect of Rilke’s writings was the evolution of his philosophy, which reached a climax in Duineser Elegien ( Duino Elegies ) and Die Sonette an Orpheus ( Sonnets to Orpheus). Rejecting the Catholic beliefs of his parents as well as Christianity in general, the poet strove throughout his life to reconcile beauty and suffering, life and death, into one philosophy. As C. M. Bowra observed in Rainer Maria Rilke: Aspects of His Mind and Poetry, “Where others have found a unifying principle for themselves in religion or morality or the search for truth, Rilke found his in the search for impressions and the hope these could be turned into poetry…For him Art was what mattered most in life.”
Rilke was the only child of a German-speaking family in Prague, then part of the Austro-Hungarian empire. His father was a retired officer in the Austrian army who worked as a railroad official; his mother, a socially ambitious and possessive woman. At age eleven Rilke began his formal schooling at a military boarding academy, and in 1891, less than a year after transferring to a secondary military school, he was discharged due to health problems, from which he would suffer throughout his life. He immediately returned to Prague, to find that his parents had divorced in his absence. Shortly thereafter he began receiving private instruction toward passing the entrance exams for Prague’s Charles-Ferdinand University. In 1894 his first book of verse, Leben und Lieder: Bilder und Tagebuchblatter, was published.
By 1895 Rilke had enrolled in the philosophy program at Charles-Ferdinand University, but soon became disenchanted with his studies and left Prague for Munich, ostensibly to study art. In Munich Rilke mingled in the city’s literary circles, had several of his plays produced, published his poetry collections, Larenopfer and Traumgelkront, and was introduced to the work of Danish writer Jens Peter Jacobsen, who was a decisive influence during Rilke’s formative years. Visiting Venice in 1897, Rilke met Lou Andreas-Salome, a married woman fifteen years his senior, who was also a strong influence on Rilke. After spending the summer of 1897 with her in the Bavarian Alps, Rilke accompanied Salome and her husband to Berlin in late 1897 and to Italy the following year.
Rilke’s early verse, short stories, and plays are characterized by their romanticism. His poems of this period show the influence of the German folk song tradition and have been compared to the lyrical work of Heinrich Heine. The most popular poetry collections of Rilke’s during this period were Vom lieben Gott und Anderes ( Stories of God ) and the romantic cycle Die Weise von Liebe und Tod des Cornets Christoph Rilke (The Story of the Love and Death of Cornet Christoph Rilke), which remained the poet’s most widely recognized book during his lifetime. Dictionary of Literary Biography contributor George C. Schoolfield called Rilke’s first poetry collection, Leben und Lieder (“Life and Songs”), “unbearably sentimental,” but thought later works such as Larenopfer (“Offering to the Lares”) and Traumgekroent (“Crowned with Dreams”) demonstrated “considerably better proof of his lyric talent.” Although none of Rilke’s plays are considered major works, and his short stories, according to Schoolfield, demonstrate the author’s immaturity, the latter do show “his awareness of language and a certain psychological refinement,” as well as “flashes of brilliant satiric gift” and “evidence of a keen insight into human relations.” Schoolfield also observed that “some of Rilke’s best tales are autobiographical,” such as “Pierre Dumont,” which features a young boy saying goodbye to his mother at the gates to a military school, and “Ewald Tragy,” a two-part story about a boy who leaves his family and hometown of Prague for Munich, where he fights loneliness but enjoys a new sense of freedom.
In 1899 Rilke made the first of two pivotal trips to Russia with Salome, discovering what he termed his “spiritual fatherland” in both the people and the landscape. There Rilke met Leo Tolstoy, L. O. Pasternak (father of Boris Pasternak), and the peasant poet Spiridon Droschin, whose works Rilke translated into German. These trips provided Rilke with the poetic material and inspiration essential to his developing philosophy of existential materialism and art as religion. Inspired by the lives of the Russian people, whom the poet considered more devoutly spiritual than other Europeans, Rilke’s work during this period often featured traditional Christian imagery and concepts, but presented art as the sole redeemer of humanity. Soon after his return from Russia in 1900, he began writing Das Stundenbuch enthaltend die drei Bücher: Vom moenchischen Leben; Von der Pilgerschaft; Von der Armuth und vom Tode, a collection that “marked for him the end of an epoch,” according to Bowra and others. This book, translated as The Book of Hours; Comprising the Three Books: Of the Monastic Life, Of Pilgrimage, Of Poverty and Death, consists of a series of prayers about the search for God. Because of this concern, Hound and Horn critic Hester Pickman noted that the book “might have fallen out of the writings of Christian contemplatives,” except that “the essential pattern is an inversion of theirs. God is not light but darkness—not a father, but a son, not the creator but the created. He and not man is our neighbor for men are infinitely far from each other. They must seek God, not where one or two are gathered in His name, but alone.”
Whenever Rilke writes about God, however, he is not referring to the deity in the traditional sense, but rather uses the term to refer to the life force, or nature, or an all-embodying, pantheistic consciousness that is only slowly coming to realize its existence. “Extending the idea of evolution,” Eudo C. Mason explained in an introduction to The Book of Hours, “and inspired probably also in some measure by Nietzsche’s idea of the Superman, Rilke arrives at the paradoxical conception of God as the final result instead of the first cause of the cosmic process.” Holding in contempt “all other more traditional forms of devoutness, which . . . merely ‘accept God as a given fact,’” Rilke did not deny God’s existence, but insisted that all possibilities about the nature of life be given equal consideration.
The real theme of The Book of Hours, concluded Mason, is the poet’s “own inner life,” his struggles toward comprehension, and, “above all . . . his perils as a poet.” The second major concept in The Book of Hours is Rilke’s apotheosis of art. “‘Religion is the art of those who are uncreative,’” Mason quoted Rilke as having said; the poet’s work is often concerned with the artist’s role in society and with his inner doubts about his belief in poetry’s superiority. Because of the firm establishment of these two themes in The Book of Hours, the collection “is essential to the understanding of what comes afterwards” in Rilke’s writing, attested Pickman. The Book of Hours was also another of the poet’s most popular works, second only to The Story of the Love and Death of Cornet Christoph Rilke during his lifetime. But despite being a “very beautiful” book, it also “remains too constantly abstract. It lacks the solid reality of great poetry,” according to Pickman.
Rilke fixed his verse more firmly in reality in his next major poetry collection, Neue Gedichte ( New Poems ). The major influence behind this work was Rilke’s association with the famous French sculptor, Auguste Rodin. Working as Rodin’s secretary from 1905 to 1906, Rilke gained a greater appreciation of the work ethic. More importantly, however, the poet’s verses became objective, evolving from an impressionistic, personal vision to the representation of this vision with impersonal symbolism. He referred to this type of poetry as Dinggedichte (thing poems). These verses employed a simple vocabulary to describe concrete subjects experienced in everyday life. Having learned the skill of perceptive observation from Rodin and, later, from the French painter Paul Cezanne, Rilke “sustained for a little while the ability to write without inspiration, to transform his observations—indeed his whole life—into art,” according to Nancy Willard, author of Testimony of the Invisible Man. The “‘thingness’ of these poems,” explained Erich Heller in The Artist’s Journey into the Interior and Other Essays, “reflects not the harmony in which an inner self lives with its ‘objects’; it reflects a troubled inner self immersing itself in ‘the things.’” But although this objective approach innovatively addressed subjects never before recognized by other poets and created “dazzling poems,” Rilke realized, according to Willard, that it “did not really open the secret of living things.”
By this point in his career, Rilke was reaching a crisis in his art that revealed itself both in New Poems and his only major prose work, the novel Die Aufzeichnungen des Malte Laurids Brigge ( The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge). These works express the poet’s growing doubts about whether anything existed that was superior to mankind and his world. This, in turn, brought into question Rilke’s very reason for writing poetry: the search for deeper meaning in life through art. In her book, Rainer Maria Rilke, E. M. Butler averred that ” The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge” marks a crisis in Rilke’s attitude to God, a crisis which might be hailed as the loss of a delusion, or deplored as the loss of an ideal. . . . [His concept of the] future artist-god had never been more than a sublime hypothesis, deriving from Rilke’s belief in the creative and transforming powers of art.” Having failed, in his mind, to accurately represent God in his poetry, Rilke attempted to “transform life into art” in his New Poems. “What he learnt,” Butler continued, “is what every artist has to face sooner or later, the realisation that life is much more creative than art. So that his mythological dream, the apotheosis of art, appeared to be founded on delusion. Either art was not as creative as he had thought, or he was not such a great artist. Both these doubts were paralyzing, and quite sufficient to account for the terrible apprehension present in every line of Malte Laurids Brigge. For this skepticism struck at the roots of his reason and justification for existence. Either he was the prophet of a new religion, or he was nobody.”
The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge is a loosely autobiographical novel about a student who is the last descendant of a noble Danish family (Rilke believed, erroneously according to his biographers, that he was distantly related to Carinthian nobility), and follows his life from his birth to a grim, poverty-stricken life as a student in Paris. Images of death and decay (especially in the Paris scenes) and Malte’s fear of death are a continuous presence throughout the narrative. Because Rilke never finished The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge (in one of his letters, the author told a friend he ended the book “‘out of exhaustion,’” reported Schoolfield) Malte’s ultimate fate is left ambiguous. In one of Rilke’s letters translated in Letters of Rainer Maria Rilke: 1910-1926, the author remarked that the most significant question in The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge is: “[How] is it possible to live when after all the elements of this life are utterly incomprehensible to us?” As William Rose determined in Rainer Maria Rilke: Aspects of His Mind and Poetry, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge actually was kind of a catharsis for the author in which “Rilke gave full vent . . . to the fears which haunted him.” “Without the Notebooks behind him,” Wood concluded, “the poet would hardly have ventured” to write the Duino Elegies in 1912.
Duino Elegies “might well be called the greatest set of poems of modern times,” claimed Colin Wilson, author of Religion and the Rebel. Wilson averred, “They have had as much influence in German-speaking countries as [T. S. Eliot's] The Waste Land has in England and America.” Having discovered a dead end in the objective poetry with which he experimented in New Poems, Rilke once again turned to his own personal vision to find solutions to questions about the purpose of human life and the poet’s role in society. Duino Elegies finally resolved these puzzles to Rilke’s own satisfaction. Called Duino Elegies because Rilke began writing them in 1912 while staying at Duino Castle on the Italian Adriatic coast, the collection took ten years to complete, due to an inspiration-stifling depression the poet suffered during and after World War I. When his inspiration returned, however, the poet wrote a total of eleven lengthy poems for the book; later this was edited down to ten poems. The unifying poetic image that Rilke employs throughout Duino Elegies is that of angels, which carry many meanings, albeit not the usual Christian connotations. The angels represent a higher force in life, both beautiful and terrible, completely indifferent to mankind; they represent the power of poetic vision, as well as Rilke’s personal struggle to reconcile art and life.The Duino angels thus allowed Rilke to objectify abstract ideas as he had done in New Poems, while not limiting him to the mundane materialism that was incapable of thoroughly illustrating philosophical issues.
The revolutionary poetic philosophy that Rilke proposed in Duino Elegies is considered significant to many literary scholars. “No poet before him had been brave enough to accept the whole of [the dark side of the] world, as if it were unquestionably valid and potentially universal,” asserted Conrad Aiken in his Collected Criticism. Like the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who lived about the same time as Rilke, the poet determined his objective to be “[praise] and celebration in the face of and in full consciousness of the facts that had caused other minds to assume an attitude of negativity,” wrote Emergence from Chaos author Stuart Holroyd. But even though the final purpose of Duino Elegies is to praise existence, the “predominant note . . . is one of lament.” By overcoming his quandaries in this collection, Rilke was completely free to devote his poetry to praise in Sonnets to Orpheus.
“The Sonnets are the songs of his victory,” affirmed Bowra in The Heritage of Symbolism. “In the Sonnets,” Bowra wrote, “Rilke shows what poetry meant to him, what he got from it and what he hoped for it. The dominating mood is joy. It is a complement to the distress and anxiety of the Elegies, and in Rilke’s whole performance the two books must be taken together.” Aiken similarly commented that the ” Sonnets to Orpheus . . . is, with the Elegies, Rilke’s finest work—the two books really belong together, shine the better for each other’s presence.”
In the last few years of his life, Rilke was inspired by such French poets as Paul Valery and Jean Cocteau, and wrote most of his last verses in French. Always a sickly man, the poet succumbed to leukemia in 1926 while staying at the Valmont sanatorium near Lake Geneva. On his deathbed, he remained true to his anti-Christian beliefs and refused the company of a priest. Hermann Hesse summed up Rilke’s evolution as a poet in his book, My Belief: Essays on Life and Art: “Remarkable, this journey from the youthful music of Bohemian folk poetry . . . to Orpheus, remarkable how . . . his mastery of form increases, penetrates deeper and deeper into his problems! And at each stage now and again the miracle occurs, his delicate, hesitant, anxiety-prone person withdraws, and through him resounds the music of the universe; like the basin of a fountain he becomes at once instrument and ear.” Without his parents’ religious ideals to comfort him, Rilke found peace in his art. As Holroyd concluded, the “poetry which Rilke wrote to express and extend his experience . . . is one of the most successful attempts a modern man has made to orientate himself within his chaotic world.”
An introduction to the 21st Century’s most controversial poetry movements.
From: The Poetry Foundation
Start making sense. Disjunction is dead. The fragment, which ruled poetry for the past one hundred years, has left the building. Subjectivity, emotion, the body, and desire, as expressed in whole units of plain English with normative syntax, has returned. But not in ways you would imagine. This new poetry wears its sincerity on its sleeve . . . yet no one means a word of it. Come to think of it, no one’s really written a word of it. It’s been grabbed, cut, pasted, processed, machined, honed, flattened, repurposed, regurgitated, and reframed from the great mass of free-floating language out there just begging to be turned into poetry. Why atomize, shatter, and splay language into nonsensical shards when you can hoard, store, mold, squeeze, shovel, soil, scrub, package, and cram the stuff into towers of words and castles of language with a stroke of the keyboard? And what fun to wreck it: knock it down, hit delete, and start all over again. There’s a sense of gluttony, of joy, and of fun. Like kids at a touch table, we’re delighted to feel language again, to roll in it, to get our hands dirty. With so much available language, does anyone really need to write more? Instead, let’s just process what exists. Language as matter; language as material. How much did you say that paragraph weighed?
Our immersive digital environment demands new responses from writers. What does it mean to be a poet in the Internet age? These two movements, Flarf and Conceptual Writing, each formed over the past five years, are direct investigations to that end. And as different as they are, they have surprisingly come up with a set of similar solutions. 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 tossed out as well. Materiality, too, comes to the fore: the quantity of words seems to have more bearing on a poem than what they mean. 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. This new writing is not bound exclusively between pages of a book; it continually morphs from printed page to web page, from gallery space to science lab, from social spaces of poetry readings to social spaces of blogs. It is a poetics of flux, celebrating instability and uncertainty.
Yet for as much as the two movements have in common, they are very different. Unlike Conceptual Writing, where procedure may have as much to do with meaning as the form and content, Flarf is quasi-procedural and improvisatory. Many of the poems are “sculpted” from the results of Internet searches, often using words and phrases that the poet has gleaned from poems posted by other poets to the Flarflist e-mail listserv. By contrast Conceptual Writers try to emulate the workings and processes of the machine, feeling that the results will be good if the concept and execution of the poetic machine are good; there is no tolerance for improvisation or spontaneity.
Flarf plays Dionysus to Conceptual Writing’s Apollo. Flarf uses traditional poetic tropes (“taste” and “subjectivity”) and forms (stanza and verse) to turn these conventions inside out. Conceptual Writing rarely “looks” like poetry and uses its own subjectivity to construct a linguistic machine that words may be poured into; it cares little for the outcome. Flarf is hilarious. Conceptual Writing is dry. Flarf is the Land O’Lakes butter squaw; Conceptual Writing is the government’s nutritional label on the box. Flarf is Larry Rivers. Conceptual Writing is Andy Warhol. No matter. They’re two sides of the same coin. Choose your poison and embrace your guilty pleasure.—KG
Jordan Davis Three Poems on Demand
Vanessa Place Miss Scarlett
Chritian Bök The Great Order of the Universe
Mel Nichols I Google Myself
Gary Sullivan Am I EMO? (a poetry comic)
Sharon Mesmer The Swiss Just Do Whatever
K. Silem Mohammad Poems About Trees
Nada Gordon Unicorn Believers Don’t Declare Fatwas
Drew Garner Why I Hate Flarf so Much?
Gary Sullivan Am I EMO?
Caroline Bergvall The Not Tale (Funeral)
Chritian Bök The Great Order of the Universe
Robert Fitterman Directory
Kenneth Goldsmith Two Poems from “The Day”
Craig Dworkin Fact