Saturday, April 7, 2007

A defence of (procedural) poetry

My friend Steve wrote a post yesterday in which he listed some apprehensions he has with regards to procedural/“process-oriented” poetry. I wanted to take a moment to provide a response, as I regularly read and often write procedural poetry.

To begin, a definition: procedural writing begins with a set of rules, according to which the text is generated. Rather than starting by being inspired or moved by something, as as we usually imagine a poet to do, the procedural writer begins with a “recipe” (as Jena Osman puts it). The rules may operate as a constraint — e.g., requiring the author to use only words that contain a single, predetermined vowel (Christian Bök). They might involve a chance operation — e.g., putting a set of words into a hat and drawing them out at random to generate a poem (Tristan Tzara). They could borrow “found” language — e.g., transcribing all of the weather reports for a given area for one year (Kenneth Goldsmith).

And so on, ad infinitum — or so I hope.

If the variety of possible procedures approaches limitlessness, the same is true of the goals of writers who use them. But the best works allow us to rethink ourselves, and our position(s) within the world and society, as well as our conventional understandings of authorship and creativity.

Tina Darragh’s re-reading of single dictionary pages causes us to rethink the ways that language’s arbitrary nature creates unexpected juxtapositions, and the ways ideology works through language. Dan Farrell’s records of responses to Rorschach ink-blots explores the ways we describe things, as well as the ways that imaginative language-use is presumed to represent that person’s state of mind. Kenneth Goldsmith’s transcript of every movement made by his body during a single day makes us aware of the complex relationship between ourselves and our surroundings; his record of everything he said during a single week calls attention to our everyday use of language. Harry Matthews’ mashing-up of proverbs encourages us to be surprised by idiomatic expressions that might otherwise be passed over without reflection. Jackson Mac Low’s consistent project, over a lifetime of procedural writing, was to allow a space for the reader to take an active role in constructing a poem’s meaning, foregrounding a relationship that arguably occurs in every reading-act.

Steve’s concern, if I understand it correctly, is that use of a procedure risks overwhelming the poet, erasing her/him somewhere along the way. This may be so, and it may not be: some poets find this to be a desired and liberating effect, and aspire to write themselves out of the poem. Others have aspired to this goal, only to find that they, unconsciously, reappeared within the final text. Still others have never considered this matter, assuming that the procedure is governed by the consciousness of the poet. To my way of thinking, this isn’t what’s at stake. The texts I’ve mentioned above, as well as many others, approach the act of writing otherwise, to investigate, to explore, to teach, to show, to transcribe, to re-read, to surprise, to call attention, to question, to critique, to present, to empower...

[ADDENDUM: Well, sweeten my panties! I can't believe I omitted reference to K. Silem Mohammad's currently-unfolding sequence of sonnets anagrammatically rearranged from Shakespeare's originals. Check those out, too! And don't miss Kasey's exploration of the ways anagrams work in context of the original text; he's raising some interesting questions with regards to meaning and language...]


steve roberts said...

well, you make a good argument. I guess I should have written about how all poets risk losing themselves in their subject matter. Or maybe procedure just scares me.
One small point is that you say the procedure poet is not "inspired" to write the poem but comes at it from a deliberate means. I thought we agreed even Tsara and Mac Low were inspired to develop their procedures, so saying they skip inspiration is I think untrue. Do you agree?

Nathan said...


You raise a good question with regards to the role inspiration plays in the creation of a procedural poem. Two things are at issue here: first, I oversimplified my explanation, and second, I think we mean very different things by inspiration.

In my post, inspiration means something fundamentally different from "having an idea," which is, I think, closer to the way you're using the term. My use of the term inspiration treats it as a metonymic reference to a conventional understanding of poetic writing that we could -- speaking broadly, of course -- regard as romantic (note that I am using a lower-case r here; my use of the term is not limited to the historical Romantic movements, though it is related to them). This conception of the poet holds him/her as a uniquely inspired individual who writes in an epiphanic state; in turn, the poem can be described as profound realization + prosody.

We might take as an example Samuel Taylor Coleridge's Kubla Kahn, and the story of its origin as an opium dream. In Coleride's account, the poet is figured as a feverish and frantic mind, working to capture a realized (and supernatural, or at least extra-natural) truth. We might also look at Walt Whitman's description of the narrator in Leaves of Grass, which figures the poet as a combination of bard and prophet.

Now, I'm not taking any particular issue with this conception of poetry or of the poet. (At the same time, that's not to say that I'm ignoring its implicit elitism, either; that subject just doesn't interest me at present.) Nor am I saying that Whitman and Coleridge have nothing in common with procedural poets.

Rather, what I'm trying to do is point out that there are other ways of imagining the role of the poet and the function of the poem. As I explained in the original post, procedural writing, rather than regarding the poem as an epiphany, regards it as an exploration, or even as a mechanized process.

To put it simply: it may have been a brilliant idea for Tzara to pull words from a hat, but it wasn't the realization of a profound truth.

steve roberts said...

Well, that's a very good argument. I especially like the exploration over epiphany phrase. I'm using that.

I guess I find your views on inspiration a little unsettling, true though they might be. It does sound elitist the way you describe it, but anyone who would find Coleridge or Whitman's goals elitist would likely find Tzara's experiments to be equally lofty and pretentious. And wouldn't Tzara be more elitist? It's one thing to have an idea and express it to an audience, but it's quite presumptuous (to me, anyway) to decide that even your randomization is art. It's as if the artist is saying "I can read from the phone book and it's genius." But all art operates on presumption of worth, so it's a moot issue really.

Also, it's important to recognize the great number of poets who straddle the fence on the issue, writing interesting half-process half-inspiration poems. Ashbery obviously comes to mind, as he flirts with collage and still creates poems from scratch. Mac Low, while clearly interested in processes, often has a point or two to make.

Nathan Austin said...

A few points:

What I meant by elitism is this: the romantic notion of writing figures the poem as the product of a special and uniquely endowed mind. And inasmuch as this conception of the poet suggests he/she has privileged access to Truth, it risks positioning the poet above the rest of the social body, treating the poet as more special than others. This, in turn, makes poetry -- or at least the act of writing it -- exclusive, and possibly even exclusionary.

To underscore my point, we might again contrast this with Tzara. When he wrote the section on how "To Make a Dadaist Poem" in the Dada Manifesto on Feeble and Bitter Love, the whole point was to lay the mechanism bare, to explain, precisely, that anybody can do it. The poem, though it "will resemble you," does not require that the "you" in question be talented, gifted, etc., or to have any special access to epiphanic capital-T Truth.

But this doesn't mean that a procedural poem doesn't contain ideas, or even begin with them. The goal of procedural writing isn't -- at least not when it's good -- meaninglessness. Mac Low's work is based on a democratization of meaning designed to shift textual authority (or author-ity) and governance of meaning from the writer to the reader -- a pretty significant idea, if you ask me. But his work isn't designed to "make a point." And we could even go so far as to say that an individual poem doesn't "have" a point, inasmuch as that would imply that said point was placed within the poem by the author. Rather, Mac Low is interested in the way that meaning exists in a collaborative and social relationship between language (or text), author, and reader. He doesn't "make a point" because the point isn't his to make; he creates a field of possibility within which the traditional hierarchy of author (the one with the point) and reader (the one who gets -- or doesn't get -- the point) are destabilized. And his goal, ultimately, is a complete social transformation.

As far as poets "straddling the fence" goes, I don't mean to imply that there's a fence, at least not in the sense of something stable. This isn't, for me, an us-versus-them issue, and I intended to make that clear when I said that I wasn't taking issue with any of the poets I'd mentioned. What's at stake for me in this conversation is the matter of explaining what (good) procedural writing is capable of. (For that matter, I don't work exclusively according to procedures; many of my poems are written off the top of my head.)

Finally, I'm not sure Ashbery can properly regarded as a procedural poet at all, or at least not in the description you've provided here. Collage -- in the sense of borrowing a line or a chunk of text from an outside source and incorporating it into the poem -- and found poetry don't truly constitute procedural writing, even though many procedural poems do draw on outside/found sources. But if there isn't a procedure that governs the selection of text, it would seem that these are two different, if perhaps related, ways of making a poem.

Nathan Austin said...

A typo in my above response to Steve unintentionally transforms an observation about a very particular mode of writing into a universalizing gesture about poetry in general.

I said: "And we could even go so far as to say that an individual poem doesn't 'have" a point..." I, of course, meant that it's possbile to argue that "an individual poem in Mac Low's body of work doesn't 'have' a point" (accidentaly omitted phrase in itals.).

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