What if the poetic has left the poem in the same way that Elvis has left the building? Long after the limo pulled away, the audience was still in the arena screaming for more, but poetry escaped out the backdoor and onto the Internet, where it is taking on new forms that look nothing like poetry. Poetry as we know it—sonnets or free verse on a printed page—feels akin to throwing pottery or weaving quilts, activities that continue in spite of their cultural marginality. But the Internet, with its swift proliferation of memes, is producing more extreme forms of modernism than modernism ever dreamed of.
These are the ideas of the Canadian media scholar Darren Wershler, who has been making some unexpected connections between meme culture and contemporary poetry. “These artifacts,” Wershler claims, “aren’t conceived of as poems; they aren’t produced by people who identify as poets; they circulate promiscuously, sometimes under anonymous conditions; and they aren’t encountered by interpretive communities that identify them as literary.” Examples include a Nigerian e-mail scammer who writes out the entire “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets” in longhand, a data engineer who renders the entire text of Moby Dick into emojicons, and a library scientist who converts “Ulysses” into Q.R. bar codes.
Wershler calls these activities “conceptualism in the wild,” referring to the aspect of nineteen-sixties conceptual art that concerned reframing, and thereby redefining, the idea of artistic genius (think of Duchamp’s urinal). Conceptual projects of the period were generated by a kind of pre-Internet O.C.D., such as Sol LeWitt’s exhaustive photographic documentation of every object, nook, and cranny in his Manhattan loft, or Tehching Hsieh’s yearlong practice of taking a photo of himself every hour, on the hour. Today’s conceptualists in the wild make those guys look tame. It’s not uncommon to see blogs that recount someone’s every sneeze since 2007, or of a man who shoots exactly one second of video every day and strings the clips together in time-lapsed mashups. There is guy who secretly taped all of his conversations for three years and a woman who documents every morsel of food that she puts into her mouth. While some of these people aren’t consciously framing their activities as works of art, Wershler argues that what they’re doing is so close to the practices of sixties conceptualism that the connection between the two can’t be ignored.
And he’s right. Younger poets find it stimulating: they are reclaiming this “found” poetry and uploading it to the self-publishing platform Lulu. They create print-on-demand books that, most likely, will never be printed, but will live as PDFs on Lulu—their de-facto publisher and distributor. These are big, ridiculous books, like Chris Alexander’s five-hundred-and-twenty-eight-page “McNugget,” which reprints every tweet ever posted that contains the word “McNugget”; Andy Sterling’s “Supergroup,” which appropriates over four hundred pages’ worth of Discogs listings of small-bit session players from long-forgotten nineteen-seventies LPs; and Angela Genusa’s “Tender Buttons,” which converts Gertrude Stein’s difficult modernist text of the same name into illegible computer code.
And it keeps coming. Last week, the poet Josef Kaplan issued a Lulu book called “Kill List,” a fifty-eight-page list of poets’ names followed by their presumed economic status (“Natasha Trethewey is a rich poet”; “Ron Silliman is comfortable”). Like much conceptual poetry, the book was designed more to ignite discussion than to actually be read. Right away, a book was published on Lulu in response—it contained only a heated Facebook thread about “Kill List.”
Quality is beside the point—this type of content is about the quantity of language that surrounds us, and about how difficult it is to render meaning from such excesses. In the past decade, writers have been culling the Internet for material, making books that are more focussed on collecting than on reading. These ways of writing—word processing, databasing, recycling, appropriating, intentionally plagiarizing, identity ciphering, and intensive programming, to name just a few—have traditionally been considered outside the scope of literary practice.
It’s not clear who, if anyone, actually reads these works—although they are often cited by other writers working in the same mode—and there are no critical systems in place to identify which books of this type are better than others, though some literary critics have begun to pay attention (Marjorie Perloff devoted much of her latest book, “Unoriginal Genius,” to these ideas). For now, these authors function on a flat, horizontal field, creating a communitarian body of work where one idea or one author is interchangeable with another. This ethos is evident on the smart art blog Jogging, where art works in the form of JPEGs are posted anonymously and last only until they are pushed off the page by newer works. It’s an ephemeral amnesiac data flow, one that swaps the art world’s market-driven frenzy for networked global visibility. On Jogging, it’s not really the individual posts that count—the blog’s métier lies in its ceaseless and restless stream of information. The best images on Jogging are the ones that walk a fine line between sharp humor and weird ambiguity. Rather than being fully digested, these meme-like works are meant to be quickly favorited, reblogged, and forgotten. They embrace the blips and flickers of the screen, celebrating the life span of a meme as a metric for artistic legacy.
In the past decade, the poet Tan Lin has been treating his poetry like dance music: free for the retooling. Lin puts his texts on the Internet, encouraging anyone to remix and upload them to Lulu as never-ending works in progress. In 2010, nearly a hundred poets and students did just that, at a daylong event at the University of Pennsylvania, remixing Lin’s 2004 book, “Seven Controlled Vocabularies,” into thirteen different versions: the book was rendered in Q.R. code, PowerPoint, and bar code, a Chinese version was created by tossing the whole thing into Google Translate, and so forth. More like apps than books, they’re constantly being tweaked and made available in new versions. Here’s a “translation” of an excerpt from Lin’s book with every letter rendered into an “x,” which goes on for several pages:
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx. xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx. xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx. xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx. xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx. xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx. xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx
Lin refers to his work as “ambient stylistics,” a poetics that mimes the aesthetics of ambient music, echoing Brian Eno’s statement that “an ambience is defined as an atmosphere, or a surrounding influence: a tint.” Lin desires a flatness and a stasis for his poems, and he has said that “the best sentences should lose information at a relatively constant rate. There should be no ecstatic moments of recognition … the most boring and long-winded writings encourage a kind of effortless non-understanding, a language in which reading itself seems perfectly (I say this in a positive way) redundant.” Lin’s definition gives a pretty accurate sense of what it’s like to read on the Web, restlessly clicking through multiple windows, plowing our way through heaps of language. We don’t read: we skim, parse, bookmark, copy, paste, and forward. We become information hoarders and amateur archivists who frantically collect, store, and move artifacts that we’ll never interact with.
Fifty years ago, when Andy Warhol said things like “I want to be a machine,” and “It’s easier not to care,” he was romanticizing the formal and emotional cleanliness of machine-based production. Humans, after all, court messiness. Warhol’s salvo was extended by the poet Christian Bök, who, in 2009, claimed, “We are probably the first generation of poets who can reasonably expect to write literature for a audience of artificially intellectual peers …. If poetry already lacks any meaningful readership among our own anthropoid population, what have we to lose by writing poetry for a robotic culture that must inevitably succeed our own? If we want to commit an act of poetic innovation in an era of formal exhaustion, we may have to consider this heretofore unimagined, but nevertheless prohibited, option: writing poetry for inhuman readers, who do not yet exist, because such aliens, clones, or robots have not yet evolved to read it.”
In an essay on the Poetry Foundation’s Web site called “Poetry is Dead, I Killed it,” Vanessa Place says that the poet today resembles a zombie more than an inspired bard, gathering and shovelling hoards of inert linguistic matter into programs, flipping switches, and letting it rip, producing poetry on the scale of WikiLeaks cables. Imagine the writer as a meme machine, writing works with the intention for them to ripple rapidly across networks only to evaporate just as quickly as they appeared. Imagine a poetry that is vast, instantaneous, horizontal, globally distributed, paper thin, and, ultimately, disposable.
Kenneth Goldsmith’s latest book is “Seven American Deaths and Disasters.” He teaches poetry and poetics at the University of Pennsylvania.
Illustration: Maximilian Bode Πηγή:http://www.newyorker.com