Saturday, October 08, 2005

Then Thus the Palpable

Properly, we shd. read for power. Man reading should be man intensely alive. The book shd. be a ball of light in one's hand.

Ezra Pound

A machine is a poem / made of metal.

Tony Tost

Comparing the letters of James Joyce with those of Ezra Pound, Marjorie Perloff made an astute observation. "Pound conceives of the page--whether it contains poem or prose text or letter--as a visual construct" (76). This may have been Pound's version of Mallarmé's dictum, "poems are made of words, not ideas," in a variant perhaps best captured by Tony Tost's ironic, "poems are not made of words, but paper." (28) That is, a poem is something you arrange on a writing surface, something made first and foremost to be beheld with the eyes.

In Canto 81, Pound indulges his Elysian fantasy, his theology of light, saying, "First came the seen then thus the palpable." Of course, he may have meant this only in a particular case, only with regard to the "new subtlety of eyes" that he is recording in this passage. In any case, I want to suggest that the construal of a poem in essentially visual terms is no longer plausible. Like Abner with his shovel in Canto 77, we must now lift the poem "instead of watchin' it to see it [will]/ take action".

Perloff, in fact, saw postmodernism in terms of the passage from "image to action", but she meant simply that narrative was returning to poetry. To my mind, current developments, like Flarf, remain "imagist" in their basic orientation (eschewing narrative); the shift lies in passing from the visual image to the manual image.

So the shift is not a move beyond modernism, but is a continuous modernist sensitivity to the technological conditions that make the arts possible. In literature, the page stops being simply something to look at and starts to become something you have to do something to. You might Google it, for example, or, more often, follow hyperlinks to other pages, other genres, other media.

As reading becomes something we do as much with our hands as with our eyes, the poem itself becomes palpable. I don't want simply to reverse the error of the original emphasis, and say that the way the page "looks" is now subordinated to the way it "feels" (its texture, I suppose). There is, however, a new balance emerging.

We face a poetry that either depends physically on the page as a manual device or in any case employs a good deal of manual, tactile, palpable imagery. I think the work of Lara Glenum, Tony Tost and Ben Marcus are good examples of at least the latter. But as such texts begin to be written with an awareness of the infinitesimal space between the reader's copy of the poem and a search engine, the imagery and the mechanics of reading will, I suspect, become still more important to calibrate.

Poems are still made of words, but not of paper.


Perloff, Marjorie. The Dance of the Intellect. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1985.

Tost, Tony. Invisible Bride . Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2004

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