Tuesday, November 30, 2004

The Annotated Pilot, Part IV

The surprising defenders of Góngora exonerated him of the charge of innovation—by documenting the fine erudite lineage of his metaphors.

Jorge Luis Borges

There are, of course, many ways of defining the classical mind and its poetic sensibility. One of them has the virtue of subsuming the work of T. S. Eliot, William Burroughs and Tony Tost under the same concept. It was proposed in 1931 by Jorge Luis Borges, who would no doubt deny its originality. A classical text, said Borges, "is not really expressive; [it] does no more than record a reality, [it] does not represent one" ("The Postulation of Reality" in The Total Library, p. 60). This distinction, between representing and recording a reality, is crucial to the understanding of flarf and, of course, to its misunderstanding.

A writer, said Burroughs, can write only about "what is in front of his senses at the moment of writing" and saw this "direct recording of certain areas of psychic process" as the "function" of the writer, however "limited" it may be. Today we may smile at the invocation of psychic processes, but it is clear that Burroughs meant only a sort of automatic articulateness in the ebb and flow of experience. "I am a recording instrument," he said, "I am not an entertainer." His procedure is more or less well understood, and is not in any case advisable; what concerns us here is the recording of articulate process.

Today we are so embarrassed by the claim that one or another young author's work is "utterly original", say, or "a new voice in contemporary literature", that to set out to disprove such claims, or "exonerate" a writer of "the charge of innovation" strikes us as equally absurd. One lets it pass and passes one's eyes from the dust jacket to the pages actually inside the book under investigation. But one is, sometimes, compelled to indicate the sense in which an author's greatness does not depend on his ability to "represent" a subject matter. It is enough, we want to say, that the writer presents certain areas of the process perspicuously: that it be recorded clearly.

In the recording industry, the words "high fidelity" have always been misleading--something which should have become clear with the advent of digital audio (about which we may also, in turn, be mislead). Recorded music is never loyal to the source. Fidelity is finally a romantic notion that must, in its very passion for the earth, the trees, the "life of things", eschew high technology and all its pretensions. Those who use the Internet to write poems cannot be romantic, just as Glenn Gould knew that recorded music ought, logically, to dispose of our tuxedos, our cathedrals and, yes, our applause. Classicists can, however, discuss the quality or precision of a recording relative to certain acoustic properties, not of the studio (which must itself be engineered to effect the supposed "fidelity") but of the listening situation, i.e., the living room equiped with a sound system.

High fidelity is loyal to the context of reception, not the context of performance. It is a recording of reality not a representation of it. This is what I want to say of flarf in general and of "I Am Not the Pilot" in particular. Today we want to exonerate our young poets not of the charge of shameless originality, but of the charge of facile representation. We want to demonstrate that their poems do not "stand in the place of" something else (like a psychological state or even an artistic process), but that they are, in their own manifest facticity, sufficient unto themselves and effective in their "limited function". Many poets today claim that their work is only a symptom of their process (I and others have tried in vain to discourage them). Their publishers and editors include this desire among the author notes to impress the importance of the author's process (a coy euphemism for personality) and accidence of the work itself, upon the reader. This is especially embarrassing for the reader when he finds himself enjoying the poem and caring next to nothing about the life (or any other process) extant in the poet.

Flarf allows even the reader with little or no critical skills to exonerate a given poem of representationality, and this is part of the genius of its method. Let us consider some examples. "I Am Not the Pilot" is of course written in the first person, so the first thing it must be exonerated of is Tony Tost's authorial persona or personal authority. Now, the first three lines,

I am not a pilot and do not have
the technical knowledge or training
to analyze complicated data.

Are no doubt "true" of Tony Tost and therefore threaten immediately to represent him. And this particular example is in fact also an example of the relatively ephemeral qualities of flarf. Try as you might, you will find no evidence through Google that these words (together) belong to the air rather than Tony Tost. But in the spring of 2003, I was able to locate the source in a piece by Devvy Kidd on the JFK, Jr. plane crash.

The NTSB is currently working on the final CD-ROM's which will contain approximately 2,000 photographs of the plane wreckage and investigation while it was underway. I am not a pilot and do not have the technical knowledge or training to analyze complicated data. I loaned my file and the CD-ROM to two pilots for their evaluation. One pilot has been flying 19 years and is instrument rated, the other is a pilot for American Airlines, also instrument rated. To protect their privacy and current employment, their names will not be is closed.

The archives of Kidd's writings are now available on CD on her website, where one can also get a sense of the general flavour of her investigations. Even if we may admire the vaguely Poundian bent of her politics and monetary policy, Tost's poem surely does not "represent" her views. That is, the flarfed reading has divested the poem of all personality, both that of the poet and of the "source". We are left with a recording of the Googling process, pure articulation, or what Kierkegaard called "the perfect immanence of the presentation".

Two further examples can make this point more simply. Take, first, the strange sentiment seemingly expressed in the two consecutive lines:

I would have a hard life as a pilot.

I could only kill in self defense.

And compare them with their source, Dimitri Sokolenko’s How I Escaped from the USSR:

Hijacking a plane wouldn't work; I could only kill in self defense. Of course, I am not a pilot myself. Lord Byron would have had a hard life as a Soviet. It was easy in his lifetime to board a ship and say good-bye to a hated fatherland.

This is arguably a case where too much depends upon Googling the poem to discover its sources. Once we see the original cold war context and the elegant shuffling of references, the emotion of these lines shift from self-pity (of the already elided poet-subject) to admiration (for the Byronic adventurism of flyers), which, once negated, leaves us only with the crystaline grammar of "I could only kill in self defense" (already available but easy to miss on a first reading). It is as if the poem is saying: Byron was a poet and a pilot and he owned the ship, we have no ships and are not pilots and Greece is very far away. This poem has no poet. We Are not Romantic.

Our last example is that of the otherwise intolerable lyricism of the phrase "the glamorous end of the sword". It represents a mode of discourse that ought, we think, to be foreign to us. But return it, if only for a moment, to the hands of the fighter mechanic, Marvin P. Maxson, who uttered them (and who remains their only source, according to Google, beyond the poet Tony Tost) and somehow we are only happy that such language still exists, somewhere in the American idiom. Norman Mailer, we might recall, once pointed out that vulgarity is a way of rescuing words from the oblivion of meaning. Thus, the word "noble" could be recovered in the words of the soldier emerging from the bushes saying, "I just had me a noble shit, Jack." May the perspicuous impudence of flarf serve a similar, if always limited, function.

Borges said that it was characteristic of the classical ethos to believe that "once an image has been brought into existence, it is public property" (ibid. p. 61). Nothing could more aptly illustrate this publicness of poetry than the flarf procedure, both in its creative and its critical mode. (Tony Tost's poem, it may be noted, is available for free 24 hours a day, while you can buy a copy of Kidd's piece on CD.) The flarfist undertakes an investigation into a certain region of the articulate process, records it, and presents his findings. He is not an entertainer.

The Anodyne Pillow

... locality to the spring. An irreverently anodyne pillow silk thai over again reaches a frippery at some saggy panorama. Now and then ...

Sunday, November 28, 2004

The Annotated Pilot, Part III

So you won't find much technical
information here. Just my emotions :)


The Nicholas Gurley passage of "I Am Not the Pilot" (Tony Tost, Cortland Review 22, Feb. 2003) occupies seven lines (ll. 22-28) of a seventy line poem. The Maria Excerpt, which will concern us here, occupies eleven (ll. 44-54). These quantities are only interesting in their critical effects on Google searches, i.e., in so far as they determine the Googable properties of the poem. The Maria Excerpt is an especially interesting example of this effect.

If we enter line 45

"When I take off within the airplane"

into Google we get, at first pass, exactly one hit. Searches that return very few hits are normally indicative of high grade ideoplastic (the material from which good flarf is wrought) because it specifies a source. Compare, for example, the line immediately preceding this one, line 44.

"No, I am not a pilot."

Here you get 29 hits displayed, only the second to last of which is the real source, viz. Maria's page about skydiving (though the first, interestingly, is Tony's poem.) I don't want to say that nothing interesting can be gleaned from the content samples that Google provides (or even from clicking yourself onto the pages provided), but the sense of the line is rendered vague. The light the search sheds on the poem, we might say, is "diffuse": it has no clear focus, and the theme of the poem therefore loses its edge.

What is strange about a single hit in the case of line 45 is that "I Am Not the Pilot" is known to be available online and is not identified by Google. The mystery is solved by reading the fine print. Google has "omitted some entries very similar to the 1 already displayed" in order to "show you the most relevant results". And, sure enough, if we ask Google to repeat the search without this ommission, Tony's poem is hit. That is, the poem we are investigating is not, according to the machinery of the search engine, considered "relevant". Google was not able to distinguish Tony's poetry significantly from Maria's prose, which reads:

No, I am not a pilot. When I take off within the airplane and feel beneath my feet that lonely piece of the ground mysteriously flying in the sky my only desire is to leave it ASAP and fly "on my own". Because I know how my parachute works but know nothing about the strange sounds the airplane makes sometimes, what do that dozens of airplane indicators mean, what does the pilot thinks... So you won't find much technical information here. Just my emotions :)

Tony has fixed the language a little (Maria, it should be noted, is Russian) and, more importantly, has dropped the last two sentences (even though they refer back to the opening lines of his poem). I was struck by Tony's reading of K. Silem Mohammad's "Mars Needs Terrorists".

by fixing his general processes and sources, Mohammad presents as variables not his own emotions, thoughts and imaginings but (as noted above) those of his sources.

Flarf is a system of notation, but I am not sure that what it notes down are the emotions of the sources. Rather it uses the materials provided by others in their attempts to note, not just emotions, but thoughts and images, or simply inventories, lists, half-thoughts, exclamations, slogans, etc. The flarfist or flarfer may use three half-thoughts, two items off a list, a couple of loose emotions and an image to present (note), in the poem, a single, well-wrought and useful emotion. The emotions in the source are, I would argue, incidental to the poem--something which is often very clear once the source has been located.

In short, I think the first part of Tony's statement is correct. Flarf spares the reader the variable of the poet's own emotions. But the second part is not right, and that is not why the sources are interesting. What is interesting about the sources is their automatic availability to the reader. By using Googable sources, the poet makes the field of his sources surveyable, we are afforded a clear view of the grammar of the language that the poet uses and, in the usual way, "corrects", that is, "uses well".

The well-wroughtness of "I Am Not the Pilot" may be contrasted with less intense uses of the same language, whether in other poetry or in offhanded prose, like that of Maria. To return to Borges's observation about The Wasteland, I'd like to put the contrast more starkly than I did in the last post. If the "erudite obscurity" of modernist poetry disconcerts the critics (while giving them something to do), flarf should disconcert the critics (because it leaves them so little to do) with its rudimentary perspicuity. The difference between the un-wrought and the well-wrought word is on the surface of flarf, where it belongs.

Saturday, November 27, 2004

The Annotated Pilot, Part II

When Wittgenstein says that "what is hidden is of no interest to" philosophy (PI§126), he is indicating an important presumption about language underlying his method. Language consists of things lying around in plain view. We can understand how language works by arranging these things (words) in ways that afford us a "clear view" of their interrelations. He called this perspicuous presentation. This approach can be usefully compared with Pound's ideogrammic method: the presentation of "luminous details" without comment, "the permanent basis of all psychology and metaphysics."

Flarf renders certain aspects of the poetic process perspicuous. By the sheer speed and mechanical intensity of the method, it also renders some traditionally insidious aspects of that process superfluous. The most important of these is the all too common sentimentality of poetic composition. Using Google as a typewriter (in Tony's phrase), the poet is discouraged from any "spontaneous overflow of powerful emotion" or other forms of promiscuity. Indeed, Norman Mailer (Cannibals and Christians, p. 51) defined sentimentality as "the emotional promiscuity of those who have no sentiment" in his review of the "totalitarian prose" of nothing less than Lyndon Johnson's My Hope for America.

The core value of Flarf, I would argue, is not authenticity but discernment, not expression but selection. It is a classical project rather than a romantic one. And one way of reading "I Am Not the Pilot" is as a critical comment, at least in part, on David J. Blocker's "The Poet". A possible Google-based ideogram of this connection can be produced with the search terms:

"I am not an athlete" "I am not a pilot"

Tost's is not a literary critique, mind you, but a poetic critique of the sentiment it presents (it is possible, but not likely, that Blocker is himself critiquing this sentiment using an ironic deadpan that doesn't quite succeed). This poem, not incidentally, is available on poetry.com (the Flarf aesthetic, I'm told, was originally a response to this project). Having discovered Blocker's effort by an act of critical Googling, we come to see that part of what Tost is saying is "I Am Not the Poet", which is rife with all kinds of extra associations given the "source" of any work of Flarf.

When I presented my results to the English Department at the University of Copenhagen, I offered Blocker and Collins as contrast cases for the Flarf aesthetic (though I hadn't yet heard the word). Recall the flarfen link between the poetry of Billy Collins and contemporary totalitarianism from yesterday. Now consider Mailer's analysis of Johnson's style.

The essence of totalitarian prose is that it does not define, its does not deliver. It oppresses. It obstructs from above. It is profoundly contemptuous of the minds who will receive the message. So it does its best to dull this consciousness with sentences which are nothing but bricked-in power structures. Or alternately a totalitarian prose slobbers upon its audience a sentimentality so debauched that admiration for shamelessness is inspired.

We will return to "debauchery" (the inticement to leave the workshop for cheaper pleasures) in a later post in the context of the craftsmanship of the troubadours. Their slogan may well have been Pound's "what thou lovest well remains, the rest is dross" (Canto 81). Flarf, I want to show, has the capacity to seperate the scum from the metal of poetry, the emotion from the sentimental sigh. In a sense, however, it doesn't hide its admiration for the shameless emotional promiscuity of ordinary language (and mainstream poetry?). It simply gives us a clear view of it.

In a comment to Tony's blog I have said of "I Am Not the Pilot" what Borges said of The Wasteland. "The erudite obscurity of [this poem] disconcerted (and still disconcerts) the critics, but is less important than the poem's beauty. The perception of this beauty, moreover, precedes any interpretation and does not depend on it." (Total Library, p. 167-8) But it is more likely the opposite. Indeed, Flarf is a way of passing from the erudite obscurity of poetry to the promiscuous illiteracy of ordinary language on which "so much depends". Or, as Wittgenstein might put it, it is a way of connecting the metaphysical uses of words to their ordinary usage.

Nothing in the grammar is hidden. This may disconcert the critics.

Friday, November 26, 2004

The Annotated Pilot, Part I

Flarf is not just a principle of literary composition. It is also a principle of literary criticism. And it is not so much a principle as a procedure. I think it is important to understand that procedure, in terms of its consequences both for reading and for writing. In the spring of 2003, I discovered Flarf by accident and carried out a full annotated study of one of its exemplars. I want to present my results of the study and speculations about the genre here over the next few weeks.

This post is a bit long, and a bit old hat as far as I can tell from other discussions of Flarf I've been able to find. I wanted to start by collecting some material for comparative analysis.

I actually encountered Flarf, Tost and contemporary American poetry at the exact same moment. Until then I hadn't really been interested in current poetry and poetics. A natural question (Who the hell is Nicholas Gurley?) and a universal source of answers (Google) was the beginning an epiphany for me. It is possible to reconstruct something of the experience very simply. Just now I entered the phrase

"Folks I am not a pilot and therefore"

into Google and got two hits. One of them was Tony Tost's I Am Not the Pilot (Cortland Review, 22, Feb. 2003.) The other is a page at Boeing's website where F-4 Phantom pilots and crew pay their respects to that plane. The very same result can be returned with the search phrase "glamorous end of the sword". You can also try "I, Nicholas Gurley, am not a pilot" for a similar effect.

Then I tried

"if I lower my head now and listen"

And got over 25 hits, all of them to Billy Collins' I Ask You (Cortland Review, 7, May 1999) including what appears to be a translation into Chinese and a posting of the entire poem to a blog called Totalitarianism Today without comment. That last fact made me chuckle.

Next I entered the phrase

"there is nothing that I need"

And got over 600 hits. The 15th was to a listserv archive where Collins' poem was again quoted in full.

The preceding hits (1-14) consisted of the following material. I quote here only the text that Google provides from the web page refered to (the refrain is not an error).

He chose the way of the cross: There is nowhere you must go. In His body was ample payment: There is nothing that I need. Because

When you are in the mind, everything I am saying will seem false. But I wish to tell you that for myself there is nothing that I need.

It’s a language I have ceased to need. There is nothing I have to wake for.There is nothing that I need to sleep from. I have no dreams.

thee. I smiled at the genie And said please forgive me, But there is nothing that I long for There is nothing that I need. For I

each beat. 4) I am relaxed and I have all the time I need. 5) There is nothing that I need or want to do at this moment. 6 ) I will

builder of my experience. I usually don’t ask for anything as there is nothing that I need at this point. I do however sometimes

LMU: Poetry is not my salvation because I need no salvation. There is nothing that I need to be redeemed from. MD: What about teaching?

I've been thinking about putting a 2nd card in that also has FM radio capability and want to make sure there is nothing that I need to be concerned about.

The panel issued a statement describing Bush and Cheney as "forthcoming and candid." "There is nothing that I need from the president that we didn't get today

I think I went a little overboard this year!! I sorted through it to see what I might need and, trust me when I say, there is NOTHING that I need!!

and me! I am quite public about my being HIV Positive and feel there is nothing that I need to apologise for in my past. Certainly

am. There is nothing that I need but your saving grace and there is no need that I could ever have that is deeper that this one.

me. Now, there is nothing that I need that I would want them to buy for me. Let me revise that, there is NOTHING that I NEED. There

The panel issued a statement describing Bush and Cheney as "forthcoming and candid." "There is nothing that I need from the president that we didn't get today

These searches constitute physical properties of the poems: mechanical properties, aspects of their machinery. That a single line in a poem returns two hits (one of which is to the poem itself) when Googled is a fact about the poem. That one line in another poem returns 25 hits (all of them references to the poem itself) and another returns more than 600, the first 14 of which together comprise a poem of comparable quality to the source is a fact about that source. (I say "comparable" very imprecisely. I hope to be more precise about this later.)

They are facts about the poems and about their grammar. They are facts about the language that I think are well worth looking into. They are the new facts of literary criticism.

Likeness, Transparency, Delinity

In trying to understand what it means to carry out a calculation in the head, Wittgenstein compared this operation to the act of working out a math problem on paper. He then wonders if these two operations are "like" each other in any way and asks, "Is a bit of white paper with black lines on it like a human body?" (Philosophical Investigations, §364) You can't tell me you don't like that question. It contains a whole theory of reading comprehension, especially when plucked out of context in this way. Words are understood in their likeness to the human body. When you write a poem (in strophes or in remarks) you try to make the page look like a human body.

Correction. You are trying to make the page like a human body. It will have to look and move like a human body: feel, smell and taste like a human body. "In some sense," as philosophers like to say. Exactly, in some sense.

It is probably the extreme difference between the page and the body that makes writing such an articulate business. When writing succeeds, it's really impressive. It's harder than making a shoe look like a blender.

In his Remarks on Colour Wittgenstein takes up the issue of likeness again. "Explaining colour words by pointing to coloured pieces of paper does not touch the concept of transparency." (§189) It would only indicate the likeness between colours (and their concepts). In order to describe the logic of colour you have to relate colours to other concepts, concepts that are related to colour but are not themselves concepts of colour (§190). Concepts like transparency.

(An aside. Today I found a copy of Josef Albers' Interaction of Color. Chapter III has an argument for using coloured pieces of paper instead of paints to teach colour. I'm looking forward to reading it alongside Wittgenstein's remarks.)

In delineating the poesie and possible philosophy of word constructions, we draw black lines on white pieces of paper about black lines on white pieces of paper. We try to emphasise a peculiar likeness among them. But we have to relate these similarities to something that is not writing, something that is not articulate, or not articulate by the same means. Doing so, however, risks various forms of intolerable sublimity.

While it too is a source of error, the risk can be minimized by focusing our attention on the analogue of the bits of coloured paper: the word constructions, the remarks and the strophes.

We must draw the lines that connect the elements of these constructions. Pound called poetry "a sort of inspired mathematics" (Spirit of Romance, p. 14). The pangrammatical quest for delinity is the search for written proofs. Transparency.

I don't expect I'll be able to lift it.

Thursday, November 25, 2004


Benjamin Britten's kitten
and Benjamin Britten's cat
stole Benjamin Britten's mittens
and Benjamin Britten's hat.

We found both the hat and the mittens
on Benjamin Britten's mat.
But none but the cat and the kitten know
where Benjamin Britten is at.

Wednesday, November 24, 2004

Ideology and Ontology

My attempts to correct the post from earlier today didn't really work. I think I'll just leave well enough alone next time.

One thing that got lost in bits and pieces through the editing was an attempt to apply a distinction owed to W.V.O. Quine. Wanting to give "a good sense to a bad word" he proposed to distinguish the ideology of a theory from its ontology. He said that there was no clear correspondence between them: two theories could have the same ontology, i.e., the terms of the two theories could refer to the same set of things, while one theory could express an idea that the other could not. Ideology, in keeping also with its bad sense, defines limits to the expression of ideas independent of the entities that populate the world.

Now, Pound said the poet should build us his world. And the question that I have been asking, on the aspiring poet and philosopher's behalf, is, What should we build our worlds out of? The short answer, and Kitasono's answer, is language. Words, words, words. If we stick to the sample line Kitasono provided, we have a world populated by (roughly) three things:

a shell, a typewriter and grapes.

But, because there is "no further development", these terms are under no ideological constraint. They are in no "regulated order", as Dante demands, and therefore do not qualify as a "construction". And this lack of ideological direction, which I would equate with a lack of grammatical form, is what is behind the unimaginability of the line (in its isolation).

I once said that Tony's commitment to the sentence in Invisible Bride is the civil disobedience of working to rule. I still need to figure out what that means. But I'm sure it has something to do with what I'm trying to say here.

No one stands above the grammar.

Allegory, Imagery and Grammar

(This post emerges from Laura's and Jay's comments on yesterday's post. Thanks also to Tony and Laura for their recent endorsements of this fledgling of mine, which is still looking for its wings, but making progress. I'm now, e.g., able to install real live links.)

The Divine Comedy is an allegory but I think part of my project here is to distinguish poetic from allegorical effects, as I think Dante, Eliot and Pound would also advise us to do. Cf., e.g., Eliot's use of a Dante in "Tradition", Part II, on the way a poetic effect is "a working up of the emotion evident in the situation", a "fusion of elements", and how "the artistic process [is] the presure . . . under which the fusion takes place."

Dante has some wonderful examples of "construction" in his De vulgari Eloquentia (II, vi), ranging from the prosaic "Aristotle philosophized in Alexander's time" through the Flarfen "Peter loves Miss Bertha a lot" to the "illustrious" or poetic "I am the only one who knows the overwoe that rises" (Arnaut Daniel). I think the point of Kitasono's sample

"a shell, a typewriter and grapes"

is that it is unclear how to classify this construction along these lines or even to identify it as a construction. "You need to know that we call 'construction' a group of words put together in regulated order," is all Dante gives us in the way of a definition. And there is a sense in which Kitasono's list is not in any particular order, which accounts for its inability to occasion an image.

Is the problem the lack of a verb as Jay suggests? I think we're looking not for verbs so much as prepositions. Pre-com-positions, connections, situations.

"A shell on a typewriter with grapes"

Putting in prepositions gives us a single and reasonably clear image, but the possibilities from here are not as promising as they had been. In fact, I' d argue we have just sacrificed aesthetic feeling for the image. This is why Kitasono leaves the sample as is and says, "We add the next line and then another aesthetic feeling is born."

And this leads us to the question of the relation of imagery to grammar. Images are the items into which experience is articulated (by concepts and/or emotions). Note that there is a (not very poetic) sense in which our sample contains three images. But these are articulated at a linguistic level (i.e., correspond to differences between words). The trick is to construct expressions that provide single images that are internally "smooth", i.e., where the symbolism is so fused or compounded or composed in feeling that allegory (reading otherwise) is impossible.

But I suspect my sense of allegory, even of Dante's allegory, is what Laura would call naive.

Caesar non supra grammaticos.

Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Ideoplasty, March 12, 1937

I'll probably return to Chapter 20 of Pound's Guide to Kulchur (pp. 137-140) again and again.

Here he quotes from a letter he received from Katue Kitasono about "the relation between imagery and ideoplasty". Ideoplasty, I take it, means formed thought. (In "The Possibility of a Poetic Drama", Eliot praises the "clear and beautifully formed thought" of Russell's "On Denoting"). Kitasono talks about "orthodox poetry" and "the system of literature". And he talks about "the method of poetry" in terms of a progression from language, through imagery, to ideoplasty.

"What we must do first for imagery is (in this order) collection, arrangement and combination."

Ideoplasty, or what I want to call metaphysical composition (inspired by Giorgio de Chirico), seems to be all about the arrangement of imagery drawn from whatever sources are available. Kitasono offers the example of

"a shell, a typewriter and grapes",

which I've mentioned in discussions elsewhere. Those are really just words, and are therefore operative on the level of "language". Full imagery would require more words (as I understand Kitasono's point here) and we are left, so far, only with "aesthetic feeling", not yet "that which we vaguely call poetical effect."

Once we have an image, I'd argue, we have a strophe (in poetry) or a remark (in philosophy) but not yet an emotion or a concept (ideoplasty, composure). This comes through the arrangement of images.

I know this is all pretty standard modernist orthodoxy. It is a bit like Pound's advice in the ABC of Reading (p. 31). While "Coleridge or De Quincey said that the quality of a 'great poet is everywhere present, and nowhere visible as a distinct excitement', or something of that sort," Dante said simply, "A canzone is a composition of words set to music." Like Pound, "I don't know any better point to start from."

Monday, November 22, 2004

Metaphysical Composure

Start with a large sheet of polished glass and a naked body. The pane of glass should be monumental in size and thickness, but perfectly transparent, perfectly clean. Set it upright on the ground and pose the body next to it. Let the body stand with its back to the glass. The head should be tilted downwards and stare to the left, into the middle distance. It should comport itself toward the glass monument like the guy at the end of the scene who hears the telephone ringing.

Sunday, November 21, 2004


Laura raises some interesting problems in her comments to my last post. One of them is about whether the poem's being a discrete unit of work done implies its self-containment, or stand-alone character. I don't think it does.

Suppose a poem is a machine of sorts. A machine is only useful if it is connected to its environment in manifold ways. It is not connected to its environment in an infinitude of arbitrary ways, but it is connected in ways that are unknown to the machine's inventor (who often has no conception of what it will end up being used for). I think this analogy is useful because it doesn't make the machine's "working" depend upon a relation that points back to the inventor. The inventor may have been a genius, but the machine's importance does not lie in its being a sign or trace or symptom of that genius. It's just a brilliant piece of equipment.

Machines can always be improved, and go through all sorts of provisional designs, models, mock-ups, prototypes. None of these are intended to stand alone, but to connect to the (test) environment in specific ways.

That is, to see a poem as a discrete unit of work done is not to suggest that it is cut off from its environment. On the contrary, the poem is open to its surroundings in especially intense ways. It is this special intensity, this specific openness, that we read poems for. And we try, of course, to be as discrete about it as possible.

So on my view the whole idea is to get away from the idea of a poem or a philosophy as a gift. (This is what I'm least sure of at present, I'll add. And I'll say something later about the suggestion that the poem ought emerge from the philosophy of the poet.) And the hope is precisely that the poetic/philosophical process does not have to "keep churning", but can complete itself, albeit tentatively, in completed work along the way followed by periods of well-deserved rest.

The tinkerer's satisfaction with gadgetry. Making something that works.

Saturday, November 20, 2004

Remark and Strophe

Here's a favourite problem of mine. One of the most striking differences, to my mind, between philosophy and poetry has to do with the lack of anything like a poem in philosophy, that is, a discrete unit of "work done". I often think of Mallarmé's maxim that "a poem is not made of ideas but of words". Well, any old collection of words will not suffice to constitute a poem. This post is not a poem. But something about the way some words are put together makes them poetic. I want to be able to say something similar about philosophy.

Here's one promising analogy. Wittgenstein, who said that philosophy ought to be composed like poetry, organised his work into remarks. Many of his remarks are quite ordinary in their content, but in their arrangement they are able to illuminate the concept or set of concepts that Wittgenstein is after.

Philosophy is the art of writing concepts down; it is the art of passing remarks so as to draw attention to concepts.

Poetry is the art of writing emotions down. And I want to say that what are passed by poets, are not passed, but turned, and are not remarks, but strophes.

"America I will sell you strophes $2500 apiece $500 down on your old strophe" (Ginsberg)

That's what so appealing about poetry: it's got a product. We philosophers ought to approach our passing remarks in a similar fashion, commodifying what is already our fetish for thinking. Not, yes, without irony. Always with irony, yes.

(This may be a deeper philological insight than I intended. Consider the possibility that the "work character" of poetry is intimately connected with the need for the poet to capture a market share of the attention space, i.e., to move product, while the philosopher's coy silliness allowed him a species of pure loafing.)

Flarf, it seems to me, has made one thing very clear about the relation of the strophe to the poem. Building a poem is not a matter of arranging strophes, i.e., of putting poetic atoms together. If that were the case the poem would owe its poesie to the accumulation of strophic matter that was originally poetic. But strophes become poetic, become strophes, only in their arrangement with other strophes. A coherence theory of poetry.

In any case, that's how far I've gotten in this direction. The strophe is to the emotion what the remark is to the concept. The strophe is to the poem what the remark is to the . . .

But in both cases the proximal theme of the crafted words (the remark or the strophe) is an image. The remark passes the image, and the strophe turns it. An image is a concept backed like an emotion, maybe, and vice versa.

Friday, November 19, 2004

Do your own thing, man.

I'm still trying to think of a good way to start. I thought this little throat clearing exercise might be entertaining for some of you.

This is the last sentence of Heidegger’s essay “The Turning” as it appears in William Lovitt’s translation from The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays (p. 49):

“May world in its worlding be the nearest of all nearing that nears, as it brings the truth of Being near to man’s essence, and so gives man to belong to the disclosing bringing-to-pass that is a bringing into its own.”

I offer here a particular kind of reading, proceeding by substitution of phrases and words salva veritate. That is, I assume that if the original sentence is "true" then my modified sentences are also true. What we are doing here does not pretend to preserve the sense of the sentence at each step but attributes a particular sense to it in the course of the whole process; it is an act of interpretation. It tries to locate "the sense in which" Heidegger is (or may be) on to something. It is as much an attempt to give meaning to the original tautology as it is an attempt to emphasize the vital truth of the emergent platitude. I start with the interpretation and then offer an explanation of the substitutions I have carried out.

The square brackets at each step signal the portion to be substituted in the next. The substitution is there set in bold type.

(1) May [world in its worlding] be the nearest of all nearing that nears, as it brings the truth of Being near to man’s essence, and so gives man to belong to the disclosing bringing-to-pass that is a bringing into its own.

(2) May things be [the nearest of all nearing that nears, as they] bring the truth of Being near to man’s essence, and so give man to belong to the disclosing bringing-to-pass that is a bringing into its own.

(3) May things be in hand, as they bring [the truth of Being] near to man’s essence, and so give man to belong to the disclosing bringing-to-pass that is a bringing into its own.

(4) May things be in hand, as they bring disclosure near to [man’s essence], and so give man to belong to the disclosing bringing-to-pass that is a bringing into its own.

(5) May things be in hand, as they bring disclosure near to man’s accomplishments, and so [give man to belong to] the disclosing bringing-to-pass that is a bringing into its own.

(6) May things be in hand, as they bring disclosure near to man’s accomplishments, and so allow man to appropriate [the disclosing bringing-to-pass] that is a bringing into its own.

(7) May things be in hand, as they bring disclosure near to man’s accomplishments, and so allow man to appropriate the open accomplishment that is [a bringing into its own].

(8) [May things be in hand, as they] bring disclosure near to man’s accomplishments, and so allow man to appropriate the open accomplishment that is an aquisition.

(9) May there be tools that [bring disclosure near to man’s accomplishments] and so allow man to appropriate the open accomplishment that is an aquisition.

(10) May there be tools that work, and so allow man to [appropriate the open accomplishment that is an acquisition].

(11) May [there be tools that work], and so allow man to acquire that which is in each case his.

(12) May real things be given, [and so allow man to] acquire that which is in each case his.

(13) May real things be given, so man may [acquire that which is in each case his].

(14) May [real things be given, so man may take what is his own.]

(15) May man [take, of the real things that are given, what] are is his own.

(16) [May man do things that are his own.]

(17) Do your own thing, man.


Step 1 is quotation and the first act of bracketting.

Steps 2-3 are intended as Heideggerian orthodoxy. The worldling world is the being of things, or simply is things (Dinge) and the nearest of these are “in hand” (Zuhanden).

Step 4 strikes me as orthodox also. Disclosure is the truth of being.

Step 5 is less orthodox, but captures a subtle existential point, namely, that a man is not as he does (though stupid may be), but rather as he accomplishes something by doing. Man’s essence is not blind activity, but the projection of his desire onto the field of his behaviour.

Step 6 is a trojan horse: a preparation for the imperative form introduced at 17. I render “gives man to belong to” as “allows man to appropriate” as a subtle inversion that preserves the equally subtle crossing of the give-and-take of Heidegger-Lovitt’s original. Properly speaking one is not “given” one’s belonging (much as one is not “granted” a prison cell), nor is one allowed to appropriate something. Heidegger is talking of a taking that is given and we are now talking of a giving that is taken. In case the reader is afraid he will forget that this step has been taken, he will be reminded below that at step 17 we do nothing but reverse it—we step back, which is to say, we return to Heidegger’s text there (da) exactly what we are taking from it here (da).

Step 7 is a simple postulate. A bringing-to-pass that also discloses, which is to say, one that does not achieve closure, is an accomplishment that remains “open” in the sense that its being (as accomplishment) is not yet determined even though it has been brought to pass, which is to say, its becoming has been completed, or brought off, but its being not yet contained, or closed off.

Step 8 is simple banalisation. “Bringing into its own” is construed as “acquisition”. Much as one firm can bring another, as it were, into its own by buying a majority interest in it.

Step 9 is an orthodox continuation from step 3. Things in hand are tools. Tools “as they” something or other are tools that something or other.

Step 10 is an act of interpretation in the direction of the banal. Notice that “[tools that] bring disclosure near to man’s accomplishments” is replaced simply with “[tools that] work”, since surely a tool works, if it does, in so far as it is the proximity (or proximate occasion) of an accomplishment. But taking a broader view of this section of the text, we can say that when a discloure is brought near one is “let into an enclosure”, in this case into that enclosure in which what we achieve remains, only until then barred to us. We are here let into the clearing. While we might think that this step then takes us only as far as “allows man into the clearing”, it must be remarked that all allowance is the opening of the clearing, and, therefore, what is at stake here is allowance itself (now ontologically determined). This is the sense of “allows man to”. One is, however, still more primordially always already allowed-to-work, i.e. let into the clearing of one’s task, so the whole phrase (taken in the form of the prayer that the “May” at the outset suggests) comes to modify the tools as functioning properly.

Step 11 is also difficult and could be taken more precisely I am sure. An acquisition left open is open as to what has been acquired in the taking, but, since it is determined as an accomplishment it is not open as to its success. Thus whatever has been taken (the particular that we are openminded about) it is nonetheless determined to thereafter belong to the taker. Thus, that which he takes is simply that which is his.

Step 12: workly = real (wirklich). Tools working are real things when given.

Step 13 has no existential import, it is a superficial adjustment in the sentence, improving readability.

Step 14 suggests a difference between something being yours and being your own. Something which is yours may be yours just now or until the end of the year, but something being your own (as in “a place of one’s own”) is something you find is yours even as you find it, that is, it is yours in each case.

Step 15 also has no existential import. It merely gathers into a single string two phrases that would otherwise have to be replaced simultaneously in the next step.

Step 16 is an example of existential grammar. When we “take of the real things that are given what” we simply ”do things that”. The ”real things that are given” are haeceities (this-nesses), and the doing-that captures exactly this singularity in the what-for of the deed. (Much as there is a difference between seeing and seeing-as.)

Step 17 is where we give back what we took at 6.

Extra Credit Exercise: An interesting “proof” of this derivation may be imagined by translating line 17 into German. This demands that we find the corresponding expression in demotic German, ca. 1960. From there, each step must be taken in reverse, adjusting as need be for the new materials, with the aim of arriving, after a finite series of steps, at the original German sentence from “Die Kehre”. This, of course, would also constitute a kind of “ontological proof” of Lovitt’s translation (on one sense of Heidegger’s original).

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Over the past few months a number of encounters on the blogs listed to your right have made me appreciate the potential of this medium. So I thought I might give it a go myself. I'm not really sure how to begin, nor even when one can be said to be under way, but being listed on The Unquiet Grave is no mean mark of distinction. Thanks Tony.

I suppose the most straightforward way of introducing my project is to say that I am a philosopher who suffers from MFA envy. I wish there were a writing programme for philosophers. (If anyone knows of one, let me know.)

Thinking is a craft skill. Philosophy is the art of writing concepts down. I want to use this blog to investigate what those two sentences could possibly mean.