Friday, November 11, 2005

The Text Editor is the New Typewriter (Google's the Muse)

If Google is the new typewriter (that's what my guess is), we need to explore this simultaneously bright and dull instrument.

Tony Tost

We live in an age of science and abundance. The care and reverence for books as such, proper to an age when no book was duplicated until someone took the pains to copy it out by hand, is obviously no longer suited to 'the needs of society', or to the conservation of learning. The weeder is supremely needed if the Garden of the Muses is to persist as a garden.

Ezra Pound

The recent negotiations over the dead cat that Kasey started have me going back over an old theme. What is the function of criticism? Or what can a piece of prose offer a poem? Is there really anything there for criticism (one or several poetics) to do? Is there a contribution to be made to poetry, either by non-poets or poets pretending to be dead, by writing something other than poetry?

I don't want to survey the possible answers. What interests me is how the workshop, depending on the form we imagine it to take, poses this challenge in the most pointed way by suggesting that the poem is, in principle, always subject to revision.

Suppose we say that a critique is nothing without a list of suggested edits or queries. I.e., the critic is obligated to engage with "what is there on the page". T. S. Eliot suggested that the "perfect critic" is the one who "is criticizing poetry in order to create poetry," and Pound indeed offered Eliot as an example of "criticism in new composition": "the criticism of Seneca in Mr. Eliot's Agon is infinitely more alive, more vigorous than in his essay on Seneca." (LE, p. 75).

The workshop approach is, in a sense, an insistence on only this kind of criticism (i.e., criticism that is tantamount to a new composition). But if we take this line out to its logical conclusion then new compositions, too, should be nothing other than criticism of old ones. Old whats? Well, old "compositions", but that means nothing other than any arrangement of language, any instance of usage. So poetry, like philosophy, becomes a "critique of language" (Wittgenstein, T4.0031).

This brings me to my point, which is about Flarf as procedurally defined. The use of Google shows how the poem might be understood as "criticism in a new composition" of existing usage.

One can imagine a poetry (and this prose is trying to be a contribution to its poetics) that works in two windows: one is used to run Google searches, the other is a simple text editor (NotePad, for example). Text is cut out from the one and placed in the other and is then "workshopped" until perfect.

I think the argument for confining oneself to this procedure is about as good as the argument for confining oneself to saying about a poem only what might be said in a workshop*. But I note this not to dismiss it.

After all, consider the following line of thinking. Suppose there is no longer any need for "original compositions". Suppose that we can be sure that all the writing we will ever need is already getting done, more or less automatically. Suppose only the weeder is now needed. Pound meant this as a guide for the critic and teacher of poetry but suppose that today the language is a reckless blossom of weeds, yes, all the way down to the kitten.

We need to examine our instruments, bright and dull. We may be guided by the beauty of these weapons.


*Note that, when it is finished, the poem is submitted for critique (further workshopping) and publication (only to be Googled).

1 comment:

David Leftwich said...

An interesting idea. I may have taken you it a bit far (or maybe not far enough) but I have googled 3 poems/raw material for “weeding” and posted it at my sight ( It would be interesting to see what anyone can do with it.