Monday, September 17, 2007

Soft Targets and the Enemy

The official job description of the U.S. Poet Laureate contains a puzzling metaphor.

"The Poet Laureate ... serves as the nation's official lightning rod for the poetic impulse of Americans."*

We consult the Concise Oxford Dictionary (8th edition, 1990):

The Poet Laureate has been fixed to an exposed part of America to divert the poetic impulse of its people into the earth or sea.

"We seek an inadequate enemy, one who comes to capitulate. We seek the declared enemy," says the editorial We of Soft Targets.

I will let all this stand as an ideogram.

*As of July 8, 2013, this is still how the page at the Library of Congress reads.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Image/Device (2)

[An expanded version of my comment to the last the post.]

I think the most precise statement I've made about (my older ideas about) the image can be found in "The History of the World".

The image is detached
from appearances,
and applied to surfaces
with equal ease.
The image is what can be done
without effort,
and seen,
without strain.
The image is easy.

On my new hypothesis, it would look like this:

The image is detached
from appearances;
the device is applied
to surfaces.
Both, with equal ease.
The device is what can be done
without effort.
The image is what can be seen
without strain.
The image is easy.
So is the device.

You just glance at it.
You push the button.

It is important here to keep in mind that neither the detachment of the image nor the application of the device will necessarily "work". The operation may fail.

The point is that "operating" the device demands an insignificant amount of effort compared to the results it can achieve (if it works). "Insignificant" is exactly the right word. It is not the act of pushing the button but the operation of the device that is significant. Herein the comedic force of the child or tramp who pushes an unmarked button out of curiosity.

("Operating an image" would be the wrong phrase. I can't think of the correct pangrammatical homologue of "operating a device".)

The role of the image (originally) or image/device (hypothetically) has to be to offer a "free" experience, i.e., a way of engaging with our experiences in an unconstrained way. We must be (absolutely) able to take them or leave them. Note that you can't just take or leave your perceptions and your actions, nor your sensations and motivations. You're to an important extent "stuck" with them. Images and devices are different in exactly that regard. (Just as intuitions and institutions are different exactly in regard to their immediacy.)

Looking for that older statement, I also found a post on "apparatus" and "machination". There might be something there.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007


I just reread an earlier post on what might be called "the picturing of the world and the machining of history". It reveals an ambiguity in the pangrammaticon. I normally want "the image" to be in the center, between the concept and the emotion, so that the image can attach itself "freely" to either side of the divide. But in that post I seem to have pushed the image into the claws of philosophy and posited a "device" to occupy the poet.

I'm not sure that's a bad idea.

It suggests an application for the distinction between drawing and diagram as well. Philosophy patrols the conversion of images into drawings (scientific representations); poetry patrols the conversion of devices into diagrams (political representations). And, in both cases, vice versa.

Life, then, (or experience, or the "whole thing", or grammar, what-you-call-it) is the conversion of images into devices (or simply the confusion of images and devices).

Pictures are for philosophers? Machines are for poets?

Like I say, it appeals to me.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

On the Possiblity of Stand-up Poetry

This idea has been suggested before, with various degrees of seriousness. Mairead Byrne's proposal (available as a PDF file at UbuWeb) was, perhaps, prefigured by T. S. Eliot in his essay on "The Possiblity of a Poetic Drama":

The Elizabethan drama was aimed at a public which wanted entertainment of a crude sort, but would stand a good deal of poetry; our problem should be to take a form of entertainment, and subject it to the process which would leave it a form of art. Perhaps the music-hall comedian is the best material. I am aware that this is a dangerous suggestion to make. For every person who is likely to consider it seriously there are a dozen toymakers who would leap to tickle æsthetic society into one more quiver and giggle of art debauch. Very few treat art seriously. There are those who treat it solemnly, and will continue to write poetic pastiches of Euripides and Shakespeare; and there are others who treat it as a joke.

What I want to suggest here is that the "stand-up poet" as the implicit author/performer is one way of understanding the yaw angle of a given poem. Another is the "poetry anchor", i.e., the poem read off a teleprompter as part of newscast. In either case, "our problem should be to take a form of [non-poetry], and subject it to the process which would leave it a form of art." (Something I've long been arguing is the central contribution of flarf.) The whole idea here is to imagine the poem being presented in a context not defined by the institutions of poetry, but, so to speak, "in public". Poetry read in a tough room, if you will.

This line of thinking has also been sending me back to Tony Tost's "Disarm the Settlers". His "mongrel" school of poetry (somewhere between mainstream and experimental) was an attempt to imagine how experimental work could successfully transform (even revolutionize) the public face of poetry. We need to go a step further, I think, and ask if there is any way to introduce poetry to the public directly (not just to the poetry-reading public). Any attempt to imagine this (with or without irony) is an approach to the "yaw" of a poem. I'm not saying it would ever "work" (i.e., that the shows would sell out); I'm saying that "the possibility" of reading a poem as stand-up indicates the "yaw" of the poem.

There are many styles of stand-up, of course. Chris Rock (Byrne's example) is only a recent example. Obviously we need to consider also Bill Hicks and Lenny Bruce, Eddie Murphy and Robin Williams, George Carlin and Steven Wright. All of them had audiences that arguably "wanted entertainment of a crude sort" but would stand a good deal of, not poetry perhaps, but at least something like thoughtful "content". (I'm willing to give ground on this in particular cases.)

While I had been thinking about this idea for some time already, it seemed especially relevant when I reached the last line of Ben Lerner's "Twenty-One Gun Salute for Ronald Reagan". Here the "easy" stand-up reading would be the "flat affected tone" of, say, Steven Wright. But there are different ways of performing these "twenty-one bits for Ronald Reagan".

More later.