Concrete poetry and definitions

February 23, 2010 at 2:47 pm (Digital Lit)

Since one of the on-going issues in this class has been struggling with definitions, I was really struck when I came across Solt’s definition of non-linguistic concrete poetry: “the non-linguistic objects presented function in a manner related to the semantic character of words.” Because one of the questions I have consistently struggled with is the relationship between the visual arts and digital poetry, I find this definition very useful. This definition lets me draw a line in the sand, and say that if a piece of digital poetry relates to the “semantic character of words” than I can consider it poetry, even if it doesn’t provide me with a recognizable text to draw from. Of course, this definition is problematic. How do we determine if a work is relates to the “sematic character of words” if there are no words for us to draw on? Concrete poetry, as well as the poetry of the avante-gard seems to rely on the presence of letter forms to indicate both phonetic sounds and that the resulting poem, even if it is not readable, is related to language. Digital poetry comes at a moment where this method has been so far undermined by the forms that I mentioned previously that it doesn’t necessarily need to use language at all. Some of it obviously does, for instance, “Birds Singing Other Birds’ Songs” is as much about how one hears and interprets the world through alaphabetic language as it is about birdsong. However, other examples simply present images or playable programs. These have been more challenging for me to classify as poetry, possibly because I do have a stronger background with video games than poetry in some ways, but I feel like this definition gives me a place to start looking for meaning and looking for connections between some of these more abstract digital poems and what I include in my definition of poetry.


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David Henry Hwang, M. Butterfly

February 22, 2010 at 10:02 am (Multicultural Lit)

I have to start off by saying I loved this play. One of the things that I was very interested in is how relevant the issues and critiques raised by the play still felt, twenty years after its first performance.  I think some of Hwang’s critiques, particularly those involving orientalism seem like old hat, particularly to an academic audience, there are other critiques that are much more subtle that make this play age well, where other plays, particularly issues plays (I’m particularly thinking Angel in America here) show their age at every turn. One of the things that I think make Hwang’s play so ageless is that it doesn’t do a straight reading of anything. Any time you think you might be on solid footing with a topic, there’s a twist and your perspective changes. I think possibly the most interesting thing that Hwang does for me is his critique of what we might call Western denialism. I think even in the late 80’s and the early 90’s Hwang’s use of Said and critique of the orientalist tendancies of western culture would be familiar to a western audience, but no one in the audience wants to admit that they have these feelings. However, I would be willing to bet that same educated, western audience is at least familiar enough with the music of Madame Butterfly that they recognize the famous songs, otherwise the use of the music would lose the majority of the effect. At the point where the music is working in its role in the play, one is forced to admit to an enjoyment of this opera, which on reflection is incredibly Orientalizing and racist.

There is a similar type of critique going on here with gender and sexuality I think. We all like to say that we are open-minded, at least typically in a liberal, academic setting, but we’re all also sucked into our curiousity about the sex lives of these two men. If Song Liling had truely been a women, this story wouldn’t have been half as interesting and sensational, and the focus of the newspaper story that inspired the play would have probably been directed exclusively at the act of espionage, rather than including the details of the sexual affair. This kind of curiosity provides the same kind of realization as the question of race does in the example above. When the reader or viewer realizes that they too are waiting for the details of how a man could have been sleeping with another man for twenty years and never realizing it, we are drawn into an examination of our own feelings about gender and sexuality.

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Dada and the History of Digital Poetry

February 16, 2010 at 4:47 pm (Digital Lit)

As I read the Nicholls’ overview of Dada I see a reflection of the current thought about Dada, that tends to divide the movement out into a number of very different movements that are only loosely related, and that are heavily influenced by the geography of the post-WWI Europe. One of the things that several of these movements have in common is their interest in poetry. Thus, we can see that digital poetry has its roots in Dada not simply in one unified source, but coming from several different angles, and slightly different traditions of Dada.

One of these angles of history that is clearly connected to digital poetry is an interest in sound poetry. This comes from the very earliest days of Dada, with the performance of sound poetry in the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich, for example, Hugo Ball’s “Karawane.” This tradition continues through several iterations of Dada, and it is obviously still and interest in contemporary digital poetry, as exemplified by work like Jorg Pieringer’s.

Other Dada practice takes the form of what I call “randomized” poetry, poetry that is created by taking a set of words and assembling them through some mechanism to create a poem. Kurt Schwitters, among others, recommends creating poetry by taking a newspaper article, cutting it into individual words, and drawing those words to create a poem. This resembles the method of early digital poets whose work we have examined, like Alan Sondheim’s calculator poems. The method of selecting words is in a slightly more sophisticated format than drawing from a paper bag, but the process is essentially the same. One has a set of words and they are somehow assembled into a finished work of poetry.

I am also interested in how other Dada practices might historicize digital poetry. There is a strong tradition of theater in Dada, as mentioned by Nicholls, and there are certainly performative aspects of some digital poems, but I’m not sure that these performances are directly related or if they are maybe secondarily related with a group like Fluxus taking a crucial middle step.  I am also interested in how Dada visual practice may intersect with visual digital poetry. Nicholls characterizes Dada, and I have to agree, as a movement that is driven by poetry. However, like digital poetry, Dada also has a large amount of visual output. Is the visual output of Dada, particularly the visual output that includes words related to contemporary visual poetry?

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Mojica’s Princess Pocahontas and the Blue Spots and Van Kirk’s Many Tender Ties

February 12, 2010 at 11:41 am (Multicultural Lit)

These two selections of reading are very interesting in comparison to one another, because they present the reader not so much an “authentic” history of women in the Americas, as two modern strategies for dealing with a legacy of women in the colonial sphere.

Mojica uses a technique that draws on native traditions of story-telling, but also draws on aspects of post-modern and feminist narrative and theater. She has 13 transformations in her play “Princess Pocahontas and the Blue Spots,” which she links to the 13 yearly lunar cycles, but the way in which she sets up the play, with multiple actors playing different characters, and using the contradictions inherent in that to call relationships into question is also a move that is seen in other feminist and postmodern drama, like Caryl Churchill’s “Cloud Nine.”

Van Kirk on the other hand, is creating an academically engaged history of women in the fur trade. Like Mojica, she is trying to get her readers to think about and understand the role of women in a new way, but the way she goes about it is in a traditional framework of the academic monograph. This means that she feels to the need to engage with and, in some cases, combat the official history of the fur trade that has been written for and about white men. Van Kirk is engaged with the feminist struggle, but not in the activist way, or in the postmodern way that Mojica is. I was actually more interested by Van Kirk’s work, but I think that is probably a relic of my own personal history growing up in the Pacific Northwest with historically inclined parents. I think pairing these works together however, makes them more interesting than either one might have been separately because it shows that our historical past is under consideration and re-evaluation, not just in one way, but in multiple ways.

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Futurism and Synethesia

February 10, 2010 at 6:58 pm (Digital Lit)

Since I’ve already put in my two cents worth about the Futurist manifesto, and what I find problematic, I should now add what I find really interesting and helpful from the modern avant-garde movements, including Futurism. These movements are concerned with breaking down boundaries and experiencing the world in new ways, as the old ways were seen to have failed. This is true for the Futurists, for whom the traditional ways of looking and experiencing were hopelessly mired in the past, and that forcibly excluded artists who wanted to be experimental. This will also be true for the Dadaists, although for them the old ways of looking have not only brought disaster, but they have brought the world to the brink of collapse through the conflagration of the first world war. One of the techniques that these artists use to look at the world is synethesia, or the combination of senses. In most cases we aren’t literally synethetes, but thinking of combining senses allows a viewer to make some sense of Marinett’s futurist word poems. It is not purely about the words on the page, it is also about the shapes and colors of those words and the overall impact of the page on the eye. The same thing is true of well-known digital examples. Mark Danielewski’s “House of Leaves” for example, has the word house printed in blue every time it appears. This suggests the most common color of links on the internet, giving the printed page the feel of a hypertext that it is often classified as, but it also literally reproduces the experience of synethesia for the reader, in a way that cannot be resisted, just as the experience of synethesia for a synesthetes. Synethesia or synethetic thinking seems to me to be one way we can classify or at least start to classify largely visual examples of digital poetry as poetry, rather than art or games or any of the other possible categories. Maybe I’m just not reading the right books, but synethesia doesn’t seem to come up very much in anything we’ve read, while it comes up frequently in writings about modernity. If this is truely something that was a fad, and not just an observation that is the product of imcomplete reading, than this maybe something useful that we can resurrect from the moderns.

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Frederick Douglass and the Canon

February 8, 2010 at 4:57 pm (Multicultural Lit)

One of the  questions that occurred to me as I read Frederick Douglass’ autobiography this time around, particularly in relation to Michele Wallace’s article on visual culture, modernism and postmodernism, was to wonder why this book is so much a part of the contemporary canon. There are other books that tell similar stories, and that are also assigned in similar contexts (Equiano and Harriet Jacob’s autobiographies both come to mind here), but neither is as pervasive as Douglass, who seems to have become the academic voice of slavery. In some ways I find this troubling, because as Ann pointed out in her post on Garrison’s Preface, Douglass proves his worth by speaking in a way that was impressive to white abolitionists and is still impressive to the academic elite today. I would like to think that this isn’t the only reason Douglass is so widely canonized today, but the only other book that seems to be close to being assigned as much as his is, Harriet Jacobs’ autobiography is certainly far less formally refined.

I also wonder if Douglass is so throughly canonized through sheer inertia. He stands for the American slavery experience, so we don’t need to look any further. By including this already safely canonized book in high school and undergraduate curricula, teachers don’t have to risk rocking the boat and reaching outside a predefined idea of what the experience of American slavery is. I would like to think better of us as a culture, but unfortunately, I don’t have any faith that this is true.

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Benn Michaels

February 4, 2010 at 9:43 am (Digital Lit)

One of the questions that arose for me while I was reading the introduction to Benn Michael’s book is the question of where is the line between the work of art and the work of literature. At some point this divide is a false divide, it is one that we impose upon the work itself. However, particularly when considering digital poetry, the line seems to be blurred. When a work of poetry consists solely of pictures how do we know it is a work of art. One important thing that I think Benn Michaels picked up on that hasn’t been present in our previous discussion of this issue is the fact that if you blur the line you can then use art historical theorists as well as literary theorists. Fried’s “Art and Objecthood” seems like it would be useful not only in the context that Benn Michaels uses it in (notice his “art historical” examples in that chapter, but also to discuss works of poetry.

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Futurism and Elit

February 3, 2010 at 6:18 pm (Digital Lit)

Every time I read Marinetti’s “Futurist Manifesto” I simulataneously want to hit him and thank him. Much of the elit that we have read for this class has its roots in Futurism, and their sister movement, Dada. However, I do think those roots, while they are emphasized by theorists, especially theorists looking to prove that elit isn’t just some new fad, are also not as concrete as many people think they are. To demonstrate what I mean I would like to spend a minute close reading part of Marinetti’s manifesto.

“1. We intend to sing the love of danger, the habit of energy and fearlessness.” This first numbered point reinforces the image that is most commonly propagated about the Futurists, that they were fearless to the point of foolishness (several lost their lives because they volunteered for dangerous missions during the war). However, I’m not sure I see this in digital poetry. I think it is possible to describe digital poetry as more energetic than traditional poetry, but not I’m not sure being able to manipulate elements on a screen is the kind of energy Marinetti was talking about.

“2. Courage, audacity, and revolt will be essential elements of our poetry.” This point feels far more applicable to digital poetry. To write in this medium artists have to accept the fact that their work will probably not be widely accessed or criticized, and will in fact occasionally be openly mocked.

“10.We will destroy the museums, libraries, academies of every kind, will fight moralism, feminism, every opportunistic or utilitarian cowardice.” My problem with this statement of Marinetti’s is that many theorists of digital poetry, as we have seen demonstrated in this class, are trying to claim a history and relationship with experimental print poetry, including Futurism itself. The ultimate weakness of Futurism is that in its love of speed it never allows you too look back, and any kind of historicizing effort is invalid because it is tying art to the past. Therefore, digital poetry should be accepted because it is the wave of the future and it doesn’t need to try to legitimize itself through any kind of connection to print culture.

I know this kind of point to point analysis is simplistic, and, in some cases missing the point, but as an historian and specifically an art historian I feel the need to point out the dangers of ahistoricism, particularly in a field that is moving and changing so fast that the Futurists themselves would have felt their heads spinning. Its all very well to trace the historical roots of a movement, but make sure you’re examining history when you do it.

*Realizing after the fact that this is actually next week’s reading. I guess I just like the Futurists that much. If I get time I will try to write something applicable to this week’s reading.

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Feed by M. T. Anderson

February 3, 2010 at 6:01 pm (Young Adult Lit)

This novel seems to me to have been written to appeal to young adult publishers, rather than an authentic young adult audience. Anderson takes two of the most saleable elements of young adult fiction, the fantasy/sci-fi setting and the issue novel and squeezes them together in this book. His sci-fi is laden with cliches: people live in bubbles/domes, they drive flying cars that can steer themselves, and they are constantly hooked into the internet through some kind of  physical implant. His issues are just as stale, and designed to appeal to the broadest possible cross-section of middle class American teenagers: death, love/relationships, the environment and popularity. Anderson does have moments of real humor in this book. The back story behind his “ugly” friend’s appearance, and his history as a genetic clone of Abraham  Lincoln is one of these moments, as are all appearances of the main character’s father, a man who expertly mocks a certain kind of increasingly visible involved-but-cool dad (the kind of father I imagine Matthew McConaughey would be). However, these instances of humor often seem overly subtle for a teenage audience, designed instead to appeal to the critics who have lauded this book. And even in its flashes of brilliance, the humor isn’t enough to lift the entire novel above its cliches.

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Forgetting the Alamo or Blood Memory by Emma Perez

February 1, 2010 at 8:05 pm (Multicultural Lit)

In her “Introduction” to the “Decolonial Imaginary” Emma Perez identifies two problems with the traditional practices of history. First, that women are typically historicized as adjuncts of men, if they are historicized at all. As Perez points out women of color are rarely included in mainstream forms of history.

She also brings up the issue of valorization of certain types of narrative. “Literature is reduced to or expanded by the “imaginary” while only history is “real” (xvii). This issue of the reality of history, and “imaginariness” of literature reinforces the ghettoization of women. Literature, and novels in particular, are often seen as the province of women, because they are perceived as imaginary, romantic, fluffy, silly, inconsecquential and a whole host of other unflattering adjective.

Taking these two problems together, Perez has a difficult task to tell the history of a chicano woman, particularly a chicano woman who rejects the categories that are made for her by men (heterosexual, homebody, mother, etc.). She tackles this problem in the only way that she can, given the critical framework that she has laid out, by writing a historical narrative or historical fiction.

My question is how does the reader know that this is supposed to be history? Unless the reader is astute (or possibly a grad student) they are unlikely to read the acknowledgements section, in which Perez states that she has revised her novel to make the plot more compelling, a sure sign that this is intended to function as a history. Other than that the reader is given only clues. I think that the title is one clue, with its reference to the dot on the timeline of traditional history, in its invocation of the Alamo. The mainstream historical reference is then undermined by the alternative title “Blood Memory,” a title which invokes the more feminized rhetorical tradition that Perez is going to engage for her novel. However, not a lot of other clues or engagement with mainstream history leap off the page at me. Are there others that I missed? Am I being too literal?

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