My books are better thought about than read. They’re insanely dull and unreadable; I mean, do you really want to sit down and read a year’s worth of weather reports or a transcription of the 1010 WINS traffic reports “on the ones” (every ten minutes) over the course of a twenty-four-hour period? I don’t. But they’re wonderful to talk about and think about, to dip in and out of, to hold, to have on your shelf. In fact, I say that I don’t have a readership, I have a thinkership. I guess this is why what I do is called “conceptual writing.” The idea is much more important than the product…
My favorite books on my shelf are the ones that I can’t read, like Finnegans Wake, The Making of Americans, Boswell’s Life of Johnson, or The Arcades Project. I love the idea that these books exist. I love their size and scope; I adore their ambition; I love to pick them up, open them at random, and always be surprised; I love the fact that I will never know them. They’ll never go out of style; they’re timeless; they’re always new to me. I wanted to write books just like these. I think you hit it just right when you spoke of reference books. I never wanted my books to be mistaken for poetry or fiction books; I wanted to write reference books. But instead of referring to something, they refer to nothing. I think of them as ’pataphysical reference books.
For more on pataphysics (which I don’t think really needs that apostrophe), aka “the science of imaginary solutions,” read this.
I also found this fascinating, especially coming from the man who wrote “If It Doesn’t Exist on the Internet, It Doesn’t Exist” (back in 2005):
I’ve made a move in the Luddite direction recently by trying to remove UbuWeb from Google. I want the site to be more underground, more word-of-mouth. The only way you’ll be able to find it is if someone links to it or tells you about it, just like music used to be before MTV. But you’ll still find UbuWeb on all the bad search engines that no one uses: AltaVista, Dogpile, and Yahoo! Again, everyone wants to rush toward the center: they even write books about how to get your Google ranking higher. We’re headed in the opposite direction. We want to get off Google.
But actually, even if you go back to that 2005 essay, it has this gorgeous coda, under the subhed “The New Radicalism”:
In concluding, I’m going to drop a real secret on you. Used to be that if you wanted to be subversive and radical, you’d publish on the web, bypassing all those arcane publishing structures at no cost. Everyone would know about your work at lightening speed; you’d be established and garner credibility in a flash, with an adoring worldwide readership.
Shhhh… the new radicalism is paper. Right. Publish it on a printed page and no one will ever know about it. It’s the perfect vehicle for terrorists, plagiarists, and for subversive thoughts in general. In closing, if you don’t want it to exist — and there are many reasons to want to keep things private — keep it off the web.
Something to think about, when you’re too busy not reading.
Paterson is a long poem in four parts — that a man in himself is a city, beginning, seeking, achieving and concluding his life in ways which the various aspects of a city may embody — if imaginatively conceived — any city, all the details of which may be made to voice his most intimate convictions. Part One introduces the elemental character of the place. The Second Part comprises the modern replicas. Three will seek a language to make them vocal, and Four, the river below the falls, will be reminiscent of episodes — all that any one man may achieve in a lifetime.
– William Carlos Williams, “Author’s Note” to Paterson
[Note: This is one of 50 posts about cyborgs a project to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the coining of the term.]
[Note 2: This is also very literary, and very weird.]
William Carlos Williams knew plenty about bodies. He was a pediatrician and general practitioner in Rutherford, NJ, and his great poem “To Elsie,” which begins “The pure products of America / go crazy —” moves seamfully from the flesh to aimless machines:
expressing with broken
brain the truth about us–
ungainly hips and flopping breasts
addressed to cheap
and rich young men with fine eyes
as if the earth under our feet
an excrement of some sky
and adjust, no one to drive the car
And then there is the mighty fragment from Spring and All, “The rose is obsolete,” imagining a new, cubo-futurist symbol of beauty with the delicacy and strength of organic steel. We could go on.
But Paterson is the poem, the book to be reckoned with, which conceives of a body as a city and a city as a body and both as a flow of heteroclite information, the poem a machine containing them all.
To make two bold statements: There’s nothing sentimental about a machine, and: A poem is a small (or large) machine made out of words. When I say there’s nothing sentimental about a poem, I mean that there can be no part that is redundant.
Prose may carry a load of ill-defined matter like a ship. But poetry is a machine which drives it, pruned to a perfect economy. As in all machines, its movement is intrinsic, undulant, a physical more than a literary character.
And this is what we see in Paterson. The italicized faux-definition on the first page in verso calls it “an identification and a plan for action to supplant a plan for action… a dispersal and a metamorphosis” but also “a gathering up; a celebration.” In other words, a book.
To make a start,
out of particulars,
and make them general, rolling
up the sum, by defective means–
Or as he would write (and repeat) a handful of pages later, “–Say it, no ideas but in things–” which is to say (he tries to refine) “no ideas but in facts” but also:
Say it! No ideas but in things. Mr.
Paterson has gone away
to rest and write. Inside the bus one sees
his thoughts sitting and standing. His
thoughts alight and scatter–
Paterson, whose ideas are themselves cities criss-crossing his streets in machines made from the mind, is both the Passaic Falls (“the outline of his back”) and the bridge thrown across those falls, and the men who dare each other to jump from the bridge, the women who mysteriously disappear, and finally the fragments of texts from newspapers and letters Williams gathers (the gathering at the same time a dispersal, a release of the information confined in the archive) to make the outline of his poem.
So far everything had gone smoothly. The pulley and ropes were securely fastened on each side of the chasm, and everything made in readiness to pull the clumsy bridge into position. It was a wooden structure boarded up on both sides, and a roof. It was about two o’clock in the afternoon and a large crowd had fathered — a large crowd for that time, as the town only numbered about four thousand — to watch the bridge placed in position.
That day was a great day for old Paterson. It being Saturday, the mills were shut down, so to give the people a chance to celebrate. Among those who came in for a good part of the celebration was Sam Patch, then a resident in Paterson, who was a boss over cotton spinners in one of the mills. He was my boss, and many a time he gave me a cuff over the ears.
Such prose fragments are dropped into the text of Paterson like stones in the Passaic Falls, or like Sam Patch’s body when, after a career of daredevil jumps inaugurated in Paterson (“a national hero”), it’s found frozen downstream after a jump from Niagara.
Sometimes the language is reincorporated later (or before) in the narrative (such as it is) of the poem. Williams describes Paterson as a search for language, the river like the language itself, many languages, bearing many kinds of information:
A false language. A true. A false language pouring— a
language (misunderstood) pouring (misinterpreted) without
dignity, without minister, crashing upon a stone ear.
And with this we are on the terrain of Claude Shannon’s mathematical cryptography, elaborated in the 1940s with the help of John von Neumann, Alan Turing, and others, just miles away, the engineering and metaphorical aspects of which fascinated Williams. In information theory, the medium of information is immaterial (both in the sense that is abstract and not relevant to the calculus), only its degree of distortion, compression, storage, and loss. Signals with(out) the codes to decipher them.
Once we can abstract from the medium, information does not need to be a letter, a photograph, or a radio wave. It can be a body, or the movement of bodies across a city, or any system, whether synthetic, organic, or hybrid.
Williams is known for his work as a physician, for his friendship with avant-garde artists, writers, and photographers in New York (the Williams-Marcel Duchamp-Man Ray friendship was especially fertile), but his interest in science and engineering was equally profound. In 1945, the year he forged Book One of Paterson, he received an honorary degree from the University of Buffalo, where he struck up a long conversation and fast friendship with Vannevar Bush, who that year would write “As We May Think”:
Among the rest the man Bush, the head of the atomic bomb project, was the most interesting to me. I liked him at once. It is amazing what he and his associates have accomplished—looked at simply as work, as brains. He seemed curious about me and was astonished to know I was a physician. I told him that I was deeply impressed by the sheer accomplishments of the persons on the platform. He replied that it took a lot of energy also to write books
(see T. Hugh Crawford, “Paterson, Memex, and Hypertext”)
How could we retrieve disconnected fragments, to make their hidden connections manifest? This was Williams’s problem as a poet, Bush’s as a researcher, Shannon’s as an engineer. To create a network of things — to roll up the universal out of particulars, and make what’s long kept in storage MOVE, faster than microfilm:
Our ineptitude in getting at the record is largely caused by the artificiality of systems of indexing. When data of any sort are placed, in storage, they are filed alphabetically or numerically, and information is found (when it is) by tracing it down from subclass to subclass.… Having found one item, moreover, one has to emerge from the system and re-enter on a new path
Or as Williams writes in Paterson:
Texts mount and complicate them–
selves, lead to further texts and those
to synopses, digests and emendations
A new line, for a new mind; a new mind, to be the mind of a city.
The library, the library is on fire by Book III of Paterson:
Hell’s fire. Fire. Sit your horny ass
down. What’s your game? Beat you
at your own game, Fire. Outlast you:
Poet Beats Fire at Its Own Game! The bottle!
the bottle! the bottle! the bottle! I
give you the bottle! What’s burning
Whirling flames, leaping
from house to house, building to building
carried by the wind
the Library is in their path
Beautiful thing! aflame .
a defiance of authority
— burnt Sappho’s poems, burned
by intention (or are they still hid
in the Vatican crypts?) :
a defiance of authority :
for they were
unwrapped, fragment by fragment, from
outer mummy cases of papier mâché, inside
Egyptian sarcophagi .
Knowledge cannot lie dead, buried in tombs, it must be transmitted, brought to action, by electrical means if necessary, by film if necessary, fire if necessary, every destruction a liberation, bearing with it the possibility of rebirth.
That is, at least — if one conceives of the body as something more than flesh — as network — as city. As a machine made of words.
A machine with a man inside.
I love little observations of the everyday like this one in Nick Paumgarten’s essay on elevators:
Passengers seem to know instinctively how to arrange themselves in an elevator. Two strangers will gravitate to the back corners, a third will stand by the door, at an isosceles remove, until a fourth comes in, at which point passengers three and four will spread toward the front corners, making room, in the center, for a fifth, and so on, like the dots on a die. With each additional passenger, the bodies shift, slotting into the open spaces. The goal, of course, is to maintain (but not too conspicuously) maximum distance and to counteract unwanted intimacies—a code familiar (to half the population) from the urinal bank and (to them and all the rest) from the subway. One should face front. Look up, down, or, if you must, straight ahead. Mirrors compound the unease.
This reminds me of what is quite possibly the best poetic description of riding the elevator, part III of T.S. Eliot’s “Burnt Norton” (from Four Quartets). In particular, it’s about the long elevator ride at the tube stop at Russell Square:
Here is a place of disaffection
Time before and time after
In a dim light: neither daylight
Investing form with lucid stillness
Turning shadow into transient beauty
With slow rotation suggesting permanence
Nor darkness to purify the soul
Emptying the sensual with deprivation
Cleansing affection from the temporal.
Neither plenitude nor vacancy. Only a flicker
Over the strained time-ridden faces
Distracted from distraction by distraction
Filled with fancies and empty of meaning
Tumid apathy with no concentration
Men and bits of paper, whirled by the cold wind
That blows before and after time,
Wind in and out of unwholesome lungs
Time before and time after.
Eructation of unhealthy souls
Into the faded air, the torpid
Driven on the wind that sweeps the gloomy hills of London,
Hampstead and Clerkenwell, Campden and Putney,
Highgate, Primrose and Ludgate. Not here
Not here the darkness, in this twittering world.
Descend lower, descend only
Into the world of perpetual solitude,
World not world, but that which is not world,
Internal darkness, deprivation
And destitution of all property,
Desiccation of the world of sense,
Evacuation of the world of fancy,
Inoperancy of the world of spirit;
This is the one way, and the other
Is the same, not in movement
But abstention from movement; while the world moves
In appetency, on its metalled ways
Of time past and time future.
(Why hasn’t “Not here the darkness, in this twittering world” been quoted regularly?)
Another great bit from Paumgarten, which relates to my earlier “potatoes, paper, petroleum” observation about the 19th century:
The elevator, underrated and overlooked, is to the city what paper is to reading and gunpowder is to war. Without the elevator, there would be no verticality, no density, and, without these, none of the urban advantages of energy efficiency, economic productivity, and cultural ferment. The population of the earth would ooze out over its surface, like an oil slick, and we would spend even more time stuck in traffic or on trains, traversing a vast carapace of concrete.
A meta/editorial/critical note: Paumgarten’s essay has a regrettable B-story, about a guy who worked at a magazine who was trapped in an elevator. He dribbles it out graf by graf, to create the illusion of dramatic tension. Just speaking for myself, I didn’t care; also, it kind of bothers me that this is starting to become one of the default templates for magazine writing. Either find a reason to do it and do it well, or just… try something else.
The tool brought me to some terrific stuff. I love the opening of this poem from Anne Waldman…
I was living in San Francisco
My heart was in Manhattan
It made no sense, no reference point
Hearing the sad horns at night,
fragile evocations of female stuff
The 3 tones (the last most resonant)
were like warnings, haiku-muezzins at dawn
The call came in the afternoon
“Frank, is that really you?”
…mostly just for “haiku-muezzins,” which is so, so correct. What kind of brain comes up with haiku-muezzins? Amazing.
I liked this one by August Kleinzahler, too, which is fully continuous and heavily enjambed and therefore unblockquotable. The language is just terrific, though, and Kleinzahler uses the construction “the world entire,” as in:
Whoever saves one life, saves the world entire.
Is there a name for that? The little reversal—“the world entire”? It’s one of my favorite things.
I read Nicholson Baker’s The Anthologist recently, which is (on the surface) all about poetry, and I absolutely 100% loved it. I wish there existed the technology to do a quick brain-link so you could feel how much I loved this book. Some things worth noting:
- It’s very short; you could read it in an evening. I think it would work great on the Kindle, too.
- Baker’s voice is just something else. I’m a real sucker for this—a strong fluent first-person voice—and his is the best, the most immediately winning, I’ve read in a long time.
- (Actually: in parts, it reads like a book narrated by Tim.)
- You actually learn a lot about poetry! At least I did. I guess I didn’t know much to start with, so there was significant upside potential.
- The Anthologist is part of the 2010 Tournament of Books! Get a head start! Or something?
If we here at Snarkmarket had a vast endowment supplied by some rich heiress, I would name Nicholson Baker our poet laureate, and I would pay him handsomely to write a post or so every week.
The Morgan Library has a really excellent digital archive exhibition on its web site: a digital facsimile of the sole surviving manuscript of John Milton’s Paradise Lost, a fair copy of the first book.
One of the curious accidental consequences of the ubiquity of typing and copying technology today is that many people assume that “manuscript” refers to an early draft written in the author’s own hand. There are actually special terms for this: an autograph manuscript (a text an author writes him/herself), or sometimes holograph manuscript, which refers to a text written by the person who signed it. Autograph is more relevant in literary and holograph in non-literary contexts.
Manuscript by itself refers to any text that is written by a human hand. The most famous examples of manuscripts not handwritten by their authors would be in the pre-print era, when every text had to be copied out by hand. Print put an end to that most laborious (and glorious) instance of manuscript mechanical reproduction.
But even in the early modern period, most manuscript copies of a text would not have been written by an author, but recopied by a scribe or clerk. This actually persisted until the late nineteenth century, when the high-volume demands of modern businesses, and the technological emergence of shorthand, the typewriter, and carbon copying put an end to the traditional secretary/copyist, usually gentleman with a liberal education at home in legal and diplomatic contexts who wrote in a fine hand.
In Milton’s case, there was never an autograph copy of Paradise Lost:
Milton composed the ten books of Paradise Lost between 1658 and 1663. He had first planned the work as early as 1640, intending to write a tragedy titled Adam Unparadised. By 1652 he had become completely blind, probably due to glaucoma. Blindness forced him to compose orally, rendering him entirely reliant upon amanuenses (casual copyists among his friends and family circle) to whom he gave dictation. He composed the poem mostly at night or in the early morning, committing his composition to memory until someone was available to write down his words. He revised as his text was read back to him, so that a day’s work amounted to twenty lines of verse. According to contemporary accounts, when dictating, the poet “sat leaning backward obliquely in an easy chair, with his leg flung over the elbow of it” or “composed lying in bed in the morning.”
The only surviving manuscript of Paradise Lost is this 33-page fair copy, written in secretary script by a professional scribe, who probably transcribed patchwork pages of text Milton had dictated to several different amanuenses. This fair copy was corrected by at least five different hands under Milton’s personal direction and became the printer’s copy, used to set the type for the first edition of the book.
That’s one of the other fascinating things about early modern manuscript culture: there were multiple scripts that trained copyists used, almost like manual font sets, which dictated the shape and overall look of individual letters. These scripts varied from region to region and sometimes from one profession to another. The Secretary Script of the Paradise Lost manuscript, for example, was a form of Blackletter that flourished in England between the 14th and 18th centuries, until it was gradually displaced by the humanist scripts that had originated in Italy.
(This always delights me; not only did Renaissance humanists edit ancient texts, set up printing presses, transform education, and create great literature — they actually CHANGED THE WAY PEOPLE WROTE.)
But back to Milton! The survival of this partial manuscript also inadvertently reveals some of the difficulties writers faced in getting their books published in 17th-century England:
The Licensing Act, which was suspended during Cromwell’s term as lord protector, was renewed in 1662. Printers and publishers therefore required a license in order to legally print and distribute any book. Printing was authorized only when an imprimatur (Latin for “let it be printed”) was granted by the Stationers’ Company. The imprimatur for Paradise Lost appears on the inside cover (the first page of the manuscript in the digital facsimile). Soiled with ink smudges and compositor’s marks, printer’s copy manuscripts were customarily discarded or recycled after printing. In this case the presence of the imprimatur may account for the survival of Book 1—no manuscripts of the nine other books of Paradise Lost survive.
Milton sold Paradise Lost to the printer Samuel Simmons for £5. The contract is dated 27 April 1667; the book was published in late October or early November 1667. Although Milton had completed Paradise Lost by 1665, publication was delayed by a paper shortage caused by the Second Anglo-Dutch War, the Great Plague (during which over eighty London printers died), and the Great Fire of London, 1666, which destroyed many of the city’s presses. The absence of Simmons’s name on the earliest title pages indicates that he may have been unable to print the book himself. The title pages that do bear Simmons’s name do not give an address, suggesting that the printing of the first edition was assigned to Peter Parker.
Approximately thirteen hundred copies of the first edition were printed, with no fewer than six different title pages. Marketed at three shillings a copy, the first printing was sold out within eighteen months.
War, fire, plague, paper shortages, and Milton blind; this could make anyone wish “to justify the ways of God to men,” and imagine
A Dungeon horrible, on all sides round
As one great Furnace flam’d, yet from those flames
No light, but rather darkness visible
Serv’d onely to discover sights of woe,
Regions of sorrow, doleful shades, where peace [ 65 ]
And rest can never dwell, hope never comes
That comes to all…
Most digital manuscript projects for the web get at least one thing wrong, but they’ve been getting better. In this case, I highly recommend using the full-screen viewer to examine individual pages… which is all you can do, because you can’t switch pages without jumping out of full-screen. D’oh!
Ashbery’s conjuring mind is full of huge amounts of information — philology, movies, Old French, camp slang, archaeology, cartoons, the poetry of the ages, bibliography, Victoriana, television ads and more…
Ashbery has always liked to play games on many planes. This volume is an “A to Z” of life (like the guidebook line, “London A to Z”): we know this because the titles are arranged in alphabetical order, from “Alcove” to “Zymurgy” (“the chemistry of fermentation in brewing” — not a bad description of the making of a poem). Overturning clichés is another familiar Ashberian game: we’re not startled when someone says “King Alfonso of Spain,” but we are when we hear “Alphonse I of Bemidji.” The bane of language, for Ashbery as for Flaubert, is the “received idea” — the idea everyone mouths and takes for granted…
In his rendering of American speech, slang, cliché, Ashbery has surpassed most of his contemporaries. But his persistent reach into the “rut” of tradition should not be forgotten. He could say (with the great Nicaraguan poet Rubén Darío) that he is very 18th century and very archaic and very modern, daring and cosmopolitan. When he becomes most serious, it is in the presence of either catastrophe or truth. His onslaughts of tragedy, emotional or physical, are of geological force while not relinquishing the vocabulary of irony: “and the land mass teeters once more, crashing / out of gloaming onto the floor near your heels.” As for truth, it always hovers out of reach: he speaks of “today’s version of the truth,” on which “The enamel is just not going to keep.” Or, in a more sinister vein, the desired truth “just kind of sails overhead / like a turkey vulture, on parenthetical wing, / empty as a cupboard.”
So you have some actual poetry to look at, here’s an excerpt from and a link to Ashbery’s “The Burden of the Park”, from 1998:
Each is truly a unique piece,
you said, or, perhaps, each
is a truly unique piece.
I sniff the difference.
It’s like dust in an old house,
or the water thereof. Then you come
to an exciting part.
The bandit affianced
to the blind man’s daughter. The mangel-wurzels
that come out of every door, salute the traveller
and are gone. Or the more melting pace of strolling players,
each with a collapsed sweetie on his arm, each
tidy as one’s idea of everything under the sun is tidy.
And the wolverines
return, with their coach, and night,
the black bat night, is blacker than any bat.
Just so you know, this is the falling-off place,
for the water, where damsels stroll and uncles
know a good thing when they see one.
The park is all over.
It isn’t a knee injury, or a postage stamp on Mars.
It is all of the above, and some other things too:
a nameless morning in May fielded by taut observers.
An inner tube on a couch.
Now that academic critics, who, not so long ago, dismissed Ashbery’s poems as so much obscurantist doubletalk, have been forced to concede that the Ashberyan mode doesn’t seem to be going away, that, on the contrary, its particular modulation of voices and performative registers speaks to poetry audiences from Austria to Australia, a new explanatory narrative is in the making. According to this account, there’s nothing so unusual about Ashbery, who, so it now seems, has all along written under the sign of Eliot or Stevens, leaving Modernism firmly intact as the movement or epoch of choice, the movement from which no later twentieth-century poet (not even Ashbery) can actually deviate.
Perloff rejects this reading — the “tame” Romantic/Modernist Ashbery in these accounts ignores or erases anything that might be difficult or postmodern:
Ashbery attained almost no recognition prior to the publication of Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, published in 1976 when the poet was fifty. It was only after the relatively accessible title poem of this volume became well-known, that the Establishment started to come around.
And even then, it had to do so by erasing such troubling volumes as The Tennis Court Oath (1962), and, in Longenbach’s case (see ALH 114), As We Know (1979), Shadow Train (1981), and that loose baggy monster Flow Chart (1991). Indeed, the “acceptable” poems, both for [James] Longenbach and [Vernon] Shetley almost always come from The Double Dream of Spring (1970), which contains the lyrics like “Soonest Mended,” most readily assimilable to a Modernist poetic.
The most egregious example of this erasure belongs to Shetley, who writes that ““Ashbery did not appear in the leading antiformalist anthology, Donald Allen’s The New American Poetry.” Perloff counters:
This last sentence, I must admit, took my breath away when I read it because it is of course incorrect. Ashbery is very much included in Allen’s anthology (he gets ten pages), even though in 1959, when The New American Poetry was put together, he had published only one book, Some Trees (1956). Far from being a casual error, Shetley’s is highly revealing: it indicates that he has never so much as leafed through Allen’s groundbreaking anthology.
But what’s even more amazing is that Ashbery is able to pull this stuff off. He’s lived and written through more avant-garde and revanchist movements than one can count, and somehow hovered at the margins of all of them. Like progressives who thought Obama didn’t really mean his campaign promises to expand the war in Afghanistan, traditionalist critics can look at Ashbery’s postmodernism without really seeing it. Likewise, post-avant critics can look at Ashbery’s traditionalism and see ONLY postmodernism. He is all things to all people, the only poet equally embraced by the Vendlers and Perloffs, Blooms and Sillimans, for completely different reasons.
In 1909, when Swinburne died, Yeats ruefully joked, “Now I am king of the cats.” Right now, Ashbery is king of the cats among poets the English-speaking world — and I don’t know who could claim to replace him.
I think that my poetics makes it viable for me to excuse a whole variety of obsessive compulsive disorders. It’s not Asperger syndrome; it’s not a bug, it’s a feature. Half the battle of being a poet is trying to transform what would otherwise be dismissed as a weakness into a strength, trying to find ways in which something that should fail under other circumstances finds an ecology within which it can succeed…
I’ve put the constraints in place in part to conduct a kind of scientific experiment; I want to be surprised in a relatively rigorous way by the work that I do. I think it’s almost impossible to surprise yourself because of course you’re supposed to know everything about yourself in advance. But by adopting a series of otherwise programmatic constraints, you create a hypothetical set of controlled conditions under which an experiment can be quite literally conducted and the outcome has the potential to be surprising. In effect, it has the potential to produce information.*
Writing is inhibiting. Sighing, I sit, scribbling in ink this pidgin script. I sing with nihilistic witticism, disciplining signs with trifling gimmicks impish hijinks which highlight stick sigils. Isn’t it glib? Isn’t it chic?
*P.S.: I wish I’d heard this talk, which was at the Kelly Writers House here in Philadelphia, if only to savor Bök’s punchline. It’s tremendous:
I always joke with my students that poetry couldn’t possibly be as hard as they think it is, because if it were as hard as they thought it was, poets wouldn’t do it. Really, they’re the laziest, stupidest people I know.
What can I say about Jacques Derrida’s book Paper Machine, besides “I adore this book, and wish everyone would read it”?
It’s the great French-Algerian philosopher’s most important look at the transformation of the written word through electronic and computing technologies. It’s also one of his most important looks back at his own career; he revisits and updates a thousand and one of his earlier ideas and positions from the point of view of transformations in writing technology. “It seems as if I’ve never had any other subject, but paper, paper, paper,” he half-jokes — knowing that philosophical deconstruction was/is as much a function of a technological epoch on the wane as it was a social/intellectual breakthrough.
“Paper” for Derrida isn’t just the paper of books, but also identity papers (the French term for undocumented immigrants is “sans-papiers,” i.e., without papers), newspapers, and printer paper — “Papier-Machine” means “typing paper, printer paper, machine paper,” even as it comes to mean (and I’m here I’m extrapolating) the whole structural edifice of a world built on networks made of paper. William Carlos Williams said that “a poem is a small (or large) machine made of words”; you could also say that a poem (or a book) is a machine made of paper.
This retrospective aspect makes Paper Machine a great introduction to Derrida and his writing, even as it introduces new wrinkles. The man who famously titled a chapter in Of Grammatology “The End of the Book and the Beginning of Writing” has to stop and rethink “what does this mean?” in a world where “the end of the book” (that is, the printed book) is a real possibility. It’s fun to watch.
Also fun, and given the positions in the book, inevitable — the book has been scanned and OCRed, and is now available at AAAARG.org, aka the best website for philosophy/theory PDFs ever. So, please — give it a whirl.
Someone recently reminded me of an old poem I wrote in college, about memories, childhood, art, and baseball. If you’ll forgive my indulgence, I want to post some of it. [You can read the rest (including lots of other juvenilia) here.]
On summer Sundays we took communion
at Holy Redeemer. When church broke
we ran down Vernor Hwy to Clark Park,
Past the bodegas we just called stores
if we didn’t know them by name.
Miguel lived on Christiancy,
which was faster; I liked Vernor
Where we could see Rosa skipping
double-dutch, and where old Manuel
gave us baseball cards and taffee,
and warned me about las mujeres.
The men would watch their sons
from the Clark Street stoops,
kept mothers inside while we stained
church clothes with grass and sweat.
A double to right field—I lost
my shoes rounding first base,
took off my socks and played barefoot.
After baseball, sliced oranges
and sweet raisins, reruns of Sanford and Son
or Chico and the Man. We hung sheets
Over doorways, ran fans to keep cool.
Miguel’s mother, my godmother,
stroked my hair until I fell asleep.
After summer, Dia De Muertos,
when we’d light candles and laugh at death.
We took the long walk from Holy Redeemer
to Holy Cross, the cemetery, praying
For Rosa’s father, Manuel’s wife,
Willie Hernandez (who wasn’t dead),
and Novia, Miguel’s sister who died
still a baby—who had clear blue eyes—
Our angelitos, our saints.
When I returned years later,
The milkweed still grew, and I drew
A self-portrait beneath the Ambassador Bridge.
The miracle of art is its rediscovery of the real,
That every day it breaks bread anew
With the mountains and hollows of our memory,
And memory always seems lacking.
We blessed ourselves and came away.
I held the bat tighter; it cracked in my hand.