Friday, February 4, 2011

This one isn't about weather, just some thoughts on procedural poetry and ecology. Procedural poems are often labeled "projects," as in carefully planned undertakings, like those laid out in Jackson Mac Low's enormously detailed introductions to some of his works. At a panel on "poetry games" at last month's MLA conference in LA, I learned that the poet Dorothea Lasky recently came out against project poetry. Her objection, in a nutshell:
I don't think poems work that way. I think poems come from the earth and the mind and work from the ground up. That is to say, I think a poet intuits a poem and a scientist conducts a "project." ... The notion of a poetic "project" may actually be very toxic to poetry.
For me this raises the question, are project poems somehow "unnatural"? I'm interested, in part, because I love procedural poetry, at least when it's done well. And, selfishly, I want to work on it, and I work on poetry and ecology, so I wouldn't mind if there was something to say about procedural poetry and ecology. There must be. For one thing, so many poetry projects make use of writing about nature, or environment, or ecology. (For the moment I'll use "nature" because it's vague and suggestive and roomy--unless I mean ecology.) Think of John Cage's "writings through" Henry David Thoreau, or all the material Lisa Robertson "lifts" from natural history, or Kenneth Goldsmith's The Weather. Then there's Tina Darragh and Marcella Durand's recent project Deep eco prĂ©, which takes as one of its sources Michael Zimmerman’s Contesting Earth’s Future. So is a poem (or performance) made from nature writing a nature poem (or performance)? Or is nature merely incidental to it?

We might call Lasky's poem, a poem that emerges naturally from ground or earth, the "poem-as-flower," as in an "anthology" or collection of flowers. Project poetry we might call the "poem-as-machine": the project poet assembles the poem and sets it going. Procedure denatures poetry. Mac Low used random number series from a book published by the RAND corporation: the poem-as-war-machine. Then there is the (near) absence of the human subject, the lyric "I" that stands at the heart of the poem-as-flower. Project poetry is inhuman.

But the thing is, the poem-as-machine isn't really new. I don't just mean it's a couple of hundred years old, but that every form is a machine for making poems. A sonnet, for instance, is a machine for expressing a single thought: thesis, antithesis, synthesis. I wouldn't have an easy time writing a sonnet, but I've been told by several people that once you get use to writing in iambic pentameter, a sonnet will "write itself." John Ashbery compares writing a sestina to riding a bicycle down a hill: your feet don't push the pedals, the pedals push your feet. Even the (primarily) free verse poet (and writer of nature poems) William Carlos Williams calls a poem a "machine made of words." So form does some, maybe even a lot of the work.

Project poems make explicit what is always true, that writing is enmeshed with other writing. In a broad sense, this is what Jed Rasula means by the "compost library." So I'm not convinced that producing poetry according to chance inspiration as opposed to chance operation is any closer to the earth. I'm thinking here of Tim Morton's recent piece in the Oxford Literary Review, in which he remarks, "All the way down to the sub-DNA level, evolution is a set of algorithmic processes. That is the disturbing thing about 'animals'--they are vegetables." The poem-as-machine is an algorithm. (And in fact so are flowers.) "Our prejudice about vegetables is that they're beings that only do one thing--grow." This is Lasky's prejudice about project poems, too. Of the poem-as-machine, Morton reflects,
The poem seems strangely self-aware. Is it artificially intelligent? Are we? Is sentience this recursive algorithmic process? Maybe meaning and even "intention" are in the eye of the beholder. Whether they are pro-AI or anti, science and philosophy claim that consciousness is intentional. What if intentionality were an effect of performance? What if it was "over there," in language itself, not "in here," inside me, my most precious possession?
The poem-as-machine seems to say that "intention" (for Lasky, intuition) is "over there," in language. This is what makes it, not natural perhaps, but ecological.

That it is "toxic" makes it ecological, too. As Tyrone Williams remarks in an interview in Brenda Iijima's )((eco(lang)(uage(reader)),
I will insist that the introduction of synthetic compounds into the environment is, on some levels, structurally analogous to the ongoing development of life per se. That is, the development we call evolution is itself marked by disruptions, hostile encroachments, viral flare ups, and catastrophic events (volcano, eruptions, floods, etc.). That these are natural--as opposed to synthetic--events is probably little comfort to those on the losing side of history. I understand the crucial difference--that we have some say so over synthetic or manmade events--and this difference must continue to be upheld as an ethical duty to the living and the lives we imagine extending beyond our own. But I think it is imperative to recall what this may mean: that in taking the side of life "as we know it," we may be taking a stand against a form of life we would never recognize as such.
It is, admittedly, a problematic comparison, but by taking the side of poetry as we know it, I think we take a stand against a form of poetry we would never recognize as such. And I want poetry to keep changing, or evolving, even (perhaps especially) if what emerges is "toxic" to the poem-as-flower.