What does it mean to write a poem in the 21st century? Put it another way: What is it about the conditions of the 21st century that makes writing a poem – an artifact of language – different than, say, the 20th or the 19th century? How do we write poems in the wake of Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations or Richard Rorty’s Contingency, Irony and Solidarity? I ask these questions, not because I have a clear answer, but because any poet writing today, in the wake of the work of Wittgenstein, of Rorty, not to mention John Ashbery (pioneer in the exploration of the relationship between culture, experience and language) and, say, Kenneth Goldsmith’s conceptual poetics (pioneer in the relationship between same), must take these issues into account – or cannot help but take them into account, as much of these changes seem just as unconscious as conscious. Indeed, at the risk of sounding banal, the existence of Google automatically means the existence of a different kind of poetry, for the existence of Google means we have a different repertoire for coping with the world. And this dynamic is not just a matter of aesthetic taste; when culture changes, poetry (duh!) changes. For poetry is the heightened exploration of culture through language. Thus: if you’d like to see what these changes entail, pick up a copy of Bruce Covey’s Reveal: All Shapes & Sizes. This is a book that we ignore at our own peril.
To get us started, here is Covey’s “Note From the Author”, on the last page of the book:
Reveal: All Shapes & Sizes is my fifth book of poetry[…] I began each poem by creating a cluster of keywords; I then completed each line with an “I’m Feeling Lucky” google search on that line’s keyword. Each line, in other words, had a different vocabulary pallet (and often different rules for construction), although I quickly found that the pallets for each poem overlapped. My inspiration for the sequence’s concept and process were John Cage and Ted Berrigan.
This is a recipe for indignation from stuffy naysayers who wish to keep our poetry pure and unblemished from culture. But let us let them write their crappy Romantic poems; the rest of us, who know that poetry is culture, who know that culture is (in part, at least) language, and that language is largely contingent and therefore, in a big way, aleatory, might take this opportunity to be pleasantly surprised. For indeed, one cannot help but say, What a cool idea! Why not compose poems with lines that end with a word from an “I’m Feeling Lucky” Google search? Indeed, such a thought experiment will then raise some fascinating questions, one being, What is the relationship between culture and language?
William James, one of the founders of pragmatism, and therefore one of the figures, like Wittgenstein and Rorty, who can help us understand 21st poetry, wrote in his massive and shockingly seminal and prescient Principles of Psychology that,
If I recite a, b, c, d, e, f, g, at the moment of uttering d, neither a, b, c, nor e, f, g, are out of my consciousness altogether, but both, after their respective fashions, ‘mix their dim lights’ with the stronger one of the d, because their neuroses are both awake in some degree. (257)
James coined the terms “psychic overtone, suffusion, or fringe, to designate the influence of a faint brain-process upon our thought, as it makes it aware of relations and objects but dimly perceived.” (258) And isn’t this what Covey means by a “vocabulary pallet”? Isn’t this also what Ashbery makes us aware of – i.e. the interstices between our thoughts? And in doing so, can we say that Ashbery and Covey thereby enlarge our experience, by enlarging our sense of what language can do? But how does such an exploration in thought and feeling manifest in the poem itself? (And is this what Harold Bloom meant when he coined the term “Shakespeare’s invention of the human?”)
Here’s the first poem in Covey’s collection, “Reveal 1: Planet”:
Mercury: Take a look at where we’re headed
Venus: There’s a lot you can see with very modest equipment
Earth: You’ll come across a page which explains how to proceed
Mars: Looking for information about spirit and opportunity
Jupiter: Access limited to clients and guest users
Saturn: Take a closer look at the vehicles above
Uranus: The important thing is not to stop questioning
Neptune: In the long run met hit at only what they aim
Pluto: Mapping out a strange, curly path of light and dark
Sedna: The comets we see are strong evidence
As you can see, Covey begins with a constellation of words – here, no pun intended, a list of planets. There are 161 “Reveals,” and each one involves a different matrix of words, a kind of logical conceptual network, such as (chosen at random), “Quark” (“Up,” “Down,” “Strange,” “Charmed,” “Bottom, “Top,”), “Freud” (“Id,” “Ego,” “Superego”), “Spice (“Anise,” “Cardamom,” etc.), “Condiments,” you get the picture. (Covey declines to do this for words without easy constellations: words like “Truth,” “Art,” and “Sex”.) Covey is thus designing his poetic thought-experiment to include the random (“I’m Feeling Lucky” Google search) and the not-so-random (concept constellations). Which is to say, that Covey is essentially providing us with a blueprint or a template for the process of composition itself, which always involves both chance and order, precariousness and balance, or, as James might have it, “flights and perchings.”
But what becomes interesting as we read through Reveal: All Shapes & Sizes is the way Covey, like Wittgenstein and Ashbery, explores language by playing with and presenting language to us. For example, in “Reveal 37:Direction,” we read in the fifth line, “S: Unbiased analysis at your fingertips.” It is the kind of line that the book is filled with, a kind of Covey-ism, similar to an Ashbery-ism or a Ben Marcus-ism, in which a line gestures towards a new way of making sense, thus initiating the age-old literary process in which
1. You read the line.
2. The line doesn’t make conventional sense.
3. You imagine the line anew.
4. The lines makes unconventional sense.
5. You are thinking or imagining in a new way.
This process, arguably resuscitated with enormous power by Ashbery, is what many poets today are interested in (not to mention what poets have always been interested in) – poets like Ben Lerner, Tim Donnelly, and many more. These poets and poems are fascinated by the Rortian dictum that “a talent for speaking differently, rather than arguing well, is the chief instrument of cultural change.” For example, here are two excerpts, the first from Ashbery’s “Decoy”, the second a stanza from Lerner’s Mean Free Path, after which we shall return to Covey:
We hold these truths to be self-evident:
That ostracism, both political and moral, has
Its place in the twentieth-century scheme of things;
That urban chaos is the problem we have been seeing into and seeing into,
For the factory, deadpanned by its very existence into a
Descending code of values, has moved right across the road from total financial upheaval
And caught regression head-on.
For total war, the memory of jasmine
Paired organs allow us to experience
Contradiction without contradiction
Flowering in winter. Is my answer audible
Or mine, whatever it might mean
Relative to scattering, or am I quoting
The formant frequencies of anchors
What I cannot say. I stand for everything
Like money changing hands in dreams
As you can see, these poets (Covey included) are gesturing in new ways towards different ways of making sense – through satire, through new uses of language. In this sense (at the risk of sounding naively optimistic) they are changing our culture, because they are changing our language; in the process of doing so, they are, like Whitman, re-describing what democracy means. But even if Lerner and Covey are doing something similar – re-describing poetry, re-describing language, through satire, through imagination – their strategies for doing so are very different, though they derive, to a large extent, from Ashbery, who is undoubtedly (and proverbially) the single most influential poet of at least the last 50 years. So if Ashbery re-describes poetry through the changing vivacity of his ideas, the preternatural florabundance of his particular stream(s) of consciousness, Lerner does so in Mean Free Path through a taut weaving and re-weaving of words and ideas that repeat themselves throughout the book. Ashbery seems more temporally inclined, Lerner (in Mean Free Path) more spatially. But these are only matter of emphasis. And it’s interesting to note, because Covey is a fascinating blend of the temporal and the spatial, of lines that spin or spit out unconventional sense like a poetic slot machine, even as these lines are intended to cohere in a spatially oriented conceptual framework that provides a kind of aleatory unity to the fun that ensues. Covey also, like Lerner and Ashbery, possesses a strange kind of irony that is hard to place and which borders on neutrality, an irony and even worldview that can be found in figures such as Warhol and John Clare, not to mention a quality that inheres in Google itself, as well as in programming language, in terms of their technological seeming-objectivity (neutrality being a seeming goal of any desired objectivity). Here’s another Covey poem, chosen somewhat at random, in the spirit of Covey; the poem is called “Reveal115: Pattern”:
Stripe: Check out some other models in the picture
Solid: To ensure they are not communicating with strangers
Spot: What does this phone number spell?
Plaid: Her head nestled in lemons at heaven’s door
Paisley: A pickle, a pear, a mango or a twisted raindrop
Herringbone: Or, if not, just get measured up correctly
Check: 66% suffer internal attacks
Geometric: For solid edge joins solid edge
Abstract: Eeny, meeny, miny, mo
As you can see, Covey, like Ashbery and Lerner, is enlarging how we imagine language. Bloom was right, I believe; Shakespeare invented us. But the invention continues, I would add. And Covey is one poet helping us to do just that.