What do we mean when we say a poem is a machine? Part 4.
In 1939, five years before William Carlos Williams said, “A poem is a small (or large) machine made of words,” Paul Valéry writes in his essay “Poetry and Abstract Thought,” that “A poem is really a kind of machine for producing the poetic state of mind by means of words.” Valéry continues:
“The effect of this machine is uncertain, for nothing is certain about action on other minds. But whatever may be the result, in its uncertainty, the construction of the machine demands the solution of many problems. If the term machine shocks you, if my mechanical comparison seems crude, please notice that while the composition of even a very short poem may absorb years, the action of the poem on the reader will take only a few minutes.”
Here, Valéry conceptualizes the machine metaphor as a process of wedding sound and sense in order to produce “the poetic state of mind” in others. “[I]t is the poet’s business,” he writes, “to give us the feeling of an intimate union between the word and the mind.” But that isn’t easy, because as Valéry writes, “These words work on us (or at least some of us) without telling us very much. They tell us, perhaps, that they have nothing to tell us.” Like Kharms’ machine of scrap, words function in a space beyond utility. Valéry suggests that the way words “work on us” takes place between the poem and your head, the linkage of a phonetic/semantic machine with a cognitive machine. In his introduction to Valéry’s essay, Jon Cook writes that “Increasingly Valéry came to regard poetry as part of a larger intellectual project: the investigation and analysis of the operations of human mind by the human mind.” Valéry’s use of the machine metaphor is a direction extension of this interest in exploring the processes of our own cognitive architecture.
Poem as an accumulation of uncertain cognitive effects incited by words that seem to have very little to tell us takes us directly to John Ashbery. If any of Ashbery’s work is representative of Valéry’s machine it is the monumental prose poem “The System” from Three Poems. “The System” is, essentially, everything: an opaquely lucid, self-reflexive exegesis of truth and time that functions simultaneously as the means and the end unto itself. That the poem begins “The system was breaking down” is its own kind of machination. “The System,” as many of Ashbery’s poems do, continually hints at its own process and definition: “mastering the many pauses and the abrupt, sharp accretions of regular being,” “an endless confusion of fair and variegated forms,” “the haphazard field of potentiality,” “a harmonious mass.” Reading “The System” is an exercise in experiencing the simultaneity of bewilderment and understanding. It’s a Jackson Pollock. It’s “a complex composition and … an assemblage that specifically could not be grasped and defined through its utilization.” It’s a machine. Indeed, “The System,” with its rhizomatic circuitry hidden in plain sight, is an embodiment of the “intimate union between the word and the mind” that concerns Valéry. “The System” adheres to Valéry’s notion of poem as machine by “becom[ing] endlessly what it has just been.” You can look at it, read it, hear it, feel it, and perhaps understand it, but it will not stop moving just out of reach of definition.
Another poet of the New York School, Frank O’Hara, also has an aesthetic connection to the idea of poem as machine. His purposefully goofy manifesto on Personism, published in 1961, proposes that a poem works like a telephone, making a direct sonic/linguistic connection with the reader. Valéry’s interest in the cognitive processes that take place between poem and reader are evident here as well, as Personism, according to O’Hara, “puts the poem squarely between the poet and the person.” In this way, what’s important isn’t what’s on the page, but the sound and resultant sense that matter. Against utility and definition O’Hara writes, “But how can you really care if anybody gets it [the poem], or gets what it means, or if it improves them. Improves them for what? For death?” Though O’Hara’s poems don’t contain the sprawling cognitive landscapes of Ashbery’s poems, his work does share an interest in syntax and semantics that takes us back to Valéry’s interest in how “a mixture of completely incoherent auditive and psychic stimuli” can induce “the poetic state of mind” produced by the poem-machine. As Raunig writes in A Thousand Machines, “the machine is a communication factor.” No matter what, an endless sparking motion.