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What do we mean when we say a poem is a machine? Part 6

February 4, 2012 \pm\29 8:26 pm

“There is no poetry of distinction,” writes Williams, “without formal invention, for it is in the intimate form that works of art achieve their exact meaning, in which they most resemble the machine, to give language its highest dignity, its illumination in the environment to which it is native.” Two poets whose work is marked by radical “formal invention” are Inger Christensen and Lisa Jarnot, both of whose poems immediately come to mind as embodying “poem as machine.” Christensen’s book-length formal mathematical sequences, such as alphabet, which is constructed based on the Fibonacci sequence, or the “PROLOGOS” section of It, which deconstructs itself based on a system of 66 lines that break down into smaller and smaller sections until the poem effectively dissipates out of existence, reach toward a complete inventory of the world, machinating everything. Jarnot’s poems, particularly in Ring of Fire and Black Dog Songs, revel in a lyrical and ontological abundance generated by the incantatory power of the litany, producing small, and definitely large, machines made of words.

In A Thousand Machines, Gerald Raunig begins his discussion of the “theater machine” by tracing the word “machine” back to its Latin and Greek root, machina, which had a “military use as an apparatus for besieging, conquering or defending cities, in other words as a war machine” and “was also used as a comprehensive term for the machinery of the theater.” Raunig continues:

“This bifurcation into the fields of war and theater, however, does not imply a separation into the material and immaterial meaning along the boundaries of these two fields. In both cases of application the term both holds the technical meaning of apparatuses, frames, devices as well as the psychosocial meaning of trick, artifice, deception. This ambiguity is most adequately transported in English by the word “invention” (from Latin invenio meaning “to find, to come upon”): the machine is an invention as an invented story, as a deception, as a machination. Technical innovation and inventiveness blur together here along the two mutually merging lines of the meaning of machine.”

Raunig then discusses the transformation of modern theater in the Russia of the October Revolution into a “Theater of Attractions” that embodied the blurring of the root of “machine.” In the Theater of Attractions the stage itself was made into a machine: a collage of real machines instead of props, pictures, people, and even weapons such as machine guns and motorcycles, an accumulation of motions, sounds, acting, and watching that created a kind of biomechanical mass that was “a composition of organic, technical, and social machines.” “The threefold concatenation of the post-revolutionary machines,” Raunig explains, “was to intervene in the world, creating worlds instead of a representation of the world,” i.e., the basic impulse of the avant-garde.

So what really is a machine? Certainly, thanks to Raunig we can dismiss the idea of a machine as simply a mechanical apparatus or social/political metaphor, but what else is it? Theater, and particularly the Theater of Attractions, seems to suggest another definition: machine as pattern.

In his essay “The Turing Test: A Coffeehouse Conversation,” Douglas Hofstadter, a well-known cognitive and computer scientist, creates an imagined conversation between Chris, a physics student; Pat, a biology student; and Sandy, a philosophy student; in which they discuss whether or not a machine has the ability to exhibit human intelligence. The conversation ultimately leads them to question what they mean by “machine.” The following excerpt, though long, successfully illustrates what I mean by machine as pattern.

“Sandy: I’d try to dig down under the surface of your concept of “machines” and get at the intuitive connotations that lurk there, out of sight but deeply influencing your opinions. I think that we all have a holdover image from the Industrial Revolution that sees machines as clunky iron contraptions gawkily moving under the power of some loudly chugging engine. Possibly that’s even how the computer inventor Charles Baggage viewed people! After all, he called his magnificent many-geared computer the Analytical Engine.

Pat: Well, I certainly don’t think people are just fancy steam shovels, or even electric can openers. There’s something about people, something that – that – they’ve got a soft of flame inside them, something alive, something that flickers unpredictably, wavering, uncertain – but something creative!

Sandy: Great! That’s just the sort of thing I wanted to hear. It’s very human to think that way. Your flame image makes me think of candles, of fire, of thunderstorms with lightning dancing all over the sky in crazy patterns. But do you realize that just that kind of pattern is visible on a computer’s console? The flickering lights form amazing chaotic sparkling patterns. It’s such a far cry from heaps of lifeless clanking metal! It is flamelike, by God! Why don’t you let the word “machine” conjure up images of dancing patterns of light rather than of giant steam shovels?

Chris: That’s a beautiful image, Sandy. It changes my sense of mechanism from being matter-oriented to being pattern-oriented. It makes me try to visualize the thoughts in my mind – these thoughts right now, even – as a huge spray of tiny pulses flickering in my brain.”

What’s interesting here is not only that a machine can be defined as a pattern-oriented system, but that such systems are both natural and artificial (lightning and computers). In fact, most natural systems are pattern-oriented, from the fractal nature of fern growth and cloud shape to the rhizomatic patterning of potatoes and ginger to the principles of swarm theory that explain the collective intelligence exhibited in the movements of flocks of bird and schools of fish. To further cement the link between natural and artificial systems, the chaos theory behind fractals becomes problematic in satellite mapping techniques of coasts and in predicting economic patterns (an artificial chaos system), the internet is a “man-made” rhizomatic structure, and the math behind swarm theory is what’s used to develop artificial intelligence. The ordering system behind Christensen’s alphabet, the Fibonacci sequence, is a mathematical sequence beginning 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21…, in which each number is the sum of the previous two numbers. When graphed, the sequence produces an ever-inward curving spiral that is represented in nature in the organization of seeds on the head of a sunflower and in the growth of artichokes. alphabet, which begins as an attempt to verify the exist of the world through listing (“apricot trees exist, apricot trees exist” are the first lines) grows exponentially via its patterning (in the original Danish each section uses only words beginning with one letter, from A to N,) increasingly problematizing what exists by juxtaposing the natural against the destructive. When, in section 10, “atom bombs exist,” the fate of sequence reveals itself – the alphabet is left incomplete at “N,” the poem ends in spite of what fuels it because of what it has fueled – its own destruction, the poem a war against itself in its own theater.

Christensen’s “PROLOGOS” section of It behaves similarly (I naturally wrote “behaves,” as in alive, in motion, releasing energy), starting with one prose poem 66 lines long, then 2 prose poems 33 lines long, then 3 prose poems 22 lines long, etc. until the poem ends with 66 one line poems. The first poem in the sequence defines its self-generating movement from the first line: “It. That’s it. That started it. It is. Goes on. Moves. Beyond. Becomes. Becomes it and it and it.” It continues a few lines later: “Catches free material. Grows bigger and bigger. Builds itself up by being more than itself, gains weight, gains speed, gains more in its rush, gains on something else, passes something else, which is taken up, taken in, fast laden with what came first, so randomly begun.” This reminds me of Kharms’ scrap machine, the machine that doesn’t do anything but accrete while also acknowledging that is an accumulation of parts, a parasitic (in the sense of feeding on what approaches it) repetition that resists definition and, almost literally, biodegrades. This also reminds me of Williams’ about “intrinsic movement”: “It isn’t what he [the poet] says that counts as a work of art, it’s what he makes, with such intensity of perception that it lives with an intrinsic movement of its own to verify its authenticity” (bold added). There’s a weird pleasure in knowing that, out of context, even Williams can’t escape the ambiguity of the third person pronoun, allowing his statement to be read as direct treatment of Christensen’s poem.

"Because Poem" from Black Dog Songs

Lisa Jarnot’s poems, like Christensen’s, share an interest in the frenzy and excess of the litany, foregrounding language as what moves the machine (as Williams makes clear with his complicated specificity, “machine made of words”). Listen to Jarnot read some of her poems at PennSound, including “Song of the Chinchilla,” (though “You, Armadillo” is my favorite) a tightly-packed litany that Michael Dumanis discusses in his essay “An Aesthetics of Accumulation” from The Monkey and the Wrench: Essays into Contemporary Poetics: “In a way, “Song of the Chinchilla” seems extremely self-generative and dislocating, an engine fueled by the word “chinchilla” that will continue chugging however long the writer chooses to inject more fuel into its lines, a perpetual motion machine that can transport us into any direction the word “chinchilla” triggers.” Dumanis’ description of the poem as a “perpetual motion machine” completely aligns Jarnot’s poem with Williams’ statement. And if a machine is a defined as a pattern-oriented system, as Hofstander suggests, then a litany is certainly a kind of machine, Jarnot’s machines formed out of a constellations of incongruous and disparate nouns yoked together through the recurring sound of one or two main words, building a world. Indeed, as Peter Gizzi says of Jack Spicer’s work, Jarnot’s poems “don’t leave us with a lack of meaning but rather an excess of meaning, with figures echoing and bumping against each other.” “The effect of the machine is uncertain,” Paul Valéry writes, and we are fortunate for such not knowing. It gives us apricot trees. It gives us.


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One Comment
  1. February 6, 2012 \pm\29 2:30 pm 2:30 pm

    Nick, If you haven’t read James Gleick’s latest, The Information I highly recommend it. I thought it made a great complement to Hofstadter’s I Am a Strange Loop.

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