I, Reader: the Rise of Robo-Poetics

How Contemporary American Poets Are Denaturing the Poem,



Essay #1: "On The Prosing of Poetry"
Essay #2: "I=N=C=O=H=E=R=E=N=C=E" Essay #3: "The Argument for Silence" Essay #4: "The Best I Can Do This Year" Essay #5: "If Only We Couldn't Understand Them"
Essay #6: "The Sound of One Wing Flapping: The Art of the Poetry Blurb"

Essay #7: "Post-Post Dementia"


Like all other forms of writing, poetry is a communication. The evidence is in its release from the poet's brain onto a medium designed to be read. The fact that it was written down, made readable, makes it a communication even if its only reader turns out to be its creator at a later time. Furthermore, whatever one feels about the role of the reader, or author-as-reader, there's no dispute that there is a role—a poem without a reader is not a poem, but just an artifact of the imagination.

Some poems, however, seem to discourage reading intentionally. For example, the “concrete poems” of the 70s were designed primarily for visual impact, not readability, and such poems continue to be made, some in a turn-the-page-sideways and try-to-read-the-tiny-type format, some as “shape” poems, some as thoughtfully-arranged-white-space poems. Later, Vispo (companion to Langpo), Oulipo, digital, cut-up or hypertext poetry and something called Fluxus joined those poems that include nearly readable text.

As well, the many poems written under the influence of deconstructionism and semiotics in the 80s and 90s (theories that posit words as inherently empty of meaning except as arbitrarily assigned by a context subject to constant change), not to mention Langpo itself, try to show how arbitrary language ultimately is, how “assignable” its meanings. Such “poems” dispose of themselves on contact, disappearing from the reader's consciousness word by word.

I want to know: what has happened to the poem's relationship to the reader?

The Writing on the Wall

Without any special grip on a reader through imagery, special arrangement of lines, rhythm, sound, metaphor and compression—devices not characteristically found in other forms of writing—any written would-be poem is merely one more piece of verbal jetsam floating through our lives, joining the sound-bites, psycho-babble, techno-speak layers of dull prose that squash us into attitudes of perpetually disappointed listening. The following demonstrates one way for words to go in one eye or ear and out the other without leaving a trace. First read this, then think hard about what you have read:                                                  

Using the apostate tyrant as his tool

               Metexein The dough-skin Red smoke
             placing along side leg stiffening into curveback the silver hairs


Inverts from beaked head the chair the re-championing windows     resplendent

               Only willow sticks

               1226 Learns nature
            skink roseroot corresponding to basket   Object   Purely head
            loving her condition

From: Gutcult, “Using the apostate tyrant as his tool,” by Lance Phillips

If this has the same effect on you as it does on me, then you have no thoughts about it. In fact, it is not because such poems are “difficult”, that I turn away from them. Most readers of poetry are attracted to the difficulty of the deeply human, the mystery of its oblique and contrary expressions. Rather, it is because such poems have spurned me, have no use for me, or any reader, would rather go frolic with themselves in a dark place, crossing themselves out, line by line, word by word, then in a yawn of post-language satisfaction, roll over and go to sleep, leaving me to stare at an old wallpaper stain.

Fortunately, a wallpaper stain provides more potential as an aesthetic challenge than staring at a disappearing poem. In fact the stain, like a Rorschach blot, can at least allow some imaginative engagement, a way to project some meaningful shape into it, however limited its ability to confirm or deny such projections with evidence. It's an audience-intensive experience, one that is neither encouraged nor discouraged by its maker (nature).

While there are many experientially empty poems like the one cited, many more are being produced (I'd guess at least 100 have been written since I started this essay). Like the brooms in the Sorcerer's Apprentice, these poems seem to replicate themselves, and even faster when one attempts to stop them. And by the force of their numbers, these poems may become our poetic destiny. So does it behoove us to practice reading poems again, to become educated in the art of appreciating these works? How to begin? Is read the right word? Can we actually read such a poem? What does reading mean if it is nothing like thinking, feeling, imagining or even being awake? The words of the poem themselves defeat our imagination. They have at a minimum, dictionary meanings but even these meanings are thwarted, line by line, word by word, canceling each other out until only a kind of noise remains.

The Five Stages of Reader Grief

If you complain that a poet is obscure, and apparently ignoring you, the reader, or that he is speaking only to a limited circle of initiates from which you are excluded—remember that what he may have been trying to do, was to put something into words which could not be said any other way, and therefore in a language which may be worth the trouble of learning.

T.S. Eliot, On Poetry and Poets, “The Three Voices of Poetry”

Given a reasonably intelligent reader, the default explanation for his or her not being able to understand even a smidgen of the poem cited seems to be that they have not been properly educated in the art of reading. Therefore, their reading takes a predictable course, one that follows Elizabeth Kubler-Ross' five stages of grief:

    1. Denial

    This stage is filled with disbelief and denial. You can't believe someone seriously wrote these words and presented them as something worthy of your attention.

    2. Anger/Resentment

    Anger at the situation, the baffling words in front of you, the poet and his or her poem, perhaps others-- reviewers, editors or book publishers--is common in this stage. You are angry at them all for causing the situation and for causing you pain.

    3. Bargaining

    You try to negotiate with yourself to change the experience of reading this poem. You see the poem as an isolated instance, something idiosyncratic and not likely to recur. You make deals with yourself to “work harder” and “read more” poems of this type, to “give them a chance” when you're not so tired. You might bargain with God, "I'll be a more disciplined and patient reader if you'll just give me a hint as to what this one means."

    4. Depression

    You realize the situation isn't going to change. The poem happened, it was published, you will never understand it or why anyone sees value in it, and there is nothing you can do to change that. Acknowledgement of the situation often brings depression. This could be a quiet, withdrawn time.

    5. Acceptance

    Though you haven't forgotten what happened, you are able to begin to move forward and approach another poem, try to begin again.

And yet, beginning again guarantees going back to stage 1. Why is this cycle happening? One explanation, the one most readers think of, is that they are chronically deficient in their apprehension of the poem. This explanation is supported by the vociferous communities that support the poem's existence: the avant-garde, the post-avant garde, the Langpo, Visipo, Oulipo, Fluxus, Hypertexted poets; the theorists who have sanctioned the poem as a tool of theory, not an expression of human creativity or intelligence; the thousands of poets who have “learned” and continue to “learn” how to write such poems in their MFA programs; the many books and journals full of these poems. Poems like the one cited are difficult, we are told, because they are breaking through to something new and wonderful, and we, the simpler-minded, cannot achieve understanding—nor, strangely enough, can we understand how to understand. We've not only lost the ability to read a poem, we've lost the ability to learn how to read one. Who will teach us how to read again?

Blaming the Reader

Approaching an author of such a poem and asking for help in its interpretation, or trying to question a fan/publisher/advocate of such poetry about how they read such poems, results not in a learning experience, but instead the sparking of an indignation beyond all reason. We, the readers, cannot possibly understand, and asking for help in how to read the poem is evidence of our imbecility. Can't we see, for example, that everything is connected, that there is no such thing as non-sense, only sense that we can't perceive?

Perhaps the explanation for our continuing cycle of grief is that the poem is neither difficult nor easy nor anything in between. Perhaps the poem is not meant to be read at all. Perhaps, as Christian Bok notes in After Language Poetry, paraphrasing Darren Wershler-Henry :

We may exalt the poets of the future, not because they can write great poems, but because they can program devices that can write great poems for us, doing so automatically within a digital economy of unrestricted expenditure. We may also want to keep in mind too that we are probably the first generation of poets who can reasonably expect to write poetry for inhuman readers, be they aliens, robots, or clones.

Perhaps it is a poem generated by a RoboPoet programmed to continuously release a randomly generated set of lines, complete with a human name and bio, to journals and presses. With no fear of rejection and an endless supply of material (random word generators create new combinations into infinity), RoboPoet will be invincible and unstoppable. Meanwhile, real poets, forced into servitude at MFA programs, must continue to emulate model poems they can't comprehend, thus emulating incomprehensibility itself and ensuring replication of RoboPoet's autopoems. Graduate servants of the incomprehensible will be disseminating their output into book form and journals at a greater pace each year. Taken together, the sheer numbers of RoboPoets and their new servants will be staggering.

If we are to prepare, we the readers must re-align our expectations of “reading”, even re-define what reading is. For example, words will no longer to be “read” but rather received as transmitted input or simply “scanned.” We will no longer be free to wonder at the way in which a poet is attempting to communicate with us or be concerned with evaluating the success of such communication. RoboCritics and RoboEditors will configure appropriate responses through their blurb-o-meters and reject/accept algorithims.

Dispensing With the Reader

Could it be that such poems are written for the sole purpose of publication, for the credential check-off, for acceptance by a community of self-styled avant-gardists, for some status and standing in a field that offers little else by way of societal rewards? They are clearly not written for anyone's enjoyment, not for the readers' and especially not for the poets' who betray what talent they may have for the approbation of peers, who engage in the worst self-delusion: that they have something to say that can only be said in a poem. In all of this, the human reader doesn't count.

RoboReader is ready.
Buy book.
Insert here.
Scan. Repeat. Shred. Scan. Repeat. Shred.
Shred. Shred. Shred.

                                                                              [copyright 2004, Joan Houlihan]

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