K. SIlem Mohammad
Tuesday, August 14, 2007

We have been dealing for some time now with that awkward moment in contemporary poetic practice where innovation and novelty give way to the basic problem of reflecting the state of human language with a feeling accuracy. “Feeling” is the key term here, for while it is valid to object that anyone can slap together a jumble of computer code, spam text, and instant messaging slang and call it a poem, it is more useful to acknowledge that such materials really are a significant portion of what the poet now has to work with, and that if one is truly interested in contemporary poetry, one must reckon with these materials–or rather, their application–in a way that is neither superficially celebratory nor blindly dismissive.

The problem of separating a facile from an artful engagement with “a selection of language really used by men,” as Wordsworth put it, is that radical historical changes in such language occur at a pace that appears both gradual and dramatic to its reflective users (e.g., poets). The sense of newness is perpetually at war with the sense that this is what we’ve settled into without even noticing it starting. The poet who treats it as a novelty will write verse that is at best novel, at worst cynically fashionable. The poet who works with an actual feeling for the language in its awkward transitional throes is the rarer case. In the context of language as it has been transformed specifically by recent online communication technology, for example, I think of artists like Alan Sondheim not just as pioneers but as feeling pioneers.

It’s important not to dilute “feeling” as I mean it here with a simplistic sense of “emotion,” or “authenticity.” I’m talking about feeling in the sense of the carpenter’s feel for wood and awl, or the sewist’s for fabric and thread: in other words, “craft,” but more than mechanical craft. Craft as it is defined by the craftsperson’s aesthetic attunement to the materials. What does it mean to have a sympathetic “feel” for computer code, for hack ad copy, for typo-ridden cable news tickers? Whereas Wordsworth embraced “common speech” out of affection (however paternalistic and “romanticized”) for the working classes, our relation to today’s common speech is invariably more conflicted, if not downright anxious. Can materials that seem degraded not just to a literary establishment, but often to the poet herself, be used “feelingly” in the way I’m trying to get at here?

Answering this question is, as I see it, one of the primary tasks of contemporary poetics. And though I’m not prepared at the moment to offer even a rough prolegomenon to anything like a study of the same, I can at least offer a glance at a new book that impresses me greatly by being consistently sensitive to its unwieldy, unlovely verbal sources. The book is Rachel Zolf’s Human Resources (Coach House, 2007). (Thanks to Jules Boykoff and Kaia Sand for telling me about it and sending me a copy.)

Zolf draws on several web-based resources: Lewis LaCook’s Flash Poetry Generator, WordCount, QueryCount, and the Gematria of Nothing (GON) engine. There’s a note at the end of the book that goes into more detail about how she used these tools, but I’m most interested in the one she mentions half-jokingly: “the author’s proprietary machine-mindTM.” The book comes partly out of Zolf’s own experience as a marketing and employee-relations copy-writer, so it’s not hard to figure out where the palpable overtone of disgust and contempt comes from. One thematic thread revolves around professional bureaucracy, managerial attempts at employee control, and so on. This is complemented with a subtext of excretory, racial, and biological “taboo” language. These concerns are largely directed into what may be the book’s primary concern: the “waste” of language, figured as both misspent energy and as actual physical waste. The close-up on the cover of a nicked-up Lincoln-head penny looks at first glance like nothing more than a fecal smear, suggesting the collapse of something intended as vital currency into a useless blob of shit.

Which returns us to the problem at hand: how to recognize the poetry in shit. The problem is essentially alchemical, like turning lead into gold. As such, it is fundamentally chimerical, and poetry must always face this truth: that at base it is nothing more than playing with words–words that are in one way or another “dirty,” like much-handled money. If poetry is to remain a viable concept, this truth must be countered by an aesthetic, and aesthetics always raise the specter of “transcendence.” There may be no getting around it.

Zolf’s work feels “poetic” to me by virtue of never deserting its poetics of negativity, but at the same time never resting on a false conviction that negativity will do all its own work. She does not wallow in cultural bankruptcy for shock value, nor does she attempt to “get past” all the cheapness to a pure poetic space of value. Everything is treated as what it is and put to use in the instance of need described by the verse as it proceeds.

Trapped in this high-performance culture, let’s suspend all disbelief, ignore the elephants in the room.

I won’t remember that avant-garde chaos frees the writing machine’s choked circuits.

Our abstractions stink of pure gibberish and no one notices the false pundits.

Look through the mirror, it’s the Information Age, where every surface is 1793 brilliant urine requests scum wolf and nothing shines.


Mass affluent consumers’ key satisfaction drivers aspirational by most common queries of most – common – English – words – engine: fuck Q1 sex Q2 love the shit god i venus cunt a ass jesus dog Q13 pussy hate bush john me hello vagina america bitch cat dick you war yes she like and cock no damn david gay man computer money word mother michael poop Q42 happy mom asshole orgasm he mike apple peace help one hi car bob fart cool it chris microsoft crap woman what good is death hell conquistador iraq james house mark butt porn cum girl paul home dad work but of beer nigger andrew tom tit tits usa anal baby stupid boy joe father kill mary school sarah smith Q100 re-scoped the guestimate–the generic one month is longer than 30 days. You can control the reader’s reaction without changing the facts

This is not like Wordsworth’s notion of common language, of course, in that it is not “the way people actually talk”–but then, neither was Wordsworth’s verse. What made his verse memorable was not that it broke through artifice to authenticity, but that it took an artfully rendered interpretation of authenticity and wedded it to the poet’s own feelingly rendered deployment of existing poetic conventions. The existing conventions in Zolf’s work include both the slightly “elevated” register of “expressive” statements in the first person (singular or plural) and the deliberately decontextualized “New Sentence” rhythm of discrete utterances sitting in disjunct sequence (which bleeds into a Bruce-Andrews-esque prosody of manic social expletives). Intruding on both these conventions is the emergent convention of machine-text imagined as inhuman bot-voice, improvising semi-random strings of words, numbers, and other forms of quasi-verbality into a strangled attempt at motivated discourse. One index of the value of these lines as poetry is to be found in the interplay between all the modes of convention that are at play at any given time: dominant: those that are firmly established to the point of risking cliche, those that have risen to a newly precarious dominance, and those that are so new as to smack of gimmickry. This is what interesting poetry does in any period: rather than trying to escape entirely the traps of conservative tradition, dominant orthodoxy, or inchoate innovation, it finds ways of creating electrical pathways between them.

Return to Human Resources book page.