Media Theory for the 21st Century

March 4, 2008

Database and Poetry, Pt. 2

Filed under: Discussion — jeremy @ 9:16 pm
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Part 1 is here.

What modern and contemporary poetries crave in the absence of narrative and traditional metrical forms is structure. That structure can be minimal, procedural, or constraint-based, but it’s always-sorta-kinda there even if primarily as an absence. One viable way of reading the history of poetics from the late-19th century through today is as a, well, narrative of progressive dissolution or atomization. Poets have shattered text and language into smaller and smaller pieces. This is a trend Adalaide Morris touches on when in her introduction to New Media Poetics she discusses “literal art” or those poems that “feature not the stanza, the line, the phrase, or the resonant word but… letters” (20). Think of Kittler’s reading of Christian Morgenstern in Discourse Networks. Of Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear. Of Futurists fonts. Of Mallarmé’s words-in-freedom. Of the stubby lines of HD, WCW, and George Oppen. Of Louis Zukofsky. Of E. E. Cummings’s typographical games.

The central problem confronted by contemporary poets then becomes a very basic one: How do we build or rebuild poems of any size and substance from the tiniest bits of language? To repeat, borrowing from Espen Aarseth and Brian Kim Stefans as well as Gertrude Stein and Morris: How do we build “non-trivial” poems that can help us know (intellectually) what we already know (in our bodies and habits)? More specifically, how do we do so without relying on the crutch of (submerged) narrative as so many of the medium-length Imagist poems did and so much contemporary thin “free verse” does?

One solution is digital animation or manipulation in the vein of The Dreamlife of Letters or Univers Revolved. Another is database. Database provides a way to structure a long poem without resorting to the internal organization scheme of narrative. At one end of the spectrum, Susan Wheeler can explore, in “The Debtor in the Convex Mirror” (a relatively traditional poem that does incorporate fragments of narrative), the obsessive keeping-track-of mentality of our collector culture. She does this through an interplay between her own words, quotations, a reading of Ashbery, a reading of a Dutch painting, and a covertly organized list of source texts at the back of the aptly named collection Ledger (2006). Or she can drop a bunch of worthless HTML code at the back of Source Codes (2001)—a strangely poignant admission that she’s thinking about stuff she does not understand at the technical level.

Meanwhile, Lyn Hejinian can simply use dates (specifically those from October 6, 1986 to January 21, 1989) to structure a series of one- and two-page Language poems about the body and writing in The Cell (1992). In 2008, her sequence looks like a series of bizarre blog entries. It’s unity is achieved less through tonal consistency or unified subjectivity than through the simple meta-data act of dating: the word “data” coming, like the word “date,” from a form of the Latin dare, “to give,” as in data (epistola) for “(letter) given or delivered.”

At the other end of the spectrum, conceptual poets like Kenneth Goldsmith and Christian Bök can select massive databases and devise onerous constraints/algorithms. The data source can be Goldsmith’s daily activities as in Fidget (2000); all the words from a single copy of the New York Times as in Day (2003); a transcription of a year’s worth of radio weather reports as in Weather (2005); a list of phrases ending in schwa as in his No. 111 2.7.93-10.20.96 (1997); or all the mono-vocalic words in English as in Bök’s Eunoia (2001). In these Oulipo-on-steroids writers, the data approach is invested with an X-Games mentality. The goal is, at least in part, to have the audience gape in awe. Oh, shit! He alphabetized what?!??

These various styles of datapoetics, then, raise a number of questions about authorship, gender, formalism, extremity, data vs. database and the like. I’ve gone on far too long already, but one central concern worth emphasizing is the transformation of the trivial or “banal” (Sianne Ngai’s word) into the “non-trivial” by way of database. Whether it’s chatroom jabber, ads from the NYT, bizarre word lists, or daily experience, the algorithmic transformation of data seems to link the poetics of Listening Post to at least a few camps of book-bound poets. Together, these practitioners are doing for “data” and “database” what Galloway and Thacker attempt to do for “network.”

–Jeremy Schmidt


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