Docupoetry and archive desire

Two pages from Mark Nowak’s Coal Mountain Elementary (Coffee House Press).

“I can see no reason for calling my work poetry except that there is no other category in which to put it.” — Marianne Moore[1]

In 2000, the poet Jena Osman created a lengthy list of “docupoetry” that included poems such as Allen Ginsberg’s “Wichita Vortex Sutra,” Adrienne Rich’s “An Atlas of the Difficult World,” and William Carlos William’s Paterson, as well as many works less familiar to American readers.[2] Nowadays, such a list could be twice as long — we are in the midst of something of a flourishing of documentary literary forms. Usually “docupoetry” designates poetry that (1) contains quotations from or reproductions of documents or statements not produced by the poet and (2) relates historical narratives, whether macro or micro, human or natural. Clearly, such writing is part of a long tradition; without even going back to Virgil or Lucretius, one can see that the poems of Pope and Dryden had everything to do with documenting (with a very definite point of view).

But the general trend, from the Romantic era onwards, has been towards understanding poetry as an art form that expresses the current thoughts and emotions of the individual, without documenting the past experience of collectivities. As early as 1798, Frederich Schlegel writes, “Romantic poetry embraces everything that is purely poetic, … [O]ne might believe that it exists solely to characterize poetic individuals of all types.” “Romantic poetry” is, in a word, “poetry itself.”[3] In another piece, he declares that “[t]he true object of the art should be, instead of resting in externals, to lead the mind upwards into a more exalted region and a spiritual world.” Thus a poetry of externals, of historical fact, of groups rather than individuals, is a contradiction in terms for the Romantic poet.[4] Coleridge expresses a similar sentiment when he opposes “those events, which in real or imagined History move on in a strait Line” to “the end of all … Poems,” which is to make history “assume to our Understandings a circular motion — the snake with its Tail in its Mouth”[5] — that irritable reaching after facts here transmuted into the mysterious, eternal, and symbolic. The fact that none of this prevented the Romantics from writing poems about history, politics, or biography is beside the point. What is important is that this conception of poetry (and art generally) meshed quite comfortably with the domestication of Romanticism into respectable bourgeois literature in the mid-nineteenth century. As I have argued elsewhere, it is this version of poetry that remained dominant in US culture into the twentieth century.[6]

But the twentieth century also saw the emergence of both the documentary film and of what might properly be termed a documentary poetry — that is, a poem including history by including “business documents and schoolbooks,” as Marianne Moore famously put it. Much of the work of modern poets as diverse as Ezra Pound, Muriel Rukeyser, Archibald MacLeish, Williams, and Moore can be placed in the tradition of this “nonfiction” poetry. Some critics responded to the rise of documentary poetry in the 1930s by reinvoking the putative split between literary and nonliterary documents, between poetry and “reportage.” For instance, one critic in the New York Herald-Tribune books section wrote, of Rukeyser’s Book of the Dead, “While it contains some brilliant journalism, and sections of it … are poetry of a high order, the sequence is … overfreighted with document.”[7] Journalism is one thing, poetry quite another; documents belong in the former, but the latter collapses under their weight. The documentary lost some of its luster (as did the left-leaning politics that motivated much of it) in the late 1940s and 1950s; as the New Criticism and academic formalism in poetry became the official styles of the day in the United States, documentary poetry was made to seem a contradiction in terms. Williams’s long poem Paterson was one of the few docupoems produced in the period.[8] In 1951, Hayden Carruth noted its frequent prose passages, particularly their content: “They are documentary — letters, newspaper clippings, medical records, and the like. … But,” he wondered, “[c]an a poem survive in the public mind which contains so much unquotable — that is, unrememberable — material?”[9] Likewise, Randall Jarrell asked, “What has been done to [the excerpts] to make it possible for us to respond to them as art and not as raw reality? to make them part of the poem ‘Paterson’? I can think of no answer except: They have been copied out on the typewriter.”[10] Raw reality is one thing, art, quite another. Implied here is the New Critical assumption that the poem is and ought to be considered as an organic whole, with no undigested elements; moreover, all of it should be the original product of the individual imagination; and it must cohere on the page, quite apart from biography or history. Williams’s documenting of the history of Paterson has no intrinsic bearing on the poem Paterson. For it to be a Poem, according to Jarrell’s and Carruth’s account, there must be no mixing.[11] 

Things are easier for documentary poetry (not to mention film) nowadays than in the 1950s. The documentary impulse in US poetry has become more widespread, and it is difficult to find denunciations of it in print. However, when I queried well-known poets who work with documents, as well as critics who study docupoetry, the consensus was that the dichotomy of poetry versus [documents, journalism, history] persists, albeit more in speech than in writing. For instance, Mark Nowak, author of Coal Mountain Elementary, encounters it “ALWAYS in Q&A’s at readings. The question is usually phrased something like this: ‘So your work is very political, does great political work. But what about the craft of poetry? Do you care about craft?’”[12] — the assumption being that, not only is docupoetry necessarily a poetry of political advocacy, but that such work is de facto artless. Craig Santos Perez, author of the from unincorporated territory series about Guåhan/Guam, receives comments that assume an opposition between poetry writing and history writing: “you should just write a history book because people would actually read it; the poetry makes the historical narrative hard to read; the history drains the poetic energy.”[13] And so on.

From Craig Santos Perez’s from unincorporated territory [hacha] (Tinfish Press) [click to enlarge].

Similarly, George Szirtes writes in the October 2007 issue of Poetry magazine that “The truths the poem deals with are not evidentiary truths. … They do not lead back to the real life outside the poem: their truths refer to the real life inside the poem”[14] — to which Phil Metres responds at the Poetry Foundation site, “The documentary poem opposes Szirtes’s idea of a closed system, inviting ‘the real life outside the poem’ into it while also offering readers a journey into the poem.”[15] Szirtes claims that Metres mischaracterized his remarks; but later in the same article, Szirtes writes:

The life that moves in poems has enormous sharpness because it has been distilled into such a state that it is no longer possible to distinguish the universal from the particular in it. The real life in poems comes at us with the sudden clear cry of particularity as any phenomenon might, but it does not conduct us into the world of cause and effect, the world of biography. Biography is secondary to history, and history is secondary to those brilliant moments of perception that mere existence makes possible.[16]

As in Schlegel’s day, poetry is the pure essence of experience, not the gross dross of events (whether the event is overcooking a pot roast or participating in a civil rights march). The point of Poetry is to get us away from the world of causality — from the obduracy of the historical documents — into the brilliant, distilled ether of “mere existence.”

Poet Nada Gordon presents a more explicit denunciation of docupoetry, from a rather different angle, in “On Docu-Poetry: A Febrile Meditation,” a February 2009 post on her blog Ululations. She writes that docupoetry is “grasping for mimesis and reportage at the expense of verbal imagination,” and that she “feel[s] in it a kind of shoehorning of didactic social message into poetic forms that have no intrinsic connection to, or maybe add no value to, the often compelling and important narratives that are being conveyed in these pieces. Maybe the added value is entry into the still privileged aura of the category of ‘poetry.’” She sees a mismatch “between the flat reportage of the information and the form of verse itself, whose very lines serve as little spotlights to the lexis and the syntax.” Docupoetry necessarily entails “a kind of deadness of the already decided[,] the foregone conclusion,” Gordon writes. “[W]hen I think about what docu-poetry is not, I think of Keats [who writes with a] form so organic to the content and content so organic to the form that really there is no duality.” Verbal imagination, literary form (writ large), and “aura,” are inherent characteristics of Poetry. Mimesis, didacticism, and “the social” per se, are the proper domain of reportage (and therefore not proper to Poetry). This is because true poetry is written in forms that are “organic,” which is to say “intrinsic” to poetry, which is by definition where one finds verbal imagination, because poetry’s interest is in form. One might be forgiven for reading this line of thought as another instance of Coleridge’s snake with its tail in its mouth — a closed circle that defines itself, and thereby lends poetry its “privileged aura.” Gordon admits that she’s “being categorical, and that’s a problem.” But the fact that a poet of Gordon’s stature would reinscribe these ideas indicates that they still have some purchase in the twenty-first century. Indeed, I suspect that she is writing what others only say or think.

While I have no doubt that Gordon was suffering from a viral infection of the upper respiratory tract as she says in the post (hence “Febrile Meditation”), I also suspect she was experiencing an even more widespread malady as well — one that afflicts us all — the one Jacques Derrida termed “archive fever” (mal d’archive).[17] For Derrida, archive fever denotes the mania to define what’s in and what’s out. “But where does the outside commence? This,” Derrida asserts, “is the question of the archive. There are undoubtedly no others” (8). The job of the archivist is not only to prevent documents from leaving the archive, but, perhaps more importantly, to keep out those that don’t belong there. This is, of course, a political decision that involves repression and destruction, even as it involves preservation. Thus the Gnostic gospels wind up in the rubbish heaps of Nag Hammadi because the keepers of the archive — the archons, those in command (in this case abbots and bishops) — deemed them outside of the canon of biblical texts, and therefore outside of the archive. Or worse, “Aryan” books are published, and “Semitic” books consigned to the flames. Archive fever is thus the arch form of “being categorical.” So for Derrida, it isn’t just a problem — it is the problem. Archive fever “verges on radical evil” — hence the double meaning of the mal of the title (20).

But how to avoid it? Is it even possible? On Derrida’s account, “archive” is a very broad category indeed, and so there are many archives; we could even say that genre is a type of archive (perhaps even the type of the archive). And Gordon nails the problem of the archive when she complains about the “oppressive kind of mawkish ‘poetry framing’” of what she considers properly nonfiction materials, on the grounds that “it just sounds like a lot of interesting information has been LEFT OUT.” For Derrida, archivization is the process of leaving out, via “the disposition of a legitimate hermeneutic authority” (3) — authority to name, classify, anthologize, teach, publish, fund — or not. Archivization in this sense produces the frame “Poetry” (over against “nonfiction” or “reportage,” for instance). Framing is all about leaving out (and in). The frame, the parergon, on Derrida’s reading, functions as a paregoric — it soothes by reassuring that everything is in its place.[18]

But how does such authority become legitimate? If poetry is a valid category because genre is a valid category, then, as Derrida asks elsewhere, “what is the genre of genre?”[19] What category does the category belong to, which gives it its authority? Alas, “the structure of the archive is spectral. It is … a trace always referring to another” — to the king, to the king’s father’s father, or to the trace of the trace of him (84). For this reason, “poetry” does not inhere in any text, nor can any text be unproblematically mimetic. It must appeal outside itself in order to “speak” — must appeal to the arke, conceived of, on the one hand, as origin (in the sense of either the spectral past or the really real thing-in-itself) or, on the other hand, as Law (and by extension, those in a position to define and maintain boundaries — whether it’s the Commerce Department, Microsoft, or The Father per se).

And it is precisely for this reason that would-be docupoets need to heed Gordon’s point about the exclusion of information. If poetry is an archive, then so too is a poem — or any text — and the writer is a kind of archivist. The familiar generic parameters that I have outlined here make this issue an especially important one for those who would include documents in poetry. Which documents? And why not include them at all? Why include these “business documents and schoolbooks” and exclude others? By what authority does the documentary poet (howsoever poetical s/he might be) decide why the front and back covers delimit the book? It seems to me that poetry, precisely because of the generic conventions historically associated with it, forces the docupoet to confront these questions. Otherwise, one produces the very kind of poetry Gordon decries — one that unconsciously represses part of the record without altering our experience of either the record or of repression.

From Kristin Prevallet’s I, Afterlife (Essay Press) [click to enlarge].

As we know, all of us engage in forms of linguistic repression and exclusion (if one says “collector,” one does so by repressing the visually similar and not unrelated word “corrector”).[20] And some documentary poetry makes repression a priority — that is, it attempts to weed out the heterogeneous, the digressive, the transgressive and contradictory in order to tell a predetermined, linear narrative. In other words, there is, as Gordon suggests, plenty of flat, predictable, sententious, boring docupoetry (just as there is plenty of repetitive, precious, pretentious, boring “experimental” lyric).

However, I would submit that by focusing on these issues, a documentary poetry can turn the problem to account. Not only by awareness of the death drive (i.e., the suppression of the Other, not least of all within the archive itself), but also by focusing on — by enjoying — the libidinal energy that drives the poet’s researches in the first place, an energy Derrida terms “archive desire.” Archive desire is the flip side of archive fever.

“Why am I doing this?” One answer is surely that given by British historian and memoirist Carolyn Steedman: “the practice of history in its modern mode is, in one view, just one long exercise of the deep satisfaction of finding things.”[21] Derrida, in speaking of Freud’s writings — and the Freud archive — declares, “These classical and extraordinary works move away from us at great speed, in a continually accelerated fashion. They burrow into the past at a distance more and more comparable to that which separates us from archaeological digs.” (18). As a result, “The archivist produces more archive, and that is why the archive is never closed” (68). It burrows downwards and opens outward in a million directions, ramifications, racinations. This is precisely the impulse Maria Damon finds in poet and artist Adeena Karasick’s piece “The Wall” (2000), with its “fractured, bubbly, compendiousness.”[22] Damon appreciates its “archival aliveness, its anarchival, rhizomic exuberance” (97) that is “vibrant with both regally official document and semiodetritus” (90). These phrases provide a vibrant, exuberant description of archive desire in action. Archive desire is, in effect, the burning and generative desire to chase the boundaries of the archive itself — whether to catch them or to drive them off. And those boundaries are generic, as well as thematic.[23] In other words, a self-consciously archival or documentary poetry might interrogate itself — cop to its own violence and bad faith — while at the same time owning and reveling in the imaginative desire that drives it. Doing so may mean not simply mixing documentary writing and poetic writing, but instead rejecting the categories “documentary” and “poetry” altogether — or at least, recataloging them.

One possible guide in this process is Walter Benjamin’s innovative writing of historical traces, in such texts as “One-Way Street” and the Arcades Project. The latter, in particular, in terms of the phantasmagoric expansion of documents, observations and ideas about a particular city during a few decades, resembles a sort of nonfiction version of Ulysses, except that it is not as small. That is, the Arcades is not a codex with fixed front and back covers, but an ever-expanding, ever deepening archive that can only cease at the archivist’s death (though even beyond that point, Benjamin scholars and imitators have, in effect, continued to ramify and expand it). As Damon puts it, the Arcades “manages to be both fragmentary and exhaustive: exhaustiveness and excess here imply unfinishability.”[24] There is always another faubourg out beyond the last, always another ruin awaiting discovery below the last. And Benjamin delights in finding (and arranging) them all.

But for Benjamin, unlike Derrida, the destructiveness of archivization can be a vital, revolutionary act — and one that points up the hyperdestructive nature of modernity itself. Not only are most items about and from nineteenth-century Paris excluded from the Arcades, but those that are included are the result of a kind of violence. To write history, for Benjamin, “means to cite history. It belongs to the concept of citation, however, that the historical object in each case is torn from its context.”[25] And, as Marjorie Perloff has pointed out, Benjamin recontextualizes citations in a form that resembles nothing so much as a hypertext.[26] This method of presenting history is at loggerheads with traditional historical narration, which, Benjamin believes, chooses its citation or exhibit only “to reinsert the object into the [narrative] continuum, which it would create anew through empathy” (475). That is, the bourgeois historians of the nineteenth century, like its novelists, created an absorptive reading experience — one that recreated the past through empathy, continuity, and verisimilitude, thereby erasing its tracks, its interested nature. “The history that showed things ‘as they really were’ was the strongest narcotic of the [nineteenth] century” (463). “Materialist historiography,” by contrast, “does not choose its object arbitrarily. It does not fasten on them but rather springs them loose from the order of succession” — thereby forcing the reader to confront her or his received notions about succession and order (475).

Like Derrida, Benjamin would focus on the marginalia, the footnoted event, the overlooked bit of detritus that didn’t make it into the official archive. “I shall purloin no valuables,” Benjamin famously declares. “But the rags, the refuse — these I will not inventory but allow, in the only way possible, to come into their own: by making use of them” (460). It is only by self-consciously making use of them, engaging in poiesis, that the historian can creatively turn the archive inside out. “The most essential parts of this work … are turned most intensively to the outside”: even a casual riffling through the Arcades will give one a sense of how determinately it is turned to the outside, even while incorporating ever more of it (456). Benjamin’s is a voracious, ex-static, and expanding archive, because “[a] chronicler who recites events without distinguishing between major and minor ones acts in accordance with the following truth: nothing that has ever happened should be regarded as lost for history.”[27] This is the ne plus ultra of archive desire — an understanding of the receding horizon that is the boundary of the archive, followed by the desire to chase it and to drive it as far as it will go.

By the same token, the longstanding generic dichotomy between poetry and documentary is based not only on a normative conception of poetry, but also on a rather static and reductive notion of documentary. Documentary forms, ever since their rise in the twentieth century, have been accused of being too determined, didactic, manipulative, and as being premised on a rather naive form of mimesis. On this view, documentarians purport to present us with the unvarnished real — an accurate record of the object under consideration — and they are (therefore) rank propagandists. However, as critic Jeff Allred points out, by examining individual documentary texts from the 1930s, we see in fact that there were photographers, writers and filmmakers working in this form who used it not just to “present a reality out there,” but to reflect upon the form itself — to make use of the mediated nature of the document, and to cut against generic expectations.[28] This “documentary modernism” deploys “the ‘document’ as a trace of the real, a ‘resident alien’ in the house of culture whose presence in the text destabilizes relationships between reality and representation, self and other, reader and text.”[29] A text such as Let Us Now Praise Famous Men can produce what Allred calls, after Adam Tractenberg, “plausible fictions of the real” — precisely because it is self-conscious of its textuality and thereby relinquishes any dubious claims to be either a direct presentation of the real or even to account for a given object of inquiry. But if “creative nonfiction,” like traditional history-writing, creates a fiction of the real by drawing you in, absorbing you in the verisimilitude of the (true) story (with all the ideological implications of that process), this “documentary modernism” creates it by continuously reminding you of the fictional, constructed nature of even the most seamless or positivist narrative. This approach is familiar in the form of montage in film — that is, the use of the blatant fiction of simultaneity to represent a larger field of action than the single shot can present. Nowadays, the term “poetic documentary” is a common one in film to designate work that relates narratives based on historical particulars, while also foregrounding the filmmaker’s art and calling attention to the medium itself.

From Kaia Sand’s Remember to Wave (Tinfish Press) [click to enlarge].

I am struck by the similarity of this type of documentary and that of much so-called documentary poetry today — if you call it poetry — and if you call it documentary.[30] There is indeed a growing body of work that manages to “spotlight lexis and syntax” in the very process of relating “compelling and important narratives” of biographical and historical events. For instance, here are some twenty-first-century additions to Osman’s list of docupoems, focusing on writing in various experimental/innovative/investigate forms:

Kazim Ali, Bright Felon
Dan Beachy-Quick, Whaler’s Dictionary
Anne Carson, Nox
Allison Cobb, Green-Wood
Stephen Collis, On the Material
Brenda Coultas, A Handmade Museum and The Marvellous Bones of Time
Amy England, Victory and Her Opposites
C. S. Giscombe, Prairie Style
Gabriel Gudding, Rhode Island Notebook
Susan Howe, The Midnight (and others)
Bhanu Kapil, Humanimal
Khaled Mattawa, Tocqueville
Mark Nowak, Shut Up Shut Down and Coal Mountain Elementary
Kathleen Ossip, The Cold War
Jena Osman, The Network
Craig Santos Perez, from unincorporated territory series
M. NourbSe Philp, Zong!
Kristin Prevallet, I, Afterlife
Kaia Sand, Remember to Wave
Susan M. Schultz, Dementia Blog
Eleni Sikelianos, The Book of Jon
Tony Trigilio, Historic Diary
Rachel Zolf, Masque

Needless to say, this list is by no means exhaustive, and one could add to it on a weekly basis.

While all of these texts include representational modes of writing, it is difficult to read them as embodying the naive mimetic rendering of fact that critics have traditionally taken as the “other” of poetry; they go out of their way to call attention to what is included and what is excluded — what is known and what can’t be known — to the seams, gaps, and collapses between and within what the poet has discovered in the record and the poet’s response to those discoveries. Indeed, such responses can become quite nonrepresentational.[31] In these respects, much contemporary docupoetry demands a nonabsorptive reading: to the extent that it tells “the story of history,” it does so with a heavy dose of skepticism of, and creativity toward, the framing of “facts” (particularly official ones) and even narratives per se — especially those that purport to be true. Thus, precisely through exploiting the generic scandal of “documentary poetry,” this body of work produces a perspective, response, and critique that neither a personal, expressive (or purely ludic and aleatory) poetry nor a scholarly historical account could provide. In these senses, the new docupoetry diverges sharply from the institutions of “poetry” — and documentary, too. It uses verse on occasion, often verse that is very linguistically inventive and affecting. But these books don’t stick to that mode, or to any. They may be loosely structured around a particular narrative, but that narrative is interrupted and informed by others that are disparate in scale, time, topic, or style. The archive called poetry often willfully (and painfully) clashes with other archives, in these books. This is poetry in the sense in which Moore means it, in the epigraph to this essay: a noncategory category, the category that contains the cast-off material from other genres; the ever-receding archaic ground of “to make.” What do you make of it? What use can you make of it? Like Benjamin’s literary rag-picking, these “docupoems,” as poems, are always oriented towards the outside.

And I learned from reading them. That is what “to document” originally meant (in both English and Latin): to teach. Ditto for “didactic” (via Greek, this time). The uncomfortable relation between documentation and didacticism would cause the (didactic) conservators of generic integrity to consign both to the nonpoetic rag-heap, to define documentary as indoctrination. They thus narrow not only the meaning of poetry, but also the meaning and methods of teaching. On my reading, this view of both pedagogy and poetics owes more to the spirit of literary anti-leftist reactions of the 1930s to the 1950s (and its post-Reagan revenants) than it does to any inherent or transcendent indwelling nature in a particular configuration of marks on a page. To believe that genres are inherent within texts — that genres are genetic — while losing sight of their meandering historical careers, is to wander into precisely the place that the anti-didactic artistic free agent would avoid — namely, the invisible archive of ideology (or rather, ideology as invisible archive).

From Eleni Sikelianos’s The Book of Jon (City Lights) [click to enlarge].

Coda: The CNP unmanifesto.

Is documentary poetry a subgenre of, or a current within, the larger genre of poetry?

Who cares.

Or: does such writing even need to partake of “the privileged aura of ‘Poetry’” in order to work? “It’s good for what it is, but is it poetry?” could be flipped on its head: “It may or may not be poetry, but is it good for what it is?” — or, better yet, “at what it does.”

It doesn’t follow the generic conventions of creative nonfiction either. The term “lyric essay” would seem to bridge the gap between genres, but the emphasis is still on “essay” — and the term “lyric” is, for many in the poetry world, a rather freighted one. Moreover, as Rob Nixon writes, “‘lyric essay’ sounds a bit too fusty (Wordsworth meets Hazlitt) to breach the battlements of twenty-first-century technologies.”[32]

Rather than simply term these texts poetry because we can think of no other category in which to put them, I hereby unveil another generically undecidable nongenre genre: “Creative Nonpoetry.” Like creative nonfiction, creative nonpoetry defines itself over-against a genre which historically has refused its content, but which it often resembles quite a bit. Creative Nonpoetry borrows and burrows from the traditional conventions of the poetic; or mashes them up; or disclaims them altogether, by turns. It can contain verse, prose, dialogue, pictures.

Anyone who says poets should write a “poetry of witness,” or should document the Real or “the social,” is not talking about creative nonpoetry; nor is the hermetic neo-Symbolist lyricist who insists that art should have nothing to do with “events.”

Creative Nonpoetry is creative because it does not limit itself to either the poetry or the “non” — the writer (the creative nonpoet) may believe it to be “based on a true story”; the writer may take a skeptical stance towards (some of) that material — or declare an unreasoning faith in it. It is nonpoetry in the sense that it decreases the distance between writing history and poetry, while experimenting with the received forms of both (at the same time and by the same token). It lets the purists of both Poetry and Documentary off the hook, while opening up new possibilities for those of us who aren’t invested in genres for genre’s sake. It is a category for writing that does not fit into categories. It gives publishers a (New!) label to put on the back cover and bookstores a place to put strange texts.

In other words, “creative nonpoetry” is a way of describing what actually-existing poetry has become in the US, over the last twenty years or so — an indeterminate space where the histories of genres clash, combine, morph, or dissolve. A space, let us say it, of creative freedom, in which genre becomes an historical tool to employ, reject, or add to — just as “history” is understood as history writing. Indeed, it is not surprising that much of the modern writing that I have mentioned, including the Cantos, Paterson, and Maximus, diverge from the historic conventions of poetry and incorporate those of other genres. And as Carruth points out, such poems often do not attempt to turn documents into verse, but rather let them be, as inassimilable chunks of exogenous discourse. The seams show. Narrative, conceptual, and emotional connections are left to the reader to draw. The narratives don’t necessarily follow a straight line — or only one line; indeed, the lines of verse don’t always follow a straight line. Sometimes, the documents don’t even tell a story, but rather produce lyric and affective responses to the narratives from which they are drawn. These are poems that often don’t look like poems. Or, said another way, much documentary poetry is really mixed-genre (or trans-genre) writing. And this fact is entirely understandable, given the postromantic dichotomy between historical documents and poetry.

It’s not clear to me that any writer who thinks of herself or himself as “experimental” or “innovative” or “investigative” can prescriptively and deductively assume that s/he is writing in a particular genre. If the writer incorporates parts of other texts, then generic mixing and indeterminacy are inevitable. In a perfect world, we could simply stop engaging in the conversation called genre, and just write what we write. As it is, we live in a world of types — whether they purport to be literary or literal (e.g., genre, gender, gene).[33] The best way to collapse boundaries, then, is by chasing — pushing — them farther, to the point at which they become stretched so thin as to become meaningless: this moment is the “creative non” in “creative nonpoetry.” This formal stretching and blurring, rather than any particular content, is the real political promise — and pleasure — of a (non)poetics including documents.



1. From a Paris Review interview, 1961. See the Marianne Moore Reader (Viking 1961), 258.

2. See Al Filreis’s website for the list.

3. Friedrich Schlegel, Kritische Schriften, in German History in Documents and Images, ed. Wolfdietrich Rasch, trans. Jonathan Skolnik (Munich: Carl Hanser Verlag, 1958), 37–38. Emphasis mine.

4. Source of English translation: The Aesthetic and Miscellaneous Works of Frederick von Schlegel: Comprising Letters on Christian Art, An Essay on Gothic Architecture, Remarks on the Romance-Poetry of the Middle Ages and on Shakspere [sic], On the Limits of the Beautiful, On the Language and Wisdom of the Indians, in German History in Documents and Images, trans. E. J. Millington (London: Henry G. Bohn, 1849), 143–46.

5. Letter to Joseph Cottle, March 7, 1815. Collected Letters, ed. Earl Taylor Griggs (Oxford, UK: Clarendon, 1956-71), vol. 3-4, p. 545.

6. Joseph Harrington, Poetry and the Public: The Social Form of Modern US Poetics (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2002). In particular, see chapters 1 and 6.

7. Tim Dayton, Muriel Rukeyser’s Book of the Dead (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2003), 119–20.

8. As Al Filreis points out in Counter-Revolution of the Word (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008), other “docu-poets” of the late 1940s, such as Norman Rosten and Millen Brand, were effectively blacklisted and their work, ignored, due to their politics in the preceding decade. Because documentary was associated with left-liberal politics, the red-baiting of the period probably had a chilling effect on would-be docupoets.

9. Hayden Carruth, The Nation, August 25, 1951, repr. in William Carlos Williams: The Critical Heritage, ed. Charles Doyle (London: Routledge, 1980), 155–56.

10. Randall Jarrell writing in Partisan Review 18, no. 6 (November–December 1951): 698–700, repr. in Doyle, William Carlos Williams: The Critical Heritage, 239. Emphasis Jarrell’s.

11. There is, of course, more than a little professional self-interest at work amongst the first major wave of poets working in the academy. The academy, like any bureaucracy, thrives on departmentalization and compartmentalization. One must have a niche, a name, and a defined methodology, whether one is professing poetry or mechanical engineering.

12. E-mail to author, 1 June 2011.

13. E-mail to author, 31 May 2011.

14. Szirtes, “Missing Dates/Sleeve Notes,” Poetry 191, no. 1 (2001): 39.

15. Metres, “From Reznikoff to Public Enemy: The Poet as Journalist, Historian, Agitator,” The Poetry Foundation.

16. Szirtes, “Missing Dates/Sleeve Notes,” 40.

17. Jacques Derrida, Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression, trans. Eric Prenowitz. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996). Subsequent citations in text.

18. Cf. Derrida, “Economimesis,” Diacritics: A Review of Contemporary Criticism 11, no. 2 (Summer 1981): 3–25.

19. Derrida, “The Law of Genre,” Glyph 7 (1980): 202–13.

20. The positive example of nonfiction writing that Gordon cites, David Quammen’s The Song of the Dodo, has the advantage of being 704 pages long. Even so, one can be fairly certain that there is something about Darwin, evolution, extinction, or the nineteenth century that the book has left out. By contrast, as David Greethem recounts, “Kallimachos had used the enormous riches of the Alexandrian library to define and describe a meaningful cultural ‘everything’ for his moment and place,” in his attempt not to leave anything out. Kallimachos was thus in a Derridean ‘privileged’ position of ‘archontic power’ … [but] There are no extant copies of the Pinakes, but only citations of it and extracts from it by late writers in later compilations. Kallimachos’s ‘universal’ bibliography of ‘everything’ is reduced to the state of those ‘Extracts’ with which Melville chose to preface Moby-Dick.” And this is the nature of things: something (perforce) is always left out. David Greetham, “‘Who’s In, Who’s Out’: The Cultural Poetics of Archival Exclusion,” Studies in the Literary Imagination 32, no. 1 (Spring 1999): 15.

21. Carolyn Steedman, “Something She Called a Fever: Michelet, Derrida, and Dust,” The American Historical Review 106, no. 4 (October 2001). See paragraph 13.

22. Maria Damon, Postliterary America: From Bagel Shop Jazz to Micropoetries (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2011), 90. Subsequent citations in text.

23. Hal Foster sees something similar in what he terms “archival [visual] art”: “This work does invite psychoanalytical projections. It can also appear manic — not unlike much archival fiction today (e.g., David Foster Wallace, Dave Eggers) — as well as childish. … [W]ith its nonhierarchical spatiality installation art often suggests a scatological universe, and sometimes they thematize it as such. For Freud the anal stage is one of symbolic slippage in which creative definitions and entropic indifferences struggle with one another. So it is sometimes in this art as well.” See Foster, “An Archival Impulse,” in The Archive, ed. Charles Merewether (London: Whitechapel, 2006), 147–48n13.

24. Damon, Postliterary America, 215.

25. Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002), 476. Subsequent citations in text.

26. “But this very gap between expectation and fulfillment replaces sequential exposition and coherent argument with what looks like web-page design, the A file connecting just as readily with K (Dream City) or with Z (the Doll, the Automaton) as with B.” Marjorie Perloff, Unoriginal Genius: Poetry by Other Means in the New Century (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010), 32.

27. Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” in Illuminations (New York: Schocken Books, 1968), 254.

28. Jeff Allred, American Modernism and Depression Documentary (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 15.

29. Ibid., 10.

30. Likewise, Perloff detects an affinity between Benjamin’s procedure in the Arcades Project and contemporary poetry generally: “[P]age after page of Benjamin’s astonishing text contains movable passages that can (and do) reappear in altered contexts; the repeated juxtapositions, cuts, links, shifts in register, framing devices, and visual markings conspire to produce a poetic text that is paradigmatic for our own poetics” (Unoriginal Genius, 43).

31. Some works emphasize the gaps as much as, or more than, the narrative — take, for instance, Susan Tichy’s use of quotations re: the Iraq War in Gallowglass or Stacy Szymaszek’s “Heart Island,” which draws on scraps of discourse from and about New York City’s potter’s field.

32. Nixon, “Literature for Real,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, March 7, 2010.

33. See Jed Rasula’s provocative discussion of genre and race in “Notes on Genre,” in The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Book, ed. Bruce Andrews and Charles Bernstein (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1984), 102–3.