It’s difficult to say exactly what’s going on in Scottish poetry right now. But it’s definitely something exciting.
When I first moved to Edinburgh from Toronto five years ago, I uncovered only a couple of poetry series and one small press fair. Despite the general reverence for Rabbie Burns (I mean, a national holiday for a poet!) and the significant number of well-known Scottish poets like Tom Leonard, Jackie Kay, Brian McCabe and Carol Ann Duffy (the current British poet laureate), there didn’t seem to be the same ground-level exuberance for poetry that I’ve experienced elsewhere.
Now Glasgow and Edinburgh boast so many poetry events and book fairs that I can’t possibly highlight them in this limited space. You trip over poets like you trip over bad bagpipers swindling tourists on the High Street. We have page poets, stage poets, language poets, lyric poets, slam poets, vispoets, sound poets, found poets, conceptual poets. We have a particularly interesting scene of poets fusing text with dance, visual art, film and/or music.
Scotland is a small and sparsely populated “country” (I will return to the quotation marks anon), and the current trend in varied and explorative poetics seems antithetic to the number of people here (some paltry 5.2 million) — especially when you still find an inordinate number of bad rhyming poets in a huge place like London.
Which takes me back to the quotation marks. Perhaps we can credit this surge in Scottish work to the fact that Scotland is finally coming into itself again. The devolution process — Scotland’s separation from the United Kingdom in terms of certain political powers, marked by gaining its own parliament in 1999 — might result in full independence in the next five years. There will soon be a referendum, and odds are we might be a real country again.
As a poet raised by a Scottish father and grandfather (the latter especially queen-loathing) and French Canadian mother, I rather like the idea of independence — though I’m a bit wary of nationalism proper. What defines a nation? Where does colonialism end? But these are big questions. Let’s just say it’s an exciting time to be in Scotland, despite high unemployment, racism, sexism, ableism and homo/transphobia. We are on the cusp of something, and that something might be better than what we have as part of “Great” Britain.
We were speaking of poetry. The poets I’ve chosen to feature here are by no means representative of all of Scotland. For example, very few of the works are in Scots and none are in Gaelic. Most of the poets were born or live in Glasgow or Edinburgh. And when asked about the “Scottishness” of their work, most of them pretty much shrugged. Perhaps the (now-defunct) Scottish Arts Council’s efforts to produce officially Scottish™ poetry backfired? It’s hard to stuff a poet into a mold.
In this small survey, I offer you seven short examples of some of the people raising the bar of poetry in Scotland. Alison Smith’s British Sign Language performance poetry is a haunting and beautiful depiction of deafness, disability, and lesbian desire. Colin Herd’s versatile and often humorous texts evoke a wee taste of Frank O’Hara, with a distinctly Edinburgh twist. In a tour-de-force sequence, Jim Ferguson searches eloquently for links between nature, feminism, and working-class Scottish men.
Lila Matsumoto ensnares her readers with deceptively simple lines; her poems slowly take shape into creatures that seem to breathe on their own. Using everyday texts, Marvo Men perform something between sound poetry and improvised music, drawing on what’s left on the page after it has been read. Nuala Watt centers the disabled poet’s voice, skillfully separating the poetics of blindness and cerebral palsy from the simplistic symbolism of the Canon. And ShellSuit Massacre electrify listeners with their class-conscious found-poetry-techno, augmented by Sacha Kahir’s politically charged video.
Worth noting is that many of the people publishing and presenting work in Scotland are migrants — or, like myself, from here yet not from here. Arguably, it’s the mixture of home-grown and migrant poets that’s creating the new excitement in Scottish writing, the flourishing hybrid forms, the experimentation, and — dare I say it — the, um, Scottishness.
If you’re interested in accessing more new Scottish poetry, here are a few highlights of many possible recommendations:


Gutter, Glasgow (Adrian Searle, Colin Begg)
anything anymore anywhere, Edinburgh (Colin Herd)
SCREE, Edinburgh (Lila Matsumoto)
Forest Publications, Edinburgh (Ryan Van Winkle and Forest Editorial Board)

Reading series and literary events:

Words Per Minute, Glasgow (Helen Sedgwick, Kirstin Innes, Kirsty Logan)
Seeds of Thought, Glasgow (Ernest and Tawona Sithole, Tarneem Al Mousawi)
Neu! Reekie!, Edinburgh (Kevin Williamson, Michael Pederson)
Inky Fingers, Edinburgh (Alec Beattie, Mairi Campbell-Jack, Harry Giles, Rachel McCrum, Katherine McMahon, Rose Ritchie and Tracey S. Rosenberg)

Crystal gazing

Clark Coolidge’s ‘Crystal Text’

Clark Coolidge photo by Celia Coolidge.

“That mind artifact is mutable, thank the lord” — Clark Coolidge[1]

A few facts about crystals:

Once only mined (mind), most quartz crystal now is grown.

Quartz is the most common mineral on Earth.

Many crystals are piezoelectric: they emit a (thin) electric charge under pressure.

Crystals rotate the plane of polarized light.

Certain crystals are biogenic. Trilobites used calcite to form the lenses of their eyes.

Naturally formed by the combination of oxygen and silicon, quartz crystal has a habit of growing in the dark, its long prism always forming a perfect sixty-degree angle to the adjoining prisms. Calcite, on the other hand, occurs in limestone and other rocks that are formed biogenically, out of the fossilized shells of tiny dead sea creatures. In The Crystal Text, Clark Coolidge writes, “Transparency a matter of slowly mattering,”[2] torquing noun into verb and revealing in a flash both the semantic and scientific senses of ‘matter.’ The transparent matter of crystal accrues, slowly mattering itself into being. In the same way, the potential (however slight) for “transparency” in writing is “a matter of slowly mattering.” By turns transparent and opaque, The Crystal Text returns to the object of its contemplation — the crystal — and also to the grounds of its own composition. Matter amalgamates in gradual improvisation of poetic language and thinking, as Coolidge’s long poem accumulates its matter, layer by layer, letter by letter. It contains itself in much the same way a crystal does, and is a crystalline record of its growth.

In his study of jazz drumming and the work of Jack Kerouac, Now It’s Jazz, Coolidge writes, “I had thought the writer must first have it all in his head and only then put it into words, but no. I began to see how it was really excitingly done: You wrote from what you didn’t know toward whatever could be picked up in the act. Poetry starts here.”[3] Writing begins with accretion, accumulating bits both biogenic and inanimate, toward some structure as yet unknown. Coolidge, whose interests around poetry (he’s a jazz drummer, a caver, and a collector of fossils) so lucidly and plainly inform the poetry itself, mentions trilobites in several of his works.

After first reading The Crystal Text, in depth and amazement, I bought a piece of calcite crystal. It is clear, naturally formed in the shape of a rhombus, and it fits comfortably in the palm of my hand. (The Greeks felt a crystal “cooled” the hand when held. Pliny the Elder believed that quartz crystal was a permanently frozen form of water, and the word “crystal” comes from the Greek for “ice.”) There is a Moroccan trilobite on the desk next to the calcite. It is brown and spiny, like a chrysalis, and it’s about 250 million years old. It reminds me of the armored, anomalous horseshoe crabs that inhabited a beach in Delaware where I went every summer as a kid. Off past the beach houses with towels slung over porch railings and satellite dishes, the crabs crawled like dazed prehistoric visitors. I picked them up, walking with my father, and threw them back in the bay. Trilobites, which were killed off in the Permian-Triassic mass extinction, had compound eyes, with lenses like prisms that were made of calcite. These two remnants seem to have hurtled through space and time to land aligned on my desk: the raw, unpolished sandy rock fossil of an ancient marine animal and the clear, mysterious rhombus of calcite that composed the lenses of its eyes.

From ignorance toward (the impossibly small potential for) certainty, back out. At the outset of The Crystal Text, Coolidge writes, “Senseless this arrival at a subject for a start” (9). And later, “start / with something. Begin here” (67). The point is made, slowly and carefully, over the long series of poetic speculations, sprawling ruminations, and koans of which the text is composed:

One could divide it all up into
those who know how the work should be
and those who never know before the work.
But then those who did not know began to know
the materials, an intimate action
and can one go too far with material causes?
(will and would
     rather than
shall and should) (33)

To whatever extent the object is an object-lesson (here, as elsewhere, an emphatically silent one), the crystal provokes a strain of thinking (among a number of other lines of inquiry) about writing as improvisation. As doing to see where the doing will lead. A slow process which takes place in the dark, almost an improvisation resulting in rock —beautiful, transparent and cloudy — to be harvested from a cave or simply to be seen. Or as the gradual accumulation, as sediment, of millions of creatures’ eyes. Yet: “can one go too far with material causes?” The poet seems to defer an answer with the parenthetical aside. On closer inspection, however, Coolidge is making a statement about inevitability. The “intimate action” of engaging with material causes — word, stone — is exactly the responsibility the poet takes up in writing. There will (rather than “shall”) be a call and response, however quiet, maybe even nearly mute, between writing mind and the external world of objects the crystal inhabits. It sets itself forth in the action: starting to write, an impulse to music.

In Now It’s Jazz, but elsewhere also, Coolidge makes it clear how deeply his interest in music coincides with his writing. This influence permeates the poetry at every level, and the vocabulary of jazz can be usefully borrowed to think through Coolidge’s project in The Crystal Text. Syncopation, improvisation, the downbeat, the head or standard: all of these ideas are native to the generous and alien landscape of the poem.  Originally published by the Figures Press in 1986, The Crystal Text is a long (168-page) poem comprised of short bursts of lyric. It almost has the feel of a captain’s logbook, with daily entries detailing the crystal at the center of its attention. Like At Egypt, published two years later, it’s an epic lyric poem. Both are sustained meditations on a single subject; however, unlike At Egypt, The Crystal Text affords its subject more formal variation. Some of the poem’s sections are a single line; others run across several pages. Line lengths and sound patterns mutate, and there are fewer refrains.

If poems contemplating mute vessels (urns, jars) could be considered “standards” (in the sense of “All the Things You Are,” or “How High the Moon”), The Crystal Text returns to its head, or main theme, with a deliriously clear love of the form. Just as a crystal improvises its form (albeit — crucially — according to certain unseen constraints and systems), the poem stands as a record of its own improvised composition. Its form is a record of its relationship over time to the mute object of its inquiry, the crystal, in chunks of lived days, the sometimes clipped, sometimes sprawling sections of poetry which make up the long poem The Crystal Text. In Now It’s Jazz, Coolidge quotes Kerouac writing (in Visions of Cody) about jazz saxophonist Lee Konitz: “He can take care of himself even though he goofs and does April in Paris from inside out as if the tune was the room he lived in and was going out at midnight with his coat on.” Coolidge continues, “Yeah. That has the feeling of improvisation starting at a base and going out and you can get back if you want since you know where that is but you can also go anywhere and take whatever form in the going you want” (44). The tune, like the poem, records this form of departure from and return to theme. As obscure, dissociative lines snap in and out of focus, the crystal remains The Crystal Text’s base, a refrain strangely familiar in all its variations. The image of the clear piece of rock is suddenly and clearly summoned to the reader’s mind out of some piece of otherwise alien phrasing: as “Sky flake in a water pocket” (133), or “Stable portion, sense lesson, icicle twilight” (61), or “unlit candle” (114); as “a jet stripe of firm” (111), or “A scarf that is the weather’s edge / a rig of partial light” (83). These variations on the theme of the crystal are the matter of the poem; the poem’s transparency (or, turned to view from a different facet, its opacity) a matter of their mattering. As in good jazz, it’s all in the phrasing — fidelity to the theme and headlong, syncopated departure from it.

The beat is everywhere. Much of Coolidge’s poetic genius resides in his sense of stress, in his deliverance of language to its plain percussive value. At its most basic, syntactic level, the compression of Coolidge’s lyric exerts a sort of pressure of sound on sense. The words are struck, brushed, rolled, and dragged. Like Harry Partch, the iconoclastic twentieth-century American composer, Coolidge invents a field — a junkyard — of instruments, as well as a corresponding way to play them, in order to create the richly atonal, contorted rhythms of the poem. Through torque and compression of language toward pure sound, sense gets heightened and bent:

emitting his bulbs back behind the fog and fan factory
when evenings they laid out docked china and had
themselves a paid laugh. One knocked over the ocean
and sold his boat, walked away forever into the thicket
New England of brought ice turned into new green house.
Another plans wicked bop pranks in the L.A. smear (108)

That’s where poems (Coolidge’s, spectacularly) yield electrical charge, as do crystals when pressed. Their atoms (in quartz and calcite, for example) are so tightly and regularly formed that when pressure is exerted, the positive and negative charges of which they are constituted are momentarily divided. This momentary division produces a slight electric charge called piezoelectricity (from the Greek “piezo,” meaning to press). This is the principle behind a cigarette lighter on a car dashboard, or the push-start button on a propane barbeque grill. Crystal radios also operate on piezoelectricity. So too, if an electrical charge is applied to the crystal, it will bend. This strange and beautiful physical characteristic of the crystal seems apt to satisfy the lunging percussive urges of the poem. Every torque of syntax or stressed syllable, each hammered word, seems to emit a faint but distinctly glowing electrical charge amid the slow darknesses and changing lights of the poem. Here is Coolidge talking about the one-word poems of Aram Saroyan:

I had a reason for getting to the place where I started to write that kind of thing, which I was trying to explain in being influenced by Saroyan putting his one word. He put so much pressure on one word, is what it was. He insisted that that word was the poem. You could talk about art being insistent emphasis. The words really came to me very strongly, as strong things. And I began to think: but I want to put them together with that kind of intensity.[4]

That intensity, the charge of Coolidge’s percussive lines, generates flares of electricity through the long sequence of poems that constitute The Crystal Text, as it spans changing seasons and the poet’s own slow, assiduous concentration.

 “Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness!”[5] Keats addresses his famous object of poetic contemplation, an ancient vessel painted with an unchanging pastoral scene. The poet studies it closely, looking all around it, as though there might be something within or beyond its form that would come to illuminate its enigma. Immutable and transfixing, cold stone alive with imagery, silent vessel abruptly given voice, the urn’s narrative remains static, its outcome made unknowable by its own unchanging form. The poet of “Ode on a Grecian Urn” finds grim solace and unearthly beauty in the permanence of the urn’s imagery. Keats’s poem enacts the object’s painted, changeless activity, detailing the “flowery tale” of the (silent) “Sylvan historian” which is the urn. For Coolidge, the crystal occupies an even more radically ambiguous relation to time. Coolidge writes:

The crystal is always showing a world
that does not exist except in remission.
It does not contain but transposes. (37)

Throughout The Crystal Text, the inert, immutable object filters the changing light of day through the prism it is. As Keats, in “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” narrates the flux the vessel points toward while always precluding, Coolidge watches hours, days, and seasons pass through the changeless facade of the crystal. Like the poem, it rotates these lights. The Crystal Text is strewn with cryptic glitches that point to the object’s temporal undecidability: it is “A scatter dance held rigid, knowledge is that?” (27) and “This place where morning is permanent” (34). Looking at it, Coolidge asks, “Why are there places where some thing is not happening?” (72). The crystal pends, it’s both in medias res and unfinishable: “During, see during, see the end of the line always receding” (46). It remains, like the urn, emphatically silent: “It does not say. It stay” (61). “Silence in the presence of the occulting lights” (104), writes Coolidge, baffled by the crystal’s strangely forceful reticence. It is almost as though the very silence of these objects — urn and crystal — were what both Keats and Coolidge find magnetic. In Keats, there is something to narrate: the urn is painted, and although the action depicted is endless and changeless, the poem’s attempt to speak for it constitutes the force and central dilemma of “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” The crystal, however, offers less to narrate; its presence is even more radically ambiguous. The temptation somehow to “narrate” it persists, alongside the impossibility of doing so. “It’s taking my light? It’s taking my words” (137): of course, it is taking Coolidge’s words — and yet the crystal remains almost completely inscrutable as a cipher for the Text.

Senseless thing, crystal, say you of yourself?
And all the other things I would say of you. Unto you,
and for you. (95)

As Keats’s poem comes to speak for the painted urn, it paradoxically acknowledges that the object’s silence sets it always ahead of the poem itself: “heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard / Are sweeter” (238). As the ode gains reflexive momentum, ecstatically listing the halted action of the imagery painted on the urn, it comes to speak for the silent urn, before running aground at the final, gnomic couplet:

Beauty is truth, truth beauty, — that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know. (240)

The urn’s silence becomes insurmountable here. The desperate, enticing equation for which the poem is known is just as much an admission of the futility of trying to find something beyond the object’s form as it is a mere affirmation of the significance of beauty. More than anything, it is an irreducibly powerful statement about the silence of the object. The urn may be looked at from all sides but keeps its silence and is set during. It can, for these reasons, disclose finally nothing but its form: its beauty is the truth it discloses, the only truth we need to know since it is the only truth knowable. The oldness of the object, its permanence and silence prompt questioning and preclude certainty:

He thought he knew that. He wondered
if the crystal would still be warming in the sun after
all the humans had died. He imagined it standing
on a sandy plain like a fire in the fire.
There seemed beauty in this but no knowledge. (The Crystal Text, 114)

In Hugh Kenner’s massive study of Ezra Pound, The Pound Era, he writes: “When Wyndham Lewis writes (Tarr, about 1914) that ‘the lines and masses of a statue are its soul’ (art has no inside, nothing you cannot see), he tells us that we may confront any art as we must confront that of the Upper Paleolithic.”[6] Coolidge, whose friendship with the painter Philip Guston was certainly mutually influential (both are sui generis masters), is certainly familiar with the merits, and maybe necessity, of confronting “any art as we must confront that of the Upper Paleolithic.” In “Arrangement,” a lecture on poetics and process given at Naropa, Coolidge writes, “one of the things Guston likes to talk about most is cave art: the first painters, who are incredible if you look at their work. I’m not sure that anyone is more sophisticated. The mark, the first mark. Of course Guston talks about it like Mallarmé’s statement, ‘being a civilized first man.’ In other words, you’re in the cave and you’ve got your stick, but you know all about art, you’ve been to the Louvre” (159). There is a necessity, when painting or writing an object, to see it as first man might have. This initial seeing — the condition of possibility for the “intimate action” of beginning “to know / the materials” — opens a space where poet and reader, painter and viewer, might see the object as abstract form.

In The Crystal Text crystal can then become “a lock of standages” (44) or “a glow zone” (14). Neil Young, frozen orange juice, Angel Hair magazine, and Dave Brubeck appear in the poem’s frequencies, among many others. But the abiding, initial amazement, a shock of wonder like that of first man at the stone’s oldness runs like a seam through the poem. The crystal’s ancientness, its existence a priori the poet and the modern world are knowledge underlying The Crystal Text:

Crystal not survivable, but will remain me.
It lives in the sun-tipped palace of my regard,
until. One could place no period after it. (89)

The magnetism of ancient things, their materiality in time — calcite, trilobite, the sounds of language — must be a primary obsession of the poet. This is the “will and would / rather than / shall and should,” the inevitability poems start with. The crystal’s persistence in form over time, a nearly musical persistence of quiet shape, is one of the poem’s underpinnings. Like the urn, which “When old age shall this generation waste / … shalt remain, in midst of other woe,” the permanence of the crystal urges the poem toward a recognition of the impossibility of its own completion. Stone, urn, and poem are what “one could place no period after.” For the crystal there is finally no finally.

All of which is crucial to an understanding of The Crystal Text. But also, critically: “art has no inside, nothing you cannot see.” This parenthetical of Kenner’s, an aside, has had a killer effect on me. I wrestle with it because it seems at times to run poisonously counter to the more hopeful uses of writing. There is something monstrous about that idea, but as The Crystal Text, like “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” points out, you point to an inside that is and isn’t there. Keats looks at the urn from every side, and when the silent object speaks, it can disclose nothing but its self, the beauty of its form.

The crystal sits on the poet’s desk. He observes it. It is both alive and inanimate, silent and yet awaiting response. Like Wallace Stevens’s jar, the crystal organizes reality (and thereby, obviously but crucially, the ensuing poem) around itself. Stevens: “It made the slovenly wilderness / surround that hill.”[7] The crystal, like the jar, becomes the poem’s inscrutable cipher, its placement the enactment of the poem’s own making. Coolidge writes, “The world is a baffle that shows through to / you, everywhere” (89). Stevens writes of the jar: “It took dominion everywhere” (76). Of the crystal everything in The Crystal Text comes to surround, Coolidge writes:

Now all I can see is you. Whatever you contain.
Whatever you do to time, not to mention
perform on space. (95)

However, like neither the jar nor the urn, the crystal both is and is not a vessel. “What am I looking at? Into what’s locked businesses?” (45). It contains itself, and is both open and closed, its contents visible to the naked eye.

In, within, withheld, appearance
owns a shifty lock? Back to the thought, the crystal
open while closed (27)

This sense of the crystal as a vessel of itself, which is both open and shut, is conjured throughout the poem. “The crystal holds light but it is not hollow” (151). It is a “box of instruments, padlocked” (36), “any space one can see / is enclosed” (14), and “our encased answer” (71). “Is there a half-broken-open rock?” (57), asks Coolidge. The crystal is “notionless of its fill” (111), “but / crystal itself does fill” (46). What can it mean to think the poem as a vessel both closed and open? To what degree is it “notionless of its fill”? The crystal isn’t, like Stevens’s jar, “of a port in air.” It carries itself, through time, in closed form. “Art has no inside, nothing you cannot see.” And yet the crystal does have a visible inside, through which light passes: integral, visible and invisible. Its contents both inaccessible, yet completely apparent. A closed thing whose visible contents rotate light? A static thing capable of generating electrical current when pressed? Is reading then a kind of pressure put on the poem? The poem, like the stone, is composed of materials that provoke this impossible line of questioning even as they render it moot. They provoke it, like the urn, out of the very beauty of their forms. And preclude it by disclosing themselves only as that: “aporian solid” (14). Like the urn, the poet studies the facets and sides of it, hefts it and stares; like Stevens’s jar, its centrality to the poem is pursuant to the way it “takes dominion everywhere.”

Open while closed. “Into what’s locked businesses?” The static businesses of a form which came into being through improvisation, marks on the wall of a cave: as a “finished,” “discrete,” or “singular” “thing,” the closed form of poem or crystal displays simply the processes by which it was formed. It resists reference to anything else: it pends as the forms of the process by which it was composed. In this way it’s precisely an arrangement, as are cave paintings in Lascaux or an Eric Dolphy solo.

In the midst of writing this short essay I watched The Cave of Forgotten Dreams, a documentary by Werner Herzog about ancient cave art. Images of bison and horses seem to race across the walls of a cave our prehistoric ancestors once slept in, those early humans who felt the urge to record what they saw and to draw what they dreamt. In one scene, an experimental archaeologist wearing bearskin robes holds up a flute made of a vulture bone, and plays part of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” On this ancient, newfound instrument, the song is beautifully and weirdly unfixed from its familiar significance: it becomes just notes, forms of sound floating into space.




1. Clark Coolidge, “A Correspondence” with Paul Metcalf, Stations no. 5 (Winter 1978): A Symposium on Clark Coolidge, ed. Ron Silliman.

2. Coolidge, The Crystal Text (Los Angeles: The Sun and Moon Press, 1995), 74.

3. Coolidge, Now It’s Jazz (Albuquerque: Living Batch Press, 1999).

4. Coolidge, “Arrangement,” in Talking Poetics from Naropa Institute: Annals of the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, vol. 1, ed. Anne Waldman and Marilyn Webb (Boulder, CO: Shambhala Publications, 1978).

5. John Keats, “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” in Complete Poems and Selected Letters (New York: Modern Library, 2001).

6. Hugh Kenner, The Pound Era (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971), 30.

7. Wallace Stevens, “The Anecdote of the Jar,” in The Collected Poems (New York: Vintage Books, 1990), 76.

Poetry and the unpoetic

Left to right: Marjorie Perloff, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and Plato.

Early on in her 1996 study of “Poetic Language and the Strangeness of the Ordinary,” a book entitled Wittgenstein’s Ladder, Marjorie Perloff puts forward the thesis — one which has circulated widely — that Wittgenstein wrote “‘philosophy’ as if it were ‘poetry.’”[1] Both “philosophy” and “poetry” appear in quotation marks, giving us to understand that a certain metaphorical grammar may be at work here, although equally it may be the very literality of these terms that Perloff wishes to insist upon, in order in some sense to “undo.” In evoking this proximity of poetry to philosophy, even by way of an analogy — of an analogical writing — Perloff calls to mind, without naming,[2] the figure (we might say spectre) of a form of “poetry” that writes as philosophy; which negates itself (as poetry) in a moment of zealous assertion of its truth (as philosophy). Perloff’s implied interlocutor here is the Plato of The Republic. In the background of Perloff’s discussion of Wittgenstein, of “poetic language,” and of “estrangement,” the three books of the Republic dealing with the exclusion of “poetry” from the ideal polis — in fact its interdiction — evoke the ambi-violence of a type of primal scene: on the one hand describing a castration-effect of language under the dominion of the philosophic Signified, and on the other describing the locus of a return of the philosophical “repressed,” its Unheimlich, its strangely resemblant yet disconcerting and innately threatening other. They rehearse in inaugurating political consciousness, towards whose “thought” — or rather rationale — language (and so-called poetic language above all) is henceforth subjectivized as “obedient, dutiful, servile, fawning” — to borrow the words of Zambian-born poet Karen Mac Cormack.[3] Plato’s consolation to poetry is to allow it to plead, to “make her defence”: in any case, poetry is under no circumstances to speak for itself, or to speak in its own name, it must rather be represented before the tribunal of reason by others, speaking in proseas if it were philosophy.[4]

It has gone without saying, of course, that poetry “speaking as prose,” enters upon the purview of the philosophical only by virtue of this fact, that it does not speak (just as, in the Platonic schema, the truth — under the name Socrates — remains the last word of a philosophy that does not write). But though it is prohibited from speaking in its own name, the eliding of poetry into prose, into the “language of” philosophy, evokes a type of Freudian symptomatology — a type of “return” of the philosophic repressed — by way of this seeming aporia: as if it were philosophy (or even what Badiou, addressing Wittgenstein, calls “antiphilosophie”). There is a corollary, of course, in that the “repressed” is never any detachable thing, but rather a symptom of an inaugurating gesture, such as — analogously — of the Platonic schema. The impetus of poetry’s threat to the polis is entirely apportioned in the inaugurating action of this schema (to the extent that one might indeed argue that poetry — or if not poetry in its generic sense, then poiēsis in the broader tropological sense — “is” this inaugurating action “itself”). “La poème,” writes Badiou, “signifie l’être, et enregistre l’imminence de l’acte.”[5] In any case, poetry henceforth becomes that of which, in its own turn, philosophy will not speak — other than in the proscriptive mode or (equivalently) as an exemplum.

If the republic of Plato stands as a summa of philosophical-political accomplishment, poetry then assumes something of the contrary “function” — of détournement, of ostranenie, of disconcertion and masking: which is to say, it does not state itself as thought, but enstates a type of thought (the unheimlich poetic object, so-called, puts us in the position of thinking at the same time as it maintains a critical distanciation, a “persona”). It is able to do this not because poetry may be applied “philosophically” or “politically” (i.e. as a vehicle for thought in competition with philosophy/politics), but because it itself constitutes a condition, an illicit possibility of the “philosophical” and of the “political” (Plato’s exclusion more than implies it).

We see in Plato that the very activity of formalizing the political as philosophy as thought presents itself as the locus of a kind of obsessional neurosis. The poetic exclusion becomes the bellwether of an entire system and the necessary condition for its terms and the discourse they represent to uphold their claims to a sovereign reason (one unperturbed by internal contradictions).[6] By excluding dramatic poetry from his ideal polis, Plato strictly excludes the possibility of such a thing as “poetical reason,” even if (or rather because) the logic of “personae” employed in dramatic poetry is ostensibly the same logic as underwrites philosophical discourse: i.e. the logic of hypothesis. And philosophical discourse is no mere descriptive system — it is not, as Wittgenstein rightly argued, theoretical, but rather an action, an activity (eine Tätigkeit), thereby commensurate with thinking, with “thought,” and thus commensurate also with a “poetics” of thought.[7] Despite Plato’s objections to the contrary, the activity of philosophy (and Plato’s own philosophical “mode” — aporetic dialogue plus interrogative suspense — is very much exemplary of this) brings together what Badiou calls a syntax continually tempted by mathematics and a semantics equally tempted by a “poésie hermétique.” It aspires to a “crystalline univocity” at the same time as it is drawn towards an “absolute equivocation.”[8]

If Wittgenstein himself formulated no “poetics,” his investigations of language and propositional structures themselves articulate a poetics. In a note, Perloff cites Stanley Cavell to the effect that while “in Plato, philosophy retains a given reality, an autonomous cultural, intellectual, institutional life,” for Wittgenstein such an autonomy no longer obtains.[9] We see that in part this has to do with the view, given in the Tractatus, that language in all its modes — including so-called “philosophical discourse” (as much as “poetic language”) — is either commensurate or contiguous or (to the extent this is possible) both, its autonomy founded solely on a series of rhetorical (poetical) manoeuvres, such as those played out in the Republic. Wittgenstein, however, doesn’t merely dismiss “philosophic” or “poetic” language as categories, but rather — and quite significantly — demonstrates that the logic of Plato’s gesture (the foundational gesture of the philosophy/poetry dichotomy) is itself vested in precisely this contiguity of language (and there is a temptation here to emphasize its as such, if this itself were not a pleonasm): it is a language-effect, an operation of a certain as if. In a very fundamental sense for Wittgenstein, philosophical language and poetic language are hypotheses which are mutually implied if yet in no proper sense equivalent. As Badiou observes:

Words take on, in philosophy, a sense both imperious and troubling. They are at the same time made axiomatic by the effort to systematise and poeticised by the rhetorical energy of doing so.[10]

The Tractatus (an attempt, in Badiou’s estimation, to produce a work sans extérieur through an evocation of linguistic materiality: “the contrary of the entire rhetoric of Platonism”)[11] — though concerned with articulating principles of “logic” — commences with a series of aphorisms, in the guise of axioms (replete with its own numerical pseudo-system, “un principe de montage, codé par les numerations”), about delimitation and discourse, summed up in 5.6: “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world” (Die Grenzen meiner Sprache bedeuten die Grenzen meiner Welt). It is important to understand Wittgenstein quite literally here. If Browning by way of McLuhan says “a man’s reach much exceed his grasp, else what’s a metaphor?” this “reach,” for Wittgenstein, means the possibility of language, and thus the possibility of a world — which is to say, of an idiom.[12] The aporia of language, of poiēsis, for Wittgenstein organizes itself around an absolute alterity that is only ever able to announce itself by way of “paradoxes” that are nonetheless fully in accord with what is conceivable — as for example the type of hermetic statements we find in the films of Jean-Luc Godard, such as in Notre Musique when one of his actors proposes a two-fold definition of “death” as both “the impossibility of the possible” and “the possible of the impossible.” In both instances — Godard and Wittgenstein — paradox is not a descriptive pragmatics, but a “syntax” and a “stylistic” (“une stylistic de l’aphorisme,” e.g.).[13]

For Wittgenstein, language — whose “limits” are contiguous with those of the possible — is “everything that is the case” (proposition 1). But what “is the case” in language? Or let me return to Perloff’s formulation, from which two questions seem to want to present themselves: What does it mean to write as if? And what is poetic language?

The institution of Philosophy, according to a certain tradition, is properly founded with the writings of Plato. Voilà. This idea has recently been restated by Badiou, who points to Plato’s de-suturing of “philosophy” and “poetry,” in the republic, as the foundational moment.[14] It is a moment reflected in the birth of the Enlightenment, in the de-suturing of science and metaphysics. It suggests that, in-advance of itself, “philosophy” remained alchemically indistinguishable from the “poetic,” wrapped up in so much subjectivism. Badiou’s point hinges on the nature of the exclusion of poetry from Plato’s ideal polis — specifically the exclusion of dramatic poetry, in which the persona of the speaker is not grounded in the selfhood of poet or listener/reader, and not consequently bound by any criteria of truth (it evades the juridical, in that it disavows responsibility for its avowals) — thus permitting philosophy to constitute (or believe it constitutes) its own rule-governed class of language. At the same time, Plato’s gesture of exclusion presents itself as a type of necessity, without which philosophy would not be able to assert its claims over reason and truth, though equally the fact of poetry’s exclusion has always — however subtly, however discreditedly — represented a certain embarrassment, a certain disquietude, like the continued existence of a Britannicus in the eyes of a Nero.[15] Ostensibly, the dramatic poet is regarded by Plato (who for his part appropriates the figure of Socrates to rail against the deleterious influence of Homer on Athenian morals) as a species of sophist, whose language presents an especial dilemma for philosophy because it is able at every stage to simulate the discourse of truth, without, as it were, being responsible for its own words.[16] However, paradox is situational, it finds a way of inhabiting the very systems that seek to reduce or exclude it; it is produced “complementarily” with them (as anti-matter is to matter) and abolished in their abolition (as Barrett Watten says, “A paradox is eaten by the space around it”).[17]

It is for this reason that we find the “poetic exception” consistently undermined throughout Wittgenstein’s Tractatus. In order to account for language at all, it is necessary to account for language in its broadest ramification. Wherever a theory of language exists which maintains a poetic exception, the spectre of “poetic language” constantly haunts and undermines its definitions, its suppositions, its “world view.” And yet the relation of poiēsis to philosophic logos also assumes the character of an aporia. Poiēsis, like the sophist, will not be pinned down. It presents, in fact, the allure of an anti-paradigm (of which, more later). Our ability to know what “poetry” is remains here negatively defined, either with regard to the master discourses of philosophy or politics; and in light of a historical project which has maintained the autonomy of aesthetics (to which the term “poetry” has been most often affiliated) a number of questions arise as to the systematization of poetry, the reconvergence of poetry and philosophy by way of a poetics, and the designation of an “unpoetic.” Between the inflection of the definite article and an apparent appropriation of the exclusionary prefix, the term “poetic” hesitates between two seemingly contradictory tendencies: a paradox. On the one hand, there is the consolidation, from the classical era by way of the Renaissance, of both formal and ethico-aesthetic delimitations of the poetic (to the exclusion of elements deemed “unpoetic”); effectively a re-inscribing of Plato’s originary gesture, by means of which poetry — as the formerly excluded — redeems itself once more for the good and the beautiful. On the other hand, there is — primarily associated with modernism, but finding diverse antecedents — the assumption of a critical stance which seeks both to upset the ideological foundations of such an aesthetics and at the same time to extend the idea of the “poetic” by means of the “unpoetic.”

If there exists an historical moment at which the consolidation of the “poetic” by way of an exclusion of the “unpoetic” shifts towards an extension of the “poetic” by way of an engagement with the “unpoetic,” then problems of more than merely definitional character arise. (Is it true, as Roland Barthes claims, that “it is only recently that literature comes into existence — as a problem”?)[18] What is of particular interest, however, is how the poetic/unpoetic dichotomy re-inscribes, in a reverse movement, the signal exclusion of “poetry” from Plato’s ideal “polis.” The history of modernism suggests a politicizing of the “unpoetic” (or an acknowledgement of the “unpoetic” as the “political”) orientated towards a critique of official modes of discourse, including official modes of poetic discourse (and consequently, official modes of modernist poetic discourse, once these too have become reified). Nevertheless, this “politicization” (in truth, the “poetic” is political from its origin) necessarily tends towards a recuperation of “poetry” for the “polis” (in one respect or another, the “poetics of the unpoetic” tends to assume a stance with regard to the polis, or the “cultural police,” and thus to be defined by it). In almost every instance, the poetic “avant-garde” — as it has manifested itself, however diversely, throughout the history of modernism, and in its more recent incarnations — has nevertheless maintained a social-transformative function (a re-negotiation of the terms binding poetry to the polis): for Surrealism it was to bring about a poetico-social revolution by means of a change of consciousness; for Dada, the abolition of “false” moral-aesthetic values (“Art” or “Kultur”) etc. The question, then, is how can we treat the “unpoetic” as a paradigm of “poetic” critique? What does it mean when we accede to the idea of the “poetic” in advance of such a critique? And what does it mean when we seek to extend, or progress, the “poetic” by means of the “unpoetic” — whether in its singularity, or as a plurality? And this raises again for us a question posed by the late Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish: “Is poetry [therefore] a sign or is it an instrument of power?”[19]

But to return to my first question: What would it mean to write as if?

One recent exploration of this question is Karen Mac Cormack’s 2008 book, Implexures — whose title refers to an archaic usage, defined by the OED as “an infolding, a fold.” Mac Cormack’s text might be loosely described as a kind of “dramatic poem” (though for the most part in prose) whose “poetics” is organized around certain constructs of persona articulated through a matrix of travelogue, letters, journal entries, diary entries, notebook entries, memoire, self-quotation, quotations from diverse sources — scientific, historiographical, philosophical, literary (including Gertrude Stein, Virginia Woolf, Robert Musil, Deleuze and Guattari, Max Beerbohm, Aphra Behn, Marcel Duchamp, and Petrarch) — newspaper clippings, civic ordinances, parliamentary records, etymologies, genealogies, trivia, photography, diagrams, dreams, mythology, political commentary, number tables, and the odd forgery (a letter, for example, from “Susan Hicks Beach,” the author’s great-aunt, “to Jacques Derrida circa 1880”): all arranged in thirty-one sections, plus postscript, plus index of “sources.” Incorporating conventions of philology, Implexures examines the functional distinctions between poetry and artefact, record, testimony, document, facticity, and ultimately what it means to speak of truth statements (Mac Cormack: “promotion to meaning enlists words”[20]). The montage-effect of the work — the paradoxically seamless and yet inassimilable “demarcation” of the so-called poetic object — demands accounting for: firstly with regard to the logic of dichotomy (which not only underwrites whatever may be said about the “poetic” and “unpoetic,” or dramatic poetry and philosophy), but of genre and consequently of discourse as a whole; and secondly with regard to the possibility of montage, of expropriation or re-expropriation (whether of the poetic for the philosophical, for example, or of philosophy into the poetic): montage here describes a syntax, the implexure of language.

During the late nineteenth century, Hans Vaihinger’s Philosophy of As If specified an array of instances in which “fictive” thinking lent comparative impetus to biology, mathematics, physics, philosophy, psychology, and jurisprudence. For Vaihinger, all discourse, all genres, are structurally reducible to the sequence of thought encapsulated by the “as if.” Additionally, Vaihinger argued that science, in a strict sense, is speculative, since we can never really “know” (or directly experience) the underlying reality of the world. Rather, we construct systems of thought and act “as if” these correspond to some objective reality. The worldview presented by science is, for Vaihinger, ultimately constructed upon certain fictional foundations, even if it is a highly coherent and effective one. This view reflects the practical reliance of science upon hypothesis, but also the dependence upon indirect verification. Meaning that much of what underwrites our reality cannot even be represented by means of analogy. Often, science is concerned with what, for us, remains fundamentally unknowable. For Vaihinger, the as if underwrites the very notion of hypothesis, of modelling, prediction, predication, possibility, and fiction. It also evokes synonymy, similitude, analogy, metaphor, representation, and signification. In short, an entire poetics. Here, the quasi-oppositional dichotomy gives rise to a theory of radical contiguity. Not equivalence, but a structural contiguity of discourse, of language. Importantly, the as if also generalizes our thinking about such things as hypothesis from the “object” of a given discourse (what it knows or can know), to the character of that discourse itself. For example, with regard to Plato’s ideal polis, we can treat philosophy (in the sense of being founded upon a certain dichotomization) as a type of as if. That is to say as a hypothesis, or a set of similar hypotheses. The coherence of philosophical discourse thus devolves, in a certain sense, upon the coherence of its hypothetical foundations: the as if. Vaihinger’s theory of fictions, which begins with a consideration of knowledge and hypothesis, attempted to address questions of human subjectivity, and the preponderance of individuals to employ psychological fictions to mediate their experience of “irrational” social realities (ideas which echo those of Charcot, Breuer, and Freud concerning hysteria — in which psychosomatic illness is recognized as indistinguishable from “conventional” illness. The forms of simulation encountered in hysteria, for example, point towards a functional equivalence of reality and fiction at certain crucial points, echoing not only the methodological dependency of science upon a philosophy of “as if,” but also the status of this “as if” as foundational for scientific method and its forms of verifiability. Mac Cormack:

How the unknown becomes the known (process again) and sometimes becomes lost, misplaced, suppressed, de-known, subjectively and collectively, from culture to culture …[21]

This “process” is given throughout Implexures by way not only of the concatenation of discourses, but by way of a type of archaeology or paleo-etymology, in which the “evolution” of language(s) articulates a logic of as if whose terms are themselves thus “propositions.” One example, early on in Implexures, has to do with the contiguity of the terms “grammar” and “glamour” — tending towards paradox:

The word glamour “developed” as the Scottish spelling of the English gramayre or gramarye (entered into English in the 14th century denoting grammar or learning) but by the 15th century it signified occult learning. By the close of that century (in its modern spelling) glamour meant a specific form of magic spell or charm cast by devils through the agency of (usually) female witches, and supposedly caused the illusory disappearance of the penis …[22]

The politico-philosophic evolution that will have elsewhere conjoined phallus and logos, here encounters an “illusory” castration at the hands, so to speak, of a grammar gone astray along a path of orthographic deviancy — precisely what Plato was so anxious to preclude in his well-known discourse (written in the persona of Socrates) against writing; a companion-piece to his treatise against poetry (with which analogy seems unavoidable). For Mac Cormack, the evolutionary pathways of these terms describe a “poetics” of the possible: each term acting as an open hypothesis, suggestive of a shifting locus of meaning which “circulate equivocally,” in Badiou’s reading of Wittgenstein, “between the sense of the proposition … and the sense of the world.”[23] Just as for Wittgenstein, the “world” for Mac Cormack (everything that “is the case”) is language-dimensions (“without exteriors,” as Badiou says). Mac Cormack:

From string theory to M-theory (one dimensional strings giving way to higher-dimensional membranes) but apparently “most of the known physical forces operate only within a particular (mem) brane” — except perhaps gravity. If gravity “leaks out” it might allow an inferring of a parallel “brane’s” presence. And so what’s presently referred to as “dark matter” could be ordinary matter on one of many (?) parallel branes, its emitted light “trapped in its own world” but its gravity now also in ours. How to infer the “curled up” extra dimensions of language …?[24]

Mac Cormack’s Implexures — via what Badiou terms “le principe syntaxique du montage” — evokes writing as multiple personae, a writing as if, which puts to work the dichotomic interval of “parallel branes” — so to speak — in order to “infer the ‘curled up’ extra dimensions of language.” To return to Perloff, if Wittgenstein is seen to write “philosophy” as if writing “poetry,” this would not mean the one in “imitation” of the other, or a reverse “expropriation” of the one to the other, or even an “anti-philosophy” in any simplistic sense, but — let us hypothesize — a writing by which “poetry” and “philosophy” are re-inaugurated, and again re-inaugurated, tropologically, across this “complementation” (as Buckminster Fuller used to say) of as and if. Mac Cormack’s Implexures, to paraphrase,

is an engagement with depiction abstracted, skewed, the poetry a layering of interactions internal and external so too “on” and within linguistic forms.[25]

It would be incorrect to suggest here that Mac Cormack’s text records an attempted “intervention” by means of the poetic, or poetic “strategies,” into those discourses from which it is conventionally viewed as excluded. Nor is it merely an act of serial appropriation. It is not enough simply to “change all the sentences,” as Charles Bernstein has said,[26] just as it is ultimately self-defeating to submit to an anti-paradigm such as the “unpoetic” for the purpose of pursuing “poetry by other means.” The paradigm/anti-paradigm of the un/poetic (just as much as Badiou’s anti/philosophie dichotomy) needs to be reviewed in light of Derrida’s response to Foucault in his 1963 essay “Cognito and the History of Madness” (concerning Foucault’s attempt to employ “madness” [unreason, alogos, and — by declensions implied — poetry] as a paradigm of the critique of history-as-reason [i.e. philosophy], Derrida poses two basic questions: If history is a rational concept, how is it possible to write a history of madness? and second, If Foucault claims to speak for a madness that by definition must remain silent does he not risk re-appropriation by the very mode of exclusion that he claims to avoid? “We have the right,” Derrida argues, “to ask what, in the last resort, supports this language without recourse or support …? Who wrote and who is to understand, in what language and from what historical situation of logos … this history of madness?”).[27] At the very least this has to do with the fact that poiēsis, if not necessarily “poetry” as a genre of literary discourse instituted in one sort of Platonistic gesture or another, already articulates structures contiguous between all modes of discourse — including the technical and even mathematical. Like Wittgenstein’s logic, poiēsis — the poetic[28] — doesn’t give a picture: it is foremost structure and situation. It internalizes its dichotomies in advance, so that to speak of “poetic language” is at once to stipulate a general condition of the signifiable, while at the same time evoking a fundamental aporia, paradox, or pleonasm. The “impossibility of the possible” and the “possible of the impossible.”



1. Marjorie Perloff, Wittgenstein’s Ladder: Poetic Language and the Strangeness of the Ordinary (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), 3. In L’antiphilosophie de Wittgenstein (Paris: Nous, 2009), Alain Badiou in a similar vein describes the Tractatus as “Une saison en enfer écrit dans la forme de Un coup de dés …” (102; the comparison with Mallarmé is also made earlier, on page 88).

2. Except in two endnotes, on pages 246 and 254. Perloff’s intervention necessarily casts back — in light of Russell and Whitehead’s failed Principia Mathematica — to the very foundations of philosophy and, explicitly or otherwise, concerns itself with an inherence of what is sometimes called “paradox” or aporia in the project of reason from Plato onwards and its haunting by the figure of “poetry.”

3. Karen Mac Cormack, Implexures (Tucson: Chax Press, 2008), 58.

4. Plato, The Republic, trans. Desmond Lee (London: Penguin, 1955), book 10, 607d-e.

5. Badiou, L’antiphilosophie de Wittgenstein, 112.

6. What this in part amounts to, is an acknowledgement that poetry is effectively excluded by Plato because it cannot be instituted, that it cannot be reduced to the type of definitional regimen he seeks to employ throughout in order to establish philosophy etc. on axiomatic foundations. In other words, that this “exclusion” is always a “pragmatique descriptive,” as Badiou says, since “by definition” poetry already writes itself out of the Platonic equation in advance, at the same time as it haunts each of its terms (philosophy defines itself, we might say, with poetry very much in mind, while poetry is only arbitrarily concerned with the philosophical as such, and this is what philosophy, to Plato’s way of thinking, cannot bear). See Badiou, L’antiphilosophie de Wittgenstein, 109. Another consequence of all this is that, despite yoking together the terms philosophy, politics and thought, Plato succeeds only in describing a type of theoretical complex, under whose rarefied conditions a philosophical “way of life” might become possible.

7. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, intro. Bertram Russell, trans. C. K. Ogden (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1922), 4.112.

8. Badiou, L’antiphilosophie de Wittgenstein, 99, my translation.

9. Perloff, Wittgenstein’s Ladder, 246n20.

10. Badiou, L’antiphilosophie de Wittgenstein, 98.

11. Ibid., 99.

12. What can be thought or expressed is both inherent in language but also contingent upon a state-of-affairs of language: its poiesis, its making. Charles Bernstein, in an interview with Tom Beckett, argues: “A task of poetry is to make audible (tangible but not necessarily graspable) those dimensions of the real that cannot be heard as much as to imagine new reals that have never before existed. Perhaps this amounts to the same thing.” Bernstein, “Censers of the Unknown — Margins, Dissent, and the Poetic Horizon,” in A Poetics (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992), 184.

13. Badiou, L’antiphilosophie de Wittgenstein, 99.

14. Badiou, “Language, Poetry, Thought,” trans. Ray Brassier and Alberto Toscano, Theoretical Writings (London: Continuum, 2004), 239ff.

15. Poetry in this sense is the subjective in language.

16. Plato, in seeking to exclude those aspects of discourse that contradicted any systematization of language-as-reason (logos), above all paradox, was possessed by the same demon that drove Bertram Russell. The system of dialectical reduction in Plato produces the aporia of indeterminacy, just as the system of mathematical reduction in Russell produced the logical ambivalence of a whole class of sets.

17. Barrett Watten, “Plasma,” In the American Tree, ed. Ron Silliman (Orono, ME: National Poetry Foundation, 1984), 27.

18. Roland Barthes, Writing Degree Zero, trans. Annette Lavers and Colin Smith (New York: Hill and Wang, 1967), xv.

19. Mahmoud Darwish in the film Notre Musique, dir. Jean-Luc Godard (2005).

20. Mac Cormack, Implexures, 14.

21. Ibid., 64.

22. Ibid., 25.

23. Badiou, L’antiphilosophie de Wittgenstein, 100.

24. Mac Cormack, Implexures, 88.

25. Ibid., 89.

26. Bernstein, A Poetics, 152.

27. Jacques Derrida, Writing and Difference, trans. Alan Bass (London: Routledge, 1978), 62.

28. On this collocation, see Martin Heidegger, “The Question Concerning Technology,” in Basic Writings: From Being and Time (1927) to The Task of Thinking (1964), ed. David Farrell Krell. Revised edition. (London: Routledge, 1993), 308.

Playing the world

Poetry generated from a source text has been around at least since 1920, when Tristan Tzara wrote his instructions for how to make a Dada poem. What follows is an argument for reading the procedures of such works as texts themselves, worthy of analysis. These procedures signify in ways that are as complex as the results they yield. In other words, just as language is circumscribed by its cultural use, so are these seemingly neutral processes.

NewsReader is an online “textual instrument” that was commissioned by the net art website turbulence in 2003. Created by Noah Wardrip-Fruin and a team of collaborators that included Brion Moss, David Durand, and Elaine Froehlich, Newsreader is software that lets the reader alter and reformulate news stories through a variety of cut and paste procedures. As the creators note, the main action of these instruments is “to perform William Burroughs’s injunction to ‘cut word lines’ — to break the chains of conceptual association that say this follows from that …” In doing so, the piece reveals much about our times, but not in the way one might initially expect.

As of January 2012, this piece was no longer “playable,”[1] so what follows is a session of “play” that occurred in 2007 when I presented this essay as a talk at the Modern Language Association’s annual convention.

When the Newsreader program is first opened up, a Yahoo! News headline feed from mainstream news sources appears. A click on any of the article summaries leads to the full-length article.

However, the full-length article includes a number of highlighted words and phrases. Although they may appear as such, these are not hypertext links that connect to some predetermined offshoot of text; instead, these are n-grams — words that commonly repeat in the English language in groups of two (digrams) and three (trigrams). A click on any of these groupings leads to another screen. In the example here, the digram “to build” was selected, which generated a screen with three paragraphs beginning with “to build.”

It took me a long time to figure out how this nonlinear text was put together, but I could tell that it was the result of some kind of cut-up process. After reading through the working documents of the piece, as well as contacting Wardrip-Fruin and plying him with questions, here’s what I understand to have happened. While I was reading my mainstream Yahoo news story, the program was busy downloading in the background all the top news stories from an alternative newspaper feed at the website Common Dreams.

When I clicked on the digram “to build,” the program searched the alternative news stories for matching digrams. When a match was found, new text (what I’ll call an “alteration text”) was generated according to the statistical n-gram model.

How this model works might best be understood as a procedure in league with the Oulipo’s N+7 or John Cage’s mesostics or Jackson Mac Low’s diastics. Imagine you’re reading the news at the Common Dreams site and you randomly pick the pair of words that make up this particular digram, “to build.” You then search for another occurrence of that digram on the site and when you find one you add the word that follows that next digram: “to build a.” So you now have three words — a trigram. The second and third words (“build a”) are then treated as a digram, and there’s a search for a recurrence of that pair. Then the word that follows that pair is added (“build a Humvee”), and so on until a chain is created. Thus, this paragraph is a cut-up generated by an algorithm. The n-gram screens contain further n-grams that you can keep on clicking to produce new screens.

N-gram chains can be followed indefinitely. Each time, the n-grams act as bridges between two separate textual bodies.

But generating nonlinear text strands are just part of the play here; there’s more that can be done.

If you click on a word that’s not highlighted or linked in the alteration text, the chain that extends from that word back to the digram beginning the chain/paragraph will be cut and pasted into the previous document at the point of the digram that led you to this alternative page in the first place. In this example, a click on the word “report” in the first line of the second alteration paragraph causes the phrase “to build a children’s well-being report” to be cut and pasted into the original news article.

The alteration text screen disappears when this is done, and the phrase “The FBI is embarking on a $1 billion project to build the world’s largest computer database of biometrics” becomes “The FBI is embarking on a $1 billion project to build a children’s well-being report.”

The screenshot above is the result of some extended play with the first paragraph of the article.

The main action of Newsreader seems to be to locate n-grams in a source text (a news feed) and then inject them back in so as to alter that source. But to what end? Could it be argued that this piece is an elaborate machine for creating something that earlier proceduralists like Tristan Tzara and William Burroughs, were able to accomplish with a simple pair of scissors? Or is this program modeling something that goes beyond the syntactic disruptions of an algorithmic cut-up? In order to articulate what’s at stake in a piece like this, I want to do a quick comparison with John Cage’s mesostics — specifically those created for his Norton lectures at Harvard in 1988.

Digitally reproduced by permission of the publisher from I-IV by John Cage, pp. 9, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, Copyright © 1990 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. All rights reserved.

This is the first mesostic strand in the first of the lectures.[2] Very briefly, mesostics are similar to acrostics, but with a center strand functioning as a kind of spine. The center strand is often a name or a group of words (in the excerpt above, it’s the word “method”), used to infiltrate or “read through” a much longer text or group of texts. The mesostic rule requires not repeating two adjacent center string letters which frame the wing words (between the “m” and the “e” in method, there is not a repetition of those letters).

Cage created this procedure so as to make unpredictable discoveries apart from authorial intention. Once the center strand was determined, Cage “hunted” for what the material was trying to say; he looked for the ideas that might become clearer by taking a few words or letters away from the wings. So the words to either side of the center are the result of his editorial choices. As Cage said during one of the question and answer sessions that followed each lecture, “this is a way of writing that comes from ideas but is not about them but somehow brings new ideas or other ideas into existence” (338).

The six Norton lectures are published as I–VI, but the sub- (or super-) title is above. Each word listed refers to an aspect of Cage’s work in music composition, and each word is used as a determining center strand (in the listed order) for sections of the mesostics that make up the lectures. The main reason I’ve chosen this particular procedural work for comparison with Newsreader has to do with Cage’s choice of source texts. Unlike other mesostic works that were generated from singular texts (Joyce’s Finnegans Wake or Thoreau’s journals being well-known examples), these lectures mix writings by a familiar set of Cagean influences (Wittgenstein, Thoreau, Emerson, McLuhan, Buckminster Fuller) with an array of newspaper sources (the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Christian Science Monitor). Such use of quotidian materials is rare for Cage. Below is a page where the news is visible, if not entirely readable:[3]

Digitally reproduced by permission of the publisher from I-IV by John Cage, pp. 14, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, Copyright © 1990 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. All rights reserved.

Due to the newspaper text, a number of questions were raised after the lectures about how Cage saw language and politics to be relating in his work. He answered:

I seem to be at a point where maybe many of us are where there’s a kind of separation between us and language and even things that are reported so that we don’t always respond — it’s almost as though we can’t … I’m in a situation of using words so to speak in a straitjacket but a straitjacket that includes the things from which we have so to speak numbed ourselves. I would like to know something more intelligent to say but I don’t know it. (115)

In a later question and answer session he noted, “Performance of a piece of music can be a metaphor of society … you can think of music as a representation of a society in which you would be willing to live” (177). A clue to how this might work is given in Cage’s introduction to I–VI: “there was a tendency on the part of the empty words, the particles, connectives like ‘and’ and ‘the’ and ‘a’ … to become important and to give us a kind of meaning that I’m not sure we fully understand” (5).

In this excerpt from IIV, we can see and hear the particles:

Digitally reproduced by permission of the publisher from I-IV by John Cage, pp. 409, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, Copyright © 1990 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. All rights reserved.

AND IS with gets, is in AS TO …

In relation to this phenomenon, Cage states that “the words that we thought were so meaningful become almost meaningless …. Benefits can come from taking the lesser of two things and supporting it rather than the stronger one, as for instance noise as opposed to musical sound and in this case empty words as opposed to full words and in the case of our society the poor instead of the rich” (254).

Thus the mesostic provides a possible world model, a vision for how the status quo might be altered through a procedural and documentary poetics. Which brings me back to Newsreader. If Cage’s mesostic procedures are modeling a society in which we would be willing to live, what kind of connectivity between text, procedure, and world does Newsreader posit?

In my exchange with Noah Wardrip-Fruin, it was made clear that the n-gram model that runs Newsreader is used in a number of everyday circumstances, as computers try to recognize and work with the input we give them. For example, in voice recognition software, if a computer was trying to parse out whether a speaker said “banana” or “bandanna,” the trigram “ate the banana” is much more common than “ate the bandanna” and the computer can make its choice based on that knowledge.[4] But the n-gram model is also behind ideas such as “total information awareness” and other government-sponsored mass surveillance projects. These models are used to determine patterns of “normal” language behavior, so as to be able to locate when patterns are transgressed. They are used to locate syntactic combinations that statistically indicate suspicious or criminal behaviors. If you were following your non-linear aesthetic inclinations and found yourself producing digrams and trigrams with unfortunate associations over the Internet or over the phone, this could have consequences if you live in a society where your government decides to eavesdrop on its citizens. You might find yourself in a suspect data set, caught in the net of an early-warning system, marked by your avant-garde word chains. Although this might sound like some kind of Minority Report cyber conspiracy theory, the fact is that datamining for “pre-crime” has been (and no doubt still is) a subject of funded governmental research.[5]

Of course, the total information awareness model can’t actually function. It yields a lot of false negatives and false positives. You can really only get good results for matches on a very small scale — for example, if you’re dealing with textual units, you’ll be more successful trying to find matches for three words than for full sentences. But there are instances when such models do work in more common circumstances — for instance, when Amazon makes suggestions for books you might enjoy, or when a music or film site suggests things based on your past interests. The example that is perhaps most useful because of the potential for negative consequences is when credit card companies use the n-gram algorithm to identify fraud. Credit card companies have defined a profile of purchasing (purchases being the n-grams here) for each individual that can help indicate criminal activity on a card. You may have taken a trip abroad without informing your credit card company and then had the awkward experience, like I once did, of having your card denied at a restaurant. Basically, I was the victim of a false positive in the statistical model that the company used. The inconvenience was annoying, but a relatively small price to pay for the failure, and fairly easy to fix. But the cost for using these models for something like terrorist surveillance is much higher, in that everyone is monitored, everyone is treated as a suspect, and there are perhaps one billion false positives for every one terrorist communication actually intercepted.

According to Wardrip-Fruin, the people designing these surveillance systems know that the costs of massive information aggregation and analysis far outweigh the benefits. But they also know that the model is quite seductive, with its proposition that everything can be accessible and knowable via computer systems (the biometrics article in the Newsreader example above is another instance of that seductive quality). Such a promise is easy to sell to a government that continues to wage war on an abstraction like “terror.” The threat of a “false positive” was clearly not a concern when the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act was passed.

And that’s where Newsreader comes in. It’s a piece that calls attention to use patterns, but emphasizes the fallibility of any attempt to interpret them. It highlights and celebrates the fact that the matches it produces are false positives — they can’t lead to a place of narrative coherence, to a singular meaning. They have a different kind of story to tell, and they evoke meaning in a different kind of way. They defy the concept of normative language structures and predictable usage patterns. The reader must hunt for what these digrams have in common, what they might coincidentally suggest, in the way that Cage hunted through the debris of his procedures’ output for ideas. The action is not of solving a cryptogram, but of reveling in the multiplicitous actions of our words.

Both Newsreader and Cage’s mesostics make use of what we now easily recognize as forms of data mining. Both argue against habitual systems of knowing and experiencing the world, with the help of aleatory and anti-digestive fragmenting procedures. Both show readership (and authorship) to be performative: an act of sampling, transforming, altering, and physically handling text. But perhaps most importantly, both are functioning on metatextual or metaphorical levels, allegorizing our methods of attention, our methods of processing information, and the ways those forms of processing mirror the forms of life we actually live in and with.

As much as I want to make the case that these procedures are two parts of a continuing project, the differences between them keep me from bringing this piece to a tidy conclusion. These documentary procedures are responding to forms and structures that perform the contents of very different historical moments. Cage, in his decision to follow the path of nonintention, was resisting what he saw as the automatic privileging of romantic self-expression and intention. Newsreader, built with an architecture of information processing tools, resists the contemporary desire for everything to be knowable, searchable, and analyzable.

Similar to the Surveillance Camera Players performance group, Newsreader is co-opting a nefarious system and retooling it for creative play. Unlike Cage’s mesostics, which are wonderfully elegant in their precision and thus poised for instigating meditative discoveries through reading or listening, Newsreader’s outputs are deliberately clumsy. Readers are forced to prioritize the concept behind those outputs over the textual product. Readers are asked to see process as the content of the work.

John Cage is often quoted as saying that “the function of art is to imitate Nature in her manner of operation.”[6] Newsreader revises that dictum by declaring that the function of art is to imitate culture and its procedural operations, and that when those cultural operations become dangerously reductive, they must be altered.



1. When I attempted to access Newsreader in order to update my “play” with current news stories, I discovered that it was no longer functional. The creators say that an upgrade may be forthcoming; however, its current dysfunction points to the ephemerality of digital art that relies on an external data source. This piece is built on a certain kind of data collection (of news, in this case) in a particular format. But formats are always changing; perhaps digital works will one day be able to accommodate that constant change. Until then, they function (to use Wardrip’s term) as “impermanence agents.”

2. John Cage, I–VI (Hanover and London: Wesleyan University Press, 1997), 9.

3. Ibid., 14.

4. Since presenting this talk in 2007, the concept of “n-grams” has moved perhaps more visibly into the mainstream with the introduction of Google’s Ngram viewer.

5. The Total Information Awareness program was created in 2003 as part of the Homeland Security Act. Although it was defunded by Congress in 2004, its work was renamed and absorbed by other intelligence agencies, such as the Disruptive Technology Office and the National Security Branch Analysis Center.

6. John Cage, A Year from Monday (Hanover and London: Wesleyan University Press, 1967), 31.

Hidden harmonies in John Cage's 'Empty Words'

Mushrooms grow best on shit — specifically, the shit of “corn-fed, hard-worked horses, which have been bedded down on wheat straw.”[1] Some mushrooms pop up after a rain, and grow in circles called “fairy rings,” only to disappear a few hours later. Some mushrooms have names like “Angel of Death” and “Death Cap,” and cause nausea, vomiting, delirium, coma, and — yes — death.

“The function of mushrooms is to rid the world of old rubbish,” wrote John Cage, composer and founder of the New York Mycological Society. He was talking about the Buddha being killed by a poisonous mushroom.[2] This comment seems very Cagean: humble, irreverent, funny.

Another Cage-mushroom anecdote has Cage struggling to find an adequate translation to a Basho haiku about mushrooms. A composer friend, Toru Takemitsu, suggested, “Mushroom does not know that leaf is sticking on it.” Three years later Cage himself came up with two translations: “that that’s unknown brings mushroom and leaf together,” and, his favorite, “What leaf? What mushroom?”[3]

What Cage appreciated in the haiku, besides the oblivious — or nonexistent — mushroom, was the multiplicity of meanings contained in its seventeen syllables — a multiplicity made possible by the haiku’s ambiguous syntax. If destabilizing syntax could admit so many divergent readings, what would happen if one destabilized — or eliminated — words? Syllables? Letters? How many more meanings would be possible? Cage explores these possibilities in his 1974 work Empty Words.[4] In it, he uses aleatory methods, that is, chance operations, to systematically disassemble the journals of Henry David Thoreau.

Empty Words is both text and score: It was designed to turn language into music. Each of its four parts, or “lectures,” is composed of at least four thousand chance events dictated by throwing the I Ching. The first lecture eliminates sentences; and contains only phrases, words, syllables, and letters. The second lecture eliminates sentences and phrases; and contains only words, syllables, and letters. The third lecture eliminates sentences, phrases, and words; and contains only syllables and letters. The final lecture eliminates sentences, phrases, words, and syllables; and contains only letters.

Cage intended the performance of the work to last overnight, with three half-hour intermissions between lectures for the audience to eat. The final lecture would be accompanied by projected images from Thoreau’s journals (also selected and placed in the text according to chance operations), and would be timed to coincide with the dawn. The doors would open and the ambient sounds of the morning would mingle with the linguistic “music” of Empty Words.

* * *

Cage’s methods may have been chance-determined, but his choice of Thoreau could not have been more deliberate. (Cage himself grants that, had he applied the same aleatory procedures to Finnegan’s Wake, or to a non-English text, the resulting work would have been very different.[5]) In the journals, Thoreau’s observations exhibit a disciplined clarity that evokes the wide, non-judging perception associated with Zen. He describes the eyes of an owl and the patterns made by the first frost of the season. In summer, he notes the flowering of the white vervain, checkerberry, spikenard, orchis.

As linguistic material, Thoreau’s journals are no less attentive, no less earth-bound. In Empty Words, we recognize over and over allusions to the cardinal directions (“santwh cur of gen M. more ingSouth them,” “neighborhood youaou is ngdspruongrwestd!” “makingGod on the southeast slopes on”), and to colors (“star quite handsome orange,” “greenness trifolia sky,” “ingray-brown pull nover high ofa e”). Thoreau is just as scrupulous about noting times of day (“notAt evening,” “morning oldgolden andbubble ground,” “noonOthasndry sn nglth e Dr. B the I ee tw”) and Latin species names (“Lysimachia lanceolataare,” “amtheleavesand andFringillareawakened,” “Lechedtyon Vi the terin theoth y”).[6] Oaks, white maples, and blackberries haunt the text, becoming more and more indistinct as the work progresses.

“Meaning,” determined as it is by linguistic and cultural conventions, begins to shimmer. Take, for example, this stanza:

beneathboards in militsvexground

     comes hawk

within some Isoff owlafiftythem[7]

Like the hawk itself, traditional meaning appears, and then gradually, through the chance-driven compounding of words, flies off. Rather than being compulsory, it is merely a point our attention moves toward, and returns from.

We witness this movement on the syntactic level, too:

                                               to which of the fire
overfelt mebut yet mingled red and green
               about a three espassing over it[8]

Here, a relative clause abuts a prepositional phrase, neither of which has any discernible antecedent. Does “red,” placed after “mingled,” function as an adverb or a noun? What does “it” — nested so deeply within what are ostensibly clauses — refer to? Cage attempted to “demilitarize” language by releasing it from syntax, but it is, on the contrary, the insistence of syntax that makes possible so many divergent readings — that paradoxically liberates it.

Consider the following, taken from the fourth lecture:


h opls e ar as
                                     a eolsstr eu rSp
                           dsbyM h n l re R s ny
              n pr tt Tk sn r ndl llth ksshd
e inat tnthrn ts oe iai twsh.   M es    o rm

                ck          tl hchm                         eihe
                  re                                       y r
                     Stro                  thndB  e
     a   e     kP.    M.      Tho                e
rse  h                             u                 ca           i
               i  s,  s  r
                              ing       ymbf     Chdh             llk
                 n                                            o  n
           stwn                                          r       dyd   ntly,
   thhtlytr                             a


In performance, units that evoke ocean (“oea / ann”) and star (“eolsstr”) are separated by long periods of silence, in which ambient sounds might intervene, and the mind might wander, before being brought back to attention by Cage’s articulation of the next sound. (In his performances of Empty Words, Cage sometimes lets minutes go by in this kind of apparent silence.) In “twsh” and “ksshd” we hear the snap of a sheet drying in the wind, the sound of a boot breaking through the crust of ice that has formed on a puddle. The mind moves from the particular instance to the idea, or chain of ideas, the word evokes. In the voiceless fragments “eihe” and “h,” the sound is the sense: breath.

Given Cage’s method and his theoretical concerns (which he articulates in the introductions that precede each lecture), it is fairly straightforward to identify some of the ways in which Empty Words — both as text and as score — means. But might there be another, more arcane valence of meaning revealed by Cage’s meticulous process?

* * *

Ferdinand de Saussure devoted three years and ninety-nine notebooks to research on anagrams. The French title of the published notes, Les mots sous les mots, suggests that the process was like excavation, looking beneath words to find hidden meanings. Central to his research was the concept of the poetic hypogram, a fragmented version of a “theme word,” usually a name, which is dispersed and circulated throughout the text. In the line of Saturnian Latin verse, “Taurasia Cīsauna Samnio cēpit,” for example, Saussure uncovered “Scīpio,” the name of the man (Lucius Cornelius Scipio Barbatus) the lines honor.[10]

“The hypogram,” Saussure writes, “is very much concerned with emphasizing a name, a word, making a point of repeating its syllables, and in this way giving it a second, contrived being added, as it were, to the original of the word.”[11] This implies that there is a link between the constituents of a word and the word itself; that, in the poetry Saussure studied, phonemes retain vestiges of the names they were once a part of — an idea that is as revolutionary as it is fanciful.

Saussure never conclusively proved this theory; nor did he conclusively fail. What matters to us is the fact that “he isolated a particularity of poetic functioning: that supplementary meanings slip into the verbal message, tear its opaque cloth, and rearrange another signifying scene.”[12] It may be a stretch to consider the text of Empty Words to be the hypogrammatic “residue” of all fourteen volumes of Thoreau’s journals, but we can nonetheless draw on Saussure’s ideas to determine, for example, what “r h nt rt nyncy” could possibly mean — and, perhaps more importantly, how it could possibly mean.

Baudrillard compares the operation of the poetic hypogram to annihilation: “The name of God, torn limb from limb, dispersed into its phonemic elements as the signifier, is put to death, haunts the poem and rearticulates it in the rhythm of its fragments, without ever being reconstituted in it as such.”[13] To him, each fragment — hypogrammatic or not — reminds the reader of what has been lost. (Even though the name of God is torn apart, the specter of God remains, and haunts the poem.)

In Empty Words, it is tempting to attribute the phonemes’ multiple possible meanings not to any hypogrammatic alchemy, but to Cage’s process. After all, he set out deliberately to break down Thoreau’s language (and to tell us that that is what he is doing): of course the fragments are going to suggest the words they came from. However, it must be stressed that Saussure never proved that poets used hypograms as a method of composition. What matters, then, is not the “why,” but the simple, observable fact that the fragment suggests meaning beyond itself.

Consider the following:

                the er think three – rind-in the
oftheshaldol ifis andhard Coloingdis
                Monto ahisgold in de weeds should in and
oncealedso with asun lyby sim Pond[14]

Might “Co” in “Coloingdis” have originally been part of “Concord”? Or “Thoreau and Company,” pencil makers? Perhaps. For those listening to the performance (on whom the initial capital would be lost), it may suggest “cottage,” “cloudy,” or “factory” — all likely possibilities given Thoreau’s lexicon (and Cage’s process). 

Likewise, “oncealedso” could be a composite of “once a led so,” “onc[e] [s]ealed so,” or “[c]oncealed so.” (Unless we have read the entire journal, though, the “lost meaning” we recover, or, rather, the lost meaning each fragment suggests, is not the journal itself, but our idea of it.)

So the text, especially in its earlier sections, asks the attentive listener to hold different ways of meaning and different chronologies of meaning in a kind of negative capability, in disciplined Zen attention. Empty Words becomes a palimpsest, with all possible meanings leaving their traces on the text.

Indeed, if the fragment can contain links to a presumed “original” whole, why could it not contain links to every whole it might possibly be? In

cm orv rthtnhu t strs ws
                               art ainS o nt in
              sh chi htndSpsca[15]

“strs” could originally have been starlings, streams, stutters. Could it not also be stairmasters, strippers, stoplights? And why limit our readings to English? “t u as glass”[16] and “leaf oneRain aler”[17] have lovely possibilities in French.

I am not asking these questions to be perverse. Rather, I am asking whether the possible signification of Cage’s text is limited by the text from which it is drawn: do the words in Thoreau’s journals describe the boundaries of Empty Words, or do they open the text to a multitude of possibilities? And if this is the case, might reading be less like murder and more like reassembling the body of Osiris?[18]

I think it is both. One would be hard pressed to look at the unit “nt” and claim that it does not seem to be missing something. So on this level, yes, the fragments emphasize their own incompleteness. However, I would venture that this very incompleteness gives the text its meaning. The fragment, according to Steve McCaffery, “contaminates the notion of an ideal, unitary meaning and thereby counters the supposition that words can fix or stabilize in closure.”[19]

On first read, McCaffery’s conclusion seems overly ambitious. If the fragment is indeterminate, must it necessarily follow that the word from which it originated is also indeterminate? In Empty Words, yes. Cage’s process, in the way that it systematically divides and combines units of meaning, reminds us that words themselves are configurations of interchangeable parts, assembled according to phonetic conventions. Just as the ostensibly incomplete words (“nt,” “de”) allude to all of their possible “wholes,” the hybrid words (“oneRain,” “oftheshaldol”) allude to all of the possible words they comprise. Just as Co could be Concord, so too could Concord be Co, acorn, raccoon. And because it could be any of these, it must be none of them — it must remain open.

“A,” then, is above all a symbol of indeterminacy. The fragments in Empty Words, by retaining links to words they comprise, words they may have been, and words they may yet become, keep the text porous — so much so that when the work dissolves into “emptiness,” it is, paradoxically, full of inchoate meaning.

* * *

When Cage performed parts of Empty Words at the Naropa Institute in 1974, people jeered and threw things. When he performed it in Milan in 1977, the audience of 3,000 divided into camps: some audience members tried to destroy the slide projector Cage was using; others fought them off. One person smashed the bulb in Cage’s reading light; another screwed a new bulb in. Someone even took off Cage’s reading glasses then, on second thought, placed them carefully back on Cage’s face.[20] One can see why audiences may have felt threatened: Empty Words can justifiably be described as pretentious, a work accessible only to an educated coterie. Visually and sonically, it is hostile to conventional notions of sense and harmony. Yet Cage did not intend only to provoke.

“The word at the center of [Cage’s] appreciation of sound is beauty,” writes David Revill in Roaring Silence.[21] Indeed, Cage famously used the word “beautiful” to describe the sounds of traffic and the sound of a table being dragged across the floor. But his is not the kind of essentializing beauty by whose simplistic definition the sound of traffic would be considered discordant — ugly, even. Beauty for Cage admits uncertainty and change, chance and imperfection. Conceived this way, it “[troubles] unquestioned categories, values, and generalized truth …. Beauty troubles sameness because it embodies difference.”[22]

Other poets and scholars who have been talking about beauty recently take a similar tack, pointing out the ways in which beauty is fraught, while affirming that it is nonetheless something real, charged, potent. Karla Kelsey suggests that it is a movement of mind, a way of perceiving.[23] Elizabeth Robinson offers this definition: “beauty is by definition imperfect: partial, transitory, and yet willing to embrace the valuations that are intrinsic to the pleasure we take in perceiving beauty.”[24] There is a wonderful double meaning here that I am sure she intended: beauty is partial in that it can never fully be realized; and beauty is partial in that it is biased — it is connected to ideology. Robinson implies here that qualities like “imperfection” and “value” can coexist.

The sound of traffic may have been beautiful to Cage because it did not seek to “mean”; it sought only to be. Likewise the sound of a table being dragged across the floor. Unlike the table, however, Empty Words is entirely dependent on traditional habits of meaning-making. The distinctions among sentences, phrases, words, syllables, and letters delineate each of its four lectures, thereby constituting the framework of the piece. Syntax, phonics, sound, process, and even the obscure signification of Saussure’s hypograms all become more pronounced as the mind attempts to impose their rules and conventions on Cage’s text.

Yet it is not the rules themselves, but their “failure” that gives Empty Words its artistic energy. The furtive, unruly fragments in Empty Words resist containment and preclude definitive interpretation. They activate multiple registers of sense at once, generating myriad shifting, partial meanings. Perhaps most importantly, they destabilize our notions of sense and closure by exposing the mechanics of our different systems of meaning-making. Here, then, is the subversive beauty that Robinson and others describe.

Joan Retallack asks us to consider the implications of the beautiful, radical shifts Empty Words requires of us: “Might it be possible to move through our lives in other ways, guided by other processes and structures, perceiving connections, even constellations lost to our habitual grammars, seeing the side streets, getting lost and discovering something new?”[25] In a linguistic universe dominated by the cant of politics, religion, war, and commerce, this task is increasingly urgent — a poethical imperative. When reading the paper, shopping for groceries, passing by a billboard, we would do well to remember Cage’s translation of Basho’s haiku: “What leaf?” he asks. “What mushroom?”



1. Lucy Kavaler, Mushrooms, Molds, and Miracles: The Strange Realm of Fungi (New York: John Day, 1965), 45.

2. John Cage, Silence (London: Marion Boyars, 1994).

3. Kenneth Silverman, Begin Again: A Biography of John Cage (New York: Knopf, 2010), 261. 

4. Cage, Empty Words (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1979).

5. Richard Kostelanetz, Conversing with Cage (New York: Routledge, 2003), 150.

6. Cage, Empty Words, 8, 20, 28, 25, 18, 37, 12, 37, 61, 30, 49, 62.

7. Ibid., 18.

8. Ibid., 14.

9. Ibid., 71.

10. Jean Starobinski, Words Upon Words (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1980), 16.

11. Ibid., 18.

12. Julia Kristeva, “Towards a Semiology of Paragrams,” in Tel Quel Reader, ed. Patrick French and Roland-François Lack (London and New York: Routledge, 1998), 293.

13. Jean Baudrillard, Symbolic Exchange and Death, trans. Iain Hamilton Grant (London: Sage, 1993), 199. 

14. Cage, Empty Words, 52.

15. Ibid., 54.

16. Ibid., 15.

17. Ibid., 55.

18. Starobinski, Words Upon Words, 20.

19. Steve McCaffery, Prior to Meaning: The Protosemantic and Poetics (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2001), 196.

20. Kostelanetz, Conversing with Cage, 130–133.

21. David Revill, The Roaring Silence: John Cage, a Life (New York: Arcade, 1992), 123.

22. Steven Taylor, “Beauty Trouble: Identity and Difference in the Tradition of the Aesthetic,” in Civil Disobediences: Poetics and Politics in Action, ed. Anne Waldman and Lisa Birman (Minneapolis: Coffee House Press, 2004), 389.

23. Karla Kelsey, “Attention in the Garden: Beauty as an Act of Mind,” Five Fingers Review no. 23.

24. Elizabeth Robinson, “The Ecology of Beauty (And the Vulnerability of the Perceiver),” Not Enough Night (Fall 2006).

25. Joan Retallack, The Poethical Wager (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004), 223.