There seems to me no better way to begin this discussion than with an epistemological thought experiment (as is the case with most discussions). Consider what you heard in the “epiphone” to this essay, which is hiss from a digitization of recordings of Vachel Lindsay, originally made on aluminum records in 1931. It likely sounded like noise, and it is—to human auditory perception. But what if there is a pattern in this noise that is imperceptible to the human ear but recognizable to so-called machine listening? Consider the sample above from the Lindsay, alongside this sample of leading “noise” from digitizations of Harriet Monroe from the same series, alongside this one from the James Weldon Johnson recordings. I’ve been listening to several hours of audio from this series and have come to think that the noise from each of the recordings sounds similar, in the most impressionistic way possible.
Susan Howe’s recuperation of Emily Dickinson’s visual prosody marks a pivot point in American poetics, insofar as it calls attention to the long effaced but paradigmatically American enterprise of self-invention that Dickinson’s practice depicts. And in depicting her work, the picture is the work, hence the holograph images that for the most part replace block quotes in texts like Howe’s My Emily Dickinson and the essay from which I’ll cull this epigraph, “These Flames and Generosities of the Heart.”
This space is the poem’s space. Letters are sounds we see. Sounds leap to the eye. Word lists, crosses, blanks, and ruptured stanzas are points of contact and displacement. Line breaks and visual contrapuntal stresses represent an athematic compositional intention.
Howe, and by extension Dickinson, are reference points for discussing the work of Mark Booth, printmaker by training, a painter, who also works in sound and performance, but whose practice is in some sense reducible to writing.
In 1970, Hannah Weiner exhibited a telegram in Oberlin College’s conceptual art survey Art in the Mind. After the “mail strike,” her letter to Virginian Dwan was delivered to the gallerist (page one and page two). In it Weiner complains that Vito Acconci’s telegram-piece should be exhibited in Language IV along with Walter DeMaria’s telegram, arguing that the medium was immaterial, and that the artwork, in either case, consists in its sphere of reference. So that there could be no redundancy involved. She cites her piece at Oberlin.
But she might have also claimed more significance for the telegram. A primitive speech-to-text technology, it is a phonic ticker, defamiliarizing the otherwise imperceptible but crucial transfiguration that takes place between sound-image and thought.
No one’s a kid for twenty years without a little know-how. I was a child in the 80s and child of the 90s because I kept up with kid stuff instead of going to college. I went to school on post punk music, the Walker Art Center, and the language poetry I read in my local public library. So I know to be true that the following—my opening gambit—is well after the fact. That’s true, but it’s just a caveat. I get the feeling my indefinite childhood is increasingly passé.
What does “museum studies” mean by “context”? What if it were “museological environment”? An artwork would be out of context until it was taken out of context. But what does it mean to take an object out of context? Or a non-object? It must be a kind of displacement that is more historical and geographical than it is temporal and spatial. Because the time of the piece must unfold in a serviceable manner, and the space must be arrayed contiguous to its virtuous features, the features that display “it,” the approximate museological environment conserves period and style. Old is good. “Modern” is bad, except as a paradigm. By paradigm here is meant “real-to-ready phenomena,” the kind that make my encounter with the object contemporaneous to it.
Natalie Simpson lives in Calgary, Alberta and is the author of accrete or crumble and Thrum. Her poetry has appeared in several anthologies, including Shy, The Best Canadian Poetry in English, Ground Rules, Shift & Switch, and Post-Prairie. Simpson curates filling Station magazine’s flywheel reading series and is highly active in the Calgary poetry scene.
Kyriakos Mavridis participated in ModPo (a free open non-credit online course on modern and contemporary American poetry), where among the Gertrude Stein readings we find a short prose poem called “Let Us Describe.” Its ending, an accident of descriptiveness gone thus awry, writes an automobile accident that seems to have occurred on wet rural French roads one stormy night. I'm very pleased to make Kyriakos’s comics rendering of “Let Us Describe” available here.
Walter Benjamin is perhaps the writer we most commonly associate with the recognition of the changes induced in the work of art by the “age of mechanical reproduction” in the modernist period. In that essay, Benjamin’s focus is primarily on visual and auditory reproduction, but he begins the essay with “The enormous changes brought about in literature by movable type, the technological reproducibility of writing.” He then goes on to state:
Around 1900, technological reproduction not only had reached a standard that permitted it to reproduce all known works of art, profoundly modifying their effect, but it had also captured a place of its own among the artistic processes.
Benjamin has in mind here phonography, lithography, photography, and cinema. But, as a quotation from Paul Valéry immediately prior to this passage suggests, these changes––along with those directly bearing on print, such as the rise of the typewriter––affected the way writers like Stein, Valéry, and Benjamin approached the printed book’s already established place among literary processes.
In our digital age, the printed book is often seen as resisting the immateriality and inauthenticity of the digital text through its “aura,” “singularity,” “authenticity,” “materiality,” and “bookness”––to cite some key terms from a conference on the future of the book that I attended last year. Even book versions that sit alongside versions in other media––what Marjorie Perloff terms “differential texts”––seem to stress the differences between the book and digital media and so each medium’s materiality.
Yet in a range of poetic practices developed in response to the age of mechanical reproduction and to our digital age, the book becomes a site for exploring––rather than resisting––reproduction and iteration. In the final posts in my “Iterations” commentary, I want to focus on the dual role of the book as both material object and copy, beginning with the work of modernists such as Walter Benjamin and Gertrude Stein before turning to some recent iterative texts that challenge the commonplace contrast between the singularity of the print and paper book object and the repeatability and mutability of the digital text.
The rise of new technologies of mechanical reproduction in the modernist period heightened attention to the book as copy, both in terms of the aura and materiality of the individual copy and as a reproduced non-original object. Gertrude Stein played with these two possible ways of looking at the book through her own press, the Plain Edition, which she used to publish a number of her works in the 1930s.