Commentaries - January 2013

Click 'here' and be a poet

Don’t you love the look of web pages circa 1995? I made this page, as I made all my thousands of pages from the moment Mosaic showed me the possibilities of the graphical web browser; before that, I was much enamored of the Gopher, and built an elaborate Gopher for my poetry course (English 88) and for Penn's English department, where I happened to be in the middle of a long stint as undergraduate chairperson.

Once graphical interfaces with the world wide web were semi-stable, I moved English 88 into html files (coding them myself, of course). Next year, English 88 on the web will be 20 years old but I'll feel 10 years younger than I felt just before I first realized I could share this course with anyone, anywhere, without charge.

By 1995, thanks to the late Jack Abercrombie and Susan Garfinkel, students in English 88 (virtual members and of course students enrolled in the class at Penn) could meet in PennMOO, a non-graphical/text-only synchronous chat space where, with a little training, people would “do” things, “build” things, and make projects happen. I saw a natural opportunity here for a virtual poetry slam. We built a skating rink, and almost always did a few rounds of skating before groups of us entered various chat spaces to have separate conversations about the various poems we were studying. I built an office next to the skating rink for myself, and held virtual office hours — for anyone in the world — from 11 PM until midnight on Sunday nights each week.

The web page illustrated above is just one of many garish pages I made during the heyday of PennMOO for English 88. It's here. Probably most of the links are broken. PennMOO itself has been, sadly, shuttered for a few years. But, needless to say, the spirit of this innovative way of teaching and doing poetry lives on. My favorite overstated phrase on this page: “Penn as it should be.” And the phrase is hyperlinked, of course. “Go here,” as we used to say, and still do, and that's where you'll find an ideal.

Below is the text of notes I made in January 1996, a modest manifesto I suppose, called “Concepts for PennMOO.”  I would like to point out that this was almost exactly the time I was creating the Writers House; the main founding principle of that project was and is articulated in this utopian statement about virtual learning spaces — an insistence on the end to the separation of the academic and social functions of and at the university. So here's that old note:

Not long ago, I described in general terms my own sense of what “structural” (that is to say, of course — CONCEPTUAL) changes PennMOO might undergo, if we wish it to serve as an ideal teaching space (rather than a reflection of the real). I’d like to say that point again — briefly — as a kind of call for proposals from among this group for ways in which the architecture can/ought to be changed to suit what I see as the needs of new forms of undergraduate teaching coming into being at Penn.

In order for virtual classroom/space interaction to be a part of the discussions about “21st Century Undergraduate Education” — and, not to put too fine a point on it, to be eligible for attention and even funding dollars that will be paid to innovative projects that harmonize with the goals of this large effort — we ought to adjust PennMOO so that it serves explicitly as the ideal space, as a currently unrealizable kind of space in the physical realm of Penn. PennMOO ought to strike those who enter it as not fundamentally resembling “Penn as it is” - rather it should present possibilities (various ones, to be sure) for “Penn as it should be” or “Penn is it could be.”

I would like this memo to serve as the beginning of a discussion that has as its objective a plan for how PennMOO should look and feel in the near future.

Who will start? What deadline should we set for ourselves?

My English 103, a course about the literature of community, will be making an effort to use PennMOO as a means of experimenting with ideal intellectual communities. So of course I'd like to have at least a section of MOO created with this notion in mind.

Some other points:

1. We should look for ways to make PennMOO interesting to graduate students and faculty, e.g. invite speakers who would not be otherwise available in person, and/or to start topic-based seminars that include graduate students from other schools.

2. We should work more energetically with faculty to move beyond the 'getting started' mode toward using PennMOO in more sophisticated ways.

3. We should explore partnerships with residences - particularly College Houses - so that virtual communities are part of the PennMOO landscape and so we are ready for the advent of full-scale residential “Colleges,” the first of which are to be opened in 9/97.

4. We should work to create a MOO-based community, overlapping with BUT DISTINCT from the course-based communities that inhabit the space at present. To this end, I'm going to suggest that we rethink the issue of students building their own spaces, and give 'unofficial' spaces a real chance to develop. I'm going to experiment with this in my English 103.

5. Create more spaces that “do” things, such as the poetry slam equipment and skating rink.

6. Generally, we should work to ELIMINATE THE SEPARATION OF ACADEMIC AND SOCIAL — we should integrate these as wholly and assiduously as we can. This is, after all, the one thing PennMOO can do that most other academic spaces literally cannot (with the exception of the very rare course taught in the students' residences).

[Milton Resnick was a very visible & dynamic artist when we met him in the early 1960s, but beyond that he was also a persistent practitioner of poetry, less in a public sense than as a release for ideas & feelings that were a necessary supplement to his life’s work as a painter. I have written elsewhere of what he meant to me then & now, but I would like to stress here what he brought home to me about the need for poetry in the life & practice of a wide range of artists from his time & from before & after. I later was able to complete, along with Pierre Joris, two large books of selections from the poetry of Picasso & Schwitters, & to publish translations of my own from Arp & Picabia among a number of Dada & Surrealist forerunners. When Milton committed suicide in 2004, he left behind at least 16 envelopes of unpublished, often handwritten poetry with some 40 poems in each. The poems that follow were written in the desperation of his later years, when the overall brightness of his earlier abstractions had changed to figurative depictions of what I would take, rightly or wrongly, as the terror (still luminous) within. Yet even where he turned his anger against life & art, as he often enough did, the work retained a sense of art as a necessary celebration or as a talisman, his only one, against the demons that would later overwhelm him. What remains, the poems & paintings both, seem of a piece to me, and I present them here as such. (J.R.)]

Milton Resnick: A Serpent on the Scene
Milton Resnick: A Serpent on the Scene


An accident on the mountain
showing the superiority of chance
I fell and thought I saw horses in the sky
the horses shiver
they don’t understand if you don’t whip
what’s more false than the horse of dream
the race, the grass, the sun
I should doubt for a painter nature is a paradox
but you don’t need me to mix colors
what one likes does not trot out of painting
dreams still function
they could be expressing the mystic
the indistinct line of nature wanted for great art
I know this anxiety
allowable in the forced loneliness of the studio
and for the god-forsaken Jew hiding as someone else
but for the god-like that explode in song and dance
the drum won’t do
and idealistic protest will not win the field
for the years deliver us of pity
yesterday for instance I stopped reading about
the earthquake in Mexico
I thought the news was getting beyond nightmare
beyond everchanging shadows lying in wait for dawn
the rosy-fingered beyond the likely
as for me I hardly recognize the day
It’s so early something in the air threatens
insects the horrors eat
they need the blood you need
they take from us that we have none
cast in hell as usual
if all that talk of sin comes to pass
the parades I shall see
new light on what I know and feel
all in a single drop is nothing
in the presence of the mountain
a mad thought —
I don’t look a thing grinning in pain 


Black hollows on the horizon
a perspective of despair too insistent for my thoughts
I come from work I am not myself
crazy from the experience of years
I dream I am brushing the secrets of life on canvas
but why does paint dry to indescribable shadows
is it moonshine or is it more serious
a picture of the world for the first time out of inspiration
my genius hand does not deliver the comprehensive
I could almost understand Plato
how philosophy evaporates the concrete
how instinct yields the unreal
will shadows save the day


poets aren’t any good
writers without a clue are a little better than
artists who don’t paint
granted whatever you do is up to you
in case you die pay for it in the next life
but here in Chinatown once the jewish center
you get the idea it’s not heaven
you need something in your pocket
a spark in your heart
until the inevitable next world
oh how existential it will be without noise
without cooking smells from next door
no spitting on the sidewalk
no tears no trembling when evil burns
and everything is art 

Gertrude Stein and the iterations of the book

Gertrude Stein, Lucy Church Amiably
Gertrude Stein, Lucy Church Amiably (Paris: Plain Edition, 1930)

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. Stein foregrounds the copying, or iterations, involved in the published book in her description of the project, which appeared at the beginning of the first volume in the series, Lucy Church Amiably:

The plain Edition

an Edition of first Editions

of all the work not yet Printed

of Gertrude Stein

This description of the Plain Edition links the copying involved in the mechanical reproduction of printing to Stein’s iterative technique. As Stein wrote not long afterwards, “there is no such thing as repetition,” only “insistence.” The repetition of “Edition” functions both to insist on the importance of these “first Editions” and to stress that each edition is one among a series of copies open to potentially infinite duplication, as marked by the telescoping role of the repeated preposition “of.” Each instance of the words “Edition” and “of” is mechanically reproduced through the repetition of letters in the same font. Stein thus links the additive, insistent nature of language to the additive, insistent process of book production and reproduction.

Stein also emphasized the poetics of the copy in the design of Lucy Church Amiably. As Sarah Stone has pointed out, Stein designed the book to look like the cheap blue copybooks in which she often drafted her work. Stein also described the book in the subtitle as looking “like an Engraving,” and, as Stone notes, punned on this idea by selecting the Cochin font for the book––a font named after the eighteenth-century engraver Charles-Nicolas Cochin. In this context, the exact repetition of the same printed text and layout on the blue cover and white title page also becomes more marked. All these decisions present the book as a site of reproduction, even as Stein’s writing itself stresses the reiterations of words and phrases.

Nor is this an isolated example. Stein also clearly connects her use of language to the process of print reproduction in her famous seal with the circular “rose is a rose is a rose is a rose” design. Through this seal, Stein links the potentially infinite production of print copies to the potentially infinite repetitions of language.

This series promotes and pursues topics in the burgeoning field of 20th and 21st century poetics. Critical and scholarly work on poetry and poetics of interest to the series includes social location in its relationships to subjectivity, to the construction of authorship, to oeuvres, and to careers; poetic reception and dissemination (groups, movements, formations, institutions); the intersection of poetry and theory; questions about language, poetic authority, and the goals of writing; claims in poetics, impacts of social life, and the dynamics of the poetic career as these are staged and debated by poets and inside poems. Topics that are bibliographic, pedagogic, that concern the social field of poetry, and reflect on the history of poetry studies are valued as well. This series will allow Palgrave to focus both on individual poets and texts and on larger movements, poetic institutions, and questions about poetic authority, social identifications, and aesthetics.

Poetry After the Invention of América: Don't Light the Flower (Modern and Contemporary Poetry and Poetics)
Poetry After the Invention of América


(Re:)Working the Ground: Essays on the Late Writings of Robert Duncan (Modern and Contemporary Poetry and Poetics)
(Re:)Working the Ground
Women's Poetry and Popular Culture:  (Modern and Contemporary Poetry and Poetics)
Women's Poetry and Popular Culture
Pastoral, Pragmatism, and Twentieth-Century American Poetry:  (Modern and Contemporary Poetry and Poetics)
Pastoral, Pragmatism, and Twentieth-Century American Poetry


Ronald Johnson's Modernist Collage Poetry:  (Modern and Contemporary Poetry and Poetics)
Ronald Johnson's Modernist Collage Poetry


The Poetry of Susan Howe: History, Theology, Authority (Modern and Contemporary Poetry and Poetics)
The Poetry of Susan Howe


Male Subjectivity and Poetic Form in "New American" Poetry:  (Modern and Contemporary Poetry and Poetics)
Male Subjectivity and Poetic Form in "New American" Poetry
Modernist Writings and Religio-scientific Discourse: H.D., Loy, and Toomer (Modern and Contemporary Poetry and Poetics)
Modernist Writings and Religio-scientific Discourse


Procedural Form in Postmodern American Poetry: Berrigan, Antin, Silliman, and Hejinian (Modern and Contemporary Poetry and Poetics)
Procedural Form in Postmodern American Poetry
The Social Life of Poetry: Appalachia, Race, and Radical Modernism (Modern and Contemporary Poetry and Poetics)
The Social Life of Poetry
Modernism and Poetic Inspiration: The Shadow Mouth (Modern and Contemporary Poetry and Poetics)
Modernism and Poetic Inspiration
Language and the Renewal of Society in Walt Whitman, Laura (Riding) Jackson, and Charles Olson: The American Cratylus (Modern and Contemporary Poetry and Poetics)
Language and the Renewal of Society in Walt Whitman, Laura (Riding) Jackson, and Charles Olson


A question for Tan Lin

Tan Lin; audience at Ludlow 38 for two of Lin's ppt films, April 12, 2012

Installment 2 of “WHY?” in which I ask certain people Why questions and they answer in 100-300 words. Beside Trisha Low, the other first person I had a Why question for was Tan Lin. I have been enthusiastic for years about his genre-diffusing, multi-platformed work under the auspices of poetry. For the last several years each new work from Lin operates like a "demo" that stages an exchange between various genres and platforms. Some of the demos use digital inputs to test the platform of the book, as in one reading of his book Heath Plagiarism/Outsource. In his Power Points films, "Bibliographic Soundtrack" and "The Ph.D. Sound," it's the other way around. Lin is taking what he can of particular genres, most recognizably poetry, film, and bibliography, and testing the limits of what can be done applying them to each other as strategies in the (constrained?) world of Power Point. After attending two screenings of his ppt films, I felt both amused and perplexed. Surely it must be a joke that he's trying to make a film out of words, or a bibliography with a beat, using a platform everyone agrees has acheived full brand recognition for its particular form of boring. Did he think it was as much of a joke as I did, was this all a bit tongue-in-cheek, or did he actually like Power Point? So I asked him: Why Power Point? Here’s his answer.

PPT allowed me to diffuse a book into a general operating system, in this case a specific and much maligned genre of office productivity software. People complain about PPT hell, but I wanted something slow, porous and meditational. Of course, during a PPT presentation, people do get up and walk out. People want to control their own attention. But I think it’s more interesting to give oneself over to something.  Excitement in a book is generally over rated. If reading is a (very loose) pattern of information control, the PPT pieces marshal a lot of multimedia devices: overhead transparency, photographic slide, filmic dissolve, soundtrack—to contain a data flood. Most of the textual material was lifted from communications rather than literary mediums: Tumblr sites, Twitter feeds, RSS, IM, video game walkthroughs, indexes, tables of plates, and public domain bibliographies. All this floods the space of a reading and maybe it congeals into a reading—or not. Can reading be a highly generalized architecture or geography? I think so; here PPT architecture is explicitly multi-media in nature: it “behaves” filmically and photographically; it resembles a status update or IM thread; it materializes like a screen title, and it erases itself, one slide/page (at fixed intervals). In short, it resembles reading we do on devices or in web 3.0. When you read a book, the text is generally not moving, or reading itself. But this is not true with a cell phone—or PPT.

This is nothing new. Homer’s Odyssey conveyed historical data. Ezra Pound’s injunction to make it new in re-versioned primers such as his ABC of Reading link poetry to news dissemination. Eliot’s Four Quartets were written in a more universal, “musical” language that bears a close relation to Eliot’s wartime radio broadcasts over the BBC and German radio—familiar, comforting, and blandly generic. You have to remember too, that when Eliot’s The Waste Land was first broadcast in 1937 over the BBC most of the people at the radio station did not know who he was; he was still a minority literary figure unlike someone like H.G. Wells—who as Eliot noted, came out of entertainment and who also made use of the radio. 

With the two PPT works, you have two key residual formats, which I associate with the “literary” or the “academic”: book and lecture, i.e. you have either a captive or a less captive audience. People tend to ignore PPT for the wrong reasons. My simple query was: what happens when a book is diffused into the genre known as an office suite or the authoring functions behind integrated software? Or to put it more succinctly: what would be the most generalized, generic and medium-unspecific “reading” you could get?  Thus the reading is and is not very PPT. It’s weak didactically! It lacks a point! What is a reading anyway? At Artists Space we perfumed the reading of BST with a Glade White Linen Air Stick, Chris Brosius’ Wet Pavement London and a copy of Ernst Fenellosa’s Epochs of Chinese Painting that I borrowed from my mother’s library. What’s a book? A lot of borrowed stuff. In this case I wanted something like a book and in PPT to be diffused around its readers—like a perfume.

Genres condition reading and genres (take sheep herding poetry) wear out, and they do so in particular mediums. When was the last time you read an eclogue or a bucolic by Theocritus? Georgian war poetry circa 1904 feels irrelevant today, but so does lyric poetry in the Paris Review. Computational poems in PPT, where the genre known as the PPT presentation dissolves into something literary—that may be another matter. Milton’s Lycidas is notably mixed; it splits pastoral with elegy, and before it’s done the form threatens to turn itself inside out.  It’s not surprising that today, instead of the pantoum, we have the Tumblr log or mixed verse of Powerpoint. How does the PPT poem end? I’m not sure we know yet.


• "Eliot on the Air: 'Culture' and the Challenges of Mass Communication," in Time Present and Time Past: T.S. Eliot and Our Turning World, ed. J.S. Brooker (Macmillan, 1999)

• "The European Radio Broadcasts of T.S. Eliot," (Miscellanea 20, 1999)

Check out video footage from the event Power Point and the Perfume of Reading

Check out Lin's Power Point recordings and other works