The Periodic Table of Poetry

Pictures of the Periodic Table of Elements picnic table outside of the Chemistry
Pictures I took of the Periodic Table of Elements picnic table outside of the Chemistry Department at Wake Forest University.

In 1869, the first version of the Periodic Table of Elements was created by Dmitri Mendeleev to illustrate the known chemical elements of the time and predict new ones. Elements are distinguished by having a single type of atom, and as they are discovered by scientists, the table grows. But what of the elements classified and discovered by poets, elements not made of atoms but language? Is poetry a kind of periodic table of language where poets chart, predict, and make elements as alchemists? Perhaps the P.T.O.E. is itself a P.O.E.M. 

One under-acknowledged and yet groundbreaking phenomenon of our time is that, in addition to some poets responding to science as a way to think about language, poetry, and science in more novel ways, some poets are practicing science by making poetry and therefore making something else from practicing both science and poetry at the same time. I think of this latter group as the nu alchemists, and unlike more traditional alchemist-poets whose language experiments often converge with mysticism, the poets practicing both science and poetry at the same time often demonstrate—without a heavy reliance on metaphysics, in many cases—just how wondrous physical reality itself is.

To talk about poetry and the Periodic Table of Elements in this contemporary moment begins, in my mind, with Jena Osman’s breakthrough hypertext poem, “The Periodic Table As Assembled by Dr. Zhivago, Oculist,” first published in the late 1990s and updated at least twice since then. In this work, the user-reader creates poems by choosing a procedure—dissolve, stir, heat, dilute, centrifuge, and/or evaporate—to facilitate a reaction between chemical elements from the periodic table that are poems written by Osman using language associated with the elements. The work suggests to me, among other things, that language can be conceived of as a physical element of nature undergoing an infinite amount of reactions in poetry.

Michael Leong, in Cutting Time with a Knife (Black Square Editions, 2012), using William S. Burroughs and Brion Gysin’s cut-up methods and Comte de Lautréamont’s “pre-surrealist dissecting table” as theoretical frameworks to write poems that play off of phrases and ideas in T.S. Eliot’s essay, “Tradition and the Individual Talent” (1919), presents visual and text-based poems using the Periodic Table of Elements to create what I see as a kind of Periodic Table of Poetry. In the poem for Rubidium, which has the atomic number 85.4678, “the thumb of the poet is the pivot”:

Perhaps space spins toward complication in a particular direction, polarizing the economics of only and also; perhaps not even an artist has aligned this extent of refinement with the nuclear. In the end, we randomly (not spontaneously) imagine a point to view the magnetized machinery of the air.

The thumb of the poet is being linked to the opposable thumb in some mammals as a way of evoking the unique dexterity of the poet to pivot. Why does the poet pivot?  “To view the magnetized machinery of the air.” Electromagnetism is one of the fundamental interactions in nature. In contrast to classical electromagnetism, a branch of theoretical physics that relies on the outdated ideas of Isaac Newton’s classical mechanics, which, using Leong’s language, operates as an “economics of only and also,” Robert Feynman’s quantum electrodynamics, the quantum mechanical version of classical electromagnetism, describes how electrically charged particles interact by exchanging photons. Poetry is also an exchange between the text and thinker, and Cutting Time With a Knife, so named after Burroughs’ statement that “If you cut into the present, the future leaks out,” creates an exchange between poetry and science; in these ways and others, I see Leong’s project having a mechanics that is more quantum than classical.

Whereas Osman and Leong are using the Periodic Table of Elements at cosmological scales by addressing the entire periodic table and concepts evoked by the system, other poets such as Evelyn Reilly and Adam Dickinson are going more subatomic by exploring the intersections between language and specific chemical elements as well as their combinations in polymers and other substances in implicitly political and activist writing. Also of note is Craig Dworkin’s poem, “Fact,” which presents the chemical compounds of ink on paper as a poem, though this piece is not so much implicitly political and activist as it is overtly self-reflexive and ’pataphysically slap-stick. In Styrofoam (Roof Books, 2009), Reilly critiques the reliance on environmentally harmful substances by writing poems about the chemical composition of Styrofoam, the trade name for polystyrene. Adam Dickinson, in The Polymers (House of Anansi Press, 2013), presents visual and text-based poems on plastic molecules and how the unsustainability of synthetic plastic relates to human culture, linguistics, and reality. In the preface titled “Cellophane,” smartly presented on transparent paper, Dickinson writes:

Polymers are giant molecules composed of numerous repeating parts. As long chains, they form the basis of both synthetic and natural plastics—the structures of the human brain, skin, hair, as well as DNA all are composed of polymers. As prevalent as polymers are biologically, plastic, as a cultural and industrial commodity, is similarly omnipresent. Its ubiquity, however, marks a curious contradictory tension: plastic is at once outmoded and futuristic, colloquial and scientific, a polluting substance that is also intimately associated with our lives. The origins of plastic, as an industrial material, have extended and continue to extend out of attempts to mimic or substitute for things in the natural world. Therefore, plastic marks both the presence and the absence of natural objects, embodying tension between the literal and the metaphorical, as it recreates the world as an alternate or translated reality....If DNA is the digital memory of a species passed forward through time, then the social polymers of iterative behaviour, including their flammable appendices and polluting precipitates, constitute a plastic shovel with which the analogue body digs its own grave. Or plants its flag on the moon. Or builds a bionic limb. Plastic is the grinning salt of capitalism, Karl Marx said in speculative writings on the hydrocarbon economy. What follows is a closer look at the teeth [.]

In a new project underway, Anatomic: Biosemiotic Bodies and Chemical Environments, Dickinson seems to be going subatomic and cosmological at the same time by setting out to write a book of poetry that will emerge from a toxicological and symbiotic map of his own body, a map that will respond to considerations in poetics, biology, ethics, and the environmental sciences. At this stage, he is getting his blood and urine tested and having his microbiome synthesized by determining which microorganisms share his body space:

Serum 01 Nov 19. Photo by Jose Gabrie of Adam Dickinson's blood serum, courtesy of Dickinson.
Serum 01 Nov 19. Photo by Jose Gabrie of Adam Dickinson's blood serum, courtesy of Dickinson.

In one of our recent exchanges, Dickinson explains:

This is a research-creation project that involves biomonitoring and microbiome testing to produce a book of poetry that reframes the body (my body) as a being overwritten by toxic chemicals yet constantly subject (in necessary ways) to the biosemiotic interference of other microbial lifeforms. My objective is to combine innovative trends in contemporary poetics with science and environmental ethics by researching and writing poetry that will emerge (in terms of themes and methodological approaches) from a toxicological and symbiotic map of my own body. By focusing on the “outside” that is “inside,” I hope to draw attention to the coextensive and intra-active nature of the body with its environment and the consequent implications for linking the human to the nonhuman and the personal to the global in environmental ethics.

One exciting feature of this project is that with Dickinson using his own body in his experiments, the complication between the conceptual and the confessional is at play. I see this feature of the project as being especially useful for encouraging the discourse on conceptual literature and confessional, expressive, and identity-based poetry to become less reactive and predictable and more nuanced and complex. Seemingly unbounded by received ideas in both poetry and science, Dickinson, in mapping the composition of his own body and using poetics and science to do so, challenges those practicing both science and poetry to imagine their work and respond to the work of others in more ambitious transdisciplinary, transhuman contexts.

In audio practice XII

practice audio in

Girassol studio (Frelinghuysen, NJ), 2003/2014
Girassol studio (Frelinghuysen, NJ), 2003/2014

The diagram presented in my previous post partially encapsulates my endeavors with audio as a whole: working with—and sometimes with connection between—processed sound, music, language, performance, and multimedia. The chart contains a few names of people I have worked with and is not a bad outline, though as a mapping of a live performance, it does not intersect with the documentary work I’ve done.

Thinking back over the span of years encapsulated in these commentaries about recording experiences (1986-2014), the place where my audio practice started—with a handheld cassette unit and cheap tapes—is so massively different from where we are today. Portable (and post-able) recording technology in one form or another is now practically ubiquitous. Along the way, I made do (owed dues) with what I had access to, acquiring and/or using cassette, 8-track reel, 4-track cassette, DAT, Minidisc, SD card recorders, and other hardware. Thanks to computers and software decent and affordable home-studio setups, suitable to produce new and old material, are within the general public’s reach — although as my wife contends, practice plays an important role (i.e., you need to know what you are doing and that only happens with familiarity over time). Writing this final piece (for now), I’m preparing to pack up our beloved Girassol studio as part of a family move to the Hudson Valley. I have been ensconced in Girassol as a writer and artist since 2003, and hate to lose it (in favor of a temporary basement space), but we can quickly (and then again over time) recreate essentially the same setup pretty much anywhere.

Being active and interested in cultivating an audio practice has many benefits. Along the way I encounter (and chronicle activities of) many artists, who I document and preserve for review by myself and others. Beyond the ostensible scholarly benefits of such a focus, this path makes me acutely aware of, sensitive to, and engaged with sound and the sonic components of language and life. How could it not? This fact has finite influence on my everyday existence; I live in the countryside remote from urban areas because I like the way it sounds—it is conducive to what I need to function and progress as a person—and in turn I respect and understand the person who needs something else in order to make that happen!

A burdensome aspect of being obsessed with making audio recordings is the material bulk of such an occupation; twenty-five years into it, I have shelves and a large metal bin and many several smaller boxes completely filled with cassettes, DATs, MiniDiscs, and other media (including approximately 200 Hi8 and MiniDV videos, which I hope to attend to in the near future). This condition is in some ways a diminished issue in the digital era, as the hardware is compact and thousands of files can be stored on small hard drives. The pressing issue then becomes—as it is always—the annotation and organization of matter. What good is making sound files and building a collection if you don’t know what’s on them and where they are? In this regard, I have been largely remiss. Twenty years ago I made an index of recordings in my possession, but haven’t updated it since. Working with PennSound has inspired me to get organized. At least everything I have is organized, by media, in one place—though I have not meticulously annotated the contents of the tapes as a better practitioner would.

Historically, on its own, my archive would exist as inert documentation that features dynamic human expression. Eventually, these artifacts might end up isolated in a library somewhere, and a few souls interested in the most recent fin de siècle (and beyond) poetics would hear and appreciate them. In order to undermine that exclusive condition, however, I (and others involved with PennSound) spend many hours locating and digitizing recordings, which become an important aspect of my/our work. Since I spent much of the previous fifteen years writing two monographs, I now have the liberty to prioritize such tasks as research; otherwise it wouldn’t get done without assistance (someone else’s efforts).

With the Internet and mobile technology, audio practices overall require less bulky, and in many ways less demanding (i.e. easier-to-use) gear. If one is motivated, audio recording, archiving, and network building is much easier now given the facility of digital delivery systems for producer and consumer. Audiophiles always point out the imperfections of mp3 technology and will bemoan use of mono instead of stereo recording, but the way I see it having something decent to listen to over the network is far better than having nothing (and waiting for the CD to arrive). With properly tuned initiative, everyone can be heard, and materials relevant to one’s interests located through search engines and tags. Apps such as Rock Band are legitimate means by which to make decent field (and other types of) recordings. Anyone with an email account can get a free Soundcloud (or other type of mp3 hosting, such as Bandcamp or Soundclick) account, building pathways for posting audio files, cultivating virtual presence, and beginning to expand her/his artistic community.

Harry Smith drawing (1986) for we xv cassette cover (1992)

Some unspoken influences upon the stories imparted in these commentaries I should acknowledge. Harry Smith, who I got to know and spend time with between 1986 and 1991, was a significant inspiration (we used a drawing he did in my notebook as the image for a we magazine cassette cover, above). Seeing Smith in action, taping practically everything (ordinary things… street sounds, common birds, punk rock shows) whenever he could, hearing him discuss the discoveries you can make by listening back to your surroundings, particularly in the realm of synchronicity of sound and thought—not to mention his focused projects, documenting folk music and native American song—made a strong impression. As did the lore of poet Paul Blackburn’s documentary work (housed at UC San Diego), Alan Lomax, and others (known and unknown) who have lugged recorders around in order to capture fleeting cultural moments. Though we only met once, I completely respect Kush’s regional documentation of (Bay Area) poets, and also admired the Poetry Project’s dedication to archiving events they host. Pushing buttons makes us partners as technicians of the ephemeral.

First and a half

(with apologies to Brent Cunningham)

pink ties...

Kyle Schlesinger, The Pink (Kenning Editions, 2008), unpaginated, $7.50

As John Yau does in Exhibits, Schlesinger envelops social and cultural critiques in humorous retoolings of clichés. Schlesinger, however, deploys more traditional devices than Yau, especially enjambment, in order to draw attention to his broadly “ecological” concerns. As he puts it in the first poem, “Macrosemantic Liturgy,“ “There are plenty of rivers in the sea/ But you can’t step on the same fish twice.” Alliteration and opposition (“Light’s lofty//Turn towards/the quotidian”), internal rhyme and assonance (“In the beak to the/ Bleak passage say”), and repetition (“Which” is a leitmotif throughout the magnificent “Shedding”) cross-stitch these poems together at every level: syntactical, rhetorical and semantic. The overall effect is a seamless network of linguistic investigations and speculations that work to undermine complacency and underline necessity. Thus, in “Hey Nancy,” the place to sit/ Between the chair and the thought of it” is “the pink” that lies invisibly in the middle: “To see red or white/White or red/ As the opposing tones/Of departure.”  These Wittgenstein-cum-Kit Robinson ruminations strike ironic, but deeply felt, poses shot through with, even as they radiate, the possibilities "in between." 

Recipients of the Pew Fellowships (for Philadelphia-area artists)

I am pleased to see that among the 2014 recipients of Pew Fellowships are:
Laynie Browne
Browne explores and reinvents various poetic forms, including sonnets (Daily Sonnets, Counterpath, 2007) tales (The Scented Fox, Wave Books, 2007), and letters (The Desires of Letters, Counterpath, 2010).
Thomas Devaney
A native Philadelphian and author of the newly released Calamity Jane (Furniture Press, 2014), Devaney takes inspiration from music and visual art, writing for the ear as well as the eye.
J.C. Todd
Todd’s work complicates and contemporizes the longstanding tradition of war poetry, and investigates how war permeates human life and language.

Stephen Ratcliffe reads the entirety of one of his 1,000-page books

10-hour recording added to PennSound

C o n t i n u u m, written between January 5, 2011 and September 30, 2013, is the fourth book in Stephen Ratcliffe's ongoing series of 1,000-page books, each written in 1,000 consecutive days.

Listening to Ratcliffe reading the words of the day on the page as it turns from one day to the next, one hears the poem's acoustic 'shape': the length and pitch of its syllables and words (plus those silences between them) sounding the air. What one doesn't hear is its visual 'shape': words set in Courier, font of equivalent spacing; the nine lines on the page divided into four stanzas; first three lines all the same length, followed by two pairs of indented lines (both first lines the same length, both second lines six spaces shorter), followed by two final lines (back on the left margin, both lines also the same length) (see photo of "9.30", top right).The visual 'shape' of the words on the page 'corresponds to' / 'performs' the 'shape' of 'things' / 'actions' / 'events' out there in the world, which are themselves being 'pointed toward' / 'simply recorded' / 'described' / 'transcribed' / 'enacted' / 'documented' / 'testified to' / 'celebrated' in the first and last stanzas and 'considered' / 'thought about' / 'reflected upon' in the two middle ones.

Ratcliffe's readings of the previous volumes in his series (HUMAN / NATURE, Remarks on Color / Sound, and Temporality), in collaboration with the musicians in Thingamajigs Performance Ensemble, are also available on PennSound. The texts of all four books are available at Editions Eclipse.

Here are the segments of the ten-hour audio recording of Ratcliffe performing Continuum. Zach Carduner engineered the recording and then edited and segmented it. Stephen Ratcliffe himself contributed part of the description/commentary above.

  • Part 1: 1.5 to 4.14 (56:50): MP3
  • Part 2: 4.15 to 7.23 (57:04): MP3
  • Part 3: 7.24 to 10.31 (58:14): MP3
  • Part 4: 11.1 to 2.8 (57:36): MP3
  • Part 5: 2.9 to 5.18 (56:37): MP3
  • Part 6: 5.19 to 8.26 (53:33): MP3
  • Part 7: 8.27 to 12.4 (55:10): MP3
  • Part 8: 12.5 to 3.14 (57:26): MP3
  • Part 9: 3.15 to 6.22 (55:21): MP3
  • Part 10: 6.23 to 9.30 (57:16): MP3