A poem as a machine?

Nearly baroque machine embroidery

William Carlos Williams wrote in his introduction to The Wedge (1944) that “[a] poem is a small (or large) machine made out of words”; or “poetry is the machine which drives it, pruned to a perfect economy. As in all machines, its movement is intrinsic, undulant, a physical more than a literary character.”[1] A poet and physician, Williams is most known for plums, the everyday, and minimalistic, rhythmic meter and lineation. It makes me think about the gorgeous mundane and, while Williams included the occasional car in his poems, why did he turn to the machine?

It is not the first time a poet has referred to a poem as a machine. Poets think of poems as machines, contrary to popular belief. While most people would think of machines and poetry as separated dimensions, poets’ writings on machine shed light and questions on the interconnections of language and automation.

Take, for instance, Edward Hirsch in his epigraph on the sonnet: “There must be something hardwired into its machinery — a heartbeat, a pulse — that keeps it breathing.”[2] Certainly the sonnet, a fourteen-line poem invented in Italy in the 1200s, offers infinite possibilities. “A little sound or song,” iambic pentameter, tightly structured, the Shakespearean, or the Petrarchan with the volta, the turn between the eighth and ninth lines. A taut, tight machine. I think of what Stephanie Burt writes on nearly Baroque poetry, of poems that avoid simplicity and instead prefer the elaborate and “femme” ornate. Unlike the plainness of Williams, what Burt defines as nearly Baroque includes a femme aesthetic, sensory delight, an ornament. Here I’m most intrigued with her insights on the contemporary poem in a book: “Since contemporary poetry (at least, the kind that comes in printed books) feels like an ornament anyway — unnecessary, or self-indulgent, or obsolete for almost everyone in America. . . . why not ramp up the ornamental content?”[3] Here the poem as ornament prompts a gaze backward as we look at the poem as an ornamental thing in a book, or perhaps even if we gaze into it, moving, a little dancing machine?

We can also think of Matthew Zapruder’s essay, “The Machine of Poetry,” in which he thinks of poetry and machines, and in the essay assigned for today’s class by Adrienne Rich, who writes, “[Poetry is] an exchange of electrical currents through language” and does not require “high technology” to be effective.[4] She talks about poetry as a counter to the culture’s logic of speed as “high technology," and how the reading of poetry cannot be passively received, nor is it a spectacle. It’s an “instrument,” a “material thing,” “a conch shell”; poetry here is technē, a tool. Poetry, Rich determines, is taking all the ordinary language around you and making something anew. Well, Rich says it more bluntly: “Take that old, material utensil, language, found all about you, blank with familiarity, smeared with daily use, and make it into something that means more than it says.”[5] Here, she says, you put the words in the machine, and it takes on colors. Is this automation?

The bomb of technological prowess may be the epitome of technology.

As Rich points out, “the bomb’s silky, hooded, glittering, uncoiling length,” described in visual terms, demonstrates the power of the poem of Lynn Emanuel, ‘The Planet Krypton.’ In the poem, the young daughter isn’t simply watching the explosion as a spectator, but rather writing it into poetry — a power, Rich seems to suggest, that is a technological force all its own: “she chooses for creation and for language.”[6]

Rich offers another take of the poem as a machine of words, with a technological critique of nuclear power, while all at once determining in between a technology for good, or for bad. We can’t talk about technology or poetry without the body. Rich, earlier in her essay, talks about poetry in bodily terms, as the poem is a type of common language through which “strangers can bring their own heartbeat, memories, images.”[7]

While I’m obsessed with these machine metaphors, prior to learning about Williams and others, and actually still, my favorite quote about poetry is from Emily Dickinson on the body, because it reminds me of how embodied it is. This poetry. Reading, writing, the imaginative impulse. This act of poetry. As Dickinson said: “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.”[8]

While Dickinson didn’t write about the machine, perhaps even here she is saying something evocative about technology and the body. Is it virtual reality body-altering automated machine?

Forthcoming in ASAP/Journal: The Association for the Study of the Arts of the Present

1. William Carlos Williams, “Author’s Introduction to The Wedge,” in Selected Essays of William Carlos Williams (New York: New Directions, 1954), 256.

2. Edward Hirsch “My Own Acquaintance,” in The Making of a Sonnet: A Norton Anthology, eds. Edward Hirsch and Eavan Boland (New York: Norton, 2009) 39.

3. Stephanie Burt, “Nearly Baroque,” Boston Review, April 11, 2014.

4. Matthew Zapruder, “The Machine of Poetry,” Powell’s Book Blog, August 15, 2017; Adrienne Rich, “Someone Is Writing a Poem,” in What Is Found There: Notebooks on Poetry and Politics (New York, Norton, 1993), 84, 87.

5. Rich, 85.

6. Rich, 90.

7. Rich, 86.

8. Emily Dickinson to T. W. Higginson, August 16, 1870, in Emily Dickinson: Selected Letters, ed. Thomas H. Johnson (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1986), 208.