• Dan Disney

From Mallarmé to Bernstein and on, creative producers have for their own reasons sought to terrestrialise the <<blancs>> of the page. Exploring spatiality, this paper takes its cue from T.S. Eliot’s concluding remarks in ‘Reflections on Vers Libre’: ‘there is only good verse, bad verse, and chaos’ (Eliot 1965: 189). Eliot’s final clause—chaos—is mobilised here as generative and excursive, a strategy which can open heterotopic sites to problematise the horizontality of the poetic line.


Keywords: <<blancs>> – typography – form – L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E – conceptualism


the poem demands to be read from beginning to end, from upper left to lower right
                                                                                                            Wendy Steiner, Res Poetica

(i) ‘postmodern’ anti-lyrics
Poetry is a generic tradition of dismantlement, and Pound’s fiat (Make It New!) captures pre-, proto-, and post- modern histories of production. When acting under the compulsion to transgress, Charles Bernstein makes antagonistic response to canonised lyricisms while proposing a suite of new functions for poetry with his programmatic cri de guerre, ‘Language control = thought control = reality control’ (Bernstein 1984: 140). Rather than making poetry which performs a cultic or magical function to affirm processes of authority accruing to hegemonic notions of aesthetic value (Benjamin 1968: 221), L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets instead make wilfully unreadable, non-auratic anti-lyrics which ghost the spectacle of commodity fetishism. These purposefully disharmonic texts constitute a rebellion against ‘poetic modes that emphasise the fundamentally expressive and subjective nature of art’ (Greene et al. 2012: 784); in making response to lyric impulses, Bernstein’s heterotopic texts are stylized political reactions against zones of authority in which readers have been habituated into consuming fabricated meanings, which mask iterations of no less than the master/slave dialectic.


Compiled three decades ago, The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Book organises a suite of antagonisms, decrees, and faux-slogans into explicit argument with:

conventional descriptive and narrative forms of writing: where the word – words – cease to be valued for what they are themselves but only for their properties as instrumentalities leading us to a world outside or beyond them, so that words – language – disappear, become transparent, leaving the picture of a physical world the reader can then consume as if it were a commodity. (Bernstein 1984: x)

Bernstein and Andrews proffer a mode of anti-lyricism which will resist articulation, by which to fatally disrupt the formation of musical pictures of the world; this is resistance best described as an ethical behaviour (Adorno 2001: 8). Indeed, Bernstein et al. announce a shattering impulse toward authorised auras which (L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets perceive) surround canonised lyric poetry, and set out to disrupt sense-making as a valorised, hegemonic impulse by making, literally, no sense.


At the beginning of the 20th century T.S. Eliot defends what was at that point a radical new style by avowing in his essay, ‘Reflections on Vers Libre’ (1917), that ‘there is only good verse, bad verse, and chaos’ (Eliot 1965: 189). Cutting thought-sound into implication-filled communicative acts is largely that ‘goodness’ wished for by Eliot; and we hear evidence of the affectivities produced by a thought-event’s purposefully manipulated sounds in the refrain contained in ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’:

            In the room the women come and go
            Talking of Michelangelo
                                                   (Eliot 1963: 3)


This objectively-correlated, image-based soundscape—an approximate iambic tetrameter—stumbles meaningfully to falter at the first foot of each line, interrupted by an anapest (‘in the room’) and then a trochee (‘talking’). Breaking an otherwise established pattern—the surefooted iamb—and sound begins to make explicit sense, connecting with Eliot’s themes of awkwardness, social dislocation, and sexual anxiety. When the women draw near, Prufrock’s internal monologue initially stutters (in the first line) before self-righting into the reliable plod of the iamb. He then gets off on the wrong foot (as the turn-of-phrase goes) attempting to assert himself in the second line. The caesura after ‘talking’ is a slightest pause of sudden realisation, as if Prufrock is reproaching himself while rueing his inability to strike an easy-going rhythm. Eliot supplements this purposeful sonic manipulation with an oh! at the end of each line (‘go’; ‘Michelangelo’), as if ‘oh no, here I go again’. Here is a protagonist who is pointedly arrhythmic and deeply, self-consciously abject in his assonance.


So much for Eliot’s ‘good verse’. To compare: here are the first three lines of ‘Azoot D’Puund’, initially published in Bernstein’s Poetic justice (1979)

            iz wurry ray AzoOt de puund in reduce yap crrRisLe ehk nugkinj
            sJuxYY senshl. ig si heh hahpae uvd r fahbeh aht si gidrid. impOg
            qwbk tuUg. jr’ghtpihqw. ray aGh nunCe ip gvvn EapdEh a’gum
                                                                                   (Bernstein 2010: 34)

What sense can be made of this seemingly random assemblage of not-words in no-language? Clearly no sense at all, if it is totalised pictures of a recognisable world we seek to construct (read ‘consume’). Bernstein’s ironically post-lyrical text resists articulation and parodies the guttural, labial, sibilant sounds ‘good’ poems make when making sense. Barely able to be read aloud, this is a pre- or post-language aria, but it is not completely empty. Gesturally, ‘Azoot D’Puund’ stages Bernstein’s incredulity towards grand narratives (Lyotard 1984: xxvi), hitherto the auratic preserve of lyricisms presumed to speak in universal affective tropes for the enrichment/nourishment of readers. In emphasising comprehension as a received and largely unquestioned process, Bernstein’s work opens a discourse which claims readers have been conditioned to anticipate the arrival of variant clusters of Keats’ truth/beauty in which, delving back a hundred years before Keats, ‘the sound must seem an echo to the sense’ (Pope: n.p.). ‘Azoot D’Puund’ steadfastly proffers the noise of neither truth nor beauty, and this non-mimetic abstract expressionistic text may instead leave close readers scanning for gesture (and therein, meta-meaning) while questioning who it is that controls the genre’s narrative: why isn’t this poetry (and who says)?


Read as a reaction to the broadly utopian programs of the early modernists, L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poems like ‘Azoot D’Puund’ make spam mail look like The brothers Karamazov. Semantics and stylistics are only partly the point, though: postmodern anti-lyrics are a meta-poetic mode, an emphatic turn away from lyricism: ‘whose goodness, T.S. Eliot?’ Bernstein et al. seem to ask, while interrogating those subjective investments lying behind—and thus latently informing the construction of—grand narratives enshrined as hegemonies. Bernstein’s radical democratising impulse cannot ignore how ideologies are traced within the superstructures of any categorical definition: consider Eliot’s cultural, political, and religious settings working behind the shopfront of his designations ‘good’, ‘bad’, and ‘chaotic’. Bernstein refuses to be complicit in the manufacture of any kind of authorised poetry he imagines to be enmeshed within unannounced ideological programs. Resisting instrumentalisation, he instead de-authorizes the lyric mode by presenting an extreme estrangement, and recuperates language as an opaque material incapable of releasing the chime of (Aristotle’s much-feted) universal meanings. If we populate an era in which grand narratives are ideological, interpellative, and an unfreedom or so very much worse (consider Benjamin’s notion of the Fascistic ‘aestheticization of politics’1968: 241) then, after Bernstein, close meta-readers are sensitised to—and necessarily skeptical toward—gambits made by any monoglossic lyric toward transparency, authenticity, or truthfulness.

(ii) conceptualism(s) i
Clockwork Kant lit the candles of enlightenment when asking ‘what is a human being?’ (and leading up to these magnitudes, posed three earlier questions: ‘What can I know? What ought I do? What may I hope?’ 1781: 735). Two centuries and a firmament of speculative illumination later, and many poets persist with ever-arriving responses to ‘where (and what) are we?’ Says Christian Bök: ‘I am amazed that poets will continue to write about their divorces, even though there is currently a robot taking pictures of orange ethane lakes on Titan’ (Bök [a]: n.p.). Mid paradigm-shift and now newly globalised/technologised, which poetry can make us see ourselves being and becoming? Rather than picked from murk and sheltered within oracular resonance (as if the poem once acted as a kind of temple built to worship the real: one recalls Denise Levertov’s ‘form is never more than a revelation of content’ 1992: 73), which next version of the fiat lux can outshine the neon to define human contours amid digital foregrounds?


Postmodern outcroppings were not idealised avant-garde quests for a fundamentally impossible utopian order, though this was largely the domain of Eliot’s ‘good’ poems. But the spatiality of the avant-garde metaphor situates artists teleologically, at the forefront of a historicised narrative in which individuals systemically click into place so as to orchestrate the human project’s sequential forward march … which is not quite what happens out in the real. In The Routledge companion to experimental literature, Joe Bray et al. attempt to problematise that model by shifting away from the militarism of a ‘forwards guard’ to the science of ‘experimentalism’, suggesting that ‘experiment promises to extend the boundaries of knowledge, or in this case, of artistic practice’ (2012: 2). But the logic contained in the figuration of ‘extending boundaries’ keeps us contained within a topographical model; to resituate the narrative of poetry as otherly (etymol: heteros, ‘other’) inoculates the genre as heterotopic, a mode of resistance which is situated-not-migratory (as the avant-garde was), not parasitic in its reaction to a perceived mainstream but freed to range across terrains of exploration, innovation, and experimentation while continuing to locate responses to ‘what is a human being?’ Thus deterritorialised (Deleuze and Guattari 2002: 174-191 passim) and extricated from the founding metaphors of modernity, contemporary experiments are no longer compelled toward participating in either auratic ‘good’ poetry or the inversions of ‘bad’ anti-lyrics. Unencumbered by those ideologies underlying Pound’s grand narrative, instead of ‘Making It New!’ are we now inclined instead to Make It Heterotopic?


Meanwhile, the structures of our self-constructions have mutated across near-endless expanses of all-too-human estates. If a poem is a machine for moving thinking and for rousing us from our accustomed modes of perception, then for the moment we are moved little further by pure lyric. Post-incredulity and pre-singularity, poetic language needs (as ever) re-materialisation, new stylists persisting with working ‘without rules in order to formulate the rules of what will have been done’ (Lyotard, 1984: 81). Experimentation as aesthetic mode to resist instrumentalisation seems a necessary undertaking for any heterotopian wondering what can be hoped for and what ought to be done.


Over six decades ago, Charles Olson established an aesthetics within his essay ‘Projective Verse’ (1950), in which he counsels poets to abandon ‘the lyrical interference of the individual as ego’ (in Scully 1977: 280). An extension of Olson’s decentralised poetics is now populated by a cadre of angry young doyen taking up newly-materialised programs while fossicking amid the linguistic detritus of canonised utopian modes. One such program, conceptualism, takes language as a kind of human waste product, as Kenneth Goldsmith avows:

Language as junk … conceptual writing is more interested in a thinkership rather than a readership. Readability is the last thing on this poetry’s mind. Conceptual writing is good only when the idea is good; often, the idea is much more interesting than the resultant texts. (Goldsmith [a]: n.p.)

Here is a heterotopian who makes texts from (as he imagines it) a torrent of dreck: Soliloquy (2001) is an unedited transcript of every word the poet spoke for a week; Goldsmith’s Trilogy project includes (i) Weather (2005), which transcribes a year’s weather reports for New York, New Jersey, Connecticut; (ii) Traffic (2007), which records a day’s traffic reports on radio, updated at ten-minute intervals on the first day of a long weekend; and (iii) Sports (2008), which transcribes a five-hour broadcast of a baseball game (Perloff 2010: 147). Perhaps predictably, these texts read nothing like literature as we hitherto have read it.


Rather than make pledges that tie sound to sense-making in service to lyric authenticities, conceptualist poets opt for alternative procedures of (i) recycling over making; (ii) autopoiesis over exploration; and (iii) uncreativity over constructivist discourses. As per Goldsmith’s Traffic (2007):

12:01 Well, in conjunction with the big holiday weekend, we start out with the Hudson River horror show right now. Big delays in the Holland Tunnel either way with roadwork, only one lane will be getting by. You’re talking about, at least, twenty to thirty minutes worth of traffic either way, possibly even more than that. Meanwhile the Lincoln Tunnel, not great back to Jersey but still your best option. And the GW Bridge your worst possible option. Thirty to forty minute delays, and that’s just going into town. Lower level closed, upper level all you get … Still very slow on the eastbound Southern State Parkway here at the area of the, uh, Meadowbrook there’s a, uh, stalled car there blocking a lane and traffic very slow. (Goldsmith [b]: n.p.)

On and on this text goes, faithful in its verbatim recording of a chattering, instrumental speech-act recontextualised as literature. As the avowedly uncreative Goldsmith proclaims, his idea may indeed be more interesting than the resultant text: thinking is prioritised over our reading, and listening (so important to lyrical legitimation) is parodied: Goldsmith is perhaps pointing out how, in a milieu of drear industriousness, we never get the chance to not-listen.


In Unoriginal genius (2010), Marjorie Perloff informs readers that a conceptualist text refuses to be subjugated ‘to the larger cultural field of capitalist commodification where language has become merely instrumental’ (Perloff 2010: 9). But isn’t this simply the same resistance proffered under the aegis of the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E program, trundled out and reanimated? How to regard Goldsmith’s oeuvre as more than textual grey goo: what does Traffic, as a recent exemplar of poetic otherliness, proclaim for itself? Perhaps it is possible to frame Goldsmith as a subversive prankster and trash merchant, sifting through the refuse of functionalised language—this upcycler opts out of producing yet more good poetry, and instead produces what Perloff claims as recycled literature, or ‘récriture’ (Perloff 2010: 4). Greenwashing aside, Traffic subverts sense-making as a reified process, and refuses to duplicate economies of commercially-viable (i.e. beautiful) imagistic replications of our hyper-modernity. Instead, Goldsmith’s intentionally valueless, nutritionless text wilfully appropriates that effluence of language coursing through infrastructures that serve to scaffold the real. Texts like Traffic record the steady flow of our efficiency: Goldsmith’s extreme mundanity contains the echoes of our empty urbanity, and attempts to force us to reflect on the vacuity, the meaninglessness, indeed the shittiness of participating in taxonomies of labour while being force-fed capitalistic idea-products masquerading as truths. Not since Baudelaire has ennui been so energised an aesthetic gesture.

(iii) conceptualism(s) ii
If the harmonics offered by lyricism and the programmatic opacity offered by L=A=N=G=UA=G=E poets are exhausted gestures, then which styles for thinking-readerships/ reading-thinkerships accurately and acutely orientate us toward ‘what is (the current version of) a human being?’ Christian Bök’s xenotext raises the roofing of our homeliness to the brink of infinitude, and works at the extreme edges of meta-critique to map our transformation. The poem itself is a relatively simple reading experience:

           Any style of life
           is prim

           o, stay
           my liar

           with wily ploys
           among the riff

           the riff
           of any tune aloud

           moan now my fate

           in fate
           we rely

           my myth
           now is the word

           the word of life
                            (Bök [b]: n.p.)

and these associative, near-homophonic riffing sounds (prim/prime, liar/lyre, allowed/aloud, moan now/moan ow, in fate we rely/in god we trust) constitute an uncanny literature. Scheduled for ‘publication’ sometime this year, the xenotext is written using a chemical alphabet before being coded into a sequence of DNA and then implanted into a bacterium which Bök describes as an ‘extremophile’, and the Guinness book of records describes as the world’s toughest bug.


Bök’s radical text extends across terrains proposed in William S. Burroughs’ aphorism—‘the word is now a virus’ (Burroughs 1962: 49)—and he explains his variant genesis-literature as follows:

When translated into a gene and then integrated into the cell, my poem is going to constitute a set of instructions, all of which cause the organism to manufacture a viable, benign protein in response – a protein that, according to my original, chemical alphabet, is itself yet another text. I am, in effect, engineering a life-form so that it becomes not only a durable archive for storing a poem, but also an operant machine for writing a poem – one that can persist on the planet until the sun itself explodes. (Bök [a]: n.p.)

In essence, this poem is an endlessly recursive cloning procedure, in which individual units of an all-too-hardy bacterium become thing-poems inexorably printing further thing-poems; coded with Bök’s chemical text, the bacterium responds as follows:

           The faery is rosy
           of glow

           in fate
           we rely

           moan more grief
           with any loss

           any loss
           is the achy trick

           with him we stay

           oh stay
           my lyre

           we wean
           him of any milk

           any milk is rosy
                          (Bök [b]: n.p.)

Bök is retranscendentalising the genre with an experimental lyricism (faery/fiery, the achy trick/theatric), however the xenotext makes no claim to a totalised view and makes no pledge to undertake a process of helping readers make themselves at home beneath ever-vertiginous skies. Instead, the text echoes gesturally across expanses both nano and tera (etymol: teras, ‘monster’). This is a self-replicating gnomic call-and-response (‘Any style of life is prim’ >> ‘The faery is rosy of glow’) which prints extra-logically, auto-poetically, intra-materially, and unstoppably. The xenotext is the flourish of an absent deity, and presents the unpresentable (which recalls Lyotard’s definition of the sublime 1982: 82); there is no evanescent proximity with the real here, but an exercise (for a thinkership) in unthinkability.

(iv) transformalism(s)?
Where are we?
In the midst of an epoch described in some quarters as ‘Anthropocene’ the vastness of chaos (etymol: χάος, ‘abyss’) gapes both inside the boundarylines of our Apollonian attempts at order, and beyond. But chaos is generative, not only an aesthetic but indeed a tradition: in 1897, Stéphane Mallarmé published his Un Coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hazard with the following preface: ‘Les <<blancs>> en effet, assument l’importance, frappent d’abord’ (‘the “blanks”, in effect, assume importance and are what is immediately most striking’: 121). In other words, the page conceived of as a white abyss in which chaos is a materially present absence. If landscapes generate cultures (Scott 2004: 29) in that same way that grammars cultivate particular behaviours (as illustrated by the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis), then the blank page is tabula rasa, a void awaiting its heterotopia, a site across which to trace emulations of what we are, what we may hope for, and what (if anything) ought be done. To make it heterotopic, then, is to leave an ethical mark.


If the objective is to wake readers from an anaesthetic slumber (in which, after Plato, dreams of the real are mistaken as real), then for which reasons do poetic lines plod like somnambulists in tenement buildings, stacked horizontally one under the next? In their recent investigation into postlinearity, Roberts et al. state ‘(d)uring eye fixation, our useful field of view is limited to about four characters to the right’ (2013: 24). The eye passes and repasses text, wandering (but constrained). How does a conventional poem ask to be read? We are a marching band of Sisypheans, making our descent left-to-right and four letters at a time, blind to the abyss and traversing in a generic slog—ground zero now, a.k.a. the poem’s final line—toward (once again) particularly inscribed hierarchies of reading-thinking-order. What is reading if not the shift from peripheral/parafoveal to fixated words (2013: 26)? If poetic lines are freed from the conventions of horizontality, how then is reading to be redefined within spatially expressive zones? To break the horizontality of the line: could this be the next heave?


Poets like Susan Howe, Steve McCaffery, the de Campos brothers, any of the author-orthors in Jérôme Peignot’s Typoésie (1993) set out to explore chaos; breaking the syntagmatic chain of horizontalised thinking-into-form disrupts the linear flow of saccading/consuming. The page is thus apprehended as territory, and just as ‘the literature around us is unmistakably a planetary system’ (Moretti 2013: 45), this is a site to terrestrialise emanations of particular realities. Blankness spatters typography, and the shaped black marks of each character pleasures a reader’s saccades, which are now chaotic-not-linear. Just as Duchamp once avowed how ‘Everything was becoming conceptual, that is, it depended on things other than the retina’ (cited in Dworkin, Goldsmith 2011: xxvii), these texts are wholly retina-based. ‘Transformal’ texts proffer not L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E but L+A+N+G+UA+G+E= … herewith, the poem as optic-and-phonetic, a mode of indeterminate sense-making which is not so much an extension of concretising impulses as an autoethnographic zone of replication within which to critique the superstructures of space and power, culture and community, nature and beyond.


Denise Levertov asserts poets stand ‘open-mouthed in the temple of life’ (1992: 68) and, inhaling/inspired, intuit the real as a series of duplicable patterns: ‘there is form in all things,’ which poets can reveal (1992: 67). Levertovian lyrics act as microcosmic models, codifying that cosmic orderliness she purports all poets can apprehend: this is organic form as a mystical, revelatory, onomatopoeic resonance, as if the poem acts as a stereophonic surround sound system promulgating echoes of ontological rhythm. As Levertov frames it, organic form is ‘based on an intuition of an order, a form beyond forms’ (1992: 68); hers are idealised language-machines harmonised to the glimpsed contours of a meta-machine. But if we are finished with attempting total musical pictures of the world then we must opt instead for echoes (but not in Pope’s sense); experimentally deploying glitches/snippets/clichés, the instrumental rhetoric of official noise/noisy officialdom as synthesised sound-bites, we shudder toward the sublime sounds of ‘what is it humans are being?’ Just as the page is topographical, the poem remains phonological, and the sight/sound event of a ‘transformal’ text is inscribed with wry representations of the human project’s newest contexts. This may be Levertov’s organic form, squatting in tenement shadow trying to remember what Mallarmé was on about … but the mind’s gone blank, generatively. Chaotic forms are never more than a deterritorialisation of content.



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