‘documentary adequacy’ & poetic form

July 31, 2014 § Leave a comment

I was up late last night reading Seamus Heaney’s Crediting Poetry. I picked it up off the shelf wanting his words as much as the feel of this hardcover in the small of my hand with its gold-illuminated dust jacket of honey bees entering blue, green, and red hives — an image from the Ashmole Bestiary, c. 1210.  My copy is a discard from the Bethlehem Area Public Library, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania:

“When the bard Demodocus sings of the fall of Troy and of the slaughter that accompanied it, Odysseus weeps, and Homer says that his tears were like the tears of a wife on a battlefield weeping for the death of a fallen husband. His epic simile continues:

At the sight of the man panting and dying there,
she slips down to enfold him, crying out;
then feels the spears, prodding her back and shoulders,
and goes bound into slavery and grief.
Piteous weeping wears away her cheeks:
but no more piteous than Odysseus’ tears,
cloaked as they were, now, from the company.

Even today, three thousand years later, as we channel-surf over so much live coverage of contemporary savagery, highly informed but nevertheless in danger of growing immune, familiar to the point of overfamiliarity with old newsreels of the concentration camp and the gulag, Homer’s image can still bring us to our senses. The callousness of those spear shafts on the woman’s back and shoulders survives times and translation. The image has that documentary adequacy which answers all that we know about the intolerable.

But there is another kind of adequacy which is specific to lyric poetry. This has to do with the ‘temple inside our hearing’ which the passage of the poem calls into being. it is an adequacy deriving from what Mandelstam called ‘the steadfastness of speech articulation,’ from the resolution and independence which the entirely realized poem sponsors. It has as much to do with the energy released by linguistic fission and fusion, with the buoyancy generated by cadence and tone and rhyme and stanza, as it has to do with the poem’s concerns or the poet’s truthfulness. In fact, in lyric poetry, truthfulness becomes recognizable as a ring of truth within the medium itself. And it is the unappeasable pursuit of this note, a note tuned to its most extreme in Emily Dickinson and Paul Celan and orchestrated to its most opulent in John Keats — it is this which keeps the poet’s ear straining to hear the totally persuasive voice behind all the other informing voices.”

— pp.48-51 Crediting Poetry

I’m in sympathy with what Heaney says here about “documentary adequacy,” with the poem as documentary trace; poetry not as game but as moral urgency. I’m not sure about the tenor of the epic simile he praises and the disturbing link made between tenor and vehicle here puts into question his assertion about the moral value of poetry.

First he makes a connection between documentary adequacy and poetic form — an adequacy of form, the “rightness” of a poem in its sounding. The need for documentary adequacy — poetry’s ability to document the savagery of the world — is aligned with the form of expression; the right form has to be found, that is where the authority of poetry is found. Other writers thinking about poetry have said similar things. Terrence Des Pres (“the power base of poetry is poetry itself”), Helen Vendler (“Form is the necessary and skilled embodiment of the poet’s moral urgency, the poet’s method of self-revelation.” p.xiv from Our Secret Discipline: Yeats and Lyric Form). She also says a poem is not an essay, not a position paper, not an argument, not a speech, not a sermon. Mutlu Konuk Blasing in The Pain and the Pleasure of Words also emphasizes with Vendler the skilled embodiment as being the basis of a poet’s moral authority.

Regarding the adequacy of sound, Heaney gives the example of Yeats’ refrain “Come build in the empty house of the stare” from his “Meditations in Time of Civil War” as well as the “sheer in-placeness of the whole poem as a given form within the language.” (p.52):

“The form of the poem, in other words, is crucial to poetry’s power to do the thing which always is and always will be to poetry’s credit: the power to persuade that vulnerable part of our consciousness of its rightness in spite of the evidence of wrongness all around it….” p.53

He seems to use form as synonym for sound, the poem’s music — that when something sounds right there is a greater inclination to believe it is true: beauty is truth, truth beauty. So much for those of us who are ugly.

So back to the epic simile — the simile is beautiful, and Homer in other places in The Iliad uses domestic feminine vehicles — a child reaching for its mother, wanting to be held; the mother’s body as ground. And in this particular simile, the captive woman feels the male soldier’s weapon in the small of her back: powerless/powerful, raped/rapist, one who is taken/one who takes. Her tears (of grief? how about of rage, that she is cast in such an abject role) are then compared to those of Odysseus (his tears for the slaughter all around him are as great as this anonymous woman’s for the loss of her husband).

I can understand Heaney’s praise for the ‘documentary adequacy’ of the vehicle — it feels right, this scene which has been enacted so many times. But it is being used to elaborate the tenor of Odysseus, a cold-blooded killer.  Something can sound right, can have documentary adequacy, and yet the right sounding can be morally bankrupt.

 

“poetry was to be found everywhere”: miscellany 1

September 19, 2013 § 2 Comments

“Poetry was to be found everywhere.”
— Ward, John Keats: The Making of a Poet, p.138

“The abandonment of the autonomy of the will of the speaking person as a speaker constitutes a form of knowledge — poetic knowledge. The knowledge that not ‘I’ speaks but ‘language speaks.’ (Heidegger).”
— Grossman, Summa Lyrica, p.210

“Seriousness is the state of feeling which arises when consciousness, encompassing the circumscription of its own life, becomes centred in itself and becomes heavy with the gravity of its own solitude. Seriousness is a quality of lyric.”
— Summa Lyrica, p.240

Papaver Orientale, ‘Beauty of Livermore’: “Crimson-scarlet with black basal blotch”; “Clumps of divided leaves clothed in bristly hairs catch the light, especially if spotted with dew, and sumptuous flowers, crumpled at first, open to reveal satiny petals and a boss of dark, velvety stamens.”

Anemone x Hybrida, ‘Honorine Jobert’: “The pristine white flowers on five-foot stems, appear luminous at dusk.” (flower manual — which one??)

a poem consists of : a) movement in time (prosody), and b) movement in intellectual time (poetic mode–the analogue of plot in fiction)
— Mary Kinzie, A Poet’s Guide to Poetry, p.14

Kinzie, on reading a poem: “Words. You are not just reading messages or extracting meanings or drafting editorials to put into lines: You are thinking in words. You are thinking so hard in the atmosphere created by words that they enter you like your breathing. This means first, looking at words by themselves, with all their weight and subtlety; it helps to think about their length, complexity, and language of origin, too.” p.5/6

and: “One of the ways a poem grows, which the act of reading imitates, is to send out tendrils from the word toward the sentence of which it becomes a part, and from the sentence to the surrounding trellis of the lines.” p.6

M: “Poetry. Tamatoe (rymeing poem)
red sliced or diced Jucy or
nice in my Hand squishy squishy squishy”

M: “Poetry. Lemon. (non rhymeing poem.)
sour lemon and lime flaver sour sour more sour.”

“As M. H. Abrams notes, Coleridge held that ‘literary invention involves the natural, unplanned, and unconscious process by which things grow.’ Like a plant, the poet gathers material from the atmosphere around him and puts out branches and leaves. The poem itself, also like a plant, begins with a seed or ‘germ.’ It finds its natural or inherent shape, having assimilated materials from the atmosphere.”
— Jay Parini, Why Poetry Matters, p.14

“The first consequence of the first reading [of a poem] is the silence of the reader who was a speaker–his privilege as a speaker has been conceded to the speaker in the poem. The final consequence of first reading is the silence of acknowledgement of difference, the primordial apprehension, not of the otherness of another in terms of characterizing marks, but of the characterizing marks of another in terms of the inference of something personal which is not the self–the new planet, the unnamed thing which was always there but never to this moment acknowledged. This is the paradox of discovery. Discovery creates nothing but concedes the existence of a thing ‘not previously known.'”
— Summa Lyrica, p320

“Prickly leaves twined around pale brown letters. A tiny red dragon’s head was spitting out flowers over the stained paper.” — Inkheart, p.39

“My hand is cramped from penwork
My quill has a tapered point.
Its bird-mouth issues a blue-dark
Beetle-sparkle of ink.”
–Seamus Heaney, translation from the Irish,  “Colum Cille Cecinit, I. Is scith mo chrob on scribainn”

“The memory of my ‘builder’ is a storehouse of materials used by his predecessors: these discoveries, their signs and symbols. This is how poets carry on ‘the conversation begun before us’ — to use Pasternak’s phrase for their response to each other that knows no bounds of time or space. As transformed in the mind of a new ‘builder,’ such borrowed elements help to bring out his purely personal feelings, thoughts, and experiences. Words themselves, in fact, are nothing but distillations of the meaning put into them by all the generations who have ever spoken the language — besides what was already built into them during the pre-history of the language, before it split off from the group to which it belongs.”
— N. Mandelstam, Hope Abandoned, p.620

“The Orphic machine is the poem: a severed head with face turned away that sings.”; “Each poem is a reinvention of the speech source, because each poem establishes again, and is also identical with, the fictional ‘I’ (the severed head) which is the machine that has speech as its product.”
— Summa Lyrica, p. 364

“Think of it as the shell, the skull, the mummy, the golden bird, the garden, the rose, the ark, the bee-box, the labyrinth, the whale, the stone, the grail, the bridge, the tower, the pyramid, the temple, the knot, the breast, the mountain, the sea, the harp, the wind, the countenance…The source of speech, the source of poetry and the source of world are co-implicated. Symbolic representations of the origination of poetic utterance in Orphic objects and machines indicates that poetry is the speaking of being and that being comes first. Poetry is the speaking of being in the process of discovering itself as an occasion of the visibility of a person. The Orphic machine is the state of the object at the point of that discovery. Poetry issues from world at the point of submission of world to countenance, that is to say, at the point of its brokeness as world.”
— Summa Lyrica, p.365

“Williams was turned to ash on August 15 on the coast of Tuscany, Shelley the day after at Viareggio on pyres of pine, frankincense, wine, oil, honey, and salt.”
— Posthumous Keats, Stanley Plumly, p.101

from Modern Poetry and the Idea of Language, Gerald Bruns:

–that to Aristotle, “Words thus appear to be regarded as so many atoms in space, available for combination into molecules according to a linear model. This linear model is clearly at work in Aristotle’s discussion of diction in the Poetics, where he distinguishes, together with the letter, noun, and verb, the syndesmos and arthron, two anatomical terms meaning ‘ligament’ and ‘joint.'” p.29  i.e. they bind together parts of the sentence (conjunctions or articles)

–“It was customary among the Greeks to identify the letters of the alphabet (and with them the indivisible sounds of speech) as stoicheia, literally physical particles…” p.30

–on Rabelais’s Gargantua and Pantagruel, in the 4th book, P. & friends encounter strange sounds at sea — frozen words and cries of people in a bloody battle the winter before, their words frozen in the air; as the thaw comes, the words melt and can be heard

–P. throws “‘on the deck a whole handful of frozen words…and when we had somewhat warmed them between our hands, they melted like snow and we really heard them.'”

–“This frozen state is another way of describing the condition of the written (and particularly the printed) word, the word reduced to the extended, purely spatial mode of existence of the phonetic  alphabet. It was by means of the alphabet that man learned how to fix the spoken word in space by transforming  it into a sequence of objects. To read the written or printed word, of course, is simply to reverse this process: it is to re-create the utterance, to return it from space into time.” p.37

–“Signmund Burckhardt, in an essay entitled ‘The Poet as Fool and Priest,’ has observed that ‘the nature and primary function of the most important poetic devices–especially rhyme, meter, and metaphor–is to release words in some measure from their bondage to meaning, their purely referential role, and to give or restore to them the corporeality which a true medium needs.’ After all, language for a poet is rarely or never a purely transitive medium–a medium acted upon solely for the purposes of signification. Gerard Manley Hopkins once said, in his essay ‘Rhythm and the Other Structural Parts of Rhetoric-Verse,’ that ‘we may think of words as heavy bodies, as indoor and out of door objects of nature and man’s art’; and he went on to observe that, like natural bodies, words possess centres of gravity and centres of illumination. The function of a word in a rhythmic structure is to be found in the relationship or interplay between these two centres, which determines, respectively, its stress and pitch.” p.196-7

–“‘It is an impossible absolute that all words, that the texts, be written in such a way as to allow the words their complete semantic thickness. This is impossible. But if one has that sensitivity to the thickness of words, to the fact that they do have a history, that they have provoked associations of language, then this provides a much thicker material that is not superficial, which is a thing that one can mould precisely because it has the quality, the thickness, of potter’s clay. It is a physical object with many dimensions.'”
— Francis Ponge, qtd in Bruns, p.280-1

Rosalind, teasing the lovesick Orlando: “There is a man haunts the Forest, that abuses our yong plants with carving Rosalinde on their barkes; hangs Oades upon Hawthornes, and Elegies on brambles; all (forsooth) deifying the name of Rosalinde.” III.ii.352-5

“But ‘He is a god in my eyes,’ fragile and ephemeral as the action it imitates might seem, catches and holds the light of things as they are, everywhere, always, as surely as does the Iliad or the Antigone.”
— W. R. Johnson, The Idea of Lyric, p.83

“‘The circumstances of my life, living in the domain of a foreign tongue, have meant that I deal much more consciously with my language than before — and yet: the How and Why of that qualitative change the word experiences, to become a word in a poem, I’m unable to define more closely even today. Poetry, Paul Valery says somewhere, is language in statu nascendi, language becoming free.'”
— Paul Celan, qtd in Felstiner, p.77

“It is Keats’s use of consonance, however, as a stay against the flow of vowels, that really grounds the substance of the music to its meaning–both its source and statement. Keats’s consonants hold what his vowels would let go, the ‘subtle’ tension of which enacts the mortality of ‘the wasted breath’ that Yeats himself calls lyric poetry.”
–Plumly, Posthumous Keats, p.345

Seamus Heaney, 1939 — 2013

August 30, 2013 § Leave a comment

Friday 18 September 2009

I find reading Heaney, then Larkin, that you begin to see the structure of the poet’s mind which is both recognizably human, in that I recognize myself, but at the same time utterly alien and unknowable. Grossman: “A poem is a fiction of a self seen from within.” Summa Lyrica p.246. No, perhaps that isn’t right — not unknowable, because I am in fact able to see or to begin to see this structure of another’s mind, which would, under normal circumstances, be completely inaccessible. Yet still alien, in that this is another mind. With Larkin, I identify and recognize the misanthropic gesture, while with Heaney I yearn for the possibility of transcendence and absolution he describes.

Monday 7 December 2009

What is it that so appeals to me in Heaney’s poems, which I want to emulate in my own? There is an economy of words in his free verse, which gives the appearance of form — 4- or 5-word lines, lines divided into stanzas — tercets or quatrains, although not always…I want to replicate the spareness of Heaney’s earlier poems, combined with his complexity of imagery — startling at times. There is also its groundedness, linked to its subject matter, his childhood on his parents’ farm…I like also the references to writing, letters, school satchels, common objects….His optimism. Their lyrical beauty — this comes through especially in his later collections — The Spirit Level, Seeing Things. They don’t chatter. They sing.

Saturday 2 January 2010

Reading Byatt’s The Children’s Book where there is a lot of discussion of pottery, clays, slips, glazes. I love the word ‘clay.’ …The words draw me — clay, slip, glaze, the metals and elements that produce distinct colours, And I thought of Heaney’s poem in The Spirit Level — ‘To a Dutch Potter in Ireland’: “Grey-blue, dull-shining, scentless, touchable — /Like the earth’s old ointment box, sticky and cool” and “Hosannah in clean sand and Kaolin/And, ‘now that the rye crop waves beside the ruins,’/In ash pits, oxides, shards and chlorophylls.” I like “sticky and cool” — the /k/s, and the word ‘sticky,’ the short and then long vowel, and the idea of clays in the ground that you dabble your fingers in like an ointment box, and of praising clay, the elements. Again it’s the alliteration — ‘clean’ and ‘Kaolin,’ although I don’t know what Kaolin is, the s‘s and sh‘s and then the final /k/ in chlrophylls. And again some kind of progression of vowels — ae, short o, long a, long o — short through long? several kinds of ‘a’? I don’t have the technical vocabulary to precisely describe this yet.

Tuesday 23 February 2010

Rain. It always makes me want to write, to sit quietly with a pen in my hand and a notebook, and work on a poem. I am learning some things about writing poems, about refusing lines that come too easily, holding out for a sharper, more precise or startling image. And about sudden turns in the direction you thought you were going, when the language takes you elsewhere. Reading some of Heaney’s poems — the earlier ones, in North for example — there is a sense of watching an artist at work on a canvas, seeing the technique of laying down words, sounds, a sudden gesture that turns the poem in a new direction, taking you sideways, or turning something inside out, the process of defamiliarization. I’m not describing it right. Throw-away lines, that seem so casual — the last lines of ‘Viking Dublin: Trial Pieces,’ about pampooties. A lightness, and a way of deflecting the too easy (too heavy) conclusion. Or the ending of ‘Bone Dreams,’ although I don’t understand it, about the animal pelt and its tiny eyes. Well, I would like to do that.

Tuesday 6 July 2010

I was reading some of the poems in North while my students wrote their in-class essay last night. Trying to think about the elements that make them distinctively his —

1. place, setting — N. Europe, the bogs, N. Ireland, and also language & dialect as place or location in which you reside;

2. his focus on violence — Iron Age violent deaths, carried in the bodies of the bog people, mapped onto the violence in N. Ireland, if obliquely;

3. A precise, even technical vocabulary, not easily accessible. For example, in ‘Bog Queen,’: turf-face, demesne wall, glass-toothed stone (i.e. granite w/inclusions? glazed with ice?*), braille, Baltic amber, crock, diadem, ‘Carious,’ peat floe, bearings (as in ball bearings), sash, glacier, ‘Phoenician stitchwork,’ ‘retted’ (what is this? “retted on my breasts’/ soft moraines”), fjords, fledge, coomb, stone jambs, skull-ware, tufts. As if looking at a stone wall, all sharp hard words, of one-syllable. No, not entirely — coomb, moraine, floe, fjord, these are all soft. Perhaps I am thinking of the meaning — archaeological or geological terms, applied to a new domaine — the woman’s preserved body. Some descriptions are modified by adjectives that suggest rotting — “slimy birth-cord/of bog,” “bruised  berries.” There are nouns made into unusual verbs, “kinned,” “ossify myself” — from different poems (‘Kinship,’ and ‘Bone Dreams’?); *or, a stone wall topped with shards of glass

4. Brilliant Metaphors — “My body was braille/for the creeping influences” — the body like a tactile text read by the elements. The body as text is not uncommon, nor is land as text to be read — a common colonial gesture. But here it is the land reading her body — this is new, isn’t it? It strikes me as original and startling. Or “they lie gargling/in her sacred heart” — as if a blood rattle, their deaths — from ‘Kinship.’ Or her brain fermenting — “a jar of spawn/fermenting underground”;

5. Spareness, precision. Each line and stanza is pared down, stripped of excess, 7 syllables per line at most, many with less, like imagist poems. There is nothing common, or clichéd, or soft — except in terms of a body which is rotting or bruised. There is economy — a “cured wound” in ‘Grauballe Man;’

6. The erotic — some element of the erotic in these descriptions of her body? Is this because it follows on the heels of ‘Come to the Bower’ and ‘Bone Dreams’? an effect of resonance? from one poem to the next. And there is the erotic married to the violent — nipples like blown amber, always in the description of the woman (Ondaatje does this also) as if describing a rape, that which is taken;

7. Content? What are the poems about? What do they mean? Is this a naive question? And yet they seem deeply significant — at the level of individual words engaging with issues of colonialism and the violence inflicted by language in addition to the historical violence towards which they gesture. e.g. in ‘Bone Dreams’ where he addresses English literary heritage: “I push back/through dictions/Elizabethan canopies,/Norman devices,//the erotic Mayflowers/of Provence/and the ivied Latins/of churchmen/to the scop’s/twang, the iron/flash of consonants/cleaving the line.” As if pushing back through overgrown, flowering plants, he reveals a cross-section of the English language, which his poem cuts through like the flash of consonants where Anglo-Saxon words cleave the line — ban hus, bone house;

8. Abrupt, unexplained transitions — in ‘Bone Dreams,’ the final section on the dead mole? He loses me here. Or is it meant to take us back to the bone he finds in the grass in the opening section? This mole also will decay, and already suggests to him a whole landscape, the “small distant Pennines.”

And then the question becomes, what can I do, what have I done?

Wednesday 15th September 2010

I am reading Human Chain, which came in the mail on Monday, and I saved until late Tuesday night….I’ve only skimmed through it and now want to read it through again, slowly. There are poems on books, and scribes, and writing tools, scraps of Virgil and Keats, echoes of earlier poems he’s written, which is disconcerting — for example, echoes of ‘The Rainstick’ from The Spirit Level in one poem, as if you’re hearing a song transposed into a different key that’s foreign to you ( a different scale?) or a song translated into a foreign language similar to your own. Some repetition of style which has become a verbal tic, like scar tissue. And it also reads like a private summing up of a life — you are welcome to listen in, such an intimate offering, but he doesn’t offer many signposts — you are on your own.

the poem as participating in the ongoing human project of making the world

February 2, 2013 § Leave a comment

How is a poem like a coat? In The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World, Elaine Scarry develops Marx’s insight that the human body is an artefact that is constantly being remade by means of the artefacts which we produce, and by so doing we participate in the ongoing human project of making the world. Material objects hold and extend our sentience. She notes Marx’s description of cloth, for example, as memorialization of the body: “the woven cloth is a material memorialization of the embodied work of spinning, for it endures long after the physical activity has itself ceased” (p.247); the raw material is “soaked in labour” (p.247).

How do these material objects extend our sentience and rework it?  The telephone extends hearing, the telescope or microscope, sight; and so on; sentience is now “objectified in language and material objects and is thus fundamentally transformed to be communicable and endlessly sharable” (p.255):

“…human beings project their bodily powers and frailties into external objects such as telephones, chairs, gods, poems, medicine, institutions, and political forms, and then those objects in turn become the object of perceptions that are taken back into the interior of human consciousness where they now reside as part of the mind or soul, and this revised conception of oneself—as a creature relatively untroubled by the problem of weight (chair), as one able to hear voices coming from the other side of a continent (telephone)….is now actually ‘felt’ to be located inside the boundaries of one’s own skin where one is in immediate contact with an elaborate constellation of interior cultural fragments that seem to have displaced the dense molecules of physical matter” (p.256).

The object returns to us; sentience itself is reworked. Words also become external objects in which we invest our sentience: the words we speak and write are grounded in our bodies, and assume a physical form, whether through the voice which speaks words or the movements of our hands and fingers to produce writing. Words spoken involve breath and vibration. The writer holds the pen in her hand or types at the computer; fingers, tendons, muscles, wrapped around bone, enclosed in skin, produce letters, whether in digital form or as traces of ink. In this way a song or a poem, a stitched fabric of words, is also a material artefact which goes out into the world, and then returns.

Scarry’s discussion of the artefact as lever is carried out within her larger consideration of the ways in which torture and war “unmake” the world, attempt to destroy and take apart objects, institutions, language itself. The artefact plays an important role in the aftermath, in the making or remaking of this damaged world. In particular, she emphasizes the artefact as “lever,” with powers of projection and reciprocation.

Projecting human sentience into objects, an awareness, a knowledge of human needs, is only one part of the equation. Second, comes reciprocation: we can then think of the artefact as a lever or fulcrum, that moves this force of creation back again from itself, from the external or natural world, to human beings, recreating, remaking, extending our powers. This holds for a single poem, or an entire library; Scarry is wide-ranging in her embrace of all kinds of human artefacts, from common domestic objects such as the clothespin, the chair, the cloth, to the polis or nation-state and even the Judeo-Christian God (an act of collective human imagining). She observes that this reciprocation is almost always magnified. 

This is where the coat and its relation to the poem, comes into her argument.

She asks us to consider a coat made by a woman called Mildred Keats: she spends 2 weeks making the coat, but wears it for 20 years (here is the magnification effect of the artefact as lever). The 2 weeks of physical discomfort while she sews the coat are repaid many times by the warmth and mobility it provides her, thus freeing up her awareness of her body and its needs so that she can work on other aspects of world-making.

Similarly, John Keats writes a poem. He projects his own private thoughts and emotions into the poem (if inevitably imprinted by the discursive context in which he writes); it is printed, circulated, and now exists in the world of material objects for us to read. Perhaps it takes him 3 hours to write “Ode to a Nightingale.” It is still with us almost 200 years later. Each time it is read, “its power now moves back from the object realm to the human realm where sentience itself is remade” (p.307). We breath into his words, give them life; and they work on us too, reworking our consciousness.

This is a modest claim, then, for poems as artefact-levers, like coats, which are projected out into the world, and then return, magnified, modifying consciousness through time.

note on Oulipo constraints & DNA poetry (a genomic poem)

January 30, 2013 § Leave a comment

Inevitably, DNA provides an interesting model for a poem generated by means of Oulipo-esque constraints. If we think of language as arbitrary system by which the poet is written, we might model this with a series of somewhat arbitrary constraints inspired by codon-into-amino acid production; the byproduct of the writing process might look something like a chromosome in the sequenced genome of a small organism. Guillardia theta, for example, a eukaryotic nucleomorph genome, sequenced in 2001.

The four DNA acids, C G A T, in various combinations of 3, in turn produce X number of amino acids—21 in the human body—which express the organism. A DNA codon chart might be created to generate a genomic poem.

See  Christian Bök’s fascinating Xenotext Experiment; which takes the idea of poetry as DNA literally in the form of a “poetry bug,” a poem that might “‘infect’ the language of genetics.” His discussion of contagion, infection, and language as virus with reference to this project is also reminiscent of Renaissance conceptions of human interaction with the world (melancholy, love, the plague, almost anything could be contracted through the air, the eye, the ear…) now translated into our 21st century genetic paradigms, and more general interest in things ‘viral.’

I’m more interested in DNA as extended conceit or metaphor for poetry, and tracing this genealogy back to organic models for poetry and poetic production in the Romantics (Coleridge and the idea of an ‘organic’ versus mechanical poetic process; Keats’ description of poetry coming as leaves to a tree.)

But to return to the idea of a DNA codon table to generate a genomic poem: this would make an interesting book of poetry in theory: the codon table as frontispiece, followed by however many pages of the sequenced organism/poem.

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