Michael Palmer at ARCH
Arch has an interview up with Michael Palmer here.
It’s well worth reading. Here’s a snippet:
LR: . . . Are you concerned about the conceptual usefulness of the book to poetry in terms of the way it's now having to compete with the financial viability of online publication?
MP: Well, poetry, as far as being able to compete, has never been able to compete with anything. [laughter] So, it survives anyway. And it won't be able to compete with technology, but it will go on in its own particular way. And there will be a certain audience that is generated by technology that may want to go to the book itself. Because the luxury of the book, of being able to go back and forth, is not equivalent to pushing a button and going back and going forward. It may be that as the electronic book becomes more sophisticated than it is right now, we'll have the luxury of downloading a library into a little facsimile of a book and reading that way. And those inevitably may more and more come to approximate the book. I'm all for that because I can't travel with a hundred books like I'd like to, you know, to Paris or something like that. And I think that has a great use. Also for reference works. I live in a small house with ten thousand books, you know, and I'd love to be able to get rid of some of them and just access them online for information.
But I find other curiosities about it. For example, when I do teach (from time to time) creative writing now, a lot of the kids are kind of going on line to get particular algorithms for composition. And then they come up with something that's kind of weird and kind of interesting in a jazzy way. But it's just a construction. What they don't realize [is that] in doing that, and then having a kind of mechanistic play with language, they can come up with something strange, but not with something deep necessarily. And so that's something that has a something to do with a kind of maturing relationship to technology. It's like the early days of electronic music when a lot of people thought, "Oh, every sound I make here is weird, therefore interesting." But it soon became clear that everyone else was making the same weird sounds, and they quickly became boring. And then the great composers who worked in the electronic medium produced great music. But the others produced nothing. And I think there is a little bit of the same relationship to that sort of access. At the same time, I was coming here earlier - and I'm giving this talk next week - and one little section of the talk involves Catullus, one particular song of his that was a translation of Sappho. And I was looking through my translations (and they're all terrible) of the Catullus. And so I went online, and I just found this astonishing - I put in "Catullus Carmina 51" into Firefox [laughs] - and I came up with this unbelievable, beautiful scholarship, Latin translations were available, etc. etc. It was a marvel. And so even with my ten thousand books, I couldn't have had that at hand. It was terrific.
That’s just it, isn’t it, in a nutshell? Granted these sentiments aren’t new, but they do bear repeating, and rethinking. Especially this:
“. . . a lot of the kids are kind of going on line to get particular algorithms for composition. And then they come up with something that's kind of weird and kind of interesting in a jazzy way. But it's just a construction. What they don't realize [is that] in doing that, and then having a kind of mechanistic play with language, they can come up with something strange, but not with something deep necessarily.”
Fracture and fragment and cut ups and dislocation and chance operations preceded the internet, but the internet has helped make them cool. Once upon a time, it was fairly difficult to do what can now be done easily, the way one can google search, rip text and paste-collage. You used to have to want to do it, now it seems it’s difficult not to do it. The question has been around a long, long time, from Word Search games to text substitution writing prompts. I’m ambivalent about it all. The problem: Yes, you can do it, and yes, it often looks cool and jumpy and wow, but why are you doing it? Is doing it just because you can, reason enough? What are you revealing? What are you exploring?
The answers to these questions are always going to be nuanced, of course, but still, there must be answers. Meaning (which Palmer side-steps naming explicitly) is such a wobbly concept, and the play of meaning has, by and large, only been legitimated at the level of the signifier, so play at the level of the signified is always suspect by the guardians of what is allowed (all those chatty types who write essays against the jittery tendencies of younger writers [but of course rhyme is OK, but what does rhyme mean? They never much bother to ask that…]).
OK, so that sounds kind of unwieldy, I know. And it can be argued that “algorithms of composition,” as well as other chance-predicated methods are still playing at the level of the signifier anyway, even if they treat the signifier as if it were the signified. It’s a difficult economy to work with, and even more difficult to explain to a hostile audience, as I’ve had to do a time or two. Even so, or even as Palmer himself has been accused by some to be without real depth, he’s right in bringing it up. It’s one thing to toss a bunch of stuff on the page, it’s quite another to mean something by doing it.
By the way, I’m not thinking of Palmer as a hostile audience (he’s anything but). I think he’s making an important distinction, a difficult one to pin down, but an important one.