When, in 1944, William Carlos Williams defined a poem as “a small (or large) machine made of words,” he had in mind as a model for poetry the precision machines of speed and power celebrated by other modernist writers and visual artists. But this was not the only machine model current in the modernist era, for on the margins of mainstream modernism were“alternative” machines, machines of reproduction and simulation—writing-machines, imaging-machines, duplicating-machines—such as those of Alfred Jarry, Marcel Duchamp, Franz Kafka, and,especially, Raymond Roussel. Such machines have proliferated in the postmodern period and provide the model for “mechanical” writing practices in postmodernist poetry. The present essay examines the heterogeneity of postmodernist machine-writing practices and seeks, however provisionally, to reduce that heterogeneity to some degree of conceptual order. Four representative texts are examined in some detail: a short acrostic poem by Jackson Mac Low; Harry Mathews's exposition of “Mathews's Algorithm,” a method for permuting texts; a text by Raymond Federman that observes certain rigid formal-compositional constraints; and a prose poem by Charles O. Hartman, which was generated in collaboration with a computer program called Prose. Next, I outline five possible typologies of machine poetry, none of which is fully adequate to the range of phenomena in question,although the fifth one proves less inadequate than the others. First, however,two binary partitions of the field—texts generated by actual machines versus those generated by virtual machines and composition by chance processes versus composition by fixed (arbitrary) procedures—are tested and found wanting. I then develop a grid of four categories: skeleton procedures,selection constraints, combination procedures, and combination constraints. Next I consider two spectra, or scales, to measure the degrees of involvement in the poem's production (degrees of interactivity) by the reader and the writer. Finally, I examine some of the consequences of machine poetry,including its consequences for the notion of the poet's“authority,” for the generic identity of poetry, and, finally, for the estranging light that machine writing retrospectively sheds on the entire history of poetry. In that light, all poetry, indeed all language use whatsoever, appears to be what Donna Haraway terms a cyborg phenomenon—a human being coupled to a machine—or what David Wills characterizes as a prosthesis. Mechanical composition functions in this context as a scale model and a heuristic device, figuring in miniature the larger language-machine and rendering that language-machine visible.
Brian McHale; Poetry as Prosthesis. Poetics Today 1 March 2000; 21 (1): 1–32. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/03335372-21-1-1
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