I want to ask this without coming off as being too simplistic, but I think it’s a good place to begin teasing out my contention with many academic writing programs today: what is a poem? What makes someone point and say “that is a poem.” What causes someone to look at something and say “that is not a poem.” To put it differently, when did poetics or poesie (the study of making) become poetry (the study of making with language), and when did poetry become creative writing (the study of writing “creatively”)? I am going to let someone else take up that question more seriously (I only ask it rhetorically), but I do want to offer a theory of poetry that both revives the past and welcomes the future, one that sticks with the idea of poets as makers, but also adheres to language as the primary interest of the poet.
So, here is where I take my contention. I take my contention with writing (and I don’t put it in scare-quotes because I don’t think I need to be ironic about it or call the term into question; the term is very much problematic on it’s own). I take my contention with the publishing industry (especially when poets hand that responsibility over to someone else). I take my contention with paper or more specifically pages (pages because it denotes both the analog and digital flat white matrices that embody most poems). I take contention with the curious cultural phenomenon of someone looking at a poem on a page and calling it a poem (which makes sense (although it would make more sense to call it a poem on a page, as you will see)), compared to someone hearing someone read a poem and calling it a reading of a poem (instead of a poem outright), compared to someone watching a poem on a video and calling it a video (instead of a poem outright (not even recognizing it as a poem)), compared to someone seeing a poem in a GIF and calling it a GIF. I take my contention with only calling poems on the page poems outright, while poems on any other substrate are not called a poem outright. I take my contention with the misunderstanding of what a poem actually is and what a poem is not, a definition of poems that fails to recognize other embodiments of poems as poems, that refuses to recognize the poet as image-maker, as eidolons issuer.
Now that I feel my contention has been mostly explained, I will say that my argument is that poems (and therefore poetry) is not a collection of papers or pages or language bound to the page; poetry has always been a collection of eidolons that are embodied or maintained through and by various media or substrates. The poet is not a writer. The poet is a mother who embodies and gives birth to her images. The poet is an image-maker, one that, with the help of the world around her, conceives of the eidolon and then gives that phantasm a body. The eidolon is the poem, not the page that represents it. The eidolon/poem is the erased section of the board that an instructor will point to in order to invoke what was once written there (or the picture that Mark Baumer indicates in his poem (but more on that later)). The eidolon/poem is the moment that was felt in the station of the metro by Pound, the moment, not the words. The image/poem is the distillation of the eidolon/poem, the image/poem is the scrawling upon the page. The image/poem is each iteration of Leaves of Grass; the eidolon/poem is the thing that was always there between and through each iteration. Again, the poet is not a writer of words on a page; the poet is a maker of images that are there to represent something other than the page (i.e. the eidolon).
As suggested by WJT Mitchell, the image (proposed as if from Derrida himself) is “Nothing but another kind of writing, a kind of graphic sign that dissembles itself as a direct transcript of that which it represents, or of the way things look, or of what they essentially are” (30). And it’s that husk of language that I want to set aside in favor of what “it” “represents.” I’d like to set aside the image (as seductive as it is) in favor of what the images “essentially are,” or to favor the eidolon, the Greek word for image, but a word that (as Whitman will show) means the platonic form of a thing, the phantasm, the idealized person or thing.
But before I come off as being too isolated in my argument, I’ll invoke the ethos of Walt Whitman (Early American), as well as Steve Roggenbuck and Mark Baumer (Current American Poets), each who I feel were/are particularly aware of their responsibility to create eidolons and not just writings. I also want to be clear (in case I haven’t) that the poet’s main responsibility is toward these eidolons within the bounds of language. The painter may/will also be concerned with eidolons, but the process of embodiment is ultimately different.
Having said that, I do want to speak of one quality of language that allows it to be more freely applied than I believe is commonly accepted (referring back to my early contentions): language is a multimedia signifier; language can be rendered through signs of graphemes on a two-dimensional surface (such as the page), and it may also be rendered on the two-dimensional surface of a three-dimensional object (such as writing that appears on a cup or a plate); language also can be rendered as sound, allowing it to be performed and projected and utilized off the page as well (such as sound from a person’s voice or the sounds from a video). Language is perhaps one of the most transcendent (climbs across) signifiers, making it highly versatile in how it can be recorded or utilized or distilled, etc. The poet, whose main concern is the language-embodiment of eidolons, has a vast amount of options in how he chooses to embody the “poem,” even more so today with the advancements in technology and distribution. (And I might add that it is incumbent upon the poet to distribute his/her poems in the most economic/ethical/accessible fashion possible (but this is another argument for another time)). Remember it is not the page that the poet gestures to, it is what the page represents. No substrate is free of crumbling.
For Whitman, the poem was a moving body, a thing of life. It was something that continued on. It was something that was rhizomatic. It was grass. It was alive. It was iterative, generative. In the preface of his seminal collection Leave of Grass, Whitman encouraged the poet to seek out the spirit of the plants and animals and to represent them, seek out the spirit of the people and represent them, seek out the spirit of America and represent it: “To speak in literature with the perfect rectitude and insouciance of the movements of animals and the unimpeachableness of the sentiment of trees in the woods and grass by the roadside is the flawless triumph of art.” He didn’t just want a poet or a poetry that described things, he wanted one that represented them, one that would well stand in its place on behalf of the thing. To Whitman, this was the ultimate purpose of art. In fact, Whitman proposes that if the poet who “[is] not himself the age transfigured, [then] let him merge in the general run and wait his development.” Whitman believed that one should not even begin writing unless he first understood this one lesson: that the poet is an image-maker of images that stand to represent the great eidolons of life. Whitman believed this so much that he sang of “writing” the poem upon his very self, his very body, being and soul. The body is the most visceral substrate upon which the eidolon/poem could live.
For Whitman the “poem” was just a representative of the eidolon. This can be seen in his poem “Eidolons,” where he notes that the “Ever materials, changing, crumbling, re-cohering: Ever the ateliers, the factories divine, [are] Issuing Eidólons!” Here he proposes that that which the artist issues, that which the poet makes is the eidolon, the spirit of things. “We seeming solid wealth, strength, beauty build, But really build Eidólons.” Although the poet may think he is building things, the true poet (with the seer) is “Passing the hues and objects of the world, / The fields of art and learning, pleasure, sense, To glean Eidólons.” It couldn’t be clearer that Whitman believed the poem to be “above” the page, “beyond” the page, anything but on the page. The page was only there to represent the eidolon.
Whitman did use books. Despite this, Whitman still hoped that his audience would look past the book and toward what he was meaning to convey. He even goes as far as to give clear instructions on how he intends his poems to be understood. In” A Song for Occupations,” Whitman says “I send no agent or medium, offer no representative of value, but offer the value itself. // There is something that comes to one now and perpetually, / It is not what is printed, preach'd, discussed, it eludes discussion and print, / It is not to be put in a book, it is not in this book.” I repeat, “it is not this book.” If anything, Whitman wanted his audience to look past the representative, and despite his use the books as the method to distribute his poems, he wanted to make sure that it was not the book that was loved, but instead the thing the book pointed to that was loved. Elsewhere (in his preface to the Leaves of Grass), he says “I will have nothing hang in the way not the richest curtains.” Whitman fully intends his audience to utilize his language to feel something deeper and beyond the page.
And it is upon this foundation that I point to Current poets (and I use the term Current very intentionally, as to distinguish them from Modern poets (or poets of the Modernist Era) as well as Contemporary poets (which seems to be a word used to describe poets from about 1950 to nearly the present day), and to suggest a new category of poets that deserved their own now-ness descriptor, “Current,” which I feel is not only distinctive but also descriptive of an age in which information flows like a current, among other reasons (but perhaps I will save this kind of explanation and argument for another paper or time). Current poets such as Steve Roggenbuck and Mark Baumer, two poets who I feel most fully carry the spirit of Whitman with them.
First, Kenneth Goldsmith (perhaps one of the most active proponents of Current poetics (although he prefers the term Alt-Lit) wrote an article on Steve Roggenbuck back in 2014 titled “If Walt Whitman Vlogged,” wherein he makes comparisons between Whitman and Roggenbuck, and says that “[Roggenbuck’s] type of writing has deep roots, extending back to the cosmological visions of William Blake, through the direct observation poems of the Imagists, the anti-art absurdities of Dada, and the nutty playfulness of Surrealism.” But what sets Roggenbuck apart is not his continuation of traditions, but rather that his poems are in video format, which Goldsmith describes as “meticulously crafted infomercials for poetry” using “shaky handheld cameras, hazy inspirational background music, and rough jump cuts.” Roggenbuck also uses twitter, facebook, websites, podcasts, vlogs, snapchat, ebooks, and printed books, all in order to distribute his poems. Like Whitman, Roggenbuck is committed to the eidolons of poetry, instead of the industry of poetry. (And it is here that I express a small aside, a small worry that much that is done in the name of “poetry” is actually done in the name of the industry of poetry, and I worry that the industry of poet is choking the life out of true poetics, but again, this is another topic for another time).
Roggenbuck has said himself that he owes a debt to Whitman. “Five and a half years ago, I read Walt Whitman and it changed my life,” (BARD). Not only does Roggenbuck feel deeply the influence of Whitman, but he also believes that Whitman would be doing exactly what he is Currently doing. “[Walt Whitman and Keats] are people who felt so much, and wanted to communicate it and needed to communicate it to people, and the way that they communicated it was in books because that’s how people communicated what was in their heart in the 1800s … You know that Walt Whitman would die for this [the internet], that Walt Whitman would be on a TweetDeck, kicking his legs up, and going ha-a-a-ard” (BARD). I cannot put it any more plainly than Roggenbuck has, but given what I have spoken of before on eidolons, I couldn’t agree more with Roggenbuck.
Roggenbuck not only read Whitman but understood him—perhaps better than most— because he took all of Whitman’s injunctions, all of his theory, all of his spirit and put it to practice in the Current age. Roggenbuck felt that the poet’s work was not to write books (although that could be one of the many ways in which the poet could reach his/her audience). He felt, like Whitman, that the purpose of the poet was to distribute the eidolon. In his video “AN INTERNET BARD AT LAST!!!” (2013) ARS POETICA, Roggenbuck says just that: “When Walt Whitman did that for me [i.e. showed me how the world is wonderful] there is a fire lit up inside of me, and from then on that is my purpose in life, to bring that about in other people, to point the finger at the moon for people, and the internet is the most effective finger pointing at the moon that we have ever had.” Again, Roggenbuck not only comprehended Whitman’s theory, but got it down in his soul, gleaned the eidolons from what Whitman left behind. He felt something deeply, and he recognizes that the purpose of poetry is not to create the images (images without any eidolon for it to represent), but instead poetry is to issue eidolons to the people, and Roggenbuck argues that the internet is the most effective way of doing that.
Furthermore, in an interview with an online magazine named Rhizome (another interesting connection to Whitman), Roggenbuck shows us that he does not even fall prey to the seduction of videos or social media or the internet as having any sort of preeminence over the issuing of eidolons: “once [my collection of videos] has reached [my audience], and they’ve seen it, it’s moved them, impacted their day or even their personality.. that’s the artwork i think. the video is not the actual artwork for me … the impact the videos have had on people already is real and significant, regardless of wat happens to the actual videos now, they could all get deleted, and their impact is still seeping pretty far into the world [sic]” (Davidson). For Roggenbuck, the video is not the art. Like Whitman, he is not afraid to lose the artifact to later iterations, to rhizomatic function, as long as the art has life, as long as the art grows out and moves out toward life, then it continues to thrive as art, it continues to issue eidolons, it continues to be more than an image that crumbles with time.
Second, Mark Baumer, another Current poet, understands the importance of indicating at something that is not present, at pointing toward the eidolon of the image rather than the image itself. His piece “Point at the wall and say, “Here are a few pictures I took”” is a poem that does just that, it shows Baumer pointing at an empty wall and and saying “In this picture a very attractive human is talking about how …” over and over again with different images invoked after each iteration of the opening line. He is literally pointing at the same place on a blank white wall each time, and yet each time that he begins anew he is speaking of a different image. What Baumer indicates is not present, and yet he nonetheless attempts to describe it. The poem is an attempt to reconcile the indicated “image” with the language that indicates it, or put in other words, the poem is an attempt to indicate the indication of images, a sort of meta-indication that speaks all the more closely towards the eidolons which the meta-indication is attempting to call attention to.
Another example of Baumer’s attempt to meta-indicate the eidolons of poetry is in his vlog Barefoot Across America. In his video “I walked barefoot all the way to the country music super bowl but no one was there,” Baumer records,
“hey I want to teach you guys all how to do a good poem. [frame of phonebook]. hey look at all these special deals here. you can get a special deal on sonny boy restaurant. [frame zooming in on bible]. someone ripped out some pages in this book. who ripped out these pages? it was … oh my god it was david, david ripped out the pages. [frame of phone book]. these are some special pages here. [screen goes to black] good night. do they got any, do, are there any good poems in this one?”
Again, Baumer is trying to represent the thing that is absent. Instead of pointing at a book of poetry to show us “how to do a good poem,” Baumer is focusing on a phone book and trying to invoke a poem out of language that is not intended to be a poem. He is focusing on the ripped out pages of the Bible to invoke the idea of a poem. He is speaking over a black screen and asking if there “are any good poems in this one.” Each of these examples, in quick succession, one after another, is Baumer’s way of showing us the limitations of issuing eidolons, of invoking the eidolon without a proper body, without the thing present. It is somewhat of a practice in futility. And yet, despite indicating at pictures that are not present, despite indicating at poems that are not present in a phone book or ripped out pages of a Bible, each indication still invokes in the observer’s imagination some sort of eidolon, some memory or recollection of an image of a “very attractive person talking about how” or “a good poem.” He asks us in the absence of the image to nonetheless bring forth our eidolons, and to bring our eidolons forth without being able to compare it with a present image, this makes our recollection of the eidolons all the more apparent to us. Baumer, by the absence of the thing which he is indicating, calls direct attention to the thing which he is meaning to invoke.
Ultimately, it is my purpose to call attention to the poet as image-maker, not just image-maker but an issuer of eidolons. It is important that the study of poetry remember that yes, its main responsibility is to use language, and yes that can occur on the page, but it is just as important to remember that these images are there to issue forth eidolons, and that the issuing forth can be in whatever manner is available, not just upon the page. A theory of poetry that does not keep the eidolon in mind as one of it’s main purposes will ultimately run dry, will ultimately turn into rivulets that do not lead to the vast ocean of human need, will ultimately run into the dangers of industry and leave behind the spirit of art. I would hate to see poetry transition to videos, or GIFs, or HTML scripts, or any number of media, only to forget once again that the mediums are only there as methods of embodying the eidolon, the spirit, the lifeblood of poetry, the meaning and matter of life that gives poetry it’s force.Work Cited Page
Baumer, Mark. “I walked barefoot all the way to the country music super bowl but no one was there.” youtube.com. Accessed 12 December 2016. Web.
Baumer, Mark. “Point at the wall and say, “Here are a few pictures I took.”” Reality Beach.
http://realitybeach.org/issue-three/baumer/. Accessed 12 December 2016. Web.
Davidson, Laura. “Artist Profile: Steve Roggenbuck.” Rhizome Blog (rhizome.org). 18 December 2016. Web.
Goldsmith, Kenneth. “If Walt Whitman Vlogged” The New Yorker Online, 18 December 2016. Web.
Goldsmith, Kenneth. “The Writer as Meme Machine.” The New Yorker Online, 18 December 2016. Web.
Mitchell, WJT. “Iconology: Image, Text, Ideology.” University Of Chicago Press. 1987. Print.
Roggenbuck, Steve. ““AN INTERNET BARD AT LAST!!!” (2013) ARS POETICA” youtube.com. Accessed 18 December 2016. Web.
Whitman, Walt. “A Song for Occupations.” Whitman Archive. http://whitmanarchive.org/ published/LG/1881/poems/94. 18 December 2016. Web.
Whitman, Walt. “Eidolons.” Bartleby.com. http://www.bartleby.com/142/256.html. 18 December 2016. Web.
Whitman, Walt. “Leaves of Grass” Bartleby.com. http://www.bartleby.com/142/256.html. 18 December 2016. Web.
add to eidolons paper
said of caludia rankine’s citizen lyric “so pathos heavy i had a hard tome attending to the language.”
l.l. had the same kind of reaction to my poem that experimented with handwritten poems. he had to type out the poem, but that moved the poem into his context.
the problem with this is that this is a form of segregation. when we hyphenate a poem by calling it a political poem, this is a form of segregation.
i have included this right? http://www.bartleby.com/142/256.html