The poem exists under extreme conditions in our time, taking its place in a medial and societal discourse where language has been enervated, if not exhausted, by neo-fascism, terrorism, fundamentalism, and global commerce. At the same time poetry itself, or formulaic language appropriating its name, has perhaps never been more ubiquitous, with virtual (networked) texts as well as affordable just in time, insty-printing and distribution, as well as monopolistic transnational publishing saturating every market segment.
Under such conditions it seems useful to consider the poem independent of the poet or the institutional and cultural construct of poetry. That is, to consider the poem as something of a stochastic process, fully non-deterministic and conjectural and, if not explicitly random, appearing so when encountered in the midst of overly-determined, exhausted, even hostile, regimes and discourses of the sorts mentioned above. The poem in isolation is always adaptive, mutative, generative, self-organizing. As such it shows itself to be well-posed in the mathematical sense, i.e., data-dependent and of a reasonable topology, despite what on first glance may seem its porosity.
A truly mathematical-based consideration of the poem as the written word at boundary condition is beyond the scope and expertise of this essay and its author. Instead the notion of boundary condition is here cast metaphorically, albeit cautiously to the extent that doing so (a decade after Alan Sokal’s disruptive prank) is itself symptomatic of the exhaustion and appropriation of language outlined in the first paragraph above.
This essay means to speak toward the poem as it is situated beyond the formal construct of poetry and beyond the person of the poet as well; that is, toward the poem as dynamic limit, the extreme expansion/contraction of language which signals a residue, a region of differential signification. In this sense the term “poem” may thus be extended to narrative; to successor forms of discursive prose (“creative non-fiction,” postmodern theorizing, etc.); to meditation, prayer, spell, especially as they are reanimated in forms as disparate as blog or code; to self-consciously performative boundary works such as imagetexts, multimedia installations, kinetic poems, etc.; and finally even to ephemeral texts (SMS or chat, for instance) whose scope and cumulative effect moves beyond the utilitarian and informational to the aforementioned region of differential signification.
The poem independent of the poet or poetry is deluded (and denuded) speech, hybrid, always in translation, always in transition, and– however paradoxically– always under transaction. “Worthless” and “meaningless,” it stands as witness to, and token of, a self-sustaining, regenerative, and robust collective intelligence, complexity, and connectivity. The poem so seen becomes an evolutionary carapace, an armored, indigestible, and spiky seed-pod like the water chestnut and, like it as well, an invasive, adventitiously rooted, persistent traveler, a literal form of life.
Here is a paradox. The poem, free of the poet or poetry, of course does not exist. Yet in another sense there is never a poem that is not a solitary knot of language and thus timeless, unauthored, and unmoored from the moment it moves from conception to execution to completion.
Indeed the poem is never complete. For the entity known as The Poet as well as for the collective Poetry the poem’s existence is contingent. For the poet, the poem emerges among other poems possible or already composed, as it resides likewise for poetry itself. However the emergence of the poem is for the latter less intimate or ontological (or– if that term is too strong– phenomenological) since poetry as an institutional categorical is disinterested, albeit not uninterested, in individual poems in and as themselves. There must be individual poems for Poetry to exist but there need not be this particular poem. (Nor, coincidentally, need this particular poem actually satisfy the conditions of what poetry is – but this is another matter beyond the scope of this essay).
For the poem itself, its being can never be contingent. It knows nothing of its origins or neighbors or the histories and traditions cobbled from them. The poem knows only itself– even if, or perhaps especially if, it is explicitly intertextual. By extension, the poem not only knows what it is not but also from what it is formed, that is itself. In some sense, and especially since we do not have a particular poem before us at the moment, all that the poem does or can do is something like “express[ing] a relationship between functions and their derivatives,” the dictionary definition of a differential equation. As a differential relationship, the poem presently under consideration– not only without poet or poetry but also momentarily without words– does not express but rather instantiates the rate or ratio of change in its function with regard to the variable of (its) language.
The poem knows what it is not. Moreover it knows this along the whole extent of its discourse, whether that is seen as spatial or temporal. That is, the poem knows that it can only speak about what it speaks about as such. It is not true of anything but itself, yet it is uniquely true about itself. As “the only thing that can be said” about what it says, it exists by means of satisfying its initial and boundary conditions alike.
In networking terms, the poem in the sense that we are momentarily discussing it here (i.e., without author, form, content, publication, reputation, or reader) is a datagram, complete unto itself, having in the words of one (pre-wiki) internet encyclopedia “a source and a destination, but nothing that could be called a connection,” that is having “no relationship to any others that came before or after them.” (Connected: An Internet Encyclopedia, 1997) It would be deterministic (and romantic) to suggest that the poem prefers this state, yet it is merely descriptive to suggest that the poem always emerges as discrete and discontinuous, even if composed under a conscious awareness of poetic tradition, editorial taste, an authorial sense of style, or the integrity of a poetic corpus, and so on.
Once it is allowed its own words, if not– for the moment– authorship or the other appurtenances of Poetry or culture, the poem like any datagram quickly falls into a systematic regime, at the very least taking on qualities of temporality, allusiveness, and intertextuality. The anonymous poem takes (its) place as itself in contradistinction to other anonymous cultural entities.
In his essay “anonymous poetry” in Angelaki, the poet Peter Middleton (2000) proposes that we imagine a world of anonymous poems. Whereas most of the social world provides itself as the anonymous product of human creation so that we can at least temporarily assign it our own individual or locally collective significance, as commodity, gift, tool, or memorial, poems are different. They arrive with names, and those names are commonly keyed to mini biographies, chronologies, bodies of work, opinionated readerships, and, possibly, economic calculations of sales. (Middleton 2000,140)
Putting aside Middleton’s perhaps too optimistic, or at least self-consciously poetic, belief that the casual reader will recognize such mini biographies, chronologies, bodies of work, etc., it is useful to follow the logic of his response to the speculative, rhetorical question he poses following from the last observation: “What would change if all poems were anonymous?”
In his response Middleton argues for a poetry very much at boundary condition, appearing in a world where “much text already meets us without the individual author’s handshake in newspapers, advertising, reports, and information handouts,” a list to which we can easily add versions of these same entities in online texts as well as purportedly unique textual forms of so-called new media. (140) Middleton imagines that “poems without authors would surely sail along with the rest, even if part of the poem would sink below recognition, edges merging with the continuum, losing definition, clear boundaries and connections.” (141) However, he immediately widens the scope and dynamism of what constitutes definition at boundary conditions, suggesting that “the more fluid anon poetry…might not always be noticed as poetry, and affinities between poems would depend entirely upon the value given to features by readers. [Thus s]ometimes a scrap of poem unintended as a poem would slip by too” (Middleton 2000,141)
There are difficulties here of course, especially evident in the slippage of the nautical metaphor where the poem-without-author is at first a thing afloat (and under sail) but then, fluid, sinks into a flow, and thus takes on a form outside recognition. Or rather the poem takes on its form permeably within a flow of other texts wherein one or another may or may not be recognized as a part of poetry. It follows then that any poem may or may not be recognized as such, depending upon the undisclosed affinities and values that Middleton designates to the reader.
Here Middleton brings to mind Donna Haraway’s (1991) famous notion of a “network ideological image, suggesting the profusion of spaces and identities and the permeability of boundaries in the personal body and in the body politic.” (170) Indeed, immediately following the above-cited text, he is led to a syncopated meditation upon profusion and permeation:
“It can be hard to be a person, let alone an author or a poem. Anonymity of the physical body whose characteristics may distinguish but not confer individuality, anonymity of numbers, there are so many of us, the discontinuities of action, of consciousness, of multiple identities…what is ordinarily understood as a person is itself an unattainable abstraction.” (Middleton 2000,141)
In a surveillance society, including fundamentalisms of all kinds, personhood is more and more reduced to an abstraction made up of discontinuous actions, including those of thought, speech, and expression that are captured and conferred with qualities that for the state apparatus or other controlling entity constitute identity. Even anonymous or random physical features, movements, utterances, and numbers are in a sense “known” via profiling, data-mining, consumer demographics, and so on.
While not addressing this subject explicitly, Middleton does suggest that the poem at boundary condition, i.e., in its anonymity, offers a buffer against such conferred– or what he rightly terms commodified– identity:
Instead of thinking of a spectrum of commodified identity along which poems with authorial tags, clocks with manufacturer’s names and even humble lino are ranged, we might trace the commodification of identity instead. The poem that tells us about its author’s personal memories is doubling up on the naming process to make sure that another kind of specific relationship and personhood does not appear, and what we witness is the fractal sociality of a certain generalisable intimacy already familiar from the small talk of the anonymity of the everyday. (Middleton, 2000,141)
Anonymity in this sense is doubly (or multiply) inscribed. The evident identity of the anonymous author as person simultaneously writes a second–also anonymous yet readily discernible– hidden self whose unutterable everyday small talk is a ghost inscription excised from, and yet still present, in the poem both before and after it is written.
Let us look at two anonymous poems, one from the 13th century and another from the early twenty-first. The first is ” Foweles in the Frith,” (1250 – 1300; contemporary English version by Ian Lancashire. the Representative Poetry Online series editor):
Foweles in the frith, Birds in the woods,
The fisses in the flod, The fishes in the flood,
And I mon waxe wod; And I must go mad;
Mulch sorwe I walke with Much sorrow I walk with
For best of bon and blod. For the best of bone and blood.
It is a poem that quickly shows itself– after perhaps some initial confusion over who and what is meant by ” best of bon and blod,”– to be a lover’s lament and thus inscribes its anonymous singer/author for us as a kind of known figure. What exactly has driven this singer mad, or rather to think that he or she must– as birds in the woods or fishes in the flood– walk with sorrow as a natural element, we do not know. The lover’s praise of the beloved’s perfection can signal either an erotic reverie of love lost to another (or, as in courtly love, withheld) or, more likely, a love snatched away by death. We may know (as is true for me) little or nothing of 13th century English life but Middleton’s “fractal sociality of a certain generalisable intimacy” immediately takes hold as we imagine a bucolic scene of wood and water, a sorrowful lover aware of psychological states, and likely aware also of a tradition of lovers’ songs and similar discourses. It would, of course, be a mistake to think we know much of the person involved based on the evidence of these lines alone; and, thus, one could argue that we would know no more about the person, even if the poet had a name, a gender, a history.
“Poème anonyme,” (2001) published in a Montreal online student biochemistry journal escapes the systemization that marks “Foweles in the Frith” as literature by virtue of its appearance in Representative Poetry Online complete with Bodleian provenance and extensive bibliographic citation. Yet, given the proximity of the date of “Poème anonyme,” to the fall of the World Trade Towers, it, too, takes on a fractal (and fractured) sociality as recognizable as the naturalized psyche of the anonymous author of its 13th century predecessor:
C’est si périlleux, dangereux et audacieux,
De se lever sec après s’être bien déjanté,
L’univers foireux tellement pâteux et malheureux,
Emplit de pet-secs trop déments, pleins de préjugés.
Malgré tous les aspects démesurés d’une société industrialisée,
Désespérée, au bord du gouffre, retenue, par l’argent, de la chute,
Il y avait tout de même une résistance organisée, marquée,
Qui combattait une cohorte d’ennemis froids dans une chaude lutte.
Ils étaient presque dignes de la tribu des Rastas,
Ces guerriers assaillis par les forces de la société robotisée,
Ils vivaient en marge d’un livre aux paragraphes sans alinéa
Et quand le vaillant code pénal se refermait,
Le défaut d’impression, lui, s’effaçait.
Et c’est ainsi que le monde s’éteignit,
Sans un éclair, une étincelle ou un cri,
Comme une feuille qu’on ne peut imaginer plus rabougrie,
Alors qu’elle se dressait fièrement jadis, pleine de vie.
We are likely to think we know a good deal more about the person here, given the appearance of the poem in a student journal, its allusion to reggae tradition, a sort of boyishness in the bravado and scatology as well as a faint sense of– if not retributive, then prophetic– scolding at a time so proximate to the mythologized events within the United States. The rather sophisticated metaphor of marginalization, ” ils vivaient en marge d’un livre aux paragraphes sans alinéa” suggests someone at least aware of the developments in cultural studies following 1968, perhaps even someone who has explicitly studied Derrida’s thinking, while the phrase “de la société robotisée” may perhaps suggest an awareness of Deleuze. Finally it is possible that the last lines allude to T.S. Elliot’s poem “The Hollow Men.”
Yet all of these points are pure fictions or rather artifacts our own (my own) histories, literary, philosophical, and political. For instance, I briefly considered that the poet might also have been influenced by the concrete poetry tradition, but a quick glance at the source code revealed the computational artifact of a <center> tag and diminished this possibility considerably. A different kind of coding is less traceable but almost certainly present in the metrics which suggest that the anonymous author(s) meant the poem to at least emulate, and perhaps become, a hiphop lyric. Of course a more knowledgeable literary scholar might hear a similar contemporary 13th century lyric encoding in “Foweles in the Frith.”
For the present circumstances it is interesting to note that both these poems situate themselves within extreme environments during end times. The 13th century author walks in a world of sorrow, the 21st in an extinguished world, “sans un éclair, une étincelle ou un cri,” without a flash, a spark or a cry. As such it is arguable that these poems in their anonymity have more in common with each other than they do with us or the imagined histories, discovered encodings, or fractal sociality we attribute to them. While systematic representations of the two poems– as lyrics, online texts, psychological cri des coeurs, etc.– offer an illusion of commonality, they do not break through the carapace of what Middleton characterizes as the unattainable abstraction of their unknown authors.
The filiation of the two texts is neither in their poem-hood nor their personhood. Instead they are linked to the degree that they each say what can be said, and no more, of their situation. Even were one to allow the full of the possible allusions to history, literary tradition, philosophy, contemporary events, and so on outlined above in introducing each of these lyrics, these schema only serve to emphasize the degree to which the poems are what I earlier termed a residue of differential signification. Each poem not only means in terms of itself but also in itself exhausts all the possibilities of its own meanings. This exhaustion of its own possibilities is what these two poems– and, one might suggest, all poems –have in common.
Anonymous (2005) “Foweles in the Frith,” Retrieved August 1, 2007 from http://rpo.library.utoronto.ca/poem/34.html Ian Lancashire (Ed and translator), Representative Poetry Online, Department of English and Web Development Group, Information Technology Services, University of Toronto Libraries.
Baccala, B. (Ed.), Connected: An Internet Encyclopedia (1997entry for “datagram,” Retrieved August 1, 2007 from http://www.freesoft.org/CIE/Topics/21.htm
Haraway, D. (1991) Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. New York: Routledge.
Middleton, P. (2000) ‘Anonymous Poetry‘, Angelaki 5:1, 131-143.
“Poème anonyme,” (2001) L’Infocyte– le journal des étudiants en biochemie de l’université de Montréal, numéro , volume 16, November http://www.geocities.com/infocyte/n1_vol16_44.html