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The Untimeliness of the Xenotext

By Christian Bök

Rachel Zucker asks us to consider whether or not we might prefer our poems to be either timeless or timelier. Historically, avant-garde poets have often called into question any reliable standard of value for excellence, leaving the field open to a permissive, if not nihilistic, attitude, in which no poetry seems adequate to any time, be it current or eternal. The “failure” of the avant-garde always seems to coincide with the notion of being out of step with the pace of history—of being “untimely”—because the poet arrives on the scene either too soon or too late to feel at ease in the modern milieu. The avant-garde almost always fails, either by being “before its time,” addressing an, as yet, unforeseen, future audience (doing so from a modern viewpoint in a tone of historic anticipation), or by being “beyond its time,” addressing an as yet, unawakened, modern audience (doing so from a future viewpoint in a tone of historic renunciation). The avant-garde takes some pride in its “untimeliness”—because it is, in fact, this trait that makes such poetry both topical and enduring. The poets of the avant-garde are like survivors from the shipwreck of a time-machine, burnt out in the wrong epoch without much hope of either rescue or return.

The Xenotext attempts to address such concerns about the untimeliness of art in an age, now anxious about the many potentials for our own anthropoid extinction. Even though poets may pay due homage to the “immortality” of art, no cultural artifact so far created (except perhaps for the Pioneer probes or the Voyager probes) has the power to endure for longer than a few million years—a mere scintilla of time, when measured against the cosmic scales of even one sidereal lifespan. All evidence of our sentience upon the planet (every artifact, every edifice), must eventually disintegrate, ground into an invisible stratum of dust within the tectonic grinders of the earth itself. Our species can, in fact, bequeath only three longterm legacies to some civilization that might visit our planet hundreds of millions of years from now: first, the background irradiance caused by our stockpiles of nuclear remains; second, the fossil record of mass extinctions caused by our ecocidal activity; and third, the global effect of climate changes caused by our advanced industry. I believe that poetry needs to address itself to the longterm timeline of our aesthetic evolution—to think beyond the formal limits of our extinction in order to offer the future a cultural heritage more noble than our crimes against the environment.

Kwame Dawes argues, however, that “the quest for timelessness is a vanity,” noting that it often results, not in great works, but in poems that seem “mediocre and ordinary”—and by making such a comment, he repeats the kind of sceptical critiques lodged by naysayers, who question the merits of a project like The Xenotext, objecting to the hubris of any desire to make a poem that might outlast its creator, forever. We forget, however, that we owe our entire cultural heritage (be it trivial or sublime) to the vanity of every defiant egotist, who has striven in the past to exceed the limits of the “timely.” We have, so far, found no way to transmit messages reliably across any time-span in excess of a few thousand millennia—except perhaps for the genetic code, which has preserved sequences of genes so crucial to the survival of every life-form on the planet that these genes have endured for eons, relatively unmodified. I think that, ultimately, poetry must make some effort to engage with the “untimeliness” of such a code, addressing life itself in its own language—especially in an era of biotech novelty. I am hoping that my poem might constitute such an “untimely” pursuit, speaking slightly out of sync with its current moment in history, while awaiting its intended audience, which has not yet evolved to read it….

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Posted in Uncategorized on Sunday, April 10th, 2011 by Christian Bök.