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The Poem as Machine

By Harriet Staff

In 1944, William Carlos Williams wrote, “A poem is a small (or large) machine made of words.” He wasn’t the first to say it, or the last, as Nick Sturm points out in a post at We Who Are About to Die. But what exactly did he mean by the appealing, cryptic little statement? Sturm writes:

Williams doesn’t do much to articulate what he means when he says a poem is machine made of words, (is it a simple machine? a complex machine? is machine synonymous with system? what are the implications for poem as machine vs. the better known bureaucratic power machine?) and really, Williams leaves it up to us to understand how literal he’s being, but he does say this: “It isn’t what he [the poet] says that counts as a work of art, it’s what he makes, with such intensity of perception that it lives with an intrinsic movement of its own to verify its authenticity.” So here we have a continuation of the “poem as machine” metaphor with words like “makes,” which suggests craft and external production, and “movement,” which brings to mind the inner workings of machines.

In fact, once you start looking, Sturm argues, you start to see the poem-as-machine idea everywhere:

When we say things in workshop like “This is where the poem really starts to move,” “Your poem picks up steam after these lines,” or “What is this poem doing?” we’re using the “poem as machine” metaphor, even if we don’t know it.

Read on for more thoughts on the subject (Sturm’s inquiry will unfold over a few posts, touching on Futurism, the Russian Absurdists, and the New York School) and to hear from other poets who have riffed on the idea— like Matthew Zapruder, who quoted Williams when he wrote: “But poems / are not museums, // they are machines / made of words.”


Posted in Poetry News on Thursday, January 5th, 2012 by Harriet Staff.