Carmine Starnino has entered the fray of our discussion about formalism by offering a spirited rebuttal to some of my provocations, doing so via his commentary to a posting by Ange Mlinko. Starnino claims to regret having published his negative comments about my book Eunoia, because his review has provided me with "lots of stuffing" for the "straw men" of my counterarguments. Rather than admit that a writer has as much right as any critic to defend, or to impugn, the merits of any claims about the nature of poetry, he nevertheless goes on to discount my right to enter into any critical dialogue with my own readership, preferring instead to attribute my counterarguments to the fact that I am a "perennially insecure avant-gardist," unable to accept a negative reaction to my work. I might suggest, however, that, contrary to his comments, he has little reason to regret his review, since it has promoted interest in both our careers—and despite his fantasies, I do not feel threatened in the face of disputation, but always relish the chance to debate the merits of poetry historically ignored or rebuked in our country by the dominant literati, for whom the avant-garde in fact poses a threat to their own literary concepts of cultural security….

Starnino quotes Coleridge in order to argue that, for Eunoia, "form is mechanic," because it imposes upon its content a whole array of procrustean constraints, none of which arise necessarily from the "properties" of such content. Starnino fails to realize, however, that even if we deign to ignore the anachronism of such an appeal to the antiquary authority of Coleridge (thereby conceding that forms must both reflect and perform the ideas within their poems, rather than simply force these ideas into an unnatural container), then I might respond with my own appeal to Rousseau (an important influence upon Coleridge, and a no less anachronistic philosophizer), who argues that, because vowels express our most primeval emotions, "vowels are the first, the most vital things, the hinges of language"—and hence, I wonder what form we might deem most appropriate for these "hinges," particularly if we want them to speak on their own behalf, telling stories made out of their own sounds, free from the "noises" of a competing utterance. What form might seem most appropriate, if we want to show that, even under the most improbable conditions of duress, these "hinges" still find ways to open up an unusual doorway to an uncanny, if not a sublime, thought?
Starnino fails to see that the "structural" properties of my lipogram already respond with aptness to the "meaningful" properties of these vocables. Starnino must, nevertheless, argue that my book is too "programmatic" to establish any tension between my poetic license (my freedom from the rules) and my formal mandate (my slavery to the rules)—even though the ribald themes of my book deploy these rules in order to struggle against both the linguistic censorship and the conceptual oppression, now enforced by such rules. When Starnino suggests that, despite my own demands for novelty, I still have to rely upon the precedent authority of Oulipo (a coterie that has already charted the outcome of my univocal exercise more than forty years before me), Starnino ignores the fact that, while Oulipo might have made some failed forays into the exploration of this form, the practitioners at the time declare the constraint impossible to fulfill without cheating, and so they abandon further efforts to perfect it. Surely, my success at accomplishing an impossible enterprise must constitute an act of innovation, particularly in a culture so conservative in its apprehension of historic, literary movements that any allusions to Oulipo must appear novel at the outset.
Starnino is, of course, being ingenuous, dismissing me as derivative by ignoring my own participation in the "conceptualism" of UbuWeb—a coterie that has tested the limits of Oulipo by formulating even more provocative constraints (like being "uncreative" or being "unengaging," restricting oneself to the repetition of both the already said and the totally dull, but doing so in a way that still creates surprise and engages interest); moreover, the group has experimented with all forms of mechanized authorship (be they automatic, mannerist, or aleatoric); and the group has even probed the limits of the illegible by making poetry that a reader might admire without ever having to peruse it. When Starnino argues that Oulipo has taught us little, except that a dedicated adherence to such formulae can produce unlimited, literary outcomes, Starnino contradicts his claims from a prior essay, where he argues that "Oulipo in fact vandalizes form," expunging all surprise from creative practice, because such formulae result only in a minimal variety of results. He complains at first that my work is algorithmically "overdetermined"—too obsessional and too attritional—but then he complains that my work partakes of such an "interminable" productivity.
Ultimately, Starnino wishes to suggest that, because "official cultures" of poetry use all sorts of forms in their own practice throughout history, the forms of the avant-garde offer us nothing special—when in fact the avant-garde demands only that these forms become "neoteric" in their potential, not "dogmatic" in their iteration. Starnino knows that I am currently composing a poem that, when enciphered as a chemical sequence of nucleotides, can hijack the genome of a microbe, thereby converting this life-form into a writing-machine—so I do not understand how he can claim that I am failing to find a form appropriate to our own modern milieu, when in fact I am collaborating with geneticists to create poetry that might outlast the existence of our own species. When poets are building machines for writing poetry, when poets are using selective evolution to breed poetry, when poets are implanting poetry into viruses, when poets are even proposing to transmit poetry to intergalactic civilizations—any hoopla about the "revival" of the sonnet might seem a wee bit archaic. I think that, if modern poetry can offer Starnino any "truth" at all, it testifies to the fact that the poet must become the most imaginative, rather than the most nearsighted, person in the room….

Originally Published: December 14th, 2007

Christian Bök is the author of Crystallography (Coach House Press, 1994), a pataphysical encyclopedia nominated for the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award, and of Eunoia (Coach House Books, 2001), a bestselling work of experimental literature, which has gone on to win the Griffin Prize for Poetic Excellence. Bök has created artificial...

  1. December 14, 2007

    Again, this defense of Eunoia, a wonderful poem, works as such but doesn't work, for me, as a defense of programmatic avant-garde aspirations more generally. Christian, does your current project (a poem which also encodes a DNA sequence) contain only four letters (A, T, G, G)? If not, how does it work as DNA code? Or have I misunderstood the process?

  2. December 15, 2007
     Christian Bok

    Hello, Steve:
    The poem itself can use any of the letters from the alphabet, but through a process of encipherment, each letter gets assigned a "triplet" of oligonucleotides, each of which in turn encodes an amino acid (so that, for example, the oligo “adenine, guanine, guanine” [AGG] might stand for the letter A; the oligo “adenine, guanine, thymine” [AGT] might stand for the letter B, etc.). The trick here is to write a poem that gets "expressed" during transcription, thereby creating a protein, whose sequence of amino acids is itself a cipher for yet another message. To write such a poem is, in effect, very much like writing a meaningful text, such that each of its constituent letters can be replaced by a correlative letter and yet still remain a meaningful text (so that, for example, A and E might be correlates, D and G might be correlates, and N and T might be correlates–and thus the word “gene” in one poem becomes the word “data” in the next). I am surprised that no poet in the history of poetics has ever proposed to write two texts that mutually encipher each other in this way….

  3. December 15, 2007

    Now I see what you're doing but I'm having a hard time believing it can work given our present knowledge of the DNA to RNA to protein causal chain. Are you going to have somebody sequence your rough draft as DNA, put the results into a plasmid, and then see whether the ribosomes in a cell containing the plasmid will produce the resulting protein (and then whether that protein will hold together, how it will fold, and what the protein does once it exists)?

  4. December 16, 2007

    My DNA hurts just trying to follow this!

  5. December 16, 2007
     Shail D. Patel

    Last century poets used to be enamored of striking political poses--with manifestos & "revolutions" & the like--but now it seems they've taken to aping the scientists & mathematicians....

  6. December 17, 2007
     Simon DeDeo

    Steve's probably right about all the problems with Christian's idea, but even if you just got the system to attempt to assemble the amino acids according to a script with the meanings Christian pre-assigns it would be pretty cool. I do think that, at least, is technically feasible and would be an impressive piece of microscopic performance-art.
    As for Eunoia, which sits next to the John in my apartment, I tend to think Carmine is right in saying that "the book’s progress is attritional–less and less is achieved." To me that's not criticism though; if anything, it's a criticism of a certain mode of reading that doesn't really hold together for this kind of principle-proving book. Eunoia reads best in bursts; reading the whole thing in a sitting as a "proper critic" might think to do would be a horrific experience, somewhat akin to reading all the cryptic-crossword clues from the Daily Telegraph for a year.

  7. December 17, 2007
     Christian Bök

    Hello, Steve:
    You have basically described in principle some of the requirements for the completion of this project. I do, in fact, have to verify that the protein can fold viably within the organism (and of course, if it does not, then I have to go back and modify my poem or my code, depending upon the biochemical constraints of the exercise)--moreover, I am going to have to study the resultant polypeptide in order to see what kinds of biochemical properties it might have (hence, the reason for securing the cooperation of several labs). A lot of this work can be done in advance through computerized simulations of the biochemistry--and I suppose that the whole point of the exercise is to write a poem in dialogue (quite literally) with life itself....

  8. December 18, 2007

    Hi Christian (Steve, Simon)--
    You know, I wrote a poem that uses the nucleotide sequences as a constraint, too. Not that I'm claiming any kind of originality (William Gibson got there first, I think, in the 90s, and conceptual artists have been all over this territory for the last 15 years). I just wanted to say that in the interest of full disclosure. In any case, I think our interests here might be precisely opposite.
    To the extent that I understand your project, Christian (which I've read about over at Postmodern Culture and at, I'm wondering how you would answer the charge that it engages in spurious metaphorical science with dangerous ideological implications. That is, you seem to repeat the idea that the genome is writing (or code, or a book, or language), a metaphorical description which, as you must know, has been critiqued by numerous historians of science and scientists (Lily Kay, Evelyn Fox Keller, Richard Lewontin) for its complicity with a deterministic, technocratic model of the organism that, aside from being gendered (focused on the phallic gene vs. the feminine cell body) and evincing a tendency to privilege intellectual labor over physical labor, is also patently false, as recent work in Developmental Systems Theory and recent discoveries about the complexity of on the internal mechanism within the genome (the epigenome, junk DNA not junk, etc.) have amply demonstrated.
    What’s interesting to me about the idea of language as “a harmless parasite,” as you describe it, able to “hijack the genome of a microbe,” is that there will be no real relationship whatsoever between the language of your poem and the function of that protein/gene mechanism. In this, depending on what it is that you actually write, the poem is a kind of consciousness that can't or won't know the material substrate upon which it depends–a situation which, I think, verifies Lewontin’s claim that division of labor gets reproduced in the ideology of biotech.
    The language which you encipher may be harmless, but set beside your politically neutral account of biotechnology (the destructiveness of which I trust I need not catalog), the ideological underpinning of this strikes me as far from harmless. It’s a virus with consequences. We hardly need any more evidence of this than the sentence from the Bible which your collaborator chose to encipher within a microbe. “Let man [Monsanto] have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the fowl of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” Yuck, yuck, yuck.

  9. December 19, 2007
     Christian Bok

    Hello, Jasper:
    The whole point of the exercise is to develop a relationship between the language of the poem and the function of the gene. I am hoping to respond dialectically to the biochemical constraints of the process itself–so the poem, the gene, the resultant peptides all contribute to a set of dynamic systems, which determine what I can compose. I think that, far from treating the genome simply as another species of "writing" (with all of its attendant "ideology"), I am in fact responding directly to the work of people involved in system theory–and for this reason, I am collaborating with the informatic expert Stuart Kauffman (not the conceptual artist Eduardo Kac, as you seem to suggest) so that I can make use of such expertise when dealing with the many forms of chemical feedback that are going to govern the outcome of the creative process itself. I am not trying to encipher a cliché from the Bible, just to see it archived in an organism (an artistic act that does not differ much from kitsch); instead, I am trying to find out what kind of "poetry" DNA itself might be able to "potentiate" during an aesthetic encounter with the very language that DNA has helped to evolve.

  10. December 19, 2007

    I don't know, Christian, for all the references to dynamics above, I don't see much of that in the propspectus on UBU or the interview. In what way is feedback at work in this project? It seems that, by virtue of designing/writing the poem you want on both the genome and protein side you pretty much rule out any kind of feedback. Unless you're interested in mutations or errors, in which case it's still a one-way street. Only the intelligent design people think that nature works this way.
    Sorry about mischaracterizing your relationship to Kac. Still, in the end, unless I'm wildly misunderstanding the project, my claim that there's no relationship between the cipher and the function of the genes stands. Given that the kinds of interpretive rubrics you can generate are infinite, you could make these things say whatever you want. (I think this was Wittgenstein's point about rules in general). The mesh of nucleic and amino acids in the cell doesn't work by a relationship of signified to signifier, but through actual physical processes. And, it's a total system (the complexity of which far outstrips the understanding of contemporary science). Even if you get the poems you want, this would seem to have little to do with the function of those proteins and genes within the organism at large.
    I don't think it's unfair to say that you way you discuss this project suggest that language and genes are equivalent, and that, by extension, life is something that can be written. As such, it's hard for me to see this as anything but an attempt to give an aesthetic aura to the instrumentalization of life.
    Not that this is without value. I think that your suggestion that poets might participate in product design for biotech is a good indicator of where things stand today with the avant-garde you champion.