Environmental Sculpture by Andy Goldsworthy

Last month I participated in a workshop on digital archives (specifically, the conversion of analog recordings into digital files) in the Langsam Library at the University of Cincinnati. This was the first of five events on the digital humanities being held over the course of the 2013-2014 academic year at the university. The opening talk was delivered by the scholar and critic Jerome McGann, responsible for conceiving and constructing (with his graduate students) the Rossetti Archive at the University of Virginia. Because this was the “theory” part of the series I was enthralled by McGann’s perceptions of the philosophical and practical problems that accompany analog-to-digital conversion. He ruminated on memory, information loss, history, social and cultural contexts, and the constraints of time (individual and institutional) and financial resources. As I said to Mike Hennessey, it was like being back in graduate school, that period when one’s professors, if you’re lucky, give you the best of what they have. The other reason I could sit enrapt for five hours from a late morning to a mid-afternoon Saturday was because everything McGann said pertained, as he noted, to the problems every poet, regardless of style, aesthetic affiliation or temperament, faces. One of the interesting tensions McGann mentioned, though he did not explore it in depth, is that between the advent of a mode of memory—digitization—that is more fragile, more precarious—than the technology it supersedes—paper. As McGann mentioned several times, natural language is a powerful mode of communication because of all the redundancies built into it. This is, he noted, even more true of speech acts. The implication is that if digitization wants to approach the memory-carrying power of human beings or paper technology, it too will have to develop various strategies of redundancy.

From the point of view of practicing poets, redundancy is built into the very writing and performing of poetry. Any number of critics and poets have observed that even the most chameleon of poets has only a handful of “themes’ or “issues” that he or she pursues throughout a career. Looking at this issue in relationship to non-poets, one notices that many people who write poetry in their youth stop doing so after a certain point in their lives. This is usually because they’ve either exorcised the demons of adolescence and the uncertainties of young adulthood or they’ve developed other means of dealing with their “issues.” For the practicing poet, however, the writing of poetry over and over again on a few central themes is the practice of redundancy, the building of sandbags against the inevitable erosions of age, the loss of memory, the deterioration of information. This incessant, redundant writing is a microcosm of the archive itself, the library being an exemplary mode of this drive to preserve the fragile membrane of what has been written and spoken.

Although this may seem like an endorsement of traditional lyric and narrative poetry, the above applies equally to innovative and avant-garde poetries. The latter may be oriented toward futures that would require jettisoning or reducing the power of past practices (political, aesthetic and cultural, for starters), but the very act of deploying these strategies in aesthetic forms—however radical or “non-poetic”—embraces, if only minimally, the memory-carrying capacities of the made. What is made, however much the emphasis is on product or process, is fragile, transient. Think of the deliberate transitory projects of earthworks artist Andy Goldsworthy. Some of his works last for years, others for only a few days, but many, if not all, have been recorded, snapshot, at certain stages of their existence. These mementos of loss, of what passes into oblivion, are thus hedges against forgetting, hedges that will, of course, invariably fail. Accustomed as we are to the grand gesture (“So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see / So longs lives this, and this gives life to thee”) that is ultimately futile, we can understand that ancient knowledge that Gilgamesh, for example, discovers at the end of his journey to the underworld, the same knowledge the Greeks resigned themselves to: the gods may or may not be immortal, but our destiny, as humans, is oblivion.

Thus the embrace of the ephemeral is one of the defining signatures of modern poetics, from the Romantic fragment (“Ozymandias”) to the Conceptualist idea. Put another way, the rejection of monumentalization, a general tendency in much postmodernism, is not so much a rejection of memory as it is a rejection of the illusions of that permanence Shakespeare gestures toward even as he hedges his bets (“so long as…”). The traditional lyric poem moves us to the extent we share its longing for that permanence even as we recognize that nothing lasts forever. The lyric’s emphasis on the moment, the transitory, is, in this sense, akin to the innovative poem of procedure (e.g., Oulipo), parataxis (e.g., Language Writing) insofar as writing and speaking in general mediate our relationships with everything that is not us.

Thus the archive—digital or analog—is construed as a permanent memory for that which acknowledges its own impermanence. Of course, the archive is itself the site of this paradox; its very reason for existing is also an acknowledgement that what it pays homage to what has passed into oblivion. However constructed, however fortified and steeled against the ravages of temporality, the archive—the library, the museum—shares the same fate as the objects and ideas it contains. The archive is as transient as the poem, written or spoken, as fragile as the paper and e-book. It’s humbling to remember that Shakespeare’s lover lives on only in the poem which itself lives on only in “lovers’ eyes,” those fragile vehicles of vision that, as John Milton understood after he went blind in 1752, are nothing next to the waking dreams of a human, and humane, spirit.

I've been thinking about the archive in general, about public libraries and natural history museums in particular, in relationship to the cultural politics that informs them. In fact, one can think of the zoo as an archive, and I have to admit I’ve always felt uneasy at the Cincinnati Zoo and the British Museum. Both strike me as monuments to imperial conquest. At the same I know that public libraries, constrained by budgets and the tastes of their acquisition editors, are hardly democratic institutions open to all texts and books. Yet I feel more at home in libraries, most at home in novels and poems, those little rooms that Donne memorializes in “The Canonization.” To dwell among the memories, imaginations and ideas of someone else—small wonder the memoir and the novel are among the most popular forms of current writing in American. However connected we may be with our digital devices, we apparently long for analog intimacy. Yet the complaints about the digitization of public and private life have a point. Text and email have made it easier to remain in touch with our friends but have short-circuited the chance meeting, the stranger, the odd book sticking out of a library bookshelf, beckoning one. As a result we are more efficient, perhaps even more productive, but we are also less open to the surprise that is the hallmark of, among other things, good poetry.

Had it not been for my peripatetic ways I would never have come across—accidentally—those first large chapbooks of Susan Howe, or Calvin Tompkins’ Off The Wall, my introduction to the work of Robert Rauschenberg. Don’t get me wrong; I’m as much a slave to the guided Google search as anyone. And I don’t wander through the aisles of libraries or bookstores (the few that are left) as I once did. I don’t have, or don’t make, the time. And I am no Luddite. I can easily imagine the day a young scholar will wander the University of Cincinnati Langsam Library, stumble onto the Elliston Room and discover, by accident, the Digital Poetry Archives. I can imagine the wonder and sense of being overwhelmed as he or she begins to listen to just a few of over half a century’s worth of poetry readings. Having grown up in a culture in which the book will have the same cultural cachet as classical European music, American jazz, and museum (not gallery) art, this person will not think like you or me, will be cultivated differently. This is not premature nostalgia. There is no shame in being tossed into the dustbin of history, for the dustbin itself is an inextricable part of the history of history, “the the” that modifies every lauded noun, proper and common.

Originally Published: October 24th, 2013

Poet Tyrone Williams was born in Detroit, Michigan and earned his BA, MA, and PhD at Wayne State University. He is the author of a number of chapbooks, including Convalescence (1987); Futures, Elections (2004); Musique Noir (2006); and Pink Tie (2011), among others. His full-length collections of poetry include c.c....