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‘Why Can’t Poets Write Poems as Good as a Jay-Z Song?’: Posthumanism and Poetry

By Tyrone Williams

Turing Test

In her well-known essay “How We Became Posthuman,” N. Katherine Hayles links the disappearance of the liberal humanist subject to the distribution of human desire and will through digital technology. Of course, as Hayles herself acknowledged, the “human” has always been a concept mediated by technology. For Hayles, however, the differences between analogical hand-held tools like spears, guns, folios, musical instruments, books, and newspapers, for example, and their conversion into digital information accessed via keyboards attached to desktop and laptop computers (and their handheld descendants) are neither a matter of how humans interact with objects—the fingers and thumb are crucial to wielding axes and typing on an IPad—nor a matter of the sophistication of the objects themselves. Rather, alluding to the Alan Turing test, the issue is whether or not humans typing on computers in separate windowless rooms can tell whether they’re communicating with a computer or with other humans. Hayles suggests that to the extent we don’t know we are communicating with another human being but accept it as a matter of faith, we have become posthuman.

My interest in what is generally known as post-humanism primarily covers postmodern fiction writers, but I am also interested in the chance and procedural strategies deployed by poets like Jackson Mac Low and composers like John Cage. I am particularly interested in the way we become habituated to techniques that sometimes constitute what art critic Robert Hughes, in his 1980 BBC documentary series, called “The Shock of the New.” I’m convinced that one reason these techniques do not, for the most part, upset or shock us any longer (John Cage and Jackson Mac Low had their detractors while they were embarking on their aesthetic adventures), no more than hand-free cellphones, IPads, and IPods, is because we “know” that the artistic output, however removed from the human hand, is nonetheless still tied to a human name as author, composer, etc. In other words, however abstract or mechanical an art object or procedure, we can still trace their origins back to a human being defined by, at the very least, a name—many people, for instance, have no idea what Cage or Mac Low looked like. For many of us, then, humans outside our direct experience are little more than names.

In this regard, I have explored some of the ramifications of the work of Donna Haraway and Hayles—as well as that of Alan Turing—in some of my classes at the university where I teach literary theory, African American literature and American literature. Up until this semester my teaching has primarily focused on nonfiction and fiction. However, circumstances dictate that I teach our poetry survey (for English majors and minors) for the first time in my thirty years here. It’s a daunting task so I’m staying pretty close to the syllabi of the two people who usually do it. The course is very traditional, which is to say, very humanistic, in its orientation, focus and scope. Students are expected to do close readings of individual poems, recite poems in class, and learn a few tricks of the trade (enjambment, rhyme scheme, etc.). At the same time, thanks to a wonderful Christmas gift from a friend, I’m having the students listen to Poetry on Record, four cds of recorded poetry from 98 poets, Tennyson to contemporary writers. Despite the tight format I intend to raise questions concerning the construction of the human being from Spenser to Stevens. For most of my students, these poets are just names they’ve heard from teachers or names attached to poems they’ve read in school. I want to shape these poetry survey courses around the question of the human as depicted in the textbook (a Norton anthology) we are using. I want the students to learn about this specific, if narrow, history of English and American poetry. Of course, I hope I will have converts, students who will come to love poetry because they fall in love with specific poems (I’m thinking about Ed Hirsch’s book on how to read poems and fall in love with poetry). That is, I hope they will come to embrace the liberal humanism that properly belongs to their grandparents’ generation. For most of the students, poetry belongs to a past, a culture, largely irrelevant to their concerns. In that sense, they are posthumanist (our marketing office dubs them “millennial students”), though they themselves would reject the description out of hand. I want to explore this disjunction between their behavior and their self-identity since that gap is, I believe, analogous to the distance between a human name (e.g., Keats) and the aesthetic objects, the poems, attached to it.

Now, I haven’t completely lost perspective. Simply because these students are literally wired and wireless doesn’t mean they’ve shed their human skins entirely. Despite the doomsday predictions of my parents’ generation, my generation managed to survive its various prostheses, from the transistor radio and Sony Walkman to the compact disc. After all, my parents survived the anathema of their parents regarding the intrusion into the household of that monstrosity called the television set. Yet, there is no question that these technological innovations gradually eroded at least the idea, if not the material practice, of how a “nuclear” family should interact. The privatization of the individual facilitated by the transistor radio, the demographically targeted playlist, was offset by cultural homogenization in all spheres of American life, Hence the calls for a “common” culture, for cultural literacy which presupposes a “set” of common values if not common aesthetics.

What I’m trying to gesture toward is the receding horizon of our concept of the “human” and our efforts to hold onto it even as our technological developments make every generation nostalgic for what it perceives as the “humanist” values a present (that is, young) generation cannot appreciate. Indeed, as technological developments around communication accelerate, their cumulative “shock” engenders the backlash of nostalgia at an increasingly younger and younger age. A couple of years ago I discussed this issue with my students, mostly sophomores and juniors. A surprising (to me) number of them told me they were “nostalgic” for their childhoods when life seemed much “simpler.”

These developments pose particular challenges for teaching poetry. Because so many students, like most Americans, have either (or sometimes both) a nostalgic or jaundiced view of poetry (almost always connected to either a “wonderful” or “terrible” memory of reading poetry in school), they tend to mark poems as too anachronistic in language and sentiment (now I remember why I don’t like poetry) or too “academic,” too intellectual (see Cal Bedient’s essay in The Boston Review a few months ago). Although Billy Collins—for example—has made a career out of writing poems for people who don’t like poetry (a critic’s take, not his), the fact is, when I’ve presented some of Collins’s work to students, they’re as stonewalled by his rhetoric as ever. For many of them, there is virtually no difference between reading a narrative or lyric poem by Frost or Wright (James) than reading a Language poem by, say, Barrett Watten or Lyn Hejinian.* They literally cannot tell the difference between them. More specifically, they see little connection between poetry (this is as true of the English majors as the non-majors) and the rest of their lives texting, playing games, listening to music, attending concerts, etc. I’m not going to add to the woe-is-us self-flagellation of poets and whipping post excoriations of newspaper and magazine columnists. After all, thanks to desktop publishing and the internet there are more poets with access to other poets than ever before. In this context the traditional presses have a difficult time competing with small and medium-size publishing outfits, primarily due to the overhead the larger companies carry. More important, many of these smaller presses publish traditional narrative and lyric work.

Consequently, I don’t believe that poetry has somehow, in the last century or so, suddenly become irrelevant to the general public. It’s sobering to recall that right in the middle of Jane Eyre our heroine, working on some of her paintings for the “amusement’ of the inimitable Rochester, notes that no one reads poetry anymore. This is the middle of the 19th century, in the wake of the Romantics. It goes without saying that with the advent of professional sports, the music industry and digital computation there are more things to distract and/or entertain the American citizen with enough leisure and capital (not all Americans, and certainly not the rest of the world, has this embarrassment of riches, at least not yet). Yet more poets are writing and publishing their work even if only within those micro communities that resemble radio station or, perhaps more accurately, IPod, playlists. What people are really upset about is simply the fragmentation/privatization of both domestic and public life. The shrinking of the commons, thanks to the triumph of finance capital, the digitalization of experience at every level, and more have resulted in this global atomization from which the ”nuclear” family, for example, is not immune.

The real question is why so many readers (poets, critics, journalists, etc.) expect poetry to carry the burden of cultural repair. No one writes jeremiads deploring the novel (or at least The New York Times and Harper’s choose not to publish them), presumably because popular novels, like commercial films, carry their weight, economically. So the real question seems to be: why can’t poets write “economically viable” poems (yes, I’m citing the black character protesting outside a bank in the Michael Douglass film, Falling Down)? Or as one of my students put it to me, why can’t poets write poems as good as a Jay-Z song? That brings me to performance poetry.

In fact, performance poetry has exploded in popularity. It’s difficult to find a metropolitan area that doesn’t feature a bevy of performance poetry and spoken word events. You’d think critics and traditional poets would be shouting for joy that so many people show an interest in poetry, even “that” kind of poetry. Instead, the higher the pile of unread books and chapbooks of poetry—see Seth Abramson and Stephen Burt for two critics who have expressed frustration at not being able to cover it all–the more vitriolic the screeds. What is that all about?

In my next posts I will be pursuing these questions from, as it were, two other sides: the occupation movements and ecopoetics. In future posts I plan to discuss some of the poets whose work has meant a lot to me. Some of the names may surprise those who know my work.

*Of course, this “blank slate” effect offers a wonderful opportunity to teach both traditional and innovative poetics since they hold no prejudice toward any specific poetics.

Posted in Featured Blogger on Wednesday, October 2nd, 2013 by Tyrone Williams.