Wednesday, July 1, 2009
[a reverse memoir]
by Noah Eli Gordon
I keep returning to the social role of the writer. Not so much a responsibility, but a climate. The poet writes within the social sphere, and a life in writing is a social engagement. The romance of the lone poet composing in her solitude is simply that, a romance or fantasy. We find our way to the world with words. This all sounds simple enough, doesn’t it? A poet is a member of a community – there is a polis of words to which we belong, words are the timber, stone, and mortar. That is, after all, the point of this Vito Acconci image I’ve been using as a header for my blog – a shared space, a linguapolis. Far too often, though, social engagement is misunderstood as social conscription or obligation. Look at the position of the U.S. poet laureate – how long is a poet typically in office before he or she starts petitioning for poetry’s popular functionality or ‘relevance?’ Does poetry need to be ‘socially relevant’ as such? What is ‘socially relevant, by the way? DARE seminars and after-school specials? When the government requested Billy Collins compose a poem in the wake of 9/11, was this a possible misunderstanding of the actual ‘function’ of poetry? Words bind us in the manner in which they constitute us. Our words can’t serve as an explication. This line of reasoning leads to a bitter conclusion - words as a witness to, or even complicit agent in, abomination. Ask Paul Celan or Tasdeusz Borowski if the words managed an explication. What then, of Celan’s silence? Of Edmund Jabes’?
Words themselves, then, and the world they compose.
Noah Eli Gordon does something special in ‘Inbox,’ a brilliant book of conceptual poetry published in 2006. It’s a poetry of everything about our medium that isn’t poetry. What I mean by that is actually a lot more simple than it sounds. Gordon compiled “… 55 pages of uninterrupted prose that constitutes a kind of temporal autobiography…” Gordon takes “… the body-text of every email that was addressed specifically to me… currently in my inbox [over 200] and let all of the voices collide into one continuous text. The work is arranged in reverse chronology, mirroring the setup of my email program.” This explanation, similar to the procedural notes accompanying some of Jackson Mac Low’s procedural pieces, makes up the only text in the book originally written by Noah Eli Gordon. The book is a multitude of voices, a digital stream of the text accumulating around the poetic text. This is a book of correspondence conclusively indicating the necessity of a community to poetry. Last year on this blog, I discussed Michael Alexander’s compilation of “The Earliest English Poems.” Those early Anglo-Saxon poems, whether “Beowulf” or “The Book of Exeter,” comprise a word-horde, that is, a hearth of language in the face of the blank oblivion without. It is not the particular moral or ‘relevance’ of a poem that is necessary, but the very fact of its existence.
‘Inbox’ is composed, as early indicated, of the texts that surround poetry, everything that we generally dismiss as standing outside ‘poetry.’ Here we find explanations of poetry that position poems within a certain sphere of physical place: “The sentences collected here were originally written in three small notebooks, spontaneously and in the order in which they appear, over a period of several months in 2001. The sentences in the first group were written almost entirely in January, in David Scher’s apartment in New York, most of the sentences in the second and third groups were written while walking in Baltimore in late summer and fall.” Elsewhere, the possibility of poetry is pursued: “I host and coordinate a reading series at a café and gallery called A Taste of Art in the Tribeca district of New York City. We feature a range of styles from the very performative to the exceptionally academic. David loaned me The Frequencies and I really enjoyed it, and have been meaning to invite you down to our series for quite some time now.” Poetry is a machine, constructed and maintained by an entire crew, calling to mind Sol LeWitt’s famous statement on conceptual art that “The idea becomes the machine that makes the art.” The apparatus is not localized in a particular locality, a specific idea, but in the entirety of a community. Or, the world!
‘Inbox’ emphasizes the importance of community in the shaping of individual identity. Other than the explanatory introduction, the only texts in the book originating from Gordon is a stray quote here, or an excerpted poem there, such as one bit from “Matchbook: from Looking Lets Go the Thought.” But really, is there any text or language that could be said to ‘originate’ with a single person? What a conceptual work of appropriation like ‘Inbox’ does is simply organize text within large enough chunks to indicate the communal origins of a language within a social nexus. Gordon imagines community in terms of writings “…as a nexus of celebration, one that includes all the ancillary yet necessary endeavors and institutions: literary journals, reading series; reviews; interviews; lectures, etc. I’ve never lived in an area with a huge social network revolving around its literary scene, so I’ve had to look elsewhere to be fed in that way. I’ve made it a point to pay particular attention to what’s going on in the world of literary journals; for me, this is a big part of my community. It’s the celebration. Although I do think it’s incredibly important for writers, especially poets, to add something other than their own poems to the party.” This book is a celebration.
Noah Eli Gordon is the obvious present absence at the heart of ‘Inbox.’ The nodal streams of emails that make up ‘Inbox’ build to an absent identity – the writer. But a second, and perhaps even more important nodal absence is that of the poem. We are told “…our books are 6” by 8” with a variable spine.” and that “It’s 8.5 X 11 folded, good paper, transparent inlay. I’m playing with a few ideas for a cover image,” but the actual thing arrives amidst these preliminaries. The possibility for a poetry, that is, the fostering of the community, is the poem.
On the Poetry Foundation website, I found an article by Allison Glock titled “I Blame Blogs.” Glock rails against blogs with an Inquisitional zeal, as “Just because you can tell the whole world about the sexy porpoise dream you had last night, doesn’t mean you should,” and, even better, “Instead of fostering actual connection, blogs inevitably activate our baser human instincts—narcissism, vanity, schadenfreude. They offer the petty, cheap thrill of perceived superiority or released vitriol. How easy it is to tap tap tap your indignation and post, post, post into the universe, where it will velcro to the indignation of others, all fusing into a smug, sticky mess and not much else in the end. You know those dinners at chain restaurants, where they pile the plate with three kinds of pasta and five sauces and endless breadsticks and shrimp and steak and bacon bits all topped in fresh grated cheese? Blogs are like that: loads of crap that fill you up. With crap.” These harsh, condescending accusations bring “… us to the antidote: poetry. Poems are like diaries too. But they are not the first draft. And generally, they do not include musings about porpoise dreams or photographs of one’s cat.” In the comment’s bar, K. Silem Mohammad replies, “Clearly you haven't read much contemporary poetry.” And, of course, he’s right.
What Glock fails to recognize is that the wonderful possibility of poetry becomes, or already is, poetry. This community is what Noah Eli Gordon illuminates throughout ‘Inbox,’ these bad puns, dinner plans and business negotiations make up not just the lives of poets, but all of our lives. This is poetry, and it’s as rarefied as it comes. A blog can be a horrible thing; it can consist of shallow personal attacks, misinformed elitism and snobbish snark. But so can a poem. Art, and yes that includes poetry, maybe even especially poetry, is complicit. Poetry has condoned as many mass murders as any government. Let us not call our poetry blameless. It is not the place of poetry to stand above a community or to somehow serve as an exemplar or justification for humanity. No, poetry is humanity – the community, the interference, and the banality. Noah Eli Gordon’s ‘Inbox’ could not exist if people were not moving, that is writing, in real-time. In Samuel R Delaney’s ‘Return To Neveryon’ Tetralogy, writing is first generated as a means to record figures for fiscal computation. ‘Inbox’ is a record of how poetry becomes poetry, not just in someone’s email, but also out in the world. And that’s where poetry is, out in the world, not apart from it.
Noah Eli Gordon is a wonderful young writer already on his way to establishing himself within this great discourse. I recommend his work to poets and readers across the entire spectrum of American poetries.
NEXT: Jean Genet's Miracle of the Rose.