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Poetry Machines (End)

Malevich, Black Square
"O black black black black black"

Patterning Machines: Towards an Avant-Garde Prosody

In traditional prosody, of which Koch is aware, there are three basic methods of sensible patterning: rhythm, rhyme, and spacing. Each of these is absolutely determined by repetition of the same and repetition as difference, the first two parts of machine grammar. Rhythm repeats the same stresses in a regular pattern called metre, rhyme repeats the same sound at the stage of the final syllable of a line, and lineation (imposed space at the end and so between lines) makes sure this happens after the same number of syllables, as well as organising complex variations of this.

Yet, metre is a function of the mind which recognises regularity of stress through the regularity of non-stress in a binary fashion.[i] While all speech has stress, metre organises stress into an abstract pattern of similarity and difference. Rhyme meanwhile produces two exact sensible repetitions with divergent meanings, which means that repetition occurs at the sensible level and difference at the super-sensible or cognitive level. Finally, spacing orchestrates this at the purely material level, distinguishing what is poetry from what is not in many ways too complex to consider here.

What is patterning but an expectation of repetition? Nevertheless, what is repetition without difference? All attention to patterning in poetry studies has tended to place the deviation of patterning at the level of actual deviations from the pattern: an extra syllable, a half rhyme, enjambment. What poetry machines do is draw attention to the difference at the heart of all repetition, or the deviation fundamental to the pattern.

Deleuze’s Difference and Repetition, effectively rewritten in Anti-Oedipus, makes just this point while going on to suggest that such a combination of repetition and difference produces a binary flow system common to all human beings or desiring machines.[ii] Meanwhile, Derrida, who begins his influential collection Margins of Philosophy with an essay on différance and ends it with an essay on iteration/repetition, comes at the problem from another direction. He suggests that at the heart of every differentiation, every singular expression, there is an opportunity to defer truth, to have that original phrase repeated later in the mouth of someone else far from the original intended meaning of the piece.[iii]

Both philosophers are basically talking about a poeticisation of existence. The difference at the heart of every repetition means subjects always differ from their sense of themselves, undermining the ability of the subject ever to repeat in language his or her true being. At the same time, the repetition at the heart of every difference means that each act of representing truth by representing it as different from another truth results in an endless machine of iteration and repetition of the words, irrespective of the presence of the original meaning. Koch’s poetry machines are the beginning of the return of these poetic ideas back to a deviant, post-significant, avant-garde poetry.

However, is it feasible to talk of poetry machines in the terms of traditional prosody; is there evidence of rhythm, rhyme and spacing in any of Koch’s poetry machines, which still retains that radical, ontological questioning of the poetic, typical of avant-gardism and poststructural philosophy? It is a very big question but I would like to close in suggesting possible future avenues for investigation of this issue.

In terms of rhythm, one ought not to look, in poetry machines, for a traditional patterning nor a distribution across traditional units of syllable or measure. Instead, one ought to search for a new concept of what a pattern is, or patterning at the conceptual level, and how this concept is distributed at the sensible level. I have already noted that “The Brassiere Factory” has a stress pattern of seven, which comes from a patterning of events based on verbal parallelism produced by the initial machine phrase.

I would call this mode of measure non-linear measure, or a mode of measuring not restricted to line-by-line counting and comparing. There are a number of examples of this kind of measure in the New York School poetry. Koch generally uses phrase measure, but there is also word measure, line measure (different from linear measure in that each line is a unit) and sentence measure.

If, in Koch’s avant-garde prosody, measure is literally conceptual and marked by the counting of the instances of the occurrence of the machine behind the poem, then rhyme is his use of sensible repetition with differential meaning. Rhyme is traditionally a repetition of sound with a phonetic differential built in. Often the aim is consonance of semantics within divergent words suggested by consonance at the sensible or semiotic level. Koch’s rhyme works in quite the opposite way. He repeats not phonetic sounds but the whole word or phrase.

The sensible aspect of such repetition still exists at the aural level; if you say the same word over and over it will always sound the same, but its real sensible impact is at the visual level. You tend to see black repeated five times before you conceive that this could be a form of rhyme. This sensible consonance exists, however, not to produce semantic consonance but rather semantic development and deviance. Instead of repeating the same sounds to produce semantic similarity in difference, poetry machines open up a semantic gap within the word or phrase, which is basic post-structural linguistics. While the meaning of a word might be fixed culturally, one cannot guarantee that in each usage of the word the same meaning will be reproduced. Sometimes black is black, at other times it is just the sound “black” or the overall concept of nouns such as “black.”

Finally, spacing: Koch uses line-breaks in a challenging way and sometimes he does not use them at all, but innovations at the level of lineation are as much a part of traditional prosody as they are a part of an avant-garde prosody. Where poetry machines innovate spatially is at the level of what I would call semantic-conceptual spacing. I have already noted that rhythm occurs at the level of the mind, which suggests that all patterning is conceptual. In the same way as the mind conceives of gaps between words in speech when in truth there aren’t any,[iv] so the mind conceives of regular patterns in verse.

In avant-garde poetry there are similarly false divisions; spaces which the mind imposes on the text. These consist of various differentiations and divisions, this being the basic function of all spacing. Within the poetry machine there is the conceptual space of RS where the mind imposes a division between the first “black” and the second. Both “black”s are in fact the same, which is why they are RS, but for RS to exist, RD must also be present. Without a concept of differentiation, as I have mentioned in relation to Deleuze, one cannot have a concept of repetition.

There must be a kernel of difference between each repetition event for us to be aware that the same thing is happening over and over, and not just during an extended single instance. In a sense, it is like speech perception; false gaps are imposed to differentiate the individual instances of repetition of the same thing. The sound “black” in speech is matched by the idea of black in the poem. At the level of RD it is somewhat easier to see the spacing. With each “black” a differing sense of the word is developed, meaning that each of the five blacks has a different textual meaning. Such semantic differentiation within semantic repetition is one of Koch’s major breakthroughs.

Koch, like many members of the avant-garde, is not a semantically coherent poet and so there is a third gap that one might call the internal break, to contrast with the external break of lineation. The line break interposes the semiotic at the expense of the semantic, as Agamben shows,[v] and so the lack of semantic continuity within a Koch poem does the same. As I have noted the process of cohesion which poetry machines bring about is generally at the expense of coherence in meaning, and this becomes one of the meanings of a poem constructed by machine.

Thus, the cohesive power of the poetry machine is meant to undermine critically our assumptions as to the power of formal cohesiveness to provide semantic significance. Yet, poetry machines can also generate new semantic avenues once they have broken the poem away from a traditional “patterning” of logical meaning. One might also mention a fourth possible spacing that we saw in “Collected Poems,” which is spacing at the RC or conceptual level. If the other three forms of spacing question division and relation at the semiotic and semantic levels, spacing at the conceptual level has a wider field of vision, questioning spacing between poems, collections, even poets themselves.

These can only be tentative suggestions at this stage but in conclusion one can say that Koch’s “poetry machines” are an overlooked but major contribution to the tradition of avant-garde aesthetic critique. They question poetic agency and representation in a clear and systematic fashion, while suggesting innovative directions for a future, post-avant-garde poetics. While they are critical of post-pattern poetic ideologies, ostensibly Romantic ideologies, they also propose a new act of critical patterning, which could be termed an avant-garde prosody. In innovating patterning at the level of repetition of stress, repetition of sound, and repetition of spacing, they move towards poetic patterning in a post-pattern age.

These patterns cannot be, in all conscience, new forms of patterning as this is not in keeping with the avant-garde project of critique; instead, such patterns could be termed, in the first instance, examples of the pattern of no-pattern. By this I do not mean chaos, but a patterning at the conceptual level of the blindspots and failings of patterning in terms of semiotics and semantics. Koch’s poetry machines, in using cohesion to undermine coherence and a lack of coherence as a critical mode of cohesion, produce a systematic and mechanistic critical system. This system is a poetic machine, because it makes poems mechanistic, but it is also a critical machine.

Whether or not the poetic avant-garde in the future will adopt poetry machines is impossible to say, but it is clear that this simple construct of Koch’s ought to place him at the centre of contemporary literary studies, for not only has he produced a patterning machine of interest to those critical of non-deviant poetics, but he has also produced a new form of prosody that will be of interest to traditional rhetoricians and linguistics for decades to come.

[i] As Traugott and Pratt point out, “meter is essentially a conventionalized type of stress pattern. Stress is a perceptual phenomenon, internalized by the child with the linguistic system. Meter, on the other hand, is an abstract construct imposed on language; it is learned separate from stress.” Elizabeth Closs Traugott and Mary Louise Pratt, Linguistics for Students of Literature (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1980) 73.
[ii] Talking of human beings as desiring machines, they ask the question: “In what respect are desiring-machines really machines, in anything more than a metaphorical sense? A machine may be defined as a system of interruption or breaks. These breaks should in no way be considered as a separation from reality; rather, they operate along lines that vary according to whatever aspect of them we are considering. Every machine, in the first place, is related to a continual material flow (hylè) that it cuts into… The term hylè in fact designates the pure continuity that any sort of matter ideally possesses…” (Deleuze and Guattari, 36).
[iii] As Derrida asserts: “To write is to produce a mark that will constitute a kind of machine that is in turn productive, that my future disappearance in principle will not prevent from functioning and from yielding itself to, reading and rewriting.” Jacques Derrida, Margins of Philosophy (trans. Alan Bass, Brighton: Harvester, 1982) 316.
[iv] For the layperson, the best description of this is by Stephen Pinker: “All speech is an illusion....In the speech sound wave, one word runs into the next seamlessly: there are no little silences between spoken words the way there are white spaces between written words. We simply hallucinate word boundaries...” Stephen Pinker, The Language Instinct (London: Penguin, 1994) 159.
[v] 48. See Giorgio Agamben, The End of the Poem (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1999) 109-115. The imposition of the semiotic as a feature of poetic language is also discussed in Derek Attridge, The Rhythms of English Poetry (London: Longman, 1982) 303-14.


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