Monday, November 5, 2012

Poetry Monday: The difference is spreading

I'm afraid I'm going to cheat just a little this week (I feel that the Chance poets would approve), and satisfy my desire to get back to Gertrude Stein.  Following is Jackson Mac Low's reading of Stein's A Carafe That Is A Blind Glass from Tender Buttons (click on the link and turn sound up). Here's the text:

A kind in glass and a cousin, a spectacle and nothing strange a single hurt color and an arrangement in a system to pointing. All this and not ordinary, not unordered in not resembling. The difference is spreading.

We did a very close, interpretative reading of this piece in ModPo during Stein week, looking closely at meaning. Here's what I wrote:  Blind glass, blind drunk, drunk because hurting (we drown our sorrows)? I have to admit, just aesthetically, that I love the phrase "a single hurt color". Aesthetics itself is something that we haven't spoken about much here, but I don't think we can discount it, even when knee deep in experimentalism, because the innate beauty is also part of the poem's power - it's ability to stir (or hurt, perhaps) us. The notion of a hurt color is something that has visceral power. We can feel the power of those words physically. The colour hurts and is hurt. It hurts us with its intensity. It is hurt by being constrained into an 'arrangement in a system'. The carafe is blinded by opacity. Blindness hurts - like eyes closed tightly. It seems to me that this poem is very compact indeed, but it can be expanded and unpicked into so many connections, both within the poem itself and outside of the poem.

In Mac Low's reading, we move away from the semantic sense of the poem and focus more on the sound: the musicality of it - the intonation, the sibilance, rather than the meaning of it. Form, in this reading, comes before the content, and the meaning is inherent, rather than teased out (as I attempted to do above) and explicit, in the music of the piece rather than the specific translation of the words into a narrative. Mac Low goes further with this musicality and creates eight strophes based upon the entire text of Tender Buttons using the poems as his source and seed text, and putting them through a computer program called DIASTEX which produces an entirely new computer generated poem. The result can be see here:

The finished product is kind of beautiful ("That section has a resemblance to light"), though it's impossible to tease out a totality of meaning - you have to let go and let the music of it take you somewhere.  This is challenging to a semantically oriented reader like me (maybe you too), but it's also rich and freeing in its way.  John Cage plays with a simpler form of chance operations called Mesostics, which uses a word (name, part of a poem, anything...Cage tends to use names) as its middle spine and picks a pre-published text to work through the spine - Allen Ginsberg's "Howl" being a famous example ("Writing through Howl").  Cage has all sorts of complex rules for ensuring that his selections are are chancy as possible, but it's very easy to do with a computer program.  Would you like to give it a try?  You can, here: This is actually our assignment for this week and my challenge I think (as programmer rather than poet) is to choose my source and seed texts carefully - that's all I can do to engage with contingency.  The rest is up to chance. I'll post up the results for fun when it's done. 


  1. Mac Low has done something quite beautiful, hasn't he? I would have loved to see a live performance.

    1. Yes he does Susan. Seeing words as musical first and perhaps semantical second has been a big learning curve for me. Learning to listen to silence is another (Cage's big lesson - not just in his music, but in the silence between the words).