Category Archives: Poetry

Podcast Episode About Laughter and William Carlos Williams

Last spring, my colleague Lauren Neefe recorded an interview with me about my work on sound, machine learning, and laughter. After the interview, she edited the interview into the first episode of Flash Readings, a podcast that showcases the research of the Marion L. Brittain Fellows at Georgia Tech. The podcast is now up at TECHStyle, our online forum for digital pedagogy and research.

Each episode of Flash Readings focuses on a particular sound in relation to a Brittain Fellow’s research. The episode featuring my research, titled “Laughter Worth Reading, focuses on two instances of laughter on recordings of William Carlos Williams’s “This Is Just To Say,” and in the episode I consider the difference such laughter makes in terms how audiences perceive poems and on how critics should interpret them.  It also gestures toward the work I’ve been doing in the wake of the HiPSTAS Institute.

Two Works by Ara Shirinyan

I’m in the midst of finishing up an article on Ara Shirinyan’s Your Country is Great. It’s my favorite recent work of conceptual writing. It’s an absolute delight to read, and for me, it brings together a number of the strains of literary criticism I’ve been most interested in lately—transnational poetics, uncreative writing, digital culture, and theories of laughter. Shirinyan’s method is simple: he goes through an alphabetic list of countries, Googles instances of the phrase “[country] is great,” and makes poems from the results. I paid homage to the book in an earlier post, but here’s a sample of Shirinyan’s “FRANCE IS GREAT”:

Air France is Great!

France is Great
and the rest of the World is Rubbish

Why France is great.

Why France is great.

France is Great
and the rest of the World Stinks

France is Great
and the rest of the World Sucks (105)

It’s a work that’s been really energizing to write about, and I’m excited about the article.

I recently came across another work of Shirinyan’s that uses found text at Ubu. The book is called Speech Genres 1-2, but I’m particularly interested in the first section, “All the Jarrys.” It’s a book indebted to Alfred Jarry, but its debts are literally on the surface level. The “Jarrys” referenced in the title do not refer to the content of specific works, but to the material books in which those works live, presumably as reported on a used-book shopping site. For example:

in French. Book is in
very good condition. Standard used
condition. This softcover is in

good condition no rips or
markings or stains. mass market
paperback – in french – has remainer

mark on bottom edge but
looks near new otherwise —This

is a description of the
exact book we are selling. (7)

Much like Your Country is Great proves readable, even delightful, despite its repetition, something about Shirinyan’s lineation here makes “All the Jarrys” much more than a straightforward report on the material condition of the book objects it describes.


Before I was writing a project about nonsense and modernism, I was in the early stages of a project that looked at interactions of poetry and prose, and the borderlines of poetry and prose, in modernism. Focal texts included William Carlos Williams’s Spring and All, Jean Toomer’s Cane, and Gertrude Stein’s Lectures in America. The idea for the project had grown out of some earlier work on James Joyce’s Ulysses, particularly on the episode generally referred to as “Sirens.”

Sirens begins with a two-page series of fragmentary sentences that proleptically cite language that appears later in the episode. In a seminar paper, I argued that given Sirens’ status as an episode associated with music, we should read it through the lens of the form of language most often associated with music, poetry. So the two-page “overture” becomes a free-verse poem, and the power of the episode’s language comes from literary techniques associated more often with poetry than with prose. So Joyce’s prose, as much as it is about music and indebted to music, engages with techniques analogous to those of poetry—enjambment, alliteration, rhyme, etc.

In modernism, I argued, willful poeticity began to encroach on prose even as free verse and prose poetry began to make poetry look more like prose. It became increasingly difficult to make confident assertions about the differences between poetry and prose as the twentieth century went on, a crisis that has arguably culminated in the further blurring of poetry and prose in conceptual writing, especially in works like Kenneth Goldsmith’s Day (2003), in which Goldsmith simply retypes an entire issue of the New York Times into book form that occasionally looks like poetry and occasionally looks like prose.

Poetry, then, begins less to resemble any specifically definable set of formal attributes than it does some vague quality of heightened literariness or heightened artistic sense in a work in words. Of course, the “literary” is as vexed a term as poetry is, and since the height of the theory revolution during the 1980s we’ve known that the literary is often defined as much by arbitrary class markers as it is by the inherent qualities of a work. Goldsmith work again troubles the distinction between literary language and normative language by taking the functional prose of the newspaper and re-presenting it as literature.

Of course, I may be better at pointing out instances where poets and critics have troubled the term poetry than I am at defining it. At the beginning of my project, though, as now, I believe that pat definitions of poetry modeled on the early nineteenth-century Romantic lyric still need troubling.

At the time I was beginning to formulate the first (eventually abandoned) version of the dissertation, Terry Eagleton had just come out with a book with the straightforward title, [How to Read a Poem](. In it, he defines a poem as “a fictional, verbally inventive moral statement in which it is the author, rather than the printer or word processor, who decides where the lines should end” (25). While Eagleton’s willingness to offer such a concise definition is to his credit, each of the key terms of the definition collapses under scrutiny:

  • fictional: What about Charles Reznikoff’s Holocaust, which builds poems from the words of Holocaust survivors, or Muriel Rukeyser’s Book of the Dead, which uses reports of interviews with survivors of a mining-related lung disease? If we go to the contemporary poetry of what Marjorie Perloff terms Unoriginal Genius we find countless examples of reuse of the non-fictional in poetry-like writing. But one need not go directly to these examples, which might be painted as extreme—what about “Charge of the Light Brigade,”, largely undisputed as a “poem” but referring to a clearly non-fictional event, a British cavalry charge during the Crimean war?
  • verbally: “Verbally inventive” is one place I’m largely sympathetic with Eagleton’s definition. But I would argue that as often as not poems are not merely verbally inventive but also visually and sonically inventive. Hugo Ball’s sound poems avoid words used before, for example, and Kurt Schwitters’s sound poems often go even further to include explicitly non-verbal sounds. Concrete Poetry similarly depends more on images than on words. So I’m inclined to call poetry a heightened form of language, but these are not mere exceptions that prove the rule but commonplace examples that prove the rule inadequate.
  • moral statement: The one that makes me cringe the most, perhaps because it implies the reducibility of poetry to so many pat “morals.” Literary scholars have rejected such a model for a long time, at least since the New Criticism, in the midst of which Cleanth Brooks admonished scholars against the “heresy of paraphrase.” Many poets concern themselves little with morals. What of “My Last Duchess”? We’re surely supposed to be creeped out by the murderous speaker, but does that make the poem a “moral statement”? Is Browning’s goal in the poem really to convince us that it’s a bad idea to murder one’s wife? “Moral statement” is at the center of Eagleton’s definition, and of course he troubles it a bit in his book—but for me it’s so far off the mark that it shouldn’t be included in any sound definition of poetry.
  • in which it is the author, rather than the printer or word processor, who decides where the lines should end: Since the beginning of the twentieth century, it’s been really hard to argue that prose poems shouldn’t count as poems—in modernism, start with Stein and Williams, but really, we could go to any number of examples, especially after modernism. Even more, though, I’m instinctively suspicious about the remark about author’s decisions as a student of Jerome McGann’s. A clear example of an editor’s decisions mattering almost as much as an author’s can be found in the example of Emily Dickinson, whose work was first edited—heavily—by Thomas Wentworth Higginson. In Virginia Jackson’s excellent Dickinson’s Misery she points out, quite aptly, I think, that even the barest structure of lineation and the frame of “poetry” were imposed on Dickinson’s words when they were, for example, scrawled on envelopes much more haphazardly than the confident framing of lyric poetry might imply. So cracks begin to appear both in Eagleton’s assertion about poetry being defined by lines and his assertion that those line-endings are chosen by authors rather than editors.

Eagleton himself, of course, would acknowledge many of the faults I’ve pointed to here, and his book goes on to complicate this seemingly straightforward definition of poetry. The point is, though, that early in my nascent project about the borderlines of poetry and prose, I was getting into territory that involved sweeping claims about terms like “poetry,” “literature,” and “the literary.” I was trying to define my objects of study according to terms that are even more subject to qualification and redefinition than most, terms that I didn’t really believe could be defined in any responsible way.

I’d written dozens of pages about Gertrude Stein, especially about the critical discourse on Tender Buttons and on the heightened poetic language of Lectures in America (interesting, of course, because Stein chose poetic effect even in the midst of a genre invested in explanation). But I was exhausted, confused, and largely bored with what I was doing.

After I’d worked at the project for around a year, one of my advisors urged me to figure out what it is I loved about the books I actually love—and that suggestion took me down the path to a project I turned out to be much happier with, a project in which the key term was “nonsense” rather than “poetry” (though concerns of poetry remained very much alive in it). And I’ll begin explaining how I see nonsense differently than some others in my next post.

DigiWriMo scorecard: this post 1,506 words; month-to-date total 1,755 words

A (Rambly) Glossary of My Terms

It’s been some time since I explicitly revisited the terms that are most important to my research. My dissertation introduction focuses on the term nonsense, a term about which I have a lot to say. But that introduction was more geared toward complicating the critical discourse on nonsense by pointing out scholars’ difficulty with explaining the laughter and ridiculousness that comes along with nonsense than with defining the term itself. Indeed, I’ve always tended to chide those who offer a too-firm definition of a concept whose actual cultural use is more often geared toward perception than intention.

Now that I’ve finished that big chunk of writing, though, and since Digital Writing Month offers me incentive to bloviate at length about whatever I want, I thought I’d revisit what some of the most important terms in my scholarship mean to me.

So the posts that follow will be a somewhat rambly glossary, in no particular order, of many of the terms that are most important to my research right now.

I’m well behind on my Digital Writing Month commitments (largely because of job-applying commitments, which take lots of time). But I’m giving myself license in the next several posts to type with less regard to structure, organization, etc. than I would in more structured writing. I think, however, that these mini-essays on some of my key concepts will be helpful to me as I think about my work and, perhaps, helpful to some reader down the line.

DigiWriMo scorecard: this post 249 words; month-to-date total 249 words

Charlottesville is great

after Ara Shirinyan

Charlottesville is great.
Dave Matthews came from
out of there

Charlottesville is great
at any time of year

Charlottesville is great
because of its

you don’t feel like
your are always either in line at a

Charlottesville is great,
though concert was cancelled!

Charlottesville is great!
I’m a bit biased
being from VA
my self

Charlottesville is great.
My brother went to UVA law school

Charlottesville is great — you’ll love it

charlottesville is great.
My daughter wears blue jeans
in the street.

Charlottesville is great town
both because of UVa
and in spite of UVa

Charlottesville is great
it’s a lovely hospital

Charlottesville is great
for job-seekers

Charlottesville is great for retirees!

(I think Charlottesville is great)

Charlottesville is great
wrote: I think this is great

Charlottesville is great,
Philadelphia can be fun.
harper’s ferry,
Lancaster, PA,