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

Digital Writing Month

I’ve just signed up for Digital Writing Month, which charges participants with producing 50,000 words of digital writing during the month of November. The goal is ambitious, but my hope is that it will help me sort some of the ideas that have been kicking around in my head lately.

I finished and defended my dissertation last August, so I hope that participating will help me assess where my scholarship has been and map some new directions going forward. Namely, I hope to get down in writing some of the ideas for transforming my dissertation, Ridiculous Modernism: Nonsense and the New in Literature Since 1900, into a book, tentatively titled Languages of the Ridiculous: Poetics and Perceptions of Nonsense, Lear to Flarf.

This week, I’ll begin by mapping out in general how my dissertation developed, what it became, and where I see it going as it turns into a book. To lay out goals for myself this week, I plan to write on:

  1. How a project on the borderlines of poetry and prose in modernism turned into a project on nonsense and modernism;
  2. How my interest in nonsense got specified to an interest in the ridiculous connotations of nonsense and the perception that nonsense is ridiculous;
  3. How my understanding of a “ridiculous modernism” has turned back to an interest in changing visions of nonsense in the twentieth century;
  4. What interests me about the ridiculous right now;
  5. What interests me about nonsense right now;
  6. What I see as the relationship between nonsense, the ridiculous, and the contemporary movements of Flarf and Conceptualism;
  7. and How my understanding of the ridiculous in contemporary poetry—and in digital culture—informs my reading of Ara Shirinyan’s Your Country is Great.

In later weeks, I’ll sketch notes toward specific sections of the book and propose some new interventions in the digital humanities. I look forward to hearing from anyone who’s willing to read along with my work in progress. And if Digital Writing Month is something you’re interested in, you should play along.

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,

Hugo Ball and Ridiculous Modernism

My last day of classes for the semester was yesterday, and my students’ final papers are trickling in. I’ll have more to say about my thoughts on the semester and the results of making my course theme the University of Virginia itself in the near future, but I’m also shifting modes back to finishing up a revision of the chapter of my dissertation in which I lay out what I mean by “ridiculous modernism.”

The chapter looks at the explicitly pejorative side of nonsense, the one that usually expresses itself as “nonsense!” in a swift dismissal of something. It’s a sense of nonsense, I argue, that pervades all the other sense of the term—whenever someone talks about nonsense, they cannot avoid the negative connotations that accompany the term. This chapter therefore outlines relationships between ridicule, ridiculousness, and various senses and practices of nonsense.

The ridiculing cry of “nonsense!” was an especially prevalent reaction to the rise of modernism, as recent work by both Leonard Diepeveen and Daniel Tracy points out. My chapter looks at a spectrum of responses to early of modernism, each of them engaged with nonsense in one way or another. First, I consider G.K. Chesterton, an ardent anti-modernist who at once proclaimed nonsense “the literature of the future” and regularly parodied modernism, both in prose narratives and in nonsense-like light verse. Chesterton earnestly viewed modernism as a cultural threat, but he also, I argue (along with Robert Caserio), demonstrates surprising formal affinities with the modernist project. From Chesterton’s antipathy for modernism, I move to a consideration of satires of modernism in the American popular press, a section that culminates in a reading of Mary Mills Lyall’s and Harvey Earl Lyall’s Cubies ABC. I’ll have more to say about the Lyalls and their abecedarian satire as MLA approaches—I’ll be presenting on their work at the American Humor Studies Association‘s panel. The final section of the chapter involves an extended consideration of the Dada sound poet Hugo Ball. Dada is both a response to earlier modernisms and a radical new modernism of its own. In my chapter, I argue that Dada, with Ball as my prime example, does not just honor but also ridicule earlier modernisms even as it absorbs some of the ridicule faced by earlier avant-gardes into a self-consciously ridiculous aesthetic of its own. I have been developing this material on Ball over last six months for presentations at UVA, at Princeton, at ACLA, and at MSA, so I’m excited to finally be incorporating the feedback of my kind audiences at those venues and revising the section into a more polished piece of the the dissertation.

The most famous example of Ball’s sound poetry, which attempted to use no word that had been used before, may well be “Karawane,” recordings of which can be heard here (by Christian Bök), here (by Trio Exvoco) , or here (by Marie Osmond), and which appeared like this in Richard Huelsenbeck‘s 1920 Dada Almanach:

I do some extended thinking about this page and its typographical appearance in my chapter, but my main concern is with how we should interpret the bizarre performance through which Ball introduced the poems. As you’ll see below, Ball wore a shiny painted costume made of cardboard so elaborate that he could not even walk onto the stage of the Cabaret Voltaire himself. As he read the poems, Ball flapped the cardboard wings of the costume. Understandably, perhaps, the audience laughed at the performance. The costume looked like this:

In my chapter, I attempt to think through the relationship between this performance and the sound poems (are the two even conceptually separable?), the way we should interpret the spirit of the audience’s laughter (and Ball’s complicity in its production), and the way this “original” performance and its subsequent remediations raise crucial issues about the materiality of poetic language.

How should we interpret a laughing response to this kind of radical aesthetic experiment? While we might be inclined to situate such laughter according to a stock narrative of avant-garde shock—the audience laughs because they are uncomfortable with the newness of Ball’s art and poetry—I argue in this chapter that their laughter actually participates in the art itself. I offer an extended reading of Ball’s account of the episode, suggesting that he thought he himself might succumb to laughter. If nothing else, he must have expected it. If the audience is more involved with and friendly to this artistic event than is often assumed, Ball is complicit in, perhaps even encouraging of, their laughter. His costume, in fact,  resembles parodies of Cubism that predate Dada by several years:

M. Armand Berthez in Cubist costume, 1911


image from The Cubies' ABC, 1913

In this Dada moment, the satiric practice of mockers of modernism and the practice of modernists themselves converges in many ways, and both are engaged in circuits of ridiculing provocations and willful aesthetic ridiculousness. While many would be inclined to treat these dynamics as unique to Dada, in my dissertation I argue that a similar kind of playfulness and willful ridiculousness, which often manifests itself through an engagement with one or another modes of nonsense, runs through experimental modernism more generally. Strains of nonsense bring elements of the anti-serious into the work of even many of the most putatively serious modernists, from T.S. Eliot and Gertrude Stein to Laura (Riding) Jackson and Virginia Woolf.

In future posts, I will describe the split identities of language at play in Ball’s scene and explain my conception of  “ridiculous modernism” more thoroughly. For the time being, though, I’m excited to have a break from teaching so I can get back to finishing up the dissertation.

Remembering Greg Colomb

This Friday, the UVA English Department will memorialize Greg Colomb, our friend, mentor, and colleague who passed away in early October. Ryan Cordell has already expressed well how grateful many of us are to have had Greg as a model for teaching, but I also thought I might also share my own thoughts on Greg now that I’ve had a month for the loss to register:

The day I heard that Greg had died, my deep personal mourning over the loss of a respected mentor and friend mixed with selfish practical concerns. Greg sat on my dissertation committee, after all, and he was both my writing coach and the person I talked to most candidly about matters of departmental politics and my fears about the academic job market. Where would I be without him? While I still feel a bit guilty that my mourning was mixed with my panicked thoughts on the logistics of my life as a student, it may be fitting, for Greg was probably the most practical teacher and scholar I have known—he managed to extract genuine joy from the abstract thinking of academia even as he thought of it as a kind of playful game. I remember him telling us in dissertation seminar that at heart, scholars of literature are finally just “people who enjoy having incredibly intricate conversations about books that we love.” He’d never say that on the job market, of course—he’d be at the ready with answers to the entire chain of “so what?” questions that an imagined interlocutor might ask—but I continue to value the way that Greg so thoroughly mixed his deep pleasure in academia with his acknowledgment that there is more to life than books.

In the days leading up to this memorial service, I’ve been revising a chapter of my dissertation, and I’ve realized that many of my practical concerns were unfounded: Greg’s lessons inform each sentence I write. The man in person is gone, but the principles he taught me live on. One of Greg’s greatest insights as a force in our department, I think, was that by showing us how to be excellent teachers, he’d also help us be excellent scholars. But the teaching was also a clear end in its own right, and I’ll never forget the respectful attention Greg gave all his students, from grad students at the end of their careers to pre-matriculated first-years in the transition program.

Even more than these practical matters, of course, I’ll miss Greg as a personality and as a presence. A few times each week, he’d loom at the doorway to the graduate lounge, an inquisitive look on his face, striking up provocative conversations even with the few graduate students he didn’t yet know. I remember his stories, from the description of roasted lamb-on-a-spit he told to his ENWR 380 students, to whom he memorably also quipped that “children listen to adults because if adults sit on them, they will die,” to his descriptions of the way the entire Serbian community of Chicago celebrated with him after his turn as an expert witness at a trial and his descriptions of his experiences on trips to Japan and China. Many graduate students began their careers as teachers skeptical of LRS, but I saw Greg win them over one by one. I’ll miss sorely, as all of Greg’s students will, his capacious good will, his free-flowing gift of gab, his deep, infectious laughter, and his omnipresent smile.

UVA Admissions Viewbook as Research Source

During the first week of school, my class revisited the college admissions process to explore what research is and which sources are useful, reliable, and convincing (categories, we’ve found, that are sometimes in tension). The first source we considered in depth was UVA’s admissions prospectus, which is posted on the Admissions Office’s web page. By having my students analyze sections of the viewbook in small groups and lead a discussion of certain spreads with the class as a whole, I hoped to suggest to them that information, even from trusted sources, is always mediated. In groups, they looked for pages that depicted aspects of Virginia that they probably wouldn’t experience while they were here and thought through why so much seemingly extraneous information would be included in the viewbook.

One spread that came up in at least two of the sections was this one:

Students generally agreed that they wouldn’t be going to space during their tenures at UVA, nor would they be likely to meet Edgar Allan Poe, Tina Fey, Katie Couric, or Tiki Barber. Yet certain aspects of the spread did provide indirect information—the astronaut in the picture, for example, is not only a UVA alumna but also a Professor of Engineering. Many of the students thought the pictures and descriptions of celebrities on the verso side of the spread, which might appear to the more cynical as mindless celebrity promotion, provided compelling evidence that many alumni of UVA become successful later on. Students rated the spread low on the usefulness scale, but many of them found it compelling.

One student offered a sophisticated analysis of a spread with a long-exposure that shows a statue of Thomas Jefferson in the Rotunda, with a blur of people in the 2000s whirling around it:

In the photograph, Jefferson—and by proxy his “vision”—is literally set in stone at the center of the University. By the implicit logic of the photograph, time will pass, and many transient people will move through the institution, but the “vision” will remain the same. The page depicts Jefferson as a renaissance man: a list of “TJ’s Professions” on the right side of the spread at once secures his nickname-worthy familiarity to University students and marks him as remarkably versatile, serving not just as President, Governor, Secretary of State, and Founder of the University of Virginia, but also as Lawyer, Farmer, Diplomat, Scientist, Musician, and Architect. As a piece of the Admissions research picture, the class pointed out, this spread is marginally useful as a reflection of the ethos of UVA, but it also begins the process of Jefferson mythification that students will experience throughout their years at Virginia.

The admissions viewbook is structured around the two conceits of “UVA IS” and “YOU ARE” (each gets half the book, and two sets of page numbers work inward toward the center). Students found one of the “YOU ARE” spreads rather useless but compelling nonetheless:

As a set of compliments directed toward Juniors and Seniors in High School (many of whom, no doubt, do share many of the qualities listed on the page), students found this spread a nice mental break from the information barrage of many of the pages in the viewbook. Yet it is utterly useless as a source of information about the University of Virginia. Students eventually posited an ulterior motive to the spread. It is nice for high school students to be complimented so aggressively, but they had to admit that the Admissions Office’s goal in doing so was likely geared more toward making prospective students feel good about UVA than it was about providing information about the University itself.

The information in the viewbook, students pointed out, was all true, but it also shaped that information into narratives that were designed not just to depict but also to construct the experience of UVA students. The book was telling the truth, but it was also suggesting a set of ideas and feelings designed to appeal to them in specific ways. From one vantage, the UVA admissions office is in a position to know more about the institution than any other source—it has the authority of a trusted institution, after all, and it exists within the UVA community. Students enjoy the viewbook (if nothing else, many of its pages are beautiful), but I hope they also now recognize that it has other goals beyond giving prospective students an accurate picture of life at UVA. The viewbook remained part of the conversation as we discussed other readings related to college admissions, including a terrific chapter on the marketing of college from David Kirp’s Shakespeare, Einstein, and the Bottom Line. I hope that students bring the sophisticated skepticism they brought to the viewbook to the other sources of information we’ll also consider, from the seeming quantitative authority of the U.S. News & World Report Rankings, to the ostensible chaos of Wikipedia, to the cultural and intellectual authority that academic studies carry (like this one by Matthew Hartley and Christopher C. Morphew about viewbooks themselves, which I used information from in class but did not have the students read) to the seeming irrefutability of primary sources.

Designing a Transition Sequence for the Liberal Arts

This summer, I began my job as a lecturer in UVA’s College of Arts & Sciences and Assistant Director of the University’s Transition Program, which helps students who are primarily from underrepresented groups adapt to college. The job has been a major transition for me, too, as I’ve shifted from my typical teaching in English, which has involved literature and composition classes, to classes under the designation of LASE, or “Liberal Arts Seminar.” These classes share three primarily goals: to introduce students to academic skills that will benefit them throughout college, from classroom demeanor and participation to appropriate ways to address Professors in emails; to help students develop and achieve academic and career goals; and to introduce students to the liberal arts, particularly the critical-thinking emphasis of the liberal arts.

In the summer, my co-teachers and I focused the LASE curriculum on a single problem: “when, if ever, is it OK to break the law?” In LASE 2110, our pre-matriculated first-years read difficult texts by figures such as Plato, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Henry David Thoreau and applied their ideas to contemporary situations of civil disobedience. Throughout the class and in their final papers, students explored a variety of complex situations, from the seemingly trivial outrage of the Jefferson Memorial Dancers and many topless protestors, to the anti-TSA rage of John Tyner, to Kenza Drider’s resistance to the French ban on face coverings, to the relationship between social media and the Egyptian revolution, to Jose Antonio Vargas’s “outing” himself as an illegal immigrant, among others. The course had many goals, from giving students a first opportunity to revise a significant paper on a topic of their choosing, to easing them into the college classroom, to emphasizing the management of multiple competing perspectives that solid critical thinking requires.

This fall, our focus of LASE 3110 moves from general “Critical Reading, Writing, and Reasoning” to “Analysis and Research.” While students will have the opportunity to write on a research topic of their choosing, the readings and examples I’ve chosen for the course center on the University of Virginia itself. We’ve started the semester by turning a skeptical eye toward sources of information related to the most recent (and probably significant) research project these students have undertaken, the college admissions process. By considering and evaluating the information students have used to make their decision, from the students’ campus visits and conversations with students, deans, alumni, coaches, and parents, to the University’s web page, to its viewbook, to the U.S. News Rankings, to the Fiske Guide to Colleges, to wikipedia and other encyclopedias, I’ve tried to emphasize to students that information is subject to significant mediation. The college viewbook is an informational tool, but it is also a marketing construct. After our focus on secondary sources, we’ll move on to a consideration of primary sources as we consider questions about the University’s past using artifacts from special collections. In the second half of the course, students will perform a significant research project of their choosing as a complement to their first-year writing classes.

As transition students in the Spring term formulate a plan for their college educations and attempt to decide on majors, we’ll together explore the (currently hotly debated) question of “What’s the point of college?” As I ask students to wade through the national (and perennial?) debate on this issue, I’ll help them decide on their own personalized answer.

Teaching this sequence at this point in my career has already been a necessarily reflective experience: reading and teaching debates on the purpose of the liberal arts has made me want to more explicitly define what I think the goals of liberal arts teaching in the humanities (and by proxy the goals of the course sequence) are. So far, I’ve tried to instill in my students values I’ve also promoted in my literature and writing classes: the contingency of knowledge; the changeability of present circumstances; skepticism toward accepted truths; the importance of questions and processes, and not just answers; the importance of understanding (but not always agreeing with) alternative points of view; and the relationship between conceptual ideas and the world they help form. I’ve begun to think that if Universities began to do a better job of formulating more specific goals for students than the vague catchall “critical thinking,” debates about the value of the liberal arts and the humanities would begin to get clearer for the public. And as I teach these courses this year, and these or similar ones in the future, I hope that be more specific with my students about what I hope they get from their liberal arts educations.

Documenting digital pedagogy and research about modernism, conceptualism, nonsense, seriousness, poetry, and digital culture