Saturday, November 17, 2012

A case of assisted improvisation

The poetry course will be over in a day, so I decided to share my last essay I sent there a week ago.

The task was to write a "random" poem using the method of mesostic and an automated script, and then to do a close reading of it and to express thoughts on the technique used.

There were actually two tasks to choose from with the remaining one being playing with Bernadette Mayer's methods, but I made my decision very quickly for the reasons explained below.


I can't resist starting with an explanation of my choice between the two options available for this assignment. It was easier for me than I expected to make this decision when I realised that despite its "technical" feel the "mesostic" method is actually not very different from some tactics we were already introduced to (Tristan Tzara's "How to make a Dadaist poem" being the most obvious example). This recurrence was the first thing to catch my eye and it didn't allow me to dismiss this option thoughtlessly as a curious but (at first glance) not deep enough experiment.

Then the fact John Cage was a composer and his idea of words being liberated from the "forced" meanings to become sort of as musical samples simply left me no other choice. Not being an English native speaker this is exactly how I used and sometimes still do perceive English lyrics in songs when vocals aren't very distinctive, and the strange thing is that it doesn't immediately make them dull or unworthy - they remain quite enjoyable, only in a different way. So due to my weakness I have a privilege to know for sure that the result I received from the automated script wasn't just a chaotic nonsense:


families sHopping
          The avocados

I chose WALT WHITMAN as a "spine" for my poem because from the very beginning of the course I was definitely more attracted to Whitmanian bunch. I believe by the way that this first step is very important in mesostic as it is the only part of the process which is entirely up to the creator. While pointing the script to source text is also a conscious decision, there is no control on what exactly would make it into the final poem. While you're free to choose between the undoubtedly different sources - different epochs, schools, genres, authors - it is still possible that the final difference would be next to none if the same words are picked out. Same words taken out of their natural context, much as fish taken out of the water, immediately become the same and lose the name of action.

So it is the "spine" that grants them a new life and essentially defines the new context – or more precisely, you do by choosing that "axis". The whole process of the creation packed in a single concentrated effort - when you accept this idea it suddenly becomes difficult to shout out a "random" name. What could've been easier than that before you became aware of the trick?

I used "A Supermarket in California" as a source because of its direct connection to the spine ("Where are we going, Walt Whitman?") It might be a wrong thing to abuse the randomness in that way but in my opinion it is justified by the created opportunity of receiving an answer to the questions asked in the poem.

I'm satisfied with the result which by the way was the first combination I received. If reviewed as a "foreign song" merely by how words sound it's proportionally weighted with the first shorter stanza composed of shorter words than the longer second one. It also starts with "what" which rhymes with "Walt" creating an intricate connection between the first horizontal and the first vertical words.

In the second stanza I like how the word "shopping" connects the two lines there, being shared between the "families shopping" and "shopping aisles", equally forming two meaningful combinations. There is also meta meaning in it as it is shopping as a process, not as a word, that leads people to aisles in real life.

The geometry of the poem is also nice: not too symmetrical but also not shaky with the counterpoising balanced beams of "families" and "avocados". Poem's "body" has a non-trivial shape resembling a comma, straight for most of its length but curving left at the end. Again an odd meta feeling here: with not a single comma in the whole poem it's still basically a list of independent words, each of them could be followed by one - so forming together a giant comma, they unexpectedly make sense.

But arguably the main purpose of any poem like this is to provoke thoughts on the context defined the spine phrase or name, to shed some light from an unusual angle and to admire the fanciful shadows it forms. Well, it did make me think of Walt Whitman, his poetry and his followers like Allen Ginsberg lost in the supermarket. It wasn't a single distinctive and clear idea, or I’d say not a problem which became clear to me. It was rather lots of unshaped thoughts and emotions, quick associations appearing instantly to burst into new ones like fireworks - bright, enjoyable and unstable.

Much like what I feel when I listen to music, only this time that was a music of "raw" words, instruments for which I have chosen for the band of the mesostic myself.