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Call Upon the Author

In the Socratic dialogue, Phaedrus, Plato sets up several layers of authorship. First of all there’s the constructed persona of Socrates, who is what Plato makes of him. Then there’s the absent Lysias, whose views on love are delivered by his friend Phaedrus, so, although Phaedrus speaks the words, he can also disclaim them. Socrates invokes the inspiration of the Muses to give a speech that will support Phaedrus’ conviction of Lysias’ wisdom. Because of its motivation this can’t be true inspiration but Socrates protests that it is, claiming that the location of the dialogue is holy, although he has earlier doubted stories to that effect. Having expounded the theory that the non-lover is better than the lover, he later redacts in deference to the God Eros, implicitly undermining the authority of the Muses—whom he in a very recent breath extolled as bringers of eloquence—and casting doubt on his own reliability. As both he and Phaedrus are mouthpieces for characters who never present themselves, the present interlocutors are also, effectively, absent.(1)

I hope I’ve understood this correctly in my ignorance and second-hand, translated reading. If so, it’s wonderfully amusing. It also sets me thinking of the notion of authorship in general and how we might simultaneously claim and disclaim it. In her Journals Sylvia Plath wrote: “Do I create? No, I reproduce. I have no imagination.”(2) This is from a poet whose personal life was material for some of the most original poetry of its century. Granted, she didn’t exactly create her experience.

Is so-called “found poetry” the ultimate in sidestepping authorship? The blurb for Sam Riviere’s Kim Kardashian’s Wedding says “His approach eschews a dependence upon confessional modes of writing to explore what kind of meaning lies in impersonal methods of creation.” The opposite of Sylvia Plath, I suppose that means. In order to write the book, the poet has “harvested” and “manipulated” the results of search engines to effect poetry that is “part-collage,” “part-improvisation.” “The effect is as refractive as it reflective, and disturbs the slant on biography until we are left with a pixellation of the first person.”(3)

The publisher’s disclaimer in relation to confessional poetry suggests that the common reader of a poetry book expects to play the role of confessor. I’m not sure this is true, though the general slow-waning perception of poets is that they have complex sensibilities and a tendency to speak expertly of them. Confession is hardly the word, but that’s a different discussion.

after he found the heart
of his girl
a tape of mine
was so broken.(4)

This is called ‘girlfriend hardcore’ and is one of my favourites. I quote it here because I wonder how absent the author is? Is the artist of a collage absent? Is the improvisatory actor absent or extremely present? Could we say that the author of found poetry is using social proliferations in the way that poets have traditionally used words—to reflect culture, renew language, make and break sentences, subvert meaning? Aren’t words and natural phenomena also found material? Was I absent when I anagrammatised 48 Victorian proverbs in a Vere Foster copybook and got this kind of result:

As you sow you must reap.
A. Your auto-poem sways us.

Be not weary in well doing.
A. We, benign lot, are idly won.

Cleave to that which is good.
A. O, God, teach a witch this love.(5)

(I am distilled in the commas and hyphens.)

What’s fundamentally different, it seems, is the “pixellation.” The author isn’t presented as a sincere beautiful hardcore personality with a definite physical location. The author is an algorithm or constraint devised by one faculty among a conglomerate of faculties. For example, in Kim Kardashian’s Wedding, there are eight sections, each named for a stage in the process of making-up a face. The title of each of the nine poems in each section is composed of two verbal units in varying arrangements from a given collection of 16 single words, one hyphenated word (“ice-cream”) and one (truncated?) phrase (“the new”); 18 in all. I suspect they were selected deliberately, following some methodology. They serve arbitrarily as descriptive or nominal, always occurring in the same position as first or second word in a poem’s title. They move through the sections in separate threads, shifting consistently from one title to another. For example: word 1 of title 1:Section 1 becomes word 1 of title 8:Section 2 and word 2 becomes word 2 in title 9: word 1 of title 2:Section 1, becomes word 1 of title 9:Section 2, and word 2 becomes word 2 of title 1. And so on. I’m sure there are several other patterns I haven’t yet discovered.

Personally, I don’t need an accountable author. I have (often to my disadvantage) always experienced texts as simply texts and didn’t chase the authors. (It’s actually very informative and edifying to chase the authors, as you might learn from them a way to live your life.) The notion of coherent selfhood has been pretty cogently broken up by now anyway, so who knows who or what is responsible for anything?

What is a quote? A quote (cognate with quota) is a cut, a section, a slice of someone else’s orange. You suck the slice, toss the rind, skate away. Part of what you enjoy in a documentary technique is the sense of banditry.

– Anne Carson(6)

Anne Carson is writing about Longinus’ treatise, On the Sublime, which she describes as “an aggregation of quotes” with “raudled arguments, little organisation, no paraphrasable conclusion.” What’s happening with the collage method of poetry is a little similar and radically different. Although the text is someone else’s, it’s assumed that it’s a giveaway, a random emanation that doesn’t need to be credited. The words, phrases and statements are plucked from the digital matrix according to a widget or randomly (meaning not consciously planned) or according to the fragmented author’s imposed constraint. We’re all un-authors together. It’s a rather beautiful communal idea.

But what was Donne doing? Or Shakespeare? Weren’t the metrical forms a constraint? Weren’t the ideas and subject matter often acquired from elsewhere and arranged according to a given system? When Chaucer referred to “myn auctor” in Troilus and Criseyde, wasn’t he rendering his authorship, at least in theory, to the hosts of a random bandwidth?

Christodoulos Makris’s forthcoming multi-form poem is described as “un-authored.” Here’s the description accompanying an excerpt from the poem, online at Hotel Magazine:

. . .this is no longer entertainment is formed entirely out of untreated anonymous or pseudonymous text found in the open comments sections of media websites and other digital platforms. A multi-form, book-length poem, this is no longer entertainment was composed by filtering this un-authored writing through a process of immediate, instinctive selection and reframing, which is inevitably modulated by the author's interests and emotional temperature.(7)

Christodoulos Makris is a fascinating, disciplined poet with tremendous commitment to the practice of reading, listening, collating, allowing and re-forming through careful constraints and lenses. Not all of his work is found poetry, but much is, or uses imposed constraints. For the moment, I’m focused on the description rather than the work itself. In the above sentence the word “un-authored” may mean “not by this author” or “unconsidered” or “unplanned” or “non-literary.” The sentence goes on to imply that, rather than an author, what we have is Instinct and Immediacy who/which form a filtering system to select and reframe. However, there is still an author present, and s/he has Interests and Emotional Temperature, who/which modulate the process.

This reminds me of The Map of Love, where Dylan Thomas writes his prototypical girl and boy as “weathers” who “crawled over the abominations of the swamp, content in the shadow of their own rains and snowings, in the noise of their own sighs, and the pleasure of their own green achings.”(8)

This seems to me much more accurate than the presentation of a character as a coherent, self-defining unit. Dylan Thomas accepted randomness as a life principle, to the point of conveying it as compulsion or choicelessness. In composition he appears to have worked closely with a thesaurus, following the threads of language. This is his own description of his process:

I make one image—though ‘make’ is not the right word; I let, perhaps, an image be ‘made’ emotionally in me and then apply to it what intellectual & critical forces I possess—let it breed another, let that image contradict the first, make, of the third image bred out of the other two together, a fourth contradictory image, and let them all, within my imposed formal limits, conflict.” [My italics.](9)

I’m no programmer. Does this sound like a formula, a rudimentary algorithm?

I find found poetry liberating and disconcerting. I find it a relief that I don’t necessarily have to respond emotionally or with an opinion, and that there’s the possibility of a correct answer regarding the method. Disconcerting that the world is revealed yet again as an elusive complexity. I find the absence of personality a form of kindness and a form of coolness. It invites one to explore as well as setting up a firewall. Do I have the kind of brain that can wander here? Then there’s the documentary aspect of quotation, which I have used myself and which becomes the poem by placing and arrangement. This is welcome information. Information—the key, perhaps, to the practice.

…the subject is no longer the master of representation (‘I’ll be your mirror’) but the operator of the objective irony of the world. It is, henceforth, the object which refracts the subject and imposes upon it its presence and its random form, its discontinuity, its fragmentation, its stereophony and its artificial instantaneity.

– Jean Baudrillard(10)

I think this is what found poetry enacts. The object doesn’t have to contain any meaning or symbolism. There’s no elevation or ascription of hierarchical value. The subject disappears behind the method like an absent world-creator, becoming dispersed among the components of the text to produce a synthetic body or product.

The irony is that the “un-author” appears to have more effective control as a subject than the “confessional” author, in that he/she consciously constructs the manner in which the “data” will be processed, and more or less consciously selects the data. What is missing is actual biography, the location of the voice. The insistence of the body, according to Christodoulos Makris’ explanation, not only remains, but modulates (sets the music).

Who is this great burdensome slavering dog-thing that mediocres my every thought?
I feel like a vacuum cleaner, a complete sucker, it's fucked up and he is a fucker
But what an enormous and encyclopaedic brain
I call upon the author to explain

– Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds(11)


(1) Perseus Digital Library. Tufts University.
(2) The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath. Edited by Karen V. Kukil, New York: Anchor Books/Random House, 2000, 92.
(3) Riviere, Sam. Kim Kardashian’s Wedding. London: Faber & Faber, 2015.
(4) ibid., 59.
(5) Bold Writing. Text manipulated for an art film with Bernie Masterson, in which I play absent author and writing hand. 2015.
(6) Carson, Anne: “Foam (Essay with Rhapsody): On the Sublime in Longinus and Antonioni.” Decreation. London: Jonathan Cape, 2006, 45.
(7) Hotel
Christodoulos Makris blog page: yes, but is it poetry 
(8) The Map of Love. London: J. M. Dent & Sons Ltd, 1939, 64.
Online here. 
(9) Dylan Thomas: The Collected Letters. Edited by Paul Ferris. London: Paladin, 1987, 328/9.
(10) Baudrillard Jean: The Perfect Crime, Verso, 2002, 74.
(11) Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds. “We Call Upon the Author” from Dig Lazarus Dig!!!, 2008.

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