Jonathan Basile’s libraryofbabel.info is an astonishing piece of art. or, as he puts it, iterature. this compound comes from iteration & literature, two of his reasons for creating the sprawling online library. as he says on the website he has a desire
to seek other venues in which to undermine rational discourse, such as the Permuda Triangle.
Jonathan says of the library:
[it] is a place for scholars to do research, for artists and writers to seek inspiration, for anyone with curiosity or a sense of humor to reflect on the weirdness of existence – in short, it’s just like any other library.
many will know it as a popular story by Borges.
on my first learning of & sitting transfixed in front of the static blocks of text, i knew i had to put it to some creative use. of course poetry was always going to be my go to. but why?
the library offers a conceptual framework from which to reference from, but if you were to make too rigid the parameters you have to work with, it would prove difficult to maneuver, too complex & you’d get nothing done, or you would, slowly. so i constricted myself to the sonnet, because why not; a traditional form with enough space to convey a message using language.
the library panders to an instinct for nonsense, to expose the absurdities of language; the irony that even with so much of it handed to you, still you labour to produce, to articulate.
to begin the production of these poems, i start by searching in the library, terms from the glossary of Swami Nikhilananda’s translation of the Upanishads, Hindu terms that attribute titles to the infinite that contribute to a system that explains things cosmic & earthly: a suitable reference for extracting words from a gigantic library, which is essentially limitless like Brahman. these words are just a springboard for mining the library for language. once the word has been searched i choose the title search, which means the title of the book is the chosen term. the titles of the poems are the titles of books inside the library.
next i sift the words from the chaff. here things become interesting. many of the words appear nonsense at first, but searching for them in a dictionary reveals they are merely obscure. for instance i came across the three letter u.l.u: ulu, which is the name of an Inuit knife, with a curved blade used for skinning animals. i would have to read a very specific text to discover this word, but there it was in among a jumble of letters in an online library.
the whole process, additionally, becomes a means of discovering a whole range of vocabulary you wouldn’t otherwise learn. it becomes a matter of sifting through the page of text to extract useful verbs, nouns, pronouns, articles, conjunctives & adjectives. the words are never more than 4 letters long, so there is a tautness to the monosyllabic lines, a staccato feel, made interesting by the bizarreness of the content that arises out of the struggle to make a line & also the sound of the word itself.
it becomes clear very soon, once you get into the process, that you have to sort of haphazardly gum a line into form. but this is the point. this is the fun. you would probably have great difficulty writing these lines without restrictions of this kind, as you will discover upon reading one.
i have never been a supporter of conceptual poetics, but i find the idea of mining information, of borrowing from the world to progress forms of poetry, to bring it up to date with a technological age, profitable for aesthetic & even philosophical reasons. however, the outcome, the finished product always feels empty, it doesn’t do anything.
someone i am sure could make a strong case that any outside influence that an artist or poets transmutes into a piece of art, is borrowed information, a recycling of specifics from everything. that any poem then becomes a restoration of experience & learning, something like Hermann von Humboldt’s
prediction machine, and that what we see, hear and feel are nothing more than the brain’s best guesses about the causes of its sensory inputs. Think of it like this. The brain is locked inside a bony skull. All it receives are ambiguous and noisy sensory signals that are only indirectly related to objects in the world. Perception must therefore be a process of inference, in which indeterminate sensory signals are combined with prior expectations or ‘beliefs’ about the way the world is, to form the brain’s optimal hypotheses of the causes of these sensory signals – of coffee cups, computers and clouds. What we see is the brain’s ‘best guess’ of what’s out there.
which is i quote taken from this essay by Anil K. Seth in Aeon, well worth a read. in this case what we have learned or experienced is combined with a new experience or piece of information that triggers a form, a poem. i am not negating a poem, written with prior experience or learning in mind, whether used consciously or unconsciously, but that the use of a source that essentially gives us all the materials, in way the library has provided me with every word for a poem, is something that could be argued from two extremes, one accepted as the common method for making, while the other one remains mechanic, reproducible & unorthodox; but there is an essential similarity: both use something to make something.
here, i think, i have remedied that extremity by drawing from both sides. here we have a monumental amount of information, essentially limitless, which we have to decode through a personal method to extract anything of value, even if that value is just a laugh at the absurdities we can form with restricted access to language. is there not something beautiful about restriction within infinity, unavoidable absurdity from chaos, a semblance of aesthetic out of a jumble of letters.
what it amounts to is that though the materials are provided, there is something individual inherent in the outcome: it is fed through the production line developed by the individual, who is bending his consciousness around the materials, which inevitably inspires the words to form a certain way. restriction does not mean there is no choice; i’d say one page offers roughly 30-40 monosyllabic words, with perhaps one or two disyllabic words creeping in, but rarely.
this then, surely appeals to both the common method of writing & the conceptual. this does feel very much like a production line product. there is a process, which could be nuanced upon, but when the goal is production, the most efficient method is the best; then again, method is developed according to the individual coordinating the development, which makes this a conceptual model that navigates away from the cold, uncreative writing of the conceptual poets. it could be argued that what this is isn’t conceptual at all. i am fine with that. i hope only that my process may be mimicked to produce some absurd poetry or create a dialogue, to discover ways of undermining rational discourse, especially with so much confusion going on around us.
if you create your own poems using the above aum, method, please, please share them with me. & of course your thoughts on this process.
the book reference is at the end of each poem if you want to make sure i didn’t use any extra words, just in case, don’t want to leave my self open to the charge of massive bullshitter.
go nth Lear, peg a wry hiss, a surd on a lotus.
pats six lite clits & rubs his nob
at Eve of Khi. flu swims a coo.
awls rub lite elms cuz Rex wed pubs.
info qua info. pory pus box.
ado Rob, bam! nowt… fob a lit pyx,
aw, a koel rasps a gaol guy in a lum
if Lear kips in a lum by pubs.
hub of a zuz not a bee. erm…
i spy Lear pus lotus info in a box
if khi a ton, if ulu, surd yin.
wry Rex box me, hiss me, fob me.
kid Lear jogs lax, kips in elms
– go vex yin, pat Lear rex & ban stilbs: chao.
(The book you were reading was Volume 17 on Shelf 1 of Wall 2 of Hexagon: xc9ksqxiifhzf8coi4gtevv9ksiq5rl32uuvi7wc2075x3jzugn1hvhrtn5s0apbm)