The dogma of the fast: a catch up
—Olson’s manifesto projected onto now
Charles Olson begins his manifesto
[Projective] “Verse now, 1950, if it is to go ahead, if it is to be of essential use, must, I take it, catch up and put into itself certain laws and possibilities of the breath, of the breathing of the man who writes as well as of his listening.”
What grabs me is “catch up and put into itself certain laws and possibilities of the breath”— for to breathe & to follow it, extensively, is to know that we are alive at the most fundamental level & yet, the experience of it directly, to realize it apperceptively, is a profound moment— more so even than some quasi-spiritual experience. Olson, i feel, is right to point out this as the ground-up measure of the poem. For the poet, breath is the first “listening” from which issues the “kinetics” of the poem, in unison with this kinetic energy we can enter the field of composition, panting. The objects & themes that the poem treats fall into line with the breath.
My understanding of the Projective poet’s compositional template, is that it becomes a method for creating a personal condition from which to proceed with the poem— we all breathe & yet it is so automated like a mechanized Fredrik Winslow Taylor.
The poet of the new millennium breathes an air unlike any other poet that came before them: our air is no longer empty, a hive of activity— nor is it filled solely with the theoretical components of an ether; it is rather, alive with the clutter & chatter of codes, signals, waves, WiFi, & the back & forth of 10s of millions of messages, riding in & alongside these —passing through us even as we utilize & compose with them with the tools available to us—completely changing how & perhaps even why we communicate.
We could begin our own manifesto in quite the same way as Olson: “verse, 2018, if it is to go ahead…” & quote verbatim much of Olson’s manifesto & thereafter, with that in mind, we’d set ourselves plenty to get on with; we need only to alter the context to that of the current era & we’d not be denying ourselves a better course of action for taking poetry ahead ´to now.
Perhaps we’d best remind ourselves: this is the digital age & far from being an overwhelming era of myopia, we are awash with subject matter, with problems to be understood & solved, in manifold areas from tech & society to race & sexuality— pretty much everything, because we have no longer a clear precedent in history to liken the situation we find ourselves in. We cannot ignore history, however, 100 years ago, nobody grew up with a system as overwhelmingly abundant in information as the Internet.
i think of Camus’s The Plague: A section in which Dr. Rieux & Tarrou are speaking about their own reason to commit themselves to solving the plague, whatever that role might be. “Never ending defeat” informs Rieux via a daily confrontation with “suffering”; this gives him a purpose to commit to his doctoring & “common decency.” He then goes on to say to Tarrou:
“To tell the truth, all that’s outside my range. But you—what do you know about it?”
“Ah.” Tarrou replied coolly, “I’ve little left to learn.”
“Do you really imagine you know everything about life?”
Again, in the same cool manner, Tarrou replies, “Yes.”
It’s important to note Rieux’s use of the word imagine isn’t, as far as i can tell, confrontational. Rieux accept as a potential that Tarrou might be on the cusp of a complete understanding of life. In a world of finite information, despite the unlikelihood, it can be entertained, imagined even.
There was also a rumour (no doubt started by the man himself) that Byron had read every book in the Trinity College, Cambridge, library. A ridiculous rumour, but one we have to pause & think about for a moment, if only because that library at that point in the early 1800s, was finite & catalogued. Unlike now, where, if you were to have read everything, you’d have had to read every Buzzfeed article, scientific journal, Good Health magazine, Tweet &…well the list is endless, you couldn’t do it, even if you said “from today I will read everything posted or printed”, you’d need a month of none stop reading just to read all the newspapers printed. You cannot read everything that has ever been written now, you probably couldn’t in 1947 or 1805, but the conception of the idea that you could, wasn’t as ridiculous owing to the absence of two things: a computer & the Internet— a tool & its appended system, updated every split of a second.
Information abundance means quality suffers, but that is only if you do not select your myopia & concentrate— THERE LIES THE ISSUE. If we can utilize our information overload into an accessibility personalized for us by ourselves, then the variety can be managed & continue to be plentiful. Thereafter, it should be within the means of such a person, driven by their management of limitation, to deliver some of the best poetry ever written.
At this point we may take into consideration Olson’s
“process of the thing [poem], how the principle can be made so to shape the energies that the form is accomplished. And I think it can be boiled down to one statement: ONE PERCEPTION MUST IMMEDIATELY AND DIRECTLY LEAD TO A FURTHER PERCEPTION. It means exactly what it says, is a matter of, at all points even, I should say, of our management of daily reality as of the daily work, get on with it, keep moving, keep in, speed, the nerves, their speed, the perceptions, theirs, the acts, the split second acts, the whole business, keep it moving as fast as you can, citizen.”
This suits the manifesto for poetry in the digital age, absolutely bang on the space bar. The business of writing is a dogma of fast— once a technology or paragon or anything becomes established in the business of life it doesn’t quit moving for us & we shouldn’t quit for it, we have to, like space & time, move in relative succession. We are like Mobius strips with a fortune written on it, you only get one clause unless you follow the twist around. Then, we must keep our senses peeled to the goings on of ABSOLUTELY EVERYTHING & make no complaint of weariness, but soak up what we can &
“USE USE USE the process at all points in any given poem, always one perception must must must MOVE, INSTANTER, ON ANOTHER!”
& i should add, when i first read Olson’s manifesto 10yrs ago as an inchoate 22 yr old, i was horrified that a poet should have to rush anything, their looking, listening or any of it. But it seems hopelessly naïve of me to have gone ahead thinking that way so long, when the business is to have our environment pitch the process to us & we abide.
Olson’s excitability is palpable & i get it now; when understood, it stops us from making excuses for not writing, it become “daily reality as of the daily work” it becomes quotidian & relevant to that, the world & its happenings become the subjects of poetry.
“So there we are, fast, there’s the dogma.”
Olson would have thrived in our short attention span economy of deliverance & reception, constantly working our way through something, skim reading like stones skipping over a pond— anticipating next. The technology in our pockets & purses, clocking in the hours of the entire world, all of recorded time, even geological & cosmic time; this auxiliary brain, monitoring us, informing us, perplexing us, emboldening us with a new quest of understanding & more besides— the dogma of the fast has never been easier to keep up with. & it is ours, it belongs to us, it is the achievement of the Millennial. To miss this opportunity is to miss the opportunity to be a generation.
—Tools of the trade
This dogma of alacrity needs a tool. The sinews of the hand do not offer the precision of the breath nor the fast we need for the quiddity of the daily business, which the Projective poet should crave. Olson’s tool was the typewriter
“due to its rigidity and space precisions, can, for a poet, indicate exactly the breath, the pauses, the suspensions even of syllables, the juxtapositions even of parts of phrases which he intends.”
It is interesting to remark that speed should be carried out on a tool that offers rigidity. Using a tool of limited capability, the poet’s field of composition is blown wide open.
In 1879, Nietzsche’s health had deteriorated. He’d resigned his philology post at Basel, at the age of 34. He was oscillating between the Mediterranean & the Swiss Alps. In 1881, his eye sight failing him, he was living in Genoa. His vision so bad, that any prolonged focus on the page brought about nausea, headaches & even vomiting. He ordered a typewriter, a Danish made, Malling-Hansen Writing Ball which had been invented by Hans Rasmus Johann Malling-Hansen. Nietzsche learned to touch type & was able to, essentially, write without the use of his sight, at least limiting its use. But the typewriter had a more subtle effect, which Nietzsche had not anticipated. His friend Heinrich Koselitz noticed
[his] “prose had become tighter, more telegraphic. There was a new forcefulness to it, as though the machine’s power, through some mystical metaphysical mechanism was being transferred into the words.”
Nietzsche himself expressed that
“Our writing equipment takes part in the forming of our thoughts.”
The technology itself had become a formative extension of the content.
Will Self, the English novelist & journalist (perhaps the finest England has, currently, to offer) still uses a typewriter. Self prophesied the demise of literary fiction back in 2014, in an essay i can’t find. In a recent interview he thinks of literary fiction, at this present time, as
“a kind of decerebrated chicken clucking around in the farmyard.”
Owing to the novel being an analogue technology,
“the art form was to do with the medium—the codex in which it was presented; the literary form in the age of bidirectional digital media [i.e., modern-day communication devices] cannot sustain that enclosed quality. It becomes permeable. The other is, people just can’t stay in the text any more. They just can’t read in that way.”
He’s been carping about this since writing Umbrella, picking up with Shark but really making a splash with Phone. i am pleased that he has been given a platform in recent years to talk publicly, he’s very good at it & i believe he’s doing a fine job of holding a black mirror up to the problems of now.
The text should be drafted into its jacket. Self drafts his novels first by hand before transferring the draft into a type-written form, which is then fastidiously worked on by hand, overanover againanagain. Self’s thinking, is that, only when we work on the text in this way can we know it inside out. We become familiar with our own creation. We miss no opportunity, scribbling it out, having it physically, to hand, to rectify & improve it. More importantly, the analogue process is one without distractions.
(An aside: i agree with Self in regard to prose & especially the novel. i don’t think the reader in the digital age has the patience for it when it is handed to us digitally (studies on why to follow). i don’t think this wholly applies to poetry, however. Its atomization is easily done, even if the poem is a narrative one. The reading of a journal can easily be broken down & read over a period of days, we can pick up where we left off. But a novel isn’t so easy, even with chapters, unless they are only a page or 2 each & what room does that really offer a novelist who wants to develop the narrative & characters? It still, at least to me, feels like something i need in my hand— text in a jacket. i prefer a book of poetry in my hand too, but the computer can hold my attention long enough to engage with the works of poets who publish online, whereas i would never read a novel someone sent me, on the computer. i struggle with short stories, not because of my attention span, well sort of: i just don’t think the computer is a comfortable medium for reading prose. i can about manage articles, blogs & essays, of a reasonable length.)
i’ll hazard a guess, that most writers reading this use MS Word. If you don’t use it from the off, you at least use it in a good chunk of the drafting stage, the 3rd at least, if you are a meticulous drafter, like a well behaved poet should be.
MS Word, for all intents & purposes, offers everything the writer needs to get on with the daily business of writing. It seems a match made in heaven. If you do draft with MS Word, you can brainstorm bullet points, you may even make spider diagrams, little blue bottle ideas balled up in silk. As you draft, you can simultaneously, when a sentence feels right, copy & paste it to a new page to begin piecing together your poem, structuring it on the go— the process of it actualizing under our noses, spurs us. We feel a sense of reward when our brainstorm is producing something tangible. MS Word, allows us to draft multiple personalities of the same work with the copy & paste function, like two mirrors that domino an object into infinity. If we have a sonnet in our midst, we can duplicate it should a refrain form in our mind & in no time, have the additional lines for a villanelle. Doesn’t work out, no bother: Backspace! Backspace! Backspace!
The Word processor can do anything a typewriter can & more, it sounds so obvious to say, but i marvel at maximum efficiency. The speed is unrivalled. A click of the mouse, a few taps of the space bar, enter & voila: you have physically dragged & duplicated text, gashed open a yawning abyss between syllables, left letters dangling in the void, made the text spin or spatter. We can enlarge or atomize letters or words, embolden, italicize— everything & anything in the split of a second. Hardly any exertion required. & this all allows for the work content to change, one example is disembodied voices; how many do you want? Italicize, clamp in quotation marks. You have a rich range of clear personalities all vying for control of the reader’s attention.
In addition, a wide variety of punctuation & symbol options, allow us to personalize our writing, making the aesthetic appeal diverse & even original.
The whole editorial process is clean & immediate (you can’t spell media without immediate, owww). We can chop & replace, revert & convert & each time, see our work in its upgraded body. Then there is the built-in spelling & grammar, a thesaurus too. Building our vocabulary & even giving us additional freedom to make the text variable. (Anything i missed that you find useful or is an imperative function of MS Word, please don’t hesitate to comment below.)
—Disrupt & distract: studies for the digitized Self
So what is Self’s issue, what is so distracting that he neglects to utilize a tool designed for the business of writing?
A quote by John Naughton might help, [as the technical becomes social]
“given that, we would expect to see new kinds of literature emerging, composed not by techies celebrating the wonders of digital technology but by writers puzzled or disturbed by what it’s doing to society, or by people who are on the receiving end of the disruption.”
Self is disturbed & concerned that he (like all of us) will fall prey to disruption, because technology takes prisoners. His trilogy of novels, Umbrella, Shark & Phone are, in short, explorations of the problem of technology disturbing & disrupting us into psychological malady: from the mass production of artillery shells in the trenches of WW1, which shell shocked a generation; to the dropping of the A-bomb on Hiroshima & Nagasaki, with the USS Indianapolis, which transported the bomb, sinking, causing the single largest shark attack in history (divine retribution?); to the current era of the mobile phone as an auxiliary brain & the Iraq war’s guided missiles with cameras on their nose, so that we could watch Baghdad bombed, make sure, clap along even, gawk & gasp in awe— but who was gasping in disgust? The technology left us gawping, from the safety of our homes & now, even our phones.
The computer, for Self, connected to the Internet, is an ineluctable source of distraction for someone trying to write text. We become lost in the cornucopia of hyperlinks, dazzling us with the promise of more information, tugging at our curiosity— our greatest weakness.
Let’s say, you are trying to visualize something that has popped into your head, an object, it’s physical features are fuzzy. Let’s say this object is a cycad; though it could be anything. The Jurassic flora has become significant now & you have to see the object through. So you do what any right thinking person would do in the digital age, must must must do— you Google it. However, you forget to search images, to just have a glance at it, but instead get the Wikipedia entry at the top of the search list. Knowing you’ll kill two birds with one cycad frond, you enter Wikipedia. Now you are pulled into the scrolls of information on the cycad, its kingdom, division & class, ETC ETC ETC. You gravitate to a hyperlink, the botanist who first stumbled on it, on top of all the information on the plant itself, you now have the historical endeavours of a single man (William Stranger, according to WIKIPEDIA). We are twice or thrice removed, down another rabbit hole entirely, from our original intention, which is what?
We just wanted to see what a cycad looked like, now we are reading about William Stranger, some 19 Century what not, someone, who went off adventuring, doing whatever in some place for whatever reason. We don’t take it all in, we read down the text in an F patter, skipping over sentences.
Returning to our writing, sometime after our traipsing into unfamiliar territory, we think we’ve earned a coffee. The disruption is complete.
We are all liable to this. No one is excluded. Not Mr Self, nor our geography teacher or Helen Mirren. It isn’t our fault. The Internet did it. Really. Like the mythical dog who eats homework, or the vanishing old man who leaves his fart to break just as someone walks into the toilet, leaving you to take the blame.
Nicholas Carr in his insightful The Shallows: What the Internet is doing to our brains explains,
“The net seizes our attention only to scatter it.”
He continues, that this has
“…neurological consequences. Just as neurons that fire together wire together, neurons that don’t fire together don’t wire together. As the time we spend scanning web pages crowds out the time we spend reading books, as the time we spend exchanging bite-sized text messages crowds out the time we spend composing sentences and paragraphs, as the time we spend hopping across links crowds out the time we devote to quiet reflection and contemplation, the circuits that support those old intellectual functions and pursuits weaken and begin to break apart. The brain recycles the disused neurons and synapses for more, pressing work. We gain new skills and perspectives but we lose old ones.”
This, i’d bet, is one of Self’s concerns & what his concern is when he states that “people just can’t stay in the text any more. They just can’t read in that way.”
Now, let’s not accuse Self of saying everyone alive, at this split of a second, can’t read a book, he is not saying that, he clearly has an audience, he is published by Penguin & writes exactly what he wants to write, & that must be due to his work selling to some extent, for profit even. He is speaking generally, yes, (& about literary fiction) but nonetheless, i think there is some truth in what he says, especially when you look into the statistics of this & look at the crumbling (crumbled?) state of big book chains, like W.H.Smith. i went in there on my previous return to England & struggled to find a book. Hyperbole? Hardly. i swear, they felt hidden behind a trove of useless guff. When i found them it was the most banal selection of books i have ever come across. Better of as kindling.
(Another aside, this time, a daft aside: my horror forced me to be a bit of a dick to the cashier (not directly). When he asked us for a plastic bag charge (which i kind of agree with) i told him that
“Plastic bags used to cost nothing because of the plastic agent Imipolex G, which was cheap to make but didn’t meet modern health & safety standards.”
He looked at me as if i must be the dullest person ever. Thing is, if there were any books there, he might have read Gravity’s Rainbow & realized i was talking utter crap: Imipolex G was (as far as i know) a fictional material invented by Prof. Jamf, used to make the S-Gerat device & even Tyrone Slothrop’s synthetic penis (if memory serves). My friend afterwards looked at me oddly, until i explained my faux-boring-arse-act. Then she laughed. Reading is fun.
Waterstones has retained its dignity, thankfully, so no such prank was necessary. i just purchased a book & thanked them for not whoring themselves out with advent calendars & scented candles.)
This clearly applies to the concentration necessary for writing; the computer turns our attention, externalizing it, rather than setting us into and maintaining our internal focus. The brain’s plasticity is very sensitive, so that, even as we unlearn & acquire new habits, we can, easily replenish our old habits— they may die hard, but they can be reignited without wasting a box of matches.
Take the findings of UCLA professor of psychiatry Gary Small, who did experiments, comparing how novices & tech-savvies were affected by time spent Google searching & thumbing through web pages. He equipped the subjects with goggles (as computers don’t fit into a magnetic resonance imager) & projected images of web pages, which the subjects toggled through with a handheld touchpad. The scans showed that those who already knew how to use Google displayed more complex brain functioning than the novices.
“The computer savvy subjects used a specific network in the left front part of the brain, known as the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, [while] the Internet-naïve subjects showed minimal, if any, activity in this area.”
The researchers also got the subjects to read straight text in a simulation of book reading. Scans revealed no significant difference in brain activity. They had the novices go away & over a period of 5 days use the internet one hour a day. On returning, they scanned & found the same regions as the Internet-savvy users had developed extensively, from just 5 hours of internet use over 5 days.
However, the study discovered some important distinctions between brain activity during the reading of web pages & the reading of books. A book reader’s brain activity occurs in regions associated with language, memory & visual processing, but not much in the prefrontal regions, which are associated with decision making & problem solving. While the internet stimulates more activity in the brain, it doesn’t focus it for qualitative pursuits such as reading. It is evaluative, more geared for navigation & categorization than deep reading & the qualitative measure of meaning. The internet essentially overtaxes our brains, urging them to evaluate & decide rather than develop a deeper understanding of text.
“By allowing us to filter out distractions, to quiet the problem-solving functions of the frontal lobes, deep reading becomes a form of deep thinking. The mind of the experienced book reader is a calm mind, not a buzzing one. When it comes to the firing of neurons, it’s a mistake to assume that more is better.”
Explains Nicolas Carr.
What next?: buy an oar
So where does this leave us in regard to the dogma of the fast? Well, i think it is up to the poet how & what they designate to their attention. The novelist is up Shit’s Creek without an oar, if we interpret Self. Better start whittling that prose down at the inception of their career, then they might drag the attention of the digital reader into their large form worlds, their novels. MS Word, in my estimate, is a remarkable tool. i have got a pretty good handle on how to use it to best effect; in my own case: i draft out by hand, in a pocket notebook first, then into a manuscript sized book (sometimes) before transferring it to MS Word to fiddle with at length for, sometimes weeks. This balancing act between two worlds means the idea, the focus & the first step are researched & realized manually. The mechanization takes the thing out of the daily business of the thing done & into a place of duplicity & potential. The business of the handwritten draft, limits distraction, by the time i am typing up, i am seldom distracted as i am eager to see the cleanly presented text transmigrate from my chicken scratched (cerebral chickens by the way), barely legible original or draft into a cleaner & more finished text.
There is no one course of action in writing (as everyone who writes, & probably a good many who don’t, know) & the technology, subjects & sources available, enable us to tailor a process suited to our own needs. Abundance only limits those who are not intrepid enough to make choices & stick with them. We just have to remember the breath, listen to it & when distracted, note how its rhythm alters as the disruption takes charges & switch the focus on track to the dogma of fast.