Saturday, July 18, 2009

puffins and computers and digital anglo-saxon

I am about to head off to St. John’s Newfoundland, a little ahead of schedule (so as to better take in Newfoundland) for the ISAS (International Society of Anglo-Saxonists, for you non-medievalist readers) New Media and Old English Workshop and then this year’s ISAS conference. I wanted to share here a little of what I am going to try to think about at the workshop, although I am sure that very little of it will explicitly make it into my specific thought and work, because my overarching concerns are much too large to deal with adequately in two days. The workshop should be great. Martin Foys (Virtually Anglo-Saxon, UP Florida) is running a theory section, and Daniel O’Donell is running a section on the coding that goes into to making electronic editions etc.—my friends Mo Pareles and Mary Kate Hurlery will also be attending.

I’ll try to give blog updates during the conference if something strikes me. Of particular interest should be a panel on whales on the last, featuring a paper by Hal Momma.

Because I know this is going to get away from me—I will have tried to condense and re-write several times by the time I post I am sure—I will say first that hope to work with Exeter Riddle 67 (ASPR numbers), which is very badly damaged, to try to experiment with producing a platform on which editions of OE verse can be collaboratively produced, wherein editing, commentary (philological and otherwise), and translation could occur in more radical and opposition forms of contemporary scholarship and verse than what is generally seen. What is possible here practically is something I don’t know much about (and thus hope to learn here...), so I will focus now on the theoretical side.

My theoretical impulses arise out of rethinking media studies as it relates to poetry through the poetics of the 20th century Black Mountain School poetics. I want to attempt this, not our of arbitrary experimentation, but as a strategic move designed to disrupt and provoke a re-thinking of, at once, what might seem unrelated phenomenon associated with Old English verse. So my impulse ultimately arises from my dissatisfaction with how OE poetry appears in and is allowed to effect (both in terms simply of what is done, and in terms of how our discipline is policed for ‘acceptable’ work) a) contemporary scholarship b) contemporary poetics as a result (I’d propose) of its mediation in modern English by contemporary poets who perpetuate the poetics of expression of deep image and do not seek to disrupt or destroy the status-quo of possible imaginings of human language and in turn the capacities of the human imagination; and also what appears to remain the most widely accepted model of producing editions and working on manuscripts and their mediation—that is, The work of the individual (as if still the myth of the individual genius auctor covertly survives for Editors of medieval texts who make “final decisions” and find “final solutions” to cruxes in what thus amounts to this authoritarian and totalitarian poetics of edition—or policing the borders of the actual exchange of modern writing, be it scholarly or ‘creative’ with the past).

That OE verse is mediated in contemporary poetry should perhaps be rationale enough to consider how a particular theory of poetics would effect our theories of the mediation of OE verse; yet, additionally, Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, and Robert Duncan lead me to re-think media not so much as ‘containers’ which deliver what they mediate and thus can be governed but as sites which arise out of and produce transfers of energy with the past, which, being open sites, produce and are produced by, collaborative efforts. Thus, with a black box around the theory for the sake of this synopsis, thinking mediation of Old English verse through the ‘Projective Verse’ poetics of the above poets becomes a way to think an alternative to two conservative practices of our discipline which emerge as linked in the end at least by what undoes them, if not by their shared relationship to a poetics of mediation in which media is a closed container that can and should be sealed by a single authoritative mind (be it by expertise or poetic transcendence, it does not matter).

Why these poetics? Already, in the 1940’s through the 60’s, despite what Charles’ Altieri called, in his early literary history “From Symbolist Thought to Immanence: The Ground of Postmodern American Poetics,” their “contemporary distrust of mediation,” a certain model of the poem proper to the so-called Black Mountain School abounded which offers an alterative way to think about the sites of mediation not as containers of information but as the locale of an exchange of human energies.[i] Some basic adding up of important dictums of the literary movement makes this clear. Over thirty years prior to Carolyn Dinshaw’s call for “getting medieval on—or with—your very breath,” a relation to the past in which “using ideas of the past, creating relations with the past, touching in this way the past in our efforts to build selves and communities now and into the future”[ii]—before this Olson called for poetry in which “History measures the intensity of the past by letting us see how past actions create energy for use by the presen`t”[iii]—in the sense of measuring is deeply connected to Olson’s own queer medium, the event of a breath which can hold in its measure of the poetic line the syllable, where the syllable is the queerly incestuous offspring of the brother-sister mind and ear,[iv] and the poem, rather than a medium containing a content, is a force of which we can only speak of “the kinetics of the thing. A poem is energy transferred from where the poet got it (he will have some several causations).” That is, for Olson, the breathed line of a poem was to mediate the past in its meters not so much by containing and bounding off a bit of the past ‘contained’ in the medium, as pigment is contained in a painting medium such as oil or egg tempera bases, but as an event of mediation. As regards material, and especially literary material of the past, Olson’s line would change the terms of how a medium could be conceived by expanding its possibilities to include a specific locale and event (the utterance of a line of poetry and its effects) and what exactly out thinking of mediation is supposed to conceptualize. Such a medium is not vehicle or container but a wholly new thing, a site of exchange of (affective) energy—a site, a locale. Thus Olson’s poetics are of what he called “COMPOSITION BY FIELD” in which objects “are made to hold, and to hold exactly inside the content and the context of the poem which has forced itself, through the poet and them, into being.” Thus a poem as mediation of the past, if we still insist on poetry as a medium, occurs as a site of a transfer of affective energies with the past, just as Olson is willing to versify the emphatic fragment “to build out of sound the wall/ of a city” and be happy to “use that word [history] to stand for city.[v] Robert Creeley writes, thinking of Robert Duncan’s The Opening of the Field, “The sense of that poem—that place” as a place [quoting H.D.] “I go where I love and am loved”, as ‘a very distinct and definite place, that poetry not only creates but itself issues from.”[vi] All of this is thus to bolster a much more succinct but expansive question governing my project: what is a possible poetics of Old English poetry in new media? How would poetics as the transfer of energy with the past issuing form and producing places productively displace our thought about the mediation of Old English in translations and digital editions? The poetics of mediation by Media Edition of Old English Verse and the translation of OE verse (which should probably be joined) who demand that the edition is not a sealed container to bring the past to you, but a site arising from and producing a transfer of affective energy with the past and thus must be A) a collaboratively produced site and a site producing collaboration so as to keep the transfers of energy going, the city built for and by the kinetic forces of collaboratively (not authorative-tarianly) reading, editing, and translating OE verse; and B) poetic, and radically so, which is to say, however much it risks verging on the impractical, not descriptive—as the descriptive too easily lends itself to the conceptualizing of the media as an accurate sealed container in the correspondence theory of truth. Kinetic force and not containment: “One breaks the line of aesthetics, or that outcrop of a general division of knowledge. A sense of the KINETIC impels recognition of force,” thus “A poetry denies its end in any descriptive act...Description does nothing, it includes the object—it neither hates nor loves.”[vii]

I have chosen a riddle with such MS damage because I hope it will leave a good deal of room for radical thought to go one in and around it, with its inherent potential to provoke speculative thought and demand incomplete and fragmentary editing and translating practices, alongside some work of speculation. This poem facilitates easily a first attempt of an edition desiring specifically to not be authoritative and ‘final’ in its solutions. How can a site of transfers of energy with the past arise as a digital/new media edition of Exeter Book Riddle 67 (ASPR numbering), which contains massive MS damage, making the process of editing difficult, much less the question of how to approach a translation? The apparatus must be set up so that it cannot be contained, nor its borders fuller policed, lacking an authoritarian structure—a gemot or a symbel and not a modern/capitalistic state—so there can be no final edition and thus no ‘final solutions’: a sort of multiplicity of scores for singing into place a heterotopia of scholarship under the guise of an edition of an OE poem. This would be one way, I hope, to facilitate an end both to the authoritarian model of editing, and to promote the mediation of OE verse in Radical Modern English poetry.

and, ps, I'll try to post some photo's of my own throughout and after the conference. I wanted to go to Newfoundland since I discovered it was a place while examining a globe in my third-grade classroom (that of Mrs. Loksa, Westerly School). So, dear north, don't let me down.

[i] The Black Mountain poets has an interesting attitude toward the page which shares a certain nearness with medieval reading styles, that is to conceive of the page a sort of musical score rather than the poem itself, and thus not truly a mediation of the poem, but a tool which allowed the poem to be performed, thus “One wants to write the poem, put it, as ultimately one would say it; the page is his means, not his end. If we grant that poetry must be relegated, finally, to what the eye can read, then we have no poetry” (Creeley, “A Note On Poetry,” Quick Graph, 27). Much as OE verse which, because of its shape on the page without punctuation or spacing, much be sounded out to be read, the Black Mountain Poets’ work must be sounded out on account of its spacing on the page as a score—another problem media theory cannot fully account for despite its sophistication re: digital media: “It is the advantage of the typewriter [and how much more the laptop and web browser!] that, due to its rigidity and its space precisions, it 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. For the first time the poet has the stave and the bar a musician has had...[so that] any reader, silently or otherwise, [is able] to voice his work,” “If a contemporary poet leaves a space as long as the phrase before it, he means that space to be held, by the breath, and equal length of time...” (Charles Olson “Projective Verse” (see below) 618).

[ii] Carolyn Dinshaw, Getting Medieval (Durham: Duke UP, 1999), 206.

[iii] Charles Altieri, 130.

[iv] Charles Olson, “Projective Verse,” in Postmodern American Poetry: A Norton Anthology, Ed. Paul Hoover (New York: Norton, 1994): “I say the syllable, king, and that it is spontaneous, this way: the ear, the ear which has collected, which has listened, the eat, which is so close to the mind that it is the mind’s that it has the mind’s speed...¶ it is close, another way: the mind is brother to the sister and is, because it is so close, is the drying force, the incest, the sharpening...¶ it is from the union of the mind and ear that the syllable is born. But the syllable is only the first child of the incest of verse...The other child is the LINE. And together, these twos, the syllable and the line, they make a poem.”

[v] Charles Olson, Causal Mythology (San Francisco: Four Seasons, 1969), 19.

[vi] Robert Creeley, “I’m Given to Write Poems,” in A Quick Graph: Collected Notes and essay, Ed. Donald Allen (San Francisco: Four Seasons Foundation, 1970), 63.

[vii] Creeley, “To Define” in A Quick Graph, 23.