The Animated Reader
Edited by Brian Droitcour
New Museum, 209 pp.
Only to man Thou hast made known Thy ways,
And put the pen alone into his hand,
And made him secretary of Thy praise.
—George Herbert, “Praise”
Praise may not be the purpose—however we are gendered—but certain secretarial duties definitely have pride of place among the tasks of people who write poetry in 2015.
Transcripts of bureaucratic work—traffic reports, Twitter feeds, financial documents, tallies, translations, lists, doodles, passive recordings and dictations, correspondence, filing, the making of copies—are now frequent strategies of the writer formerly known as Poet.
You can find an excellent introduction to the work of some of the leading lyrical secretaries of the moment in The Animated Reader, a new (not) anthology of (not) poetry published as part of Surround Audience, Lauren Cornell and Ryan Trecartin’s much-discussed 2015 New Museum Triennial.
The Animated Reader was edited by poet Brian Droitcour, who writes in his introduction: “While it’s called a ‘poetry book’…there are prose poems, short fiction, performance scripts, and, most strikingly, text excerpted from social-media platforms presented as a feed that runs through the book, asserting the possibility of poetic experience in everyday language and defining poetry as a social act while reimagining the fragment as a poetic genre.”
I have to admit there is something delicious about the editor of an anthology committed to breaking down hierarchies and established conventions having a last name that means “court of law.” But the thought I was most consumed with while I read the range of texts Droitcour brought together was the strange kinship these writers had with the “metaphysical poets” of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries—damn good writers who could be, and still are, an acquired taste. What Dryden said then about John Donne—that “he affects the metaphysics” and “perplexes the minds” with “speculations of philosophy”—could definitely be said of the aspirations of many writers included here.
It was Samuel Johnson who came up with the label “metaphysical poets.” The term was less praise than a chance for Johnson to throw some shade at poets, however different from one another, who seemed to choose ideas over sound, rigors over joy: “The most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together; nature and art are ransacked for illustrations, comparisons, and allusions; their learning instructs, and their subtilty surprises; but the reader commonly thinks his improvement dearly bought, and, though he sometimes admires, is seldom pleased.”
Edification at a price, admiration outweighing pleasure. Oh, the more things change… Although Droitcour calls the work in The Animated Reader “conceptual” rather than “metaphysical,” it shares similar impulses to philosophy, similar disregard for easy beauty that made Johnson so skeptical.
But what do we want from poetry? The writers in The Animated Reader certainly mess with many happy assumptions. Tweets from several of Trecartin’s artist and writer friends thread through the other collected texts. From Steve Roggenbuck:
“Writers should…” / “Good poetry is…” /all / these / pointless / rule’s / tht make writing / no fun // i sugest / just MAKE THINGS YOU LOVE / . /the End
Later, from a poem/translation collaboration between Hiromi Ito and Jeffrey Angles:
We want to show contempt for language as nothing more than raw material…We will replace words mechanically and make sentences impossible in real / life / That is replacing words mechanically and making sentences impossible in / real life / Rip off meaning / Sound remains
And from Bela Shayevich:
I think I put it a good way the other day where I was explaining to someone I said, “translators are expected to not only be faithful to the ‘original text’—i.e. the voice of a whole nother human, but also to ‘standardized language’ like what the fuck is that? Can you imagine that anyone speaks anything other than their very own English?”
Taking a particularly difficult-to-love stance within the heterodox poetics of our time (the many different arguments over what a poem is, what poetry should try to do, and whether it’s possible or pointless to decide if individual poems are any good), The Animated Reader makes clear that eloquence, reverence, and lyrical beauty fit in its pages only with suspicion and distain.
Most of the texts in the book are deliberately not lovely or memorable. What they possess, though, is the eloquence of a certain accuracy: they measure something profound about very real ruptures happening in our literary culture, changes in even our most rudimentary linguistic habits, in our attempts to communicate with one another.
I read both a printed copy and a PDF of the book and actually preferred it on my screen, not flipping pages but scrolling down a stream of text glowing without obvious beginning or end. The roll of words felt more urgent, unsettling, and less clearly directed than reading left to right with the heft and habit of a book in my hand. Creating a feeling of awkward uncertainty about where we stand with what someone else has written is one of the book’s great strengths.
But rather than belaboring clichés of anxiety about the onslaught of image, information, text, and noise we’re encountering in contemporary life, or the speed with which technologies are disrupting and destroying anything fleetingly familiar enough to be called “our” culture, the writers in The Animated Reader have chosen simply to jump in the chaotic stream and see where it goes.
Will they drown? No more likely than anyone who hopes the levies of traditional literary culture might hold. At the very least—even if little of the work here will hit you hard in the heart, gut, or head—what you will experience is the unnerving feeling of being in the swim with writers willing to risk dishevelment, breathlessness, and occasional incomprehensibility. There’s a thrill to be found in the urgent demands they put on themselves to say something, anything that might (not?) be poetry now. Here’s how Roman Osminkin puts it:
abbreviate, use acronyms / be lucid and convincing / and finish your poem already / maybe / you / can still / save someone.