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The Poem Electric

Technology and the American Lyric

2018
Author:

Seth Perlow

The Poem Electric

An enlightening examination of the relationship between poetry and the information technologies increasingly used to read and write it

Examining a broad array of electronics—from radio to telephone to modern-day web browsers—Seth Perlow considers how these technologies transform poems that aren’t normally considered “digital.” Posing a necessary challenge to the privilege of information in the digital humanities, Perlow develops new ways of reading poetry, alongside and against the electronic equipment that is now ubiquitous in our world.

What happens to the lyric imagination in our new ‘computational environment’? Seth Perlow confronts a central paradox of postmodernity: a poem, on the one hand understood as ‘a small (or large) machine made of words’ (William Carlos Williams), is, on the other, devoted to resisting the inherent rationalism of that machine. Indeed, the ‘afterlife of the lyric,’ as Perlow argues in a series of fascinating case studies ranging from Emily Dickinson to Jackson Mac Low and Amiri Baraka, is one of lyric exemption—the resistance to absorption into normative discourse channels. Frank O’Hara’s poems, for example, may well claim to be ‘like’ telephone calls, but their actual articulation is one of depersonalization and replacement rather than imitation. Casting a wide net, The Poem Electric is a highly original investigation of how ‘electronics enable poets and their readers to animate and rework, rather than reject and surpass, familiar lyric norms.’

Marjorie Perloff, author of Radical Artifice and Unoriginal Genius

Many poets and their readers believe poetry helps us escape straightforward, logical ways of thinking. But what happens when poems confront the extraordinarily rational information technologies that are everywhere in the academy, not to mention everyday life?

Examining a broad array of electronics—including the radio, telephone, tape recorder, Cold War–era computers, and modern-day web browsers—Seth Perlow considers how these technologies transform poems that we don’t normally consider “digital.” From fetishistic attachments to digital images of Emily Dickinson’s manuscripts to Jackson Mac Low’s appropriation of a huge book of random numbers originally used to design thermonuclear weapons, these investigations take Perlow through a revealingly eclectic array of work, offering both exciting new voices and reevaluations of poets we thought we knew.

With close readings of Gertrude Stein, Frank O’Hara, Amiri Baraka, and many others, The Poem Electric constructs a distinctive lineage of experimental writers, from the 1860s to today. Ultimately, Perlow mounts an important investigation into how electronic media allows us to distinguish poetic thought from rationalism. Posing a necessary challenge to the privilege of information in the digital humanities, The Poem Electric develops new ways of reading poetry, alongside and against the electronic equipment that is now ubiquitous in our world.

The Poem Electric

Seth Perlow is assistant teaching professor of English at Georgetown University. He edited Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons: The Corrected Centennial Edition, which earned a Seal of Approval from the MLA Committee on Scholarly Editions.

The Poem Electric

What happens to the lyric imagination in our new ‘computational environment’? Seth Perlow confronts a central paradox of postmodernity: a poem, on the one hand understood as ‘a small (or large) machine made of words’ (William Carlos Williams), is, on the other, devoted to resisting the inherent rationalism of that machine. Indeed, the ‘afterlife of the lyric,’ as Perlow argues in a series of fascinating case studies ranging from Emily Dickinson to Jackson Mac Low and Amiri Baraka, is one of lyric exemption—the resistance to absorption into normative discourse channels. Frank O’Hara’s poems, for example, may well claim to be ‘like’ telephone calls, but their actual articulation is one of depersonalization and replacement rather than imitation. Casting a wide net, The Poem Electric is a highly original investigation of how ‘electronics enable poets and their readers to animate and rework, rather than reject and surpass, familiar lyric norms.’

Marjorie Perloff, author of Radical Artifice and Unoriginal Genius

Seth Perlow presents a magnificent challenge to the current fashion of ‘big data’ and mathematized literary analysis. The Poem Electric shows how qualitative, lyric intensities embody dispositions that are of indispensable value to us, and which are in productive tension with the world of screens and memes that we inhabit. It represents a wonderful challenge to so many of our assumptions about the value of technology to the humanities and the place of the lyric in our technologized lifeworlds.

Joel Nickels, author of World Literature and the Geographies of Resistance

By examining the ‘afterlives of the lyric’ through their relation to modern positivism—or, more accurately, the ‘equipment’ of rationalism—Seth Perlow ventures into territory rarely visited by theorists and critics. He seeks to identify the rationalized ‘objecthood’ of the lyric poem by pairing it with a series of electronic tools. He does so by repeatedly tracing a dialectical movement by which poetry’s ‘exemption from rationalism’ is exposed as a fallacy by its transactions with various devices and emblems of techno-rationalism: digital archives of audio and visual files, for example, or computer-generated lists of random numbers. Perlow’s critical anatomies can produce startling effects, as when his examination of the figure of the telephone in Frank O’Hara’s poetry reveals not O’Hara’s ebullient sociality (as we have been taught to believe), but a disturbing condition of anonymity and a-sociality. Remarkable for its close reflections and readings of unfamiliar texts, The Poem Electric helps to articulate a field of compelling interest.

Daniel Tiffany, author of Toy Medium: Materialism and Modern Lyric*

The Poem Electric

Contents
Acknowledgments
Introduction: Technologies of Lyric Exemption
1. Affect: The Possessions of Emily Dickinson
2. Chance: Gertrude Stein, Jackson Mac Low, and A Million Random Digits
3. Anonymity: Frank O’Hara Makes Strangers with Friends
4. Improvisation: Amirit Baraka, Allen Ginsberg, and Spontaneous Poetics
Conclusion: Lyric and Objecthood
Notes
Index