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What do we mean when we say a poem is a machine? Part 1.

January 3, 2012 \pm\31 9:53 pm

In 1944, William Carlos Williams wrote an introduction to his book The Wedge in which he stated, “A poem is a small (or large) machine made of words.” You’ve probably heard this said before in some way, though it’s really a pretty vague metaphorical/conceptual statement despite its initial magnetism as an aesthetic definition, and Williams isn’t the first to have the idea, he was just the first to say it formally. Williams doesn’t do much to articulate what he means when he says a poem is machine made of words, (is it a simple machine? a complex machine? is machine synonymous with system? what are the implications for poem as machine vs. the better known bureaucratic power machine?) and really, Williams leaves it up to us to understand how literal he’s being, but he does say this: “It isn’t what he [the poet] says that counts as a work of art, it’s what he makes, with such intensity of perception that it lives with an intrinsic movement of its own to verify its authenticity.” So here we have a continuation of the “poem as machine” metaphor with words like “makes,” which suggests craft and external production, and “movement,” which brings to mind the inner workings of machines. When we say things in workshop like “This is where the poem really starts to move,” “Your poem picks up steam after these lines,” or “What is this poem doing?” we’re using the “poem as machine” metaphor, even if we don’t know it. So, based on what Williams is saying, “poem as machine” is a way of effectively killing the muse and railing against New Criticism’s obsession with the stability of a “text” (“What does it matter what the line ‘says’?” asks Williams). Also, Williams dismisses form for form’s sake, (“To me all sonnets says the same thing of no importance”), insisting that “There is no poetry of distinction without formal invention, for it is in the intimate form that works of art achieve their exact meaning, in which they most resemble the machine…” Many of the most interesting books of the second half of the 20th century adhere to Williams’ “formal invention” in some way, just think of Inger Christen’s alphabet or most of the New York School. This makes sense because one way we talk about form is as a generative device (and there we are using more mechanical language). But none of this really gets us closer to understanding how a poem is a machine or what kind of implications it has for how we write or read poetry. The one thing I want to avoid giving into saying is that “a poem is a machine” is only a metaphor. If it’s only a metaphor we’re not helping ourselves understand anything about what a poem is or can be or does. With that in mind, here are some quotes from or about writers who share something with Williams’ statement. Make what you will of them. I’m going to keep posting thoughts about this so who knows where we’ll end up.


“He [Daniil Kharms] kept a large machine at home, which he made of found scrap. When asked what it did, Kharms would retort, “Nothing. It’s just a machine.”
(Matvei Yankelevich, from the introduction to Today I Wrote Nothing)


“A single climb to a line, a straight exchange to a cane, a desperate adventure and courage and a clock, all this which is a system, which has feeling, which has resignation and success, all makes an attractive black silver.”
(Gertrude Stein, from Tender Buttons)


“Q: There are ten rules for operating the machine. The first rule is turn it on.
A: Turn it on.
Q: The second rule is to convert the terms. The third rule is to rotate the inputs. The fourth rule is you have made a serious mistake.
A: What do I do?
Q: You send the appropriate error message.”
(Donald Barthelme, from “The Explanation” in City Life)


“[Jack] Spicer delighted in provocative and incongruous combinations. His statements are mercurial, and his lines refuse to be pinned down to a single register. His poems repeatedly disrupt even their own procedures by jamming the frequencies of meaning they set up. They make use of his life-long fascination with games and systems: bridge, baseball, chess, pinball, computers, magic, religion, politics, and linguistics.”
(Peter Gizzi and Kevin Killian, from the introduction to My Vocabulary Did This To Me: The Collected Poetry of Jack Spicer)


“But poems / are not museums, // they are machines / made of words, / you pour as best // you can your attention / in and in you the poetic / state of mind is produced // said one of the many / French poets with whom / I feel I must agree.”
(Matthew Zapruder, from “Come on All You Ghosts” in Come on All You Ghosts)


“To know that the poem is a new form of technology and you are a bag or an owl. And so maybe you will express some confused anger or maybe you will need to repeat yourself.”
(Heather Christle, in Slope issue 26)

  1. January 4, 2012 \am\31 3:07 am 3:07 am

    I always thought of the machine label as being more about motion (and self-containment) than about actually churning something out. I kind of like the idea of poem as product of itself. Is that Proustian? I’ve never been able to use the word Proustian before (except in reference to my toddler nephew).

    I am eager for part 2. Not sure if I buy that the machine label’s not just metaphorical. This is where I get conservative, maybe.

  2. dpcoffey permalink
    January 4, 2012 \am\31 9:56 am 9:56 am

    I assume you mean, by virtue of its absence, that you’re saying Marinetti’s work and Futurism in general is a given?

  3. January 4, 2012 \am\31 10:24 am 10:24 am

    dpcoffey, I wanted to start with Williams because his articulation of the idea is the most common way the idea comes up. I’m going to go back to Futurism and the Russian Absurdists, move up through the New York School, look at more unique poets since, and then bring it contemporary. Hope you keeping reading.

  4. dpcoffey permalink
    January 4, 2012 \am\31 10:38 am 10:38 am

    I will, thanks! I was just re-reading some of Marinetti’s manifestos yesterday, getting ready for a Spring seminar, so the blog post jumped out at me.


  5. Matthew Zapruder permalink
    January 6, 2012 \am\31 11:22 am 11:22 am

    hey Nick, the poet I am referring to in that poem is Paul Valery: from his essay “Poetry and Abstract Thought,” which you can read in many places, including the anthology Poetry in Theory (ed. Jon Cook). “A poem is really a kind of machine for producing the poetic state of mind by means of words.” He goes on to express many interesting thoughts resulting from this idea. What is important to Valery, and Williams, is I think not what the individual line signifies, i.e. its importance beyond some kind of literal or semantic reading (without which a reader will be lost and just leave the poem), but how it fits into the larger purpose of placing the reader into the poetic state of mind. This way of looking at poetry is very useful when thinking Ashbery for instance. Thanks for the post, I look forward to reading more.

    • January 6, 2012 \am\31 11:38 am 11:38 am

      This is really helpful, Matthew. It’s easy to get caught up in the machine-idea conceptually, and I like getting all tangled in it, but Valery’s approach seems like the kind of straight-forward understanding that will help balance all this out.

      • Matthew Zapruder permalink
        January 6, 2012 \am\31 11:53 am 11:53 am

        well, you don’t seem too tangled up to me! I just thought I should let people know where I got the idea from. I think Williams might have gotten it from Valery as well. I look forward to reading more.

  6. January 6, 2012 \pm\31 3:06 pm 3:06 pm

    There is a distinction to make between “machine” and “mechanism” — “a natural or established process by which something takes place or is brought about” is the online OED’s number two for “mechanism”, though one and three there may apply, as well.

    I suppose my vote is for “Poems are mechanisms working toward the greater understanding of the human ‘machine’.”

    Or something like that.

    • January 6, 2012 \pm\31 5:24 pm 5:24 pm

      Hi William. You’re right about needing to make a distinction, especially if we’re talking about a machine as an engine or a machine in a factory. Part 3 is going to work towards a broader definition of “machine” that will hopefully make the need for this distinction unnecessary.

  7. January 9, 2012 \am\31 10:40 am 10:40 am

    Thanks for your thought-provoking post, Nick.

    I wonder (of course!) if it’s possible to think about the relation of the poetic turn to the machinery that is the poem. Such a connection seems appropriate. Turns constitute a great portion of how poems move, and, in fact, to use your words, “When we say things in workshop like ‘This is where the poem really starts to move,’ ‘Your poem picks up steam after these lines,’ or ‘What is this poem doing?'” we very often are not only “using the ‘poem as machine’ metaphor,” but we’re also often talking about turns, “even if we don’t know it.”

    And Williams loved turns. In his introduction to Merrill Moore’s Sonnets from New Directions, Williams, somewhat shocked that he liked Moore’s sonnets as much as he did, focuses on the volta as the source of his transformation; Williams praises Moore for “destroying the rigidities of the old form” and for making him see that “[t]he sonnet…is not and has never been a form at all of any fixed sense other than that incident upon a certain turn of mind. It is the extremely familiar dialogue unit upon which all dramatic writing is founded: a statement, then a rejoinder of a sort, perhaps a direct reply, perhaps a variant of the original–but a comeback of one sort or another–which Dante and his contemporaries had formalized in their day and language.”



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