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What do we mean when we say a poem is a machine? Part 3.

January 8, 2012 \pm\31 2:17 pm

When Marinetti and the Futurists thought of a machine, they thought of a literal machine: a car, a train, an engine. WWI, mass industrialization, and the growth of cities in the early 20th century contributed to a widespread cementing of the idea of a machine strictly as a mechanical apparatus. But a poem isn’t a mechanical apparatus. It’s made of moving parts, in a sense, but those parts aren’t tangible in the way that gears or pistons are. That’s why the distinction between Marinetti’s mechanical obsessions and Williams’ thought that a poem is a machine “made of words” is so crucial. The first is a desire for a poem to function in the manner of a machine. The second presumes that a poem is itself a machine. But what is a machine?

In A Thousand Machines, Gerald Raunig notes that “[t]he commonplace concept of the machine, however, refers to a technical object, which can be precisely determined in its physical demarcation and seclusion, as well as in its usability for a purpose. Regardless of how these characteristics may be verified today, the machine was once conceptualized quite differently, namely as a complex composition and as an assemblage that specifically could not be grasped and defined through its utilization.” A poem is certainly “a complex composition,” this is a given, and, especially if you’ve been reading your Wittgenstein (i.e. the irrational as a way to meaning), “an assemblage that specifically could not be grasped and defined through its utilization.” This definition seems to really open up our understanding of what we mean when we say a poem is a machine. However, the introduction of utility raising new questions, mainly calling into question the nature and function of language. In some sense, this original definition of machine, which Raunig says persisted until a more strict mechanical sense of the word developed in the 13th century, sounds a lot like Negative Capability. One should not need “fact or reason,” or to experience anything useful, to know and feel something. So based on Raunig’s definition, which ties in to Keats’ belief in mystery and Wittgenstein’s inquiry into the nature of language, a poem is a machine because it is a “complex composition” that resists utility. But doesn’t “an assemblage that specifically could not grasped and defined through it’s utilization” sound like a definition of collage? or Abstract Expressionism? or experimental film? or any kind of process that incorporates disjunctive elements? And what the hell kind of machine is a machine that lacks pragmatic use, that is a machine because it isn’t a machine? The best kind.

Matvei Yankelevich writes in the introduction to Today I Wrote Nothing, “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.’” Kharm’s direct dismissal of logic and utility is indicative of the larger aims of the OBERIU, a small group of writers also known as the Russian Absurdists, who formulated their own avant-garde aesthetic in the wake of Russian modernism from the late 1920s to early 1930s. In the introduction to OBERIU: An Anthology of Russian Absurdism, Eugene Ostashevsky describes the group’s interest in intuition and rejection of metaphor in order to write alogist texts that critiqued what they called “human language,” which Ostashevsky refers to as “normative language,” terms that are synonymous with Wittgenstein’s interest in the limits of “everyday language.” Causality, quantity, succession, grammar, and metaphor were “regarded as constituting the single system by which we (mis)cognize the world, in that our understanding mistakes cognitive relations for unknown real relations among objects and mistakes properties of language for properties of the world. Therefore, to see the world as it really is, we must first destabilize language.” In this way, the OBERIU writers are often called absurdists because their poems, stories, and plays revel in narrative, semantic, and syntactic discontinuity. Furthermore, Ostashevsky notes that “OBERIU poets often use meter and rhyme to generate lines, especially when such lines are nonsensical,” echoing Williams’ belief that with “formal invention” poems “most resemble the machine.” As Kharms’ comment makes clear, that their machines didn’t have to “do” anything is completely in line with Raunig’s broader definition of machine. Here is part of one of Kharms’ machines, the second section of the poem “The Ewe,” translated from the Russian by Ostashevsky:


Do you know the white ewe

do you believe the white ewe

stands in its crowns by the stove

and same identical as you

As if I were friends with you

as if it were bright crowns I held

you are above us and then I

and then a house on three pillars

and higher yet the white ewe

walks the white ewe.


The OBERIU’s reliance on negative theology (a machine is a machine that does not act like a machine, “the only way we can get closer to time is to understand that we do not understand it”) is one in the same with their belief that human/normative/everyday language is incapable of communicating any truth about the world. That OBERIU texts redefine cognitive associations and semantic structures will come back into this discussion when we get to more contemporary writers such as Inger Christensen and Lisa Jarnot.

The main OBERIU writers along with Kharms were Alexander Vvendsky and Nikolai Zabolotsky. Here is an animation of Vvenensky’s “Frother,” written in 1936-37:


The next post will move into the New York School as a continuation of the OBERIU’s interest in intuitive, formally inventive, nonobjective poetry and Raunig’s definition of machine.

One Comment
  1. January 9, 2012 \am\31 9:01 am 9:01 am

    I hope you’ll talk a little about WCW’s connection thru Emerson as well: “For it is not metres, but a metre-making argument, that makes a poem, — a thought so passionate and alive, that, like the spirit of a plant or an animal, it has an architecture of its own, and adorns nature with a new thing.”

    In Stephen Burt’s piece on “The New Thing,” he never mentions Emerson.

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