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What do we mean when we say a poem is a machine? Part 9: Heather Christle

April 9, 2012 \am\30 9:11 am

Heather Christle responds to the question “What do we mean when we say a poem is a machine?”


There is no such thing as only a metaphor. Our bodies move through the literal and the figurative simultaneously, as experiments in embodiment cognition have proven. For instance, researchers at Yale discovered that literal warmth affects subjects’ perceptions of a person’s figurative warmth, as scientist Robert Sapolsky describes:

“Volunteers would meet one of the experimenters, believing that they would be starting the experiment shortly. In reality, the experiment began when the experimenter, seemingly struggling with an armful of folders, asks the volunteer to briefly hold their coffee. As the key experimental manipulation, the coffee was either hot or iced. Subjects then read a description of some individual, and those who had held the warmer cup tended to rate the individual as having a warmer personality, with no change in ratings of other attributes.”

Similar experiments have shown links between literal and metaphorical perceptions of weight, disgust, and pain. So when Williams and Valéry write that a poem is a machine, I am happy to take them at their word. There is no other place from which to take them. (I am tempted here to make an argument for the uselessness of the ironic/sincere binary, which resembles that of the literal and metaphorical, but will hold my tongue—seriously, against my physical cheek—for now.) This is a beginning. Where next should we go?


It seems wise to approach making a poem as building a machine whose doings one cannot wholly predict or understand. If the poem is a transmitting machine (and I think that it is), then part of its work is to absorb and make use of the noise it encounters in transmission. The poem moves through time and space. The world through which it moves constantly changes, and, on a smaller scale, the thoughts and surroundings of the poem’s recipients constantly change as well. Even a reader’s immediate physical environment gets encoded into her reading of the poem. The particular light of the subway car where I first read Anthony McCann’s Moongarden is forever shining into those pages.

Before I was a reader I was an abstraction, imagined by everyone who has ever written anything I’ve read. As I step out of the abstract I bring with me noise. I am covered in it; it lets me become specific. Anthony McCann did not imagine me in particular, but the machines of his poems have room for me in them. They have room for the light I was in. And then what?


From the first moment a poem is read, its energy begins to dissipate into the world. We do not have to imagine this process as loss. It is possible to imagine it as how a poem changes the world.

The incorporation of noise is part of how our poems dissipate. To return to Spicer, whom Nick Sturm mentions in this post:

“But things decay, reason argues. Real things become garbage. The piece of lemon you shellac to the canvas begins to develop a mold, the newspaper tells of incredibly ancient events in forgotten slang, the boy becomes a grandfather. Yes, but the garbage of the real world still reaches out into the current world, making its object, in turn, visible—lemon calls to lemon, newspaper to newspaper, boy to boy. As things decay they bring their equivalents into being.”

To live with the knowledge of this decay can be surprisingly reassuring. I am decaying even now, as are my poems. Of course a poem can be reproduced, but its reproduction will not leave its energy unchanged. Every second it is a different world, with different noise to affect the poem’s transmission. Or, as Spicer continues in his third letter to Lorca:

“…every place and every time has a real object to correspond with your real object—that lemon may become this lemon, or it may even become this piece of seaweed, or this particular color of gray in the ocean.”

A poem moves through the world, into the bodies of its readers, bringing with it the noise of its correspondences. And then the noise is not just noise, but gets absorbed into the message. The noise becomes a part of the news.


Nick, in his first post on this subject, mentions Matvei Yankelevich’s anecdote about Daniil Kharms’ machine, “which he made of found scrap. When asked what it did, Kharms would retort, ‘nothing. It’s just a machine.’” That machine did not do “nothing,” though; it made people ask about its purpose. It was a question-producer. Or perhaps its work was to make Kharms make it in the first place.

This is (just) to say what if, in the way that a basketball is a machine that makes players jump, poems are machines whose work is to make us write them?


Heather Christle is the author of What Is Amazing (Wesleyan University Press), The Trees The Trees (Octopus Books, 2011), The Difficult Farm (Octopus Books, 2009), and a chapbook, The Seaside! (Minutes Books, 2010). Her poems have appeared in publications including The Believer, Boston Review, Gulf Coast, and The New Yorker. She has taught at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and at Emory University, where she was the 2009-2011 Creative Writing Fellow in Poetry. She is the Web Editor for jubilat and frequently a writer in residence at the Juniper Summer Writing Institute. A native of Wolfeboro, New Hampshire, she lives in Western Massachusetts.


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