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What do we mean when we say a poem is a machine? Part 10: Danniel Schoonebeek

April 30, 2012 \am\30 9:47 am



I can see him, Woodrow Wilson Guthrie, standing over his guitar with a black can of paint. I can hear the radio inside the dressing room. Hitler invades Soviet. Stalin joins forces with Allies. I can see Woody pacing the floor, waiting to walk out onstage and painting the words on his instrument for the first time in his life:

this machine kills fascists


I’m told Guthrie stole this slogan from the flank of a fighter plane that flew in the Spanish Civil War. And I’m told that the Good Doctor, William Carlos Williams, when he wrote that a poem is a machine made of words—he stole this slogan himself from Paul Valéry:

A poem is really a kind of machine for producing the poetic state of mind by means of words.


I want to state that I disagree with all three of these men. Leaving aside for the moment that Guthrie could have stove in the skull of a fascist with his guitar if history were different, a guitar is not a machine that kills fascists. Nor is a poem a machine: try as one might, one can’t whisk eggs with a poem or drive one’s children to school in one. But there is a greater threat to art contained in this word, this machine, that reaches beyond the dictionary. In the same way that a blender must blend or a plane must fly, or drop bombs, in order to fulfill the duties of a blender or plane, calling a guitar or poem a machine is to say that both guitars and poems, in order to earn their names, must fulfill not only a purpose, but a command.

Here is the Good Doctor again on poets and machines: “It isn’t what [a 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.” I can’t help but linger on this idea of intrinsic movement. A plane in the air or a guitar that can be tuned to its proper notes and played according to the rules of song—do these machines possess intrinsic movement?

I am thinking of René Magritte and his pipe. Ceci n’est pas une pipe he famously scrawled beneath it in The Treachery of Images. A guitar or a plane that possesses the ability to serve its purpose, to follow the commands impressed upon it—how much intrinsic movement does such a machine have?

I say it has none.

Despite the potential they both possess, each machine requires a person who knows how to manipulate the machine to take them somewhere, be it Granada or “Revolution #9.” But a pipe that can’t be filled with tobacco or smoked, a guitar that can’t be strung, a plane without wings, these are machines with intrinsic movement precisely because they refuse to be taken anywhere. They deny the purpose of the machine and so they are neither guitar, nor plane, nor pipe.

Willem de Kooning, as much a lover of black paint as Guthrie, put it another way: “Art is the thing you cannot make.”


In a poem I published last year, entitled “Telegram,” in which my father speaks to me about poetry as a kind of work, a kind of machine, that can save him where his own work as a painter and his machines, like the tractor with which he digs a pond, have failed to satisfy him, he speaks the following line:

This machine I brought you here to build will destroy me because it isn’t a machine.

For a man who places a certain amount of trust in the ability of machines to fulfill their purpose and obey the commands we impress upon them, the trauma is thus: a poem destroys this trust because it refuses to be commanded. It can be taken nowhere but by its own intrinsic movement.

To say it another way: a poem is a machine that refuses to be a machine.

And so I return to Guthrie and Williams. I find a riotous and beautiful conflict in what each man is saying about his machine. It’s an absurdist line of reasoning and I have to agree. Guthrie’s guitar alone is not a machine that kills fascists—it’s a machine that plays music. But like Magritte’s pipe, the moment Guthrie writes his slogan upon his guitar, the instrument disobeys its command. Precisely because the instrument won’t and cannot kill fascists, it becomes a machine that refuses to fulfill the purpose it has been given. So too with Williams. He does not say simply that a poem is a machine. It is a machine made of words. By his very definition, it is a machine that cannot be made and therefore cannot have a purpose or command impressed upon it.

To say it once more, to write it here in de Kooning and Guthrie’s black paint:

A poem is the machine you cannot make


Danniel Schoonebeek was born in the Catskills. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Tin House, Boston Review, Gulf Coast, Colorado Review, Crazyhorse, Kenyon Review, La Petite Zine, The Awl, Publishers WeeklyThe Rumpus, and elsewhere. With poet Allyson Paty, he is the author of Torch Songs, a series of collaborative poems. He hosts the Hatchet Job reading series in Brooklyn.





  1. splabman permalink
    April 30, 2012 \am\30 11:53 am 11:53 am

    What an intelligent essay. My friend Sam and I were just arguing about this last week, WCW’s notion that is. Sam said I’m to hung up on notions of the organic, but you had the comback I wanted to write and brought in Woody and WCW’s source. Good for you. I told Sam that WCW could have easily leaned on D.H. Lawrence: “Evil is Mechanical” but no. & Woody, God Bless him, could have racheted down the rhetoric, but we would not be talking about it today if he had, so let’s just try to be a little more precise with our language, think twice about our metaphors (if we MUST use them).

  2. May 10, 2012 \am\31 1:25 am 1:25 am

    This is so beautiful! I love the way you kinda enact yr argument by making/remaking/rewriting that poem-is-a-machine statement throughout the essay.


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