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Gnoetry responses

January 2007

Edison Jennings

These poems (?), while impossible to read, nevertheless do engage and implicate the reader's expectations and societal presumptions by demonstrating that in a syntactical social-sexual context, signifiers—let's just call them words—can slip all over the page(s), proving, I suppose, that syntax, insofar as it ventures to represent socio-sexual contracts and expectations, informs or shapes semantical properties and expectations, thus becoming protean, largely dependent upon the reader's expectations and desires, which, by the way, the structures of the poems constantly frustrate: language as uncertainty principle, if you like, undermining the reader's predilection for coherence.

Yet—and here I get to reveal myself as hidebound and reactionary (counter-revolutionary?)—to put it bluntly, reader-response plays an insignificant role in the creation of good poetry. Good poetry, rather, permits a circumscribed range of meaningful reader responses, and doubtless, the good poet is aware of, even orchestrates and circumscribes, multifarious responses at some stage in the creative process. Once upon a time, and a very fine time it was, good poetry's propensity to refract a variety of valid responses was called paradox and irony. But—and this is a big but (ha-ha)—artistic paradox and irony were required to bear fruit, the Edenic apple. (Poetry is post-lapsarian. Frost knew that. Hell, who knows, maybe poetry was/is the apple. Yum!) Technological prowess? Well, you're asking the wrong person because I haven't any.... But I suppose the very structure of computer language must mimic, in a Chomskyian sense, the creative facility of language accorded via syntax, and cleverly manipulated, technological prowess can play sly tricks on syntax and thus subvert content, which is to say the tendency of syntax to shape semantics. No doubt, this has valid socio-sexual implications, but I have reservations about its artistic efficacy.

Gender informs the production and reception of work such as this in every way, and I must once again draw the Heisenbergian analogy. Expectation shapes results, and expectations of the reader (observer) define or shape that which is read (the observed). Quantum physics meets lit crit. These poems, if they are in fact poems, demonstrate this point nicely. We tend to pin the lighter-than-air/floating pronouns/signifiers to gender-specific antecedents/signifieds. Of course, Shakespeare was doing this in the Sixteenth Century. However, it is a point worth demonstrating. (By the way, I like to think I was in on the joke by the third poem in the collection.)

Tracy Mishkin


My first response to the gnoems was disappointment. I deeply dislike this obscure type of poetry because I believe a poem must speak to the reader, not around the reader or over his or her head. Therefore, pure language or sounds without meaning cannot be poetry, in my opinion. If a poet wants the reader to get meaning out of a poem, he or she makes it accessible in some way. For example, a title can help do this. The reader can often get a clue to the meaning from the title, but of course these gnoems were titled by their incomprehensible first lines.

I am now glad to know that these pieces were generated by a computer with some human assistance and not actually written by a person. It’s a relief to know that no person is having such awful poetry published. I’m no fan of the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry of the 1970s and other schools that say sense is less important than sound, which is the end result of Gnoetry. The creators of this project try to celebrate their so-called accomplishment by making grandiose statements about freedom, but when I think about the meaning of freedom and how it functions within societal constraints, I find Gnoetry to be dangerous, a false freedom.

The authors write that Gnoetry is an author or co-author “that is truly and fantastically free within its constraints” because it doesn't have the presuppositions of the human mind. That is like saying suicide will set you free, for what is poetry without the human mind? This project is essentially poetic suicide.

What is freedom? This question leads me to wonder about our goals as human beings and how we wish to live. I always enjoyed Satan in Paradise Lost because he is a well-drawn character with impassioned speeches, but what would happen if he won his war against God? What kind of society would he create for his fellow devils?

Total freedom is not a good thing. Most people don’t believe in anarchy, no matter what they think of governmental and societal restrictions on their lives. Children want rules, and so do societies and readers of poems. Freedom must be balanced with responsibility, or one will wake up with a terrible hangover. What would be the life expectancy of a state with no seat belt and helmet laws? Would you move there? Would you leave if it were your state because the absence of laws would degrade your ability to make good choices?

Gnoetry smacks of 21st century pseudo-Romanticism, as if the authors have absorbed only the foolishness of the 19th century and not its wisdom. It is, at best, ironic that the authors use words such as “free” and “dignity” to describe these works of Gnoetry and that Milton's Paradise Lost was one of the source texts. The freedom they speak of is the same freedom Satan offered his fellow angels in their revolt against God. Here is your chance to become the “final author,” says the devil. We know what happened to those who followed him.

Asserting that limitations on freedom make good sense goes hand in hand with focusing on the primacy of meaning in poetry. Poetry needs limits as well. A poem cannot mean anything one likes, and poems that attempt this, like Gnoetry, leave many readers repelled, hating poetry or indifferent to it. The difficult poetry of Modernism turned many people away from poetry (some say deliberately to preserve it for the elite). Gnoetry would accomplish this tenfold by being not just difficult to understand but deliberately impossible.

The authors comment that “the reader [of Gnoetry] is the final determiner of what meaning there might be” and thus “the reader's job is made easier.” Quite the opposite. If the poems are unreadable, there is no meaning and the reader is left in a funk. Readers make meaning out of interaction with the poem, which presupposes an authorial presence.

When you read a poem by a human being, it was written with certain ideas in mind that may or may not be clear to the reader. To understand and appreciate the poem, one doesn't have to know exactly what the author was thinking, but one is aided by the fact that a state of mind existed to which one could possibly relate.

When I wrote the poem “Perpetual Motion,” for example, I was thinking about a child who died in a car accident, but that is not mentioned in the poem, which depicts the effects of illness and exhaustion on completely unrelated people. Readers don't need to know about the child’s death because they can grasp the mood and meaning of the poem from what's on the page and their sense of a consistent human mind behind the poem. It is clearly a sad and desperate poem. Would the authors of Gnoetry have us believe that one could legitimately interpret it as a happy one? No English professor wants to hear that college students have a legitimate argument when they claim a poem can mean anything one wants it to mean.

Perpetual Motion

And you, God, how long?
Psalm 6

Look at us, rolling stones, wary of rest,
for once to sit down is never to leave
the couch. Off to night class, you shoulder
your backpack like a draft horse settling
into the traces. You are ill and tired,
but your back is still strong.

I’m hearing voices, seeing bugs scuttle
across the floor. High water, yes,
and rising. How long can I hold on?
The long summer of despair is ending,
the slow decline of fall beckons.
Sound of a horn behind us, not the ram’s horn
but a car’s, wailing as if it could warn us
of the slow-motion accident we call the future.

The authors state that Gnoetry is “open-ended with meaning,” not “ambiguous in meaning,” which supposedly makes it better than traditional poetry. With ambiguity, a poem, or part of a poem, has more than one meaning. The authors claim that when people read Gnoetry, they will conclude, “it means everything, so I have to choose what I want it to mean.” Alas, instead, it makes me say, “it means nothing and I choose not to waste my time looking for meaning that is not and never will be there.” The busy citizens of the Twenty-First Century who wish to read poetry that adds meaning to their lives deserve better than Gnoetry has to offer.




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