Thursday, April 22, 2010

Copycats, innovators, and slaves of the past: on being "post-all-of-that"

"... invaluable though innovation may be, our relentless focus on it may be obscuring the value of its much-maligned relative, imitation. Imitation has always had a faintly disreputable ring to it — presidents do not normally give speeches extolling the virtues of the copycat. But where innovation brings new things into the world, imitation spreads them; where innovators break the old mold, imitators perfect the new one; and while innovators can win big, imitators often win bigger. Indeed, what looks like innovation is often actually artful imitation.."

Note: I copied this story and pic from another blog - the inimitable 3 Quarks Daily!

Speaking of innovation and imitation, I was struck by Christian Bök's recent Harriet post about Erik Zboya's using digital techniques to experiment with Mallarmé's Un Coup de Dés: struck because the techniques seem so much less innovative than the original. I'm not saying that's a bad thing, mind you. I'm even more interested, however, in B.'s "Xenotext Experiment," which replies on scientific technology and theorizing that is precisely fifty years old now to "encode" poems in DNA. Commentaries on the past as innovation!

Anyway, I've been reading about the latter - and much more - in a fascinating anthology recently published by the wonderful project now residing at Lake Forest College, The &NOW Awards for best innovative writing. A fun thing in the book, edited capaciously and generously by Robert Archambeau, Davis Schniederman, and Steve Tomasula, is Gretchen E. Henderson's Galerie de Difformité, - yet even that piece owes much, at least in theory, to Nerval's The Salt Smugglers - ca. 1850... or even perhaps Laurence Sterne, from whom we all arguably descend. In a sense, possibly a Platonic one, all hats are old. As the Amazon "product description" puts it, the anthology "features writing as a contemporary art form: writing as it is practiced today by authors who consciously treat their work as an art, and as a practice explicitly aware of its own literary and extra-literary history." So again: I'm interested in the idea of innovation as consisting of hyper-awareness of the past - 'cos I imagine that even writers who don't think of themselves as, or aren't considered to be innovative... have that.

Anyhow, something in the &NOW book that really grabs me is DJ Spooky's more lively and convincing "The Future Is Here," which begins:

"I'm just happy to be alive in this era. It's truly exciting to travel around just checking out how strange it all is. I'd say this is going to be a century of hyper-acceleration, and I just get a kick out of seeing it. One of my favorite phrases comes from William Gibson: 'The future is already here, it's just unevenly distributed.'"

I strongly suspect that the sound structures and social clusters Spooky evokes with such relish represent something of what the future really holds in store, something we haven't quite known before.

Oh, and kudos to the eds. for sampling The New Anonymous - "a literary journal of the nameless, edited by the faceless" - surely an idea whose time has come!

As Steve Tomasula sez in his intro, writing "now" is really hard to categorize - all we can say is that it's something "post-all-of-that!"

Still: I just read the fascinating book Toward Total Poetry, by Adriano Spatola - one of the fine products of Paul Vangelisti and Guy Bennett's Seismicity Editions about which I recently blogged. And though the book originally appeared back in the early seventies (this is its first translation into English), almost everything we now call innovative turns up in its pages: it's almost a cookbook for innovative poetry. I suppose it can't have been influential among those in the English-language poetry world now among us; but the thinking is there... and it's well over three decades old.

So: who are the slaves of the past? Everybody, I presume; but appropos of everything and nothing (which is the way I juxtapose stuff, being not a flâneur but a bricoleur), here's "Jane" over on Digital Emunction:

"I think there’s little intel­lec­tual honor in pro­duc­ing some semi-​official metric for the ends of epochs and not making any claims until it had been rig­or­ously sat­is­fied. That, to be sure, is to be a slave of the past."


Joel Brouwer said...

I teach a course for MFA students on imitation. I call it "Reiteration" to avoid the word imitation, which, as you point out, is generally seen as derogatory. We read works clearly imitative of others, but the secret agenda of the course is to demonstrate by semester's end that all texts are imitative, that originality is a bugaboo sent by the past to trouble the sleep of the present, that there hasn't been a sui generis text since some Sumerian first scratched a tablet. Some students hear this argument as a challenge to their artistic virility*, and, like panicky mastodons in a tar pit, struggle harder and sink faster. The smart ones see it for what it is: A release, a relief, a permission.

*I choose this word advisedly: These students are almost always dudes.

Henry Gould said...

Have to disagree, Joel. It's not one or the other, it's both/and. Yes, every poem & every work of art is rooted in past art (among other things), but it has to move a step past imitation, into originality, in order to become a true equivalent of those past works themselves (which are also original). Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny; the Child is Father to the Man; the New is born from the Old.

Henry Gould said...

Another factor of the condition I just described : the notion that "all art is imitation" assumes art exists on a sort of Platonic-technical plateau, outside time, place & history. But one of the ways art asserts its originality is in the way it examines & reflects the distinct conditions of its own time & place. "A local habitation & a name."

Joel Brouwer said...

I think the only thing we're disagreeing about is what "originality" means. If you want to define originality as the new version of the old thing, then sure, you bet, it not only exists, it's the only game in town. But I think most poets, asked to define originality, would say, "doing something that no one's done before." And that's the bugbear I want to free my students from the fear of. Oof. of.

Kent Johnson said...

On Imitation, Petrarch writes thusly to Boccaccio:

An imitator must see to it that what he writes is similar, but not the very same; and the similarity, moreover, should not be like that of a painting or statue to the person represented, but rather like that of a son to a father, where there is often great difference in the features and members, yet after all there is a shadowy something— akin to what the painters call one’s air—hovering about the face, and especially the eyes, out of which there grows a likeness.... [W]e writers, too, must see to it that along with the similarity there is a large measure of dissimilarity; and furthermore such likeness as there is must be elusive, something that it is impossible to seize except by a sort of still-hunt, a quality to be felt rather than defined.... It may all be summed up by saying with Seneca, and with Flaccus [Horace] before him, that we must write just as the bees make honey, not keeping the flowers but turning them into a sweetness of our own, blending many different flavors into one, which shall be unlike them all, and better.

Henry Gould said...

I think we're almost seeing eye-to-eye, Joel, but it's that hair's-breadth that makes the difference. There's something more to originality than the "new version of the old thing". I think the problem comes (& this generates a lot of myths in US poetryland) when one equates "original" with "new" : as if writing were a matter of technical innovations. Original is more than simply new : it's the unique. Style is like a fingerprint : the feeling of "newness" stems from originality - uniqueness - not the other way around. It's new because its original; it's not original because it's new (the causation runs one way here).

Ted Roethke is a good example. I like & admire his poetry a great deal - but I don't think he's in the front rank of poets. Why? He's not original enough. He consents to channel his great forebears (Whitman, Eliot, Yeats) too easily & too often.

If I were teaching creative writing, I would explain originality in this way : as a seeking & finding of one's own style by long study, affinity & imitation.

Joel Brouwer said...

How's about instead of eyes or hairs or fingerprints -- all of which, you'll recall, were discredited at O.J.'s trial -- style's like DNA: Uniquely your own, but also wholly, utterly, irreducibly derivative?

OK and then sorry but "Ted"? You made beer come out of my nose!

Henry Gould said...

Ted : that's what they called him. Call me Hank if you like - no beer off my nose.

Originality : you either have it or you don't. But it's a sine qua non, in my book. & to repeat my inimitable self (see above) : "make it new" doesn't cut it. So where does that leave us? "Make it derivative" doesn't either.

Tell your kids to be themselves, that's my advice. & good luck to them.

Gary B. Fitzgerald said...


"Good poets borrow.
Great poets steal."

- T.S. Eliot

"Good poets learn everything they can.
Great poets forget everything they learned."

- Gary B. Fitzgerald


Joelle Biele said...

Thanks for the links--love the idea behind the New Anonymous--

Don Share said...

Thanks for your comment, Joelle. (Keep sending poems!) - Don

Joel Brouwer said...

"Just be yourself" -- it's always struck me funny that people say that as if it were some kind of release and relief, like, "Whew, trying to be someone else was really difficult; it's going to be so much easier to just be myself." Really? Not for me. Tell me to be like someone else and I at least know how to begin. Tell me to be myself and I first have to figure out what my self is, a process which, if conducted honestly, is almost certain to result in the conclusion that what my self is is boring. I just don't see the shame in being derivative. If I can shave a sliver off the alp of what's come before me and curl it to my personal whim I'll die happy.

Joel Brouwer said...

Gary, Eliot did not say that.

Henry Gould said...

Joel, I know what you're saying... I don't disagree so much... just a different emphasis. "Be yourself" is meant here as a shorthand for "seek your own style (through long practice, trial & error, assimilation, imitation...)".

Imitation is a necessary means to an end, which is originality. Originality not for its own sake, but rather as the only way to make something actually new & authentic. Part of my disappointment with Ted Roethke (for example, & not to pick on him) is that I know that if I read him without having read Eliot, Yeats or Whitman, I wouldn't realize how much (how overmuch) he was "sounding like" them. Ie. not really new, different, original, authentic enough. Not quite, anyway.

Henry Gould said...

p.s. Joel, part of my nit-picking on this might have to do with the fact that I'm the son of a patent attorney. The status of "invention" - the new vs. the remake, the rip-off, the 2nd-hand goods - was something I grew up with. My father handled patents for the Wham-O corporation. My brothers & I flew a prototype of the "Frisbee" in our yard, back in the 50s.

Gary B. Fitzgerald said...

"Gary, Eliot did not say that."

Joel, I have heard that but he also seems to be the one to whom it is most frequently attributed. Do you know who actually said it?


P.S. I just heard Rush Limbaugh call someone named Travis Nichols in Chicago an idiot. Apparently Travis is calling for a boycott of Arizona Tea, which is made in New York. Do you think Limbaugh checks out Harriet? :-)

Joel Brouwer said...

Henry, seems we're simply being ourselves by advancing different versions of the same old idea, which seems more than appropriate!

Gary, "One of the surest of tests is the way in which a poet borrows. Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different from that from which it was torn; the bad poet throws it into something which has no cohesion. A good poet will usually borrow from authors remote in time, or alien in language, or diverse in interest."

Gary B. Fitzgerald said...

Thanks, Joel.

I have never read that. I guess we learn something every day.