Reading Alt Lit: Oblivion and/or Total Communication – A small(ish) Essay by Catherine Woodward

A little while ago Steve Roggenbuck posted an email from a hater, just one of many he frequently receives I’m sure. Thinking back to it I’m compelled to explain why haters are wrong about Steve and many of the writers associated with the kind of poetry Steve writes, but as that would require a thesis I’m going to cover it a little bit in brief.

Where haters go wrong isn’t a matter of opinion. Opinion is all well and good, no one should read Milton if they’d honestly prefer Charlie Brown, that’s just common sense. The problem with haters is that they don’t know how to read writers like Steve; try forming an opinion on a steak dinner while applying the standards for a soufflé. But it’s not all the hater’s fault, Alt Lit in general seems to project an aura of irreproachability that puts itself beyond literary criticism, which is a misunderstanding of criticism. To critique a work is not to criticise it (judge it negatively), but is more often than not to express a love of the work by engrossing oneself in its heart and soul. With a general lack of criticism it can be hard learning to love Alt Lit.

Anyway, it hardly needs saying that not all Alt Lit is the same; Alt Lit is like The Game, it doesn’t really exist, it’s just a term without content that we invented to have fun and annoy critics with. The literature it’s associated with could be anything and everything and more refers to names and personalities then any consistent generic markers (but of course, as time goes on, we backwards engineer Alt Lit until it’s actually a thing, like The Necronomicon).

As such you can’t read all Alt Lit with the same expectations, obvious really. Where the New Sincerty/New Childishness often drives young writers to sculpt the perfect realistic ‘I’ communicating an authentic message to an equally authentic and realistic ‘you’, in other cases the basis of the poem is not the writing subject, the receiving subject and message but is instead oblivion (which is ecstasy) and/or total communication. If you read a poem of Steve’s looking for authority, identifiable subjects and intended meanings, you’re probably going to have a low opinion of the work. But if you understand what you’re looking at, then you can really begin to enjoy it.

The poetry that we’re interested in here is poetry of indeterminacy. What we are more used to reading is poetry based on authoritative and definitive masculine principles, which frequently manifest as the unique ‘I’ and his unmistakable communication. Bracketed under Alt Lit is writing which refuses this manifestation. Take for example poems based on memes: an instance of mimetic behaviour is not the exclusive creation of the person who used the meme form. Memes are modes of expression, not possessions, any instance of meme contains the absent ‘other’ and there can be no single author. Any instance of mimetic behaviour recalls all other instances of that behaviour and also anticipates future uses. A poem based on meme is ultimately a collaboration, expressing not one meaning but a potentially infinite possibility for meaning, leaving room for and implying a multitude of subjects.

I think back to @Lazzzyandoh’s ‘the letter t in 1000 pt helvetica’ which appeared in IP this summer; it would seem quaint to ask whether a giant letter t was original or authentic, and more redundant still to ask what it itself meant. Who has intellectual rights to the letter t? A writer’s insistence on a predefined range of meaning is the expression of a misguided desire to dominate, why care if anyone ‘gets it’? Who are you? God?

Anyway, a move away from masculine authority and towards indeterminacy generally invokes wider systems and elegant wholes, as in meme. The cultivation of failure is one such move; Steve’s spelling mistakes, mashups of weird, apposite or pointless material are all non-authoritative (how could they be taken as canonical and finalised in the same way we regard the complete Shakespeare?) but after the style of Dada they create a meaningless space where anything becomes acceptable and/or possible. The cultivation of failure implies the possibility of everything whereas a direct communication of meaning implies that only a limited range of meaning is legitimate in the context of the poem.

Even on a stylistic level we can see indeterminacy that refers to huge unities rather than singularities. To see it where ‘I’ and ‘you’ are still present we just have to ask, who are they? For example this poem by Amy Saul-Zerby, which also appeared in IP.

 

 

Who are they? The speaker and addressees alike are not unique, original beings, they recall a triad of prehistoric archetypes, a creation myth or family romance. While unspecific they are all-encompassing. Similarly, who is the you who Steve is constantly kissing in ever more novel ways? You rarely develops through characterisation or is distinguished from any other you, where it is characterised this characterisation is later undermined by you’s future appearances, rendering you indeterminate. This you is not a unique subject but is slipped in where necessary and acts as an interpellation device. All readers alike assume the position of you, the possibilities of you are endless, you does not refer to a single you but a unity of you-ness, of subjectivity.

This kind of thing is much more obvious in Google auto complete poems, where the poem is a result of content producers, searchers, SEO and censorship. In this case we may read a few lines of writing, even in the first person, but these don’t refer to singularities, rather a hive mind, a microcosm which reflects the macrocosm of wider culture. The subject is not a person but the subject of culture.

In these cases the poet obliterates the conventional literary subject, rather than defines it. But this doesn’t result in nothingness; the poem is an experience, not a direct communication, an experience which, in transcending the singular aims toward a connection with a kind of unity or total communication. As an archetype is everybody yet nobody, the oblivion poem represents no one in particular, allowing it to imply the whole.

Instead of expecting an encoded meaning from an authority and placing their potential pleasure upon them both, the reader would do well to accept the poem as an ephemeral playground. You enjoy the instance of the poem and what you get out of it is tantamount to the amount of your own personal thought and experience you put into the reading of it, these poems are the Rorschach tests of the literary world. Reading in this way isn’t difficult or unusual either, this is the way we must approach all the arbitrary, fleeting and mystifying material we encounter on the internet every day, we just don’t tend to apply it to poetry.

I foresee an objection to this style of reading. Whatever will happen to the concept of value? Whatever will happen to the classics? In my opinion this would be a hysterical over reaction. The classics are the great classics, they will look after themselves. What little faith must you have in the classics, or what a high opinion you must have of yourself to believe that the classics need your help to survive? Secondly, just because anything may be accorded any degree of value, doesn’t mean that you have to regard everything equally, is anybody really that weak? Opinions, as I said, are all well and good; no matter what happens, you reserve your right of judgement. But in general, understanding ought to come before judgement, otherwise how would you know what you were missing out on?

I wouldn’t panic over the idea that these oblivion poems are vicious and anarchic attacks on the poetic tradition either (although there is no doubt a certain amount of healthy ribbing going on for the sake of progress), and I wouldn’t dismiss them as worthless because of their methods, that being the kind of complaint that is levelled at Flarf. Aggression may be part of Flarf’s critique, but its critique is valid and critique is not all of Flarf. Anyway, I think the strange stance of these poems ought to be considered in terms of a new optimism prevalent in the work of young writers; the oblivion poem, if not an attempt at transcendence, is the recognition of its possibility and the expression of desire for that transcendence. I wouldn’t go so far as to say this was a religious occurrence but perhaps spiritual, oblivion poems are charged with positivity independent of their semantic or ideographic content and one of its hopes seems to be for mystic union (for want of a  better phrase). It makes me think of speaking in tongues or druidic bardery, there is instantaneous gratification (sometimes) in what is said but the communication isn’t the real joy, it’s the experience of, or knowledge of the attempt to experience, everything.

 

– Catherine Woodward

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