In the various anthologies and publications of concrete and visual poetry in my personal library, it’s not particularly surprising to find visual poets who are intrigued by the graphic possibilities of punctuation. Canadian examples include David Aylward’s Typescapes and Sha(u)nt Basmajian’s Boundaries Limits and Space; both are relatively simple combinations of punctuation and both explore the graphic possibilities of typographic marks. What is a bit more unusual—and to me a lot more exciting—are novelists and visual artists with the same interest in punctuation. Most of the writers I know who work with punctuation do so by isolating the punctuation from existing texts as a means of creating new resultant texts devoid of any semantic content.
Gertrude Stein’s essay “On Punctuation” opens with the dictum that “[t]here are some punctuations that are interesting and there are some punctuations that are not” (214). With Gertrude Stein on Punctuation Kenneth Goldsmith isolates all of the punctuation in Stein’s lecture, leaving blank spaces where all the other typographic characters once occurred and proves that all punctuation are equally intriguing once flattened and removed from their intended use as semantic traffic signs. Goldsmith has an entire series of work in this vein, including all of the punctuation from William Strunk and E. B. White’s chapter on punctuation in their Elements of Style.
Carl Fredrik Reuterswärd’s Prix Nobel also uses an original source text to create a new punctuation-only result. While I know nothing about the source text that Reuterswärd uses, I was able to find a brief recording of him reading from Prix Nobel. Reuterswärd’s Prix Nobel is scrubbed clean, but he voices the novel by naming each mark: “Point. Point. Point.”
herman de vries’ argumentstellen consists entirely of 48 clean linen pages each marked with only a single period floating in compositional space. The text was written as a response to Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus 2.0131: “der räumliche gegenstand muss im unendlichen raume liegen. (der raumpunkt ist eine argumentstelle.)” The “full stop is the place for an argument” but it is also geographically the marker of potentiality.
Gary Barwin’s Servants of Dust isolates all the punctuation from Shakespeare’s sonnets but articulates them as words
inverted comma comma
inverted comma inverted comma dash comma
comma comma period
inverted comma comma period
that create a new form of sonnet, but one without any semantic content other than a map of latency. Barwin’s text resembles both a map of Shakespeare’s sonnet and a transcription of Reuterswärd’s reading of his own punctuation-only novel.
Riccardo Boglione’s Ritmo D. Feeling the Blanks isolates all the punctuation from Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron, one of the most censored books in history. The punctuation here acts as a “ghost of the text [that] roams around the structure that should contain it.”
All of these texts are maps of potential. Each text offers the reader the opportunity to imagine the possibilities inherent in the skeletal framework of punctuation by filling the spaces between the marks with latent texts. The punctuation does not insist upon a particular form, it only asserts that in the resultant text the pauses and stops must occur at the predetermined locations.
Allowing slightly more text than these minimalist gestures are the poets and novelists who craft through erasure. The compositional technique is sometimes conflated with William Burroughs and Brion Gysin’s “cut-up method,” but I see it as a radically different strategy.
For Burroughs and Gysin all existing writing serves as raw material that can be re-arranged and regrouped in a way that exposes an unexpected voice, the “third mind” of collaboration. The cut-up method argues that aleatory writing foregrounds a poetic voice inherent in the text that supplants any intention of the author in favour of the preternatural other. Their technique echoes Tristan Tzara’s famous “dada manifesto on feeble love and bitter love” which insists upon a new form on chance-based writing:
TO MAKE A DADAIST POEM
Take a newspaper.
Take some scissors.
Choose from this paper an article of the length you want to make your poem.
Cut out the article.
Next carefully cut out each of the words that makes up this article and put them all in a bag.
Next take out each cutting one after the other.
Copy conscientiously in the order in which they left the bag.
The poem will resemble you.
And there you are — an infinitely original author of charming sensibility, even though unappreciated by the vulgar herd.
Tzara—like Burroughs and Gysin—uses existing text as the raw material for new writing with no regard for how the text appears in the geography of its original page. Erased texts do.
Tom Phillips and Ronald Johnson are the two major practitioners of erasure; they each create texts by erasing passages from other authors’ work in order to isolate new meaning. In A Humument (now in its 367-page 4th edition) Tom Phillips paints, draws and collages over the majority of the text in W.H. Mallock’s A Human Document. In doing so he extracts from Mallock’s original the tale of Bill Toge (a particularly obscure combination of letters in the English language: Toge’s name only appears embedded in the words “together” and “altogether”). Phillips’ A Humument is so masterful as to be the limit-case in terms of erased texts and artist books. Unlike Burroughs, Gysin and Tzara, Phillips does not create his work by aleatory procedures but instead carefully scours each page for the appropriate texts to isolate. Since 1966, Phillips has continued his engagement with Mallock creating additional interpretations of each page for each new edition. Phillips states in the 4th edition that when the 6th edition of A Humument is eventually published it will not have a single page in common with the 1st edition (and a completely new narrative).
In radi os Ronald Johnson erases the majority of Milton’s Paradise Lost leaving single words and isolate phrases. In doing so he extracts from Milton’s original a commentary on the poet’s role in creation. More than few poets have continued in this tradition—the ones I find most interesting are those who leave the lifted words in their geographic location from the original page; the texts—like books composed entirely from punctuation—suggest that locked within each text are an infinite number of other stories. Authors do not create new stories; they—to quote Ronald Johnson—“compose the holes.”
While there are plenty of erasure texts out there, many are light-hearted, playful works like Austin Kleon’s Newspaper Blackout. I think that the poetic possibilities of erosion (as opposed to accumulation) are better served with texts like Jen Bervin’s Nets (a manipulation of Shakespeare’s sonnets); Elisabeth Tonnard’s Let us go then, you and I (a manipulation of a fragment from T.S. Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock) and Janet Holmes The ms of my kin (a manipulation of the poems of Emily Dickinson).
Some writers eradicate the “holes” and compress the appropriated language over the geography of the original pages. The resultant poetry is one further step from the distanced original.
Gregory Betts’ The Others Raisd in Me consists of 150 unique “readings” of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 150:
O, from what power hast thou this powerful might
With insufficiency my heart to sway?
To make me give the lie to my true sight,
And swear that brightness doth not grace the day?
Whence hast thou this becoming of things ill,
That in the very refuse of thy deeds
There is such strength and warrantize of skill
That, in my mind, thy worst all best exceeds?
Who taught thee how to make me love thee more
The more I hear and see just cause of hate?
O, though I love what others do abhor,
With others thou shouldst not abhor my state:
If thy unworthiness raised love in me,
More worthy I to be beloved of thee.
Using Shakespeare’s original, Betts explores what he terms “plunderverse.” Restricting himself to only the diction found in Shakespeare’s original, Betts finds a freedom in the sonnet. Betts uses not solely the original’s words, but also the individual letters, which allows him the potential to create:
a new act
in the rushed click
after math (201)
isn’t much. (220)
Robert Fitterman’s Rob The Plagiarist undertakes the same compositional conceit in a different direction. The 13 chapters of Rob The Plagiarist each use a unique tactic towards appropriation; and each steals at a different volume. In “The Sun Also Also Rises” Fitterman recontextualizes every sentence beginning with the first-person pronoun from Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. By un-anchoring Hemingway’s muscular prose from the original, Fitterman allows the “I” to float restlessly, uncertainly attaching to Fitterman’s own (minimized) compositional voice. As readers, we are unsure with which speaking “I” to relate. Is the “I” Hemingway’s, Fitterman’s, or does the text become a funhouse mirror in which to see our own visage? How do we identify with the author, when the author didn’t actually create what the presented text? This troubling of authorship—where authors are but a single voice in a compositional choir—is a central issue in erasure and “plunderverse” writing.
Aylward, David. Typescapes. Toronto: Coach House Press, 1967.
Barwin, Gary. Servants of Dust. Calgary: No Press, 2010.
Basmajian, Sha(u)nt. Boundaries Limits and Space. Toronto: Underwhich, 1980.
Bervin, Jen. Nets. Brooklyn, NY: Ugly Duckling, 2004.
Betts, Gregory. The Others Raisd in Me. Toronto: Pedlar, 2009.
Boglione, Riccardo. Ritmo D. Feeling the Blanks. Montevideo: gegen, 2009.
de vries, herman. Argumentstellen. Rennes : châteaugiron / les éditions incertain sens, 2003.
Fitterman, Robert. Rob the Plagairist. New York: Roof, 2009.
---. The Sun Also Also Rises. Calgary: No Press, 2008.
Goldsmith, Kenneth. Gertrude Stein on Punctuation. Online 19 May 2011.
Gysin, Brion. “Cut-ups Self-Explained.” Online 19 May 2011.
Holmes, Janet. The ms of my kin. Exeter: Shearsman, 2009.
Phillips, Tom. A Humument: A Treated Victorian Novel. 4th Edition. London: Thames and Hudson, 2005.
Johnson, Ronald. Radi Os. Berkeley: Sand Dollar, 1977.
Kleon, Austin. Newspaper Blackout. New York: Harper, 2010.
Reuterswärd, Carl Fredrik. Prix Nobel. Stockholm: Bonniers, 1966.
Shakespeare, William. “Sonnet 150.” Online 10 June 2011.
Stein, Gertrude. “On Punctuation.” Lectures In America. Boston: Beacon Press, 1985. 214-222.
Tonnard, Elisabeth. Let us go then, you and I. Acquoy, Netherlands: Ampersand, 2003.
Tzara, Tristan. “dada manifesto on feeble love and bitter love.” Online 19 May 2011.
Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. Online 12 June 2011.