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date: 25 September 2017

Micropoetries

Summary and Keywords

“Micropoetries” is a self-eroding category initiated in academic poetry scholarship in the 1990s to address a perceived crisis in poetry audiences, with an implicit argument that the term “poetry” needed to be widened to account for phenomena beyond the poetry found in academic and writerly, high-literary discourse. While the referents of the term may shift over time and in response to cultural and social change, and while the term itself was intended somewhat provisionally, it can still open up the possibility for discussing para-literary materials as poetry, that is, aesthetically and socially meaningful artifacts. It refers positively to half-formed, degraded, or ephemeral verbal phenomena, or writing produced by abjected persons—for example, “outsider writing,” prison or other poetry arising from incarcerated subjects, writing by children—or poetry by non-poets. The concept is indebted to multiple intellectual traditions, but primarily those of the Russian formalists, the Birmingham School of Cultural Studies, Walter Benjamin as a kind of outlier Frankfurt School philosopher, cultural ethnographers such as Mark Slobin and Lila Abu-Lughod, and poets as well as poetry scholars working at the limits of their disciplines. Phenomena such as “outsider writing,” ecopoetics, the Human Microphone (the oral relay system that characterized communication at the Occupy movement sites in 2011–2012), and Scottish insults directed at Donald Trump via Twitter are explored as examples. Pedagogical use can be made of the concept to both widen students’ opportunities for encountering “the poetic” in everyday life and to pressure them to clarify and revise what they consider poetry to be. Contemplation of the category “micropoetries” gives rise to contemplation of its complement, “macropoetries,” or phenomena that, because of their durational properties, challenge the notion of mastery through analysis, forcing the consideration that poetry and poetics reside at the breakdown seam of analysis and experience, or where “the beautiful” meets “the sublime.”

Keywords: micropoetries, argots, cultural studies, doggerel, ecopoetics, ephemera, human microphone, literary populism, macropoetries, outsider writing, prison poetry

Pre-emptive Qualification

First, a qualifying proposition: “micropoetries” is a provisional term whose utility, like its referent, is highly contextual, mutable, and elastic. Although the term is still under construction, there may come a time—has it already come?—that finds it cumbersome and limiting; poetry scholars Mike Chasar, Heidi R. Bean, and Adalaide Morris have proposed the simpler and more encompassing term “poetries”—a term that rhetorically obliterates hierarchy and makes sure that high literary art still has a (non-agonistic) place at the table.1 But “micropoetries’s” obsolescence is completely appropriate to its intent. The problem of categories, as Duke Ellington put it, is that one threatens to replicate the “grand canyons of bombast” that, while initially enabling, can quickly come to constrain thought and creative practice.2 When the term “micropoetries” emerged, first appearing in print in 1994, culturally conservative poets such as Dana Gioia were asking plaintively, from the top down, “Can Poetry Matter?,” while the emergent spoken word movement, situated in cafés and bars like Chicago’s Green Mill and Manhattan’s Nuyorican Poets’ Café, was reinvigorating poetry from the bottom up by giving it both an ebullient populist bent (with roots in the “oraliture” of the African diaspora and its contemporary incarnation as hip-hop and rap, as well as Latinx traditions) and new forms of dissemination enabled by changes in media technology.3 However, while catalyzed by such developments on the front pages of poetry news, the necessity that gave rise to the term “micropoetries,” further elaborated in 2006, reached beyond these public understandings of poetry to attempt to account for all manner of unprofessional (folk or mass cultural), half-formed, emergent, even unintentional, “failed” or debased poetries, as well as those associated with consumer and/or mass culture (rhyming billboards like the BurmaShave phenomenon, which lasted from 1926–63) but not accepted into literary conversation.4 In short, the term acknowledges the investigation of poetry as lived cultural experience that occurs at a great distance from poetry’s legitimizing institutions and mechanisms. At its most ambitious, the concept aims to valorize and challenge readers/audiences to find the poetry—or, more accurately, the poeisis, as the unformed and in-process quality is foregrounded as valuable—in any and all phenomena, and to create a relationship to it through thorough understanding, misunderstanding, analysis and critique. “Para-,” “post-,” and “pre-literary” are some of the descriptors one could consider along with “micro”—one might legitimately ask if the range of inscription and expression contained in the term “micropoetries” risks, in Sean Bonney’s elegant formulation, either destroying poetry as poetry, or fetishizing everything as poetry.5 Or, to paraphrase, demystifying a Romantic, author-centered notion of creativity while remystifying a concept of “the poetic” or “poetics” as, in Ira Livingston’s words, a “theory of everything.”6

Definition(s)

First, micropoetries (plural) are to be distinguished from “micropoetry” (singular), the latter a recent term born of social media trends that specifically indexes, for example, Twitter poetry, haiku, certain imagist classics, and so forth, which are “micro” only literally, in brevity (160 characters maximum), analogous to “flash fiction.” This definition is what a quick Internet search will yield, taking the inquirer to Micropoetry.com and its many offshoots. “Micropoetry,” essentially poetry brief enough to be shared on handheld media without appreciable loss to the reading experience, is a subset of micropoetries, insofar as it is, to date, a subcultural subgenre with many non–“professional” practitioners. However, just as the term “minor literature” has been redefined by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari to extend beyond statistical minority or qualitative evaluation to comprise literature by minoritized subjects, micropoetries in the plural, rather than being “micro” with reference to brevity, encompass a vast array of under-recognized and non-professional expressions, utterances, articulations, and modes of inscription whose poetic qualities often arise from a convergence of the perceiver’s apprehension and the producer’s context, intention, and/or (non-)conformity to a set of expectations about what comprises the “poetic.”

The word “micropoetries” confers a positive value on the unfinished nature of fragments, ephemera, and sub- or para-literary, unintentional or otherwise “unviable” poetry. Since the receptive field of and discourses about poetry range so widely, micropoetries are intensely rooted in their time, place, and context, often arising out of the cultural practices of communities on the margins of power and visibility. For instance, obscurely subcultural or corporate slogans; graffiti; topical verse by “Sunday versifiers”; doggerel; poetry by nonliterary prison inmates (as distinct from literary figures who wrote while incarcerated); private diaries or scrapbooks; semi-private writing like correspondence, blogs, or writing on social media; children’s language; écriture brute (outsider writing); specialized cants or vernaculars such as rotwelsch and other thieves’ argots; asemic writing; unintentional mini-messays and yessays in the form of DIY signage (hobo symbols, etc.); and strange sounds fall under the aegis of micropoetries, as might newspaper verse, greeting cards, prayers, and idiolectical writing, and other raw or torn linguistic detritus that, because of a high degree of defamiliarization, strikes the reader or audience as poetic. The (non-)category of micropoetries widens the field of the poetic by conferring positive value on artifacts that in craft-oriented institutions (MFA programs, institutions of higher learning where literature scholars study genre, form, and the work of renowned authors) are for the most part considered clumsy, awkward, inadmissible. One of the last genres to open up to the frankly politically interested analysis of cultural studies, poetry and its scholarship in the U.S. began to embrace democratization in the mid-to-late 1990s; micropoetries is one concept generated in this opening period. In line with the Birmingham School sociologist Paul Willis’s aphorism that, in a cultural studies understanding (shifting the object of close analysis from text to everyday social artifact), “experience is the poem,” one can posit that the poetic nature of micropoetries inheres as much in the critical intervention as in the artifact itself, since it is the experience of the reader or the unfolding analysis of the scholar that affords a perspective on an artifact that marks it as “poetic.”7

Micropoetries scholarship, like much scholarship on poetry and poetics, is indebted to Viktor Shklovsky’s Russian formalist principle of defamiliarization (ostranenie) as the most significant index of poetic, or imaginative, language. In this early twentieth-century Marxist attempt to scientize and establish “objective” laws to describe all social phenomena including the aesthetic, the observation that literary language is language estranged from quotidian speech, or (in Shklovsky’s example, which is from fiction), a narrative strategy that estranges methods of interpretation (a short story is told from the point of view of a horse, foregrounding and exoticizing normative human interaction such as commerce and cruelty), indicates that the non-normative is a requisite for literary language. However, this, in a somewhat dialectical development, establishes a new norm for imaginative expression: literary language itself becomes a norm for determining the literariness of an artifact. It is possible to move in the other direction as well, such as the importation of demotic language into the literary, once again estranging it, but this time from the conventionalized literary rather than everyday discourse. Exporting the principle back out from its strictly literary context to include Owen Barfield’s related but more capacious dictum, from 1928, that poetic diction is that which effects a “felt change of consciousness” in the reader [or hearer], allows for defamiliarization to happen in any linguistic arena, whether intentionally literary or not (in frankly patronizing language, Barfield cites a South Pacific pidgin phrase used in everyday parlance as example), and in his opening examples favors the non-literary.8 In fact, given the expectations one has of literary language and the crafted poem—the degree to which the conventions governing these discourses have become familiar—what could be more defamiliarizing than either unfamiliar argots and subcultural languages, poorly executed attempts at literariness (doggerel), or imaginative writing that creates its own standards with little regard to the conventions of poetry and prose? Barfield’s favored example epitomizes the dangers—the problem and the possibility—of micropoetries: the superior and/or awestruck favoring of the exotic as an appreciation of difference by staying at the surface level; as soon as one becomes fluent in pidgin, the phrase is no longer a charming electrical prod that sparks a “felt change of consciousness.” However, to the degree that Barfield’s “felt change of consciousness” and Shklovsky’s ostranenie resonate with Emily Dickinson’s

If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can warm me I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only way I know it. Is there any other way?9

one accepts, perhaps, that the shock of encounter is itself context-dependent, varying over time as well as in response to multiple social and cultural factors.

That is, micropoetries are never in an immutable relationship to other forms of poetry or even other discourses. The term draws on ethnomusicologist Mark Slobin’s useful category of “micromusics.” Slobin’s Subcultural Sound: Micromusics of the West establishes the category as comprising musics that fall outside the commercial or conventional mainstream networks of distribution and consumption, unviable as commodities, often extremely regional or tied to specific communities and their cultures.10 However, Slobin argues that these subjugated or abjected musics enjoy an adjacent rather than completely oppositional or alien relationship to the mainstream, interacting in productive and porous tension with it to create new sounds. Crossover can occur at certain points, and often does, as elements of the subcultural sounds are adapted for mainstream consumption. The same holds true for micropoetries: there is a bleeding back and forth between “professional” poetries and those firmly outside of the mainstream. For example, the relations between prison poetry, rap/hiphop, and the spoken word movement demonstrate kinship along a continuum of distance from/proximity to commercialization and mainstream distribution and accessibility. The first falls within the purview of micropoetries, while the latter two have achieved ubiquity and respectability at all points of the cultural register from high to low, from avant-garde to folk, popular and mass culture. In other words, micropoetries are a category whose contents shift. Transposed to the world of modernist literary text, one can see a canonical figure of poetic innovation like Arthur Rimbaud’s attraction to, as he puts it, abjected forms of cultural expression like “absurd paintings, pictures over doorways, stage sets, carnival backdrops, billboards, colored prints, old-fashioned literature, Church Latin, erotic books badly spelled, the kind of novels our grandmothers read, fairy tales, little children’s books, old operas, silly refrains, naive rhythms,” and the affection that absorbs and redeploys, in virtually unrecognizable elevations, these usually derided clumsinesses.11 Likewise, Walter Benjamin’s fascination with and rigorous analysis of what he calls “kitsch” alongside a similar preoccupation with the high French symbolist poetry of Charles Baudelaire—not to mention Benjamin’s own formally and intellectually innovative development of the dialectic into new realms of “constellations” and “involutes”—bear out Slobin’s observations about the replenishing relationship of degraded forms to widely acknowledged (even fetishized) cultural pivot-points and the individual cultural workers associated with them.12

In addition to Russian formalism (represented in this discussion primarily by Shklovsky) and contemporaneous Russian socio-linguists of the 1920s—Valentin Voloshinov’s and Mikhail Bakhtin’s insistence that literary language and genre are saturated with socio-economic delineations—British cultural studies from the 1970s-1980s—Raymond Williams’s breakthrough concept of a “structure of feeling” that pervades a time, a place, a construct; Dick Hebdige’s Subculture: The Meaning of Style; Willis’s assertion that “experience is the poem” in his “thick descriptions” and semiotic analyses of the expressive elements of English working-class youth culture; and especially Antony Easthope’s Poetry as Discourse—with its insistence on literature as much culturally constructed as the subjects who produce and consume it, and on all cultural formations as equally worthy of analysis as high literary masterpieces, underlies and informs the concept of micropoetries as signs that empower, through the meager autonomy that cultural expression affords, the subcultures or otherwise disenfranchised people who create them.13 While Easthope insists that football chants and Cockney rhyming slang are poetry that saturates the public sphere even as Poetry is considered a rarefied celebration of the private, Walter Benjamin’s method of combining phenomenological observation of linguistic, haptic, or other semiotic effects of all kinds with social analysis is also relevant to this politicization of aesthetic reception.14 That is, the study of micropoetries aims to broaden the nature of defamiliarization from the merely aesthetic to imbue the element of estrangement with a sensitivity to social context: Strange to whom? Unfamiliar to whom? Produced by whom? Intended for whom? Along what social axes (race/class/generation/ethnicity/region/gender-sexuality, etc.)? For example, would a syncretic utterance from an immigrant community sound “poetic” to fully assimilated Americans? And what is at stake in those differences, those receptions?

A further influence is that of Guy Debord, whose Situationism, the pre-1968 cultural rebellion more politicized than the Beats, more culturally sophisticated than Soviet socialist realism, less invested in the dreamworld and more invested in critique of the “spectacle” than the Surrealists, and far more bohemian than the highly rarified and academic Frankfurt School, insists on the poetry in all things: “We must multiply poetic subjects and objects.”15 The Situationists politicized “defamiliarization” through the dérive (purposeless but hyper-aware wandering athwart standard maps of city spaces) and other anti-capitalist gestures that brought the text off the page and rewrote it on the city, on clothing, on walls in particularly cogent slogans such as “Sous les pavés, la plage,” staged interventionist performances on the streets of Paris, and so forth. Their heightened awareness of the revolutionary potential of the aesthetics of the everyday contributed an urgency to the emancipationist opportunities in what the Surrealists call the “marvelous.” Ethnography and cultural anthropology are clearly also influences, especially those that attend to the many uses of poetry in cultures: for example, Steven Caton’s and Lila Abu-Lughod’s early work on the role of poetry in shaping social identity among Yemeni tribes, as well as Paul Willis’s meta-commentary suggesting that social experiences can be read like poems.

Additionally, to a lesser extent, “micropoetries” derives from physical therapist and dance scholar Emilie Conrad’s working concept of “micro-movements,” the smallest perceptible physical movement that the mover herself can detect; the practice of isolating these micro-movements and training awareness of them has been instrumental in working with brain- or physically injured patients. The concept of “micropoetries” combines Slobin’s emphasis on subcultural, minoritarian, or highly eccentric but context-dependent expressive practices with Conrad’s heightened awareness of minutiae, with an eye toward enhanced awareness of otherwise mundane activities. Both of these indicate the micropoetic object’s contingency and dependence on the particulars of its production and reception. Significantly, the recognition of micropoetries also attends to the idea of an encounter, a moment of shifting consciousness in which a trace of the poetic is intuited in an unlikely, out-of-the-way setting.

Poet and scholar Darren Wershler uses the term “findables” to refer to these moments of poeisis or fragmentary artifacts, to both relate them to and distinguish them from “found poetry,” the well-known phenomenon in which self-identified poets use the materials of their surroundings—overheard conversation, signage, etc.—as raw matter to be reworked and re-contextualized in their own work. Wershler’s use of the verb “find” in a hypothetical iteration captures the unfinished, raw nature of micropoetries, and resists the urge to press them into servitude to a putatively superior organizational creative impulse, repudiating the Apollonian gesture of ordering the presumed chaos of the half- or unformed in favor of the fragmented, jagged eccentricities as they are—or, as bebop trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie put it, “I don’t care much about music. What I like is sounds.”16 In Wershler’s analysis, the over-ordered world of commercial appropriation, in which mass culture creates bits of cultural detritus that poets would repudiate, can be taken seriously in relation to poetry without being subordinated to it. Wershler shows how the proximity of certain avant-garde practices themselves (unusual typefaces or layout, fragmentation, etc.) also inhere in mass cultural or subcultural memes and moments, asking

Just over the horizon from neo-Futurist ads for pickup trucks are a series of thorny questions for literary studies. Should literary scholars be concerned with such objects? What sorts of additions, accommodations and transfigurations will the traditional toolset of literary criticism require to do so effectively? To what extent can “Say What Again” [a popular meme based on a scene from the film Pulp Fiction] and similar objects be claimed as “literary” in some sense? And finally, what’s at stake for literary studies itself in terms of this engagement – that is, how could the study of these objects transform the discipline itself?17

The point ultimately is to dissolve the category of poetry itself into poetics, and beyond that to poeisis, a constant making process. As Chilean poet Cecilia Vicuña writes, “Awareness is the only creative force that creates itself as it looks at itself.”18 Thus, the coming-to-awareness of the poetics of everyday life is itself a poeisis.

Examples

Outsider Writing

Despite the occasional and highly relative marketability of “outsider” writings—the spate of prison, nursing home, community center, and other “amateur” poetry published in the 1970s by mainstream publishers that found their materials in the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA)- and other government-sponsored workshops that employed writers and artists to enter unusual spaces; and anthologies of “bad poetry” collected and published by self-conscious modernist poets like Wyndham Lewis and others; and despite the occasional emergence into the musical mainstream of songwriters like Daniel Johnston and Jandek, outsider writing has never caught on as a commodifiable niche as has visual art by “outsiders” (again, like “micropoetries,” “outsider art” remains a highly contested and famously inadequate term).19 Street-corner pay-per-poem panhandlers and creators of idiolectical alphabets or whole languages, as well as cult figures; outsiders who have been “discovered,” who had brief moments of notoriety; or figures like Christopher Smart and Robert Walser who were “insiders” but went off the rails; Ernst Herbeck (Everybody Has a Mouth); Abraham Lincoln Gillespie (Works); children like Opal Whiteley and Minou Drouet; John Barton Wolgamot (IN SARA, MENCKEN, CHRIST AND BEETHOVEN THERE WERE MEN AND WOMEN); artisans like David Drake (“Dave the Potter” or “Dave the Slave”), a nineteenth-century slave in the U.S. South who inscribed poems into his enormous and famously well-crafted pots—are among the many writers who fall under this rubric.20 Textual examples vary in terms of their interest. Some, like Dave the Potter’s, are evocative fragments remarkable for their display of then-dangerous literacy, offering subtextual insights about the circulation of writing through material inscription in a slave economy:

  • I made this Jar = for cash —
  • though its called = lucre Trash //

—August 22, 1857

  • a pretty little Girl, on a virge
  • Volcaic mountain, how they burge

—August 24, 1857

  • Great & Noble Jar
  • hold Sheep goat or bear

—May 13, 1859

  • I saw a leppard, & a lions face,
  • then I felt the need of — Grace.

—November 3, 185821

Others, like Wolgamot’s recurring (for sixty-five pages!) “sentence” featuring a revolving door of famous and obscure names, a work notable for the author’s commitment to a project almost impenetrable to anyone else, dramatize extreme eccentricity and exuberance:

In its very truly great manners of Ludwig van Beethoven very heroically the very cruelly ancestral death of Sara Powell Haardt had very ironically come amongst his very really grand men and women to Rafael Sabatini, George Ade, Margaret Storm Jameson, Ford Madox Hueffer, Jean-Jacques Bernard, Louis Bromfield, Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche and Helen Brown Norden very titanically.

In her very truly great manners of John Barton Wolgamot very heroically Helen Brown Norden had very originally come amongst his very really grand men and women to Lodovico Ariosto, Solon, Matteo Maria Bojardo, Philo Judaeus, Roger Bacon, Longus, Simeon Strunsky and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe very titanically.

In their very truly great manners of John Barton Wolgamot very heroically Thomas Stearns Eliot, Robert Southey, Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett Dunsany, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, Arthur Schopenhauer, Blaise Pascal, Georg Morris Cohen Brandes and Jonathan Swift had very sarcastically come amongst his very really grand men and women to Gertrude Allain Mary McBrady very titanically.

Artifacts like this self-published book are often discovered by young enthusiasts who, later on as well-known poets, are in a position to amplify and disseminate the work. In Wolgamot’s case, the poet Keith Waldrop and musical event organizer Robert Hadley met in college and shared a fascination with the text, which half a century later they co-republished after having tracked down Wolgamot. Their text was then picked up by UbuWeb, an online site for vanguard art, including out-of-print classics as well as “outsider” work. Waldrop describes his early interest:

From that summer [1957, when he first purchased the book in a used-book shop], through some rather unsettled years, as other books came in and out of my hands, I held on to Wolgamot, unsure if it was good or bad, wonderful or ridiculous. The question gradually faded. After all, it appealed to me and, since I never really believed in a “canon” and never insisted that anyone share my appreciation, there was no problem.

The question of “good or bad, wonderful or ridiculous” is a key to the charm exercised by many such texts, melding into an almost inarticulable appeal. In the considerable paratextual material that bolsters the reprint, Hadley explains Wolgamot’s method, after relaying the latter’s wry statement to his two fans that “it’s harder than you think to write a sentence that doesn’t say anything”:

I believe, from my discussions with Wolgamot, that he regarded each page as a “scene”—as if in a “film storyboard” or as if a “picture” (perhaps a photograph)—representing a grouping of persons, who had “something in common” (the commonness based on the sounds of the names, the “meaning” of the names—what those persons did—and the

visual structure of the scene based on the lay-out of the words on the page). I will quote the first page … to illustrate the four variables, underlining those four variables to be discussed below.

  1. (1) Ludwig van Beethoven (name)

  2. (2) cruelly ancestral death of Sara Powell Haardt (name construction)

  3. (3) ironically (adverb)

  4. (4) Rafael Sabatini … and Helen Brown Norden (name group)

These four elements change in successive stanzas in obviously intentional patterns to give form to the whole.

These arrangements, it turns out, involve the sonic associations Wolgamot makes with each name.22

Ecopoetics

While an earlier understanding of “ecopoetics” indicated poetry about nature, or poetry thematically and ethically concerned with the environment, the word has come to have much broader significance in relation to performativity (poetic incorporations of natural elements, poetry whose form enacts natural processes and/or interactive performances) or, in a micropoetries context, broadly relational (social and natural) material observed and understood as poetic. Contemporary anxiety about man-made climate change and the actual or anticipated loss of important species of flora and fauna have found expression in poets’ and scholars’ attempts to reimagine culture in a way that demotes human ingenuity as its sole progenitor. Human inscription and speech are realigned as two of many forms of poetic expression rather than comprising its sum total. As British poet Lawrence Upton has asked, “Poetry? A sub-division of writing? Or the other way around?”23 This promising speculation opens a path for the inclusion of the non-human into micropoetries scholarship. In such cases meaning-making becomes a collaboration between human interpreter and non-human creator of micropoetries. Anthropologist Stuart McLean has written of “non-human creativity” in, for example, the ways in which human civic planning and natural forces have collaborated over centuries in the ongoing creation of the city of Venice.24 One effect such scholarship has on literary critical conventions is to finally have done with the intentional fallacy on the part of the “author,” though of course it enters through another door in the form of the critic, theorist, or scholar, who “makes sense,” in human language and cognition, of non-human creative phenomena.

The “songs of the humpback whale” that were put on vinyl in 1970 and played on “underground” radio stations, slime mold music that has become an Internet meme, and other sonic emanations from the natural world might be sites for the same kinds of investigation once limited to literary texts; beyond their aesthetic value, they offer artifacts of alternate social structures, histories, and worldviews that interact with human cognition.25 Poets have joined animal scientists in investigating birdsong (Jonathan Skinner’s Little Dictionary of Sounds, Angela Rawlings’s “Gibberbird”); they create site-specific rituals that interact intimately with the landscape (Cecilia Vicuña’s documentary poem Kon Kon); and they exploit the overlap of scientific and poetic lexicons to create hybrid texts (Robert Kocik’s Rhrurbarb, which “offers the Sore, Oversensitive Sciences a sustained and demonstrative exploration of possible intersections between prosody and pathology.”). These are “professional,” i.e., self-identified, poets; one could just as easily include garden diaries, fieldnotes, animal spoors (as asemic writing), and the soundscapes of spaces not heavily populated by humans in a suitably capacious field of micropoetries.26

Another artist who summons the affective charges of nonhuman beings through his mediumistic street art practice is Milwaukean David-Baptiste Chirot, who feels that he gives presence to half-formed, distorted creatures he calls “RubBeings,” putting them into conversation with human beings. These creatures are trapped inside objects like telephone poles and manhole covers, and only emerge when coaxed by his charcoal pencil moving over the paper with which he covers them: like poet Nathaniel Mackey’s title Strick, which he describes as a “crippled word,” these RUBbeings are resonant with half-realized potential.27 Using mass-produced materials that are already deteriorating back into the elements they came from (wood, iron), and working on the street, a border between interior domesticity and a feral urban world, Chirot summons these shy inter-world spirits, thrown-away life-forms still vibrant with misshapen energy, into conversation with human society.

The People’s/Human Microphone

One form of micropoetries that elicited worldwide fondness and enthusiasm for its low-tech exuberance, inventiveness, and spunk was the Human Microphone, a low-tech system of information relay that characterized the 2011 Occupy movements. In this famous technique, which evolved spontaneously in response to a legal prohibition on electronically amplified sound aimed at curbing rallies, speechifying, and other activities ancillary to the rights of free speech and assembly, a primary speaker would utter, short phrase by short phrase, his or her message; it would be relayed in waves of repetition starting with the people closest to the speaker and continuing to the periphery in concentric waves, dramatizing the travel of soundwaves through time and space; the speaker would have to wait until all had heard the phrase before continuing. Here community formation and poetics worked together, and the rich texture of vocal difference inherent in the protracted call-and-response ritual reinforced, along with phenomena such as the People’s Library and lively, do-it-yourself (DIY) signage, a sense of social purpose that was also culturally and artistically vibrant. Moreover, by slowing the transmission of message by many seconds and even minutes, the practice lent a ceremonial air to every locution, bringing attention to the sonic, embodied, collective and individualized nature of language. Poetic subjects and objects were being multiplied. Performance poet cris cheek has explored the poetics of the Occupy Wall Street human microphone in the context of networks and power, capturing its riotous order and its rich difference-within-sameness. He writes that: “Anonymity walking hand in hand with leaderlessness is poeisis.”28 In nuce, this is micropoetries: decentered authorship, anonymity, multiplicity in concert with eccentricity and difference.

The Occupy movement’s brilliant invention in response to a ban on all technologically assisted amplification was rapturously noted by media from Al Jazeera to The Nation. Poets themselves have reveled in the DIY sonic utopia, the glorious murmur of sameness and difference, of anonymity and specificity, that is the call-and-response dynamic of the people’s mic: Steven Boyer wrote about life at Zucotti Park as “a continually ecstatic outburst of psychedelic transformation, philosophers engaged gardeners, poets engaged politicians and the freewheeling demonstrators engaged the vampiric Wall St. in unflinching, self reflecting, ongoing conversation,” and tells of an instance, captured by a Nation reporter, in which the police were captivated by his reading of his own poetry.29 There has been an outburst of poetic interest in the ways in which the Human Microphone articulates politics and poetics. Poets took up the practice, staging call-and-response “Human Micropoem” readings in settings other than the Occupy sites, in solidarity but also to use the “take-away” performative elements of the practice. There are instances of canonical poetry, notably Paradise Lost, being read human-mic style at a West Coast Occupy. Of course call-and-response techniques have a long history in U.S. oratorical traditions, primarily in black church oratory and African-American secular and religious music, which have slowly gained mainstream acceptance as poetic devices, and these repetitive techniques no doubt arose in response to other issues such as a range of literacies, emotional or semantic emphasis, community formation, etc. Noteworthy is the joy and relief with which the Occupy technique has been hailed by interested onlookers and fellow-travelers, as if to marvel that humans in their contemporary urban overload are still capable of collective invention, and that the sound of the unamplified human voice in its individuated multitudinousness, repeating and stumbling, embodying a principle of nondiscrimination in its fidelity to every phrase, can still be powerful. This phenomenon was, for many commentators, cause for optimism about human inventiveness and authentic cultural expression.

Popular Culture/Social Media

One of the most vibrant and effective instances of a dissemination of micropoetries occurred in January 2016, in the wake of Republican candidate for president Donald Trump’s visit to Scotland the morning after the Brexit vote, in which the Scots voted overwhelmingly to remain in the European Union though they were outvoted by the British majority. Not understanding the voting data correctly, Trump tweeted: “Just arrived in Scotland. Place is going wild over the vote. They took their country back, just like we will take America back. No games!”30 Trump was immediately hit by a barrage of extremely imaginative and angry insults from Scottish people, which responses in aggregate comprised a gloriously bracing performance of spontaneous and highly poetic invective. “Scotland voted Remain, you weapons-grade plum.” “Scotland voted to stay, you witless fucking gobsplat!” “Scotland voted overwhelmingly to STAY in the EU, you weaselheaded fucknugget” “Scotland hates both Brexit and you, you mangled apricot hellbeast.” “Scotland voted overwhelmingly to REMAIN. But what are facts to you, you bloviating flesh bag” “Scotland voted overwhelmingly to stay in Europe you toupéd fucktrumpet” “Scotland voted remain you incompressible jizztrumpet” and perhaps the longest and most oft-quoted: “Scotland voted to stay & plan on a second referendum, you tiny fingered, Cheeto-faced, ferret-wearing shitgibbon.”31

The creative outpouring, generally characterized by similar openings (“Scotland voted to remain”) followed by apostrophes vying for most succinctly out-there and simultaneously accurate description, took the Internet by storm, sending people around the world back to William Shakespeare to dig up the most vivid name-calling in order to link the phenomenon to the “low” elements of their beloved bard. Even without these searches for high literary precedent and example, however, the display of verbal mastery in these snippets recall other traditions of masterful insult that take on ritualistic and rhythmic power, most notably the Dozens, an African-American masculinist contest in which opponents insult each other’s mothers in increasingly amusing and far-fetched turns of phrase until one gives up. One could also observe that Twitter handles (Hamfisted Bun Vendor, etc.) are also an instance of micropoetries.

Extant Scholarship on Micropoetries

Since this is an emergent, squishy, and inherently unstable category, the following gathering of scholarly referents is perforce scattershot and incomplete. And because the term is not ubiquitously in currency, many of the authors noted below would not self-identify as scholars of micropoetries. Nonetheless, a brief survey of some extant precedents and exemplary studies can partially fill in a genealogy, although this family tree is more constellatory than dendritic. As noted, elements of both Frankfurt School (top down) and Birmingham School’s (bottom up) approaches to mass and popular culture inform the micropoetries analysis. Daniel Tiffany’s work on poetry’s debt to nightlife and thieves’ cants, Infidel Poetics: Riddles, Nightlife, Substance, has been a breakthrough study in positing a link between the obscurity of lyric poetry (the notorious “inaccessibility” our students complain that they find in poetry) and deliberately obfuscatory vernaculars of illicit subcultures.32 Nineteenth- and twentieth-century American literature scholar Mike Chasar uses the term “good bad poetry,” examples of which he analyses, among others, on his Poetry and Popular Culture blog.33 Henry Louis Gates Jr., writing on the folkloric figure of the Signifying Monkey, also demonstrates how a thick description of an urban African-American “toast” (oral transmitted ballad) can generate an entire theory of literature; although his later analysis turns to modern fiction, the centrality of a piece of anonymous underworld poetry to his exploration of signifying, the continued presence of Eshu Elegua in the New World, and the development of a robust literary counter-canon exemplify the possibilities of micropoetries scholarship.34 Likewise, in 1903, in a founding document of the emergent discipline of sociology, W. E. B. DuBois deduced a generational lineage of cultural transmission from a fragment of a remembered lullaby to account for the grandeur and ubiquitous appeal of the “sorrow songs,” or “Negro spirituals,” that structure one of his many masterpieces, The Souls of Black Folk.35 Straightforwardly ethnographic accounts by cultural anthropologists Leila Abu-Lughod, Steven Caton, and W. Flagg Miller have analyzed Yemeni and other Arabic poetry traditions’ presence in cultural developments as far-ranging as jihadi warfare, communal social practices such as wedding celebrations and cab-drivers’ associational forms, and courtship patterns and intimate relations between young men and women in quickly modernizing Bedouin communities.36

Rebecca Mark’s recently introduced term “visceral graphism” captures exceptionally well some of the flavor of studies in micropoetries.37 In seeking out evidence to counter the monumentalism she sees dominating U.S. narratives and landscapes, she turns to and deciphers a “language of liberation” that delineates “gestural act[s] of democratic participation.” She writes of the graffiti subway trains in New York City in the 1970s, of the post 9/11 missing-persons flyer phenomenon and refrigerator art (drawings on useless, mold-ravaged refrigerators from destroyed homes left out on the streets after Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans), and of “feet tracing paths of escape through Southern woods” as the furtive but dynamic inscriptions of “citizen artists” who, intentionally or not, map out a culture of resistance to hegemonic images and stories about their travails, or erasures thereof. The politicizing and democratizing of the category of “asemic writing,” or, alternatively, “visual poetry,” balances out a putatively territorial, and perhaps slightly precious, use of those terms by a self-avowed avant-garde. Visceral graphism adds a body-centered, haptic urgency as well as counter-memory to the merely counter- or subcultural.

Chilean artist/poet/translator Cecilia Vicuña’s has termed certain elements of her oeuvre precariosos (precarious things). Though predating the current use of the word “precarity” to refer to economical fragility of contemporary life, her usage, from the 1970s and 1980s, referred to a related phenomenon: tiny bits of natural and human-made phenomena that, when seen with an artist’s eye, become magical in part because of their ephemeral beauty—ever more so recently, as the “anthropocene” promises a direly harsh period in human/environmental relations. Photographs of wisps of fiber, an almost-used-up pencil on a table in the sun, a twig with animal hairs caught in it, or gallery spaces filled with these small constellations of natural and made things draw attention to the instability of our phenomenal world and of our attention to it. Her 1982 film, What is Poetry To You?, combines interviews with people on the street (vendors, prostitutes, wandering musicians, lovers in bars, policemen and, memorably, a botanist devoted to keeping Colombia’s indigenous flora thriving) as well as conversations with “real poets” with shots of natural and social beauty that show how the two understandings of poetry (crafted words on a page as well as instances of “the poetic” in everyday life) are intensely interwoven even as people may insist on the status of verbal poetry as special. By simply asking the eponymous question of a variety of people, Vicuña shows a remarkable consistency in their desire that “poetry” play a special function to inspire, express, and liberate. Although she is a trained artist whose relationship to visual and textual culture can only be considered exceptionally refined, her attention to the ubiquity of “the poetic” and its relation to all materiality has long led her to articulate, far more than many fellow-poets working in experimental traditions, the ways in which creative expressions are the legacy and concern of the whole of creation, not simply of educated or aspiring poets in the professional/academic sense.38

Kristin Ross’s seminal 1988 work on Rimbaud and the Paris Commune, The Emergence of Social Space, as well as a more recent book, Communal Luxury: The Political Imaginary of the Paris Commune, attends to forgotten heroes and colorful characters of the Paris Commune, vivid moments in which uniquely flamboyant expressivity dovetailed with an emancipatory ethos, and the seriousness with which the community organized the writings of its constitutive workers’ guilds with an eye toward encouraging future utopians to take heart.39 Likewise, poet Kaia Sand’s essays on the languages of the Occupy movements, David Buuck’s hybrid essay/poem addressing the poeisis of Occupy Oakland, and Sand’s and geographer Jules Boykoff’s “Commentaries” for the online journal jacket2 revitalize poetry scholarship by introducing new terms into its sludge-filled streams as “a moxie politics,” “inexpert investigation,” and other phrasings that join poetics, poeisis, activism, and reflective critique.40

Maria Damon has written essays on poetry written in high-school-age girls’ journals at a GED program in the housing projects of South Boston in the early 1980s, and on the jargon and culture of an alternative bicycle collective, SCUL (Subversive Choppers Urban Legion), as well as the collective’s mourning ritual on the death of Pigpen, one of its members.

Pedagogical Matters re: Micropoetries

The concept of micropoetries provides opportunities for students to find poetry in the banal activities of their daily lives and surroundings. Micropoetries include hidden histories of poetry, anonymous poetry, poetry by the underrepresented, and forms that are under-represented as poetry. Two assignments tend to create delight and occasions for deep engagement for both undergraduates and graduate students. The first is simply to have them duplicate Vicuña’s experiment: send them out into the world with handheld devices to film a variety of answers to their question “What is poetry to you?” Encounters with a select yet random group of interviewees (people on a swim team, people in line at the DMV, retail salespeople at the Mall of America, roommates, parents, bar companions, pets) not only offer the diegetic materials related to the question (“Well, I think poetry is about expression …” etc.) but also, at a meta-level, pushes students to confront the “poetics” of a more public realm than the rarified classroom or private space in which poetry is encountered (writing at a desk, reading to one’s beloved or silently to oneself). Moreover, a poetics emerges in the charged space of the interchange itself: an encounter with another person, under the aegis of a concept, within a context that recreates relationships with all of those.

The other assignment is simply to have students document an instance of micropoetry. The broader their understanding of this assignment the better, from the banal to the truly esoteric. This assignment has occasioned short papers about family prayers, sorority songs, graffiti, subterranean publishing ventures students had been involved with (newsletters for battered women’s networks, ’zines, etc.), mysterious signage, the pathos of packing labels, yarnbombing. But over the years it started to include material beyond the textual or even verbal. Occasionally a threshold is crossed into an even more expansive realm, and students write about durational experiences as well as artifactual objects: their friends, or a particular day, as a magical “poem”; or they undertake in-depth investigations of juggalo culture or an autistic relative’s jottings, accompanied by extensive critical investigations into the term “micropoetries” when applied to these artifacts. The assignment sensitizes students to the density of aesthetic material in their everyday lives, particularly but not exclusively the verbal/sonic elements therein, and calls on them to search out the sources of this material, site it in the context of the encounter, and articulate its effect on them. Some of the students’ work takes on the stylistic and formal charm and strangeness of their subjects, which makes them exceptionally more fun to read than the standard analysis of an established literary text. The student work can itself be used reflexively to reveal, foreground, and pressure their assumptions about what constitutes “poetry” and “the poetic,” two terms whose relationship is presumed but under-analyzed. By way of exemplification, see Appendix A, the majority of an essay from an English major at the University of Minnesota from 1990. Reflecting the profession’s recent and current orientation toward literary historiography, it is presented for the quality of the analysis and the poignancy of the artifact.

And More: Macropoetries

Moving into the possibilities afforded by pluralizing poetry and then taking it out of any realm of professionalism into a democratized, phenomenological space of perception and engagement, one comes to micropoetries’ natural complement, macropoetries. If micropoetries are easy to miss because of their fleeting, peripheral, or ephemeral nature, macropoetries are easy to miss because their vast, indeed excessive (at a human scale) durational presences and their global permeations make them hard to assimilate experientially; both micro- and macropoetics move at the limits of perceptibility because of their distance from our normatively-tuned-for-“poetry” sensory apparatus. For instance, macropoetry comprises the interplay between geological and atmospheric change over time and the ways these changes enter our imaginations and form the ground, literally, from which we speak. It shouldn’t surprise us that some of the most powerful Western myths—Gilgamesh and the story of the flood and the ark come to mind—refer to the end of the Ice Age, a time as momentous as the Ice Age itself in terms of cultural, especially literary, development. The relationship between such elemental events and the stories that get told about them has the greatest relevance to current interest in ecopoetics and other cultural expressions of environmental activism, because the relationship between thermal/geological global processes and human experience has become an urgent subject for public discourse. Indeed, the overlap between macropoetries and ecopoetics is considerable. Storms like Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, as well as the major tsunamis of the past decade, have provided dramatic occasion to reflect on large questions of survival and accountability. How do we encounter these major events participating critically and creatively in daily rituals of travel, conversation, dress; how do we engage social and artistic remappings in response to such catastrophe? The thermal effects of climate change might be usefully looked at in every intensely local context: What words do we use, what new rituals do we create? Other examples of macropoetries might be the way in which the meaning of the Names Project—the so-called AIDS quilt—changes as it grows exponentially (as well as due to the fact that it hasn’t been exhibited in its entirety since 1996, partially because of its enormous size, well over 864,000 square feet), or the ways in which Internet memes travel and accrue contextually shifting meaning.

Anthropologist Tim Ingold has asked, using a phenomenological perspective, about the long-term life of “things”: what happens before, during, and after they coalesce into “objects” and then disintegrate again? (Tree becomes table becomes firewood becomes carbon ash, becomes dust, etc.)41 The raw materials, the “things” of poetry—what happens to them before, during and after their duration as “poems”? This is a macropoetic question, as it takes into account the vast resources, material, temporal, linguistic, and affective/cognitive, that get distilled into what we conventionally call “poetry” and then disintegrate back into the para-poetic. We consider the sources of paper, ink, stitching materials, computational instruments and their mineral sources, the labor that produces them, i.e., the resources it takes to feed, clothe, and house the people involved in manufacture and distribution, and how they may feel as they make these materials or assemble these products, as well as the resources that go toward educating those who produce poetry of all kinds, the materials with which they compose, the reception circuits, the widening spheres of reader- or hearer-ship, and so forth. As well, the histories of words themselves, their etymologies, create a nomadic cross-hatching of traveling syllables and phonemes that course through a verbal artifact, with every word instantiating a node of historical activity, so that the text becomes a map through multiple histories of peregrination and labor. Models of writing or other performance that embody or acknowledge formally this intensely textured, wide-ranging, and multivalent set of overlapping and intersecting, folded, interknit, and networked movements could yield extremely interesting experiments.

One such experiment is the composition Longplayer by Jem Finer, a musician with folk-punk roots (as the banjo player for the Pogues) and an education in mathematics. Longplayer comprises six sections that are algorithmically organized and programmed to combine with each other along simple principles for a thousand years, from midnight of December 31, 1999, to midnight of December 31, 2999, without repetition. As the website explains:

The composition of Longplayer results from the application of simple and precise rules to six short pieces of music. Six sections from these pieces – one from each – are playing simultaneously at all times. Longplayer chooses and combines these sections in such a way that no combination is repeated until exactly one thousand years has passed.42

The piece was developed to explore temporality philosophically. As Finer explains it, “At extremes of scale, time has always appeared to me as baffling, both in the transience of its passing on quantum mechanical levels and in the unfathomable expanses of geological and cosmological time, in which a human lifetime is reduced to no more than a blip.”43 Careful to situate itself at a meeting seam of natural and human worlds, Longplayer’s permanent home is at the Trinity Buoy Wharf in London, a site by the Thames which, while currently an anchoring building for a vibrant arts quarter, for five hundred years designed, made, and maintained lighthouses, buoys, and other forms of technology designed to inscribe order on the chaotic, massive ocean where it meets human habitation. Longplayer is, however, available gratis online and at a number of sites around the world. The scope of this project and the seriousness with which it tries to approach overwhelming natural phenomena exemplify what might emerge from an engagement with the macropoetics of our habitus.

Review of the Literature

The term “micropoetries,” a neologism coined by Maria Damon, first appeared in print in 1994 and circulated more widely in 1997, within a generalized context of a democratizing not only of poetry but of poetry scholarship—an attempt to widen the terms whereby non-literary poetry or poetic activity could be seriously studied by literary scholars, with less attention to the effects of “craft” and more on immediate social context, reception, and/or significance to its community. While an even more capacious term, notably simply “poetries,” emerged in 2006 with a significant and eponymous special issue of the Iowa Journal of Cultural Studies, which aimed to encompass both high and low, serving “as a portmanteau that packs together the name of a genre—poetry—with the name for a set of critical approaches to social phenomena—cultural studies,”45 “micropoetries,” a subset of “poetries,” retains its sense of the less “serious,” the less ambitiously aimed at high literary acceptance.

As a term and concept, “micropoetries” is indebted to the cultural studies scholars of the Birmingham School of Cultural Studies; musicologist Mark Slobin’s “micromusics,” ethnographic studies of popular uses of poetry; dance therapist Emilie Conrad’s “micromovements”; Tim Ingold’s phenomenologically inflected anthropology; poet Cecilia Vicuña’s filmic investigation into the broad public’s conceptions of poetry; and those poetry scholars who have started to investigate poetic activity beyond the printed page of the standard publishing mechanisms (that is, large publishing houses, “little magazines,” or small presses focused on finely crafted editions).

Forerunners include works as diverse as Antony Easthope’s Poetry as Discourse, the “Of the Sorrow Songs” chapter of W. E. B. DuBois’s The Souls of Black Folk, parts of Owen Barfield’s Poetic Diction, and the opening chapters of Henry Louis Gates’s The Signifying Monkey, wherein a case is made for an anonymous urban ballad becoming the cornerstone of a theory of black literature.

Contemporary works that resonate with the spirit of “micropoetries” in their attention to the social and cultural weight of ephemera, non-intentional, or non-literary verbal art include Cary Nelson’s extensive work on American poetry from the Spanish Civil War and the World Wars, particularly that by non-established poets; Daniel Tiffany’s Infidel Poetics; Mike Chasar’s Everyday Reading: Poetry and Popular Culture in Modern America; and Rebecca Mark’s concept of “visceral graphism” in Ersatz America.

Appendix A: David Kinyon’s Micropoetry Assignment44

My example of a “micropoetry” … is a letter to the Editor printed on the Editorial page of the Star Tribune on April 14th, 1990, titled “A Prestigious Structure[,]” … an excellent example of poetry in a cultural context, an almost unintentionally beautiful and minimalist poem printed in prosaic form as a letter to the Editor…. With some help from the committee overseeing the renovation of Williams Arena, I found the letter. It is as follows:

  • I have heard rumors now and then of
  • A possible dismantling of the grand
  • old Williams Arena, formerly the
  • fieldhouse. I am concerned for this
  • dear old building because I was a
  • bricklayer there during its construc-
  • tion in 1927-28.
  • Few people know of the quality ma-
  • terials used and the dimensions. I do
  • not remember the overall dimen-
  • sions, but I do know of the mam-
  • moth steel construction and the solid
  • brick walls. The two long side walls
  • are 16 1/2 inches thick--four bricks
  • wide. The two end walls built to
  • follow the round curved steel roof are
  • 29 inches thick from bottom to top
  • --seven bricks wide. The bricks
  • themselves are of the highest quality.

--Roy Larson, Cumberland, Wis.

This “poem” is about many … prominent cultural symbols in America, among them the symbolic importance of the laborer or “blue collar” worker, the edifice and the importance of large public buildings in the expansion of the United States, the academic institution of the University, the importance of sports (and the Big Ten) within that academic institution, and most prominently, the brick, a symbol of great significance regarding the story of development in the United States, especially in the first half of the Twentieth Century [sic]. Finally, this letter has further significance at this time for the University community in Minneapolis, where Memorial Stadium, viewed as the compliment [sic] to Williams Arena, has now been destroyed.

One of the most interesting issues raised by this poem is the pride in craftsmanship expressed by the letter-writer. Seldom are we afforded the opportunity to read such a simply stated, artistic writing expressing the love of a blue-collar worker for the product that he or she has helped to create. Obviously, what I call a “minimalist” description of the building might be as much attributable to editing by the newspaper as it is to the letter-writer’s own aesthetics. Nonetheless, his simple explication of the dimensions of the building, which could easily be written in verse form (“The two long side wall / are 16 1/2 inches thick / --four bricks wide …”), has a very minimal feeling; no overt political, or even aesthetic, statement is made, which distinguishes this letter from most of those printed on editorial pages, which by their nature deal with overt political themes. This letter seems to have a different intention; it is documentary, historical, and has more in common with a statistician’s report than a George Will column. Further, the letter-writer admits that he has only a limited amount of knowledge to provide. Being a bricklayer, he does “not remember the overall dimensions”; he can only recall his contribution to the project, the bricks that composed the outer walls. The admission by the letter-writer that he has only a small amount of information to contribute to the debate regarding the fate of Williams Arena, as well as the minimalist, or “simple,” descriptions such as “the grand old Williams Arena” and “this dear old building” contribute to the emotional reaction that this letter produces, a feeling of pride and adoration for the product of a blue-collar labor-intensive project and the skill and knowledge required to make such a building.

The culturally significant symbols of the Arena itself are a part of interpreting this letter as well; the building is designed for basketball games, an interesting compliment [sic] to the Memorial stadium, whose purpose was for football matches. The importance of these buildings in the life of both the University and the community in general is directly lik[en]ed to the sporting activities and the overall competitive and commercial aspects of academia in general; it is illuminating that craftsmanship on such a grand scale is devoted to building a “sports” arena. A look at modern buildings like the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome and the Target Center indicate that this theme continues to thrive …

Of all the culturally significant symbols in Roy Larson’s poem-letter, the most fascinating is the brick. The brick is an ancient form of building material; bricks over 4500 years old have been found in the Indus river valley and other areas. Bricks have many advantages over other materials, being weather resistant and a good form of insulation (two important features for a Minnesota building). The bricks of Williams Arena … “are of the highest quality,” undoubtedly intended to last as long as the bricks of the Indus civilization. This is one of the important features of the brick; it is not a material used for nonpermanent building--Williams Arena, or at least its outer walls, are designed to last forever. Until, as with the Memorial Stadium, they are torn down out of bureaucratic necessity and changing cultural values.

Bricks have become an important symbol of the expanding size and technological capabilities of the United States. The construction method described eloquently in this letter was a common one; the steel structure supporting solid brick walls. This method of architecture is no longer used, with modern buildings utilizing steel-reinforced concrete and cinder-block walls that sometimes, not always, provide a structure for a brick facade. but the symbolic importance of the material value of the brick is evidenced in the recent razing of Memorial Stadium. The University of Minnesota, in a moment of fund-raising genius, decided to sell the bricks taken from the walls of the stadium for ten dollars each. That anyone would find sentimental value in a brick, especially ten dollars worth of value, is a testament to the import of these symbolic building blocks.

Further Reading

Bean, Heidi R., and Michael Chasar, eds. Poetry after Cultural Studies. Iowa City: Iowa University Press, 2011.Find this resource:

Chasar, Michael. Everyday Reading: Poetry and Popular Culture in Modern America. New York: Columbia University Press, 2012.Find this resource:

Chasar, Michael. Poetry and Popular Culture (blog).

Chasar, Michael, Heidi R. Bean, and Adalaide Morris, eds. “Poetries.” Special issue, Iowa Journal of Cultural Studies 8.1 (2006).Find this resource:

Damon, Maria. “Tell Them About Us.” In The Dark End of the Street: Margins in American Vanguard Poetry. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1994.Find this resource:

Damon, Maria. Postliterary America: From Bagel Shop Jazz to Micropoetries. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2011.Find this resource:

Ingold, Tim. Lines: A Brief History. London: Routledge, 2007.Find this resource:

Plato. Symposium. New York: Penguin Random House, 2003.Find this resource:

Richards, M. C.Centering in Pottery, Poetry, and the Person. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1989.Find this resource:

Notes:

(1.) Mike Chasar, Heidi R. Bean, and Adalaide Morris. “Introduction: Poetries,” in “Poetries,” special issue, Iowa Journal of Cultural Studies 8.1 (2006): 3–9.

(2.) Edward Kennedy Ellington, Music is My Mistress (New York: Da Capo, 1976), 38.

(3.) Maria Damon, “Postliterary Poetry, Counterperformance, and Micropoetries,” in Class Issues: Pedagogy, Cultural Studies, and the Public Sphere, ed. Amitava Kumar (New York: New York University Press, 1997), 33–47, revised and reprinted in Poetry and Pedagogy: The Challenge of the Contemporary, eds. Joan Retallack and Juliana Spahr (New York City: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006), 129–147; and Dana Gioia, “Can Poetry Matter?Atlantic Monthly, May 1991, 94–106.

(4.) Maria Damon, “Poetries, Micropoetries, Micropoetics,” in “Poetries,” special issue, Iowa Journal of Cultural Studies 8.1 (2006): 86–105, revised as “Pleasures of Mourning: A Yessay on Poetries in Out-of-the-Way Places,” in Poetry After Cultural Studies, ed. Heidi R. Bea and Michael Chasar (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2011): 68–83.

(5.) Sean Bonney, “Notes on Militant Poetics,” in All This Burning Earth (Ill Will Editions, 2016), 38–39.

(6.) Ira Livingston, Poetics as a Theory of Everything (Poetics Lab, 2015).

(7.) Paul Willis, The Ethnographic Imagination (Cambridge, U.K.: Polity, 2000), 5.

(8.) Owen Barfield, Poetic Diction: A Study in Meaning, rev. ed. (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1973), 48.

(9.) Dickinson to Higginson, August 16, 1870, in Letters of Emily Dickinson, ed. Thomas H. Johnson (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997), 231.

(10.) Mark Slobin, Subcultural Sound: Micromusics of the West (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1993).

(11.) Arthur Rimbaud, “Alchemy of the Word,” in A Season in Hell, trans. Delmore Schwartz (New York: New Directions, 1939), 69.

(12.) See, for example, Walter Benjamin, “Some Remarks on Folk Art,” in Selected Writings, Volume 2: Part 1, 1927–1930, eds. Michael W. Jennings, Howard Eiland, and Gary Smith (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005), 278–280.

(13.) Though they address prose fiction or semiotic systems other than poetry, their attention to popular imaginative meaning-making is relevant: Mikhail Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays, trans. Michael Holquist and Caryl Emerson (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1982); Valentin Voloshinov, Marxism and the Philosophy of Language, trans. Ladislav Matejka and I. R. Titunik (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1986); Raymond Williams, Marxism and Literature (London: Oxford University Press, 1978); and Dick Hebdige, Subculture: The Meaning of Style (London: Routledge, 1979). “Thick description” is a term borrowed from anthropologist Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures (New York: Basic, 1973), 5–6, 9–10.

(14.) Antony Easthope, Poetry as Discourse, 2d. ed. (London: Routledge, 2010). All of Walter’s work instantiates this method, but with regard to the breadth of his interests, see The Arcades Project (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999); for a more focused inquiry into lyric poetry and its emergence from social relations, see “On Some Motifs in Baudelaire,” in Illuminations, trans. Harry Zohn (New York: Schocken, 1969), 155–200. Benjamin’s significance to the subfield of micropoetries is epitomized by the inclusion, in Walter Benjamin’s Archive, ed. Esther Leslie (London: Verso, 2007), of his lists of pet names for his toddler son, as well as the latter’s earliest sentences.

(15.) Guy Debord, “Rapport sur la construction des situations et les conditions de l’organisation et de l’action de la tendance situationiste internationale” (June 1957), paper prepared for the founding conference of the SI in Cosio d’Arroscia, Italy, July 1957; cited in Greil Marcus, Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989), 182.

(16.) John Birks Gillespie, “Transcript of Dizzy Gillespie,” prepared by Thomas Gatto, October 4, 2013.

(17.) Wershler, “Findables and Findability.” Retrieved from http://www.alienated.net/category/poetics/, April 4, 2012.

(18.) Cecilia Vicuña, “Language is Migrant,” Harriet: The Blog of the Poetry Foundation, Poetry Foundation, April 18, 2016.

(19.) Wyndham Lewis, The Stuffed Owl: An Anthology of Bad Verse, rev. ed. (New York: New York Review of Books, 2010); and James Camp, Pegasus Descending: A Book of the Best Bad Verse (Providence, RI: Burning Deck, 2003).

(20.) Ernst Herbeck, Everyone Has a Mouth, trans. Gary Sullivan (New York: Ugly Duckling Presse, 2012); Opal Whiteley, The Diary of Opal Whiteley (1920); and John Barton Wolgamot, In Sara, Mencken, Christ and Beethoven There Were Men And Women, rev. ed. (2001).

(21.) Examples drawn from Leonard Todd, Carolina Clay: The Life and Legend of the Slave Potter, Dave (New York: W. W. Norton, 2008).

(22.) Wolgamot, In Sara, 8, 35–36, 38–39.

(23.) Lawrence Upton, “Benign Artistic Trespass as Method,” in Nowt 4: Benign Artistic Trespass as Method and Two Other Pieces (Nowt Press, 2010), 3. Also delivered as a talk at post-moot conference, Miami University, Oxford, Ohio, 2010. See also Nowt Press (blog).

(24.) See Stuart McLean, “Stories and Cosmogonies: Imagining Creativity Beyond Nature and Culture,” Cultural Anthropology 24.2 (2009): 213–45; supplementary materials available from Cultural Anthropology.

(25.) “Songs Of The Humpback Whale (Full Album HD Vinyl)”; and Liz Stinson, “Listen to Slime Mold Sing a Song,” Wired, October 6, 2016; also Dana Luciano, “Earthiness, Enchantment, Exuberance” (paper presented at the annual meeting for the Modern Language Association, Boston, January 3, 2013.

(26.) Jonathan Skinner, Little Dictionary of Sounds (Los Angeles: Palm Press, 2010); a. rawlings, “Gibberbird,” Cordite Poetry Review 39.1 (2012); Cecilia Vicuña, Kon Kon (Valparaíso, Chile: El Ciudadano TV, 2010); and Robert Kocik, Rhrurbarb (Field Books, 2007).

(27.) David-Baptiste Chirot, RubBeings: Xerolage 32 (La Farge, WI: Xexoxial Editions, 2005); and Nathaniel Mackey, Strick: Song of the Andoumboulou 16–25, with Royal Hartigan and Hafez Modirzadeh, Spoken Engine Company, 1995, compact disc. See also Chirot at work, SleepingFish.

(28.) cris cheek, “murmuration of poeisis: praxis between control and emergence,” unpublished paper, Poetry and Revolution Conference, University of London-Birkbeck, May 27, 2012.

(29.) Stephen Boyer, “OWS Poetry Anthology Update 10,” Occupy Wall Street Library, January 7, 2012.

(30.) Donald J. Trump, Twitter post, June 24, 2016, 2:21 a.m., https://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump.

(32.) Daniel Tiffany, Infidel Poetics: Riddles, Nightlife, Substance (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009).

(33.) Mike Chasar, Poetry and Popular Culture (blog).

(34.) Henry Louis Gates Jr., The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African American Literature (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989).

(35.) W. E. B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk (New York: New American Library, 1969).

(36.) Lila Abu-Lughod, Veiled Sentiments: Honor and Poetry in a Bedouin Society (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986); Steven Caton, “Peaks of Yemen I Summon”: Poetry as Cultural Practice in a North Yemeni Tribe (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990); and Flagg Miller, The Moral Resonance of Arab Media: Audiocassette Poetry and Culture in Yemen (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007).

(37.) Rebecca Mark, Ersatz America: Hidden Traces, Graphic Texts, and the Mending of Democracy (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2014), 2–14.

(38.) Cecilia Vicuña, The Precarious/QUIPOem: The Art and Poetry of Cecilia Vicuña (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1997), and What Is Poetry to You? (Bogotá, Colombia, 1980).

(39.) Kristin Ross, The Emergence of Social Space: Rimbaud and the Paris Commune (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988), and Communal Luxury: The Political Imaginary of the Paris Commune (London: Verso, 2015).

(40.) Kaia Sand, “Seven notes on the Occupy Movements,” paper presented at the Poetry and Revolution Conference, Birkbeck, University of London, 2012; David Buuck, “We Are All Sound: Poetics and Public Space in the Occupy Oakland Movement,” Journal of Aesthetics and Protest, issue 9 (2014); Boykoff and Sand, Landscapes of Dissent, (Los Angeles: Palm Press, 2008); and Jules Boykoff and Kaia Sand, Jacket2.

(41.) Tim Ingold, “Bringing Things to Life: Creative Entanglements in a World of Materials,” workshop at the Institute of Advanced Study, University of Minnesota, April 1, 2010.

(42.) Jem Finer, Longplayer.

(43.) “Conceptual Background,” Longplayer.

(45.) Chasar et al., “Poetries.”

(44.) Reused with permission from the author.