April 5, 2009

Poems of Darkheartedness

by Nick Montfort · , 6:00 pm

. . . .
This strange world. Not a blank
space of delightful mystery, a light
heart, its black thoughts, its body at rest.
Were we men enough to affirm
the whole universe? No one knew.

Eric Scovel and Gnoetry 0.2 have a new Beard of Bees publication. There are some very intruiging lines and phrases in “a light heart, its black thoughts,” which Scovel describes as “a sonnet cycle using only Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness as input.” The seventeen fourteen-line poems in the free chapbook, curious tool-assisted centos, interestingly recast the text of the novel, which Scovel claims not to have read. The poems aren’t in verse, and the connection to the sonnet seems tenuous to me, but I think dwelling on that, or the difficulties in lineation, may lead one to miss more interesting struggles and accomplishments here. In his blog about writing this chapbook, Scovel gives some insights into these when he says that he feels the collaboration with Gnoetry

helped me to write about issues of love, sex, separation, knowledge, philosophy, war, economics, and globalization–basically the subjects of personal and political concern/despair that I have been dealing with–in a way that surprises and moves me. It is a very intuitive process, and it is a deeply personal process. … Conrad’s work … serves for me as a source of language from which I can make statements about my understanding and impressions of myself and the world from a distance that often feels liberating.

8 Responses to “Poems of Darkheartedness”


  1. Katherine Parrish Says:

    Thanks for linking to this- there’s a lot that’s interesting to me here!
    I think it’s fascinating that Scovel’s first reading of Heart of Darkness was a Wreading, to borrow Charles Bernstein’s term. Nick, you wrote he “claims” to not have read the work. Are you not buying it? I do find it difficult to believe that someone who teaches a course in post-colonialism would not have read it or that the choice of text was as disinterested as Scovel makes out. Wouldn’t be the first time someone misrepresented the degree of their intentional involvement a work of computer- assisted (- generated, and/or digital procedural) work. But no matter. Whether genuine or no, I love the idea of plundering Conrad for what seems like a solipsistic project, especially in the way he frames it in the excerpt you’ve quoted.

    Compare to the way he frames it in the intro:

    I do not think that this work has avoided what Slavoj ˇZi ˇzek has called, referring to the schizoid extremes of Western fantasies of the Other, “the split attitude of the West itself, combining violent penetration and respectful sacralization.” However, I hope that it succeeds in capturing and exposing this failure of the Western imagination rather than merely perpetuating it.

    I’ve only merely scanned the poems but on first blush I would very much want to read them as an exposé of a colonial imagination, as the expressions of a persona, rather than personal confession.
    And I like what I’m reading.

    And it’s interesting that Scovel has chosen to go with co-authorship credits with the program.

  2. Nick Montfort Says:

    Katherine, thanks for the comment. I did write “claims,” which may suggest that I don’t buy Scovel’s claim that he didn’t read Heart of Darkness – you make a much better case for distrusting that claim than I would have. But really I just wanted to highlight how he specifically disavows having read the text, as if it were a badge of honor. Perhaps not knowing the old makes it easier, at least in some ways, to make it new?

  3. chris funkhouser Says:

    Nick (et al.),
    fwiw I suppose its useful to shred a canonical text like Conrad’s, but now that gnoetry & Erika have done so here’s hoping for more interesting verbal databases in the (still mythic) future. Glad to know about this, in any case, thanks–
    Chris F

  4. Eric Scovel Says:

    Hi Nick, Katherine, and Chris. A friend of mine stumbled across this and was asking me if I had or had not read Heart of Darkness, so I figured I’d come here and address the issue, especially as I had struggled with the implications of read/not reading while I was “Wreading” it (love that term!). I also have been familiar with this website for a while, and never imagined that others would be talking about my work on it. It’s a pleasure to respond to all this.

    When I began writing it, I had not read the novel. Roughly half of the poems were written in a way that became too much like confession, so I took a break from the project for a while, not sure whether I would finish it. I remember being worried that reading the book might make the composition process less authentic, “tainted” in some way by having read the text. Some of the more imaginative parts, and the parts fixated upon tension in a personal relationship, did come out of this period, and I’m happy with the ones I chose to keep. Many were discarded in this early phase, though, for the reason I stated above.

    Part of my initial urge to not read the novel until after writing the series (I think I blogged somewhere about this) was grounded in my wanted something wholly different and personally subjective to come out of the process. Eventually I began to see that I could not avoid the work being intertextual, so I had better read the novel and think about the project more theoretically, while still working to maintain the openness and spontaneity that writing with Gnoetry requires/engenders.

    So, over the summer last year I read the novel and decided to plan my Introductory Composition course around the theme of postcolonialism. I ended up teaching Heart of Darkness alongside Things Fall Apart (not the most original choices, but they worked well for the course), as well as various historical texts, critical essays and introductory readings on postcolonial theory.

    Having absorbed all of this, and having talked frequently with my girlfriend about postcolonialism (she was working on her thesis on Caribbean studies and postcolonial theory at the time), I had many more ideas about the text and a fresh experience with it. I believe it had a large impact on what came out in the end. The poems began to have more violence in them, and class, race and domination became recurrent themes. The “personas” that emerged became more various as well, as I consciously tried to disrupt the personal confessional tone that I had started the series with.

    So I worried a lot about the impact of reading or not reading the novel I was using. The book is partially written before, partially after. I don’t know if I would say that with this cento-like process one should have read the texts that one is working with; but when the intention of the derived work is to make an intertextual statement of some kind, the more familiarity with the source text and its critical place in the world of literature and theory, the more accurate and pointed the response can be.

    I like how you put that all, Nick: “Perhaps not knowing the old makes it easier, at least in some ways, to make it new?” I wholeheartedly agree, but also I disagree. A serious writer should be well-versed in “the old,” because how can you make something you know nothing about new? In another sense, though, you have to be willing to divorce yourself from the old (commenting consciously on the source text, in this case) so that you allow the spontaneity and freshness of the reshaped language to come out as its own statement.

    I’m overjoyed to see others discussing my work, and especially this issue. I think that this problem with authorial knowledge (freedom in ignorance vs. a well-informed response respectful of its sources) will be food for much thought among all writers that use other texts in such a way, or use Gnoetry specifically.

    Eric Scovel

  5. Nick Montfort Says:

    Eric, thanks very much for joining us and describing how your reading was (very thoughtfully) involved in some stages of your process. Your discussion of your composition process here and on your blog is very valuable. And, thanks for the poems themselves, which are striking and worth rereading.

    I think you took a very interesting course and may have managed to get the best of both worlds – both ignorance of and awareness of the source text.

    I agree that being well-versed in “the old” is imperative for those seeking to make it (or even just make the) new. When it comes to the classics, anyway, it seems like the real choice is between knowing them poorly or in an oblique way and knowing them better. Anyone who has seen Apocalypse Now will know something about Heart of Darkness, but may not know much about Conrad’s unique engagement with the English language or about how the novel deals with Africa.

  6. Katherine Parrish Says:

    Hi Eric!

    thank you so much for elucidating your process here! it’s fascinating, and I really appreciate the issues you wrestled with as you made the variosu choices you made.

    I’d love to get into more of that later, but just now, the thought that keeps rising to the surface of my brain here, is how much the passage that Nick has quoted in his post here reminds me of what was one of my favourite verses in my early 20s, from Browning’s Fra Lippo Lippi:

    “This world’s no blot for us, / Nor blank; It means intensely, and means good: / To find its meaning is my meat and drink.”

  7. Eric Scovel Says:

    I like that quote, Katherine. It really gets to a major impulse of the poetics of Gnoetry for that project (its gnoetics, I supppose), which is the immediate experience and enjoyment of decontextualized language coupled with the desire to make new patterns and meaning–some different and various meanings–out of a text that has become more or less static in the canon. I really feel that a meaningful context has to arise for the work to have value, whether that context be an historical critique or something entirely random or idiosyncratic.

  8. Eric Elshtain Says:

    A little bombast and wink:

    From where I stand, one of the points of Gnoetry is to destablize a privileged notion of what it means to be a) creative and b) a poet. Gnoetry is most successful when an end-user who has never written a poem, professes to hate poetry, and hasn’t read a single text in the database walks away from her experience with Gnoetry and says: “I feel like a poet!” (This has happened on several occasions, by the way). A non-creative response to the text or texts will automatically create an “intertextual statement” in part because the poem is going to be read by the final author of the gnoem, the reader, and also because this form of statement is an unavoidable consequence of the gnoetic process since the texts have been recombined historically. Texts are not themselves canonical; canonicity is an invented and arbitrary ideology. To call a text “canonical” is to argue that it’s static and its history is frozen. Gnoetry is a diachronic engine, rendering the text as it is at the moment of its recombination. This infuses the statistically analyzed texts with new meaning; the canon has been wrung out of the text.

    Gnoetry is a style of reading (wreading, perhaps) and so once one has used a text gnoetically, one has read it. What’s more interesting to me is the effect of what I’ve called “gestalt markers” on the readers of gnoems; that is, what does a reader do when she comes across a character name she recognizes in any given gnoem? How does that change the reading of the poem? What gaps will the reader’s conscious mind fill in with details from the known text(s)?

    For more on all of this, see http://p-queue.org/vol-5 (no online version of the article, alas)

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