The Procedural Poetries of Joan Retallack

The Procedural Poetries of Joan Retallack

Brian Lennon

Brian Lennon considers the aesthetic that Retallack has evolved out of a cybernetic sensibility - a formalism that does not impose authoritarian codes or repressive orders, but rather hacks a pattern out of the sheer data of everyday life: directories, menus, phone books, indexes, encyclopedias, and archives.


read for for fore tu (large bird) errorious to be in motion o tu cara scienza mia musica
-Errata 5uite (1993)

He had for a long time had a fear of telephones. A good term for the telephone, he thought, was uncanny, a word embedding the Old English can, know, or know how. The word Freud used was unheimlich, literally “unhomelike,” which goes more to the point. It is, in a sense certainly traditional to the West, unhomelike to be in a state of constant connection: the telephone bridges “natural” or organic solitudes, and is, as Avital Ronell points out, impossible to “turn off”: “When you hang up, it does not disappear but goes into remission” (xv). Perhaps the device leads one to a nostalgia for (or of, or in) the body, for local not global villages, for the tactile book, for actual letters. But it is also necessary to ask if the practice of birdwatching is spoiled, or merely complicated, by the addition of a global positioning system (see Joyce). Perhaps we produce not unilateral longing-for-return so much as the discomfiting cognition of multiple, overlapping patterns: perhaps, as the technology of electronic mail proliferates, we remember fondly, not epistolary days of yore, but the “real time” plasticity of telephone conversation. If modernism in poetry can be understood merely as complex nostalgia for a simpler universe, post-modernism might be no less a nostalgia for the premodern, complex-chaotic world that the Enlightenment claimed to transcend, a world that the modernists sensed returning - and which has never, and never not, been there. When you go to Rome, I am saying, you do neither as the Romans do, nor as you think they do, but both/and - both, that is, and neither. When he read poems over the telephone, the other’s breathing mixed with noise in the line, and when afterward he pressed the hangup switch halfway, he heard cross talk:

in a
air shaft 
at night…


The emergence of prose forms in Anglophone modernist and postmodernist poetry is extremized on the one hand by the improvisations, systematic or asystematic, of Stein, Williams, the Beats, and an assortment of still only partially calcified contemporary formations - L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E writers, neo-Symbolists, neo-Beats, post-L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E writers, post-neo-Symbolists, post-neo-Beats - and, on the other hand, by the radical essayist cartels of Adorno-Benjamin-Barthes, Kristeva-Cixous-Irigaray, et al. Various strains of this trans-generic writing converge in electronic hypertext, the “almost embarrassingly literal embodiment” (Landow 34) of literary theories that until the late 1980s pointed mostly gesturally at the postmodern essai. While much attention has since turned to new possibilities (or lack thereof) in hyperfiction, electronic hypertext’s pre-embodiment in the procedural poem has gone largely unremarked. Rather than abandon entirely the print medium for the pixeled one, the poet and critic Joan Retallack has evolved a procedurally cybernetic sensibility that is enacted most remarkably within the confines of the “ordinary” printed page. In the feedback loop linking contemporary cultural forces and instrumental technologies into reciprocal and recombinant relations, Retallack’s work is, among other things, a form of hacking: these writings unmap the directory, the menu, the data bank (née telephone book, index, encyclopedia). In impacting, in transmuting these structures, her projects estrange (cf. Russian Formalism) and complexly aestheticize their content: information.


-Icarus FFFFFalling (1994)

The cybernetics researcher Claude Shannon defined information as “an inverse function… of the probability that a given specified or meaningful outcome will be selected from a more or less large distribution of possibilities,” or, “the uncertainty in which a receiver awaits a possible message” (Paulson 46). In this context, cybernetic or informatic post-encyclopedism is also a formalism of Zen flavor: “Form is emptiness; emptiness is form.” I wish to suggest that the procedural poem brings material pressure to bear on the supposed “evanescence” of information, and that its contact with Anglophone verse and narrative is revitalizing those practices. Above all, the procedural poem informs the vacancies (hot-sheet motels along the infobahn) that comprise our postmodern inheritance: at once abetting, and terminating, the consumptive bloom of deconstruction. Formalism - understood not as the imposition of authoritarian and repressive codes, but rather as the construction (sorting out) of variable pattern - is born in the ruins of reactive thrashing, whether that be high-Derridean assassination of metaphysics, or the homelier (a)versions of “creative nonfiction.” The formalist writer today is, like the postmodern urban planner, an architect of rubble: everything has, in the most basic sense, been posited already; there are no “new” sensibilities, no “original” voices (though there are certainly voices that have historically been suppressed); now it is a matter of suggesting dialectics of access and retrieval, for archive (data bank) and research (recombination), that will lead us to specific provocations of that notion of “new.”


Wave that flag as you may. Marxist, Modernist, and other revolutionary aesthetics stand as a lesson in the self-devouring tyrannies of the new: in attempting to skirt their traps we may find it fruitful to wonder, with Bruno Latour, if indeed “we” (and who are “we”?) have ever been modern. Can we now be “postmodern”? If the term marks anything more than an historical divide, it marks, perhaps, a transvaluation of the practice that writers (by which I mean: not scholars) in the academy had recently claimed as their exclusive provenance. But if “pure practice” - known in the trade as “craft” - can be codified and reproduced like any other technique, if a computer can be programmed to compose traditional sonnets, or sestinas, or terza rima, or Dickinsonian or Trakl-esque lyric, or Jamesian hypotaxis, or a hostile critic’s version of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E writing, or the gnarly jargon of postmodern academic prose, then perhaps the computer’s encroachment on human uniqueness is most meaningful in its specific historicity: everything has been posited already, yes, only not in this particular way, at this very moment. It is incumbent on the writer not to mourn the loss here (of her or his exclusive control of language), but instead to notice the specific new possibilities that loss indicates. It is in this sense that the procedural poet is the ghostwriter of genres. 


the awful has already happened- / Martin Heidegger
-Circumstantial Evidence (1985)

The expression “cog in the machine” serves to mark one’s frustration with serving a subordinate, instrumental function, alienated from the essence called “humanity” or perhaps merely bored to tears by its degraded forms. Insofar as the components of the procedural poem behave like cogs that have escaped ( - ping - perhaps snapping a few spokes in the process), they enact a machine aesthetic that brings Luddism (anomie) to meet Futurism (apotheosis) in the arena of cybernetics. The consciousness of information as a medium of experience transforms writing from a technical or tool-based craft to a technological operation. To the extent that this transforms the writer from an artisan, the village bard, or storyteller into the producer of a commodity that is instantly whisked away, it may stimulate an agrarian holding pattern such as the New Criticism; at the same time, however, it makes possible (makes necessary) an aesthetics of pursued compromise and invited pollution. One may retreat from the historical moment, or advance to meet it. (One may also stand still and wait, for a while.) Is it our intellectual conscience to switch off the TV, or may we also “read” it (read it resistantly)? 


So that formalism in poetry can mean neo-conservatism (e.g., “The New Formalism” or “The New Narrative”), or - as the polylogical poetries of Joan Retallack would have it - etwas ganz anderes. How to Do Things with Words (1998) raids the title of a late work of J. L. Austin, the Oxford philosopher of the “speech act” who famously “failed to say why what I have said is interesting,” and it demonstrates just how astonishingly heterogeneous theory and practice can be. The book’s intricately nested serial structures mimic instruction manuals, charts and diagrams, dictionary and encyclopedia entries, labels and plaques, computer printouts and scrolling messages, “creating parallel texts left and right full of opposing forces in a sad space of alternating dire lexical black and white squares.” These poem-procedures parasitize - that is, “digitally” intercept, transform, and redirect - information as it is organized and transmitted by both new and traditional media. Quantitatively multiple and simultaneous (disparate tracks spinning from the same groove), they seem less invested in analog transcription (Cantos/Waste Land) than in spiralling replication, the a/systemic a/production of complex weather:

Position 8: Stretch left leg back, bringing left knee to floor:

My DOLLAR! (ROBOT! PISTOL! COUCH!) I remember exclaiming. What are you trying to do to me?

Is this the the or a comic theory of chromotion?


botbot or boycott?
(Capt. Boycott, Irish land agent)

-How to Do Things with Words 78

Weather (the systemic-erratic) and laughter here are intimate, must be intimate: else how to cope with its (weather’s) total, benign indifference? As with mess, as with noise, as with the malfunction, the bug, the crash: not restart but continue as the “hot button.” How else to go on living in what life always already is? 


Autopoiesis, or self-organization from noise; error, errata, corruption, fragmentation, the collisions of static, difference, line noise, garbling. “Under the right circumstances, noise… can create complexity, can augment the total information of a system” (Paulson 73). The tropical density of word play in Retallack’s work is accompanied by a complex visual polyvalence: “AUTOBIOGRAPHIALITTERARIA II,” from AFTERRIMAGES (1995), is constructed so as to evoke both the text of a telegraph and that of neoclassical architectural inscriptions:




If historical “avant-gardism” = “montage,” if “modernism” = “collage,” if “postmodernism” = “deconstruction,” then Retallack’s work performs these homologies’ post-equivalence: a kind of informatic “streaming,” a culture’s stock ticker, “bibliostreams” or data channels caught, like Nietzsche’s “divine lizards,” in the act of whizzing by. The stream cannot be switched off: like Ronell at the switchboard, it merely enters remission when you turn away. The poetries produced radically court randomness and chaos, the riot of data, and at the same time produce order, happen or chance on pattern. (Here is Retallack in conversation with John Cage, from her book of “interviews,” MUSICAGE: “…one question with chaotic patterns is why or how they manage to have elements of both randomness and order… you might get a pattern that you can see is a bounded system, but the location of any given point within that system as it develops is unpredictable” [73].)


And rather than seeming coldly constructed, these works are, in a nearly ordinary sense, enthralling: Retallack’s post-Platonic forms gesture toward a kind of cybernetic beauty (yes) for which there’s no critical vocabulary as yet. When Matthew G. Kirschenbaum speaks of the “radical aestheticization of information,” he means to suggest, I think, that the work of the artist in the “information age” is not - as hostile critics of postmodernism contend - only the critical work of resistance to informational transparency, or pure unadorned utility. The artist’s work is also the constructive work of noticing “accidental” aesthetics at play, not as by-products but as primary cultural contexts for the production of technology. Better yet, it is the work of intervening in or assuming a substantive role in that production, so that its aesthetics are made manifest as part of the process, not overlooked or noticed only in hindsight. Beauty, as Kirschenbaum puts it, is “the best - or the only - guide we have as we break conceptual ground not yet assimilated by established fields and paradigms of computer science” (“Truth, Beauty and the User Interface”): here we have a statement of purpose not only for the new poetries, but for a wide field of cultural endeavor “after” deconstruction. Ideologies of composition are, after all, ideologies of media, and Beauty has served as a flashpoint for decades of the conflict pitting anti-aesthetics against neo-Romantic notions of cultural production. But an idea of Beauty conceived (justly or unjustly) as a negative in postmodern culture is something quite different from its revision, or redress, toward new possibilities for culture. Building on the diverse and technologically fluent cultural practices of John Cage and Jackson Mac Low, Retallack’s work forms what is to me one of the richest and most suggestive clusters of such possibility. A profound sense of wonder, tougher to get to in Cage and Mac Low, drives itself often out into plain view:

Returning with my dog Friday from buying the morning paper, I met a neighbor who’s an astronomer. He said, Did you know that the number on your license plate is 27 + 28 = 384? No, I said, Does that number have a history? No history, he said, just a future.

-How to Do Things with Words 103


Modernist styles have actually not been abolished, but, as one art critic [Edward Lucie-Smith] recently observed, continue “to enjoy a kind of half-life in mass culture,” for instance in advertising, record cover design, furniture and household items, science fiction illustration, window displays, etc. Yet another way of putting it would be to say that all modernist and avantgardist techniques, forms and images are now stored for instant recall in the computerized memory banks of our culture. But the same memory also stores all of pre-modernist art as well as the genres, codes, and image worlds of popular cultures and modern mass culture. How precisely these enormously expanded capacities for information storage, processing, and recall have affected artists and their work remains to be analyzed. (Qtd. in Retallack, “Post-Scriptum-High-Modern” 268)

I come by this quotation (from Andreas Huyssen’s After the Great Divide) somewhat dishonestly: Retallack reproduces it in her essay “Post-Scriptum - High-Modern,” one of a series of scintillant expositions that gather, storm-tossed, over the topoi of the poems. I reframe it here to introduce a paradox endemic to critical effort in the post-deconstructive (that is, complexly constructive) phase of the postmodern. As Huyssen indicates, one consequence of the expansion of information storage is the need to consider its paradigms, with some urgency, as new to our world. At the same time, mass storage permits mass overload, rapidly burning out the dialectic of “what’s new,” and suggesting not a fresh start (“Here is what we’ve been neglecting, all along”), but rather a means, as Cage put it, to “begin anywhere” (MUSICAGE xv); - the acknowledgment that there is nothing, in a profoundly contemporary sense, that can be “made new.” This is crucial, it seems to me, in the question of where poetry is going - a formulation at once irresistible and distorted by the urge to forecast. How is it that an art practice can be at once avant-garde and deeply conversant with tradition? Each reader has her own genetic/generic present and past, and perhaps the answer is that compelling work somehow addresses both: landing a surprise trope on what you already know.


Here is Roland Barthes, alone in a room with a telephone, which serves at once as conduit of possible joy (fulfillment) and instrument of actual unhappiness (deferral):

Waiting is an enchantment: I have received orders not to move. Waiting for a telephone call is thereby woven out of tiny unavowable interdictions to infinity: I forbid myself to leave the room, to go to the toilet, even to telephone (to keep the line from being busy); I suffer torments if someone else telephones me (for the same reason); I madden myself by the thought that at a certain (imminent) hour I shall have to leave, thereby running the risk of missing the healing call, the return of the Mother. All these diversions which solicit me are so many wasted moments for waiting, so many impurities of anxiety. For the anxiety of waiting, in its pure state, requires that I be sitting in a chair within reach of the telephone, without doing anything. (38-9)

Wireless telecommunications have transformed the techno-erotic paradigm that Barthes set out in 1977: one need no longer cloister oneself when a Nokia fits nicely into the pocket, as it were, over one’s heart. Rather than disappearing, though, this waiting - deferral, stasis, waste - has been absorbed into another, perhaps more elaborate remission. Each time I return to Retallack’s poetries, I find more in them that is so engaged, so “of the moment,” that I fight the urge to proclaim her “ahead of her time,” radically deferred, as though I did not hold this very formation grossly misleading. In words that quite well address her own, the poet describes Cage’s work as an effort of “complex realism” - an ethic, or, in Retallack’s gloss of Pascal, a “poethical wager”:

not to make a famous statement of about clarity
not to find the famous footprint
every third thought shall be my grace
writing synchronizing mind and bodys minds
one wants only clarity yet one wants truth

-How to Do Things with Words 66


The real tragedy of Western Civ is the separation from complexity.
-MUSICAGE (1996)

Retallack’s work is profoundly involved with what one might term, banally, “the exigencies of life” - though at first glance its formal intricacy and philosophical ferocity may seem difficult to square with the naturalism most of us bring to the idea of dailiness. Though hardly “free” in the sense of vers libre, her projects are nonetheless exhiliratingly permissive: living and letting live, delivering from paradox ethical complexes, not categorical imperatives. More registers than products, the poem-procedures take dailiness as given, and of given value, intrinsically worthwhile. Nothing in the present is postponed in favor of future “success,” whether that be configured as philosophical closure, lyric epiphany, or narrative denouement. The isolated urgencies that attend neo-Romantic notions of cultural production are thus diverted from the telos (someday, when the work is complete, life will decisively change, a.k.a. The Great American Novel) into recombinant feedback loops that implicate transcendence in the quotidian and vice versa. This is the (Zen) paradox that Retallack and Cage continually engage in her book of their conversations. To chance on pattern, one’s approach neither pure accident nor pure design, is to find a way to live in what life always already is. “When one moves toward a goal it seems impossible that ‘goal-lessness as such’ is the principle of one’s faith” (Nietzsche). The reconciliation that is the putative aim of art occurs midway, “in medias mess” as Retallack puts it, the aim and the seeking streaming together. Desire so intimate with failure that their crossing is a beat of utter blankness.

Works Cited

Barthes, Roland. A Lover’s Discourse. Trans. Richard Howard. New York: Hill and Wang, 1978. 

Cage, John and Joan Retallack. MUSICAGE: Cage Muses on Words Art Music. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1996. 

Huyssen, Andreas. After the Great Divide: Modernism, Mass Culture, Postmodernism. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1986.

Joyce, Michael. “Storm-tossed.” The Iowa Review 29.1 (1999): 34-36.

Kirschenbaum, Matthew G. “Truth, Beauty and the User Interface: Notes on the Aesthetics of Information.” Mixed Messages: Image, Text, Technology. University of North Carolina, Charlotte. October 13, 1997: n. pag. Web.

Landow, George P. Hypertext: The Convergence of Contemporary Critical Theory and Technology. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992.

Latour, Bruno. We Have Never Been Modern. Trans. Catherine Porter. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993. 

Paulson, William R. The Noise of Culture: Literary Texts in a World of Information. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1988.

Retallack, Joan. AFTERRIMAGES. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1995. 

-. Circumstantial Evidence. Washington, DC: Sultan of Swat Books, 1985.

-. Errata 5uite. Washington, DC: Edge Books, 1993.

-. How to Do Things with Words. Los Angeles: Sun & Moon, 1998.

-. Icarus FFFFFalling. Buffalo, NY: Leave Books, 1994.

-. “Post-Scriptum - High-Modern.” Postmodern Genres. Ed. Marjorie Perloff. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1988: 248-272.

Ronell, Avital. The Telephone Book: Technology, Schizophrenia, Electric Speech. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1989.


Part of section 6 of this essay first appeared as a short review of How to Do Things with Words in Boston Review 24.1, February/March 1999. Grateful acknowledgment is made to the editors for permission to reprint these passages.