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  • On Poetic Curiosity
  • David Caplan (bio)
A response to Lori Emerson, Demystifying the Digital, Re-animating the Book: A Digital Poetics

As I write this response on my office computer, three uneven stacks of books threaten to tumble across my desk. On top of the piles perch Jack Spicer’s The Collected Books (for a conference talk that needs expansion), an edition of Shakespeare’s Sonnets (which I just finished teaching), and my MLA ballot (due soon). My computer runs Windows 98 because I am too lazy to have the information systems staff update it and because the program fits my needs just fine. This morning I entered the changes I made on a hard copy, revising the opening in a neighborhood coffee shop. Outside the large front window, tourists admired the cobblestone streets and small brick homes built for German brewery workers and rehabbed by lawyers. Soon—I hope—I will email my response to the editors of Postmodern Culture so they can post it online.

Like our neighborhoods, our desks, and our lives, writing commingles the old and the new. I type, I email, and I write by hand. Alert to such daily facts, contemporary poetry quickly learned to embody familiar dislocations: the white noise of overheard chatter, the experience of listening to a CD while driving down streets organized for walking or walking through a suburban housing development.

Young poets coming of age now also face a particular literary-historical challenge. They follow the generation born around the mid-century, including Charles Bernstein (born 1950), Ron Silliman (1946) and Lyn Hejinian (1941), whose groundbreaking efforts replaced “tradition” with “innovation” as the poetic culture’s keyword. Ben Lerner speaks for his contemporaries when, in his debut collection, The Lichtenberg Figures, he wonders what comes next:

The poetic establishment has co-opted contradiction.
And the poetic establishment has not co-opted contradiction.
Are these poems just cumbersome
or are these poems a critique of cumbersomeness?

To which Lerner offers a qualified solution:

Perhaps what remains of innovation is a conservatism at peace with contradiction.


Like the fussy noun, “cumbersomeness,” Lerner’s poetry dramatizes an awkward moment. It wryly recalls the contentious debates that the previous generation’s work inspired. Partisans wrangled over the terms Lerner reproduces, debating what constitutes “the poetic establishment,” co-option, and “critique.” Lerner, though, less refuses to take sides than realize the sloganeering’s acute limitations. “Willful irresolution can stabilize into a manner just as easily as facile resolution, right?” he asks in an interview, responding to a question about the “prevailing post-avant penchant for hyper-cool and fragged surfaces.” “Honk,” another poem more wittily concludes, “if you wish all difficult poems were profound” (23).

Instead of an attachment to “willful irresolution” or “facile resolution,” poets need curiosity—curiosity about the state of language, poetry, culture, and the world in which we live. A lyric’s structure shows the importance of the seemingly trivial—the sound that a syllable makes, a pause’s hesitation, an easily ignored quirk of language. A successful poem, then, offers a model of curiosity. It demands and rewards inquisitiveness, demonstrating less a discovery, a paraphraseable insight, than the process of discovery. To account for this dynamic, we might consider “curious” and “incurious” poetry, depending on the degree to which it attends to the contemporary moment and the art form’s venerable history, the past’s complex, shifting relationship to the present.

Loss Pequeño Glazier’s Anatman, Pumpkin Seed, Algorithm follows Glazier’s Digital Poetics: The Making of E-Poetries, which argues for the aesthetic stance that underpins the poetry. The two books are intimately connected. Anatman, Pumpkin Seed, Algorithm includes passages from Digital Poetics as epigraphs, suggesting that the poetry illustrates the principles that the critical book espouses. According to Glazier, “innovation” marks the most important poetry. In Digital Poetics, he clarifies this point:

In general, the term “poetry” is used in this volume to refer to practices of innovative poetry rather than to what might be called academic, formal, or traditional forms of poetry.


Earlier Glazier responds to his own question, “What makes it innovative?”:

Innovative work avoids the personalized, ego-centered position of the...

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