- Introduction: Poetry Games
A hundred years ago, the French avant-garde poet Blaise Cendrars proclaimed that “la poésie est en jeu.”1 Although the line declares that “poetry is at stake,” Cendrars also suggests a poem is a kind of game (“jeu”), a form of play. The idea that poetry and play are intimately connected has a very long history, but this linkage moves to the forefront during the twentieth century, as the use of word games, constraints, chance methods, generative processes, performative projects, collaborative writing, hoaxes, and other project-based or playful compositional practices become central tools for a wide range of avant-garde writers and artists. What is at stake in such practices, in such ludic approaches to poetic composition, and why are they so much with us today?
Indeed, such “poetry games” seem to be everywhere in recent years. The notion of poetry as a game or project—in which the writer devises an idea, concept, or set of procedures or practices that help generate the work—has become central to contemporary poetry. Such is the case not only for poets associated with self-styled experimental movements, such as conceptual poetry and Flarf, but also for a broad range of poets across the field as a whole. Although many of these poets and movements often brandish avant-garde credentials, they also draw from a repertoire of formal techniques that often seem at odds with the radical aesthetic and political claims of avant-gardism: prescribed logics, algorithmic sequences, crypto-positivist language-games, and alphanumeric code. The technological horizon for what we might call “ludopoetics” is, on the one hand, digital: “with the rise of the Web, writing has met its photography,” writes Kenneth Goldsmith in his preface to Against Expression: An Anthology of Conceptual Writing.2 Digital technology has, in other words, both satisfied and exhausted the demands of the print medium, charging contemporary writing with new [End Page 1] tasks, and new responsibilities, in order to sustain the art form. By this logic, its experimentalism is technologically mandated as well as digitally mediated. On the other hand, though, procedural poetry also calls to mind a long history of experimental composition whose priorities are less digital than logical, analog, mechanical, or participatory: its “technological” interfaces extend from anagrams and acrostics to parlor games and collective or even unconscious composition strategies. Bearing in mind both sets of historical conditions, the articles in this special issue explore the recent flowering of project-oriented and procedural poetics in twentieth- and twenty-first-century writing across a range of time periods, traditions, movements, and linguistic traditions: they examine some of the forces driving this trend, analyze some of its most important and exemplary works, and investigate its far-reaching implications, both for poetry and for cultural production as a whole.
Despite its ubiquity throughout the history of the genre, the idea of poetry as play is far from the only, or even the dominant, way poetry has traditionally been defined and conceived, especially in the period since romanticism. In fact, ludopoesis stands in opposition to a deeply ingrained set of attitudes about the way poems are created, disseminated, and read: first, that poetry is the fruit of powerful inspiration (often of divine origin and provided by the muse). Second, that poetry is the creation of an individual genius of extraordinary sensitivity and insight and linguistic gifts, even if the poems themselves are documentary or testimonial in nature. And third, that it is a genre of the highest seriousness and moral purpose, usually opposed to frivolity and triviality except in its most vernacular incarnations: poetry for children, light verse, occasional rhymes, song lyrics. In contrast, the idea of ludopoesis or poetry-as-play insists that poetic inspiration and language can be generated by various procedures, arbitrary constraints, and artificial means, or even by chance. Far from issuing Athena-like from the brain of a solitary genius, moreover, poetry can grow out of collaboration, competition, and social exchange, or through the interaction of a writer with other sources, by means of the appropriation and recycling of existing materials. The work of poetic creation, in this...