- The Poem Electric: Technology and the Lyric by Seth Perlow
by Seth Perlow
Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2018. 296 pp. $27.00 (paper)
Seth Perlow's book The Poem Electric: Technology and the Lyric is structured through oppositions and resistances: four main chapters pose characteristics of lyric poetry (namely, affect, chance, anonymity, and improvisation) in contrast to rationalism, knowledge, and information. Perlow identifies these oppositions by exploring technologies associated with four literary subperiods: romanticism and realism, modernism, postmodernism, and the Beat generation. The technologies that he considers are at times anachronistic to the poets and poetry writing that are the main subjects of each chapter, but the relationships he draws between poem, poet, and technology illustrate either the way a poet has used a technology or a scholar has used a technology to better understand a poet and her poetry.
After the introduction explains these relationships, the second chapter concerns affect, digital images, and interpreting Emily Dickinson's poetry.1 The third chapter is focused on chance, the poetry of Gertrude Stein, and Jackson Mac Low's rewriting of Stein's poetry using A Million Random Digits, "a book of numbers produced by the RAND corporation in the 1940s to help scientists at Los Alamos design nuclear weapons" (25). The third chapter discusses anonymity, Frank O'Hara, and O'Hara's commentary on using the telephone. The fourth chapter considers improvisation, Amiri Baraka, Allen Ginsberg, and "the technologies that preserve poetry—whether on paper, audio tape, or computer memory" (28). The book includes fascinating stories about these poets' and scholars' interactions with the creation and interpretation of poetry through and by electronic technologies.
These oppositions between the lyric poem and these chosen technologies serve the primary thesis in The Poem Electric that the "electrification of American verse cultures has energized the rhetoric that distinguishes poetic thought from rational knowledge" (3). Perlow argues that the [End Page 381] lyric poem, which by nature and norms is characterized by "expressiveness, affective intensity, and ambiguity," can be considered exempt from rationalism. While it is a suggestive premise, the book's provocations and its interesting historical investigations fall short of a well-substantiated long-form argument because Perlow relies too much on assumptions about information technologies as unsituated knowledge systems that reflect undertheorized misapprehensions about "the electric" or "the digital" as always already and necessarily rational, logical, and certain.
A well-researched and interesting literary history, Perlow's project is weakened by his surface-level and short-sighted portrayal of information and information systems. Specifically, Perlow sets his chosen technologies as foils that reflect the characteristics that he maintains best differentiate rationalism from the lyric poem. According to Perlow, the "synonyms for knowledge in technoscientific discourse" are "information, data, news, certainty, logic, rationality, and so on" (3). These characteristics are incompatible with the lyric poem, Perlow argues, since the lyric "express[es] an individual's thoughts, emotions, and perceptions" (9). Quite simply, Perlow disregards decades of research and theory in cultural criticism, information studies, and science and technology studies by theorists such as Donna Haraway, Sandra Harding, and Chun and many others who have addressed the deeply cultural, political, personal, and situated nature of supposedly empirical rational systems and modes of operation in the sciences and social sciences, as well as the specific technologies that Perlow addresses, such as the tape recorder, the MP3, and digital imaging.2
Information might best be understood as the extent to which an idea, a concept, an experience, or even a "fact" is informative to another person in a situated context. Just as Johanna Drucker conceptualizes the constructed nature of "data" as "capta," or as information created from the world rather than facts simply found in it, Perlow's project would have benefited from a more nuanced understanding of information as a situated concept that itself could be best understood as resistant to rationalism and certainty. As early as the 1970s, at around the same time when Perlow describes Allen Ginsberg chanting into microphones and riffing into recorders, Wilbur Schramm criticized the Shannon-Weaver communication model as a "bullet theory...