The classical inspiration for writing poetry is the humanist movement the urge to communicate a classical "truth" about the human experience, whether it is love, memory or heartbreak through a now familiar poetic diction.
A number of contemporary writers distance themselves from the humanist trope by finding inspiration in found and manipulated texts, allowing the author to move writing out of its confines of the confessional into areas of language which are not typically seen as "literature."
Drawing inspiration from the conceptual art movement of the 1960s and 70s, Kenneth Goldsmith, Graham Rawle and Rob Read all challenge what constitutes "poetry" and what are acceptable subjects and compositional tools.
Each of Goldsmiths seven books has explored mundane and everyday language, gathering texts into a series of encyclopedic volumes: all the movements of his body for a single day (Fidget); every word he spoke in a single week (Soliloquy) and every word in a single issue of The New York Times (DAY). Goldsmith terms these explorations "uncreative writing," and his latest volume, The Weather (Make Now Press, 124 pp.) transcribes a years worth of one-minute weather forecasts from the New York radio:
"Uh, we have, uh, its, uh, a very small area of some light rain its, uh, gonna be over very, very shortly, as a matter of fact, in the city and, uh, mmm, looking at definitely less than tenth of an inch, uh, so its just enough, uh, to hold the dust down
The mundane language of weather reports begins to take on a suspenseful, almost apocalyptic tone as the big storm looms, approaches and dissipates without effect. The traffic snarls in response to snowstorms, but eventually returns to a relative calm. By re-presenting the speech of weather reports, The Weather makes the mundane extraordinary.
In Womans World: A Novel (Atlantic Books, 440 pp.), Rawle creates a new narrative constructed with over 40,000 individual fragments, which he has painstakingly cut directly from hundreds of 1960s womens magazines.
Each page in Womans World is an image of Rawles collages, leaving the fragments of text forwarding the narrative, but still referring back to their material status as clippings. Norma Fontaine, the "leading-lady" of Womans World, lives a life of handy tips and sensible advice, believing deeply in the lessons learned from the very womens magazines from which the novel is constructed. Her world begins to crumble as shes introduced to the boudoir photographer Mr. Hands, who is interested in more than her meticulous grooming. Womans World retains the full flavour and moral tone of the original magazines, while drawing attention to the continuous product placement and inherent sexism of these publications:
"In the mornings, like most other women throughout the country, she sets about her daily chores, getting into the hidden crevices that ordinary cleaning methods fail to reach. Then, when shes done that, she uses Simply wonderful BRILLO SAP PADS on the cooker, windows, sink and draining board. At the back of her mind
With O SPAM POAMS: Selected Daily Treated Spam (BookThug, 112 pp.), Read has also recast a ubiquitous source text in a poetic volume. For more than two years, Read took spam e-mails, removing words, spaces and unwanted linguistic detritus and reformatted them into a "poetic" shape by adding line-breaks and punctuation. He then re-sent the "poems" back to the original sender and readers who he thought would be interested.
Read made no effort to archive or document his "Daily Treated Spam," and when he was approached by BookThug to publish the poems, he was lucky to find out that Calgary poet Christian Bök had kept the first 200 of them (before unsubscribing to Reads onslaught of poetic spam), which would form the core of the book. Online, robotic spam is designed to create texts of advertising that will elude e-mail filters, through their use of unusual diction, conversational tone and familiar address. Spam-bots thus are subverting classical poetic tropes in order to elude technology, and Read returns the favour by re-serving the spam, with a garnish, back to the robot mouths that spewed it in the first place:
an array novel
identity somehow will identify author
of This Opera"
Goldsmith, Rawle and Read all suggest new avenues of exploration, by generating art that re-contextualizes mundane language, and challenges our poetic and prosaic standards.