“Poetry can be any damn thing it wants,” observes the distinguished critic and translator Mary Ann Caws in a 2009 article for Poetry Magazine. One can take this unapologetically blithe statement—which, after the groundbreaking innovations of modernism, seems unimpeachable—to its logical conclusion: poetry can even be non-poetry. A case in point would be Alan Bigelow’s delightful “This Is Not A Poem” (2010), a digital piece which was featured in the Library of Congress’ recent exhibit “Electronic Literature & Its Emerging Forms” (April 3-5, 2013).
“This Is Not A Poem” is an appropriation and critique of Joyce Kilmer’s wildly (in)famous poem “Trees,” which, by many accounts, is the absolute epitome of bad, excessively sentimental poetry. In fact, Columbia University’s Philolexian Society hosts an annual competition called the “Alfred Joyce Kilmer Memorial Bad Poetry Contest.” Kilmer first published his poem in the August 1913 issue of Poetry, in a year which witnessed an unprecedented efflorescence of experimental and ambitious activity across the arts: the publication of Proust’s Swann’s Way; the premiere of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring; Pound’s “A Few Don’ts by an Imagiste”; the Armory Show in New York, which displayed Duchamp’s iconoclastic Nude Descending a Staircase. Against this formidable backdrop, “Trees” seems rearguard and aesthetically nostalgic indeed:
The last line—“But only God can make a tree”—is a kind of corollary to the naturalist John Muir’s statement that “Any fool can destroy trees.” Kilmer, here, defers the supposedly foolish poiesis of the poet to the sublime creative power of God. In contradistinction, the avant-garde (and bilingual) Chilean poet Vicente Huidobro formulated a one-man movement which he called creacionismo, whose intent was, as he said in a short 1917 manifesto, “faire un poeme comme la nature fait un arbre” [to make a poem as nature makes a tree]; Huidobro also declared in 1916, “El poeta es un pequeño Dios” [The poet is a little God.]
In a well-known takedown of Kilmer, the New Critics Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren analyze his messy series of mixed anthropomorphic metaphors (“whose hungry mouth is prest,” “lifts her leafy arms to pray,” “a nest of robins in her hair”) in their now classic Understanding Poetry (1938) and conclude that Kilmer must have had in mind “a strangely deformed human being.” They say, “people who do not stop to look at the poem itself or study the images in the poem and think about what the poem really says, are inclined to accept the poem because of the pious sentiment, the prettified little pictures (which in themselves appeal to stock responses), and the mechanical rhythm.”
In “This Is Not a Poem,” Bigelow takes the idea of Kilmer’s “mechanical rhythm” to a hilarious and parodic extreme. After the piece loads and one turns up the computer’s volume, one is confronted with a disc on which Kilmer’s poem is inscribed:
Pressing the play button will cause the disc to turn while a roboticized voice begins to recite “Trees” over a (surprisingly catchy) electronic dance beat—a fitting tribute to the poem’s “mechanical rhythm.” But there is more. If Bigelow’s piece is not exactly a “poem,” it is an instrument with which one can playfully deform or deconstruct one.
In her essay “Born Digital,” pioneering digital poet Stephanie Strickland says, “To read e-works is to operate or play them (more like an instrument than a game, though some e-works have gamelike elements).” “This Is Not A Poem” is a great example of such an e-work though Bigelow, himself, calls it “a toy, a game, and a poem”; I would call it a virtual poetic turntable. In any case, interactivity is essential: moving the computer’s cursor over a word of the text causes that word to be shunted to the margin while the roboticized voice enunciates that word. One can also “scratch” the disc as a hip hop DJ scratches a record. Eventually, one can—à la Ronald Johnson, who created his book Radi Os by erasing portions of Milton’s Paradise Lost—“compose” an alternative text from Kilmer’s words, such as this compressed one below:
Once all the words are removed from the poem, a short video of a logging machine cutting down a tree plays in the center of the disk:
The Kilmer poem can then be reconstituted by moving the cursor over the words in the margin; according to the explanatory note from “Electronic Literature & Its Emerging Forms,” “‘This Is Not A Poem’ is infinitely playable, in the sense that once the text has been deconstructed, it can be renewed and played again.” Here, Bigelow’s piece productively calls attention to its digital medium while casting a critical eye on the dissonance between Kilmer’s message and his print medium. One can produce a seemingly infinite number of deconstructions of “Trees” without actually cutting one down. In contrast, Bigelow suggests that there is a potential hypocrisy inherent in Kilmer’s poem in that it extols the divine nature of trees while, at the same time, it requires their harvesting for paper on which it can be printed. According to the company Cleantech, the publishing industry is “one of the world’s most polluting sectors”: “In 2008, the U.S. book and newspaper industries combined resulted in the harvesting of 125 million trees, not to mention wastewater that was produced or its massive carbon footprint.”
So what does Bigelow’s title mean? (It alludes, of course, to René Magritte’s 1929 painting The Treachery of Images, which famously proclaims, “This is not a pipe.”)
We can begin to answer this question by first figuring out what “this” refers to. If it refers to Bigelow’s piece, then Bigelow is highlighting the fact that his interest is not so much in Huidobrian creation—in the sense of creating an object that rivals ones found within nature—but in the creation of de-creation—in the sense that we are invited to de-create “Trees” however many times we want with relatively little environmental impact. And, according to Leonardo Flores, Bigelow’s title reminds us of its generic newness: “it’s an e-poem” if not a poem proper.
If “this,” on the other hand, refers to Kilmer’s text, then Bigelow can be indicting what we can call “the treachery of bad poetry,” which entails the piety, picturesqueness, and mechanical pacing that Brooks and Warren point out in Understanding Poetry. But we can also read the title as a scathing criticism that goes well beyond Brooks and Warren’s assessment that “Trees” is “a bad poem”: it’s not even a poem at all—and not worth the paper it’s printed on.
[first published July 2014 in Goddard College BFA blog]
Michael Leong is the author of Cutting Time with a Knife (Black Square Editions, 2012), which won a Face Out grant from the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses. His peer-reviewed essays on poetry and poetics have appeared or are forthcoming in Contemporary Literature, Modern Language Studies, and Reconstruction: Studies in Contemporary Culture. He teaches in the BFA in Creative Writing Program at Goddard College.