Jena Osman

Gumshoe Poetry / Poetry of Detection

[Presentation draft from the Poetry and Pedagogy Conference, 
Bard College, June 1999]

Art isn't made, it's in the world almost
unseen but found existent there.
	-- William Bronk (his last poem)

I just want to get off this frozen star.
	-- Raymond Chandler, The Little Sister

I suppose this is about found poetry, and how using it in creative
writing classes can lead to activist reading and writing practices.
But as I began to look for examples, I realized that found poetry
exists in a number of categories.  There are those poems that collage
and incorporate snippets of found texts (such as T.S. Eliot's The
Wasteland or Pound's Cantos) and there are those poems that consist
entirely of text that originally existed in other textual
environments.  Within that latter category there is yet another
division: those poems that are found in the public environment (such
as David Antin's poems found in the street, the found/insane poetry on
Ubuweb, the "founds" of Bern Porter) - and then there are those poems
that are found inside of other texts. It's this last category that I
want to focus on here. I've called this kind of poetry "gumshoe
poetry" because it plays up to my fascination with the investigatory
impulse, where the reader and/or writer (as detective) slowly begins
to discover new logics beneath the surface, and thus creates a
re-newed picture of the (textual) world. Detectives don't spend their
time looking for allegories lurking in their cases; instead they look
at the materials at hand, they read the clues variously, until
something new can be perceived. Reading a detective novel is about
watching a mind moving. I thought of other names to apply to the
poetic method I'm about to describe: archaeological poetry,
palimpsestic poetry, poetry of extrication, of exhumation, poetry
mining, etc. But somehow, a detective is easier to relate to (and more
dramatic) than an archaeologist, miner, or other kinds of extricators
and exhumators. We can imagine ourselves making the detective's

The detective always manages to elicit a confession somewhere along
the way, so in that spirit I must confess that my interest in this
kind of found poetry comes from a purely personal fascination. The
first poetry detective that I really took notice of was Ferdinand de
Saussure. It was years ago, one of those cold, dark winter mornings we
get in the late spring in Buffalo, and I was reading Jean-Jacques
LeCercle's book Philosophy Through the Looking Glass. The snows hadn't
stopped falling. The hills and landfills were still a muddy white, but
I knew that in Beverly Hills the jacaranda trees were blooming... 

This was when I first learned about Saussure's project with anagrams.
LeCercle discusses this project as a manifestation of "delire," (which
is defined as the "disorderly" side of language between reason and
nonsense) with Saussure functioning as a kind of mad scientist ("the
demented seeker of anagrams"). However, I saw Saussure more as a
Raymond Chandler type.  He noticed discrepancies in classical verse
and was sure that the errors were intentional, that it was a system of
flaws that were meant to communicate. Through rigorous notes, diagrams
and calculations, Saussure revealed a series of anagrams where the
verse errors began to spell out the names of the gods. Although his
project was ultimately discarded when the anagram occurences could not
be proven to be absolutely systematic, this moment of finding words
within words was extremely appealing to me as a writer. I liked the
idea of signifiers endlessly generating beyond intention. And so
that's the confessional genesis of this essay. I feel much better now.
Many of you will be familiar with the other examples I'm about to give
of this particular poetic strategy, but I want to describe them,
before I explain why I see this procedure as useful, particularly for
student writers. "I open a window and lean my forehead against the
screen to get a little cleaner air into my lungs and look out into the
street. Two kids are wheeling bicycles along the lumberyard fence,
stopping from time to time to study the examples of rest-room art on
the boarding. Nothing else moves in the neighborhood. Not even a dog.
I go over to the desk. Inside it is the house register, so I leaf back
until I come to the name "Tom Phillips," written in a sharp meticulous
handwriting, and the title "A Humument" added in pencil by another
hand that was by no means as sharp or meticulous..."

Tom Phillips, a British painter, bought a Victorian novel called A
Human Document, by W.H. Mallock at a flea market. He then, in his
words, "plundered, mined, and undermined its text to make it yield the
ghosts of other possible stories, scenes, poems, erotic incidents and
surrealist catastrophes which seemed to lurk within its wall of
words." Phillips finds a new poetic narrative inside of the original
prosaic one. The book has been put through several editions and with
each edition, Phillips continues to revise and find new texts inside
of the same pages.  On the hand-out you will find two "findings"
elicited from the same page of the novel. Phillips has also said of
this writing strategy that it was "the solution for this artist of the
problem of wishing to write poetry while not in the real sense of the
word being a poet...he gets there by standing on someone else's
shoulders." Although I greatly admire Phillips' book, I must say that
this comment reveals a flaw in his understanding of the detective
poetry genre. Why his procedure is so incredibly valuable is that it
usefully calls into question what "being a poet" is, and revises that
definition so that a poet has more expansive means of expression. The
emphasis shifts from an inevitably limited self-expression to a
reader-centered creation of expression through finding. Nick Piombino
explains this difference when he writes in his essay "The Aural
Ellipsis and the Nature of Listening in Contemporary Poetry,"

	While at one time the poet's central role was to declaim his or her
	beliefs, experiences, wisdom, and ideas eloquently or adamantly
	through lyrics and narrations in a kind of public speech or
	song-making, for many poets these notions of a poet's essential role
	are no longer completely apt. Frequently, the poet seems to view his
	or her expressive function more as a medium or a "conduit" as Barrett
	Watten has phrased it. The poet is a researcher who must listen
	closely to the sounds and voices of actuality to discover where the
	poetry may exist within it.
What Tom Phillips did to A Human Document is very closely
related to what Ronald Johnson did with Milton's Paradise Lost. 
Through Johnson's "research"/investigation, Paradise Lost becomes 
"radi os." The original poem has literally become a transmitter and what
Johnson has found inside it is the resonant residue of his looking. In
their indescribable anthology Imagining Language, Steve
McCaffery and Jed Rasula compared Phillips and Johnson's production
procedures to a form of cryptography called the "grille cipher." This
method entails placing a grille with lots of holes in it over a piece
of paper. A secret message is then written in the space revealed by
the holes. Then the grill is lifted and extraneous text printed around
the message. The message can be decoded if the recipient places an
identical grille over the text. Although I like how this method fits
in with my trope of detective work, I'm not sure it really applies to
Phillips and Johnson.  Phillips and Johnson did not plant intentional
messages inside of surrounding text; instead, they found unintentional
messages inside of the existing texts. Words achieved significance
through their discovery, not previous to it.

"Cut the wise talk and lay your deal on the deck," he said, then
slapped the dead man's empty wallet against his thigh and sat down on
the bed. He leaned casually against the corpse's leg, lit a cigarette
and pointed with it." I protested. I'm not sure the audience at the
Poetry and Pedagogy conference will appreciate this less than delicate
treatment of the dead. He scoffed. "Any crowd that's read Reznikoff's
Testimony can handle a little corpse jiggling." I thanked him for the
neat transition, and "left him to his thoughts, which were probably as
small, ugly and frightened as the man himself."

Charles Reznikoff's Testimony: The United States consists of small
poems which have been culled from the text of law reports published
between 1885 and 1915. Whereas Phillips and Johnson restrict their
editing/detecting to the page, Reznikoff edits an entire volume of
reports down to as little as ten lines. He manipulates the arrangement
of the words that he keeps, and creates specific rhythms through
linebreaks. His word selections are also directed by a specific goal:
to find that material of language which causes feeling. He is using
what appears to be the most neutral of sources, the language of law,
and has discovered within it an emotional field.  I am always amazed,
when I teach this book, how startled and disturbed my students are by
its stark recounting of real events; many of them resist the reality
of the poems, and refer to them as "stories." Allen Ginsberg has said
of this poem:

	...everyone is yakking about how they want to show emotions in their
	poetry. The way [Reznikoff]'s done it is by simply being totally
	accurate to what stimulated the emotion in him, by observing so
	clearly or by being so present or by not trying to generalize it.
	...By trying to recall or reconstitute the sensation by gathering the
	data that caused the sensation-the objective external data-he's been
	able to reconstitute the sensation in us...

This is certainly a different form of detecting than that performed by
Phillips or Johnson, in that its search is seemingly more directed.
Reznikoff is looking to expose the objective core at the heart of a
text that we can feel, but not see. Johnson and Phillips find poems
inside of their texts which lurked unnoticed previous to their
detection. But they all share the common action of making the reader
see (and feel) differently in response to language. There is the
understanding that by looking inside, we might see the outside
differently. An excerpt from Testimony:
	"I want to ask you
	a fair question:
	did he say that he killed the woman?"
	But if I say
	he said that he killed the woman,
	I am to get half the reward.
	He is just as well off
	to lay in jail
	as to get out and get mobbed;
	for if he gets out
	he will be mobbed."
	"It is pretty hard
	to swear a man's life away
	for a little money."
	but this is pretty hard times,
	and I am pretty hard up."

"I've heard that one before," Marlowe said. It was about five-thirty,
and the sky behind the screened window was getting light. The rolltop
desk in the corner was rolled shut. Down at the end of the table the
square carpenter's pencil was lying where somebody had picked it up
and put it back before poet and conference coordinator Joan Retallack
threw it against the wall. There was another desk littered with ash
and thirteen paper clips.

In response to some questions I asked her about her work, Joan Retallack 
	I've long had images-of a dicey aesthetic nature-in which I see all of
	civilization blowing up (in the wind?) and then falling back to earth
	in scattered shards and fragments out of which one (anyone left) must
	compose a new mosaic culture...Of course, on a far less dramatic
	scale, such fragmentations of memory and object and experience are
	occuring all the time. (June 1998)

The main text of Retallack's poem "AFTERRIMAGES" appears as a split
screen on the page. The top half of the screen is "intuitively
composed" text, culled from Retallack's memories, from collection
notebooks, from ideas and associations she had while writing. The
bottom screen is the residual afterimage-what is left after an
investigative procedure has eradicated most of the composed text. She
describes her investigation as follows:

	In the "AFTERRIMAGES" project I wanted something violent (as violent
	as a bomb or a natural disaster or history...) to happen to the text
	above the lines that would leave only fragments, as afterrimages,
	below.... The "bombing" relates to the anniversary of the first atomic
	detonation at Alamagordo...I literally bombarded the top half of the
	page with an assortment of 13 paper clips having decided that the
	fragments that would remain below would be only those that appeared
	inside the border of the paper clips-those "clipped" out. I then had
	them appear in the corresponding spaces below as "afterrimages." I was
	very strict about only allowing those letters to remain that remained
	whole within the space of the paper clip. In some cases none of the
	text appeared within the clips; those poems have empty space after the
	line that divides the page. I felt that everything that remained,
	partly because it would be so minimal, would-in demanding a new
	quality of attention to the letters, a new way of apprehending their
	presence in that white space-take on a strange humor and intensity.
	They remain for any reader (including myself) to make of them what we
	can. They are very suggestive to me; I delight in them much more than
	what is above. They are the grace, the gift of what is present despite
	and beyond our control. (E-mail from author, 10 March 1997)

Once again, an investigative procedure awakens qualities within pages,
words, and letters that we normally wouldn't notice, that we couldn't
previously imagine existing. 

He looked at me levelly from his sorrowful eyes. "No, I don't know
anyone named John Cage, Mr. Marlowe. Or Jackson Mac Low for that
matter. I can't imagine any reason in the world why such people should
say they were in my house." "Hiding out," I said. His eyebrows went
up. "From what?"  It's impossible to talk about a poetics of detection
without mentioning the writing-through procedures of Cage and Mac Low.
Both men have come up with particular systems, based in a mixture of
chance and choice, that lead them to find new texts inside of old
ones. However, the nature of the choices in Cage's mesostic poems and
Mac Low's diastics is very different than in the pieces I've just
mentioned. [I've included in a handout Mac Low's own description of
his diastic procedure for those who are not familiar with it; Cage's
mesostics are related, although certainly not identical, to this kind
of word selection schema] Cage and Mac Low choose their source texts,
but the method of finding new texts inside of them is highly
rule-bound so as to eradicate (as Cage has said) the constraints of
"memory, taste, likes and dislikes" The reason for this is that only
through freeing the poem of personal choice and intention, can the
writer and reader find possibilities that they wouldn't find
otherwise. As soon as the detective-poet asserts his/her own
preferences on text selection, the results are limited by the demands
of self-expression. Cage and Mac Low's procedures are somewhat in line
with Retallack's paper clips and the grille cipher system, but they
have a rigidity to them that I'm not sure is most useful for a student
writer. Although such procedures reveal the infinite surprise and
delight that lies hidden in language, the procedures somehow lose
their pedagogical power if treated simply as formulas to follow. I
believe that the moment when a writer "discovers" a word in a found
text through a conscious choice (or makes up his/her own procedure for
selection), has incredible value. Let the telephone ring, please. Let
there be somebody to call up and plug me into the human race again.
Even a cop. I just want to get off this frozen star.

In my search for new examples of investigative/detective poetry, I put
out a call to the Buffalo poetics list. Ted Berrigan's investigation
of a Western novel, Clear the Range was mentioned. So was "Man's Wows"
by Jesse Glass and Blaise Cendrars' Kodak. I would also add to that
list, Tina Darragh's Adv. fans-the 1968 Series. It was also suggested
that I look at a recent essay by Lisa Samuels and Jerome McGann called
"Deformance and Interpretation" published in the latest New Literary
History. This essay takes an Emily Dickinson prose fragment as its
starting point, which reads: "Did you ever read one of her Poems
backward, because the plunge from the front overturned you?" The essay
goes on to explain how what they call "deformative" methods of reading
(such as reading backwards) can lead to new discoveries when
interpreting a poem. For instance, if you "isolate" the nouns in
Wallace Stevens' "The Snow Man," McGann and Samuels find that "a
fairly equal distribution balances the moorings of nouns and the airy
nothing of the (temporarily invisible) words that string nouns
together and help determine their interrelations." Although I have
trouble with calling such alternative methods of reading
"deformative," such practices are certainly related to the detecting
methods Išve been describing.

I recently had twenty minutes to teach a class of beginning creative
writing students that I hadn't met before. After showing them examples
similar to the ones I've shown you today, I proceeded to tear the
pages out of a mystery novel I had bought at the airport. Each student
was given a page and instructed to find a poem inside of the page.
After their initial shock and horror that I had so blithely torn pages
out of a book, making the story unknowable, they quickly set to work
and within minutes had created a series of funny, mysterious, and
lyrical pieces. I chose this assignment because it is a no-fail,
no-risk activist exercise. But I also chose it because it very quickly
and effectively gets a student to start looking at words as wells of
possibility, as objects to work with. The exercise automatically puts
the students in a different relationship to words and letters, so that
they recognize language in both its transparent and material states
simultaneously. In this particular case, because I had chosen a piece
of fiction as a source text, it got the students thinking about their
own definitions of what makes language poetic, or how structurally a
poem might differ from prose. Finally, the exercise proposes an
alternative to the assumption that language is simply a tool of
self-expression; instead language becomes a tool to investigate how
expressing happens. The writing process is inseparable from the act of
reading, of attending to how signifiers gesture and point. In the
idealistic dream-version of this exercise, the student will leave the
classroom and consider every billboard, every newspaper, every
dictionary or chemistry textbook as a site to be investigated, a site
where a new and perhaps better text can be found. "You can't miss the
porter's room on account of it has a half-door and says PORTER on the
upper part in gold letters. Only that half is folded back like, so I
guess maybe you can't see it."

"I'll see it" I said.

Note: all extended text in italics, above, has been stolen and
modified from Chandler's The Little Sister.

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