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All poetry is fragment: it is shaped by its breakages, at every turn. It is the very art of turnings, toward the white frame of the page, toward the unsung, toward the vacancy made visible, that wordlessness in which our words are couched. [Heather McHugh, “What We Make of Fragments,” Broken English, P. 75]
The poetry of erasure is taking place all around us. Underneath the pavement, behind newspaper headlines, on paste-layered billboards and graffiti-laden walls, our communal landscape is continuously peeling away and papering over itself. Its very surface is a living thing in flux between the dueling processes of decay and renewal, driven in the name of progress to adapt to the shifting contextual demands of culture or be replaced, removed, re-imagined. While this process can, at times, be artificially postponed, nothing escapes its effects forever. This world demands of its denizens a constant and vigilant revision of form.
Over the latter half of the 20th century and on into the dawn of the 21st, the rate at which information travels has increased exponentially, culminating in our current so-called “Global Information Age,” a dubious epoch whose tide-pools we, as a society, are only just now learning to navigate. Thanks to various technological appendages and the development of the internet dimension, we now have unprecedented access to the world’s vast store of human knowledge, much of which would have been unavailable (if not non-existent) only twenty years ago.
However, the price of such Alexandrian accumulation is steep. With that vast knowledge one inevitably finds humanity’s vast reserves of foolishness as well. In true Orwellian fashion, the very words with which we shape our world have been appropriated repeatedly for corporate and political purposes. Language itself, the English language in particular, has been stretched, spread thin into a commercialized representation of itself. It seems apparent that, as the means of communication quicken and advance the communal discourse, the demands of re-contextualization rise in direct relation.
A new taxonomy is necessary if we are to survive the onslaught of pop-up ads and political newspeak in which we find ourselves immersed.
As is the case with any historical period, we need look no further than its writers and artists to chart some passage through the newly dug channels of our shifting culture. Over the past fifty years, spurred in no small part by similar gestures in the visual arts (see Robert Rauschenberg’s “Erased de Kooning Drawing") a new form of reductive poetics has emerged, concerning itself with the deliberate removal (or covering over) of words on the page rather than their traditionally direct application thereto.
The practitioners of this relatively new form are scattered widely across disparate schools, lineages, methods and styles might not consider themselves members of any sort of literary movement, let alone this one in particular. They are, nevertheless, connected by a common intent: to fully enact and embody the naturally evolving processes of erasure in their work and to thereby assist in the reclamation of our language and culture one text at a time. The following investigation attempts to trace and identify key moments and movements in the ongoing creation of an Erasure Poetics and to thereby act as a guide for future practitioners of this increasingly important form.
What survives of art inevitably ends up as artifact. From sculpture to scripture, the stories we tell tend to outlast the audience and the storyteller both. They survive, scratched into the surface of our world where they are translated and adapted or else buried beneath that very surface and forgotten. It seems only natural then, that the world’s first erasure poetry was authored by the elements themselves and comes to us via the remnants of weathered stone carvings and papyrus scrolls; artifacts dutifully discovered, reassembled and retranslated by the scholars of every successive generation.
If you have ever read the words of Sappho or Aeschylus then you are already intimately familiar with the foundation of erasure poetics. Due to the fragility of their original medium (papyrus scrolls) scholars have managed to salvage only scattered fractions of each artist’s work from history’s dustbin. And yet, if you’ve had occasion to sift through these fragments, you’ve likely come away with a more or less complete sense of their aesthetic and the basic intention of their authors. Consider the following translated remnant of Sappho:
] don’t you remember [
we, too, did such things in our youth
The open brackets extend the space before and between the two lines, while a lack of punctuation leaves that same space open to a wide range of extrapolation. This stanza seems to still fulfill its own sentiment. It is complete insofar as it manages to resonate with our modern sensibilities. It is only fitting that the space of the implied memory is struck blank, erased by the passage of time as if to predict the same fate for the fragile words of any age.
The empty spaces of the text carry their own unique weight. We read into them history’s tumult and simultaneously take comfort in the what remains, satisfied that the human condition has changed little despite civilization’s crude advances.
Roughly 2,500 years after Sappho’s life and death, due in part, perhaps, to a relatively recent discovery of her work, the American writer Armand Schwerner published what was to become the first installment of his lifelong epic The Tablets, in which he emulates this very process of textual erosion. In a bold maneuver, lifted straight from nature’s playbook, Schwerner presents his work as translations of recently discovered Sumero-Akkadian stone tablets, complete with missing passages and translator’s notes.
While one of the tablets (XII) is, in fact, an actual translation of just such an artifact, the overwhelming majority of the work consists of Schwerner’s own “original” imitative gesturing. As a preface to his text, Schwerner provides the following key. The ellipsis (… ) represents untranslatable passages, plus signs (+++) indicate missing text, parenthetical question marks (?) provide variant readings, and brackets ([ ]) indicate sections supplied by the “scholar/translator.” Consider this passage from Tablet I:
he is splayed on the… … … like a worn-out pig (god?)
he is un- + + + + + + + +
his is dis- + + + + + + + + + + + +
he is + + + + + + + + + + + -less
his de- + + + + + + + + + + +
he is impossible on the dry ground + + + + + + + + + + before … … … ..
he is non- + + + + + + + +
he is pre- + + + + + + + + + +*
*the isolated prefix remnants are curious. The tablet seems rubbed out with care. Is this segment an early attempt to unite form and meaning? graphic as well as substantial emptiness?
The final lines of this passage are especially relevant to our discussion. Masquerading as they do under the guise of a translator’s note, their air of faux authority lends its ballast to the missing text and to the act of erasure itself. Schwerner here, through the use of subtle misdirection, accomplishes the very process that the “translator’s” notational queries imply: the merge of form and meaning is, in fact, embodied in the act of fabrication.
By suggesting the presence of a previous human agency in this section, Schwerner establishes his own authorial presence within the form. Indeed, the form itself is further established as simultaneously artificial and historically inevitable.
The same year that Schwerner’s work first appeared in print (1968) the poet Jackson Mac Low published a series of 5 Biblical Poems in which he explored similar themes of artifactual erasure. Mac Low’s work, however, deviates from Schwerner in one critical respect. Whereas The Tablets are, for the most part, composed of Schwerner’s own words generated and inserted into a pre-existing (albeit adapted) form, Mac Low’s Biblical Poems fall squarely into the category of “found poetry.” That is to say, the words on the page preceded the imposition of the given form over and around them.
Rather than the fundamentally generative technique of his counterpart, Mac Low took pre-existing passages from the pages of the bible and, with the assistance of an unspecified chance operation, stripped away each one’s surroundings and context, leaving in its place a series of empty slash-bracketed spaces. Take, for instance, the following excerpt from 18.104.22.168.5., the 3rd biblical poem:
/_____/ in men of /_____/
/_____/ /_____/ /_____/
/_____/ /_____/ unto /_____ / /_____/ man
prayed /_____/ /_____/ /_____/ /_____/
While the gaps on the page and the re-arrangement of lines and stanzas present a sort of appropriative erasure, adapted as they are from a carefully dissected host text, according to Mac Low’s introduction they function primarily as a sort of visual representation of the intended beat or measure. They represent a physical silence imposed upon the page by the poet. Whereas Schwerner’s notations tell us the fabricated where and why of what’s missing, Mac Low concerns himself primarily with how these absences are to function alongside their textual counterparts. The major distinction to be made between these two works, however, lies in their respectively generative and restrictive processes. While the end results undoubtedly bear a certain structural resemblance, they are nevertheless built on entirely different foundations. For the purposes of this investigation we turn our attentions to the latter, reductive examples of Mac Low and his literary kin.
To begin, one must look across the Atlantic to a group of writers, in no way directly associated with Mac Low, whose tenacious experimentation and use of appropriation has helped pave the way for nearly all of postmodernism.
Plagiarism is necessary. Progress implies it. It holds tight an author’s phrase, uses his expressions, eliminates a false idea, and replaces it with just the right idea. [Comte de Lautréamont (Isidore Ducasse), Poésies II (1870)(S.H. transl.)]
It is no mistake that, in the last half-century, under the mounting informational influences already mentioned, the use of appropriation as a poetic tool has moved from the outskirts of abject plagiarism to semi-accepted practice. Postmodernism as a whole is indelibly marked by its essential frankness, its basic rejection of Modernism’s vestigial Romantic anxieties. This shift in cultural (if not yet entirely academic) perception is due in no small part to the concentrated efforts of a group of European writers dedicated to the much needed act of reviving modern literature through a wide array of revisionist methods and tactics. For, in the words of one of the movement’s founders:
Who has not felt, in reading a text—whatever its quality—the need to improve it through a little judicious retouching? No work is invulnerable to this. The whole of world literature ought to become the object of numerous and discerningly conceived prostheses. [Francois Le Lionnais, Second Manifesto, p.xxvi]
These words of Francois Le Lionnais were written in 1973, thirteen years after the movement they strive to embody began. In 1960, French writer and mathematician Raymond Queneau, along with Le Lionnais and a handful of like-minded individuals, founded the Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle (Workshop of Potential Literature), or Oulipo, for short. The group’s mission, from the outset, has been twofold: to discover and promote the production of new literary forms and to reinvigorate pre-existing texts through the application of various scientific methods and restrictions. Again, in the words of Oulipo co-founder and de facto spokesman:
In the research which the Oulipo proposes to undertake, one may distinguish two principal tendencies, oriented respectively towards Analysis and Synthesis. The analytic tendency investigates works from the past in order to find possibilities that often exceed those their authors had anticipated… The synthetic tendency is more ambitious: it constitutes the essential vocation of the Oulipo. It’s a question of developing new possibilities unknown to our predecessors. [Francois Le Lionnais, Lipo (First Manifesto), p.xix]
The Synthetic research, which Le Lionnais discusses above, has resulted in some of the group’s most emblematic and innovative literary offerings. Foremost among these being the cornerstone of The Oulipo, the piece that started an ongoing forty year discussion of form: Raymond Queneau’s Cent Mille Milliards de Poèmes (One Hundred Thousand Million Poems). The book itself essentially consists of 10 sonnets sharing a common rhyme scheme. Each “page” consists of the traditional 14 lines, however, each of these lines turns independently, resulting in 100,000,000,000,000 possible permutations. Also worth noting in the Synthetic category is Georges Perec’s La Disparition (A Void). This novel is a masterful example of an Oulipean revival of form: the lipogram.
The lipogram is a literary undertaking in which the author excludes one or more letters of the language at hand. The technique itself goes back to ancient Greece, 6th century B.C. and the work of Lasus of Hermione who rejected the use of the character sigma in several compositions long since lost to history. That makes the lipogram, in Perec’s estimation, “the most ancient systemic artifice of Western Literature” [p.100]. Though the form is by no means revolutionary or new, it is applied by Perec’s hand to a distinctly modern genre: that of the detective/mystery novel. Take, by way of example, the following excerpt from the introduction of A Void:
You’d kill your own kith and kin for a chunk of salami, your cousin for a crust, your crony for a crouton and just about anybody at all for a crumb. On 6 April, from Saturday night until Sunday morning, 25 Molotov cocktails go off around town. Pilots bomb Orly airport. Paris’s most familiar landmarks burn down, and its inhabitants look on in horror at a still blazing Alhambra, an Institut that is nothing but a sad, smoking ruin, a Saint-Louis Hospital with all its windows alight and gaily flaming away. From Montsouris to Nation not a wall intact. [Perec, p. viii]
The sheer scope of this undertaking is prodigious indeed. Even a single paragraph written under such stringent restriction would be difficult to pen. Imagine, if you will, writing a document of any kind without using the word “the” or the suffix "-ed"! Perec does just that over the course of an entire novel, managing 278 pages of clever, coherent and engaging prose without ever once uttering the letter “e". By way of comparison, this essay contains 4,644 instances of the very same letter.
While this last work in particular represents a definite method of omission (if not erasure) for the purposes of our discussion we must turn our attention to the former category of Oulipean poetics: The Analytic.
While Le Lionnais, in his first manifesto, places a greater emphasis on the synthetic approach, it is under the auspices of the analytic that The Oulipo has, perhaps, most indelibly marked the postmodern page.
Take, for instance, the N+7 method, a technique in which the “author” replaces every noun in a text with the seventh noun down in any given dictionary. Let’s see what happens when we apply the N+7 technique to the introductory paragraph of this essay using the American Heritage Dictionary, Fourth Edition.
The pogrom of erection is taking placenta all around us. Underneath the pawn, behind newspeak headmistresses, on Pasternak-layered billfish and grail-laden Wallaroos, our communal landslide is continuously peeling away and papering over ivory. Its very surf and turf is a living thinner in flyblow between the dueling proclivities of decency and Reno, driven in the nameplate of prohibition to adapt to the shifting contextual demarcation of culvert or be replaced, removed, re-imagined. While this proclivity can, at timeline, be artificially postponed, nothing escapes its effervescence forever. This worm demands of its denominator a constant and vigilant revolution of format.
The skeleton of the original text remains visible but opaque, redressed as it is in the flesh of what amounts to chance operation. As each new noun is introduced to the original, new connections arise within the transformed text. As poetry is replaced by pogrom, erasure by erection, the overall context and meaning of the piece shift accordingly.
It is here, in the Oulipean idea of ‘prosthetic repair,” that Postmodernism takes a drastic turn from recent literary precedent. The Romantic notion of authorial inspiration had, to some extent, carried over into the realm of Modernism. Despite several hundred intervening years since the development of movable type, the textual object had remained, to some extent, beyond reproof, sacred and inviolable. Eliot’s almost obsessive footnoting of The Waste Land is, perhaps, indicative of such vestigial neuroses. Ezra Pound might have traveled freely across the borders of appropriation, borrowing heavily from Homer and a host of others. Yet, even Pound’s famous imperative ("make it new") was more a matter of historical incorporation and homage than a truly revisionist gesture. To borrow the vocabulary of its inheritors, Modernism remained, at its base, a distinctly synthetic operation.
Within Postmodernism, however, and The Oulipo in particular, a marked shift away from such unspoken boundaries becomes evident. It seems that the written word lost some of its divine luster over the last half century as a result of overuse, if not outright abuse. Paperback novels, magazines, newspapers, junk mail and now the internet have all contributed to the cultural decay of the textual object.
Just as a word or phrase repeated rapidly tends to lose its meaning on the lips of the speaker, so does the proliferation of the written word ultimately engender its own dissolution. However, as this subtle decay takes root, it simultaneously makes room for its own rejuvenation and renewal. In the words of one Oulipo member: “One must first admit that language may be treated as an object in itself, considered in its materiality, and thus freed from its subservience to its significatory obligation.” [Marcel Benabou, Oulipo Primer, P. 41]
As the written word extends itself, the structural boundaries of context are stretched and eventually broken. As the contextual obligations of superimposed meaning recede, language must be increasingly considered in terms of its own basic objective materiality.
While this shift in textual perspective may have begun in Europe with The Oulipo, by the early 1970s some of the basic ideas behind the group’s formation had spread widely, giving rise to (among other things) a distinctly American literary movement. The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets, loosely bound by a basic rejection of lyric sentiment and authorial imposition helped carry the torch of a new formalism across the United States and beyond, repeatedly challenging and extending the boundaries of both page and composition in their respective attempts to harness, exploit and reveal the material nature of language itself.
While the experimental contributions of The Oulipo and L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets cannot be discounted, in the pursuit of an Erasure Poetics, one must look still further; forward to the year 1977 and a poet not easily associated with any particular school or movement.
Groups of instruments play the Larghetto but keep submerging into inaudibility (rather than pausing). Handel’s notes are always present but often inaudible. The inaudible moments leave holes in Handel’s music (I composed the holes). [Lucas Foss on his Variation I of Handel’s Concerto Grosso, Op. 6, No.12]
The preceding quote comprises the bulk of Ronald Johnson’s brief dedication to Radi os. What follows this introduction is an elaborate poetic erasure of a well-known and widely read literary masterpiece: John Milton’s paRADIse lOSt. Indeed, a brief introduction suffices, given that the author has already provided a simple key to the reductive processes of his composition in the introduction.
The sparse words “saved” by Johnson seem to float to the surface of the page, as if distilled from Milton’s own ink as it fades into the background silence. The orchestral adaptation described by Foss above is, as Johnson quietly professes, the basic inspiration behind his literary experiment. Much like Foss, Johnson approaches a well known, pre-existing body of work with a sculptor’s knife and carves away carefully at its surface, leaving behind a new image in stark relief, “compos[ing] the holes” as it were.
Just as the original Handel apparently remains mutedly present in the Foss adaptation, the host text manages to show itself through Johnson’s carefully tailored veil. Indeed, to be fair, the very vocabulary and structure of the page belong entirely to Milton; more specifically, to the 1892 edition of Milton’s epic that Johnson uses for his adaptations. The holes, however, belong entirely to Johnson. By rendering large sections of the original text invisible (and therefore, inaudible) he pulls a new music from Milton’s original.
The resulting hybrid belongs to neither poet if not both. More precisely, it is a product of what William Burroughs described as the “third mind of collaboration,” an interdependent entity that arises naturally from the creative friction between two inherently different sets of aesthetic tendencies.
It is no matter that Milton is an unwitting participant in this process. In fact, this act of appropriative transgression is an essential element of Johnson’s gesture, based as it is in a long tradition of literary “theft.” As Guy Davenport points out in the Afterword to Radi os:
"Blake also rewrote Paradise Lost, once as the unfinished epic called Vala or A Dream of Nine Nights or The Book of Moonlight, and once as his poem Milton. Blake was correcting and amplifying Milton; he was opening him up, as he said.” [Guy Davenport, Radi os Afterword, P.94]
By borrowing from and adapting, expanding and expounding upon Milton, Blake was paying his predecessor and countryman a calculated homage, while simultaneously re-contextualizing the work to fill the demands of his own age and socio-cultural climate. He was essentially bringing Milton up to speed, engaging in an active discourse with a long since static (if not exactly inactive) partner. At the same time, however, he was borrowing heavily from the established master in an attempt to justify and bolster his own work; to provide credible justification to his own experimental poetics.
This process is, at its base, no different from the one Johnson employs. However, where Blake saw fit to amplify Milton, Radi os is concerned instead with muting the old, blind bard. As Davenport points out:
The spare scattering of words left on the page continues to make a coherent poem, Milton imagiste. (Wordsworth and Blake did the same thing to the poem, except that they filled up the spaces again with their own words.) [P.100]
Again, the basic intent remains the same: to change the music to fit the sensibilities of the age at hand. Fitting, then, that Johnson, in the light of his immediate poetic predecessors, should choose to confront the text in question “in its materiality,” as Marcel Benabou would say. By refusing to fill up the resultant negative space, he manages to bend (ever so slightly) the tenuous boundary between tradition and transgression. That is to say: by rendering Milton largely inaudible, Johnson has, in effect, obliterated the notion of the textual object as a sacred, fixed entity.
Although the resulting pages contain certain undeniably sculptural elements, as discussed above, Johnson’s work must also be considered in terms of its basic musicality. The imposition of blank space over, through and into Milton’s original page should be read between and alongside the words that remain. That is to say, in a manner similar to Mac Low, the author intends this imposed silence not as absence, but rather as a definite beat and measure that must not be overlooked or underestimated.
The entire composition depends on the physicality of this silence: it is as if held together by its holes. Indeed, the consideration of space is a recurrent theme throughout Johnson’s text. Take, for example, the following excerpt: “to re-ascend / and re-possess / in close design, / At length from us / Space may produce new Worlds / to pry / Abyss ".
Johnson here seems to be addressing his own process of adaptation. The “re-ascension” of the first line reminds the reader of Milton’s presence, shadowing the movement of the original epic (paradise lost and eventually regained.) This gesture is immediately followed with the “re-possession” by "close design” of the next two lines, a repo enacted by the “pried Abyss.” Just as Blake endeavored to open Milton up, Johnson takes his poetic crowbar to the text, creating new possibilities, new worlds, from the ensuing space.
Further on, the poet’s “search / by concurrent signs,” is notable not only for its superb use of subtly shifting internal rhyme but also for its direct relevance to Johnson’s structural process. His poem is, in fact, "composed” solely of concurrent signs, drawn as it is from the fragments of Milton’s former lines which corresponded with Johnson’s aesthetic intent.
The physical space of Radi os is defined by the careful arrangement of these confluences on the page, as Johnson proceeds to assert: “by concurrent signs. / Created vast and round — / our vacant room / designed”. The internal rhyme shifts to the end of the adapted line and Johnson populates the page’s “vacant room” with Milton’s sifted signs, re-contextualizing and appropriating them into his own arrangement.
The intentionality of this arrangement is immediately undercut by the following page in which “The intricate / Unfastens / Without dimension; where length, breadth, / time, and place, are lost;” Here the essential elements of space seem to come unhinged (the intricate Unfastens) by the chaos of de-contextualization and Johnson seems to doubt, however briefly, his own intricate system of design.
In a manner that echoes the fragments of Sappho (and subsequently Schwerner and Mac Low) these lines suggest that ALL dimension is eventually lost to the quiet ravages of time, even the calculated space of the erasure act itself.
This is by no means an expression of nihilism. Quite to the contrary, the poem continues with the following: “as the sands / warring winds, and poise / adhere / a moment.” Within the chaos, the "concurrent signs” of the previous page return (in the form of sand and wind) momentarily solidified amongst the maelstrom of textual decay.
These signs are, however, irrevocably changed by their passage. The page and the narrator conclude with the assertion that “Chance governs all.” as if to suggest that even the most intricate of human design is ultimately dictated by the chaos from which it is culled and to which it will inevitably return.
This concession to the forces of time and chaos proves to be an essential movement in the development of both form and content in Johnson’s epic. Later, on page 50, the trespass into chaos proves to be a necessary step in the distillation of Milton: “Through / the Orphean / descent, and up / To find / the more / Clear / song;"
Just as Orpheus, the father of musical verse, made his mythic trip to hell on a quest to recover his lost love and thereby his own clarity of song, Johnson (with much greater success) ventures into a similar oblivion through Milton’s text and emerges again, the renewed design of Radi os in tow.
The carefully constructed parallel between the two poets continues further down the page with the selection of “Blind / thoughts that voluntary move… that I may see and tell / Of things invisible / once / thick as stars.” These “blind thoughts” serve to further reflect Johnson’s reductive method while simultaneously reminding the reader of Milton’s authorial presence.
It is also here that the principal difference between the two poets emerges most clearly. Whereas Milton sought to make visible the faded world through his poetic verse, Ronald Johnson’s process essentially consists of reversing this work; revealing the world, instead, through the subtraction (or blinding) of that very same verse. By carefully and selectively muting Milton, Johnson draws his own unique constellations from the old bard’s “stars,” in effect discovering the once “invisible” poems of Radi os and, by extension, a fledgling poetic form.
Three years after Radi os was first published in San Francisco, a British artist by the name of Tom Phillips released the first edition of his artist book A Humument: A Treated Victorian Novel. Phillips’ book has since been reprinted in a number of different formats and editions as the artist’s technique and the available technology has evolved. Recent revisions are currently available online at www.humument.com. For the purposes of this discussion, however, examples have been taken from the Thames & Hudson, Fourth Edition.
While the work certainly bears a striking resemblance in technique to Johnson’s adaptation, employing a similar process of isolating select words and phrases, its origins are independent and distinct. If Phillips was ever even aware of Radi os, it was only after working for more than a decade on his own erasure project, begun in 1965.
Likewise, there is no evidence to suggest that Ronald Johnson had access to any of the early incarnations of A Humument initially published in Britain by Tetrad Press as small silkscreen editions during the early 1970s.
Furthermore, Johnson’s work was based on and inspired largely by musical theory, while Phillips claims to have taken his initial cues from the “cut-up” techniques of William Burroughs. Nevertheless, if Ronald Johnson is to be considered the father of erasure-as-form, it is Tom Phillips, only two years his junior, who lays claim to its inheritance.
With his unique background in the visual arts, Phillips extends and amplifies the basic lines of Johnson’s reductive poetic methods. Just as Wordsworth and Blake once “filled up” the pried open spaces of Milton, so does Phillips insert himself into and over the space of his own host text (W.H. Mallock’s 1892 novel A Human Document) effectively transforming each page into an intricate inter-century collaborative act.
The principal difference between Phillips and his predecessors is a matter of medium. Rather than leaving blank or inserting his own language into these newly created “vacancies,” Phillips outlines his selections with carefully constructed visual images.
Where Johnson’s adaptation was concerned primarily with the calculated removal of the host text, Phillips focuses his creative attention on the covering up or masking of Mallock’s original work, a process which, by its very nature, allows for a considerable range of creative variation. By way of example, he manages to invent and develop his own character, “Toge,” from within the confines of the host text.
The name itself can only be drawn from pages on which the word "together” appears. A nod, perhaps, to the confluences required of this collaborative act. It is here, in the symbiotic manipulation of layers that Phillips’ method diverges drastically from his American counterpart.
It is also worth noting that, while both poets employ and adapt the words of another in order to manifest and convey their own intent or meaning, Phillips owes his host no homage and so is free to recreate the text along whatever lines he chooses. He has no obligation, spoken or otherwise, to the material at hand. His loyalty lies, first and foremost, with the process itself, allowing him to consider and treat the text in its full, objective materiality. As Heather McHugh points out in her book Broken English:
Using the fatality and accidents of print, the happenstance of where things fall on the page of the original text, Phillips’s lyric economies and deft reflexiveness subvert Mallock’s meaning but employ Mallock’s own text to do so—that is, judiciously selected portions of it. In undermining, he underlines (by omission as often as by remission) the political and literary dispositions of the original; he alludes to the Romantic operation while performing a deconstructive one. [McHugh, p. 70-71]
Where Johnson sought, in part, to honor and perhaps preserve Milton, Phillips is tethered to no such concerns. Approaching the page as both palette and canvas, he draws from this verbose Victorian novel a sparse and intricate poem, seemingly carved from the very visions he himself has superimposed.
For Phillips, the act of concealment is, it seems, at once furtive and revelatory. In this respect, his basic intent seems to coincide with Johnson’s aesthetic tendencies. Consider the artist’s treatment of the introduction. Just as Johnson provides a visual key at the beginning of Radi os, Phillips gives the reader a glimpse into his methods, presenting both the adapted and original titles on the opening page for immediate comparison.
The opaque cross-hatching he employs over the title does not so much erase Mallock’s words as obscure them, leaving the original text mutedly present beneath. This technique is employed further down in the introduction as a means of framing the page. It is worth noting that this frame is, in turn, subverted by an arrow of sorts, pointing past the right hand margin; a sign of transgressions to come drawing the reader’s eye forward.
The opening selection amounts to an invocation of song (not unlike the one that begins Johnson’s adaptation) setting the stage for the ensuing “verse.” More important to this discussion is the final grouping on the page: “… and / that / which / he / hid reveal I” While their respective processes are undoubtedly distinct, it is difficult to deny the apparent similarity of intent at work in each. Just as Johnson seeks, through the act of erasure, to reveal the “invisible” within Milton’s lines, Phillips sets out from the start to restore the “hidden” poems of his host text, utilizing all available tools of prosthetic repair.
Of course, as the tools at Phillips’ disposal are considerably more diverse, their results are correspondingly varied, allowing the artist to approach and comment on the very nature of the traditional page in a myriad of ways. Take, for example, page 5 in which the artist imposes his own fractured “page” over that of Mallock.
Perhaps nowhere else in this book is Phillips’ material treatment of the text more evident. Subverting the established margins of his host, he re-creates a selection from the “imaginary journal” of his selected text. The script on the superimposed page gives the impression of letters, yet is unreadable, belonging to no language. In this way, Phillips’s technique echoes the typographic methods of American poet and artist d.a. levy.
Just as levy sought to re-invent his own language through typographic manipulation, Phillips creates his own obscure tongue in an effort to provide a visual back-story for his linguistic foray.
The resulting fragmented page acts as a vague archeological “find” seemingly awaiting scholarly translation. A clear parallel to Armand Schwerner’s work is evident here, in the use of carefully manufactured artifact as a frame for content. Yet, unlike Schwerner’s Tablets, traditional translator’s notes are eschewed. The image remains un-translated, to be taken at face value as object-in-itself. Instead, Phillips takes the opportunity to comment further on his own process, “discovering” and drawing meaning from the newly created cracks and fissures of the page. McHugh further expounds this process:
With Phillips, acts of art are already editorial acts. We select as soon as we say or see. The holes seem as powerful as the fillings: page 5’s crippled sentences and broken journal are all written between the lines of the torn page; the spoken (pointed) has fallen silent, into the poken (torn), the whole into the hole. This early page is one of a number that act as works of self-presentation or ars poetica. [McHugh, P. 72]
Indeed, in his “attempt… to / cripple… sentences,” throughout A Humument, Phillips effectively reshapes the reality of Mallock’s page according to his own “quivering / peculiarities.” While the synthesis of image and text in this particular piece is certainly notable, as McHugh has already observed, there are a number of similarly self-representative works scattered throughout the book.
Later, on page 23 the sinuous arrangement of text amid a shifting pattern of fall leaves serves to support the artist’s intent. The theme of change, both seasonal and textual, is further emphasized by the collaged "Come Autumn Hand” which hangs upside down from the top margin and is repeated anagrammatically (as “Unhaunted Comma") at the lower right hand corner of the page.
Furthermore, the statement that traces its way inward from the upper right hand corner ("we / doctor / books / we / doctor / novels") is, again, an open reference to the selective process that engendered its creation. The use of the word “doctor” as a verb in this passage is fitting, indicating the very process of prosthetic repair that Phillips has undertaken throughout his prodigious composition.
The basic act of adaptation is laid bare once again on page 104 where Phillips likens the creative process first to a ballet ("for / changed / characters") and then to an opera ("made / from / stories about / characters.") In each case, the parallel is eminently clear. The "changed characters” of the first comparison refer to the figures of Irma and Toge, whose intricate dance comprises the bulk of the book’s meandering plot. Similarly, the “inaccessible / yesterday” that follows is a reference to the underlying words of Mallock, obscured and rendered largely illegible behind the artist’s many masks and filters.
In the second comparison, the processes of change are once again invoked as Phillips turns his lens back to the metaphor of song. It is not difficult to imagine the entire composition as an opera, with the artist’s images acting as a sort of musical accompaniment to the revised stories and characters that arise throughout. The passage that follows seems to bolster this notion. Just as “night turn[s] to art,” so does the intricately carved space of Phillips’ erasure add its own distinct melody to the song of his selected text.
Due in no small part to the considerable contributions of Ronald Johnson and Tom Phillips, the inherently narrow field of Erasure Poetics has grown in recent years, giving rise to a number of innovative projects from subsequent generations of writers and artists.
The boundary between plagiarism and appropriation has been chipped and whittled down enough to allow for a greater range of adaptation between mediums, centuries and texts. While it would be difficult to include here every worthy example of this still fledgling form, there is nevertheless a small handful of recent works whose omission would be most egregious.
Among the most ambitious and successful of these projects is Jen Bervin’s Nets, currently available from Ugly Duckling Press. Lifting its language directly from the Sonnets of William Shakespeare, the work culls 150 poignant poems from the famous bard’s carefully measured lines.
For two detailed analyses of this work, see Philip Metres“” review of Nets in Jacket 25 and Andy Frazee: “Present-Absent” — The Dependence on/Transcendence of “Shakespeare” in Stephen Ratcliffe’s «[where late the sweet] BIRDS SANG» and Jen Bervin’s «NETS» in Jacket 36.
In many ways, Ms. Bervin’s work picks up where Radi os leaves off. First and foremost, the author has chosen as her host text a body of work equal in both fame and scope to Paradise Lost. What’s more, the form itself is borrowed directly from Johnson’s frontispiece where the arrangement of selected text is defined by its faded surroundings.
Owing to the carefully chosen metaphor of her title, Ms Bervin manages to make the form firmly her own. Considering each sonnet as a “net” of sorts, the sparse, darting poems snared on the page by Bervin carry an original music that Shakespeare might only have imagined.
This poem, perhaps more than any other in the collection, embodies the collaborative processes at work throughout Nets. Just as Bervin is concerned with freezing her host text in the act of “vanishing,” the author herself is lost “in these black lines.” Authorship is, again, blurred in the act of collaboration. The end product, she seems to say, belongs finally to the third mind of the co-created text.
Another young poet worth noting, Michael Koshkin, takes his literary cues from Johnson as well. In his work Parad e R ain, from Big Game Books, Mr. Koshkin undertakes the task of treating Paradise Regained in a manner strikingly similar to Radi os. However, due to an inherent difference in source material and the unique influences of the poet’s aesthetic, Parad e R ain manages to overcome the limitations of mimicry and emerge as a significant work in its own right.
Koshkin’s adaptation contains an invocation of song not unlike those of Johnson and Phillips. It is in the final lines of this introduction, in “the sound / of / wit,” that the poet clearly indicates his divergence from the field. Indeed, the poet is quick to subvert Milton’s serious tone, focusing his efforts on pulling all manner of playful innuendo from within the Englishman’s lines.
Mary Ruefle, another newcomer to the field of erasure poetics, is more easily classified as an artistic descendant of Tom Phillips. In her book, A Little White Shadow, from Wave Books, Ruefle confronts the materiality of her host text in much the same way as her British predecessor.
Over each worn and yellowed page, the poet applies correction fluid as a means of isolating and selecting text. The end result is a series of “little white shadows” from which Ruefle’s poems quietly emerge.
Since the initial draft of this brief history was completed, there have been a number of additional contributions to the still fledgling form of Erasure Poetics. The recent release of MS OF M Y KIN (Shearsman, 2009) by Janet Holmes has garnered considerable critical attention for its treatment of The Poems of Emily Dickinson.
Additionally, The O Mission Repo from Fact-Simile Editions (www.fact-simile.com) has received its share of critical note for its treatment of The 9/11 Commission Report. This document is perhaps most notable for its choice of a non-fiction, contemporary host text.
Treating each of the first four chapters with its own distinct method of erasure, the “author” manages to re-create a sort of poetic parallel universe from the original material. In order to eschew any charges of shameless self-promotion, however, our consideration of this particular project will remain necessarily brief.
If there is any lingering doubt in the reader’s mind of the form’s self-sustaining motion, one need look no further than that de facto font of human knowledge: a brief Google search, to make sure I hadn’t made any inadvertent omissions of my own, has turned up yet another forthcoming offering in the field of erasure: Austin Kleon’s Newspaper Blackout : the book is due out April 2010 from Harper Perennial and will include both the “author’s” work as well as that of Twitter contributors who have taken up the cause.
And so it seems, from the watershed works of Johnson and Phillips, spring the tributaries of a new literary tradition. Tributaries still well stocked with poetic possibilities. For those interested in trying their hand at the process of erasure, Wave Books, publishers of A Little White Shadow, have set up on online erasure program (http://erasures.wavepoetry.com) with a wide selection of host texts to choose from. Or take a cue from Austin Kleon; simply pick up a newspaper and a sharpie, read carefully and start making your mark.
 Sappho, A Garland, p. 17
 Schwerner, Armand. The Tablets I-XXVI, p. 10
 Mac Low, Jackson. Representative Works 1938-1985. P. 24.
 Mac Low, Jackson. Representative Works 1938-1985. P. 16.
American Heritage Dictionary. 4th Edition. 2000.
Bervin, Jen. Nets. Ugly Duckling Press, 2004.
Ducasse, Isidore. Poesies II. 1870.
Johnson, Ronald. Radi os. Flood Editions, 2005.
Koshkin, Michael. Parad e R ain. Big Game Books, 2006.
Levy, d.a. Zen Concrete & Etc. Ed. Ingrid Swanberg. Ghost Pony Press, 1991.
Mac Low, Jackson. Representative Works: 1938-1985. Roof Books, 1986.
McHugh, Heather. Broken English, Poetry into Partiality. Wesleyan University Press, 1993.
Oulipo Laboratory. Trans. Harry Matthews & Iain White. Atlas Press. 1995.
Perec, Georges. A Void. Verba Mundi, 2005.
Phillips, Tom. A Humument: A Treated Victorian Novel, fourth edition. Thames & Hudson, 2005.
Ruefle, Mary. A Little White Shadow. Wave Books, 2006.
Sappho. Sappho: A Garland. Trans. Jim Powell. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1993.
Schwerner, Armand. The Tablets I-XXVI. Atlas Press, 1989.
Travis Macdonald graduated from the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics in 2007 and currently works full-time as a copywriter. His poetry has appeared in Otoliths, Bombay Gin, Hot Whiskey, Cricket Online Review and elsewhere. His first book, an erasure of The 9/11 Commission Report titled The O Mission Repo, was released in late 2008 from Fact-Simile Editions (www.fact-simile.com). Mr. Macdonald writes and resides in Santa Fe, New Mexico.