In 2010, the conceptual poet Vanessa Place published a provocative book called “Statement of Facts,” the first volume of a three-part project. Place has a day job as a lawyer who represents indigent sex offenders on appeal. To compose the book, she took the obscene tales of her clients as they were told in court documents and republished them, unaltered, as poetry. The book veers from the banal to the brutal; the words, in this new context, can be shocking: “She woke about 3:15 a.m. because someone’s hand was around her throat. The person took Marion J.’s glasses and told her if she screamed, he’d snap her neck.” Place’s gesture of simply reframing preëxisting language is the literary equivalent of Marcel Duchamp’s readymades; those same words mean one thing as a legal document and another as poetry. In the tradition of Charles Reznikoff’s soon-to-be reissued “Testimony,” which also took court transcripts as its basis, Place brought the poetry of witness into the twenty-first century.
Following in this tradition is Steven Zultanski’s “Bribery,” which came out late last year. It’s a book-length confession of horrific crimes, much of which is scraped from the Web. Zultanski visited true crime Web sites, copied hundreds of texts, and changed the pronouns from the third to the first person. He’s then massaged these raw texts until they were tonally unified and woven them into an epic, psychotic monologue. In one gruesome scene, the narrator meticulously describes the troubles of disposing of a decapitated head: “Folding one corner of the big soft white towel at a time, I wrap the prone head perfectly, so that the package / no longer looks like a head, but something square and misshapen, the kind of shape which doesn’t call any particular object to mind: if there’s a generic form of a generic item, it’s about the size and shape of a head, but wrapped up.” The prose is terse and dry, calculating and claustrophobic, the way one might imagine a serial killer’s inner voice to be. If Samuel Beckett wrote crime novels, they might read like this.
Zultanski’s previous book, “Agony,” used online calculators to similarly creepy and absurd ends: “Given that the volume of a human mouth is, on average, 7.2628 cubic inches, we can assume that the mouth can, in any given average situation carry up to 6335.666 tears. / Which would take 38.14 minutes to shed, if they were to be shed at the average rate at which tears are shed.” Like “Bribery,” the book does not announce or foreground its methodology. A writer like Zultanski couldn’t exist without the Web, yet his writing shows few obvious or familiar traces of it.
Over the past few years, the art world has been throwing around the term “post-Internet” to describe the practices of artists who use the Web as the basis for their work but don’t make a big deal about it. For these artists, unlike those of previous generations, the Web is just another medium, like painting or sculpture. Their artworks move fluidly between spaces, appearing sometimes on a screen, other times in a gallery. A JPEG of a painting is often considered another version of a painting, and vice versa.
We’re beginning to see a similar turn in poetry. Earlier Web-based poetries tended to either exploit the technical side of the Web or underscore the weirdness of it. E-poetry animated words and letters in browser windows. Conceptual poetry made dry, programmatic works that mimicked the structures of the Web. Flarf harvested strange language from Google searches and then presented it newly as kitschy objet trouvé. Alt Lit aped the goopy sincerity of social media, recasting it in poems. These movements produced very different types of poetry, but they shared the idea that the Web was a distinct rupture in the way that poetry was made: after the Web, we would never write the same way again.
But a book like Zultanski’s “Bribery” uses the Web while downplaying or taking for granted its influence. At first glance, you might mistake it for pre-Internet poetry. And the same is true of a new book by Sam Riviere, “Kim Kardashian’s Marriage.” Like Zultanski, Riviere was born in 1981, and like Zultanski, Riviere seems to view the Internet with a shrug, as if to say, “Doesn’t everybody make poetry from the Web? So what?”
The title of Riviere’s book is misleading: the text inside was not, as you might have guessed, scraped from Kim Kardashian’s social-media presence or from gossip sites; in fact, it has nothing to do with her or her wedding at all, really. Instead, Riviere used the duration of Kardashian’s marriage to Kris Humphries—seventy-two days—as a constraint to determine how many poems the book would contain. And the whole book is similarly deceptive: what appears to be a series of semi-confessional lyric poems are all mathematically based on Web searches. Through an elaborate process of cannibalizing and recombining chapter headings from his previous books, Riviere has come up with a series of keywords upon which his Web searches are based. After throwing them into Google, he accepts the first ten results from each search and then crafts them into stanzas. His book is entirely unoriginal: not a single word of his own is added.
Yet the range of what Riviere has mined is vast. Sometimes it leans toward the ecstatic—think Gary Snyder or Walt Whitman: “We’re spreading smiles every minute / with lyrics and jokes for your personal use. / O Sovereign God transcendent! / This is an excellent song.” Other times, the results swerve closer to Alt Lit or Flarf: “You have stalked this blog, / you must really like me. / Message me anytime / even if it’s just to talk. / I blog about whatever I want.” He can sound like the Surrealist poet Robert Desnos: “I meet Franklin Delano Roosevelt / He’s been walking for three days. / He makes necklaces of refined sugar, / human hair is toxic now.” Or he can invoke the oblique aridness of conceptual poetics: “baridi. [cold] / joto. [warm] / wingu / mawingu [cloud / clouds] / jua. [sun] / mvua. [rain].”
What Riviere’s book points to is the idea of the poet as d.j., weaving together samples of preëxisting language into something unique. Of course, this is nothing new. The cento—snagging lines from other poems to make your own—has been around for nearly two millennia. But what’s new is Riviere’s use of Google as an oracle, the results from which are strained through his own subjectivity, leading to poems that are at once organic and mechanical, personal and, in a sense, objective.
Last year, the British poet Harry Burke assembled an anthology of post-Internet poetry called “I Love Roses When They’re Past Their Best.” In his introduction, Burke writes that his collection “attempts to look beyond fetishising the digital age and its ‘revolution,’ instead seeing what’s occurring now as a careful and important negotiation with what has gone before; a reworking rather than a rupture.” That rupture, now nearly two decades old, is no longer interesting to younger poets, it seems, most of whom never knew life without the Web. Instead, it’s the mining, massaging, and reworking of found online texts into something personal that appears to be fuelling some of the more adventurous poetry being written today.
MOMA recently opened a survey show called “The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World,” which posits that “A-temporality, or timelessness, manifests itself in painting as an ahistorical free-for-all, where contemporaneity as an indicator of new form is nowhere to be found, and all eras coexist.” Swap the word “painting” for “poetry” and you get a pretty good idea of the direction that these younger poets are headed in. For them, historical styles are the literary equivalent of Instagram filters, a grab bag of scrims with which they can create astonishingly new works—works that could only have been produced in the digital age.