Poetry without Poets; or, Spirit is a Human Earth


by Ed Simon

’When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’

‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’

‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all.’

—Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There

In 1806, the good Christians of Leeds, England prepared for the millennium, when a certain Mary Bateman presented them with a prophetic hen which had been laying eggs with a simple, urgent, and simultaneously hopeful and terrifying message: “Christ is Coming.” Chiliastic chickens of Leeds, pushing out signs of Judgement Day, proving that you have to crack a few eggs to make an apocalypse. “Christ is Coming” would seem to be as unambiguous a message as one could imagine; it leaves little room for interpretation. If confronted with Bateman’s eggs, and if one were confident they were not a hoax, it would seem as good a bit of evidence as any that Christ was indeed soon coming.

Of course Christ did not come in 1806 (or 1666, or 1844, or 2000, or any of the other predicted dates for his second coming – and every year has been a predicted year), and of course Bateman’s Sibylline poultry was a hoax. She’d been etching the messages to the shells in acid and then gingerly shoving them back up into the hens. Perhaps not entirely unrelated, she’s also arguably one of the last women to hang for witchcraft in England, strung up on a scaffold amongst those Yorkshire hills some three years after the trick with the chickens – though part of her conviction was related to her murdering an associate with poisoned pudding. That’s incidental though.

Since what I’d like you to consider is that even if Bateman’s hen were not a hoax, what confidence could there be in such a message? Even genuine, what assurances could such a miraculous fowl actually give? Because we expect that the voice of God is an assured one, and that trumpets and broken seals herald not just the arrival of the millennium, but confidence in that arrival. We envision, even the atheists amongst us, in the possibility of some sort of eschaton that could forever dispel such doubts. In other words we can hypothesize a state of epistemic absolute zero, an imaginary utopian kingdom where Meaning reigns as Queen. A clear, and defined, and immutable, and most of all obvious meaning.

Why would a hen laying eggs which say “Christ is Coming” mean that Christ is coming? For that matter, should the stars rearrange themselves in the sky to say “I’m up here,” why would that mean that anyone was? Maybe this astronomical anomaly is a shockingly coincidental new natural phenomena, or perhaps the engineers who programed our reality are having a joke at our expense, or maybe the psilocybin is bad. If God is a hypothesis, than by necessity She will only be one of those myriad possibilities (which is why the true worshiper never reduces God to mere hypothesis). No, we are humans, and as humans our mortal lives must be shot through with ambiguity. We also, by necessity, evolved as meaning making creatures, and the world of symbol (even if pareidolia) is our savannah. That’s the genius of Tom Perotta’s novel The Leftovers – were the rapture to happen, why would we even be sure that it was really the rapture and not something else?

That meaning exists can’t be doubted, but the contours of that monarch’s face must remain uncertain. An infinity of space exists between word and thing, and in that space is the ever chaotic, ever shifting, ever mercurial Kingdom of Meaning – and that can be a terrifying place. God may be dead, and the Author too (maybe especially Him), but rumors of meaning’s demise have always been overrated. Deconstructionists can defer to the End of Days, but undefined meaning keeps ticking along, like a clock simultaneously wound up and next to her partner time piece of reality, somehow making us get at least part of the message even though the mechanism remains ever a mystery. Because from Pythagoras to John Searle, how meaning is constituted has been the central question of the human disciplines.

Really the central question of any discipline, of any life. “What does it mean?” the stock penitent implores to the stock unanswering cosmos. At this point in time, and in our culture broadly defined, we assume certain things about meaning: that some things mean something and others things don’t, that meaning is a message and that a message requires a messenger. In the past different models of meaning reigned supreme. For a seventeenth-century Puritan scanning the pages of his almanac and the gathering stormy darkness on the western horizon of Massachusetts everything meant something and all of it was a message from God. If anything this typological persona has been more the norm throughout human history – wind, and rain, and clouds and all manner simple things under the dome of heaven read for providential assurances or warnings. For them, meaning pulsated like unseen currents of electricity through the very network of life, all things glowing with an enchanted thrum like some bioluminescent neon squish in a deep ocean vent. Humans read the signs like a schizophrenic scanning newspaper print for messages from the CIA, for if God was supposedly killed by Nietzsche in the nineteenth-century then our ancestors before that deicide lived in a world in which the Lord couldn’t keep quiet. If we fear that meaning now lay silent than generations past had to grapple with an overabundance of her.

Medieval exegetes read scripture, literature, and literature performed (which we deign to call life) in four different ways: literally, morally, allegorically, and mystically. Since Luther first nailed his 95 Theses to one of Christ’s wrists we’ve slowly seen the last three of those listed hermeneutics collapse into the first one. Good Augustinian that he was, such a result couldn’t have been his intent, and there are of course no dearth of the allegorical Reformed (like our friend the Puritan). But sola Scriptura couldn’t help but enthrone a Pope of Paper, and where text is made immutable pretty soon literalism will reign. As a result, literally literal literalism has become the faith of our modern world over the past half-millennia. Unintentional perhaps, but the infinite shade of connotation which had defined the hermeneutics of everyday life was drained from both scripture and life, till only the poets could see the old chain of ever varying, shifting, living meanings.

Positivism and fundamentalism, twin specters of that correspondence theory of truth which posits a simple relationship between word and thing, a vanilla version of meaning shorn of all of that anagogical kinkiness where the truth sometimes actually resides. All the more ironic, because literalism can beget that nihilism where if one believes in nothing they’re willing to fall for anything, as the reduction of metaphorical and mystical truth introduced a strangely crude kind of relativism where meaning was reduced but the messenger became king. Do what thou wilt with the disenchantment hypothesis (I for one think that the great god Pan never truly died) but Luther’s diatribe was a potent early version of false news.

So, whereof does meaning now reside? Where is her home, her origin, her birthplace? What is the omphalos that tethers meaning to some grander thing, whether God or Truth? This, it should be said, is not a question of minor significance, for what meaning means is arguably that which has structured all ideologies, philosophies, religions. “Meaning” as a word has many connotations, from the New Age pablum I come dangerously close to skirting, to the rhizomatic definitional trees of the lexicographer compiling her dictionary, to the arid postulates of the analytical philosopher still chaffing at the indignation of being a failed mathematician. Whether one’s model of meaning is of limitless deferring in an ultimately endless (and thus meaningless?) chain of connections, or of a transcendent Signified through from which all meaning ultimately radiates, that meaning means something (even nothing) ultimately means something. Maybe. Perhaps colors green ideas dreaming furiously does say it all.

Meaning, like all things, has a history, and our understanding of her has an evolution. That once the world brimmed with glowing significance but now meaning is reduced to whether a few testable postulates are confirmed by the data or not is of no significance. Whether her kingdom is bound in a walnut shell or is the universe itself matters not, as long as meaning exists somewhere meaning still exists everywhere – even if we’re blind to it today. That’s the nature of meaning, no country is too small for her, it’s why Blake feared not the Nobodaddy and wrote that jingle about universes and eternity and seconds and sand. But though meaning still exists (because otherwise how could you comprehend what I’m saying? Then again perhaps I presume too much about both of us), culture and philosophy is defined by our relationship to her. How we define her, whether meaning require the intercession of some messenger, whether divine or human. The medieval exegete and the Puritan typologist looked for signs in their respective perfumed pleasure garden and upon their rocky shoal, but the messenger was God. After Her wake, meanings were human affairs, and the messenger a man. But though one generation saw meaning everywhere and delivered from on high, and though ours sees it as limited and passed between person to person like some communicable disease, the messenger is still the medium and thus the message. But what if we could forget the messenger, and listen to only the message? What if meaning need not have any face at all?

Imagine that one day you’re lucky enough to find yourself with some much needed rest and recreation, and you’re strolling along a pristine white-sand beach while on vacation. The tide washes in, and as it pulls back, you see that the ocean has etched into the sand the appearance of Latin letters organized into English words and sentences; furthermore, these sentences are broken into what are identifiably poetic stanzas, reading: “A slumber did my spirit seal; /I had no human fears:/She seemed a thing that could not feel/The touch of earthly years.”

If you were paying attention in your British Literature survey you’d recognize the verse as being Wordsworth’s, but whether you know it’s the Romantic poet or not, you clearly understand that it is, or at least appears to be, a fairly ornate and complicated manifestation of the English language. But assuming that you are a sober, sane, rational person who neither believes that the former poet laureate of Great Britain has somehow possessed this aforementioned pristine white-sand beach, or that God or some other supernatural being enjoys posting English Literature GRE identification questions through intricate miracles, you are forced to admit that this is a particularly stunning, totally natural coincidence. You’d conclude that this is a remarkable example of pareidolia, an illusion that meaning-making creatures such as ourselves misinterpret as significant, but is no more legitimate than someone who thinks that a taco shell conveys the face of Christ. In short, the surf-carved “poem” might seem to make sense, but in reality it is random and totally meaningless.

However, the philosophical problem endures: when we flip through a copy of Lyrical Ballads and come across this poem we know that it has meaning that can be interpreted. In 1798 Wordsworth – a real person, with emotions, and a biography – composed this poem with some intention and design that can be interpreted by us, its readers. While readers and scholars can argue about what the proper interpretation of the poem is, there can be little doubt that it means something since it was an expression of a person trying to communicate an idea or a feeling. There were conscious decisions in the composition of this poem; it is very much different from that taco shell that someone thinks looks like the Son of God. Yet this short lyric, designed with intentionality and which conveys a meaning, appears physically identical to our anomalous beach phenomenon, which we all agree was meaningless. So, the thought-experiment presents us with our favored conundrum – what exactly is meaning, and where does it reside?

This scenario first appeared in the literary scholars Steven Knapp and Walter Benn Michael’s 1982 paper in Critical Inquiry entitled “Against Theory.” Knapp and Michael were attempting to illustrate a divide which has bedeviled literary theory since the New Critics of the 1920’s first put typewriter ribbon to paper. That is to say that all approaches to interpretation must either side with the text itself or with the author. Through materialisms, and historicisms, and Marxisms, and feminisms, and archetypal Jungians, and post-structuralists and all the rest, the biggest distinction has always been who listens to the song versus who listens to the singer. Knapp and Michael’s essay illustrates through its starkness the difference between literary formalists and historicists.

For the later, this miraculous Wordsworth poem upon the sand must be meaningless, the contours of its letters and its semantic organization only so much coincidence. If there is no author, no creator, than there can be no meaning. (Our straw Puritan would of course know that the message was obviously that of God, or else Mary Bateman was out there at low tide scratching her contemporary Wordsworth’s verse into the beach).

The formalist on the other hand – with the New Critical “Intentional Fallacy” as their solemn rallying cry – understands that the text is primary, and since the Barthian Death of the Author the formalist (whether they’re a T.S. Elliot or a Jacques Derrida) understands that the play is the thing. For the formalist, meaning exist in the form of the text itself regardless of the intentions of its creators, or if it even has creators. Of course literary critics of even the most strictly formalist bent understand that texts are produced by humans with intentions, but Knapp and Michael’s Gedankenerfahrung expresses the ultimate desire of any true formalist criticism: the existence of a poetry without poets, where meaning requires not a messenger.

Late capitalism has given us the opportunity to resurrect the voiceless god, the pantheistic pulse of meaning in every syllable and every word, to give us verse without versifier and a poetry in search of a poet. I sing a song of the digital golem of course: Artificial Intelligence, the computer. We can wait an eternity of eternities and Wordsworth is never going to be carved out of the chalk cliffs of Dover Beach, and a thousand monkeys at typewriters still haven’t given us Lear, but a plug-n-play online computer doo-da can randomly generate poetry as surely as a drunk falling onto their refrigerator and scrambling their magnetic poetry playset can. So, I picked my favorite Wordsworthian nouns, and using an online poetry generator I was able to let an A.I. program fashion its own poem, sans of any human intention. But does it have meaning? The attempt is below:

Spirit, course, and spirit.
Fears, force, and course.
My, course!
Where is the no stones?
Things touch!

All things motion neither, diurnal earths.
Spirit is a human earth.

My, spirit!
Fears, fears, and fears.
Why does the stones touch?
Trees seal!

My, force!
Fears is a human earth.
My, spirit!
Never rolled a thing.
Fears, force, and spirit.

The literary historicist, obsessed as he is with intention and circumstance would have nothing to say about interpreting such a poem. The computer has no gender, no race, no class, they are born of no culture and no psychology affects them. The humanities are, after all, the realm of the human and interpretation of meaning can only be vested towards subjects capable of expressing meaning, and the electronic tarot, the digital tea-leaves only scramble bits of code as preprogramed by somebody else. Where there is no intentionality there is no meaning, so saith the historicist.

However, the formalist, or at least the null-zero hypothetical Platonic formalist critic, would see no reason why meaning can’t be interpreted from such a text, for meanings are not messages from messengers but intrinsic to the form itself. It’s not the return address on the letter, but the words inside the envelope. So what was my computer trying to say?

Appropriately enough the subject appears to be about this essay’s very subject – the distance between reality and expression wherein meaning lie, or as the last sentence of the first verse puts it emphatically, where “Things touch!” A.I.-Wordsworth begins the poem with a monosyllabic tricolon, the first line starting with a trochaic substitution and ending with the same word. It’s an interesting rhythm, if not completely amenable to regular scansion: “Spirit, course, and spirit.” What distinguishes “course” from “spirit?” Are we to interpret the use of the word “spirit” twice as meaning that we’re speaking of two different varieties of spirit, or is there only one type, altered by some process (is that the “course” which A.I.-Wordsworth speaks of)? The first line would lose some of its frustrating ambiguity were the second comma deleted, then “course and spirit” could be bundled conveniently together, but as it is each word is stubbornly separated out.

The second line is aurally pleasing, by utilizing that most Anglo-Saxon of rhetorical conceits: alliteration; while it also contains a simple but affective internal rhyme. Is “course” here read as “of course?” Or is it the same “course” mentioned in the previous line? Or even more provocatively the “My, course!” in the third? The odd punctuation in the third line further confuses ultimate meaning of the poem (its deletion would make the sentence more straightforward in its interpretation), even if the short lines call to mind Dickinson and the enthused exclamation mark alludes to Whitman. A.I.-Wordsworth is fond of emphatic declarations in this manner, we have “My, force!” and “My, spirit!” twice, always with that troubling comma. Is the punctuation mark to be read merely to indicate a pause? And if so, why is the speaker pausing, especially in the middle of a line which the exclamation point would seem to indicate is forcefully uttered?

“Where is the no stones?” is a fascinating paradox. Are “no stones” the class of all things which are not stones (which would include the majority of things in existence), or are they some sort of negations of stoniness? And if they are nothing, a “no stone,” then how can the question of where they are make any semantic sense? Even more provocatively this leads into the crux of the poem, A.I.-Wordsworth’s contention that “Things touch!” emphatically and enthusiastically declared. If “Things touch!” there seems to be hope closing that gap between reality and expression and charting a navigable course of meaning. Yet in the third stanza A.I.-Wordsworth pensively asks “Why does the stones touch?” Grammatical inaccuracy aside, there is an anxiety about that which was celebrated only a few lines before. Of course it should be noted that “things” and “stones” are not reducible to one another, even if the latter is by necessity a subset of the former, and the claim in stanza one must imply the question in stanza three. The anxiety of A.I.-Wordsworth’s interrogative declaration is compounded by the sentence before, the second line of the third stanza, where he (she?) writes “Fears, fears, and fears.” As an example of dialogic intertextuality it almost calls to mind Hamlet’s withering expression of ennui: “Words, words, words.” Indeed the addition of the conjunction in some sense furthers A.I.-Wordsworth’s sense of fear by prolonging the expression of it.

Some lines are particularly interesting by skirting the line of comprehensibility while deferring easy interpretation (in the manner of some Dadaist verse). For example, “All things motion neither, diurnal earths.” A.I.-Wordsworth revels in contradiction and has a fondness for paradoxical aphorism, for the Heraclitean declaration that “All things motion” is immediately negated by the Parmenidean injunction of “neither.” Or consider the line “Spirit is a human earth.” There seems to be a contrast between the transcendent qualities of “spirit” placed in comparison to the material one of “earth,” balanced on the fulcrum of the “human.” An expression of a certain incarnational poetics perhaps? A.I.-Wordsworth could be stating a postulate of theological orthodoxy, mankind strung as he is between soul and flesh, the sacred and profane, spirit and earth. But of course that’s based on the placement of words itself, it requires us to read the poem as a sort of word sculpture. As a literal statement “Spirit is a human earth” is gnomic and cryptic. Are there earths that are not human, which require the specificity of a particular “human earth?” And why would spirit – often defined precisely by not being of this Earth, be by A.I.-Wordsworth’s definition a specifically “human earth?” I would argue that the reconciliation of these irreconcilable contradictions is precisely the point, only underscored by the ominous declaration that “Fears is a human earth.” A.I.-Wordsworth seems to identify “Fears” (importantly plural) as being that which defines the very nature of what it means to be a person, a Hobbesian domain of “Fears, force, and spirit” (ending the poem, as it began, on a forceful tricolon). Yet A.I.-Wordsworth finds a poignancy in the observation that “Spirit is a human earth,” a humble declaration that despite the “Fears” that we may through “force” finally arrive at “spirit.” A type of metempsychotic Pilgrim’s Progress ascending to the higher palaces of the human soul.

Or something, I don’t know. A fucking computer wrote the thing.

But here’s its significance: despite its aesthetic proficiencies or deficiencies, A.I.-Wordsworth’s “Spirit is a Human Earth” (as I’ve elected to title it) is not necessarily without meaning, even if it’s a message without a messenger. There is semantic comprehension to the thing, and one can spin interpretations (even if they’re kind of bullshit) from such a text. There is no reason why a more advanced computer can’t (and they already do) produce more adept examples of verse, and undoubtedly someday soon narrative. The internet as of late has been delighted by the inadvertently hilarious, and sometimes strangely (if nihilistically) wise faux inspirational posters of an artificial intelligence. From the I-Ching to A.I.-Wordsworth the random clinaman of aleatory literature has sometimes provided strange moments of comprehension, a consciousness which seems to emerge from the void like a natural pattern mistaken for a face. Poetry without poets is not just possible, but already a reality.

And here’s the second point: maybe all poetry is as if a poem without a poet. Maybe there is no messenger, transcendent or otherwise, other than the entire message itself be identical with that of the messenger who has uttered it. Atman is Brahman and all the rest of that stuff. And in this model, intentionality is not an either/or, but rather a particularly thick bundle of meaning, for when it comes to meaning itself, she is democratically spread throughout the whole country of being from east to west. Can we reenchant reality again in that way? Why not? For even if the deity is no longer responding to our questions, can we not say that meaning permeates everything, and trickles down as if a stream of cool water over all of us? And do not mistake me, I speak not of signs and portents or of any anthropic principle, for it can be a meaning which points to nothing beyond her own existence. No need to read those darkening western skies as a sign of the apocalypse, or even see Doomsday in an egg declaring that “Christ is coming.”

Scholastics looked for a soul in the head, Cartesians for the ghost in the machine, neuroscientists for transmitters in the brain. Consciousness has always been a vexing thing. There is a class of mystical minded materialist and pantheist alike who’ve conjectured that perhaps the whole damn thing is conscious, no mind-body dualism, and no pesky question of the soul interacting with matter at the pineal gland. There are only thicker glops of consciousness (that’s us) and thinner ones (trees, and rocks, and shit). Why should meaning be any different? There are big dollops of it (Shakespeare and whatnot) and more modest ones (trees, and rocks, and shit) but meaning permeates the whole thing through and through, and that’s the overall meaning. Whether the brazenness of an egg declaring the end of days, or the seven types of ambiguity threaded throughout a poem, meaning is forever mercurial in most models, but if meaning permeates everything, if we can envision a secular reenchantment if you will, then anxiety and confidence both become moot points. For if you seek Her, if you look for Meaning, simply look around you. For when it comes to Her, when it comes to Meaning, you see, it’s turtles all the way down.


About the Author:

Ed Simon is the associate editor at The Marginalia Review of Books, a channel of The Los Angeles Review of Books. A regular contributor at several different sites, he holds a PhD in English from Lehigh University. He can be followed at his website, or on Twitter @WithEdSimon.

  • Rox

    This was a really interesting reading. I found myself almost lost in the complexity of the question of what exactly is meaning and where does it come from. In a world producing more and more meaningless stuff, i think it´s a concious decision that you have to make constantly to look around you and finding meaning.