Make It the Same: Poetry in the age of global media by Jacob Edmond (Columbia University Press, 2019), 346pp., US$64.99
Ezra Pound’s famous maxim ‘Make it new!’ was not new at all; Pound acquired the idea, whether advertently or inadvertently, from a Chinese Confucian scholar, who passed it on to an Emperor … The questions: What is original? What is a copy? What is new? are core to modernity and yet, as Frederick Jameson wrote and Jacob Edmond discusses in Make It the Same: Poetry in the age of global media, there is nothing new that does not have antecedents. So the compound question arises: when is ‘the new’ also a copy or, more specifically here, an ‘iteration’ of what has gone before, and how does this inform creative practice and statements of identity?
Edmond’s book encapsulates the provenance of Pound’s saying, becoming an aggregation of it, but Edmond ‘makes it iterative’. ‘The same’ in the book’s title becomes a rhetorical device that the reader refers to in questioning the nature of iterativity throughout this survey of post-1950s poetry, of what Edmond calls the ‘iterative turn’.
Via a finely curated selection of poets and comparisons between specific practitioners in dedicated chapters, Edmond shows that there is far-reaching substance in the (predominantly) non-anglophone art of iteration, which connects to the modernist strategy of ‘making-new-from-old’. However, Edmond avoids periodisation as he surveys mid-century to present-day Caribbean, Russian, Chinese, French-Norwegian, Taiwanese, mixed-ethnicity poets and collaborators, for whom the Western canon and loaded tending-élitist terms like ‘modernism’ and ‘postmodernism’ may become limitations.
‘Consumption becomes production,’ writes Edmond, pin-pointing the tangled relationship between art/poetry, colonialism and capitalism, and exemplifying it in the work of Kenneth Goldsmith who marks the shift in the ‘subject or author defined by production to one defined by consumption’. But the art of reaction to consumption produces reclamations in the work of indigenous, often transdisciplinary artist-poets. Edmond shows that to be peripheral is not to be lesser: the peripheries may become ‘the middle’ – or any other position – when talking in terms of a continuum and when choosing to view history through an alternative lens.
Edmond begins his survey with a thorough and detailed discussion of Barbadian poet Edward Kamau Brathwaite, who passed away just after Edmond’s book was published, and whose work influenced American Avant Garde poets. Brathwaite’s use of the tape recorder and ‘versioning’ or re-mixing in the 1960s and into the 70s, contributed to ‘a recognition of “combinatoriality” in all cultural production’. Versioning or copying such as Brathwaite’s is not ‘making a replica’; it is the appropriation of a sound motif or piece of text within a ‘new’ iterative response in the manner that intertext in literature reveals constituent influences and connections.
Edmond asserts that the ‘iterative turn’ stems from the need for a solution to the trajectory of capitalism and the cultural effects of colonisation. Brathwaite, and others, he asserts, employ a materiality that reflects the veracity of their identity in their practice, using, for example, the tape recorder to sample and ‘version’ the poet’s voice and sounds to instate a pervasive and ‘grounded’ cultural realism as an antidote to disconnected and periodised Western practices. Brathwaite ‘rejects colonial forms of English literature in favour of what he terms “nation language”’ – that is, the oral tradition that connects a speaker to their heritage.
However, the multiplicity in historicity and language (Bakhtin, Derrida, Jameson) along with the context of cultural hybridity (Homi Bhaba) in which Brathwaite works, raises the interesting question of whether, when, and how cultural iterativity acquiesces to the colonial system. While speaking in language that furthers an indigenous cause, and presenting, framing, or publishing according to the materiality of the colonial ‘master’ discourse, iterative practice may chip away at the core-unique historicity of the people it claims to speak to and for. On the other hand, such practice may colonise the coloniser in an act of poetic restoration or even evolution. Edmond illuminates the high and pervasive currency of non-anglophone iterative practice that addresses, employs and embodies the cultural predicaments.
Edmond moves his tight focus on Brathwaite to Dimitri Prigov and the Soviet ‘samizdat’ writers of the 1970s and 80s, who ‘deployed the typewriter and carbon-copy paper to circumvent state control of publishing outlets and print reproduction technologies’. Samizdat means ‘self-publishing’. ‘Though the typescript was at the heart of the samizdat phenomenon, samizdat can also be conceived more broadly as a multimedia practice of unofficial homemade publication, especially as produced under conditions of censorship.’ Readers typed a copy of the (samizdat) original, which is how the work was disseminated, a clandestine ‘underground’ process that has resonance with many urgent or propagandist literatures throughout history.
The hands-on process of samizdat (carbon paper, scissors or knife) has a ‘cultural logic’ to it, writes Edmond, that Prigov uses mimetically in reference to the carbon copying employed in official Soviet forms and to showcase the absence of new (global) media in this cultural setting and the tyranny of the status quo.
When a text is translated from one language into another, and particularly where transliteration occurs (e.g. with Chinese or Russian into English), the question arises: ‘What are the subjective or objective errors?’ After all, there can be no exact replica of original intent from one language to another. Edmond quotes Franco Moretti: ‘World literary history can be understood as a series of waves translated from culture to culture.’ Each of the poets Edmond discusses ‘wrestle[s] with the cultural condition of repetition,’ he writes. ‘Even the most exact repetition contains differences.’ Edmond refers to Derrida, Jameson and Bakhtin on difference, multiplicity and repetition – a chain of theoretical input, itself a suite of ‘waves’ along a continuum of practice in a twentieth century typified by cultural (and other) instability.
Edmond shows how Chinese poet Yang Lian’s long poem, Where the Sea Stands Still (1995), uses the wave metaphor to address an ‘uncertain position both inside and outside China and Chinese modernism’. The prevalence of Chinese language and culture in the current global ‘climate’ rivals English, and Edmond suggests that there will be increasing collaborations between the two languages, suggesting that all things are shaped by the relation between super powers and, in this case, the power of super-languages.
Edmond problematises Chinese-into-English and vice versa in a fascinating survey of the art of Taiwanese artist Hsia Yü. The ‘make it the same’ requirement of the process of translation is a space that Hsia Yü explores directly. In her work Pink Noise she uses the automated (now antiquated) Mac OSX computer programme ‘Sherlock’ to translate English phrases into Chinese (and back again for an English reader). For example, ‘bad to the bone but fine as wine’ becomes ‘for the bone harmful but beautiful treated as wine’. This reveals both the potential catastrophe of inexact translation and the ephemerality of language as it shifts, especially in the vernacular, over time. Pink Noise exemplifies the capitalist regime of commodification; in this case, as soundbites of language re-packaged and given back disconnected from the original context and staged incongruously. Edmond refers to this as ‘automatic estrangement’ – an apt encapsulation.
In the example of French-Norwegian ‘performance writer’ Caroline Bergvall, Edmond encapsulates the mistakes one language group might make in articulating the language of another. Bergvall works with linguistic ‘tests’ and reflexive installations that draw attention to an audience’s own biases and linguistic tribalism. Edmond refers to Bergvall’s installation Say: ‘Parsley’ (2001), in relation to matters of linguistic diversity and difference, and for the manner in which words change via repetition or become shibboleths via a process that demarcates one speaker from another by virtue even of pronunciation. Say: ‘Parsley’ refers to Haitian migrants, shot because they couldn’t pronounce the Spanish word for parsley; this points to language and utterance as tools in enforcing subjugation, exclusion, even genocide.
In her agenda to ‘resist medium’, Bergvall effectively outlines a programme that contradicts the established value of culturally relevant mediums (paper, ink, tape recorders, samplings and dialects), while simultaneously adding another, the ‘collapse of medium’, permitting as it does the transmutation of one into another in a sort of transgeneric materiality.
Edmond moots the idea that politics have become so inextricable from creative practice as to necessitate a poet’s engagement. Poetry, like any artform, can be co-opted by ‘white privilege’. Kenneth Goldsmith based his genre around the idea that he is ‘entitled’ to copy whatever he chooses. Goldsmith lauds the ‘copyist as the hero of modern life’. He is both a ‘collector’ and a ‘coloniser’, referring to his own ‘writing’ of other people’s texts as ‘uncreative writing’, a form of collecting. Edmond argues that Goldsmith’s white male privilege is on show in a work like Hyperallergic, a performance-reading of deceased black teenager Michael Brown’s autopsy report. This work is problematic in terms of the self-importance it enacts in opposition to its subject. Separate to and including any controversial examples, Edmond’s work shows that iterativity, and copying in particular, often swerve near ethical concerns.
Make It the Same: Poetry in the age of global media is an important, fascinating and timely discussion of poetry of the iterative turn. Via a finely curated selection of poets and their work, Jacob Edmond compares the ideas ‘original’ and ‘copy’, offering insight into the iterative work of particular socio-geographical contexts that highlight, but do not necessarily capitulate to, the prevailing capitalist system.
TASHA HAINES is completing a PhD on the literary hybrid form. From an interdisciplinary background, she has various fiction and non-fiction publications, and has had numerous exhibitions. She has taught art and research strategies for many years at tertiary institutions in New Zealand and Australia.