Prosaic Flatness: Image, Logic, and the Metrical Technology of the Page

In his pathbreaking study of the material culture of microphysics Image and Logic, historian of science Peter Galison focused on laboratory instruments and their implications for scientific knowledge, which any given ensemble of equipment both facilitates and constrains. According to Galison, an instrumental set-up is a bit like the objective of a lens: it focuses in on certain kinds of phenomena or events, making them accessible to registration and analysis, while it blurs or obscures other aspects of the total field of potential experience we call, symbolically, nature. In microphysics, he identifies two basic orientations that follow from the instrumentation used to study the small particles that are the constituents of matter.

 

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One focuses on the individual particle and uses instruments like the cloud chamber, in which the particle leaves a tell-tale trail as it passes through, and the photographic plate, on which these events of passage through the chamber’s vapor can be captured.

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Galison calls this orientation “image,” because it collects its data in the form of “homomorphic” representations: for example, photographic pictures of vapor trails of greater or less size and different pattern, depending on the type of occasioning particle. The other orientation instead considers the statistical pattern of a large number of events occasioned by the presence of particles. In this orientation, what counts is, precisely, counting; and the instrument is meant to register not individual passages but myriad events, which then can be analyzed in terms of densities, frequencies, and other statistical forms.

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This orientation Galison terms “logic,” which represents the data in a “homologous” form: a “conceptual” rather than a “morphological” representation.

Poets, like scientists, also have their instrumental set-up, their “technologies” for making a poetic representation and bringing a world into focus, while leaving other aspects of these worlds, or other worlds as a whole, beyond the poem’s edge of intuitability. Such poetic technologies include many of the intrinsic features of language and discourse, sometimes taken up in fairly readymade form, but often artificially refined and heightened to sensitive tools for representing virtually indiscernible shades of feeling and meaning: syntax, metrical patterning, sound repetitions and harmonies, anaphora, metaphor, and narrative, just to name a few of the technologies intrinsic to poetry as a verbal art.

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Insofar as poetry, for much of the modern age and even up to today, has been associated with writing and print, another possible poetic technology is the printed page, which, more than just a material support for letters, can also be a compositional unit, with size, shape, and distribution of space being among the potential significant features. These all contribute to what we might call the “image” aspect of the page, which is exemplified in a long history spanning baroque “picture poems” and the verbal-visual complexes of William Blake to modern iconic-verbal compositions including Mallarmé and Apollinaire to Poundian “ideogrammic” typography, Dada collage-texts, and concrete poetry. In each of these, in different ways, the page and its boundaries–including the transgression of these boundaries–are integral compositional units and crucial to the imagistic representation of a poetic world.

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Although arguably this imagistic component of printed poetry has been vastly underestimated and understudied, as if print layout were purely a contingent matter of available page space and cost, even less appreciated is that there is a second orientation that poets may have towards the technology of the page: its “numerical” aspect, the page dimension and count as a numerical fact rather than a visually figurative feature. Poets may use the length of the page (or a variation of that basic unit, such as a certain number of pages, or even the number of pages in a commercial notebook) as the basic metrical unit. The page metric may be motivated for its conceptual connotations to qualify the sense of the text; or its relative indifference and contingency may provide counterpoint to an expressive content. Just as with the “image” orientation, there are a number of shades and variations that are possible. But each shares a common feature: page count, and the spatial components that contribute to making the composition conform to it, serves as a primary, consciously applied formal measure. Following Peter Galison, I call this a “logic” orientation towards the page as a compositional unit.

These orientations represent compositional “sets” of the poet towards the page as it relates to his or her poets, ways of seeing the page in its potential relation to the poem’s words and meanings, or, once the poem is complete, ways of understanding the page as a dimension of the poetic whole. These two basic ways of seeing–which are ideal “types,” with many mixtures and shades in-between possible–have distinct implications with respect to the words.

The “image” orientation may view the page as an already-differentiated material field, a hierarchically arranged and qualitatively distributed network of “places” that implicitly pre-exists the occupation of those places by words and connotatively affects them. Such “places” of the page may analogically refer to the basic phenomenological categories of the body’s visual and tactile senses, so that up and down, right and left, edge and center, proximity and distance, relative density and repletion take on a quasi-corporal concreteness and contribute to the imagistic effect of the printed words on the page, even without specific iconic reference.

Consider, for example, this pair of pages from Clark Coolidge’s book from 1970, significantly entitled Space:

 

A                                                                                       is so
per                                                                                         of
ginning                                                                             from
verted

 

 

 

 

 

the
tions                                                                                 even
comes                                                                              been
the

 

82                                                                                        83

 

Here the sharp verticality of the text blocks on the individual page and the play between their making up four individually located figures, a pair of symmetrical linear figures, or a single square, as well as the differences in shape and length of each make for a perceptual puzzle that mobilizes the bodily senses of the reader. Alternatively, the poet may treat the page as an abstract, still unqualified space, which will be tensed and organized by the presence of the printed words themselves, until the white space latterly takes on the character of a network of organized sites. Again, a page from Coolidge’s Space provides an apt illustration of this possibility:

 

ber

esting

ciple

ture

ent

tive

a ture
the ing

tions

 

An example of the latter “logic” orientation would be writing that uses letter-count, word-count, page size or number, or other such metric as a “constraint” to include and exclude possible choices in composing the work.  We could also see work composed by procedural operation as also exemplifying the “logic” orientation, such as the mesostics of John Cage or the “asymmetries” of Jackson Mac Low, which use seed words or phrases to generate the text out of other source texts:

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These latter examples are of interest too, in illustrating a final point: the potential “reversibility” of the orientations of “image” and “logic” in poetry. Mac Low’s “Asymmetry” and Cage’s mesostic work are realizations of a kind of algorithmic procedure governing the selection, placement, and size of the elements of the page. Yet its manifest appearance is strongly that of an “image”: a patterned arrangement, in which the formal relation of elements is crucial. “Image,” he suggests, is a manifestation of an underlying “logic,” even if that logic is aleatoric and probabilistic. In turn, however, these logics, at least in interaction with the human sensorium of viewers, listeners, and readers, can’t help but generate a rich and open-ended repertoire of images.

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