Knotting-Off the Aughts: #8, Bill Kennedy and Darren Wershler-Henry’s Apostrophe

Year of Release: 2006
Place of Creation: Toronto-ish
Press: ECW/Misfits (Toronto)

Mode of Acquisition: I bought it. Strange, right? Regular readers may note that this was not the case in the first two instalments of this series. I bought it at the 2006 edition of Word on the Street, which is personally notable for being the first literary event I attended upon moving to the GTA. I also bought several magazines and some lemonade that, unbeknownst to me, cost like $6 a cup. I remember drinking my lemonade, reading Apostrophe, and thinking long and hard about whether the big city was right for me, after all.

Status of Personal Copy
: I don’t have the slightest idea. Suspicions abound; surely the earlier-noted Book Eating Sailor’s Trunk may have claimed it, or I may have accidentally donated it to a library while returning a batch of books that were legitimately theirs. Anyway, this is all to say I lost it. Maybe if I say nice enough things about the book in the following paragraphs somebody at ECW might mail me a copy…

you are entirely happy with your poem ● you are not happy
then there is no charge and your deposit is returned
-from Apostrophe

When I finally got things under control and wrestled my list into shape last month, I immediately encircled one title and wrote a note to myself that read “Hard Sell”. That book was Apostrophe, a book whose primary purpose is the expression of a genius idea. Poets, in general, tend to see a great idea is something that’s only valid if it precedes a large amount of hard work. If things are done out of order, or if the idea is strong enough that it remains the book’s dominant concept even after the work is done then the result is a waste of inspiration. This was essentially the reaction to Apostrophe when it first came out. Apparently, none of these people demanding more hard work had ever built a search engine before.

The idea, for the record, goes something like this. In 2001 (quite possibly the year history will decide was when search engines went from being our helpful tools to our overlords, the chief organizing systems of human life), a man named Bill Kennedy and a man named Darren Wershler-Henry took an old poem of Bill’s called Apostrophe (so named because it contained nothing but a series of addresses to the hypothetical, omnipotent “you”) and turned it into a search engine. They transferred the text of the poem into hyperlinks (example hyperlink: “you are thrown out for lack of evidence”), then set up a website that used that phrase as the basis of an internet search, tailored to select and display only expressions that began with the phrase “you are” and ended with a period. Once displayed, every new phrase became its own search query, which then bore a full sheet of phrases, which all became new hyperlinks, and so on, and so on, and so on.. The result was a sort of perpetual-poetry-machine.

The idea of putting this cathartic, completely unpredictable mechanism into a book was justifiably controversial for all involved. But I would argue that Apostrophe-the book provides an even broader starting-point for both social and aesthetic inquiry than Apostrophe-the interactive internet thing. Kennedy and Wershler did very well to curate the book in subtle but necessary ways. Whereas their root material contained literally everything in the human vocabulary (legal documents, song lyrics, encyclopaedia entries, love letters, diaries, etc) they could have fallen victory to the urge to select with an eye towards thematic unity, or even a series of inter-thematic conversations. They likely would have been rewarded by a readership only nominally able to accept “everything-ness” as a legitimate theme, even if the starting point of the editorial process was, for lack of a better word, everything.

Of all the poetic qualifiers out there, the one that always makes me want to fake an injury and pull out of the conversation is an introduction that involves the phrase “…and I’m an experimental poet.” In part, this is because of the naivety that expression suggests towards poetry in general, as if all the other poets have a series of natural laws they follow, as if constant experimentation isn’t the only means available to write a decent poem. At every step: inspiration, conception, notation, drafting, revising, revising, revising, revising, a poet’s only means of decision-making is the use of experimentation. The world has not yet produced an effective manual for the writing of great poetry (Note: Poetic dictionaries don’t count, nor do the many available elementary instruction texts. I suppose a really great poetry anthology, like the Norton, sort of does, but only as much as a Superman comic counts as a manual for jumping over buildings). Simply put, if the end result of your experimentation is a good poem, then it’s been successful. If the result is a bad poem, I’m afraid it’s time for a new experiment. Either way, like scientists, experimentation is the only thing we do (except, like scientists, when we’re teaching courses to undergraduates).

It’s there, too, that this word “experimentalism” bothers me. It comes across, so often, as an excuse to print something that even the poet finds illegible, inchoate, and so completely sacrificed on its own altar that it’s abandoned all notions of entertainment. In this way, the word seems to translate into something like “acceptably disastrous”. One wonders why, while flipping through scientific journals, one never sees sentences like “and then, my new cure for diabetes shot through the air, catching fire to the university, blinding several rats, and leaving my lab assistant in a state of sexual disability.” This is because, unlike poets, the scientists’ governmental stipends are predicated on results, and so they only print the stuff that works.

I, of course, don’t think of Apostrophe as an “acceptably disastrous” experiment. I see it as a success, and an improbable-enough one to be remembered. This is likely because while so much (self-identified) experimental poetry has set out to shrink the atomistic part of language down, past communication, past sense, to the very phonetic core of sound, Apostrophe takes the phrase as its starting point. This assures us that while there’s no communicative presence to the book as a whole, except as a sort of dizzyingly-broad survey of public behaviour at the turn of the century, it’s made up of communicative, meaningful, pieces. It is language acting as language, not language pretending to be just the sum product of our mouths and their roster of possible sounds.

It’s worth saying that with all this talk of experimentalism (and I’m trying so very hard to avoid discussing its occasional surrogate expression, “the avant-garde”, but it’s difficult) Apostrophe is firstly a formal exercise, as stringently controlled as anything the New Formalism has offered up. In fact, its stringency is literally written into its program, it is incapable of breaking it. The apostrophe is one of the most global and constant figures of speech in all of human language, and when it takes the form of a repeated trope (for Kennedy, it was “you are…/ you are…/ you are…” it becomes a form-poem as old as chant itself, as old as the pre-literate need to remember things. Sure, the material in of Apostrophe is not metered, and the variety of speech patterns and preferences lead to a slightly schizophrenic poetic tone, but the great lesson for a young poet reading Apostrophe for the first time (filled with optimism and 6.5 fluid ounces of lemonade) is the incredible depth and breadth shown by its unwitting authors when it comes to the deployment of the Big Poetic Toolbox. I didn’t know people alliterated like this, or couched their opinions in metaphor, or swore so gracefully. Or if I did know these things, I needed the paradigm shift of the coercive poem to see them more clearly. Here are thousands of people unaware they’re in a poem, but like that rarest of poetic gems (the found poem that doesn’t completely suck) they appear to have been in one the whole time.

During a decade in which the rest of the experimental strain tried their damnedest to find meaningless in a human operation (language) that takes the portrayal of meaning as its one and only role, Kennedy and Wershler-Henry were alone in thinking big, and they thought as big as possible, to the full limits of the English-speaking world. The end result is a staggering act of journalism, a hyperlink-aided shortcut to the modernist ideal of writing to the entirety of something. It’s a criminally misunderstood book, and just as good a final product as the ingenious idea that spawned it. To borrow from the text, I am entirely happy with this poem.

Bonus Round: Quicktime is making a mockery of my embedding-video skills, so the best I can offer a link, but if you click right here you can see Mishann Lau’s short film based on Apostrophe entitled apostrophe (means of production). It features Darren O’Donnell and is pretty nifty, methinks.


Explore posts in the same categories: Poems in the Wider World, Top Ten of the 2000s

One Comment on “Knotting-Off the Aughts: #8, Bill Kennedy and Darren Wershler-Henry’s Apostrophe”

  1. SH Says:

    Great post.

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