Spring 2012

Locus Communis

Games that make poems

Jeff Dolven

Take the following lines. If they are a game, what are the rules?

Garibaldi finished gulping the chocolate milk shake and stuck his head in the oven,
Where he saw a fresco of Socrates drowning in a bathtub of applejack;
Methuselah realized that beer and falling from step-ladders are both caused by lovin’

Rules might seem at first to be in short supply. Certainly the author broke a lot of useful ones, pertaining, for example, to anachronism, consistency of diction, and (usually tacit, but widely relied upon nonetheless) what is reasonable to expect when you open your oven door. Other rules, however, come forward as you read.

A chandelier dripping with green wine hits George Bernard Shaw on the back;
Black tea-junipers wave in the infirmary courtyard where scalded Rameau
Hears a rum-soaked dove tell tales of Bernard Berenson being felled by a steel hatrack.

Aha! Each line, it seems, contains a proper name—Garibaldi, Bernard Berenson, et al. Each also contains the name of a beverage, and none fails to relate some unhappy beverage-related accident, be it drowning, scalding, or a backslap from a drunken chandelier. These rules are borne out in the remaining ten three-line stanzas, when Winston Churchill tries vainly to prevent his facebristles from hardening in the orange juice rain and Stonewall Jackson, his house collapsing around him, bravely reminds us to “keep the persimmon juice handy!” The perpetrators—there were two of them, an important fact for present purposes—were John Ashbery and Kenneth Koch. The poem appeared in the summer 1961 issue of their journal Locus Solus, which was printed in Switzerland (thanks to expatriate co-editor Harry Mathews) but served, for its brief life, as the house organ for the poets we have come to call the New York School. This issue, edited by Koch, was devoted to collaboration. His notes do not describe the composition of “The Inferno,” as the poem was called (naturally), but it would be typical of the poets’ process to have alternated lines. The poem, that is, is a kind of game, played between friends by the rules just deduced.

But can a poem, a real poem, be a game? Or can a game make a poem—or more generally, can it make literature, or even more generally, a work of art? Would we put the category of art at risk in saying so? For better or worse, it cannot be denied that there are some family resemblances. Games usually have rules, and so do works of art, for example the rules we call “form.” (The rules of a sonnet, or a sonata, or the golden ratio.) Games and works of art both have boundaries, too: you usually know when you’re inside one, and when you’re back out, thanks to the book’s cover, the painting’s frame, the final whistle, or your last dollar. But what they have in common is not enough to guarantee that what we recognize as a game is therefore art, certainly not for serious spirits like Paul Goodman. The prolific midcentury social theorist, critic, and poet was something of a hero to the Koch-Ashbery-Frank O’Hara crew, on account of his 1951 essay “Advance-Guard Writing” for the Kenyon Review.2

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