Monday, August 9, 2010

Some poetic uses of the Caps Lock key

In the past year I've found at least three poets who know their way around the Caps Lock key and have managed to use it successfully in their poetry. Prima facie, it seems both an impossible move to pull off and somehow cheating, like trying to make your poem better by changing the font. But these geniuses make it work. The latest example I encountered was in Ben Mazer's Poems from The Pen & Anvil Press. I picked this up and flipped through it this weekend and a long poem written all in caps ("Even As We Speak") caught me eye. Of course my first thought was, "Ahem, what now?" One page in, I was thinking "Ben Mazer is the new Whitman." Here's a brief excerpt:
THE MOVIES. HOME LIFE. CHILDHOOD. PAST CENTURIES.
FACES AND TALK. PAINTINGS AND SENSATIONS.
STUBBORN SHYNESS. BRIGHTBIRDS FLOWERING
MORNING. ORSON WELLES. CITIZEN KANE.
MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS. TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN.
DAVID COPPERFIELD. TREASURE ISLAND. THE KID.
ORPHANS. POPPY. MISTAKEN IDENTITY. LIGHT IN THE
HALLWAY. ROSES OF DAWNING OVER THE SHOULDER.
POE. POE. NOT EVEN DARKNESS. NEVER GIVE A SUCKER
AN EVEN BREAK. AND THERE IS NO TIME, NO TIME. NO.
WITH THE CAT HOWLING TO BE LET IN. NO NEED TO
WRITE. ONLY THIS WHAT I'M TELLING YOU. TELLING
MYSELF. THERE IS A BEGINNING TO ALL THIS. AN
OCCASION. SCOTTISH BAGPIPES ARE ITS EQUIVALENT,
BUT IT BEAMS DOWN IN SPECKLED LIGHTS. SPOKEN
LIGHTS. I WOULDN'T SAY. GOAT LIGHT. SAWDUST.
I feel like I could read this all day. Or at least for the length of the poem. In the context of a poetry book, words in caps don't feel like shouting, they just feel uniquely flat, uninflected, like a ticker tape of poetry, like a telegram from space. And in a way this makes them more poignant. It's like watching a robot cry.

Karl Parker's Personationskin , which I reviewed a while back, also has a long section written mostly in caps. Here's what I wrote about it then (you can read some excerpts in the full review):
Flipping through Personationskin from back to front (as one may do with poetry collections, which needn’t necessarily be read in consecutive order), one sees first a section nearly all in caps. Since I decided to read from front to back as presumably intended, I was dreading this last section (titled “Horn o’ Plenty, or Notes Toward a Supreme Cornucopia”; in a previously published version, the alternative title was “A Poem in Sticky Notes”), fearing the worst. But it’s a delightful kind of tantrum, a Tourette’s-like explosion of pseudo-jokes and semi-notes after the controlled play that comes before it. And the Caps Lock effect actually renders the outbursts and name-games more hilarious.
One more example, from "Some Occurrences on the 7:18 to Penn" by Ana Bozicevic:
And the stars go:

THINGS ARE NOT LOOKING GOOD FOR US
MOLESTED BY HAIRCUTS ON LAW AND ORDER AND WHATS GONE WRONG
WITH THE SKYLINE, WHY,
INSTEAD OF READING A BOOK YOU READ STAR OR THE TOOTHPASTE, LOST IN AN ANCIENT ALMANAC

ANNE CARSON IN HEAVEN NERVOUS DESPERATE STUDENT
HER WINDBREAKER FILTHY CLUTCHING THE TRAIN SEAT SO TIGHT WE
SAW HER WRISTPULSE IT WAS
LIKE SEEING HER HEART IN COUNTDOWN

ITS NIGHT. THE ELEPHANT OF POETRY

WE MIGHT BE ON AN INVISIBLE PLANK
ABOVE THE DARKNESS AND IT MIGHT BE
A BLESSING, ANNE WHATS THE WORD FOR

BRANCHES DUMPING THEIR SHINE ON YOUR HEAD, WE THINK OF IT EVERY
TIME WE SEE A BOX. HER NECKS SHADOW

TRANSLUCENT, SHE TURNS TO…
NOTHING TO LOVE: CHEEK CLOUDS, EYEBROW NIGHT

WHAT PASSES FOR EUROPE

BOMBS. JUST LIKE US, PASSING FOR LIGHT
See? That's how stars talk.

9 comments:

  1. this is something i'll never be able to get into. same with centered poems. i always skip them.

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  2. This is actually something you see a lot?

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  3. it's something i see occasionally

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  4. To me it makes no difference whether a poem is in all caps, all lowercase, or written in different ink colors. I wouldn't like e.e. cummings any more or less if he followed the Chicago Manual of Style. It's the choice and arrangement of words that counts. How would any poet convey the use of all caps at a reading, anyhow?

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  5. I don't think performance has primacy over the poem on the page. In fact, the reverse. Far more people read a poem on paper than ever get to hear the author read it, for the most part.

    Stylistic choices don't necessarily make a poem better or worse, but they certainly have an effect on how I read/receive it.

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  6. Have you read Ariana Reines's blog? Not exactly poetry (the heck it ain't), but a pretty great use of caps lock nonetheless.

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  7. Morgan, Hi -- I hadn't read it, but I just found it and will start. I like the one about WOW NEW YORK IS SEXY

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  8. Michael McClure's characteristic poems have lines and phrases in all caps scattered throughout, though I've never seen a whole poem of his in all caps. His poems also (at least all the ones I've seen that sporadically use all caps) are centered on the page.

    Sometimes the all-caps phrases are coherent English, sometimes they are (or include) not-quite-words, or almost-words, or what appear to be sound-effect words (things like GRAHHRR and RRROWRRR, not quoting exactly here but that flavor of thing).

    I've heard a recording of him reading a couple of his poems. He said that the poems included "animal noises," and when he read the poems, he read the all-caps words and phrases louder, and (I guess I'd put it) more wildly.

    McClure years back did an album of recordings of him reading poems accompanied by Ray Manzarek (the keyboard player from the Doors). I haven't listened to it, I just know of it. I suspect it's at least worth a listen.

    I write my poems almost entirely in lowercase, with irregular left and right margins. I didn't start doing that for any particular reason, I just tried lots of different things early on, and that seemed to work.

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  9. a la Matt's aversion to centered lines: Melvin Tolson's Harlem Gallery is entirely in elaborately centered stanzas and MAGNIFICENT (tho I agree it often ain't).

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