Like other experiments in the avant-garde, poegles were conceived in France and came of age in America. But their story begins not in France but in Uruguay, in Montevideo, in 1847. As the city lay under siege by the invading Argentine army, the wife of the French consular Francois Ducasse, Jacquette-Celestine Davezac, gave birth to a son, Isidore. Jacquette died shortly thereafter, the victim of an epidemic exacerbated by the wartime conditions. It was the first but not the last tragic circumstance of Isidore’s short life.
Ducasse’s father sent him to study in Paris at the age of thirteen. Though he excelled in math and the visual arts in school, he was drawn to literature, showing a particular fascination with the works of Edgar Allen Poe. He published his first complete work of poetry, Les Chants de Maldoror, in 1868 under the name Comte de Lautreamont. There was no mystery as to the origin of Ducasse’s noble title: he made it up. Though Ducasse had to go to Belgium to find a publisher for his book, he enthusiastically recommended his work in a letter to the greatest living French writer of his day, Victor Hugo:
“You cannot believe how happy you would make one human being, were you to write me a few words. Can you also promise me a copy of each of the works you are going to bring out in the month of January? And now, having reached the end of my letter, I look upon my audacity with more composure, and shudder at having written to you. I who in this century am nothing yet, while you, you are its Everything. Isidore Ducasse.”
For his next (and last) work Ducasse turned away from the despair of Maldoror and aspired to produce something more hopeful: “I replace melancholy by courage, doubt by certainty, despair by hope, malice by good, complaints by duty, scepticism by faith, sophisms by cool equanimity and pride by modesty.” For this task, he enlisted a little help from his friends. Ducasse took quotations from Pascal, La Rochefoucald, Kant, and Dante and sprinkled them throughout his text, without attribution. As he explained in one of the Poesies’ most famous passages: “Plagiarism is necessary. Progress implies it. It closely grasps an author’s sentences, uses his expressions, deletes a false idea, replaces it with the right one.” The Poesies also represented a break in Ducasse’s opinion of the likes of Victor Hugo:
“Since Racine, poetry has not progressed one millimeter. It has regressed. Thanks to whom? Thanks to the Great-Soft-Heads of our epoch. Thanks to the sissies, Chateaubriand, the Melancholy-Mohican…Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the Socialist-Grouser…Edgar Allen Poe, the Mameluke-of-Alcohol Dreams… Victor Hugo, the Funereal-Green-Beanpole…and Byron, the Hippopotamus-of-the-Inferna-Jungles.”
Ducasse, however, never finished the Poesies. In July of 1870 Napolean III declared war on Prussia, and by September, Ducasse once again found himself living in a city under siege. He became ill with fever, and with public health services at a minimum, he died on November 24th. The owner of the hotel where Ducasse had been living made arrangements for his burial in a provisional grave.
Years after Napoleon III, the Second French Empire and indeed Ducasse had passed away, another war would profoundly influence a new generation of French artists and writers. World War I scattered the populations of Europe, shredded established ideas and produced artists like Andre Breton. Breton counted the Comte de Lautréamont among his influences. By the time of the publication of the Surrealist Manifesto in 1924, Breton had established himself as the leader of that movement. This new school of art spread around the globe, as artists and writers experimented with methods of generating unexpected juxtapositions, non sequitur, new and fresh associations and elements of surprise.
Breton and his associates experimented with spontaneous, or ‘automatic’ writing, in order to explore what Freud called the hidden unconscious. At the same time, ready-made, or ‘found art’ was adopted by the Surrealists. Breton declared found art to be “manufactured objects raised to the dignity of works of art through the choice of the artist.”
But it is not Breton who counts among the fathers of the Poegle, but rather two men that ran afoul of Breton. One was a Romanian. The other was a Canadian. The Romanian was Tristan Tzara. In the 1920s, Tzara took the stage at a Surrealist rally and proposed creating a poem by pulling words from a hat. This simple suggestion caused a riot, and led Breton to expel Tzara from the Surrealist movement. Tzara defined this controversial method in a poem:
To Make A Dadist Poem
Take a newspaper.
Take some scissors.
Choose from this paper an article the length you want to make your poem.
Cut out the article.
Next carefully cut out each of the words that make up this article and put them all in a bag.
Next take out each cutting one after the other.
Copy conscientiously in the order in which they left the bag.
The poem will resemble you.
And there you are–an infinitely original author of charming sensibility, even though unappreciated by the vulgar herd.
Later Tzara’s method would be rediscovered by Brion Gysin, a Canadian artist who came to Paris in 1934 to study at the Sorbonne. He joined the surrealists, and a year later was part of an exhibition at the Galerie Quatre Chemins with artists like Giorgio de Chirico, Marcel Duchamp, Picasso, and many others. For some reason, before the exhibition opened, Breton ordered Gysin’s pictures taken down and later expelled Gysin from the movement.
Despite this early setback, Gysin went on to become a great artist. One night in the 1950s, he was mounting paintings. He put newspapers down to protect the table from being scratched while he cut the papers with a razor. As he cut, he noticed that the slices of paper created interesting juxtapositions. He began cutting articles into sections, which he then rearranged. This process produced a book, Minutes to Go. Gysin became extremely excited by the cut-up technique, as it became known. He later wrote that “writers don’t own their words. Since when do words belong to anybody? ‘Your very own words,’ indeed! And who are you?”
Gysin was an associate of an American living in Paris at the time named William S. Burroughs. Burroughs had come to France by way of New York, Louisiana, Mexico, and Tangiers, with each move dictated by the necessity of escaping criminal prosecution. Born in St. Louis, Burroughs originally settled in New York on the strength of a family stipend he received as the grandson of the inventor of the Burroughs Adding Machine, William Seward Burroughs I. After being arrested for forging a narcotics prescription and serving a brief house arrest back home in St. Louis, Burroughs and the woman who would become his common law wife, Joan Vollmer, left New York and settled in Louisiana. He then fell under suspicion for conspiring to import marijuana into the United States from South America, so Burroughs and his family fled to Mexico, where he intended to wait out the five year statute of limitations for drug trafficking.
In Mexico Burroughs shot and killed Vollmer in what was apparently an ill-fated game of “William Tell;” Burroughs, long a firearm enthusiast, had placed an apple on top of Vollmer’s head in order to impress some friends at a party with his marksmanship. The subsequent homicide prosecution looked to be going favorably, as Burroughs had bribed the local authorities, but when Burroughs’ own lawyer had to flee the country after a curious car accident and altercation with the son of a government official, Burroughs decided to follow suit. He was convicted of homicide in absentia. The easy access to drugs made Tangiers a natural destination, but new allegations of illegal drug importation eventually led Burroughs to Paris.
Gysin introduced Burroughs to the cut-up technique at the Beat Hotel in Paris’s Latin Quarter in 1959. Burroughs embraced the idea as a way to move beyond the conventional works of fiction he wrote while in Mexico, including Junky and Queer, and to grapple with the guilt he felt about the death of his wife. He wrote:
“The cut-up method brings to writers the collage, which has been used by painters for fifty years. And used by the moving and still camera. In fact all street shots from movie or still cameras are by the unpredictable factors of passers by and juxtaposition cut-ups. And photographers will tell you that often their best shots are accidents . . . writers will tell you the same. The best writing seems to be done almost by accident.”
Burroughs put the cut-up technique to work and began to develop his more experimental, non-linear approach to writing in a series of stories that were later published under the title Interzone. The subsequent novels he wrote in the 1960s, Naked Lunch, The Soft Machine, The Ticket That Exploded, and Nova Express, all made extensive use of the technique. Its seemingly random or mechanical basis for text generation, combined with the possibilities of using text written by other writers, challenged the role of the writer as the primary creator of any written work. More important in this method was the writer’s sensibility as an editor.
While Burroughs was dreaming up Interzone, a computer scientist named J.C.R. Licklider was crafting a series of memos that described his “Intergalactic Computer Network” concept. Like Burroughs, Licklider, known affectionately to his colleagues as “Lick,” was a native of St. Louis. He was the only child of an insurance salesman, and as a boy he spent hours alone in his room constructing model airplanes. While Burroughs and Gysin were arranging newspaper clippings on Gysin’s kitchen table in Paris, Licklider was advancing the notion that a common global computer network should be created to allow scientists work together and share information. He wrote:
“In the first place, it is evident that we have among us a collection of individual (personal and/or organizational) aspirations, efforts, activities, and projects. These have in common, I think, the characteristics that they are in some way connected with advancement of the art or technology of information processing, the advancement of intellectual capability (man, man-machine, or machine), and the approach to a theory of science. The individual parts are, at least to some extent, mutually interdependent.”
After beginning his career at MIT, Licklider was appointed head of the Information Processing Techniques Office at DARPA, the United States Department of Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, in 1962. He soon convinced his superiors that an all-encompassing computer network was an essential component of the national defense. The basic idea of today’s Internet was born.
Over the next two decades, as the technology improved and disseminated across the globe, human beings began to amass a vast amount of data and text on the kinds of systems Licklider dreamed of. Suddenly, millions of people were using the Internet to share their work and their art, their thoughts and their feelings, leaving artifacts of their experiences on blogs, wikis, websites and other platforms for anyone to find at the click of a mouse. Business was perhaps first to fully grasp the power of the Internet to collect and organize human thought and behavior. From the ideas explored in The Cluetrain Manifesto to Wikinomics, the potential for humans to innovate and to collaborate with this profound new means of communication is only just becoming apparent.
But apart from the means to organize useful ideas and information, search engines create the means to sift through the very human artifacts left on the web- the roaring babble of the masses. These tools are also available to the poet, to look for specific scraps of text, to explore the no longer hidden consciousness of a vast swathe of humanity. In the collage of language returned from a simple search query, the poet can find among the scraps clues about himself, about the world around him.
The first poets to systematically draw upon Internet-generated text for the creation of their poems called their work “flarf poetry.” Flarf traces its origins to the poet Gary Sullivan’s efforts to bait Poetry.com’s ubiquitous poetry contest by submitting deliberately poor, juvenile, or otherwise offensive poems. In 2000 Sullivan entered “Flarf Balonacy Swingle,” a work that has unfortunately evaded the Internet’s long reach and may be lost to the ages.
Other poets admiring of Sullivan’s reaction against the cloying sincerity that permeates so many poems began to draw upon Internet search results for the creation of their own flarf poems, such that Internet source material has become a hallmark of flarf. Flarf poems “bring out the inherent awfulness, etc., of some pre-existing text,” Sullivan once explained. A “flarfy” poem is “something akin to ‘campy,’ but with somewhat different resonances. More awkward, stumbling, ‘wrong’ than camp.”
Contemporaneous with the genesis of flarf, the future editors of Poegles found themselves at a party one night in 2001, at one of their homes, in Kensington, Brooklyn. The host editor proposed a new method of writing poetry, one that drew upon Internet search results to tap into the secret zeitgeist of the global culture in order to create original works. The other enthusiastically agreed with the idea, but the proposal was lost in the course of a long night of revelry.
Many years passed. In 2007 the editors once again found themselves in convivial circumstances, this time late on a Sunday afternoon in Park Slope, Brooklyn, in a bar, in the middle of a long day of watching football. The editor who had long since moved on from his modest accommodations in Kensington again proposed his idea, and this time he gave it a name: “poegles.” Poegles would use search results as their raw materials, and while they would often, hopefully, be funny, they would also be more than just a joke, they would at their best pluck something existent but hidden out of the ether and breathe it to life on the page. The editor’s friend once again enthusiastically endorsed the idea, forgetting entirely the identical conversation that they had six years earlier. The two then undertook to develop poegles: writing poegles, launching the Poegles web site, and preaching the good news of poegles far and wide.
What follows is the first collection of poegles as such, though would-be poets have been making poegle-like creations since Gysin sliced his newspapers, Tzara pulled phrases out of a hat, and Lautréamont plagiarized Immanuel Kant, perhaps even since young J.C.R. Licklider was building model airplanes in his childhood bedroom in St. Louis. Each of their works was one part invention and two parts discovery. Likewise with you, Dear Reader, the contents of your own poegles already exist. The words are circulating online, and the vision for their arrangement is peculiarly your own. Like Adam and Eve in the Garden, it is only a matter of plucking the fruit from the tree.