poetics.ca issue #1
poetics.ca issue #1
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Gregory Betts is a writer and editor in Hamilton, Ontario. His first book of poems – a collection of anagrammatic permutations – is set to be released this summer.


Plunderverse: A Cartographic Manifesto

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Human beings begin to learn language even before they are born. In the womb, grammar, voice patterns, intonations and even words make neural connections that prepare a child for the long and difficult task of language comprehension and what we’ve regretfully taken to calling its mastery. Read an unborn a story and the child will remember its rhythm for months after being born. Their hearts will race with excitement when they recognize voices they only heard while in the womb. Read to children and their language skills will develop faster and with greater proficiency.

Learning is, however, an incredibly difficult and time-consuming process. Mastery requires an incredible amount of submission and subjugation. Thus, an important question: do we master language, or has our mind been mastered and shaped by the linguistic system into which we enter?

We are born into language, but a language not our own. The difficult process of language acquisition – especially to the standards we expect and demand of all today – demonstrates and illustrates how unnatural and arbitrary the process is. We are thrust into language, and only by understanding language can we begin to make sense of the world we’ve landed in – including the people that brought us and taught us. Eventually our spectrum of linguistic influences extends and overlaps in unique and random ways, and, from the conflagration and the folding-over of the dynamics of this unique spectrum, our own individual vocabulary and speech patterns emerge. A matrix of influences conditions the possibilities of our expression. But we can only speak in a language not our own.

The limits of individual expression have been explored ad nauseum, and the best anyone has come up with is still just a collection of more words. According to Jeffrey McQuain’s count, Shakespeare invented over 1,700 of our common English words, but almost all were still cognates of Greek and Latin. In fact, it would be more appropriate to say of his lexical gifts to humanity, words like "majestic" and "excellence", that he effectively varied the language that preceded him into novel form. The Queen of England was even then known as Her Majesty; he had the audacity to render her dignified title into a general adjective. Excel was, similarly, a common verb he brazenly rendered into a dignified titular noun. The Queen’s representative in Canada is now known as Her Excellence – a veiled tribute to Shakespeare’s unceasing influence, and Canada’s colonial heritage.

At the other extreme, les Automatistes pushed language to the point of dissolution, varying grammatical structures and semantics by presenting atypical word combinations. The result was called surrealistic, which was a modernist way of adding dignity to the fact that nobody could understand it. It wasn’t, in many respects, meant to be understood – they were testing, exposing and demonstrating important principles of language by breaking it before our eyes. They created language outside of the linguistic system – fascinating, compelling and useless, as great art ought to be. Automatiste Claude Gauvreau also extended this radical twisting of language to nonsignifying neologisms – delightful to hear and impossible to translate, for example, "Malon mermolon antridave" from The Helid World. Such experiments often provoke more insights into the nature of sound and aural cognition than they do about signal communication – and they are a delight to hear: an indulgent wash, an open sea. The subconscious emerges in such writing, with its hint of prelinguistic consciousness.

Resisting language by changing or destroying it, while exceedingly fascinating, offers but a wayward, fleeting defence against the inevitable anti-individualistic nature of the beast. Language is beyond and bigger than any individual, will wrap around any and all possibilities of human communication. Shakespeare’s neologisms were swallowed into general use or were discarded except for their confounding usage in a play or sonnet (much to language-acquiring schoolchildren’s chagrin). Perhaps the odd les Automatistes combination found its way into conventional speech practice, became conventionalized; but most remain wide open and beyond the linguistic system – where they belong. The limits of these inventive reactions against the limits of language are obvious. Communication would end if we were to all speak in neologisms or constantly shifting grammars. The liquor store would become a much more difficult place to navigate with signifiedless language. Language works because we all agree to work within its system.

We speak in each other’s words. We share the meaning of our shared words. We share the grammatical relationships between the shared meanings of our shared words with every understood utterance. We may question and test and probe the depths of that understanding, but, thankfully, the wine can still be bought (and made, and distributed and promoted). Our particular histories and influences allow us to make exciting and unique connections within the vast field of language – and, in that particularity, the mystery of voice emerges. We can still be understood even when saying new things, or old things (which most ideas are) in new, unique and colourful ways.

Writers like Lola Lemire Tostevin, Dionne Brand, and AM Klein explore the impact of cultural histories on language formation and semantic evolution. They draw attention to the fact that language is a broadly cultural phenomenon: formed outside the control of individuals, but felt and experienced by the individual members of the culture. All language carries the baggage of deep and long histories of usage and associations in the world. When cultures shift, language also shifts. Similarly, when individuals change, their use of and experience of language also changes. We all have our own unique way of engaging with the common system, informed and infused with the cultures and histories through which we learned to speak ourselves into being.

Georges Bataille recognized that within modern society, waste had become more than just a constant phenomenon – that much of modern society depended on either the production or destruction of waste. All manner of self-destructive behaviours, up to and including war, consume the excess our ultraproductive society can produce. The overflow conditions the economy, creating a system that contains the seeds of its own destruction in its production. Steve McCaffery took this theory and applied it to language, finding that language also depends on waste.

The buried words, connected sounds and other nuances of language make it both highly versatile and highly excessive: varying meanings spill off with every utterance, unattended and neglected. McCaffrey and bpNichol began exploring the possibilities of exploiting the wastefulness of language – through such techniques as found poems, concrete poems and sound poetry. All these forms attempt to use language in ways other than the conventional manner of maximum (though always wasteful) efficiency. bpNichol’s fondness for puns capitalized on the fact that one word can contain two totally divergent meanings, or directions, which can be connected to playfully make use of this otherwise neglected – wasted – information. His brilliant "Catching Frogs," for instance, unravels an entire narrative with just two words: "jar din." From the bilingual play of the two words, the activity (catching frogs) gains a locus (the garden) and a conclusion (the frog is now in the jar). Best of all, the title plays on the pun of frogs as Frenchmen, and the game of finding French words in English.

Other writers, from Jackson Mac Low to the Oulipians, have experimented with "treating" texts, to much the same effect. They concoct a reading method and extract from a specific source text a buried text within. In most of these experiments, the cryptograph determines the resulting text, which, like the experiments by les Automatistes, are most often artful and incomprehensible. Stephen Scobie, for instance, likes to open a book randomly and read only the words that touch the margin – occasionally discovering random and wonderful connections. All of these aleatory methods and ideas emerge out of and illuminate the wealth and flexibility of language.

Plunderverse does something related, but slightly different. Plunderverse makes use of the wealth and waste of language by exploiting the unattended information in a source text. It makes connections and variations of a previous author’s words to create a different poem from the original piece. But, whereas found poetry and the like celebrate the random connections discovered by abstract rules or unconventional readings of source texts, delighting in the dissolution of communication and the disjunctive semantic fragments that survive, plunderverse celebrates the possibilities of speaking through source texts.

Plunderverse limits its own expression to the source text, but attempts a genuine, divergent expression through the selection, deletion or contortion of it. Plunderverse makes poetry through other people’s words. The constraint is not random, but merely an accelerated variation of the basic fact of language: we already speak in each other’s words. Plunderverse exaggerates the constraints through which we realize and discover our own voice, re-enacting the struggle against influences and cultural histories. It does not try to obscure, bury or overcome influence, but, in fact, celebrates the process by which influences vary into and inform our own voices. It foregrounds the process of language acquisition, reveals the debt of influence and exploits the waste of language.

Plunderverse, of course, is not a new concept, but a variation of related antecedents. Its most immediate precursor is John Oswald’s plunderphonics, in which he created new music by manipulating other people’s work. His version of Dolly Parton’s "The Great Pretender" turns Parton’s solo performance into a duet with an aged male singer – all using her own voice. Oswald ran into legal trouble for his plunder of Michael Jackson’s "Bad," revealing the extent to which our present economic system resists self-consciousness of its own waste. As Bataille wrote, economies that depend upon wastefulness must obscure the waste or risk the insurgence of destabilization. The Vikings, in their indelicate raids, pillaged the excesses of communities without destroying the waste-producing structures (allowing them to return and plunder again in the future).

Plunderverse also has a foundational myth in the story of Narcissus and Echo. Narcissus was in love with himself, trapped gazing into the wonders of his beauty, in the reflection of a small forest pond. Echo, having offended the easily offended gods, was condemned to speak only through words that had just been spoken. She, like too many of the unfortunate, had the misfortune of falling in love with Narcissus, and set about attempting to seduce him despite her constraint. He, however, was too self-absorbed to recognize her message, cloaked as it was in his own words. The key detail of the myth, however, was that Echo had the ability to select which words she repeated, and was thus able to express herself, though with obvious limitations. When Narcissus challenged her, "What do you want here?" she answered honestly, "You!"

Echo’s name has been taken as the cognate for the medical condition of echolalia, a mental disorder that limits an individual’s language to repetition of words just spoken. There is an important change in implications in this usage from its original myth: the repetition in the medical variant refers to language devoid of signification. Max Nordau, the 19th-century Zionist literary critic, used the term to condemn poets who repeated words for sonic rather than semantic pleasure. Closer to Echo’s struggle to speak through another’s words is educational psychologists’ use of the term to refer to children’s babble – phonetic repetitions and distortions that create the neural networks through which language gains meaning in the mind.

Perhaps even more related to Echo’s task, and even that of plunderverse, is the bat’s use of echolocation to identify and locate itself by the constant and perpetual measurement of its echo (later industrialized by the invention of the echograph). The bat knows where it is by the reflection of the world in its voice. Ironically, and revealingly, the bat’s radar abilities have often been mislabelled "echolocution," inadvertently drawing even further attention to the act of speaking through the echo. Echolocution provides a fine synonym for plunderverse, should one ever be needed.

Unlike echo for the bat, however, plunderverse makes no claim to being a totalized cosmology for our species. It is best understood as a method, but a revealing method that unveils specific workings of language and the process by which we are able to speak ourselves into being. There is also a deeply personal element to plunderverse, for it demonstrates the process by which we have gained voice in relation to very explicit source texts.

Destabilizing the source text by exploiting its weakness does not undermine communication, but is, in fact, the very foundation by which communication and personal expression become possible. It is assumed that the source texts used in plunderverse experiments have been, in that nebulous but significant way, influential in expanding the poet’s relationship to language, and that the plunder itself offers some insight into the nature of that influence.




Plunderverse is a compositional method of producing poems from other texts. The process amounts to an extreme edit of a source text, striking out the vast majority of words. The product is a stand-alone poem – built from the (acknowledged) source text, but functionally stand-alone.

Plunderverse poems read like self-contained poems.

In the plundering process, I stick to the linear order of the source text’s words, but disregard punctuation, capitalization and line breaks. Other writers who have begun using plunderverse have their own more and less onerous variations of the method.

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