Literary studies has taken a global turn through such institutional frameworks as global romanticism, global modernism, global anglophone, global postcolonial, global settler studies, world literature, and comparative literature. Though promising an escape from parochialism, nationalism, and Eurocentrism, this turn often looks suspiciously like another version of Anglo-European imperialism. This essay argues that, rather than continue the expansionary line of recent decades, global literary studies must allow other perspectives to draw into question its concepts, practices, and theories, including those associated with the terms literature, discipline, and comparison. As a settler colonial (Pākehā) scholar in Aotearoa New Zealand, I attend particularly to Māori literary scholars from Apirana Ngata, Te Kapunga Matemoana (Koro) Dewes, and Hirini Melbourne to Alice Te Punga Somerville, Tina Makereti, and Arini Loader. Their work highlights the limitedness of global literary studies in its current disciplinary guise. Disciplines remain important when they bring recognition to something previously marginalized, as in the battle to have Māori literature recognized within Pākehā institutions. What institutionalized modes of global literary studies need, however, is not discipline but indiscipline: a recognition of the limits of dominant disciplinary objects, frameworks, and practices, and an openness to other ways of seeing the world.
This is the abstract to an essay that I wrote for the fifteenth anniversary issue of New Global Studies and which is now online here. Please note that the essay is behind a paywall. Please contact me if you would like me to send you a copy of the essay.
I am deeply grateful to Michael Leong for his detailed and enthusiastic review of Make It the Same in Contemporary Literature. One of the many things that I love about his review is its prospective outlook. Building on the ideas and examples in Make It the Same, Leong considers, for instance, “what it might look like to study comparatively the chapbook xeno/fremd: copy-book by the Chilean visual poet Guillermo Deisler (1940–1995) alongside ‘Xenophobic Nightmare in a Foreign Language’ by African American experimentalist Harryette Mullen (1953– ).” The review begins:
Modern poetry has a complicated relation to both the original and the repetitive. On one hand, as Marjorie Perloff argues, “we expect our poets to produce words, phrases, images, and ironic locutions that we have never heard before.”1 On the other hand, repetition, the “already heard,” is a central feature of poetic language―from the recursivity of rhyme schemes to the patterned reiterations of tropes such as chiasmus, anadiplosis, and epistrophe. Just as intratextual repetition can “set up expectations and guide interpretation” within any given poem, the repetitions of forms, genres, and topoi throughout a diachronic tradition can create a sense of discursive continuity within change.2 From a readerly standpoint, the recognition of repetition can be reassuring, even pleasurable. The danger is that too much repetition, formal or otherwise, risks a deadening predictability. As Williams Carlos Williams polemically stated in 1944, “To me all sonnets say the same thing of no importance.” It is no surprise, then, that standard narratives of modernism have tended to highlight a Poundian poetics of making it new, of breaking free from the rote of convention. “There is no poetry of distinction,” said Williams, “without formal invention.”3 Interestingly, some of the most distinctive innovations of modernist poetry have depended on making repetition itself new by employing it in unconventional ways that go well beyond familiar intratextual and intratraditional gestures of anaphora or allusion. For example, Williams extensively repeats nonpoetic language from letters, newspapers, and other historical documents throughout his montagic long poem Paterson. In criticizing the prosaicness of the so-called Cress letters in Paterson, Randall Jarrell complains, “What has been done to them to make it possible for us to respond to them as art and not as raw reality? to make them part of the poem ‘Paterson’? I can think of no answer except: They have been copied out on the typewriter.”4
Jacob Edmond’s Make It the Same: Poetry in the Age of Global Media is a compelling study of what he calls “copy poetry” (4) from the 1950s (when Williams’s career was reaching its final chapter) to the present day. Informed by a wealth of meticulous research, Edmond shows how various methods of unorthodox copying―which might represent, to the likes of Jarrell, a scandalous renunciation of creativity―have enabled contemporary poets to creatively muster “an ethical and political response to the crisis in authority engendered by new media technologies and globalization” (7). One of the overall strengths of Make It the Same is its generous augmentation of “the usual, largely Anglo-American and Western European account of the rise of copy poetry” (3). While acknowledging figures and movements often associated with twentieth- and twenty-first-century appropriation―from John Cage, Jackson Mac Low, and Andy Warhol to the Ouvroir de littérature potentielle, Language writing, and North American conceptualism―Edmond “adds alternate lines of development that pass not through New York, Paris, or London but through Kingston, Moscow, and Taipei.”
Make It the Same is, thus, a major contribution to the study of experimental poetry as it stages an intriguing cosmopolitan conversation about iteration and innovation among diverse Anglophone, Russophone, and Sinophone writers such as Kamau Brathwaite, Dmitri Prigov, John Cayley, Yang Lian, Caroline Bergvall, Kenneth Goldsmith, Brandon Som, Jonathan Stalling, and Hsia Yü. Whether through sampling, remixing, transcription, or remediation, all of these poets are invested in repetition and copying, and Edmond is correct in claiming that “in the field of contemporary poetry, scholars and poets alike have tended to treat these various kinds of repetition as largely separate phenomena” (2). In Against Expression: An Anthology of Conceptual Writing, for instance, Craig Dworkin warns that conceptual writing, which emerged in North America in the late 1990s, “should not to be confused with the Kontseptualizme poetry movement that flourished in Moscow in the 1980s (associated most closely with writers such as Prigov and Lev Rubenstein).”5 Though Dworkin’s differentiation is not unwarranted, it is also worth mentioning that critical transnational comparison is not the same as confusion, and Edmond admirably takes up the former.6
Students and scholars of literary conceptualism, experimental translation, cross-cultural collaboration, multilingualism, performance writing, visual poetry, artistic plagiarism, and digital poetics among other nonnormative modes of poiesis are bound to benefit from Edmond’s rich contextualizations and his method of what we might call “comparative iterature.” What can’t be overemphasized is that copying and related forms of poetic mimicry, which some might wrongly perceive as crude unidimensional techniques, can flexibly serve a myriad of cultural functions across a surprising range of sociohistorical contexts.
To pick up a print newspaper today, let alone to turn it into a work of literature, is increasingly an act of nostalgia, a reference to a time long gone. And yet, as I have argued here, poets and writers continue to turn to the texts and collage-like structure of the news because they provide a vital means for negotiating a world of proliferating media. While the collaging of the news is a centuries-old practice and one that was already substantially explored in the first half of the twentieth century, it has taken on renewed resonance in recent decades as writers negotiate increasingly complex and global media contexts, rising nationalisms, political polarization, and news events with worldwide repercussions from the global financial crisis to Covid-19. The ability to negotiate multiple juxtaposed sources of information from around the world has become more, not less, relevant in our current era of globalization and digital networks. Evincing this ongoing relevance, the year that the global financial crisis reached its peak was also the year that the Sichuan earthquake video poems circulated virally and that the “Cross It Out” project took place. That same year, Lvovsky published “In Other Words,” and, citing the poem, Kuzmin hailed a new tendency in Russian poetry.
We could treat these contemporary poetic negotiations of the news as an extension of the modernist turn to new forms of fragmented subjectivity in response to the impossibility of comprehending an increasingly complex world. We can, for instance, read Hsia Yü’s text as staging a lyric subject whose own words are visible only in the repetition, selection, or negation of the words of others. Such a lyric reading for poetic subjectivity remains possible for all the works mentioned here, including those by Hsia Yü, Lin Yaode, Yan Jun, Lvovsky, Medvedev, Prigov, Goldsmith, and Stefans.
Yet, as I have argued, any inward-looking focus on the lyric subject, however diffuse, must be tempered by an outward-looking recognition of how the poetry of the news presents the lyric as collectively constructed by multiple authors and readers and from various media, genres, and art forms, including poetry, contemporary art, filmmaking, music, journalism, digital and social media, and live performance. For Fredric Jameson, the modernist artist responded to the overwhelming complexity of global networks by turning to the subjective: to “a tiny corner of the social world” and the inner life of the individual. Jameson can only make this claim by sidelining modernist engagements with the collage-like structure of the news. Contemporary poets, by contrast, extend this engagement, decoupling their poetic texts from lyric subjectivity so that they become instead a means of negotiating the multiple texts and global networks of contemporary media. Contemporary news poems show another side of modernism, one that is still with us today: the turn not inwards but outwards to the myriad news stories and feeds that constitute the collective text of our time.
Last week, I delivered my inaugural professorial lecture in Dunedin. Here, in addition to sharing the recording, I also reproduce the text of the opening part of the lecture.
Tihei mauri ora. The sneeze of life. The phrase is used to claim the right to speak, as I do this evening.
The phrase looks back to Hineahuone, who, according to many accounts of Māori whakapapa, was the first woman. Tāne fashioned her from the blood red clay of Papatūānuku and then breathed life into her.
This evening I want to talk about breath.
Hā ki roto, hā ki waho. Breathe in, breathe out. It’s the simplest thing, the in- and outflow of breath that keeps us alive, so automatic that, most of the time, we hardly notice it.
But it seems harder now not to notice that inflow and outflow of breath. Covid-19, the disease that has changed all our lives, attacks the lungs, making it hard and, in severe cases, impossible for a person to breathe.
Covid not only affects a person’s ability to breathe but also spreads through our breath, so that this most basic part of human and animal existence has become a source of anxiety and fear—so much so that it seems remarkable to be standing in front of you now, breathing the same air that you are breathing.
But Covid is not the only reason that breath has become impossible to ignore. “I can’t breathe,” said George Floyd as he was suffocated to death by police in Minneapolis last year. “I can’t breathe,” said Eric Garner suffocated to death by police in New York City six years earlier. “I can’t breathe” say millions, as they protest against the racism that continues to plague our world.
These words have been taken up not only to protest against the literal suffocation and murder of black people at the hands of the police in the United States; they also voice a wider protest against racism in all its forms. “I can’t breathe” articulates the impossibility of thriving in a society shaped by prejudice.
“I can’t breathe” also speaks to climate change. Already in 2015, poet Ross Gay made this link. He described how Eric Garner “worked for some time for the Parks and Rec. / Horticultural Department” and so “in all likehood, / . . . put gently into the earth / some plants,” whose exhalations of oxygen make “it easier for us to breathe.” As Ben Okri put it more recently and bluntly, “‘I can’t breathe’ will become the condition of the world,” if we go on ignoring the “warnings of climate catastrophe.”
Breath today marks a series of catastrophes. We have the capacity to address these catastrophes but repeatedly fail. In each case it is partly words that fail us. They spread racism, xenophobia, nationalism, misinformation; they perpetuate inequality and prejudice, preventing many, sometimes literally, from breathing.
Poets have little power to address these global issues directly, but they are concerned with the power of words and their origin in breath, be it the breath of life that animated Hineahuone, or that first breath that each of us took when we came into this world.
I can also link my entrance into the world of scholarship to breath. I wrote my honours dissertation on the poet Osip Mandelstam’s first book. The first poem in that first book is entitled “Breathing,” or “Dykhanie” in Russian:
Дано мне тело — что мне делать с ним, Таким единым и таким моим?
За радость тихую дышать и жить Кого, скажите, мне благодарить?
Я и садовник, я же и цветок, В темнице мира я не одинок.
На стёкла вечности уже легло Моё дыхание, моё тепло.
Запечатлеется на нём узор, Неузнаваемый с недавних пор.
Пускай мгновения стекает муть — Узора милого не зачеркнуть.
I’ve been given a body—what shall I do with it, So whole and so mine?
For the quiet joy of breathing and living, Whom, tell me, should I thank?
I am both gardener and flower; In the prison of the world, I am not alone.
On the glass of eternity has settled My breathing, my warmth.
A design shall be imprinted on them, Recently unrecognizable.
Let the dregs of the moment drip down— The sweet design cannot be crossed out
The poem poses a problem of origins and position. I have a body, life, breath, now what shall I do with them? What shall I say? These are questions that the young Mandelstam posed at the beginning of his career, that I continue to ask myself, and that I want to return to in several ways over the course of this lecture.
They are not idle questions. As teachers, writers, researchers we have a responsibility not to waste our breath or our words. And even more than that, we have a responsibility to allow others to breathe and speak. Our students, our disciplines, our universities, our societies need to provide the cultural oxygen that allows everyone to breath and speak easily, regardless of differences. We have a very long way to go to achieve this ideal in a society, country, and world all still poisoned by racial and gender discrimination, xenophobia, homophobia and other forms of prejudice. Although it is heartening that this year and last year over half of those promoted to professor at Otago are women, as a Pākehā man, I am still part of a privileged and disproportionally large majority within the professoriate. Meanwhile, the growing precariat—that is, those working on temporary contracts for low wages—at this and other universities is disproportionately female and non-white. So, the question again is: given this body, given this position, given this opportunity to breathe and to speak, what should I do with it, what should I say?
In Mandelstam’s poem, the speaker’s breath leaves patterns on the cold window pane just as the poet leaves patterns of words on the page. This pattern appears in a moment—in an outflow of breath, in a few strokes of pen on paper. Breath here becomes a figure for the moment of poetic composition, of voice, that ushers in something new—something never before known. The moment is fleeting and yet it leaves behind a pattern that will extend beyond the instance of exhalation and indeed beyond the living, breathing life of the poet, whose fate was to die at the hands of the Stalinist regime that he bravely opposed with the fragile eternity of the poetic word.
I have no such grandiose hopes for this lecture, but I do want to use it to trace a pattern: to explore how poets have turned to breath to verbalize the battle for speech and for cultural oxygen in an at times suffocating literary and cultural status quo. From these poetic struggles for breath, I want also to draw lessons for how we might change the way we teach so as to allow everyone to breathe easily, to ensure everyone has the same chance of occupying the privileged position of standing here speaking to you.
I want to begin by examining how Mandelstam’s use of breath in this poem forms part of a tradition. Poets writing in the European tradition have long associated the lyric with the fleetingness of the singular breath and with the written words that outlive it. Shakespeare, for instance, writes:
O, how shall summer’s honey breath hold out
Against the wreckful siege of battering days,
He goes on to ask who might hold this “wreckful” passage of time back, only to answer:
O, none, unless this miracle have might,
That in black ink my love may still shine bright.
The fleeting breath of summer, and by implication of the poet and his beloved, will not last, but the words live on. Similarly, in sonnet 18:
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.
It’s this same tradition of thinking of the lyric as both singular and all-encompassing and everlasting that Mandelstam draws on.
Such poetic uses of breath exemplify two key aspects of the Western lyric tradition. On the one hand, the lyric has come to stand for the personal, individual perspective; and on the other hand, for a sleight of hand whereby that perspective becomes generalized as a universal truth. Breath provides a bridge for this lyrical sleight of hand: each person’s breath is uniquely theirs and yet breathing is something common to humanity as a whole.
For its critics, two key dangers lurk in this way of thinking about lyric poetry and the world at large. On the one hand, it encourages individualism, an emphasis on oneself at the expense of others. Think of Mandelstam’s emphasis on a breath that is “so my own.” Such individualism is of course the basis of neoliberal capitalism but it is also a disaster in the face of problems that require collective action, such as a global pandemic, a climate emergency, or systemic racism and inequality. In these cases, narrow self-interest is precisely what inhibits effective collective action.
The lyric also has another side seemingly at odds with this individualism but, for its critics, equally problematic. It extrapolates a common humanity and timeless universal claims from its highly personal example. Mandelstam’s singular breath is also shared (“I am not alone”) and becomes the guarantee, via his penning of the lyric, of something eternal (“on the glass of eternity”; or for Shakespeare, “so long as men can breathe”).
We might think that this aspect of the Western lyric and its deployment of breath are precisely what we need in our current crises. Surely, we need an appeal to our common humanity and what could be more common than breath? After all, Mandelstam arguably appealed to our common human breath to counter any prejudice against him because of his Jewish identity. Why shouldn’t we use the same tactic to overcome prejudice today?
The danger lies in the way the shift from an individual viewpoint to a global claim obscures difference. So-called level economic playing fields, race-blind policies, and common individual freedoms ignore the massive accumulations of wealth in a few hands that make the playing field more like Mt Everest; the insidious effects of prejudice; and the constraints on the life and liberty of the vulnerable when others choose to exercise their freedoms by spreading a dangerous virus. Seen in this light, neoliberalism and the Western lyric tradition are as dangerous for their false universalism as for their individualism.
But need poets appeal to breath only in this way? Might they also offer an alternative to this tradition and so to the breathlessness of our present moment? Might they articulate other ways of being and breathing in the world?
I took as one of the epigraphs to this essay Costa and Perreault’s claim that “the tape recorder is already as necessary as the typewriter. It may soon replace it.” Read today, their claim now comes to us full of obvious historical irony. Neither the tape recorder nor the typewriter is any longer a necessary part of our everyday lives and neither seems to have much of a future, except as an object of nostalgic curiosity or of media history. Krapp’s Last Tape might be set in “a late evening in the future,” but to watch Krapp load his reels of tape on stage is to feel immersed in a technological museum piece, just as Krapp himself is immersed in his own recorded past (Beckett, Krapp’s Last Tape 9). And yet, as I have suggested here, it is precisely because its meaning has shifted across time and space that the tape recorder offers lessons for the future study of literature on a global scale: it demonstrates the dynamic and mutually shaping relationship between changes in media and shifts in the boundaries of language and literature.
Between the 1950s and the 1980s, tape changed literary practice worldwide. From Ginsberg to Sexton, Antin to the bards of magnitizdat, tape was used to unsettle the boundaries of literature and disrupt the borderlines of language, presaging a larger turn away from isolated and divisible languages and towards a greater range of intonations, versions, and modes of circulation. The history of literature on tape heralds a turn not just in global literature but also in global literary studies: it anticipates the breaking down of monolithic linguistic, geographic, and media categories in our digital age; and it illustrates the need for literary scholars to attend to the flux in both media and languages and to the dynamic interplay between them. Only in this way can we begin to truly do world literature in stereo.
Hā ki roto, hā ki waho. Breathe in, breathe out. It’s the simplest thing, the in- and outflow of breath that keeps us alive, so automatic that, most of the time, we hardly notice it. And yet we ignore breath at our peril in an era when the struggle to breathe has come to symbolize a series of ongoing catastrophes: medical, racial, and environmental. Next month, in my inaugural professorial lecture, I will explore how poets—who have always paid attention to breath—might help us find the resources to address these crises and, in so doing, to re-imagine literature and the world.
The lecture addresses some suffocating aspects of our still largely Euro-centric academy and society and the resources that poets offer for imagining literature, literary studies and the world otherwise. It touches on the writings of, amongst others, Kamau Brathwaite, Ross Gay, Allen Ginsberg, Lu Xun, Osip Mandelstam, Sinead Overbye, NourbeSe Philip, Essa May Ranapiri, William Shakespeare, Pamela Sneed, Juliana Spahr, and Apirana Taylor—along with the removal of a statue and the cutting down of a flagpole or two…
I will be delivering the lecture from 5:30 to 7:00pm on Thursday 15 April in Archway 2 Lecture Theatre, Union St East, University of Otago, Dunedin. The lecture will also be live-streamed from 5:25pm Thursday 15 April 2021 (NZ time) at the following address:
Edmond’s engaging and exciting book merits a wide readership by scholars and students across literary and cultural studies. Innovative, thoroughly researched, and well-argued, this book is a remarkable study of iterative poetics in the works of diverse poets of different backgrounds and cultures, and an important and timely addition to the growing scholarship on global literature that moves beyond the binaries of East and West, center and periphery, singularity and repetition.
I am very grateful to the TLS and Justin Quinn for this review of Make It the Same, even though my book is written precisely against the kinds of simplistic dichotomies, between past and present, “experimental” and “traditional,” that Quinn invokes at the end of the review. The review, however, opens with a nice summation of some of the book’s key motivations:
How can we understand poetry now that it travels so mercurially beyond the old enclosures? In Make It the Same: Poetry in the age of global media, Jacob Edmond sets out to make sense of the situation via the concept of “iterative poetics”, where the material means of transmission of the work is central to its meaning. Also, today’s critics, the study implies, should be alert to the ways in which putative “peripheries” have their own substantial powers, and are not forever doomed to wait for word from the metropolis about the state of the art.
Twenty years ago, a new door in my life opened when I entered the office of one Hilary Chung, a new lecturer in Chinese who had recently arrived in the country. I still recall pitching to her what I only much later realised was an extraordinarily eccentric PhD project, involving disparate contemporary poets writing in Chinese, Russian, and English.
Luckily for me, Hilary was not only, as she later put it, ‘the only potential supervisor with the requisite expertise in New Zealand’, but was also willing to use that expertise in both Chinese and Russian to guide me through a four-year-long comparative project that I would very likely have struggled to get past the gate-keepers at most universities around the world. Even then, I doubt I would have started, let alone finished, the project without Hilary’s enthusiastic response that first day in the tower block on Symonds St where Asian Studies was then housed.
Since learning of Hilary’s death, I have kept returning to our first meeting. She was enthusiastic, energetic, and she conveyed to me a sense that anything was possible. This sense manifested not just in her ability to enable me and others to pursue our goals but also in her sharp ear for bullshit and her refusal to accept lazy modes of thinking and writing, including, frequently, my own. I know my experience of Hilary as a supervisor was shared because of the many beautiful testimonies to her written by the almost twenty other PhD students whom she supervised over the subsequent two decades. But I also know that she didn’t just offer this support to her own students. I remember the thought and energy with which she responded to three of my PhD students at the 2017 NZASIA Pre-conference Postgraduate Workshop at the University of Otago in Dunedin. Her generosity and incisiveness that day reminded me again of how lucky I was to have had Hilary as a supervisor.
My most intense period of collaboration with Hilary came, however, not during my PhD but immediately afterwards, in 2005, when she and I collaborated on translating and editing a collection of Auckland writings by the poet Yang Lian 杨炼. I was already teaching at Otago by that time, and I vividly recall our long telephone discussions about the best translation of a tricky word or phrase. It was Hilary who led this work of translation, and once again it was her drive and passion that got the project over the line.
The building where I first met Hilary is a few minutes’ walk away from the Symonds St Cemetery and Grafton Bridge, landmarks that are central to the geography of Yang Lian’s Auckland writings and which may well also have featured in Hilary’s first experiences of the city after she moved to Aotearoa in 1999. Perhaps it was their shared experience of the city as somewhere strange and new that led Hilary to pay particular attention to Yang Lian’s Auckland work. Writing in this journal in 2012, Hilary described how ‘for Yang Lian confronting the trauma of exile in Auckland meant not only confronting the alienating environment of Auckland city with its dead volcanoes, incomprehensible street signs and unfamiliar intimacy with the sea, but developing a new relationship with the language of poetry such that home and identity came to be located in language itself’. Hilary was no exile, and she probably experienced the marks of British colonialism in language, street names, and culture as uncannily similar, rather than bewilderingly different. And yet, Auckland was still a strange city for her when I met her not long after her arrival. And she too forged a home and identity not just through family and place, but also in ‘language itself’, in her work and words as a scholar and translator.
Hilary died at the end of a long winter. Now, as I write, I look out on a flare of kōwhai blossom that seems only to reinforce the bitter truth of her words: ‘In winter the semblance of death is belied by the possibility of spring but flowers seem possible only in dreams.’
To praise the originality of Jacob Edmond’s account of modern poetry might sound rather ironic given the premise of the book, but the sheer ingenuity on display—as Edmond assembles poets from dozens of countries, poems in multiple platforms, and a dizzying array of technologies—is truly impressive. We now appreciate the unoriginality that Pound intended in “Make it new,” but Edmond shows how poetry can be reproduced, chopped, appropriated, hacked, retranslated, and otherwise remediated in ways that Pound could not have imagined in the pre-digital era. What this introduces, too, is a new velocity of reproduction and reproducibility: poetry circulates unoriginally—yet with great creativity—in an instant, Edmond shows, from the Caribbean to China to Russia to the United States and back in the blink of an eye. And it does so in wildly unexpected circuits: part of the book’s beauty is its ability to unpack putatively high and low forms, from the experimental avant-garde to cutup Twitter poems, in which poetry now travels. But there is nothing either Romantic or romantic about Edmond’s book; instead, it is a canny story of media itself in an age of Western dominance, of poetry’s imbrication in it and response to it, and of authors like M. NourbeSe Philip, Yi Sha, Caroline Bergvall, and Dmitri Prigov—along with many others—formulating and reformulating adaptable poetics that anonymous contributors around an unequal world continue to remix daily. The book therefore takes seriously its work to demystify, through its motif of the paradoxical “master copy,” our own enduring stories of originality that the media environments we inhabit every minute remind us must constantly be rethought.