The Poem Electric: Technology and the Lyric

By Seth Perlow, University of Minnesota Press, 2018, 296 pp. Paperback, $27.00 (ISBN: 978-1-5179-0366-4)

Seth Perlow’s book The Poem Electric: Technology and the Lyric is structured through oppositions and resistances: four main chapters pose characteristics of lyric poetry, namely affect, chance, anonymity, and improvisation in contrast to rationalism, knowledge, and information. Perlow identifies these oppositions by exploring technologies associated with four literary sub-periods: romanticism and realism, modernism, post-modernism, and the beat generation. The technologies that he considers are at times anachronistic to the poets and poetry writing that are the main subjects of each chapter, but the relationships he draws between poem, poet, and technology illustrate either the way a poet has used a technology or a scholar has used a technology to better understand a poet and her poetry. After the introduction explains these relationships, the second chapter concerns affect, digital images, and interpreting Emily Dickinson's poetry. Third chapter is focused on chance, the poetry of Gertrude Stein, and Jackson Mac Low's rewriting of Stein's poetry using A Million Random Digits, "a book of numbers produced by the RAND corporation in the 1940s to help scientists at Los Alamos design nuclear weapons" (25). The third chapter discusses anonymity, Frank O'Hara, and O’Hara’s commentary on using the telephone. The fourth chapter considers improvisation, Amiri Baraka, Allen Ginsberg, and "the technologies that preserve poetry—whether on paper, audio tape, or computer memory" (28). The book includes fascinating stories about these poets’ and scholars’ interactions with the creation and interpretation of poetry through and by electronic technologies. 

These oppositions between the lyric poem and these chosen technologies serve the primary thesis in The Poem Electric that the "electrification of American verse cultures has energized the rhetoric that distinguishes poetic thought from rational knowledge" (3). A such, Perlow argues that the lyric poem, which by nature and norms is characterized by "expressiveness, affective intensity, and ambiguity" can be considered exempt from rationalism. While it is a suggestive premise, the book’s provocations and its interesting historical investigations fall short of a well-substantiated long-form argument because Perlow relies too much on assumptions about information technologies as unsituated knowledge systems that reflect under-theorized misapprehensions about "the electric" or "the digital" as always, already and necessarily rational, logical, and certain.

A well-researched and interesting literary history, Perlow’s project is weakened by his surface-level and short-sighted portrayal of information and information systems. Specifically, Perlow sets his chosen technologies as foils that reflect the characteristics that he maintains best differentiate rationalism from the lyric poem. According to Perlow, the “synonyms for knowledge in technoscientific discourse” are “information, data, news, certainty, logic, rationality, and so on" (3). These characteristics are incompatible with the lyric poem, Perlow argues, since the lyric “express[es] an individual’s thoughts, emotions, and perceptions” (9). Quite simply, Perlow disregards decades of research and theory in Cultural Criticism, Information Studies, and Science and Technology Studies by theorists such as Donna Haraway, Sandra Harding, and Chun and many others who have addressed the deeply cultural, political, personal, and situated nature of supposedly empirical, rational systems and modes of operation in the sciences and social sciences as well as the specific technologies that Perlow addresses such as the tape recorder (Hayles 1997), the MP3 (Sterne 2012), and digital imaging (Samuels and McGann 1999). 

Information might best be understood as the extent to which an idea, a concept, an experience, or even a “fact” is informative to another person in a situated context. Just as Johanna Drucker conceptualizes the constructed nature of “data” as “capta”, or as information created from the world rather than facts simply found in it, Perlow’s project would have benefited from a more nuanced understanding of information as a situated concept that itself could be best understood as resistant to rationalism and certainty. As early as the 1970s, at around the same time when Perlow describes Allen Ginsberg chanting into microphones and riffing into recorders, Wilbur Schramm criticized the Shannon-Weaver communication model as a “bullet theory” where communication was a bullet that magically transferred knowledge from one mind to another (Schramm and Roberts 1971, 8). In contrast, Schramm defined information as “any content that reduces uncertainty or the number of alternative possibilities in a situation” (Schramm and Roberts 1971, 13). Schramm is introducing the personal, situational, and ambiguous nature of what is information.

The proposition in The Poem Electric that information systems are merely systems of logic is not only under-theorized, it undergirds other more problematic claims. For instance, in the second chapter, Perlow discusses the role that images of extant mutilations on Dickinson’s manuscripts play in feminist and queer readings. While Perlow concedes that “opposing affect to rationality enables a misogynistic coding by which women’s affective experiences mean they are less rational, more passively at the mercy of their feelings” (77), he asserts that when scholars such as Martha Nell Smith (1992) and Susan Howe (1985) use these images of the mutilations as evidence of Dickinson’s sociability, they are confusing newly impassioned readers who had come to know Dickinson as a recluse. Thus, questioning readers “remain uncertain how to read Dickinson’s gender outside this double bind” (77); Was Dickinson an intellectual in recluse or a victim of a jealous rival to her relationship with her sister-in-law? Perlow seems to be suggesting that more recent scholarship that uses these images has thrown Dickinson scholarship, which previously had been governed by typescript editions edited by Thomas S. Johnson (1955) and Ralph W. Franklin (1998), into a gendered debate about Dickinson as virgin or whore. Perlow’s argument is most confused when he bemoans, for the sake of Queer theorists, the lack of real, copious data on whether Dickinson did or did not have sex with her sister-in-law:

That we should not know whether Emily and Susan had sex makes them at least as available to queer reading as a more definitive record of sexual acts would. Through the discourse of the closet, the rhetoric of uncertainty (and particularly the rhetoric of affect as an alternative to exposure) has become central to contemporary feminist and queer reading strategies (77). 

In the above quotations, Perlow equates feminist and queer readings that use images of Dickinson’s manuscripts to emotional responses and opposed to rational thinking and as readings that are primarily concerned with defining gender (in the case of the former) or sexuality (in the case of the later) rather than readings that contribute to scholarship about the nature of the lyric poem. 

The Poem Electric could be a book that seeks to help readers think more deeply about data, about information, or about the knowledge systems that exist in poetry or in books that talk about poetry, technology, and the world at large. Instead, Perlow has forwarded a view of information technologies that occludes the power systems that identify, classify, and order what is considered informative and thus how knowledge is produced. Information studies has shown us that such an occlusion is dangerous for the disempowered, the marginalized, and the misrepresented in modern society. A recent article written by thirteen Information theorists titled “Information Maintenance as a Practice of Care: An Invitation to Reflect and Share” (Forthcoming) reminds us of the very important role that humans play in information systems where power dynamics are always at play: “Those who get to define what is considered important and how it is organized and shared can have great influence on the shape and dynamics of society”(Forthcoming). What is considered important in The Poem Electric is “the lyric poet’s search for alternatives to rational knowledge” (11), which is a worthy pursuit, but by setting this search for alternatives against and outside of the electric technologies that are evolving alongside the lyric poem, Perlow misses an important opportunity to consider the human power dynamics that drive it.

Tanya Clement, Assistant Professor, Department of English, University of Texas at Austin

Dickinson, Emily. The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson. Back Bay Books, Little, Brown and Co, 1997.
Hayles, Katherine N. Voices out of Bodies, Bodies out of Voices: Audiotape and the Production of Subjectivity. In Sound States: Innovative Poetics and Acoustical Technologies. Chapel Hill, NC. 1997. 74-96.
Howe, Susan. My Emily Dickinson. North Atlantic Books, 1985.
Samuels, Lisa and Jerome McGann. “Deformance and Interpretation.” New Literary History 30.1 (1999) : 25–56. Print.
Schramm, Wilbur Lang and Donald F. Roberts. The Process and Effects of Mass Communication. University of Illinois Press, Urbana, 1971.

Smith, Martha Nell. Rowing in Eden: Rereading Emily Dickinson. 1st ed, University of Texas Press, 1992.
Sterne, Jonathan. MP3: The Meaning of a Format. Duke University Press Books, 2012.