“Destroying” the Text to Create the Poem

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We aren't always used to thinking about the act of reading as an encounter with a thingthe size, the shape, the design, the heft or feel of the book. However, we witness numerous contemporary poetry titles that insist the poem cannot or should not be read without explicitly considering the presentation and visual appearance of the page or book. Once the realm of more visual and conceptual artists, the book-as-objectand the object-as-poemis being positioned perhaps not as a mainstay but certainly as a challenge to the work of contemporary poetry. Recent visual and poetic appropriations of earlier texts move beyond acts of playful experimentation, demonstrating a clear and decisive interest in the tension and heightened experience of readership, deliberately encouraging readers to experience the object of the book along with the words of the poem. This burgeoning sub-genre of project-based texts combining the visual and the literary through acts of poetic appropriations is especially compelling. In the very basest sense, such visual projects catch our eye. But they go beyond that, too, using visual interest to add complexity and depth to language.

Volumes like Mary Ruefle's A Little White Shadow (Wave, 2006), Ronald Johnson's Radi Os (Sand Dollar, 1977), or Yedda Morrison's Darkness (Make Now, 2012) demand that readers consider the original book-object or source textnot just the language contained within but also its appearance, size, color, binding, presentation, contents, and actual wordsas integral to the contemporary creative act. Such poetic erasures and appropriations are borne out in a multitude of recent examples, ranging from an implicit homage toward the author or original poem to more explicit (and sometimes deviant) scannings or type-settings of the altered source-book. Visual-literary appropriations essentially begin with Tom Phillips's 1970 art book A Humument: A Treated Victorian Novela text which has been continually updated and published in multiple editions and is now available in its entirety for viewing online.1 Contemporary poets add language-oriented perspectives to a genre that has leaned towards the visual; in these most recent incarnations, the book and the page become a physical medium for poem-making, and the poem becomes a destructive-creative force, often displaying self-awareness of its own composition.

While poetic appropriated books may not always be artists' books per se, it is helpful to use the contemporary artists' book as a lens to better understand these new texts. In No Longer Innocent: Book Art in America 1960-1980 (2005), Betty Bright defines "An artist's book [as] a book made by an artist.... Every aspect of the bookfrom content to materials to formatmust respond to the intent of the artist and cohere into a work that is set in motion with a reader's touch" (3). Poet and book artist Johanna Drucker's definition is broader: "an artist's book is a book created as an original work of art, rather than a reproduction of a preexisting work. And also,...it is a book which integrates the formal means of its realization and production with its thematic or aesthetic issues" (2). It's true that visual and conceptual projects like Marcel Duchamp's 1919 "Unhappy Readymade," a geometry book hung "by strings on the balcony of his apartment in the rue Condamine; the wind had to go through the book, choose its own problems, turn and tear out the pages" (quoted in Cabanne 61) may have more in common with current appropriated books than more traditional poetic work. A looser definition of an artist's book as a book "which is a record of its own making" (Drucker The Century 191) may be the most apt descriptor for such contemporary poetic texts.

I focus here on Mary Ruefle's volume A Little White Shadow (Wave, 2006), which not only offers a visual and literary "record of its own making" but also complicates conventional notions of poetry and art, of readership and viewership. A Little White Shadow presents itself as a poetic modification of the novella "A Little White Shadow," published in pamphlet form in April 1889. Already well-known as a poet, Ruefle's publication of A Little White Shadow asks us to re-imagine her as a visual artist. Wave's A Little White Shadow insists on the materiality of the initial pamphlet by faithfully recreating the original book-object. The book is a tiny, slender volume, sleek with faux-yellowed covers and interior pages; inside the correction fluid reveals phrases and words which often combine to form cryptic sentences. We read, "autumn //// had no particular talent but           genius" (5); "I had been / sketching //// tall pink / heather, /////// her hat being the only thing moving" (14). Wave Books describes this project as "An exquisite art book of gentle and elegant found poetry" and explains Ruefle's process as "Selectively painting over" (Wave). The book is "artfully rendered" (Wave), and Ruefle's authorial act, it turns out, is not of writingit is of working with the material of the page. The object of the book is what confronts us mostits inexplicable context, and importantly, the tension between providing a context and obscuring such information.

Early on in my encounter with Ruefle's A Little White Shadow, I flirted with the notion that perhaps Ruefle had made the whole thing upthat is, written a long prose piece, attributed it to an imaginary author, and doctored the pages of that invented piece to make new poetry. I was wrong. This A Little White Shadow, it turns out, is a book replicatingand containinganother book. The title pages and acknowledgements are simultaneously Ruefle's and not; one interior page lists "Copyright © 2006 by Mary Ruefle" while the facing page reads "Copyrighted by E. M. M. / April, 1889." A little research uncovers that E.M.M. is Emily Malbone Morgan, a writer and philanthropist who wrote and self-published the novella A Little White Shadow, a Christian-themed inspirational tale of a young heiress summering in Italy, to raise money "for the Benefit of a Summer Home / for Working Girls" (title page).

kaplan1                              kaplan2

Fig. 1. ALWS 1889                                                                     Fig. 2. ALWS 2006

By turns hinting and obscuring, Ruefle's A Little White Shadow creates so many compelling layers: the problems of working from obscure(d) source materials, the numerous possibilities of selection, the implications of the medium of correction fluid, questions of composition and poetics. In addition to these more conceptual problems, the form and appearance of the final book offers insight into strategies of poetic creation. Ruefle's processwhiting out lines, words, and phrases from E.M.M.'s bookreveals a real-time poetic composition; once the source text has been painted over, it can't be unpainted2what is revealed or concealed to us through the Wite-Out is also what the poet uncovered or covered during the act of composition. Too, A Little White Shadow is not like Ruefle's other erasure projects, which are "old, friable, one-of-kind things" ("statement/books"). Creating A Little White Shadow must have necessitated dismantling Ruefle's painted and stickered bound volume of E.M.M.'s prose, scanning pages of the unbound book to form the new text (see figs. 1-3, 6).3 The 1889 copy I acquire through inter-library loan is in poor condition, stained, with a broken spine; it is unlikely to continue circulating for long. Readers must realize that in order to create Wave Books's 2006 A Little White Shadow, E.M.M.'s earlier versionthe 1889 volumehad to not only figuratively but also literally be destroyed.

kaplan3               Fig. 3. page 26 of both volumes

Visual texts that lean heavily on the source language and/or text object go beyond the work of mere alteration or poetic appropriation to present a collaboration with, and visual preservation of, source material. Jen Bervin emphasizes visual appearance in her book Nets, a volume of poetic erasures of Shakespeare's sonnets first published in 2004 (Ugly Duckling Presse). Here, Bervin composes poems using only language from Shakespeare's sonnets; Bervin's work is represented in black ink while Shakespeare's words are included on the same page in a gray typeface, encouraging a simultaneous double-reading of the new and old poems (see fig. 4). Also notable is Erica Baum's recent collection Dog Ear (2011), a series of folded and squared pages selected from a variety of source volumes, scanned and bound into book form (see fig. 5). The new book contains only this series of high-resolution scans of the folded-over pages,4 so the poetry resides in Baum's presentation of the fascinating junctures found by dog-earing the corners of already-written and already-printed language. Baum's selections elevate the status of anonymous yellowed pages of prose from trade paperbacks, inviting us to experience these texts closely and carefully. By neglecting to write a single word, Bervin and Baumlike Ruefleuse the act of selection to return readers to thinking of the page as an elemental object, the page as a poetic text in and of itself.

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Fig. 4. Nets, sonnet 2                                                                   Fig. 5. Dog Ear Plate VI, Fallout

The act of destroying or altering a physical objectwhether pulling from discarded books or canonical textsto aid in or allow for poetic composition is a compelling, and often disturbing, notion. For writers, poets, artists, and bibliophiles, such acts may feel simultaneously disloyal and liberating. We may be temped to venerate the book-as-object, but the nature of such affections only makes the thought of compositionor destructionthat much more intimidating. If a book is an exquisite object, how could we deign to write, create, or modify one, after all? In my own practice, I avoid writing in books or folding pages as if I could somehow damage the text, hurt the author, or affront the literary community by taking what is, in actuality, an insignificant action. We can see this hesitation in my images of Ruefle's and E. M. M.'s textsI prop the volumes open with a hand instead of flattening them in a scanner (see fig. 3); I am so determined to keep the books and their bindings intact that the image quality suffers. When I look at Baum's Dog Ear I find the images of folded pages lovely, but I cringe a little thinking about that very real crease on a real page of what used to be a real book, the fold that can never be erased. The workshop adage "kill your darlings"the notion that we cannot be freed to fully compose until we move past the useless hierarchies holding us backmay be apt; if the "darling" is the book, obscuring, deleting, or painting source material may be the action that allows the author to get on with the work of creating. Viewed in this way, textual manipulations become less akin to destruction and more like release: by physically altering or repurposing the source text, we are finally allowed to create. I might soothe myself by remembering that such source books can never truly be erased. Shakespeare's sonnets, altered in one version, remain whole in another. Even Ruefle's white-out of the rare novella, while appearing destructive, takes nothing away from that original book objectthere are still a few available copies, and the original volume doctored by Ruefle remains, just covered over and freed from its bindings.

We must be mindful, though. While treatments and manipulations of source materials may permit authors to generate work while aligning with and exploring their predecessors, offering a wonderful and fulfilling language game for aspiring and practicing poets, appropriations and erasures cannot avoid implicitly critiquing the book as an object and/or the author as a figure. Ronald Johnson describes the evolution of his text-work with radi os, saying, "I went to the bookstore and bought Paradise Lost [sic]. And I started crossing out. I got about halfway through it, kind of as a joke. But I decided you don’t tamper with Milton to be funny. You have to be serious" (O'Leary). When we require ourselves as writers, readers, and artists to be serious about the bookthe object, the page, the language, the appearance, the history, the literary content, the smell and weight and heft of itwe will allow ourselves finally to see what it could be.

Two edges are created: an obedient, conformist, plagiarizing edge (the language is copied from its canonical state, as it has been established by schooling, good usage, literature, culture) and another edge, mobile, blank (ready to assume any contours), which is never anything but the site of its effect: the place where the death of language is glimpsed. These two edges, the compromise they bring about, are necessary. Neither culture nor its destruction is erotic; it is the seam between them, the fault, the flaw, which becomes so. (Barthes 6-7)

In contemporary works, the new text created by the appropriative act highlights the "seam" that Roland Barthes finds so erotic; the eroticism in the "seam" between two literary works may also explain readers' attraction to these poetic appropriated objectsthey seem so ethically wrong but at the same time are so conceptually, visually, and physically appealing.

Understanding a literary text that reveals only pieces of an original as a point of taunting eroticism "where the garment gapes" (Barthes 9) is not limited to Barthes. In Reading the Illegible (2003), Craig Dworkin notices how "censoring marks keep open a space in which the work cleaves between two moments of composition, and they establish a second system of signification, a competing semiotic regime, within the field of the text" (143). Johanna Drucker explains that "this relationship of overlay and latency, of invention and constraint...gives the transformed book its tension" (110). Even beyond discussions of a physical boundarythe gutter of the book, or the act of painting over the original text to create the "new" version, notions of a canonical edge meeting up with an unstable process of re-visioning are particularly apt in a discussion of current appropriative and citational literature, as many of these appropriative works draw on known source texts (Milton, Shakespeare, Dickinson) for their content. Barthes refers to the text as "a fetish object" (27) so that the writerly goal might be "materializing the pleasure of the text, in making the text an object of pleasure like the others" (58). Phillips's A Humument and Ruefle's A Little White Shadow "materialize" notably, as the attention to visual detail and print quality turn these volumes into objects as much material as literary. Barthes explains, "The fetishist would be matched with the divided-up text, the singling out of quotations, formulae, turns of phrase, with the pleasure of the word" (63), and we can see the practice borne out in Bervin's Nets, as she writes how, "adding nothing" she "prick'd [words] out for pleasure" (20, italics mine).

Fetishism aside, what these erasures and appropriations most successfully do is subvert our expectationsabout a book, and more importantly, about a book of poetry. Just as "Many artists' books...require that readers resist the relentless forward march of linear reading and let themselves succumb to the differing tempos of oscillatory reading and random reading, even in what appear to be conventional contexts within the book" (Phillpot 7), so too do these new books of poetry disrupt traditional reading processes. In a book like Dog Ear, we might read the poem "Fallout" by following the lines "thing else with / known limit / fallout from / cooling / lovely / ruin." But we are also invited to interrupt that linearity by reading around the bend of the page: "thing else with i/n mattresses on / known limits /d) and there- / fallout from." Reading these pages must be a poetic as well as visual experience; Baum's book contains language that moves in a way that it can't be anything but a poem. The repeating "l" sounds that guide us from "limit" "fallout" to "cooling / lovely" as well as the emphasis on the "o" make the poem a soundscape as well as a visual experience.

In a discussion of her erasure work, Ruefle explains, "I don't consider the pages to be poems, but I do think of them as poetry, especially in sequence and taken as a whole; when I finish an erasure book, I feel I have written a book of poetry without a single poem in it, and that appeals to me" ("On Erasure" 78-79). It becomes imperative, then, for us to examine the type of poetry she creates in A Little White Shadow. Ruefle chooses words and phrases from different parts of the source page, selecting, for example, words from only the final lines of page 19: "It / was my duty to keep / the            piano           filled with roses." The very nature of Ruefle's method, covering over words, sentences, and phrases creates a delay that changes our reading tempo. Here, the linebreaks and pauses created by Wite-Out lead readers onward, but in a kind of stutterthe lines end in pauses: "It /", "keep /"though a mundane-sounding sentence toward the final surrealistic image: "piano           filled with roses" (19). The pages reveal lines ending in prepositions ("exhausted with the intensity of ////// hope" (27)), lines that resist narrative order ("at last standing breathless before //////////////// two donkeys /// stopped and spoke with them" (18)), and lines that are completed by images ("it was she was not known beyond her own little [chair]" (25. See fig. 6)). Too, Ruefle's word choices often implicitly address the process of writing ("sketching" (14)), the reader's potential reaction to the book ('think me /lazy" (22)), the state of the original text ("so much the less complete" (title page), "in ruins" (3), "evaporated" (12), "deformed but very interesting" (23), and the narrator's attachment to the physical book ("never seemed to have held anything so hard... be- / fore" (37)). While our inclination may be to read linearly, we are continually interrupted by the structure, appearance, or conflict of the presentation of the book.

kaplan6Fig. 6, ALWS p. 25

We cannot know, either, if Ruefle read E.M.M.'s book.5 Certainly Ruefle does not reveal her knowledge of the source text by emphasizing, analyzing, or shedding new light on Morgan's plot or characters. In a review of Ruefle's A Little White Shadow, Ray McDaniel observes, "it becomes easy to envision the poet glancing briefly at each page, finding a choice phrase or serendipitous juxtaposition, and hastily erasing her way to it before moving on," and that version of events seems just as likely as any other. Ruefle's act must be very unlike the type of poetic erasure performed upon a canonical text, which becomes immediately and necessarily bound by a differing set of assumptions: when working from such a source text, any act of poetic erasure also means entering the critical conversation. With A Little White Shadow, there is no critical, canonical conversation to join. So is her poetic performance merely an aesthetic one?  Ruefle describes her process as such: "the words rise above the page, by say an eighth of an inch, and hover there in space, singly and unconnected, and they start to form a kind of field, and from this field I pick my words as if they were flowers" ("On Erasure" 82).

Clive Phillpot explains in "Reading Artists' Books" that "there are elements in the amalgam of parts which comprise the book, normally subject to unconscious or peripheral reading, that artists can invest with a more positive role....expanded reading can fruitfully include the conscious reading of the texture of the page, a heightened awareness of the edge of the page, and the reading of margins and spaces" (7). In the creation of new, appropriated poetic texts, writers take on the role of reader in Phillpot's description; experiencing a heightened awareness of the parts of the book and being open to non-linearity, they conceptualize a new way to come at the work of writing. When we recognize the book as a fully authored and fully made object, and when we recognize that we cannot destroy itwe begin to know our own power. In the work of appropriation or erasure, our agency is simultaneously as readers and writers. Once we reach the place where two parts meetthe reader and the writer, the page and the eye, the old and the new, the seam and the gapwe can begin to see past it. Away from the page and toward the book. It may be that beginning from source language allows us to reach that seam more quickly; rather than wrestle incessantly with the page or the poem, we can make the book, or allow the book to be made.


Genevieve Kaplan is the author of In the ice house (Red Hen Press, 2011), winner of the A Room of Her Own Foundation poetry prize, and settings for these scenes (Convulsive Editions, 2013), a chapbook of continual erasures from a single paragraph in Virgina Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. She holds a PhD in Literature and Creative Writing from the University of Southern California and an MFA in Poetry from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

ALSO OF INTEREST: Matt Rager on erasure in Jonathan Safran Foer’s Tree of Codes

Works Cited

“A Little White Shadow.” The Hartford Courant  Hartford, CT. June 15, 1889. page 1 (1 pages). ProQuest Historical Newspapers. Accessed 20 Oct 2009.

Ashford, Will. The Gospel According to Art. Will Ashford. 4 Oct. 2014

Barthes, Roland. The Pleasure of the Text. Trans. Richard Miller. New York: Hill and Wang, 1975.

Baum, Erica. Dog Ear. Brooklyn: Ugly Duckling, 2011.

Bervin, Jen. Nets. Brooklyn: Ugly Duckling, 2004.

Bright, Betty. No Longer Innocent: Book Art in America 1960-1980. New York: Granary, 2005.

Cabanne, Pierre. Trans. Ron Padgett. Dialogues with Marcel Duchamp. Paris: Da Capo, 1979.

Drucker, Johanna. The Century of Artists' Books. New York: Granary, 1994, 2004.

Dworkin, Craig. Reading the Illegible. Evanston: Northwestern UP, 2003.

E.M.M. A Little White Shadow. Hartford: Brown & Gross, 1889.

—–. A Little White Shadow. 3rd edition. Hartford: Brown & Gross, 1890

Johnson, Ronald. Radi Os. Berkeley: Sand Dollar, 1977.

——. radi os. Chicago: Flood Editions, 2005.

McDaniel, Ray. "A Little White Shadow, Mary Ruefle." The "Constant Critic."  March 30, 2006. 19 October 2009.

My Imaginary Brooklyn. "Ronald Johnson's copy of The Poetical Works of John Milton, 1892,   which he used to create his Radi os." Poets.org. 17 March 2013.

O’Leary, Peter. “An interview with Ronald Johnson.” Chicago Review 42.1 (1996): 32+. Gale      Power Search. Web. 28 Nov. 2012. http://go.galegroup.com.libproxy.usc.edu/ps/i.do?id=GALE%7CA18280009&v=2.1&u

Phillips, Tom. A Humument: A Treated Victorian Novel. London: Tetrad Press, 1980.

——. A Humument: A Treated Victorian Novel. 4th edition. London: Thames &Hudson,    2005.

——. "Introduction to A HUMUMENT." 5th edition, 2012. humument.com. 2012. 19 Nov 2012. 

Phillpot, Clive. "Reading Artists' Books." The Arts of the Book: a Project Devoted to an   Appreciation of 20th Century Book Arts (1988). Philadelphia: U of the Arts, 1988.

Ruefle, Mary. A Little White Shadow. New York: Wave, 2006.

—–. "from A Little White Shadow." Poetry Foundation.org. 2006. 16 March 2013             http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/178610

—–. "On Erasure." Quarter After Eight: A Journal of Prose and Commentary. 16. Athens, Ohio 2010. 78-84.

—–. "statement/books." MaryRuefle.com. 2012. 21 Nov 2012.

Wave Books. "A Little White Shadow." 10 Oct 2011.

  1. Phillips' online posting of updated versions of A Humument at http://humument.com/ works to create its own ever-expanding visual archive; even as his work obscures multiple pages of W.H. Mallock's novel, the online showcase he creates makes numerous aspects of the projectits source, its inception, its many variations and iterationsmore accessible and available for readers. []
  2. This is unlike Phillips, whose "original copy...was worked on without destroying any of its pages" ("Introduction to"), and Johnson, whose "text consist[ed] of a razored copy of the 1892 edition" ("Saturday"), but additional volumes of Paradise Lost could certainly be accessed as necessary. The ease of digital reproduction also changes our experience with and opportunities for textual alteration; artist Will Ashford creates pages for his altered version of The Gospel of St. Marka 1911 volume given to him by Ruefleentirely virtually, "doing the art with my computer and applying the art directly upon the scanned page images" (Ashford). []
  3. The choice to publish A Little White Shadow in a tangible and enduring printed version reveals the special treatment given to this particular text. Ruefle's other erasures (The Mansion and Marie), viewable solely online, become more elusive book-objects, existing only in the author's single "friable" physical copy. We may view them digitally for now, but because the erasure books shared on Ruefle's site "will be changed annually" ("Statement/Books"), The Mansion and Marie become intangible fetishistic objects, with singular and temporally-limited accessibilitytheir "friability" is something readers can imagine but not actually experience; our relationship with these titles is ultimately limited to our visual experience. []
  4. Well, and an introduction by Kenneth Goldsmith and an afterward by Béatrice Gross. These short essays frame Baum's work as conceptual, visual, and poetic, emphasizing how her procedural processes make the work succeed. []
  5. Ruefle explains, "I don't actually read the books [I perform erasures of]. I don't read the text, unless the book is very, very interesting to me" ("On Erasure" 82). []