(above: “the prankqueen” and poem written using Joyce’s ‘Finnegan’s Wake’)
In 1968 an essay, written by the structuralist Roland Barthe, called ‘Death of the Author’ was published. In the essay Barthe put forward the idea that writers could no longer use writing to express themselves, but could only draw on language that had already been written. In other words he was suggesting that there were far too many texts already in the world that everything had already been expressed. When one first hears of this idea, it is saddening and one tries to resist believing it. However writers have found a positive in this seeming negative. The death of original expression is only the very beginning of a dynamic expression.
This dynamic expression has had several forms and several names, but it begins with collage. Collage, which has a long history, became a vital medium of expression at the beginning of the 19th century. A collage is an image created by cutting different images up from various sources and placing them together in a new way in order to create an entirely new work. the Dadist Movement, founded in Zurich in 1916, being anti-art and desiring to subvert many aspects of society, took to collage. In the Dadist Manifesto, Tristan Tzara, included a section on ‘How to Make a Dadist Poem’.
‘1.Take a newspaper.
2.Take a pair of scissors.
3.Choose an article as long as you are planning to make your poem.
4.Cut out the article.
5.Then cut out each of the words that make up this article and put them in a bag.
6.Shake it gently.
7.Then take out the scraps one after the other in the order in which they left the bag.
9.The poem will be like you.
10.And here are you a writer, infinitely original and endowed with a sensibility that is charming though beyond the understanding of the vulgar.’ 1
This was the beginning of a Post Modern form of storytelling. It is collage writing. Since Tzara wrote the manifesto and made poems like this, many writers have taken to using this form, albeit, more loosely and in their own personal way. In the 1950s and 60s, the Beat Generation poet, William S Burroughs, made novels using this method, which he named the cut up technique. Additionally, he used another method known as the fold in technique. Initially writers made work like this with literature that is normally discarded, like newspapers and brochures, banal ephemeral text.
Along side this method that was quite physical and involved the violence of actual tearing and cutting of text, the poet and critic Thomas Sterns Eliot, used a less aggressive form of plagerising. Particularly in his poem ‘The Waste Land’, he employed intertextuality, borrowing phrases from and alludes to other authors, such as Homer, Virgil, Shakespeare, Charles Baudelaire, Walt Whitman and Bram Stoker. He also greatly borrowed from the Bible and other religious texts. The style and structure of the poem is disjointed and sounds at times as if it is a cut and paste word collage.
In more recent times, the poet Kenneth Goldsmith has taken on and transformed Bourrough’s cut up technique transporting it to the internet age. Goldsmith who has been described as the James Joyce of the 21st century, is an exponent of conceptual writing and what he calls uncreative writing. He believes that ‘with the rise of the web…writing needs to redefine itself to adapt to the new environment of textual abundance’2. Cutting and pasting, chopping and changing internet articles in documents on your PC, you can create digital cut up novels and poems. Even when limiting your creativity to the words within someone else’s writing, you cannot suppress your own creativity. It is about choosing certain words and phrases and reframing them to make new work. Goldsmith is now one of many writers involved in uncreative writing.
Burroughs’, Eliot’s and Goldsmith’s way of cutting, pasting and intertextualising opens up a new way of writing and telling stories. Having tried uncreative writing myself the results are intriguing and the process is rife with never ending possibilities. Being more of a romantic than Goldsmith, I have previously physically cut and pasted down words from hard copies of novels to make two different long poems, rather than source from the internet. I chose two big bulky books, Joyce’s ‘Finnegan’s Wake’ and Thomas Hardy’s ‘Tess of the d’Ubervilles’. I searched for words and phrases and found some wonderfully unusual vocabulary and incredibly interesting abstract sentences full of sound, colour, form and movement. With some regret I tore the pages out of the books and cut slivers of text with my scissors. I pasted them down in ways vastly different to their original form, creating a new narrative that however, still held Joyce’s and Hardy’s essence. My way of word choosing is more loose than that of Tzara’s Dadist poem method, but yet my choice is constrained to only using words from one book. With ‘Finnegan’s Wake’, I limited myself to words within Book One of the masterpiece. I created a disjointed personal narrative using his text. In an unclear Joycean format, I had my own characters who acted, I had settings, a beginning, middle and end. Despite the fact that it may be difficult to decipher, it does not tell the story of ‘Finnegan’s Wake’, it tells my own original story, it has my thoughts, creativity, experience and dreams upon it. Uncreative writing can also be used as a method for subverting or challenging a texts meaning.
Uncreative writing is a form of story telling that is most effective because it limits what story you can tell. When a young writer takes to her laptop keyboard (as opposed to her pen or typewriter) for the first time, she has to deal with all the texts that have come before her, everything written between ‘Beowulf’ and ‘Harry Potter’. So limiting yourself to Book One of ‘Finnegan’s Wake’, is a happy sheltered cocoon of an idea. Uncreative storytelling is a lighthouse in a storm. Trust me. Try it out. Anyone can do it.
2 Goldsmith, Kenneth, (2011), Against Expression: An Anthology of Conceptual Writing, Northwestern University Press
Words: Roisin Power Hackett