Mesosticize This

I’ve had a bad case of mesostic fever. Don’t worry, it’s only contagious to the highly susceptible. I caught it from my ModPo class, of course.

What’s a mesostic, you say? I’m glad you asked, and I’ll tell you even if you didn’t ask. It’s similar to an acrostic, with the spine word running vertically through the middle of the horizontal words rather than through the first letters. John Cage invented the technique in the 60s. He also invented 4’33”, the symphony of silence, which should tell you something.

Our assignment for Modern & Contemporary American Poetry was to create and close-read a mesostic. I was dubious, but after four hours, I was enthralled. The rules for a mesostic are complicated, but ModPo has this handy-dandy Mesostomatic (“You, too, can have nothing to say, and say it”) and I added a few wing words (ignoring the rules on those completely; hey, I’m a beginner, give me a break) and was all set. I finished one for the assignment, a cross-breeding of my math class, my philosophy class, and ModPo, then did a longer one. I took John Ashbery’s “Some Trees” and ran the names of different trees through it ā€“ maple, birch, spruce. Some of the trees made more sense than others. I cut out individual trees, played with the order a little; some trees created more than one mesostic, so I wanted to keep them in order, and some seemed to belong together, like the birch trees that almost grew together. I arranged them in three rows, noticed “neighbor” showed up a few times in the first row so I grouped the neighbors together. I noticed “surrounded” showed up in twice in the second row, so I surrounded the second row with that. Then I just moved the pieces around until it said something to me, something about everyone coming together to make a forest out of some trees. I liked it so much, I made a video of it, which was pretty stupid of me since I have neither a video camera, nor animation software, nor a shred of artistic or musical ability. But it pleases me. What can I say, I’m easily amused, particularly by myself. I’m a little old to be bringing home refrigerator art, but when that’s all you’ve got, it’s what you bring home.

The major question the mesostic raised for me is this: who wrote this? John Ashbery wrote the seed text, and every word came from his poem (though I suppose it’s hard to tell whose “something”, whose “are” is used); the Mesostomatic generated the spine words using rules John Cage set forth; I added the wing words from Ashbery’s poem, and I chose the seed text and the spine words. And hit “enter”. Who wrote it?

I’m reminded of an episode of Star Trek:TNG in which Capt. Jean-Luc Picard praised Data’s violin performance:

Picard: Your playing is quite beautiful.
Data: Strictly speaking, sir, it is not my playing. It is a precise imitation of the techniques of Jascha Heifetz and Trenka Bron-Ken.
Picard: Is there nothing of Data in what I’m hearing? You see, you chose the violinist. Heifetz and Bron-Ken have radically different styles, different techniques, and yet… you combined them, successfully.
Data: I suppose I have learned to be… creative, sir – when necessary.

~~ “Star Trek: The Next Generation: The Ensigns of Command (#3.2)” written by Melinda M. Snodgrass (1989)

Given the depth of my obsession, I was a bit concerned that I might spend the rest of my days cranking out mesostics, but then ModPo moved on, and I was gob-smacked by Ken Goldsmith and Tracie Morris in our weekly live webcast. Yes, this is the poetry class that brings in actual poets. Between the two of them, and some additional poking around (Goldsmith reading a mashup of Whitman and his own Traffic at the White House, for instance, and his talk about Uncreativity in Croatia; and Tracie’s later broadcast performance) I ended up with dozens of ideas. I’m working on one right now, inspired by my earlier rant against The New Yorker. Everything is connected, you see, somewhere underneath it all. It just takes someone like Al Filreis to say, “How about if we put on a MOOC about modern poetry” and to do it right. I’m more grateful for this experience than I will ever be able to say, however (un)creative I may find myself to be.

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