apostrophe by Bill Kennedy and Darren Wershler-Henry

“Apostrophe … involves the direct address of an absent, dead, or inanimate being by a first-person speaker … Apostrophe is thus both direct and indirect: based etymologically on the notion of turning aside, of digressing from straight speech, it manipulates the I/thou structure of direct address in an indirect, fictionalized way. The absent, dead, or inanimate entity addressed is thereby made present, animate, anthropomorphic. Apostrophe is thus a form of ventriloquism through which the speaker throws voice, life, and human form into the addressee, turning its silence into mute responsiveness.”

— Barbara Johnson, A World of Difference

I’ve begun with this slightly dense epigraph because Bill Kennedy and Darren Wershler-Henry end there: In the afterword to their new book, apostrophe, they credit Barbara Johnson’s explanation with inspiring their project. Johnson argues that the rhetorical trope of apostrophe –the example all three writers use is Shelley’s “O wild West Wind” — is the characteristic gesture of all lyric poetry. Even Shelley’s poem, which explicitly addresses the wind, also implicitly addresses the reader. As Kennedy and Wershler-Henry gloss this point, “you are the wild West Wind … You, the reader, are now both responsible for the poem and yet somehow being spoken for, by a poet, of all people. It is this tension between responsibility and alienation that apostrophe seeks to capture”.

Starting from this definition, Kennedy wrote a poem in 1993 entitled “apostrophe (1994),” which is simply a six-page list of “you are …” statements. Some of these are the flotsam of mass culture: “you are one of a family of Dirt Devil carpet cleaners”, and some are metapoetic in-jokes: “you are an ode to the west wind”. Some are pretty funny: “you are dumb enough to spend your time typing out endless statements that begin with ‘you are’ just to make a point and try to get some laughs, neither of which, in retrospect, you believe you will succeed in.” And some more explicitly address an actual reader: “you are hoping that you will never have to hear that fucker read his damn ‘you are’ poem again but are resigned to the fact that you probably will.” I don’t see any reason not to take Kennedy seriously: If he wants to “get some laughs” here, he succeeds, and if he wants to make a point about the ubiquity of apostrophe in literary, mass, and consumer culture, well, that succeeds too.

Kennedy and Wershler-Henry’s next move was ingenious: They designed the apostrophe engine (link: http://www.apostropheengine.ca/), which uses Kennedy’s poem as an interface to search the web. As you click on a line from the poem, key words from that line are fed into a search engine (mostly Google, though AltaVista also played a role). The apostrophe engine program extracts from the results phrases that begin “you are” and end in a period (or after a set number of words). It then reformats and displays the results as a new poem. Each line of that new poem is then searchable, after the same fashion as “apostrophe (1994).” What we’re left with, then, is an infinite series of “apostrophe” poems; the extent to which they hang together is largely an effect of Google’s search algorithms.

apostrophe, the book, reprints the results of these searches when they were run “between 9 September 2002 and 2 October 2002”, though some are more recent. As a result, the book and the website aren’t identical: the website updates as fast as Google. For obvious reasons, Kennedy and Wershler-Henry could not recursively print iteration after iteration of the search results; instead, what they’ve done is print the results for the entire original poem, and then a handful of provocative phrases (“all hat and no cattle,” “still a virgin,” “entirely happy with your poem,” etc.). They’ve also written an afterword that largely explains what they’re up to.

The immediate question, then, is whether the book is worth buying when the apostrophe engine is available online for free. The answer is yes, for two different kinds of reasons, one archival and the other conceptual, though these bleed into one another. The archival reason is an artifact of Google and other search engines: As the apostrophe engine becomes more widely used and commented on (by bloggers, by reviews like this one, by other poets), then the search results inevitably will start to point back to the original, and the poem begins “the process of being palimpsested”. Kennedy and Wershler-Henry are pretty upfront about this: “once sections of the book began to appear online, the engine would begin to cannibalize itself”; this process is already visible within the book (see pages 105-09). From their point of view, this is a partial consequence of improvements in search, because “the results of the apostrophe engine only work as poetry to the extent that search engines don’t succeed at their job”. apostrophe, then, presents the results of the engine before the poem collapses into tautology.

But is this poetry? And here the conceptual reason for buying the book comes into play. Kennedy and Wershler-Henry acknowledge a “lack of affect” in the poems, but assert that this lack arises from their structure: “they are a metonymic slide through the vernacular of the web”. But this more accurately describes the effect of exploring the apostrophe engine, where one compulsively clicks on lines almost at random, just to see how quickly the results degenerate into spam, or porn, or MySpace comments. As instantiated online, the apostrophe engine turns your attention away from the poem on the screen, and to the hyperlink that beckons you to click again.

When fixed in print, however, the poem reads slightly differently. Barbara Johnson had said that apostrophe is an act of ventriloquism, whereby the trope lends voice to a silent reader. But in apostrophe, the uncanny coherence of the poems anthropomorphizes the author, that is, the web itself. Even though you know perfectly well that there is no single author, the poems constantly invite you to imagine such a person, a writer who would joke, possibly from bitter experience, that “you are a bisexual / you are inclined to expect too much for too little”. On the one hand, the book is a kind of bleak reminder of the extent to which “close reading” amounts to just so much organized projection. On the other hand, the book is a beautiful example of literary recycling, wherein the debris of an online culture becomes an invitation to consider how and to what extent our sense of self is caught up in the apostrophes of others. If you’ve ever had a moment of self-doubt when reading the subject line of some spam message — how did they know I’m unhappy with my mortgage? — then apostrophe will be a delirious, joyous read.