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Bill Kennedy and Darren Wershler-Henry's apostrophe

Bill Kennedy and Darren Wershler-Henry, apostrophe
Toronto: ECW Press, 2006.

Thirteen years ago Toronto poet Bill Kennedy wrote an apostrophe, a poem in a series of statements meant to address absent people, ideas, or entities as though actually present. The piece amounted to a lengthy group of “you are” lines of an increasingly bizarre, obscure and allusive nature: “you are a pretense to universality,” “you are a B- grade on a C paper,” “you are a piece of performance art that deep down inside wants to be a bust of Beethoven sitting on a Steinway grand piano,” running the gamut from high to low culture, from Robert Southey to Robert Plant. Some years later, he and fellow poet Darren Wershler-Henry created a Web site that could trawl the Web seeking out other “you are” statements. When each of the original lines was inputted, the ‘apostrophe engine,’ as they call it, would amass an entirely new poem comprised of “you are” lines. The outcome is apostrophe, a highly entertaining and truly innovative book that operates with a panopticon view of the Web, removing sentences from their sources and jamming them together.

Though they bill themselves as ‘compilers,’ Wershler-Henry and Kennedy have admittedly shaped the raw material granted them into the book’s present form, somewhat sidestepping the debate over computer-written poetry that has simmered since the publication of The Policeman’s Beard is Half-Constructed, (supposedly) authored by the program Ractor in 1984. Unencumbered by an ‘either/or’ argument that could potentially hamper it, apostrophe should be read for what it is, as well as for how it was produced. Of course, apostrophe’s most obvious feature is the monomaniacal repetition of ‘you are’ throughout. However, thanks to the nature of the book, the demarcation of ‘you’ is unclear and deliberately so, one suspects. Are the authors talking to each other? To the book itself? To the reader? To no one? Or are they addressing the Web they have so thoroughly plundered? All of the above? By destabilizing the recipient of these poems as well as their creator, Kennedy and Wershler-Henry call into question any fixed notions of communicative exchange between poet and reader. They also critique conventional thought on the creation of poetry (if an on-line crawler can succeed where most lyric poets are currently failing, then poets need to rethink what they do). Because the language of the Web has extensively infiltrated regular speech (re: the verb ‘to google’), this book is, like the Web itself, both topical and irrelevant. A quick perusal of apostrophe finds politics, religion, romance, organized crime, Boethius, CNN, Wal-Mart, Star Wars, ethnicity issues, Dick Cheney, Pink Floyd, Roe v. Wade, gay fan fiction, the Zapruder film and, predictably, Dada. Highlighting the Web’s inability to distinguish quality of information, apostrophe functions by juxtaposing not just high and low culture subjects but high and low concepts, often with surprising and hilarious results. Thus the phrase “so beautiful to me” (as in “you are so beautiful to me, would you please / you are so beautiful the lyrics are the property of their respective authors, artists and labels”) simultaneously generates a wonderfully unironic love poem and a completely ironic take on copyright and ownership of artistic production. While I would not recommend consuming this 300-page book in one sitting (due to the obsessive use of ‘you are,’ it is best read in 20-30 page segments), the abundance of the poetic enterprise is conceptually satisfying. As our society is becoming painfully aware, an excess of information does not equal wisdom; apostrophe showcases this simple truth with intellect, verve, and energy, and is a wise book for having done so.

Brief Review Winner, “Critic’s Desk Award” in 2007
review appeared in Arc 57, Winter 2006
award announced in Arc 58, Summer 2007