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About Lionel

by Jim Andrews


he work and thought of Lionel Kearns of Vancouver—and his relevance to contemporary digital poetics—is the focus of On Lionel Kearns. You see that his work from the sixties through the eighties was often startlingly prescient concerning digital poetics.

The "Birth of God/uniVerse" visual poem from 1965 is extrordinary in its relevance to digital culture, having been written prior to there really being any. But, as Kearns points out, when he wrote the piece, he was not thinking so much of computers as the dynamic of binary generation present in creation myths, Leibnitz's philosophy, the principles of yin and yang, etc. He was thinking less about technology than philosophy, language, and poetry. This would tend to produce work that is less disposable than a given technology. Computers could as well operate in something other than base two (binary) and, in fact, did so in the earliest days of computers. In this sense, that "Birth of God/uniVerse" is iconic of the birth of the digital age is coincidental. However, the poem is generative of all things, including coincidence. It is close to the source of things. It is thoughtful about the primal. Additionally, there is a concern with design and simplicity here I admire. It is not psychadelic.

As you proceed through On Lionel Kearns, you encounter works by him such as "Kinetic Poem" (1969) which starts with this: ""The poem is a machine," said that famous man, and so I'm building one." That "famous man" is the American poet William Carlos Williams (1883 - 1963) who said "A poem is a small or large machine made out of words." Kearns's poem goes on to satirize the stupidities and co-options to which digital art is subject while nonetheless being excited about its possibilites. There is a similar ambivalent fascination going on in "Electropoet" and "Participatory Poem". These three poems are from his 1969 collection By the Light of the Silvery McLune: Media Parables, Poems, Signs, Gestures, and Other Assaults on the Interface. The first part of the title acknowledges the role of Marshall McLuhan as a source of light to Kearns, as McLuhan was for that whole generation, and is once again widely read because of his relevance in the digital age.

"Participatory Poem" begins: "It has begun. Already the poets are working their cybernetic voodoo". The poem is cautionary concerning technology (this time about surveillance and possibly religion) while positing that computers are indeed going to create big changes in literature that apparently involve poets in not solely writing, as we habitually think of it, but image making and video etc.

Here is the beginning of "Electropoet":

Roger used to be content
sticking electrodes into his scalp
in order to record his dreams
directly on video tape which he
played back later over closed
circuit TV.

Again, in the poem itself we have a poet who is not simply a writer as we habitually think of the term, but someone who is involved in dreaming dreams and beaming dreams and putting his head into an altogether different type of orbit. And again the poem is concerned with the difficulties of this situation: as we read on, we learn Roger is unlikely to have his dreams deemed beamable. Who dreams the dreams and who deems the dreams beamable? An ongoing problem for poets. It isn't just a matter of having to deal with publishers, in the conventional sense; "electropoets" and digital poets alike also encounter various other 'authorities' that can excercise various levels of control over the signal, from Internet Service Providers and hosting server companies to those who disseminate (or will not disseminate) news of work across the wires. So "Electropoet" is a kind of "media parable." He writes of situations that continue to happen, in slightly different forms, in various media.

"On Lionel Kearns" also contains an email Lionel sent to me.

"Hi Jim. You were asking me about some of my visual poems and how they relate to the current field of digital poetry. Well, I will tell you my story and let you decide."

He goes on to tell us a bit about the intellectual atmosphere of Vancouver in the mid-sixties and then London, also, where he did a doctorate in Structural Linguistics.

He is a Linguist. Which is interesting because one of the reasons I became so excited about his work is he seems to understand that there has been a synthesis going on, over the last seventy years, more or less commencing with the work of Godel and Turing, between number and language, between mathematics and language studies, between the arts and sciences, between any pair of fields that code their material in such a way that it can be turned into information. Kearns is a language man. Kearns is a real thinker. Kearns is a media man. Kearns is a polyartist. Kearns has been contemporary since the mid sixties. I can't think of any other poets from around here except maybe bp Nichol who might have written anything in the sixties about digital poetics and issues.

The email from Kearns in On Lionel Kearns describes a time not so much of incipient interest in digital poetics as experimental poetics more broadly. If it carried a signal, it was ripe for poetry. Poetics wherein the spirit of poetry moves from sole residence on the page to film, sound poetry, visual poetry, computers and other electronic media.

On Lionel Kearns contains two animated poetry videos from the early seventies by Gordon Payne, Peter Huse, and Kearns. One of them is a film version of the 1965 visual poem "Birth of God/uniVerse". There were apparently various incarnations of "Birth of God/uniVerse". He also did a Hypercard version, for instance. The importance of this piece, in its various manifestations, to Kearns's work can be glimpsed in the front matter of his book By the Light of the Silvery McLune. We read that

THE BIRTH OF GOD is the registered trade mark of Lionel Kearns copyright 1965, 1967, 1969.

I can't think of any other poets with a registered trade mark. Which, again, points out the kind of serious satire that Kearns practices on the world and on himself as a contemporary poet of not only words but also "signs, gestures, and other assaults on the interface" between experience and inscription.

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