Poetry - Winter 2015

The Algorithmic Sublime

By Langdon Hammer | June 23, 2015


The half-parodied, half-identified-with artist in Adam Fitzgerald’s antic “Art World” refers at one point to his “ADHD generation.” Fitzgerald, whose first book of poems, The Late Parade, appeared in 2013, seems to capture perfectly the mood and perspective of plugged-in, medicated, up-all-night millennials. But the reach of his poems is more general. They speak to all of us who are in the grips of our handheld devices, clicking on updates, following what’s trending, and buying what’s selling. Read “Art World,” then reflect on how funny and apt its first word, “Invariably,” is.

The theme is similar in Fitzgerald’s “Eternal September.” Here “Abraham begat Isaac” leads in no time at all—hilariously—to “Sim-City 2000” and much else that the Pentateuch did not predict. The poem is a canon or syllabus portraying the Western tradition from the muddled perspective of the present, one name after another in no particular order.  Why that choice of title, by the way? Because, when it is catalogued for preservation, culture is always autumnal, always nostalgic, whether it is Plato or Chuck E. Cheese that we venerate. The watchwords of the present (“PalmPilot, Google Reader, Flash, Napster”) rush into the past, and the resulting meltdown might feel grim or apocalyptic if Fitzgerald were not so exuberantly anarchic.

“First-Person Shooter” is more disturbing. The title plays with the figure of fascination that the shooter has become in American culture as we pore over news report clues to the mysterious subjectivity of mass killers. Fitzgerald’s shooter is a late incarnation of the romantic hero (“I contain immortal longings”) and the most ordinary sort of middle-class contemporary person (“I recommend a nice therapist to a friend”). He (or she?) consists of a simple linguistic formula—subject plus predicate—into which anything can be fit, as if selfhood today were no more than a manner of speaking, in which content is an effect of form.

The primary rhetorical form of these poems is the list. Partly Fitzgerald wants the sort of algorithmic collage produced by a Google search; partly he wants the sublime inclusiveness of Whitman. As nouns and modifiers pile up, the device makes him sound at some moments like Allen Ginsberg in Howl. But he is usually closer in tone to the New York School poets. In “Entre Nous” he jokes about having graduated from Anakin Skywalker to (the names aren’t so different) the poet James Schuyler, a friend of Frank O’Hara’s and John Ashbery’s.

Like all of these poets, Fitzgerald taps into one of poetry’s primary resources: the power of naming. Accessing it for the expressive uses of his generation and our moment, he makes “the new now new” again.

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