To call a work of literature “unreadable” is a fairly flexible aesthetic judgement. Most of the time it means they didn’t like the work, found it too boring, too cruel, badly written or obscene. “This book is unreadable!” could refer to anything from the tedium of a phone book to the scandal of hardcore porn. As with many popular criticisms, it is as much about taste and enjoyment as it is about politics and morality. Less commonly, one means that the book literally cannot be read, that the characters and words inscribed in the book cannot be analyzed, or that they cannot be identified as characters and words at all. But works that can be described in this kind of illegibility – this screw of capacity, readability, access and semiotics – make up a large part of poetic composition. I have chosen to dedicate this three-part essay to the unreadable poetry as a kind of love letter to the tricks and games she plays. As Steven Gould Axelrod put it in his essay “Reading the Unreadable in Modern American Poetry”, the unreadable creates “another world of overdetermined signs and underdetermined meanings”. If we think in terms of a binary form of content, unreadable poetry seems to exclude the reader from the content or otherwise keep the content in check while amplifying the form until it becomes haunting, irritating, but perhaps also surprisingly enjoyable.
Let’s consider some antonyms of “unreadable”: “Readable” is a bit sloppy, so hardly a judgment that looks like an insult (“This book is readable” would make a pathetic blurb), although it also refers to a perceived lightness Reading, usually in tempo and clarity (“after the edits, it’s much more readable”). Other terms such as “captivating,” “captivating,” “immersive,” or—to borrow a Roisin Murphy song—”essential” imply a work that commands sustained attention, and sometimes suggest escapism or addiction. “Immersive” and “captivating” indicate a work that attempts to make its form invisible and create for its reader a seemingly streamlined interaction with its content, with the “world” of the book. A hint of the illegible, on the other hand, pulls someone by the hair out of the cozy scene of reading. On the one hand we have the compulsive reader, whose imagination is so synchronized with the world of a book that the words hardly seem to register, and on the other hand we have the reader confronted with the illegible and whose eyes are forced are looking to get used to something else kind of. In fact, it’s a good way of summing up the unreadable: it returns the process of reading to its roots in looking. This explains why so much of the illegible in poetry is linked to the tradition of concretism, or what is sometimes loosely referred to as “visual poetry”, as in the typewriting of Ilse Garnier or da Levy, or in the equally humorous and sublimely drawn poems of Robert Grenier. Much of this type of work is less invested in poetry’s oral roots than in its roots in fine art and its instantiation in specific printing technologies. These works aggregate, deform, transform, and expand the formal materials of written language to create textual art that cannot be fully read. But I certainly don’t want to say that the illegible poem automatically and only associates itself with the lines of fine art. (In part two of this essay, I will delve into a work that paradoxically links illegibility to oral tradition.) Nor am I suggesting that illegibility invites mere viewing. Instead, I hope my examples convey that looking at a poem can be just as versatile, challenging, and three-dimensional as reading it.
A famous and remarkably small example of the illegible in the concretist tradition is Aram Saroyan’s four-legged letter, pictured above. Often referred to as a four-legged m, the poem could actually be that, or it could be a fused m and n or three ns; However, the longer you look at it, the more it seems to distort from any type of letter. In “MNMLST POETRY: Unacclaimed but Flourishing,” Bob Grumman described the poem as “the center of an alphabet that is just beginning to form,” but it may be just as correct to describe it as an alphabet that is moving away from its meaningful functions, a cancer of the alphabet. On its four legs, this poem looks strangely animal, strangely alive. This is Saroyan’s minimalism and his interest in the aesthetics of typing, taken both to the logical extreme and in a new direction. Saroyan’s epistolary poem, which further specifies the isolated single words of his works Cloth: An Electric Novel (1971) and Coffee Coffee (1967), but adds the distortion of illegibility, revels in a very simple shock – which the basic unit of the written form of language has wildly become. That the poem resembles the familiar letters of the alphabet is part of its amusement; Looking at it, let’s see what it would take to make it readable, to free us from the burden of its bad form. In fact, the illegible in poetry often teases us with an asymptotic relation to the readable that approaches but never reaches readability (more on this in the second part of this essay). It is a sign that illegibility and its opposites are contained in each other.
And so the splatter of the unreadable poem (should we call it a poem, for Saroyan?) saturates us with form more than we would like, we whose brains repeatedly try to forget that we are reading individual letters and words in order to grasp the concepts form, which we are superior to. Especially in these concretist iterations, the unreadable throws us back, and where we go from that setback is the great joy of it.