“ I love the notion of performed spontaneity, in that it gets at the fact that what seems natural, or improvisational, is still a product of decision making, and still leads to a consciously made thing—a mechanical nightingale rather than the real bird that happens to fly in the window.”Diane Seuss interview with Jesse Nathan in McSweeney’s https://www.mcsweeneys.net/articles/diane-seuss
1) The mechanical bird performs. Poets perform—mostly on the page. But there is something about hearing the music of the poem out loud that will always bring me more than the written word on the page.
2) Only the unpaired male nightingale sings at night. Though so often in poetry it is the female bird who is invoked. A misattribution that confounds the usual (mis)assignment of female voices to their male counterparts.
3) Have you ever seen a real nightingale? It is a dull brown, middle sized bird whose only outstanding asset is its song. When the males sing at night, it’s a macho thing: calling all the girls. “Come fuck me, come fuck me.” In the fairy tale when the servant girl takes the court to see the actual nightingale they are disappointed to see the dull little bird. One of the servants opines that surely seeing all of the wonderful, powerful people of the court must have frightened all the color out of the actual bird. Because, don’t we all get frightened out of our colors sometimes?
4) I sing my wildness like that little mechanical nightingale. It is lovely performance. But every moment of it is calculated with an eye towards safety. A mechanical nightingale will give a perfect performance. As long as you don’t ask it to fly.
5) machine (n.) “an apparatus that works without the strength or skill of the workman.”
Which can’t be said of poetry? Or can it? Is poetry a machine? If it is, what is it a machine for? Does a machine have to have a purpose? Are machines without purpose art? What does this machine do for me? This machine makes… meaning? But does it make sense? How can the machine of poem makes sense? What does it make sense of? Why is this fragment all questions? And no answers? Or meaning? If there is any meaning? I guess.
6) A machine allows you to replicate a thing. A screw, a table leg, a bird’s song. But a replication is never a new thing. Not entirely.
7) Bird songs are hard to represent in text. Various field guides use various methods to depict the songs. Some use descriptives, some use mnemonics, some use a vaguely representative spectrograms. The Sibley Guides use descriptive words like: trill, buzz, upslur, downslur, musical, rich, thin, full, and squeaky. The Audubon website likes onomatopoeia: “soft thwacks,” “cooing,” “zip-zabbling,” and “channeling car alarms and baby babbles” and mnemonics: “who cooks for you” and “wichity-witchy-woo.” Though they are increasingly just putting up audio files and you can listen for yourself with out the intermediary of the attempt to signify in text.
8) I wonder about the impossibility of spontaneity in a machine. Does this imply an impossibility of spontaneity in poetry? In art in general? If we are making machines to make meaning, or convey emotion, or state facts even, can we be spontaneous? I don’t think so. We may use artifice to make it look spontaneous but it is never past the first draft spontaneous. Is even a first draft spontaneous? We are, from the outset, arranging the words and their meanings in conscious patterns, even at our most free form. We are mechanics. Our tools are syntax and arrangement, our materials are words. We build a machine with hope. Though what we hope for is not always clear.
9) The last fragment that I meant to write was about the wonders of the mechanical, the lack of a soul in the wonderful mechanical, and how easy this makes it to see the whole of the works. I’d only imply the converse: how difficult it is to understand the living (souled) when so much is hidden from us. But I was too busy wondering about the possibility of a mechanical bird that sings as well as the real thing.
Hans Christian Andersen wrote a fairy tale called The Nightingale (In Danish the less lovely sounding “Nattergalen”) About an emperor and the song of the nightingale… about a real bird and a mechanical bird.
Wikipedia dryly describes the charming story thus:
The Emperor of China learns that one of the most beautiful things in his empire is the song of the nightingale. When he orders the nightingale brought to him, a kitchen maid (the only one at court who knows of its whereabouts) leads the court to a nearby forest, where the nightingale agrees to appear at court; it remains as the Emperor’s favorite. When the Emperor is given a bejeweled mechanical bird he loses interest in the real nightingale, who returns to the forest. The mechanical bird eventually breaks down; and the Emperor is taken deathly ill a few years later. The real nightingale learns of the Emperor’s condition and returns to the palace; whereupon Death is so moved by the nightingale’s song that he allows the Emperor to live.
You can read the whole of the story with lovely pictures by Edmund Dulac here.