Poetry as Machine

by Shaun Perkins


You can love a machine and think poetry is not for you. But if you love a machine, you already love poetry.

A few years ago I dreamed that I opened a museum full of poetry machines. The museum was an amalgamation of a psychiatric museum I had visited in St. Joseph, Missouri, and a kitschy Highway 66 roadside attraction, like a giant ball of yarn or a concrete tepee. All of the outdated and crude mechanics of psychiatric treatments of the past were on display, along with the artworks and life works of some of the patients. I remember an old TV console with notes stuffed in the back of it, which is what one patient did to communicate with the people he saw on the screen. There was also a beautiful display of nails, coins, buttons, and assorted odds and ends glued to a large frame and encased, like a painting. These objects were all taken from the stomach of one particular patient who routinely swallowed things she should not have. I loved the poetry in and of those ideas.

To make two bold statements: There’s nothing sentimental about a machine, and: A poem is a small (or large) machine made out of words. When I say there’s nothing sentimental about a poem, I mean that there can be no part that is redundant.
–William Carlos Williams

I thought about Woody Guthrie’s tagline on his guitar, “This machine kills fascists.” I fell in love with the word “machine” and its seeming opposition to “poetry” and the synchronicity of the two words together. We write and read poetry to keep from becoming machines. Still, there is a utilitarian beauty to a machine that poetry wants to celebrate. But I did not know what a poetry machine was.

In September 2012, when I opened the Rural Oklahoma Museum of Poetry in my dad’s converted machine shop, I filled a place once filled with machines with poetry.

Woody saw his guitar as a “machine,” not like the traditional machines of war, oppression, and terror, but rather superior to them. Sam Phillips, the founder of Sun Records, said he wanted “to make sound the thing that would stop war.” The machinery of war that we keep inventing in bigger and better ways will never stop it. The stopping has to start inside the human.

Governments and military powers define progress as being able to fight and win wars with new technologies, but real progress relies on our ability to be human beings evolved enough to avoid escalating issues into war. What does this have to do with poetry? Only everything. Percy Bysshe Shelley said, “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” Listen to them.

Music and poetry get inside us, not with sentimentality but with the concrete detail of the “red wheelbarrow” and “ribbon of highway” and “easy wind and downy flake” and the “flight of uncarpeted stairs.” The words click the cogs in our hearts and take us to a place between memory and metaphor. They remind us of what matters in this world and how vital it is to preserve it.

To wake ourselves up to our human connections to each other and the world around us, we need poetry. War starts with a person. It is not a thing distinct from the human. It begins inside one person. Then, it spreads into the bodies of other human beings. Inside each person a poem needs to live to offer an alternative.

“A poet’s work is to name the unnamable,” Salman Rushdie said, “to point at frauds, to take sides, start arguments, shape the world, and stop it going to sleep.” Poets—without sentimentality—are willing to observe and record the deeds of fellow humans. This machinery of words (and songs) can awaken people’s hearts to the possibility of creation and connection, rather than destruction and separation.

To avoid destroying ourselves, we must produce and then venerate a machine that is in alignment with the human heart. A guitar is an example. And so is a poem.

Originally published in This Land, Vol. 4 Issue 21. Nov. 1, 2013.