1960: Brion Gysin, I AM THAT I AM

There is minor irony that the second historical figure in a lineage of digital poetry is a painter: Brion Gysin. [Sources: Prehistoric Digital Poetry (pg.39) and Kostelanetz's Text-Sound Texts]

Cohort of William Burroughs and narcotic doyen of a furtive circle of eccentric lunatics, Gysin combined surrealist techniques and Dadaist recipes with digital algorithms (programmed by Ian Somerville in 1960 ) to create permutational poetry based around the phrase I AM THAT I AM

I AM THAT I AM
AM I THAT I AM
I THAT AM I AM
THAT I AM I AM
AM THAT I I AM
THAT AM I I AM
I AM I THAT AM
AM I I THAT AM
I I AM THAT AM
I I AM THAT AM
AM I I THAT AM
I AM I THAT AM
I THAT I AM AM
THAT I I AM AM
I I THAT AM AM
I I THAT AM AM
THAT I I AM AM
I THAT I AM AM
AM THAT I I AM
THAT AM I I AM
AM I THAT I AM
I AM THAT I AM

Echoes of the hypnotic reveries of the theosophist charismatics and the chanting of the bedouin transplanted into computational form show an early resonance between rhythmic repetitions designed to either numb the mind or open it inexplicably into trance and esoteric meaning structures inherent withinn the syntactical synew of language itself. Gysin theorized in his 1960 essay entitled Cut-Ups Self-Explained:

Writing is fifty years behind painting. I propose to apply the painters’ techniques to writing; things as simple and immediate as collage or montage. Cut right through the pages of any book or newsprint… lengthwise, for example, and shuffle the columns of text. Put them together at hazard and read the newly constituted message. Do it for yourself. Use any system which suggests itself to you. Take your own words or the words said to be “the very own words” of anyone else living or dead. You’ll soon see that words don’t belong to anyone. Words have a vitality of their own and you or anybody else can make them gush into action.

The permutated poems set the words spinning off on their own; echoing out as the words of a potent phrase are permutated into an expanding ripple of meanings which they did not seem to be capable of when they were struck into that phrase.

The poets are supposed to liberate the words – not to chain them in phrases. Who told poets they were supposed to think? Poets are meant to sing and to make words sing. Poets have no words “of their own.” Writers don’t own their words. Since when do words belong to anybody. “Your very own words,” indeed! And who are you?

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