If my first plateau on Eunoia tended to focus on its authorship, then I’d like to spend this plateau looking carefully at the ways in which this text interacts with its readers. Eunoia is a particularly interesting example to look at these issues in that, despite its positioning as a radically experimental text, the book has been mass-produced and massively popular. Responding to the issue of the text’s popularity, Bök tells Stephen Voyce that while he is pleased with its popularity, he also knows that a popular book of poems is, in the grand scheme of things, not terribly popular. He says:
I am surprised that my own work of experimental poetry has enjoyed popular success, selling more than 20,000 copies at last count [in 2007], but this number still pales in comparison to the success of other cultural artifacts in other art forms—so I still feel that I have a very long way to go in order to boost the profile of avant-garde poetry among a mainstream readership. (par 79)
Still, Robert David Stacey points out that this popularity is important and notable: “Eunoia’s extraordinary popularity is perhaps especially surprising given that it is a highly experimental text, a procedural work produced in accordance with a set of fixed rules which limit the expressive freedom of the poet and condition the outcome of the work” (64). If we understand, as seems to be the case, that radically formally experimental works of poetry tend to be relegated to an even further obscurity than poetry is usually afforded, then we are right to be surprised by Eunoia’s commercial and critical success. The question becomes then: why are we so interested in this book? Why have we all heard of it and why do we keep buying it?
The question of readership in Eunoia has been largely critically ignored, save Sean Braune’s important discussion of the potentials of meaning therein (which I briefly mentioned in my last plateau). While I do not have the time or the space here to do it justice, I do think that it merits its own plateau because the position of the reader in this text is a strange one. In light of the fact that Oulipian procedures are important to the author for the production of the text, they have traditionally served as a kind of skeleton key for highly formalized work like Eunoia. If meaning is not readily communicated, the procedure for producing the text can be used to decode its message. In many ways, this was my primary method for reading the Cage, Mac Low, and Mouré texts in this project. But, the process of reading Eunoia appeals to the reader on a rather different level than simply applying the Oulipian constraint to the reading—as well as the writing—process. The text is, after all, addressed directly to us as readers with an epigraph that reads: “for the new / ennui in you.” What precisely is this new ennui in us that leads us to be so intrigued by Bök’s text?
In Jerome McGann’s comedic dramatic response to the work, articulated as a conversation between two budding literature students, the two characters (Skip Thomai and Perry Calles) comment on the text in response to an exam question about its title. “The New Ennui,” the Thomai exclaims, “is poetry without a personality. It’s beyond even O’Hara’s Personism. It’s pure X-Gen” (140). Calles responds: “Impure, I’d say. About as far from a Slacker mode as possible … That’s a ‘New Ennui’ all right—grandstanding in Bök’s signature flatland wit. Ennui sending out its coded message: ‘un oui’” (140). The two fictional characters seem to articulate an interest in the looming presence of Bök’s authorial persona over the text; but it is a persona that resists personal expression. They see in it a “oui,” an affirmation of the potentials of the text to communicate without expressing. Later, Thomai observes that “[t]he title page identifies Bök as the ‘author’ of the book’s verses” but wonders, “who has authored this text? Or who is the agent responsible for the cover and frontispiece? Anonymous? Not at all. It is. The book speaks for itself” (144). McGann’s characters seem to see Eunoia as freeing for the reader who encounters not an author’s thoughts and feelings, but rather a text that, somehow, speaks on its own. It seems to care not for its readers; maybe that makes us more free to encounter it.
Of course, it must be said that Oulipo traditionally doesn’t care too much about its readers, and cares even less for affect. The reader of the Oulipian text doesn’t even really engage with the process. As Marjorie Perloff notes in her article on Eunoia, “[a]ccording to Oulipo rules, there are as many possible constraints as there are poems, and the constraint is not an external form that is recognized readily but may be a rule that remains largely hidden to the reader” (25). And yet, the title of the piece directly concerns itself with the affect of its readers. As Voyce points out in his interview with Bök, one definition of “eunoia” is a healthy and balanced state of mind. In light of this, Voyce quips: “I find this amusing, since Eunoia seems to have required near pathological compulsion to write” (par 89). The pathology and compulsiveness behind the texts production is clear, but the popularity of the text seems to suggest that it doesn’t result in a similar pathology in its readers. But perhaps that is not a sufficient answer. Does the text produce similarly pathological readers?
What is unique about the text’s pathology is that the result is not a scattered collection of schizophrenic thoughts as one might expect from such a constraint but rather the formation of clearly discernable narratives couched in each chapter. It is this concern that Stacey uses to argue for the useful postindustrial and antiglobalization politics of the text. He points out, as Perloff also argues in her work on Bök, that free verse is more useful to globalization because the absence of formalist rules and constraints make it more easily translated into different languages (Stacey 72). By attempting to adhere to a narrative function despite the formal constraint, the text resists this universalization, creating a text that is, for all intents and purposes, untranslatable. Stacey goes on to observe that if, as Bob Perelman says, “Parataxis is the dominant mode of postindustrial experience” than the tendency towards narrative continuity in Eunoia must be understood in this context (Stacey 74). Narrative continuity then functions as anticapitalist and antiindustrial, ultimately rejecting the “idea of the aesthetic predicated on the sovereignty of the imagination” (77). In this way, the text—like Place’s that I studied before it, and unlike Goldsmith’s before that—is immensely readable. In fact, the narratives coupled with the rhythm and flow resulting from the use of only one vowel in each chapter, make Eunoia a surprisingly enjoyable read. As another testament to this, Bök’s own readings of the text are typically well-attended, and the CD of his readings also sells relatively well. This latter point is also informed by the fact that Bök’s performances are frequently characterized as virtuoso and emphatic; he performs with bravado and boldness that only enhances the unique aural elements of the texts. My own personal favourite is Bök’s reading of “Chapter U,” in which Alfred Jarry’s Ubu is resurrected in scenes of pornography and debauchery that are both hysterical and quite shocking in Bök’s characteristic reading style. It is not designed for those, as Bök warns in the introduction of the first link, with “delicate sensibilities.”
So the question becomes: how radical is this text, really? Or, more exactly, how might we read it as relatively traditional? In his assertion of a flowing narrative throughout Eunoia, Stacey draws attention to Bök’s assertion in the afterword that the text “willfully crippl[es] its language in order to show that even under such improbable conditions of duress, language can still express an uncanny, if not sublime thought” (103). In the interview, Voyce uses a similar rhetoric when pointing out the fact that the text was also well-received by the poet Rob Silliman on his highly influential blog, wherein “[h]e [Silliman] comments on your ‘awesome ear,’ claiming that the ‘book’s driving pleasure lies in its author’s commitment to the oldest authorial element there is: a great passion for rigor’” (par 97). My conclusion is that the text is, in the end, not terribly radical at all, but instead that its popular appeal lies in the fact that it is able to marry the politics of Oulipian constraint and extreme formal radicalism with the appeal of narrative continuity. The force of an extreme authorship allows the reader to come face-to-face with the radically experimental text without the added burden of reader freedom of experience. While this may make for an enjoyable, popular, and marketable text, postanarchism ultimately finds no use for the text. Instead, a postanarchist literary theory would read Eunoia as coopting the radical potentials of the formally experimental text, and thus limiting them.