Poetics as Knowledge Base:
The Example of “Plan B”

Presented at the Louisville Conference
on Literature and Culture after 1900
24 February 2017

This paper is a thought experiment that reads experimental poetry and poetics in relation to the concept of “knowledge base”—even as poetic attempts to create a knowledge base itself. The making of poetry has always been attended by some kind of “lore,” the necessary but often obscure or intractable set of background knowledges and beliefs that are crucial for its understanding—T.S. Eliot’s notes to The Waste Land or Louis Zukofsky’s parallel texts for “Mantis” are modern examples of this. Historicism in poetics depends on accessing and developing this lore, which it extends to more nuanced contexts; at the same time, theory-based approaches creates a metadiscourse of key concepts that may become part of the knowledge base of poetics. From the romantics to the postmoderns, the construction of such a knowledge base is a necessary entailment of “the making of the work in its condition of possibility”—the task of poetics as a discourse. I want to look at a range of ways this knowledge base is represented and accessed, from the archiving of writings in poetics to modernist and postmodern concordances to major works (such as Zukofsky’s “A”) to online poetry/poetics archives to recent experimental methods. What would a rigorous use of the concept of “knowledge base” in computing and information theory bring to understanding poetics in such terms? According to Wikipedia, “A knowledge-based system consists of a knowledge-base that represents facts about the world and an inference engine that can reason about those facts and use rules and other forms of logic to deduce new facts or highlight inconsistencies. The term ‘knowledge-base’ was coined to distinguish this form of knowledge store from the more common and widely used term database.” A knowledge base orients us to knowledge about the world (which may include fact and fiction, unique objects and multiple copies) in the form of sentences that have specific semantic and syntactic form, and which can be submitted to various forms of logic or calculation. How a poetics of inference and action—as the end-uses of poetics as a form of knowledge—differ from poetry as mere language or data will be the crux of my argument. In reading my poem “Plan B” in relation to a knowledge base that I created to represent “facts about the world” the poem draws on, I want to show how a poetic knowledge base is a crucial horizon of the meaning and use of poetry and its interpretive discourses. Poetics, as a “discourse of the making of the work” and a mediation of knowledge, leads to ways of making poetry itself. [. . .]

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