I recently saw a Norwegian sketch on Youtube about the invention of the book. A medieval man has just gotten his first book and can’t seem to get it to work, so he has to ask for help. A help desk employee shows up to guide him through this new state-of-the-art technology, showing him how to flip the pages back and forth, read from left to right etc. The dim-witted book-owner has trouble understanding the instructions and the irritated help desk employee asks if he never considered consulting the manual.
The manual, of course, is another book.
Instructional poetry is a modern day verse form in which the reader is told to do certain things in a certain order, often “ridiculous” things which cannot be done or don’t seem to serve a “purpose”. One of the most famous examples of such poetry is to be found in Yoko Ono’s book Grapefruit.
“Make all the clocks in the world fast by two seconds without letting anyone know about it” it says in one of the poems. “Decide not to use one particular syllable for the rest of your life. Record things that happened to you in result of that,” says another.
One of the most quoted sayings of conceptual poetry is from the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein: “Do not forget that a poem, although it is composed in the language of information, is not used in the language-game of giving information”—I’m even pretty sure I’ve let it grace these fine pages of the Reykjavík Grapevine in some earlier column. Instructional poetry takes this idea to task and uses the language of information to give information (i.e. instructions) which deviates from the thinkable and thereby (literally) bends reality.
While Yoko Ono provides the reader with well nigh impossible tasks, Canadian poet Darren Wershler-Henry, in his book The Tapeworm Foundry, feeds the reader with ideas for art-works and poetry books, some possible and others impossible and many borderline: “find the threads in redhats andor litter keyboard with milletseed so that exotic songbirds might tap out their odes to a nightingale andor transcribe the letters pressed onto the platen when stalactites drip on the homerow keys andor reconstruct the ruins of a bombedout capital i.”
The imperative form of instructional poetry is a dizzying tool which can easily send the reader spinning. Instructions are made to make sense, they are there to guide us, and yet they can so easily be used to fuck with our heads—when they leave the realm of the expected. Do not finish this sentence. Before proceeding with the article, go back to the previous sentence (which you obviously finished, you fool!) and read it again, this time without finishing. Do not read the following sentence. If all goes well you should not be reading this. Then jump to this sentence and continue from there.
For an Icelandic example I’d recommend Sigurður Pálsson’s Nokkrar verklegar æfingar í atburðaskáldskap (tr. A few practical exercises in performance poetry) from Ljóð námu völd.
Italian-American poet and artist Vito Acconci once wrote a famous instructional poem, which contrary to most instructional poems could easily be followed. So easily, in fact, that not doing what it says proves to be impossible even for the most agile readers, the most cunning minds:
“READ THIS WORD THEN READ THIS WORD READ THIS WORD NEXT READ THIS WORD NOW” etc. etc.
This is the pataphysical, the sphere beyond the merely metaphysical. Like in the book-manual-book problem of our medieval reader mentioned earlier, instructional poetry deliberately breaches the social code of messaging. It undermines the trust we naturally put in the imperative, and thereby manages to rid us (at least partially) of our ridiculous obsession with obeying everyone that sounds like an authority, while simultaneously entertaining us with the sweet, humorous sound of chains breaking.
Eiríkur Örn Norðdahl’s third novel, Gæska (Kindness), has just been published by Mál & menning.