Pataphysics!

I’ve been really bogged down by university with essays this week.

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This essay revolves around the informal, joke-like theory of the “pataphysical,” a realm beyond physics, and beyond metaphysics. Applied to language, what that means is looking at a word and seeing its physical aspects, then using that as a vehicle for poetry. Example:

Significance
Sign if I can ce
Sign if I can see

My essay argues that that can make for great puns, and then goes over some examples of people (Paul Dutton and bpNichol) who have actually applied “pataphysics” to their poetry.

If that interests you, or if you’re unsure, read on. If not, well, don’t worry, I’ll post something more interesting in the future.

Multiple Meanings in Pataphysics

Poetry is different than prose because it is more playful with language. Epics and sonnets are defined by certain structural elements such as length, meter, or rhyme. Some poems deviate or actively avoid structure. But a general statement could be made about most poetry, which is that it focuses on words, sentences, maybe verses. bpNichol took interest in a realm beyond, or perhaps below that, the place below the level of the word. He was interested in creating poetry by examining letters and the sounds that they can create. Nichol named this Pataphysics, the realm beyond physics and metaphysics that both does and does not exist. This led to poetry that focused on creating multiple meanings for a single word, and poetry that drew words out of other words. This essay will be focusing on the former, using the pataphysical to create multiple meanings within one word.  bpNichol and Paul Dutton have used pataphysics to create words with multiple meanings within a poem.

bpNichol and Paul Dutton have both been interested in linguistic play. bpNichol was very active in poetry writing and publishing. He started two magazines, Ganglia and grOnk “to build a community, starting with bringing the Vancouver poets to the attention of Toronto writers” (Butling and Rudy 65). His magazines were some of the spaces for poets that, “supported concrete poetry, sound poetry, interdisciplinary performance work, and, more broadly, the project of deconstruction that dominated 1970s experimental poetics” (Butling and Rudy, 61). The project of deconstruction mentioned above referred to the deconstruction of poems, which, for bpNichol, lay in the realm of pataphysics. The pataphysical realm is the pre-word, or sub word realm. As defined in H.G Widdowson’s book Linguistics, it is “the way the smallest elements of language, its sounds and letters, though meaningless in themselves, combine to form units at a higher level, i.e. words, which are meaningful” (Widdowson 30). When applied to poetry, the pataphysical consists of working with language at the level of letters, and what sounds those letters signify both together as a word, as well as on their own. In bpNichol’s essay “The ‘Pata of Letter Feet, or, the English Written Character as a Medium for Poetry,” he states that, “it is precisely at this point, the point when the word forms, that most writers come into consciousness. The phase before that that… tends to remain outside of their consciousness and yet, obviously, they all pass thru it on the way to consciousness; they just don’t think it has significance” (Nichol 357). The pataphysical elements of language are the aspects that fall at the sub-word, or pre-word level. Some of Paul Dutton’s work also reflects pataphysical thinking. As described in the introduction to his book “Sonosyntactics,” Dutton’s poetics “evokes his willingness to (re)invent and stretch language” (Barwin, xiii). Nichol and Dutton also both worked together in a sound poetry group, the Four Horsemen. “When Nichol and Steve McCaffery met in 1969, they began to perform as a duo. The next year they joined Paul Dutton and Rafel Barreto-Rivera to form the Four Horsemen” (Butling and Rudy, 67). They worked together on poetry that explored the realm below words. bpNichol and Paul Dutton’s interest in linguistics lead them to explore pataphysical poetry.

pbNichol applies pataphysics at the signifier / signified level. In his essay “The ‘Pata of Letter Feet,” Nichol states that, “it’s at the interface between the eye, the ear and the mouth, that we suddenly see/hear the real ‘pata of poetic feet” (Nichol 354). Effectively, that means that pataphysics works not just with what is read, or the eye, but also with the sounds that are read from letters, the mouth and ear. This aspect of pataphysics is especially clear in parts of The Martyrology: Book 4, “what should be play / too often’s re-creation / the change that Langtek worked / ‘wreck-creation’ ” (Nichol 82). This part of the poem is likely about Langtek, wrecking a place of recreation by re-creating it, possibly through construction or landscaping. In the example, there is a three-way wordplay between “what should be play,” or recreation, re-creation, and wreck-creation. This is addressed in his essay, “the eye trigger[s] the tongue & ear, translating an impulse from a visual medium into a sound medium” (Nichol 357). Even though the eye reads all three words differently, they trigger the same sounds when translated from vision to sound. pbNichol refers to this distinction as the difference between the signifier and the signified. By looking at the letter A, he explains, “A (the signifier) together with A (the mental concept and therefore the signified) constitute a sign that we agree will trigger the sound A” (Nichol 357). The signifiers in the excerpt from The Martyrology: Book 4 are groups of characters re, re-, and wre. They sound almost the same, but the words they form, recreation, re-creation, and wreck-creation signify completely different things to the reader. “When i write the word ‘dog’ i am, on one level, combining three uniquely created letters to make a fourth thing: a shape, a word which also has extra referential value” (Nichol 357). Like in this example with the word dog, in the The Martyrology, bpNichol’s variations of “recreation” each have different referential value in relation to each other. They each hold a different meaning than their sounds imply.

Paul Dutton has used pataphysics in his Additives series. The Additives series shows how a new word can be created within a word simply by adding in a letter. The letter is added within the notation of parenthesis so that it can be read as both there and not there, allowing for two separate words to occupy most of the same space. These words, combined with the poem’s title, can be used to find meaning. In “Phoenix”, for example, the reader is presented with, “cre(m)ated” (Dutton 56). Without the bracketed letter, the word is created. With it, the poem reads cremated. When you put it into the perspective of the title, “Pheonix” it is easy to see how the two are related. When a phoenix dies, it catches fires and cremates itself, then from the ashes it is reborn, or created. This poem uses two parts of pataphysics as described in pbNichol’s essay. First, the parenthesis act as a form of “ ‘notation,’ the conscious act of noting things down for the voice” (Nichol, 354), noting the multiple ways the poem is to be read. Second is idea of notated parts both existing and not existing, “in that very word ‘notation’ i can begin to show you the ‘pataphysical dimension… There is notation. There is no tation. The word erases itself. No it doesn’t. Well yes it does but only if i read it that way” (Nichol 354). In the same way that notation/no tation both does and does not erase itself; the letter “m” in cre(m)ated both is and is not considered. The same technique is used in a few other poems by Paul Dutton. His poem “Carousel” reads, “p(h)onies” (Dutton 57). Applying pataphysics as above, the poem can read both “ponies” and “phonies,” which is a fairly accurate description of that part of a carousel. In this series of poems, Paul Dutton formed short descriptions using pataphysics on a single letter inside of parenthesis to create multiple potential meanings.

Pataphysics in sound poetry moves from the realm of the letter to the realm phonemics. The Paul Dutton poem “Mercure” is a good place to start because it is also one of the poems in his Additives series. The difference is that in the context of “Sonosyntactics,” “Mercure” comes with instructions for how to perform it out loud in the form of performance notes. “Mercure” is a French poem that is written, “pois(s)on” (Dutton 70). Using pataphysical theory, pois(s)on can break down into both poison and poisson. The poem could interpret as mercure (French for mercury) makes poisson (French for fish) poison (the English and French words are written identically), or that that mercury makes fish poisonous. The Performance notes call for a very drawn out performance of individual sounds adding to each other. Using French pronunciation, the sounds the performer is called to make shift from the word poison to the word poisson, “PWAZZZ-OHN PWAZZZ-OHN PWAZZZ-OHN // PWASSS-OHN PWASSS-OHN PWASSS-OHN” (Dutton 71). When “Mercure” is performed in this way, instead of the change of meaning hanging on the presence or absence of the second letter S, hinges on the pronunciation of the second syllable, from an “s” sound to a “z” sound. In Widdowson’s book Linguistics he points out that the shift of consonants holds not only a physical phonetic difference, but also a phonemic difference, “their difference is functionally significant at the level of word formation. The two sounds appear in the same place in the spoken pattern… and serve to produce words of different meaning” (Widdowson 31). The mouth forms the same shape to make an “s” or “z” sound, the only difference is that “z” is voiced. This simple phonetic change is physical, but it brings with it a phonemic change, a change in meaning from the word poison to the word poisson. The change from the “s” sound to the “z” sound also creates a change in meaning. Pois(s)on holds two potential meanings at the pataphysical level.

bpNichol and Paul Dutton have used pataphysics to create multiple meanings within a word and a poem. Pataphysics allows for the creation of deliberate puns, as Nichol said of his essay’s title, “The ‘Pata of Letter Feet,” “It is, of course, a serious pun, because poetry has its physical reality, its metaphysical reality and its ‘pataphysical reality” (Nichol 354). If pataphysics is the sub-word area of poetry, then perhaps, in this context, metaphysics is the word and up level. It is level where meaning is formed in the mind from words, sentences, and paragraphs. Then, perhaps, the physical realm is exactly that, physical symbols on a physical page, being read by the optics of a reader’s eyeball, that hold no meaning until they are encoded and then given meaning by the brain.


Works Cited

Butling, Pauline, and Susan Rudy. “4 BpNichol and a Gift Economy.” Writing in Our Time: Canada’s Radical Poetries in English (1957-2003), Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2005, pp. 80–97.

Dutton, Paul, and Gary Barwin. Sonosyntactics: the Poetry of Paul Dutton. Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2015.

Nichol, bp “The Pata of Letter Feet, or, The English Written Character as a Medium for Poetry.” Open Letter 6.1 (Spring 1985) : 79–95
Widdowson, H. G. Linguistics. Oxford University Press, 1996.

According to my Word file, this took about nine hours. It’s formatted using MLA, although WordPress has sort of axed off my indentations and double spacing.

Daniel Triumph.

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