Sarah Whitcomb Laiola insightfully analyzes Stephanie Strickland’s recent poetry book, looking into how Strickland continues the tradition of poetic text generation, engaging at the same with material constraints resulting from 17th century pattern-ringing. The practice consists of competing teams ringing church bells based on highly complex mathematical patterns. Building on these, the poet and her team created elaborate and complex algorithms that generate the poetry woven out of textual data harvested from writings of Sha Xin Wei, Simone Weil, Hito Steyerl, and Yuk Hui among others. Written with Python code, the work demonstrates the powerful “poetics of juxtaposition”, where the list of names of Black men and women subjected to state-sanctioned violence strongly resonates throughout the whole texts.
The wish that poetry might correct all this -- may seem a forlorn dream, but work that transgresses the boundary between thought as act and thought as content accomplishes this by suffusion, resonance, radiation, radiance, microdosing, and the setting of almost inaudible spells may indeed be the locus where such hope resides (Strickland 13)
Stephanie Strickland’s most recent work of poetry, Ringing the Changes, comes to us in 2020 -- a year that is quickly becoming one of the most dystopic of recent memory. As of this writing, the world is in the quarantined and socially-distanced throes of a pandemic due to the novel coronavirus technically named “COVID-19.” In the United States, the location of this writing, we are revisiting the effects of a total vacuum of responsible leadership at our government’s highest levels, as the country softly “re-opens,” even as we crest 150,000 deaths with no sign of a nationwide “flattened curve.”
Meanwhile, the economic disparity that has come to characterize the Millennial experience shows no sign of repair, and the global climate crisis continues to careen along its change-ridden path, despite the COVID memes proclaiming “nature is healing.” Alongside these satirically celebratory memes, Twitter and other social media networks are aflame as yet another Black life has been unjustly taken by police, this time belonging to George Floyd in Minneapolis. Floyd’s murder was caught live on camera -- a visual that stands in particularly stark, powerful contrast to another video, this one captured in New York and featuring a white woman threatening to call the police and claim her life was in danger, after a Black man asked her to leash her dog in Central Park. These events have catalyzed weeks (as of this writing) of on-going protests against centuries of systemic racism and state-sanctioned violence by the police around the country, so that, now, these two videos are accompanied by images of the National Guard, militarized SUVs, tear gas, and rubber bullets pelting Black (and white) protestors taking to the streets around the country, armed with signs insisting that Black Lives Matter, and that we Say The Names of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and Geoge Floyd. The images of protests now stand in stark contrast to images that circulated not long ago of white protestors on the steps of government buildings around the country brandishing all manner of firearms and weaponry to demand the country reopen, despite the pandemic, while police stand idly by, restraining themselves from any kind of violent (re)action.
In short, if ever there was a moment that we might wish or hope for poetry’s power of correction, it may be this one. And it is into this moment that Stephanis Strickland’s Ringing the Changes appears, a text that finds its power and poetics from systemically-designed, yet seemingly “random” juxtapositions of content.
Rodney King, Abner Louima, James Byrd, Amadou Diallo, Sandra Bland, Michael Brown, Eric Garner…(Strickland 5)
...Ahmaud Arbery. Breonna Taylor. George Floyd.
Demonstrating the powerful poetics of juxtaposition, this list of names evokes the history of white supremecist, state-sanctioned violence against Black people in the United States. Each name listed here recalls a Black life that was violently ended by the system of racist logic that undergirds and conditions US culture. In 1991, the temporal anchor of this list, this architectural system was wrapped in the scaffolding of post-racial colorblindness -- a particularly insidious form of racism that, as Eduardo Bonilla-Silva writes, renders the explicit and overt racist systems of the pre-Civil Rights Era United States into covert, implicit systems. This shift has had the effect of strengthening white America’s willful blindness to patterns of racist violence that this list of names insists we see. At the moment of this writing, this insistence has been widely, and vocally taken up across the country, as protestors take to the streets, demanding justice for George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, and an end to state-sanctioned racism and violence.
While Ringing the Changes is not explicitly a work of computational poetry that aims to dismantle racist logics and architectures, it is a work that uses computational architectures -- another invisible and covert system of logic that structures our world -- to evoke resonant, cultural patterns through seemingly random juxtaposition of texts. The textual data feeding this algorithm and surfacing, as poetry, according to mathematical patterns address a range of topics: reflections on art and media, histories of information and its categorization, lessons in computational logic and quantum physics, discussions of technologies and textiles, and narratives of storytelling and/as human movement. The poetry that emerges, then, is a deftly woven text/ile that brings together such disparate elements so that each might resonate beyond its own (con)textual limits. To point to one powerfully illustrative example, consider this part of the twenty-eighth change:
6 Your visit will leave a permanent mark.
5 Body the tether. What can a body do? It can look up.
4 However, by putting the black man at the center of the apocalypse -- both the agent of the world’s demise and its inheritor --Busta Rhymes’s suite of apocalyptic albums, resonates more specifically with the child of these strange bedfellows, black radical thought and accelerationism: blaccelerationism.
1 We can no longer afford to act insisting on this distinction betweenzoe and bios (as if we ever could).
Individually, these lines may demand a moment of reflection; in their original (con)texts, they provide a path toward argument. Brought together here, as lines of computationally-derived poetry, they become a textual atmosphere topically resonating through ephemerality and permanence, human and non-human bodies, life both bare and “good,” and apocalypse, a specter of both our future and our past.
Change-ringing, the ringing of bells in mathematical patterns rather than randomly or in tunes. Often heard as a disorganized jangle as ringers learn the basic stages, in its advanced forms it is a complex changing pattern of sound in a perfectly smooth rhythm (Strickland 8)
The resonances that emerge from this seemingly “disorganized jangle” of texts are no accident. Rather “[t]he computer-generated order of words in this book is based on the ancient art of tower-bell ringing” (163).
Tower-bell ringing, or “change-ringing,” was a 17th century English sport where teams of ringers would ring church bells -- each weighing up to 9,000 pounds -- in highly complex mathematical patterns, a practice that is now understood as “probably the earliest examples of serious group-theory in action” (4). The goal of this sport was to ring all the possible arrangements in a given set of seven bells -- a set which contains 5,040 possible arrangements (a number calculated from 7! = 7 x 6 x 5 x 4 x 3 x 2 x 1). These arrangements are called changes or rows, and “In each row, all the bells sound once” (10). Due to the physical demands and embodied realities of ringing seven bells, as each change moves to the next, “A bell can swap with the one before it, or the one after it, or stay where it is” (10). Though the sport originated in the 17th century, it continues to be practiced today; one mode of its contemporary practice follows a simplification called “Method Ringing,” which uses the principle of Scientific Triples as rules for generating new changes with the bells. In this new form, bell-ringing teams memorize the rules for generation of new patterns, rather than the patterns themselves.
Strickland’s work is based on the practice of contemporary Method Ringing through Scientific Triples. The seven bells become seven texts, each with twenty-three possible “tones,” or snippets of texts. These twenty-three textual-tones of the seven textual-bells become lines of poetry, printed on each page as the next change in the pattern. Python code, written by Strickland’s collaborators Jules Chatelain, Anne Marie Merritt, and Bryn Reinstadler and available on github (https://github.com/juliannechat/ringing-the-changes), determines this pattern generation. In addition to the rules of change-patterns provided by Scientific Triples, the code includes the constraint that each of the twenty-three tones from each bell must be sampled before the text may begin repeating itself, and the textual bells may swap position, only with an immediately neighboring bell -- a traditional constraint, noted above, due to the bells’ physical bodies. In this collection, the code is run seven times, with each of the twenty-three bell-texts ringing once in each instance, to create a total 161 changes, or 161 instances of poetic texts. Finally, because “method sequences begin and end with rounds, the practice of ringing all the bells in descending order of pitch” (163), this poetry collection begins with the textual-bells ordered 1 2 3 4 5 6 7, and ends on a pause after the 161 changes.
This review takes its structure from that same opening practice, as a round of thematically sampled bell-texts in the order 1 2 3 4 5 6 7.
What are the consequences of setting traditionally modernist abstract carved stone (Barbara Hepworth), next to twisted and wrapped yarn tied in a cocoon around hidden objects (Judith Scott), next to a scroll unfurled from a vulva (Carolee Schneemann), next to hanging lacy crocheted metal forms (Ruth Asawa), next to flattened circling aluminum turned into a Moebius (LygiaClark), next to ceramic nesting pods (Louise Bourgeois)? (9)
Or, in specific reference to Ringing the Changes:
What are the consequences of weaving together the writings of an artist/researcher of gestural instruments and responsive environments (Sha Xin Wei), with a political activist and mystic writing in the first half of the twentieth century (Simone Weil), with a cultural critic who articulates being human as praxis (Sylvia Wynter), with a conceptual artist of cinematic essays (HitoSteyerl), with a computational philosopher (Yuk Hui), with a pedagogical guide to bell ringing (John C. G. Sturdy), and with a “medley or mixtape” of writings by artists (Aria Dean, Craig Minowa, Eugenio Tisselli), media scholars (Stephanie Boluk and Parick LeMieux, Donna Haraway, Geert Lovink, Nichola Mirzoeff, R. Joshua Scannell), mathematicians (Richard Montgomery, Burkard Polster and Marty Ross, Charles Stein, Karl Schaffer), architects and design theorists (Benjamin Bratton, Francesa Hughes, Sam Jacob), theoretical physicists and computer scientists (Adan Cabello, Freeman Dyson, Rob Myers, Leslie Lamport), literary scholars (Emily Apter), critical race theorists and poets (Fred Moten), ancient Greek philosophers (Heraclitus), and global womens’ rights activists (Karen Sherman)?
In bell ringing, where each bell, physically juxtaposed to one another, carries a different tone, the consequence is an atmosphere of sound that demands to be sat with and experienced until it dissipates, as all sound waves eventually do. Thus, the text’s generation produces a core formal, tonal, and textual concern: sitting with and facing the consequences of juxtaposing apparently disparate content.
But what are the consequences of this generated text/ile?
As in bell ringing, one consequence is a text that reads as cacophony that subsides only when the reader, after sitting with and in the changes for a sufficient amount of time, stops trying to force the text into the logically familiar shape of a tune, and instead embraces the pattern and repetition of tone. In my reading, this happened at the sixteenth (of 161) change, when I was confronted (for the first time) with another historical consequence of bell ringing. In the sixteenth change, the third bell-text first recounts the story of the 1963 Loughborough Bell Foundry ringers who succeeded in ringing an extent on eight bells -- the most, the text imagines, that is humanly possible. This extent resulted in 40,320 changes, nearly eighteen hours of bell ringing, and “an unknown number of complaints to the police” (16).
In its original context, the third bell-text offers this anecdote and its consequence as a tongue-in-cheek, humorous aside -- a joke, that police would be called, any number of times, by community-members sitting in and with a sonic atmosphere created by eighteen hours of bell ringing. But in the context of Ringing the Changes, where its neighboring bell-text two regularly says the(ir) names “Rodney King, Abner Louima, James Byrd, Amadou Diallo, Sandra Bland, Michael Brown, Eric Garner…” and thereby reminds us that the consequences of police (complaints) can be fatal, the tone of this joke rings false. Here another consequence emerges: changing, challenging, even warping the tone of any given bell-text.
What attention yields is not interpretation, what attention yields is grasp. (6)
Sitting in and with a patterned cacophony of bell-texts demands a readerly practice that is ambivalent to attention. That is, attention is almost an inconsequence of Strickland’s text, which both invites and rewards a reading practice where attention ebbs and flows over the extent of the reading.
The text’s ambivalence to attentive reading emerges as an effect of its poetics of repetition and juxtaposition. Over the text’s 161 changes, the twenty-three tones of the seven bell-texts are each repeated seven times, though no one change is, itself, repeated. In other words, the tones that make up bell-texts each repeat, but in each repetition, its neighboring tones have changed. As Strickland writes, “In the ringing world, this constraint is called truth; to repeat any row [or in this text, any change] would make the performance false” (163, original italics). And in this text, we find a true performance of recurring echoes, modulated in each recurrence by neighboring (con)texts. In this way, Ringing the Changes offers the attentive reader multiple axes of interpretation, even as it denies this same reader any semblance of totalizing grasp. The 161 changes that comprise the text cannot be grasped as a totality through readerly attention; rather, the extent of these changes can only be grasped through the comparative inattention of sitting with and in the echoing textual changes, printed across multiple pages, and bound in a single codex, an object which of course, can be grasped.
We have to admit that machines don’t deal with language in the way we do. I suggest we surrender the opposition between syntax and semantics and instead take up the concept of relation. (4)
The “I” in this bell-text does not belong to Strickland. The sentiment conveyed here, however, certainly seems to, particularly in regards to poetic practice that “take[s] up the concept of relation.” Poetics of relationality -- what I have referred to elsewhere in this text as poetics of “juxtaposition” -- are recurrent across both traditions of (e-)poetics generally, and Strickland’s own (e-)poetic oeuvre, specifically, often emerging in simultaneity with practices of automatic text generation.
Ringing the Changes is neatly situated within poetic traditions of relationality and text generation including (perhaps predictably), Oulipian texts like Raymond Queneau’s 1961, Cent mille milliard des poémes (One Hundred Million Millions Poems). However, what is notable about the relationship between these two texts is less their shared practices of poetry-through-automatic-generation, and more the ways these practices are predicated on physical, material constraints. For Queneau, these constraints are the materials of book-binding and paper, which limit his sonnet generation to the unit of the line; for Strickland, these constraints are the weight and heft of bells, which determine practices like pattern-ringing (rather than ringing tunes) 2, and rules stating that a bell may only changes places with an immediate neighbor. These rules, recall, ultimately constrain the Python code on which Ringing the Changes is based. In this way, Ringing the Changes relates to and continues practices of poetic text generation, even as it insists on an engagement with material constraint within that generation.
Strickland’s and Queneau’s generated poetry importantly diverge, however, in the ways they treat poetic language. Where Queneau’s sonnets maintain the logic of semantics and syntax in (for instance) connecting one line of a sonnet to the next through the consistent rhyme scheme and meter, Strickland’s generated changes reflect the relational logic of machines, both digital (the computer) and not (the bells), as each line of poetry connects to the next only by virtue of its relationality: directly preceding or following, directly above or below, on the page. In this attention to logic through (physical) relationality, Ringing the Changes finds a stronger pre-digital poetic relationship with traditions of feminist language-oriented poetry, such as that by Susan Howe, where the spatial arrangement of words on the page similarly subverts logic by syntax, or that by Harryette Mullen, where relational logic of alphabetical order guides the arrangement of words on the page. While Ringing the Changes may be comfortably placed within the spectrum of work that describe feminist, language-oriented poetics, the text’s relationship to digital machines marks an important difference from the non-digital work cited here.
As Ringing the Changes makes use of computational algorithms in its performance of textual generation, it relates to a number of e-literary texts, not least being Nick Montfort’s Taroko Gorge and its attendant network of remixes. These works share poetics of sampling, remix, and generation by computational algorithm. As well, in both cases, the code itself is publicly accessible to be reused, remixed, and even played with -- a metaphor made material with Liberty Ring!, “a toy interactive companion to Ringing the Changes” developed by Strickland and Ian Hatcher (available: https://www.stephaniestrickland.com/projects/liberty-ring/). Liberty Ring! invites users to engage the code behind Ringing the Changes through a minimalist, interactive, graphical user interface, where the user may virtually “ring a bell” (by clicking on the active bell button centered on the page), which will in turn run the code to generate a change of texts. As a code-companion to Ringing the Changes, Liberty Ring! recalls a feminist poetic to the practice of sharing and remixing code: by inviting users to engage the code here, through a graphical interface, rather than exclusively through the raw github files, it challenges the primacy of code to e-literary and digital humanities work, asserting “you don’t have to code to perform poetry with this code.” By building this inclusive model of code-play into her poetics, Strickland places Ringing the Changes firmly in conversation with feminist digital humanists, who have long argued that centering codework in digital humanities (and by extension, electronic literature) centers exclusionary, masculinist value systems that force women and BIPOC (Black, indigenous, people of color) out of the field.
Within Strickland’s oeuvre, texts like True North (1997) and V:Vniverse (2002) reveal a poetic practice that has long been invested in bringing print and digital materialities together in and as a single work -- a tradition that finds its most recent articulation in Ringing the Changes, a poetic text that exists as a printed codex book, but that was written by digital code. Given the ways her practice has been bound in digital code, it is perhaps no surprise that a poetics of relationality and generation would be similarly recurring across her oeuvre, as in the constellations of V:Vniverse or the coordinates of Sea and Spar Between (2010). Finally, as Ringing the Changes weaves together voices of architects, physicists, mathematicians, artists, cultural critics, gamers, and historians into a single text/ile, it continues Strickland’s topical tradition of bringing the sciences and the arts to bear on one another in her poetry by sampling and remixing these interdisciplinary voices throughout her work.
Combinatorial complexity does not equal richness. Indeed complexity inevitably tends to overwhelm the sense and value (16).
Ringing the Changes is, inarguably, complex. As with much poetry based in language and texts, a great deal of this complexity stems from its combinatory logics: the (re)combinations of bell-texts, the constraints governing these (re)combinations, the Python code performing these (re)combinations, and the resultant textual changes emerging from these (re)combinations. Following bell-text seven’s warning here, however, reading the changes while trying to hold and reconcile all of this complexity does result in feeling overwhelmed, as if engulfed by text that, though bound and static, refuses to settle.
However, at the same time, Ringing the Changes reveals the limits of bell-text seven’s assertion here that an overwhelming reading reduces or denies the text’s richness. Instead, the complexity of the poetics prompts a reading that, like the text’s writing is machinic -- a process of finding patterns, signals, in the seemingly random noise of change(s). Moreover, just as each run of machinic code is different (Hayles), so too is each reading of this text different, as the signals appear in different moments of the text, different spaces in the pattern, performing multiplicities of meaningful possibility through change(s). This is where the text’s richness lies. Recalling bell-text one, this is where the work “transgresses the boundary between thought as act and thought as content,” operating as precisely the kind of poetry that might “change it all,” by requiring us to read signals in noise, to identify patterns in systems, to draw connections across seemingly random (textual) events.
Writing and reading this as the world (only somewhat metaphorically) burns, as protests forcing a reconciliation of systemic (and particularly: anti-Black) racism and white supremacy call for defunding and abolishing American police, as cases of COVID-19 across the US hit record highs, as financial precarity spreads, and the crisis of climate change (re)appears as record-setting seasonal hurricane activity, perhaps this is how poetry changes it all. By teaching us to see patterns in all this noise, so that we, too, may perform a change.
Bonilla-Silva, Eduardo. Racism without Racists: Color-Blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in America. Fourth Edition, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2013.
Hayles, N. Katherine. “The Time of Digital Poetry: From Object to Event.” New Media Poetics: Contexts, Technotexts, and Theories, edited by Adalaide Morris and Thomas Swiss, MIT Press, 2006, pp. 181–210.
Howe, Susan. Singularities. Wesleyan University Press, 1990.
Mullen, Harryette. Sleeping with the Dictionary. Underlining edition, University of California Press, 2002.
Queneau, Raymond. Cent Mille Milliards de Poèmes. Kickshaws, 1961.
Strickland, Stephanie. True North. University of Notre Dame Press, 1997.
Strickland, Stephanie. Ringing the Changes. Counterpath, 2020.
Strickland, Stephanie, and Cynthia Lawson Jaramillo. “V:Vniverse.” V:Vniverse, 2002, vniverse.com.
Strickland, Stephanie, and Nick Montfort. “Sea and Spar Between.” Sea and Spar Between, 2010, https://nickm.com/montfortstrickland/seaandsparbetween/index.html.