John R. Ladd
Spenser’s Color Wheel
Access the project here.
Part data visualization and part poetry generator, Spenser’s Color Wheel is an exploration of the colour words the poet uses in his two most famous works, The Faerie Queene and The Shepheardes Calender. What colour words does Spenser choose and in what proportions? What colour terms appear in his epic versus his pastoral? How does he deploy colour within the economy of his lines and stanzas?
Following from Jerome McGann’s notion of ‘deformance’, the project takes Spenser’s poetry apart and reassembles it to illuminate Spenser’s use of colour for different poetic purposes. By scrolling among the pie charts, the viewer can quickly see which colours Spenser includes from book to book in The Faerie Queene and month to month in The Shepheardes Calender. The circles are scaled according to the proportion of lines that have colour terms to the whole of each text, which gives the viewer a quick sense of how much Spenser uses colour in each poem section.
By clicking on the colours, the viewer can make poems out of randomly selected ‘color-lines’ from that text. The new poems – fourteen lines long, as Spenser was a writer of sonnets among many other things – will always contain lines proportional to the usage of colour the viewer clicked. But since the lines are chosen at random and can be reordered at will, it’s unlikely to ever encounter the same fourteen-line poem twice. The resulting poems, like those in The Mutable Stanzas, show that Spenser’s lines are self-contained enough to be reordered into new senses. But by including only lines with colour words, the new poems have greater density of striking images.
What can we see with this project that is harder to see by reading? Since making it, I’ve noticed that Book IV of The Faerie Queene has more silver, Spenser’s colour for water, while Book VI has more green, commensurate with the return of Colin Clout and Spenser’s reuse of pastoral themes. Purple, Spenser’s colour for blood and gore, shows up more in the second, social half of The Faerie Queene than the first. Combining lines from these different moments into new poems produces dizzying effects.
[A note on ‘red’: initially the graphs showed much more red, but only because many instances of ‘read’ were not being properly modernized. Poems with lots of reading, like Book I, showed lots of the colour red by mistake (a happy mistake, perhaps!). I wrote manual rules to handle most of the mistaken ‘red’ terms, but a few may have made it through.]
The Mutable Stanzas
The Mutable Stanzas is a digital poetry installation and deformance experiment inspired by Raymond Queneau’s Cent Mille Milliards de Poèmes, by the work by Jerome McGann et al on ‘Deformance and Interpretation’, and by the work of my collegues in the Humanities Digital Workshop, Washington University, St Louis.
The Mutable Stanzas disassembles Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene into its constituent lines, groups lines according to terminal rhyme, then randomly reassembles lines into new stanzas. These new stanzas are displayed intermixed with images from Walter Crane’s illustrations to an 1895-97 edition of Spenser’s epic. Although the The Mutable Stanzas might reproduce a stanza found in the original, and although certain single-image displays will reoccur, the number of possible display states (combinations of images, stanzas and lines) is astronomical. The result is an endless sequence of image and text, with each state of The Mutable Stanzas fading out as a new state emerges, each change in state occurring every few seconds.
This exercise started as proof for the idea that lines from The Faerie Queene contained enough semantic and syntactic closure/completeness that it would be possible to generate reasonably coherent new stanzas from lines pulled out of their original context. The inspiration comes from Cent Mille Milliards de Poèmes (Raymond Queneau). Objections to the idea of The Mutable Stanzas originally centered on Queneau’s having crafted lines to make possible Cent Mille Milliards de Poèmes. Interestingly enough, however, The Mutable Stanzas shows more of a tendency to coherence than Cent Mille Milliards de Poèmes (not that coherence is Queneau’s point).
The images were introduced initially as a way of distracting the reader of The Mutable Stanzas, so that any incoherence in the resulting stanzas would be less obvious. But by cropping the images, and by recombining them randomly, they tend to reinforce the practice and the point of creating new stanzas. The images are never complete, they focus on detail, and images from different parts of the Cranes’s illustrations (the narrative components, backgound details, decorative borders) combine much as the lines do. And by washing the images through potrace (i.e., by converting them to svg), Crane’s images take on the appearance of woodcut, creating a strange historical collapse, as elements of the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries converge in twenty-first century technologies.
Lastly, I wanted to capture an experience of reading The Faerie Queene, one in which the poem always seems to slip into incomprehension behind its details. The central fact of poem is that it’s long; stanza follows stanza, finely crafted details constantly intrude above the narrative, and, if one is reading on a schedule, there’s never enough time to closely read the entire poem. I wanted The Mutable Stanzas the capture the experience of there being more poem than any ordinary reader could possibly appreciate.
Cora Lind Rozencohn
Notes on Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene and its influence on Cora Rozencohnn’s Video Drama, Her Anticipation.
A link to the video: https://vimeo.com/333200234
‘Lo I the man!’
The bombast, the gore, the viscera, the erotic wafts, Error’s brood drinking mother’s blood till they burst; these were the initial charms that drew me to Spenser. Yet what hooked me deeply were the kaleidoscopic shifting philosophical models, tableaux and musings; the intricate treatment of pairings, how pairs of heroes and adversaries, lovers and partners permeate one another, flow between status, gender and symbolism to seek reunion.
I am drawn to art concerned with romantic destiny and decay. I favour artwork that offers a brutal take on love’s office, especially those that manage to create pleasure (or at least what I consider pleasure). Inspired by Spenser’s unattainable Faerie Queene, Her Anticipation is my response to Spenser’s meditation on eternity, love, the nature of nature, the relations of art and nature - in short to the stirrings below that drive the narrative adventures above.
In my video Her Anticipation, the narrator ruminates on her emotional entanglement and the consequences of her amorous involvement with a lover several decades her senior. She, the narrator, seeks to identify and unstitch threadbare intricacies and knots of romantic intimacy. It is a journey seen through her eyes.
The video seeks the lover who, while seen on camera is hovering between realms; he is already absent in her fear and expectation. The camera’s wandering eye remembers their shared earthly life, it flows, jumps, collages events and places that symbolically refer to Spenser’s Cantos. The recorded images may be interpreted as events in real time, Her imagined reverie, recollections or re-visited recordings of places shared by the lovers. The tone of the video is sombr. While the lover makes brief appearances, he may be deceased, or it may be Her fanciful mental preparation for bereavement. The wandering camera arouses Her lament.
Spenser’s sprawling, disorderly, contradictory verse and plot lines in The Faerie Queene influenced the mixture of shots and flow of the video narrative. In the video, literary contrivance, real-life psychological urges, and fantasy create a visual narrative that functions as a kind of personal fairy-tale. The content of the tale is drawn from the emotional, spiritual, and physical moments shared by Her and her husband in their life together on earth and also from Her conception of the life that She carries in her imagination.
There are four chapters to the video, named for specific sections of The Faerie Queene that act as a distillation of some of the ideas floating through the poem.
A break-down of the structure:
The Bower of Bliss
The Garden of Adonis
The Temple of Isis
Chapters one and two establish mood, which is both aesthetic and emotive. The narrator examines time, artifice, and symbolic language while trying to construct a sustainable model of eternity. Chapters three and four reveal the narrator’s motivation most directly and begin to explore Her resolve to loss and the inability to ‘stop time’.
Like the myriad of stories used in The Faerie Queene, the accompanying music and text doubles the visual story. Like mirrored images seen from different angles creating reflection and distortion, this layering of story creates surrogates of one another lending a richness to the viewer’s perception of the tale.
The first video chapter explores the notions of isolation and containment through artifice. The second video chapter explores cycles of nature as another form, or forms, of containment. The third video chapter explores romantic pairing through the love stories of Isis, and Orpheus, and in a more subtle fashion, Britomart, and Narcissus. The fourth video chapter reveals the narrator’s (i.e., Her) motivation by more overtly revealing the affection between the couple. To my mind central themes in Spenser’s Faerie Queene are identity, autonomy, and sovereignty; those themes are rendered visually in Her Anticipation.
A final note to this introduction, I invite you to view Her Anticipation not as an illustration or adaptation but as an artistic tryst.
Cora Lind Rozencohn
Iowa City Iowa