RIFFs: Toward an Etymology of Rif/t

by Kenneth Sherwood

RIFF01.01 and RIFT01.01 are copyright (c) 1993. See below for full notice. Click here for EPC HOTLIST



"The presence of the original is the prerequisite for the concept of authenticity." [Walter Benjamin]

This may not be the first time I've said so, but allow me to risk rewriting myself: Everything I write is a forgery! That said, the word is free to quote or recycle itself, to riff to its heart's content. "How does one know," in terms of content now, "when a poem is done?": concept of the poem as fixed, final object, as a function of the paper text's economy. A RIF/T riff never knows but that it's not the initiation of its own echo.



"You can't have art without resistance in the material" [William Morris]

We are truly "hemmed in by oceanic verisimilitude", and it is so real that it feels, virtually. But if we could only talk more fluently with our machines, achieve increased awareness, interface through a more user-friendly environment....

RIF/T makes no claims for a new, technologically improved poem. The very vocabulary of the machine--"Content-transfer-encoding:7BIT"--betrays any such cyber-utopianism into the impossiblity from which poetic form extends.

At the site of writing, if now QWERTY substitutes for quill as the writer's fetishized tool, how does it shape practice?



"...prose consists less and less of _words_ chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of _phrases_ like sections of a prefabricated hen house....rift within the lute....meaning (what is a 'rift', for instance..." [George Orwell, "Politics of the English Language"]

In language, which came first: the riff or the hen house. The meaning of the rift within the lute--a lately dead metaphor, now resuscitated--lies (or "As I Lay") precisely among such elipses, between the quoted and the excised, at the superimposition of various riffs, in the dissonance between: an interest, not in fidelity to the source, but in the derivations and deviations from it.


Olson: where focus but at inches "all the rest beyond that point... what IS all that out there we CALL focus?"

Within any single "tone" the preceptive ear may tune to a number of separate enharmonics ascending mathematically from the base, or root. The drone sound contains numinous signifying potentials which are enhanced or diminished by the physical qualities of the space, and variously perceived by the ear.


Freud's image of the city: all of Rome's history materialized at present moment in its appropriate place. "There is no point in spinning our phantasy any further, for it leads to things that are unimaginable and even absurd. If we want to represent historical squence in spatial terms we can only do it by juxtaposition in space; the same space cannot have two different contents." [Freud, _Civilization and Its Discontents_]


"words in my mind hum." [Robert Grenier]

The industrial age is marked by an increase in ambient flat-line noise, a constant drone not usually found in nature. This low-fi landscape is exceedingly continuous, with no perspective, and no sense of duration. The North American ear settles on a B natural as primary tone, its ohm. This is the frequency of transmission for household electrical current. [see _Tuning of the World_ by R. Murray Shaefer]


A social acoustic.

"The sound in Norman and Gothic churches surrounding the audience, strengthens the link between individual and community. The loss of high frequencies and the resulting impossibility of localizing the sound makes the believer part of a world of sound. He does not face the sound in 'enjoyment'--he is wrapped up by it." [Kurt Blackopf qtd. in Shaefer]

What might the sculptor mean by "resistances of the material"?


Improvisation, that incessant riffing, the drone of circular breathing, playing across always or against some background, some linguistic, assumed fabric. The relationship of figure and ground can be displaced by the alternately tuned ear.

The Paper-copy is but a facsimile of. Conceive of RIF/T as riffing toward the unauthoritative variorum edition, extracting from the poem the false authorities of the fine binding, filigree edges, transforming the text into the material ghost if itself and author to phantasm.

And if the poem is nothing but the "particular tatoos marking a particular book's paper skin." [Barnstone]


"And Tian said, with his hands on the strings of his lute.
The low sounds continuing
		after his left hand left the strings
And the sound went up like smoke, under the leaves,
And he looked after the sound:"

				[Pound, Canto XIII]

RIFF #10

"If a forger's signature ever ponts its reader beyond the document to the person who signed it, the forger is in trouble." [Clark]

"The distinction between author and public is about to lose its basic character" [Walter Benjamin]

RIF/T: An Electronic Space for Poetry, Prose, and Poetics
Editors: Kenneth Sherwood and Loss Pequeño Glazier
ISSN#: 1070-0072
Version 1.1 Fall 1993

RIFF01.01 and RIFT01.01 copyright (c) 1993. All rights revert to author(s) upon publication. Texts distributed by RIF/T, e-poetry@ubvm, or the Electronic Poetry Center (Buffalo) may not be republished for profit in any form without express consent of author(s) and notification of the editors, but may be freely circulated among individuals for personal use provided that this copyright statement is included. Public archiving of complete issues only, in electronic or print forms, is permissible provided that no access fee is charged.

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