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‘Poetry Prosthetics or The Six Million Dollar Poet’

Nathaniel Hawthorne was born in 1804, and died in 1864. He wrote novels and short stories, most notably The Scarlet Letter, and The House of Seven Gables. Written in 1851, when Hawthorne was at the peak of his creative powers, The House of Seven Gables is a Gothic story about an awkward spinster named Hepzibah, her invalid brother Clifford, and their sprightly and vivacious cousin Phoebe, who injects a little sunshine into the old mansion when she moves in.

I won’t spoil a fantastic book, and I can’t discuss the network of symbols that Hawthorne employs (though I will say that he writes very passionately about chickens at one point), but suffice it to say that this is a story about a genteel family who are worried about where American society is going, and what their place will be in this rapidly changing, mid 19th century context.

(Where are we going? This is a question that keeps me up at night.)

Clifford and Hepzibah feel trapped in their decrepit, moribund manse, and in the chapter entitled ‘The Flight of Two Owls’ they decide to get on one of those newfangled trains that everyone is riding on these days. And when they do, something remarkable happens to Clifford. He slips out of his stupor, and begins to comment on the world as the train starts to accelerate. He goes from a near comatose state to something closer to that annoying fellow on the train who wants to talk to you, even though you are busy trying to read a book, or listen to your music in peace. Full of excitement and wonder at this new world, Clifford starts expostulating about the value of rail travel, the possibility of being a nomad, and how ‘the past is but a coarse and sensual prophecy of the present and the future’.

He goes on (and on) – and their conversation lands on this rather remarkable note, which I reproduce here at length:


‘Then there is electricity;- the demon, the angel, the mighty physical power, the all pervading intelligence!’ exclaimed Clifford. ‘Is that a humbug too? Is it a fact –or have I dreamt it – that by means of electricity, the world of matter has become a great nerve, vibrating thousands of miles in a breathless point of time? Rather, the round globe is a vast head, a brain, instinct with intelligence! Or shall we say, it is itself a thought, nothing but thought, and no longer the substance which we deemed it?’

‘If you mean the telegraph,’ said the old gentleman, glancing his eye towards its wire, alongside the rail track, ‘ it is an excellent thing;- that is, of course, if the speculators in cotton and politics don’t get possession of it. A great thing indeed, Sir; particularly as regards the detection of bank-robbers and murderers!’

‘I don’t quite like it, in that point of view,’ replied Clifford. ‘A bank-robber – and what you call a murderer, likewise – has his rights, which men of enlightened humanity and conscience should regard in so much the more liberal spirit, because the bulk of society is prone to controvert their existence. An almost spiritual medium, like the electronic telegraph, should be consecrated to high, deep, joyful, and holy missions. Lovers, day by day – hour by hour, if so often moved to do it – might send their heart throbs from Maine to Florida, with such words as these – ‘I love you forever’ – ‘My heart runs over with love’ – ‘I love you more than I can’- and, again, at the next message –‘I have lived an hour longer, and love you twice as much!’…


Put simply – Nathaniel Hawthorne invented Twitter in 1851.

The entire point of this digression is to highlight how technology and desire dance with one another. The telegraph, telephone, television, and now the PC (let us not forget what ‘P’ stands for in this case), have each given their users a new method with which to broadcast deeply felt, wholly internal messages to an audience far greater than their voice, unaided, ever could manage to reach.

Of course, when you change the writing prosthesis (tapping out Morse code over a wire, or typing at a keyboard), the writing itself changes. The curt SMS messages sent over antique T9/alphanumeric keypads on my old mobile phone have now been replaced by perfectly punctuated, emoji-rich paragraphs composed on a touchscreen. Charles Olson’s Projective Verse (1950), and the whole concept of ‘composition by field’ is an outgrowth of understanding that ‘writing’ takes place at a typewriter, and not with a quill.

Eighteen years after ‘Projective Verse’, Lita Hornick’s Kulchur press ‘published’ a new work by Aram Saroyan: a wrapped, unopened, 500-page ream of typewriter paper. Saroyan’s readymade work forces us to come to grips with the materiality of writing, especially in its absence – where would literature be (as Craig Dworkin might say) without its substrate, without paper itself?

The answer, perhaps, might be found in cyberspace. I often catch myself wondering how I ever worked without the Internet to hand. The now basic tools of cutting, pasting and copying are slowly being replaced by more complex understandings of embedding, coding, and hyperlinking points of information in a virtual space. In a very real sense, the keyboard that Olson used, and that Saroyan largely declined, is now importantly different, even if the QWERTY layout remains. I’m not typing this on a piece of paper – in a way, I’m making an impression on the Internet itself. And this means that this text is, and should be, subject to all of the rules of online writing as we have come to know it – it should be copied, pasted, linked and moved about in the dynamic manner that Kenneth Goldsmith describes in his introduction to Against Expression:


Since the dawn of media, we’ve had more on our plates than we could ever consume, but something has radically changed: never before has language had so much materiality—fluidity, plasticity, malleability—begging to be actively managed by the writer. Before digital language, words were almost always found imprisoned on a page. How different it is today, when digitized language can be poured into any conceivable container: text typed into a Microsoft Word document can be parsed into a database, visually morphed in Photoshop, animated in Flash, pumped into online text- mangling engines, spammed to thousands of e-mail addresses, and imported into a sound-editing program and spit out as music—the possibilities are endless.


Writing in the age of the Internet gives us a new set of prosthetics, from anagram tools to name generators, from data-mining to computer generated poems.

Ultimately, I’m interested in how we have realized Hawthorne’s desire for a transcendent mode of communication, and how we can use these tools now.

Learn to use the Internet as a powerful creative tool and generate completely new kinds of computer-assisted poetries with Nasser Hussain on his new online course, ‘Poetry Prosthetics or The Six Million Dollar Poet’. Book online or ring us on 0207 582 1679.

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Image Credits:

Image: ‘Close-up of a vintage Maskatron action figure, part of the line of Six Million Dollar Man toys from the 1970s’

Image credit: JD Hancock