The immortal poetry experiment

The literary avant-garde has exhausted itself. Contemporary stars of “conceptual” poetry, such as Vanessa Place and Kenneth Goldsmith, now recycle “found texts” (often racially inflammatory ones) and celebrate plagiarism as a form of poetry. They specialize in performance art with words – where the point is the gimmick, not the product of the gimmick – and they are contemptuous of any poetic style but their own.

Like many modern celebrities they deliberately court controversy, as when Place’s tweeting of Gone with the Wind excerpts – paired with a “mammy” picture – provoked outrage and her removal last year from a key committee of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs. Goldsmith fared better by reading the autopsy report of a black man shot by police, including a description of the victim’s genitals. This “poem” earned him a New Yorker profile and an invitation to President Obama’s event for National Poetry Month.

Canada’s answer to Americans Place and Goldsmith is Christian Bök, a professor of poetry and creative writing at the University of Calgary. To his credit, Bök does not stoop to gratuitous race-baiting, but he is pushing the boundaries of poetry in controversial ways.

Toronto-born Bök, 49, won Canada’s Griffin Poetry Prize for his 2001 book Eunoia. Each chapter used only “univocalics” – words that contain only one of the vowels. This formula produced such results as:

“A Dada bard as daft as Tzara damns stagnant art and scrawls an alpha (a slapdash arc and a backward zag) that mars all stanzas and jams all ballads (what a scandal).”

Bök evidently intended for Eunoia to scandalize us in the way that the Dadaist poet he mentions, Tristan Tzara, once did. However, 85 years after the Dadaists stormed Cabaret Voltaire, Eunoia seems self-absorbed and tedious, not revolutionary.

Much more revolutionary was Bök’s next project, the Xenotext. Indeed, his stated goal was, and remains, to immortalize this work through genetic engineering so it can be found by some highly evolved and presumably literate species eons after the end of mankind. The biology is complicated, but essentially Bök has attached letters to amino acids, the building blocks of DNA, as a kind of code. A poem written with this code (he calls it a “chemical alphabet”) is translated into the amino acids inserted into the DNA of a cell. The cell’s new section of DNA then expresses a protein, the amino acids of which Bök translates back into a “response poem” using his code.

Christian Bök, associate professor of English, learned about computer programming, molecular biochemistry and genetic engineering to advance his Xenotext project. / Photo by Jae Im
Christian Bök, University of Calgary poet and professor, learned about computer programming, molecular biochemistry and genetic engineering to advance his Xenotext project. / Photo by Jae Im

Bök has spent 15 years and at least $150,000 of public money trying to encode his poetry into the genome of a nearly indestructible bacterium called an extremophile. That hasn’t worked so far, but he claims success with experiments involving the common bacterium E. coli.  Bök’s public statements indicate that he used the following poem (which he compares to a Petrarchan sonnet and an elegiac pastoral) in these experiments:

 

Any style of life

is prim

 

oh stay

my lyre

 

with wily ploys

moan the riff

 

the riff

of any tone aloud

 

moan now my fate

 

in fate

we rely

 

my myth

now is the word

 

the word of life

 

Bök claimed that his “response” poem, which resulted from the altered genome’s alleged expression of a protein, runs as follows:

 

The faery is rosy

of glow

 

in fate

we rely

 

moan more grief

with any loss

 

any loss is

the achy trick

 

with him

we stay

 

oh stay

my lyre

 

we wean him

of any milk

 

any milk is rosy

 

Bök’s problem with E. coli is that unlike an extremophile, it won’t last for eternity. But Bök’s not giving up his quest for immortality: “I’ve got to constantly be raising money and securing expertise and ensuring I have access to resources,” he told the Calgary Herald last year. In this regard, he has greater fortitude than most of his peers: “Poets are stupid,” he said in a recent interview with the Missouri Review. “We’re dumb and lazy. If you are a poet, you’ve probably been demoted to the job because you don’t have aptitude for something more lucrative.”

Last year Bök published Xenotext: Book I. It did not include all the scientific details of his work, which he is withholding for the sequel, Xenotext: Book II. No doubt his fans are breathless with anticipation, judging by the hype used by the Griffin Poetry Trust to promote its Book I launch party: “Bök is on the verge of enciphering a beautiful, anomalous poem into the genome of an unkillable bacterium (Deinococcus radiodurans), which can, in turn ‘read’ his text, responding to it by manufacturing a viable, benign protein, whose sequence of amino acids enciphers yet another poem. The engineered organism might conceivably serve as a post-apocalyptic archive, capable of outlasting our civilization.”

That gushing tribute displays at least four counts of wishful thinking. First, no life is “unkillable”. Second, there is no guarantee Bök’s chemical creations will be “benign”. Third, even under his best-case scenario, Bök’s “post-apocalyptic archive” won’t contain anything more than a few lines of verse. Finally, there is no evidence that Bök is “on the verge” of anything other than failure with extremophiles and, possibly, a significant threat to public health and safety.

Bök’s tinkering with E. coli created a low, but not negligible, risk to human beings. Some strains of E. coli found in the human intestine assist bodily functions, but the bacterium is also a known killer of children, pregnant women, the elderly, and people with weakened immune systems. Canada’s Human Pathogens and Toxins Act classifies E. coli as a class 2 risk and requires a license from the federal Minister of Health for the DNA manipulations that Bök has claimed to perform on E. coli.

There is a small but non-negligible risk that manipulation of the E. coli genome could create a more virulent strain of the organism, just as recent reports of the mcr-1 gene appearing in E.coli have raised new concerns about a “superbug” resistant to antibiotics. Despite these risks, the University of Calgary does not appear to be monitoring Bök’s experiments as required by Health Canada regulations that demand inspections and biosafety audits of anyone working with a Class 2 pathogen.

For a possible benefit to human health, it would be ethical to accept the level of risk Bök created – if we could be assured he was following all applicable public health and safety regulations. However, such risks are not ethically justifiable for the preservation of a “poem” that will not be “read” unless a lengthy and durable Rosetta Stone also survives that reveals how to read the code that Bök invented. And even if such a decoder existed, Bök’s poems should never be available to our successor species because it is a crime in Canada to release genetically altered E. coli and extremophiles into the environment.

It is very hard to determine exactly what Bök has done, or is doing, because he has not released data to document his claims of success with E. coli, and the University of Calgary declined to corroborate his claims when asked in writing to do so. Nonetheless, he keeps announcing technical success, and others uncritically accept his claim.  The technology blog engadget published this startling non sequitur in a fawning article about him last December: “After reworking the code for the new bacterium, Bök has run two experiments, both of which failed. ‘From a scientific standard, my scientific collaborators believe I’ve succeeded,’ [Bök] elaborated.”

The University of Calgary largely delegated its response to questions submitted for this article to Bök. In an email he said he had “consulted” about his work with a number of professors and the university’s safety officer. Associate dean of research Rob Oxoby said in an email that “The University of Calgary fully supports Christian Bök and we stand by the validity and significance of his research.”

The University of Calgary also supplied a copy of a letter its Biosafety Officer Eoin O’Grady sent to the Canada Council for the Arts in support of one of Bök’s grant applications. O’Grady wrote that “Dr. Bök and I have conversed a number of times by email and phone about his work.” The university provided no evidence that the safety officer or any other university official has ever inspected Bök’s protocols, data, organisms or equipment, as Canadian law requires.

Bök declared that his work “does not require a formal, ethical review according to the standards of the SSHRC [Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council] or the University of Calgary (because I am not working with dangerous mechanisms, nor am I creating genetic sequences associated with any inimical proteins)”. This type of self-regulation ought to raise red flags at the University of Calgary because Bök lacks the professional credentials to make such pronouncements, which he proves with a statement that is by definition untrue because no one can predict with certainty the features of a novel protein created within a potentially dangerous bacterium.

Online videos of Bök’s lectures reveal his apparent belief in non-scientific theories which hold that alien messages from space are contained in terrestrial bacteria. Does this sound like someone who should be doing publicly-funded amateur genetic engineering without proper oversight in a Canadian university lab? Public safety should never be compromised in the name of art, or even in a quest for immortality, and the University of Calgary should hold itself to a higher standard.

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