All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace
"All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace" is a poem by Richard Brautigan first published in his 1967 collection of the same name, his fifth book of poetry. It presents an enthusiastic description of a technological utopia in which machines improve and protect the lives of humans. It has been read as both a counterculture adoption of Cold War-era technological visions as well as an ironic critique of the utopia it describes. It is Brautigan's most frequently reprinted poem.
Synopsis and analysis
Brautigan wrote the poem and eponymous collection between January 17–26, 1967, while a poet-in-residence at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, California. The poem describes a technological utopia in which humans and technology work together for the greater good. Brautigan writes about "mammals and computers liv[ing] together in mutually programming harmony", with technology acting as caretakers while "we are free of our labors and joined back to nature." Reviewers disagree whether it should be taken earnestly or ironically.
Most critics take the poem as a counterculture, communitarian adoption of Cold War-era technological visions. Brautigan's publisher, Claude Hayward, said it "caught me with its magical references to benign machines keeping order ... [which] fit right in with our optimism over the promise of the computer". In Vijay Nambisan's review for The Hindu in 2000, he said: "You cannot write a poem like this today. It is too childlike, too innocent. Indeed, college friends who were moved by Brautigan's work twenty years ago would now laugh at me for choosing it. That's more or less what happened to Brautigan."
Others have interpreted it as an ironic, mocking critique of the technologically enabled utopia it purports to long for. According to Stanford's Carlos Seligo, there is an irony in the poem that "is as subtle and complex as his mixed metaphors", which Seligo says are "always doing at least three—and often four, five, or six things at once." Robert J. Grangeware noted how unusual it is for American poets to take a positive view of our relationship with technology, but if viewed as ironic it "joins the mainstream of antitechnological American verse."
The poem was first published by the Communication Company in 1967, type-written on an 8.5-by-11-inch (216 by 279 mm) mimeographed broadside with both the title and imprint hand-written.
It was the title poem in the April 1967 collection of the same name, published in April 1967. 1,500 copies of the 36-page work were printed at the Communication Company, and all were given away for free.
Brautigan gave the poem to The Diggers to include in their August 1968 pamphlet, The Digger Papers. The 24-page pamphlet was published in The Realist issue 81, and another 40,000 copies were printed by the Diggers and given away for free.
"All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace" is Brautigan's most frequently reprinted poem. In the original 1967 publication, Brautigan included a copyleft statement which retains copyright but grants permission to reprint any poem in All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace so long as it is given away for free.
The documentary series All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace was named after the poem, which is a favorite of director Adam Curtis. Its second part includes a recording of Brautigan doing a reading. According to the Chicago Reader, "For all the frenzy of the images, what dominates the sequence are Brautigan's voice and the languid piece of symphonic music on the soundtrack."
At the Palais de Tokyo, the poem inspired a show of the same name in 2017, curated by Yoann Gourmel. It began with a poster for the poem, and included works which Art in America's Federico Florian said superficially fulfill Brautigan's dreams, "[evoking] a present tense where technology has imbued every aspect of human life, and therefore reshaped the mechanisms of our affections."
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- Madrigal, Alexis C. (17 September 2011). "Weekend Poem: All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace". The Atlantic.
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- Nambisan, Vijay (3 June 2000). "Pines and cybernetics". The Hindu. Archived from the original on 4 April 2018. Retrieved 4 April 2018.
- Sachs, Ben (5 January 2012). "Now online: All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace (part 2)". Chicago Reader.
- Turner, Fred (2010). From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press. pp. 38–39. ISBN 9780226817439.
- Seligo, Carlos (4 June 2011). ""All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace"". Stanford University Libraries - Academic Technology Specialists. Archived from the original on 9 June 2017. Retrieved 3 September 2016.
- Grangeware, Robert J., ed. (1972). The Exploited Eden: Literature on the American Environment. New York: Harper and Row. p. 376.
- Barber, John F. "Poetry - The Pill versus The Springhill Mine Disaster". Brautigan.net. Archived from the original on 2009-01-14.
- Barber, John F. "A-Z Index". Brautigan.net. Archived from the original on 2006-08-11.
- Florian, Federico (June 2017). ""All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace" - Palais de Tokyo". Art in America. 105 (6): 146.