(Text of a lecture given as part of the Bad Language: Where Poetry Is series in Auckland June 2001. The series was sponsored by Artspace and the Jar Foundation)
I wanted to set a moon nearer the reading and writing of poetry. Poetry’s tide would then be seen to move, not with its usual imperceptible speed, but with racing.
There comes a certain capacity to madden, doing this. It involves an uneven and dreamy path of thinking.
1. Things You See and Things You Hear
Donald Judd the sculptor once wrote a great flat opening sentence:
“Material, space, and color are the main aspects of visual art. (1)
I have thought about this sentence for a while now. It is both a trite piece of circular polemic and a founding insight and it is no accident that the resonance of the sentence, you discover, takes one right back to Martin Heidegger’s famous essay ‘The Origin of the Work of Art’, and to the Greeks. The sentence is to be considered in the context of Judd’s general argument and artwork, and so as to extract a similar cross-sectional cut for poetry.
Judd's work is to be present in the reader’s mind throughout this essay. The reference sentence is a tuning fork for his sculpture. I was searching for a comparable tuning fork too for verbal art. What is the essential nature of poetry? Where is it? How does it touch art?
It does not really matter that one starts this search with Judd’s work. But it does matter that one always maintains such an alertness, that one looks for insights into where poetry (verbal art) is by crossing into it from the discourse of another art. This pinging of poetry – for that is what this contextual hitting is - is useful given the need to test or break existing habits of thought about the category. One is constantly looking for powerful wrong ideas about poetry.
Plato set one down:
“You know that poiesis is more than a single thing. For of anything whatever that passes from non-being into being the whole cause is composing or poetry; so that the productions of all arts are kinds of poetry, and their craftsmen are all poets. But … they are not called poets: they have other names, while a single section disparted from the whole of poetry – merely the business of music and metres – is entitled with the name of the whole”(2)
Poetry is an art, and it is important to find strong ways of making this art amenable to thought. And it is important, too, to know where this art isn’t.
Let's keep circling. Judd's formulation above leaves no room for conventional representation-based models of art’s essence (that is, he does not say “material, space, colour, and signs”). He seems to have wanted to substitute work that gained in abstract power by ignoring these models. The bridge that he chose to cross over to find visual art is involved massive deconstruction of tradition.
It is pretty hard to find a comparable statement to Judd’s for verbal art. That is the in-point for the discussion I wish to create here: comparing verbal art with visual art.
This will do for the present: time, text and echoes are the core facts of verbal art.
This proposition is more vague than Judd’s since poetry is not in any ordinary sense an object, but is a language. It is not in any normal sense a thing. It does not possess an object’s physics. It has less of the illusion of independent beauty and can’t be offered to the mind’s eye in agreed pictures of wholeness and clarity. It has no aspect, to recall one meaning of Judd’s in his wonderful sentence. The word “text”, say, in the above formula, offers no simple object to see: no place for thought to reify or stop.
A number of interesting people have talked about this relative elusiveness of text or language. As one, Viktor Shlovsky the early twentieth century Russian writer and theorist once said,
“A work of literature is not a thing and not a material but a relation between materials.”
How do you grasp that with a satisfying click of recognition? How do you see it with the edges and clarity of milled aluminium’s smoky gleam?
Martin Heidegger observed as well:
“We speak of language. How else can we be close to language except by speaking? Even so, our relation to language is vague, obscure, almost speechless. As we ponder this curious situation it can scarcely be avoided that every observation on the subject will at first sound either strange or incomprehensible.” (3)
“I : Speaking about language turns language almost inevitably into an object.
J : And then its reality vanishes.” (4)
So this is a further warning that the comparison of poetry with visual art is difficult. What you offer in this comparison is something doubly elusive. It is poetry’s location you are seeking to find and you have already admitted you have yet to grasp this firmly; and you know that poetry is something in language, which cannot be seen, and can barely be thought, so it is hard to grasp poetry by grasping its material.
But undeterred, we press on. We hover and let milling about this space of possibility be our guiding pattern.
Mine is a writer’s question: if poetry’s material has no concrete simplification, if it is hard to see and hold on to, how else does one cleanly grasp its essence and make of this an editing principle, so one can make new work? To ask this question is to seek out where poetry’s exciting uncanny might best be listened for.
The setting of poetry in an adjacent relationship to Judd's sculpture - it delivers a dream of text straight into the eye’s after-image of spaces between and in metal objects.
So force the grounds for this unnatural and unlooked for layering together of both poetry and Judd, his sculpture and his commentary, by regarding both sameness and difference.
You are looking at and thinking of concrete things in space, examining them closely too for what is absent and not visible. You are in a state of absolute attentiveness, directed at revealing by analogy that which is not visible in writing. Days go by. Thus regarding the sculpture, you are daily preparing yourself to regard poetry philosophically.
The sameness you are looking for you realise is: Judd increased the abstract potential of a visual art by a two-fold performance and one could do this for poetry and with like-effect. His was a conspicuous denial of expected art content, first, and as a second matter he set forth a stunning demonstration of a new singular uncanny. He created new objects of representation to both displace old ones and to carry this displacement as a strong invisible fact of the work. This is why these works come to gather such a great force of suction.
As a consequence, for poetry, first; you want to hollow out its great familiars. One of these familiars is the representation of what is commonly referred to as personal experience. To hollow this out one is looking in part for a nihilism of some kind (but more on Nietzsche later). It is category change you are looking for. You want to open up space before the reader by removing a barrier of the already-read; to excite by both removing that which readers’ customarily expect so as to substitute poetry’s old capability in new forms. In what other manner of operation can any art be valued, but for the change in experience that it causes?
That is the analogue of Judd’s for writing. It is the power of negative definition. It is a search for aesthetic expansion based not on the right reduction of compositional elements solely, but on the right denial of models of meaning. This is not to assert a new art which bears all of the burden of meaning independently in new objects. It is rather to seek a new art which isolates the pudgy radiance between expectations of representation, and their others:
So that is the sameness.
And what is a difference between the poetry you are looking for, and Judd’s sculpture? One can obviously say that the following is a difference: moving from visual basics to verbal basics you are being shifted from a discourse which is at all times made concrete by its object of attention, to one that cannot be. You are led in confusion to a gap, between an art of space, material, and colour - and one of time, text and echoes. It is a gap between objects you can see and objects you can’t, or restated, between things which are seen and things which are heard. And it is the gap between an art that is always attached to its visible cause, and one attached to its audible one.
Looking at visual art is like looking at an illuminated lightbulb: you apprehend both the radiance and the lightbulb. To mix the metaphor: verbal art is an experience of radiance too that comes from something which does not have a lightbulb’s visible cause. For verbal art there is no visual object to ground thought or to offer itself (albeit deceptively) as shorthand cause. In the absence of such a lightbulb there is just this flow of the differences of sounds, each of which we know as signs and the grammatical complex of which we know of as meaning. This is poetry’s relative torment. It is also its relative tensile, abstract power as a negative medium.
Archaeologically: this gap is as the gap between two inceptive Greek grounds for art; eidos’ ground of visually transforming objects, and logos’ ground of that which gathers up being in a fugitive echoing pattern over time.
2. Analog and Digital
I have set as a trial: time, text, and echoes comprise the core facts of verbal art. It is a proposition asserting poetry’s intransitive being. I would like to reinforce this idea by appealing to the contemporary art history of poetry, in a pretty saucy way.
I want to advance a rude and crude picture of this art history that has quite a good fit with the facts, but that’s all. It is a simplistic way of assigning some basic differentiations in poetry, and of talking about leads and lags in the double helix between poetry writers and readers over the last 100 years.
The best art is untimely or initially secures a small fraction only of its lifetime addressable audience, but this seems the more true for poetry. Verbal art of a kind that marks shifts in art history appears most poorly synchronised with its contemporary audience. Either poetry moves on and its potential audience does not, or the other way round, or both. The process whereby significant breaks in verbal art become progressively more recognisable by the tribe is risky and slow. This may be because the life-cycle challenge is much larger for an invisible art than for one you can see. Change in visible object-based arts may be the more relatively lively because the work does not have to modify language outside itself so much, but this is required with the equivalent for poetry. This is very speculative, but the language of the tribe, the tribe’s principal technology, has an inertia that is part of its evolutionary usefulness. And as John Maynard Keynes said of practical politicians – that most are slaves to some defunct economic theory - so the same can be said for most practical readers – that they are slaves to some defunct idea of reading.
So: here is a picture of poetry’s art history hanging on two terms from audio-visual reproduction technology. These terms are analog and digital. They perform as children’s toys in an art-history argument but they do name two fundamental representational technologies with which we are broadly familiar but which we know differ, not in their effects always, but in their grounds. I use the terms because they differentiate between imitation and representation, and therefore they provide metaphors for two basic apprehensions of art’s being.
Analog technology produces audio-visual images by direct physical mapping or imitation of original stimuli. Someone speaks into a microphone which causes a vibration which causes a stylus to shiver as it tracks across a wax medium. Broadly, it is a reproductive mechanism that is mechanically synchronised to what can be heard and seen. As with the sudden addressing of light onto light-sensitive paper. By contrast, digital technology produces audio-visual images by an indirect process employing binary information to represent sights and sounds by a mimicry which only appears to be faithfully attentive to nature, but which can break with this appearance. Broadly, digital is synchronised to what can be thought and made with a language game. ‘Digital’: it is what can be made in and of a medium.
I compare these terms to two fundamentally different means by which the art of poetry opens itself up to understanding. Analog poetry is the name I want to give to poetry of place. Digital, similarly, to one of space.
' “Space” is a region of absence, and “place” is where something – a person, say – is’ - Heidegger (5)
The movement of one to the other is a shaking off of both confessional subjects and of nature’s metaphor. It is a change in the direction and coherence of poetry’s listening. Analog poetry is the representation of something regarded as direct individual experience. Digital poetry is the representation of itself.
3. Recent Art History of Poetry: the Fisher Price version
One hundred odd years ago poetry switched from an analog phase that began with the Romantics at least to a current digital phase. As a result, poetry fundamentally changed the range and the character of the labour it performed upon meaning. The decisive break was made in English around the turn of the twentieth century. Then, “analog” poetry, based on the representation of individual subjectivity moved to a poetry of time, text and echoes.
This digital phase in English began with the French in the late 19th Century and carried on to T S Eliot, who had a wonderful feeling for the combination of nursery rhymes and classical text (you best experience his work when you hear him reading it). Ezra Pound with The Cantos made the break too. Like Eliot, Pound was a musician of text and he did formal rounds pretty well. Louis Zukovsky was there as well, looking for stillness and not authenticity, his version of digital and analog. Gertrude Stein had her version too. Her writing was pretty concrete (but it doesn’t often sing). James Joyce, Ludwig Wittgenstein and Martin Heidegger are the three other great contemporary poets I want to put in this company.
Then this digital phase (which opened up the big new conception of representation we shorthand as Modernist) got mis- or under-read for a long time. It now seems the work got lost for much of the twentieth century.
Analog poetry was the dominant but recidivist poetry subsequent to the Modernist breakout and was too powerfully embedded in readers to be other than wobbled by Modernism’s challenge. In retrospect the challenge seems to have remained confined to its early adopters only. It is still confined this way in New Zealand, but then this is a nation of fucking shopkeepers when it comes to the art we are talking about here.
Analog poetry was especially powerful in globally visible American writing. American writing had a peculiar romantic and experiential organising metaphor for the longest time. It was basically realist, which is OK, and realist is another word for analog.
Eliot, Stein, and Pound at least got English and American poetry to Europe last century but it was a temporary victory and the Anglo-American tradition wrestled it back for the most part. This tradition did a whole lot to kill the art as a result, by innovating too slowly, which let its big idea go stale.
The New Zealand tradition has been and is still largely some de-powered Commonwealth derivation of the Anglo-American one, and so had a rough time changing anything, and it mostly shows. Our version of analog poetry has been to do post-colonial occupation ritual lyric poetry. It is a tabloid-friendly “poetic of the Famous Person” in which the country or the natural environment serves as a necessary stage-setting for some form of self discovery. It is a repetition of existential emotion that reveals so much fatigue: poetry of place, mostly.
It is where the poem is an excited welling-up of representation, the content of which is the provenance of an individual, real or invented. Such is the way that the poem opens itself up in the mind of the reader. It constitutes the reader’s ability to recognise the work by a psychological standing-in-the-stead of the writer or the written. To return to (and bend somewhat) a word picture used earlier: most people read as though poetry does have a lightbulb, or is framed upon some one reassuring thing - something seen - that is the origin of poetry’s radiance of meaning. In this common view, that which in a poem speaks of the excited welling-up of the provenance of the individual is where poetry is. It is its single light-emitting source. It is a view that in every worthwhile poem there is such an object beneath the poem that repeats and founds a self and that this object is therefore always present in dashed line form. But this sense of poetry’s concreteness is misplaced. Imagine the revealing puzzlement of these readers when they cannot realise this object in a text, or the wonder of those who learn that, having thrown this seeming “lightbulb” out, poetry’s traditional bewitching survives undiminished, or even operates with more beam reach and width than they had thought possible.
Digital poetry as I am calling it is poetry that conceives of itself philosophically, as an excited welling-up in the representation of the language-game of art.
The only joy of poetry is the trance of language. All the rest is sentiment.
Digital poetry: it is where one asks, How does poetry replenish itself? And this is a question which has the following as its obverse counterpart: How does poetry become nostalgic? What constitutes its violence-doing? It might be helpful for us to rid ourselves of the habit of always hearing only what we already understand.
For a reader demanding psychological familiarity of digital poetry the presence of new work is at worst invisible or at best blurry. It is the absence of the object of familiar empathy that is seen, and this sight occasions a responsiveness resembling loneliness, unease, and reading-rage.
Digital is to re-assert poetry’s durable high character, to seek to recover within the category all the worldspace that it had before modern subjects came along. It is a search as to how poetry can lose its currently prevalent indifference and familiarity. How it might cease to be fishy. As Nietzsche argues, poetry and tragedy are synonyms, since poetry is a state of pleasure and ambiguity that arises out of the abstract annihilation of individuals, or more accurately, the abstract displacement of individuals in a larger pattern and force he calls Dionysian. Referring to properties he identifies in Aeschylus, the 5th Century Greek dramatist, this annihilation is a giving way of rational structure and psychological realism to
“something incommensurable in every feature and every line, a certain deceptive certainty and at the same time an enigmatic depth, indeed infinity of background” (6)
In this incommensurableness, in this “deceptive certainty”, “enigmatic depth”, and “infinity of background”, poetry becomes “a metaphysical consolation”, something that cancels and absorbs individuals as daylight cancels and absorbs lamplight. By contrast that which is exploratory of individualism, being natural and realistic, in its essence, leads away from where poetry is.
Here is Nietzsche:
“I fear that in our contemporary reverence for the natural and the real we have arrived (at an art direction which leads)… in the region of the wax museum”. (my brackets) (7)
Or here is Heidegger: it is an art direction that leads to the pastry shop.
I want to say - digital poetry in English re-manifested itself as “language poetry” 25 years ago. Charles Bernstein was a major shape-giver (he is present in the Bad Language series too). As a new generation of digital poetry, an eddy in Modernism’s river, some of it was relatively awful since language is not poetry and for a lot of such work you cannot tell the difference, or you can but it’s really vague. But a movement is not defined by its worst products, but by the shift it makes in art history. Some language poetry was clunky, in the way that computers being brought to market at the same time were clunky. The renewed phase of digital poetry this time around involved serious geekery. It was pretty mannerist as well, but that is a common breakout feature.
But the broader problem was, as good poetry advanced from analog discursive spaces to digital ones, in broad synch with some other contemporary art developments, then its mid-twentieth century potential audience, which guides the publishing industry and its products, arguably did not advance with it. This audience became disconnected from poetry and you still get all the normal behaviours and signs of this: resistance from the trade, demonisation of works, ignorance, indifference, or embarrassment. Poetry’s own progression became irrelevant to an audience who advanced in their appreciation of complex media or even of visual art, but not in their grasp of poetry. When I see people’s fear of contemporary poetry I keep coming back to this sense of two paths diverging, which is my theory.
To end this section, here are two texts to compare: one is Pound’s famous early twentieth century imagist poem, and one is a sentence from Roland Barthes in the 1960s:
In a Station of the Metro
The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.
“I name; I unname; I rename; so the text passes”
This is analog poetry, in the early Pound, compared with digital: or compared with Greek tragedy.
Poetry is art in language. Everything else in writing is story. That is, everything else is primarily to do with the representation of individuals in the world. If everything else in language is not purely story, it is because it is not purely poetry.
Art is a confounding ratio in semiotics. It is where the ratio of more over less, of meaning over signifiers, semiotic effect over semiotic cause, becomes surprisingly large and different such that this excess appears as a radiance. Art is assessed relative to its ability to trigger and sustain abstract thought, and good art is assessed relative to the size and effects of this thought over its evident mechanics of meaning.
Therefore, if poetry is art, it is that confounding ratio, but in language. Everything else in language is everything else, to quote Rheinhardt again. This everything else, this non-poetry includes character portrayal, seeming commonplace letters to friends and loved ones, descriptions, confessions, and instructions in how to get to the superette.
Poetry as an art is therefore distinguished from other art only by its medium. Poetry is art in language.
If time, text, and echoes are the core facts of poetry, it follows that memory is poetry’s main faculty. It also follows that poetry is intimate, anonymous, invisible, and threatening.
Take each of these last terms.
Poetry excites by endangering intimacy. This is the main way it works. This is a unique property of art in language. Because language is hard to objectify, it is hard to separate language from you. You are intimate with (invisible) language but not intimate with aluminium or plexiglass.
Because language makes people people, it is hard to separate out; hard to isolate the software effect of language from the “wetware” effect. Poetry is art in language and language is so familiar but poetry is so strange. That which is life-long and common; thoughtless; and as natural as breathing – our language medium – comes to reveal the other in its folds as it comes to be poetry. It comes to enable frottage. Frottage in language is a kind of excitement, and it is an over-rhythm or agitation in the fabric of ordinary speech. Language lies so close such that when it slips, thickens, moves laterally - fragments or resounds – when it becomes poetry, that is, it is the knotting and rupture of an intimate medium that excites. Whoosh happens. The more ordinary, the more natural - the more doubtful and beautiful. Poetry is when the house you live in, your unseen, beloved lingua franca, the way you have talked and the way you have thought all your life, changes its habitual murmur, odour, or aspect.
Poetry thus irritates our sense of nature. The conventional identity between speaking and talking is absolute. It is the same between ordinary sense and reality. Language has become an instinct for normality by the time we can speak. We can’t easily reflect on how else language can be since it is too confusing to reflect on something that is an instinct for normality. We use language too much to know what it is with any clarity. It just does these great things for us, with its calls and responses and propositions, for the most part. We move within the apparatus smoothly in rule-driven ways. So when language as we know it to be is threatened, that is, when it becomes poetry, we fight the predator in a thoughtless manner. Language is useful and poetry is useless. Poetry is so strongly fought by the antigen of the familiar. If poetry is to succeed, it must survive this battle at the threshold but, like all perfect parasites, it must never kill its host.
To come back to the main argument: poetry does not only endanger intimacy it is also anonymous. It has nothing to do with the personality, however inflected or invented, of the writer. After centuries of abuse, where poetry has become category-defined as the exploration of personality, as that kind of representation, the idea of autobiography as a guide to poetics is now forbidden because of its obsolescence. That is why lyric poetry has become such a contradiction in terms.
Poetry is also invisible, as generally discussed above. It is hard to get at poetry because you can’t see it. You can’t tell where poetry is or differentiate it by close visual inspection as you can with object-based art. With poetry you do not have the reassurance of the object to differentially inspect. You do not even have the reassurance of the object-like, the prevailing typographic and layout styles of poetry, since even when you see something that looks like a poem on the page it may not be poetry. In fact it frequently is not. The limits of poetry, where it starts and stops, can’t be seen. You have to read it. You have to deal with all these ghosts, as I think I showed in my flags setup. Since poetry is invisible other faculties are needed to detect its weight and measure. It has to do with memory, as it apprehends time, text, and echoes.
Because it is a doubtfulness of language, intimate in its impact, anonymous, and invisible, poetry is also threatening. We have such an investment in language behaving ordinarily. As Saussure said, language achieves coherence only by weight of convention, otherwise it is a chaos of arbitrary signs. We are chaos-averse, or at least I am. So we like the conventions Saussure referred to, which include all of the conventions of meaning and intelligible experience. So when we find language “going bad”, when we encounter art in writing, our trapezoid muscles can flex involuntarily. Our fight or flight stance is pretty quickly aroused if left unchecked.
These provide some further colour to the proposition that poetry is often incommensurate with its contemporaneous, currently unaddressable, audience.
I said that time is a core fact of poetry. This is a large topic. Start with a Berryman Dream Song (no. 279):
Leaving behind the country of the dead
Where he must then return & die himself
He set his tired face due East
Where the sun rushes up the North Atlantic
And where had paused a little the war for bread
& the war for status had ceased
forever, and he took with him five books,
a Whitman & a Purgatorio,
a one-volume dictionary,
an Oxford Bible with all its bays & nooks
& bafflements long familiar to Henry
& one other new book-O
If ever he had crafted in the past -
But only if - he swore now to craft better
Which lay in the Hands above.
He said: I’ll work on slow, O slow & fast,
If a letter comes I will answer that letter
& my whole year will be tense with love.
This poem contains much of what there is about time in poetry. It is a poem generally about time-out, a complex state-portrayal of writer’s time as parallel time. Time’s action in the processes of selection, patination, preservation, and release is made evident. These are the things that the words classic, or time-honoured, name. So Henry takes his metonymic texts, his Whitman, his Purgatorio and Bible with him as he leaves behind “the country of the dead.” There is time too as the duration of the writer’s labour, either of writing or reading. And more perhaps: there is a portrayal of an individual life’s duration as less than the duration of books. There is time as the vehicle or medium of tension and love. To use the title of a Francesco Clemente painting, all these feelings about time in the poem teach an emotion, which is the emotion of text passing. And so there is that lovely confusion, of what it is that is passing or what it is that shapes the features of the depicted sojourn. This is the nudging towards identity that occurs between the depicted “I” of the poem and the sussuration of its remote tense language. By the tenth reading, it is the verb constructions, their management of time by tense, that shape the reader’s attention most. Broadly, these constructions and repetitions provide the metrical scheme, the rhyming scheme, the framework of evolving similarity in the poem:
†††††††††††††††††††††††† then return
†††††††††† sun rushes up
†††††† where had paused
††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† had ceased
††††††††††††† he took
††††††† he had crafted
†††††††††††††† he swore now to craft
††††††††† Iíll work
†††††††††††††††††† I will answer
†††††††††††††††† will be tense
The shape that poem’s body moving through time’s water is the reason that rhyming – the “echoes” term in my formulation of poetry’s core facts- has always been central to poetry and still is, even though our sense of what constitutes a rhyming scheme has widened immensely. Rhyme creates waves in the passage of sense. It brakes time, foregrounds, relishes and retards it. Rhyming - the use of any element which remains constant in context, be it sound, image, or idea - complicates linear momentum. This is its main job. Linear momentum is the reference frequency of common sense, and it operates to unconsciously diminish the weight of words, to smooth them and calm their scope for hallucination and difference. Linearity is the siren singing of reification. When we participate in the even flow of thought or speech we participate in the suppression of tumult, consternation, and arousal. By complication and by arrests repetition effects can restore these qualities. They restore supposed nature to culture, against barely resistible forces that run the other way. Rhyme by this means withholds release. Effects of tension, engorgement, and protrusion, poetry’s common tell-tales, occur.
6. Comparing poetry and a visual art object (once again)
But somebody could easily say, “All you have done in section 1 of this essay is to advance the recognition of a trivial difference, being the discovery that words are different from aluminium.”
But the difference need not be just rivial. Already you are looking at poetry placed in a position of both more uncertain definition, and more certain possibility, when it is held up as a thing in your mind to stand in the light of the clear ring and suction of Judd’s sculpture.
And further, art in language and visual art share a common term: ‘art’. Therefore, they do converge, there is a sense in which they are the same thing.
And furthermore, it is attractive to consider poetry under the aspect of Judd’s formula, since that formula points to visual art’s intransitive nature. That is, art has, as Kant expresses it, a content:
“that induces[s] much thought, yet without the possibility of any definite thought whatever, that is concept, being adequate to it, and which language, consequently, can never quite get on level terms with, or render completely intelligible” (8)
And this content is very hard to grasp in relation to a talkative art, like poetry. Consider TS Elliot’s The Waste Land, and its footnotes, and the strained purple, and wrong headed, interpreting that the poem received early on.
To use a phrase of Heideggar’s: the main aspect of visual art, and poetry, in this essay’s comparison, is that it is fundamental to both that neither “disappears into usefulness”.
To go over the matter again: we are trying by a trick to throw ourselves to a viewing position that gives us a metaphysical outlook upon poetry, that is, an outlook concerned with origins which is what Judd’s essence-statement does for visual art. Strictly, metaphysics is a framework that names doubleness, two things, a background and a foreground and in a hierarchy of importance, so that one thing comes first and shines through the other thing in at least a two-part structure. It is a way of making depth available to thought.
So that when you read Judd’s opening sentence you may hear him say: whatever you grasp in any individual work of visual art, know that the work stands upon the main aspects of all visual art, which are material, space and colour. But this is rather flat, and does not catch the droll excitement in his proposition. What is missing from the interpretation? It is that a burden of unaccustomed importance is thrown upon the material, space and colour in Judd’s proposition. The phrase resonates and surprises when you hear it. It is one in which someone in whom you place authority confidently offers to tell you what the essence of visual art is, and he catches your attention when he takes up his position, but then commences to name what seems to you only a list of visual art’s most general ingredients. His proposition is syncopated, marking a hesitation from, and it holds a backbeat weight against, whatever your expectations of art’s essence might have been. The Judd phrase is illuminated by this offer.
You find yourself philosophising. And what opens up before you is a transubstantiation. It is where something resonant – the murmur and shape in your mind of what has been or is now a residue of propositions with respect to the essence of visual art – is made to flow into things as plain and graspable as space, material, and colour. That which you seem to have heard, perhaps in an august register, likely with many invoked feelings, vague formulations, and much attachment to mystery is excluded from these plain terms but remains present and suffuses them.
Something important rings true with the Judd sentence. You are under an impression. You see before you the major objects of mid-twentieth century painting – a Barnett Newman painting comes to mind, say, and of course you place Judd’s proposition together with the unmistakable experience of his work – and it is not difficult to surrender to this statement of Judd’s. But you should realise it is the trick of a language game, in which a picture of something big, traditional, and diffuse, a context, is both shut out and invoked by attention directed at something concrete within it. The same happens when you hold your hand up to block the sun. In the Judd a metaphysics of visual art is asserted, but it is not the metaphysics you expected, and so that which displaces comes to have attached to it the power of that which is displaced, plus a further depth. Something that at first appears to take up the stance of an absolute proposition, a declaration, even, is in substance rhetorical, and this is the means by which it finally achieves a different force from that of an absolute claim. It does not therefore achieve the status of absolute proposition, but it produces an emphasis, and dislodges wonder.
It is this emphasis and dislodging that is important and which leads me to want to transfer Judd’s argument to poetry, and to speculate on the essence of that art, similarly. Because Judd isolates as important way.
7. Long Poems
I wanted this occasion to stage some remarks about one of the strongest features of poetry of the last 100 years, the writing of particular kinds of long poems. Long poems are the heroic forms - to use a corny modernist metaphor - of verbal art. By long poems I mean singular works that use the physics of poetry not to make various kinds of statements but to make states of reading which are boundaryless in ways at least attributable to their consumption of time. This is why these texts are invisible in the culture and are peculiar: they are not confined pedagogic sites and are therefore less amenable to teaching.
Any poem works by a process of murmuring, the liberation of overtones, humming and buzzing as slowly evolving states of sound and sense in the reader. Long poems yield more scope to teach this auratic acoustics. It is about harmonic reinforcement, about something in the work allowed to behave as a rock drill only much, much more slowly, and much less audibly. A long poem is over before it begins, again, section by section, through effort resembling insistence.
This super residue is what the pre-Renaissance painters depicted as haloes. A long poem gives you more of this semiotic radiance, therefore such works teach the way to where the bigger saints are.
There is no such thing as a big and a small revelation. Yes there is.
People’s intolerance for poems is becoming exhausted, but they love poetry.
In part it has to do with the relative size of the work and the reader.
Long poems are about the caravan, not the dog barking.
As already stated, art is differentiated by its capacity to sustain abstract thought. This is a general thing. Art tends towards the generic. Which do you see most, the freight train or the container wagons?
Long poems build a bigger snowball, since the metrical scheme of the work usually allows for displacement and reinforcement - of context, not just of sound, image, or idea.
There is no wholeness in a poem (as Ron Silliman once said) and this lack is a positive aesthetic state more clearly realised in a long poem. A poem is never experienced at once. The reader is always at some point in the reading. The reader experiences totalisation as a dream. It is the peculiar property of the long poem to more completely promise the fulfilment of this dream, by its evident effort, and to more completely deny it. Sooner of later quantity becomes quality. The reader is always at some point in the reading. This promise of totalisation and its denial, which is the great latency peculiar to the long poem, is best seen in Dante’s Divine Comedy.
(1) Donald Judd “Some aspects of color in general and red and black in particular”(1993) - go back
(2) Plato, Symposium - go back
(3) Martin Heidegger, essay “The Nature of Language”, in On the Way to Language, HarperSanFrancisco - go back
(4) Martin Heidegger, essay “A Dialogue on Language”, in the above. - go back
(5) Martin Heidegger, “Introduction to Metaphysics”, in the above. - go back
(6) Friedrich Nietsche “Birth of Tragedy”, 2001, p66-67, Oxford. - go back
(7) “Ibid; p44.” - go back
(8) Immanuel Kant, The Critique of Judgement, O.U.P., 1952, p210 quoted in “Heidegger’s Philosophy of Art”, Julian Young, CUP, 2001, p44. - go back