Friday, November 09, 2007

I shouldn’t whine. Whenever I complain that the School of Quietude has held something close to a monopoly position on American poetry’s institutional awards, in spite of just being one scene among many – and an insistently derivative & conservative one at that – I have to at least admit that there have been breakthroughs, particularly over the last decade, poets who have won awards (Nate Mackey, say) or been on notable shortlists (Alice Notley, Harryette Mullen), gotten teaching jobs at significant schools from Mills & UC San Diego & Berkeley to Ivy League bastions Penn & Brown. The walls may once have seemed impregnable but now surely they’re coming down. Indeed, that seems to be precisely what has Charlie Simic’s knickers in such a twist.

But I’m looking at all this from a particular perspective, a position that can be historically located along the long arc of generative poetics that stretch from Wordsworth, Blake & Baudelaire to the present. The marginality that characterized Walt Whitman & Emily Dickinson, the first two American poets to completely abandon the Anglophile notions of the School of Q, are completely behind us. We have moved beyond even the tokenism that allowed Pound (with the Bollingen) and Williams (with his posthumous Pulitzer & even an invitation to be what was then called the Poetry Consultant to the Library of Congress) to receive accolades while Gertrude Stein was treated like a joke & the Objectivists were permitted to disappear for some 15 years, not to mention the obscurity that greeted the likes, say, of Mina Loy. That sort of neglect is so over. At least from the view on my particular mountaintop.

Consider then this same literary history from the vantage of visual poetry. From that perspective, it still must feel like 1940. There are major practitioners, a significant and growing critical discourse & the institutions of poetry have thus far paid almost zero attention. No volume of vispo has ever made a major prize shortlist. No visual poets sit as chancellors at the Academy of American Poets, as do Mackey, Lyn Hejinian & Gary Snyder. Are Crag Hill & Mary Ellen Solt the only visual poets ever to get hired by a university based on their writing? Is the closest thing to vispo on the Poetry Foundation website George Starbuck’s “Sonnet in the Shape of a Potted Christmas Tree,” part of that organization’s pantheon of works in printable PDF files explicitly designed “for the fridge”? The record of neglect here is so much deeper than anything even the Objectivists had to contend with that it’s worth noting.

I’m sure that from some neophobe perspective, the deeper question might be what makes vispo poetry? As if one pass through the works of William Blake doesn’t silence that dubious line of argument forever. When I gave my talk on recognizability at the University of Windsor the other night, among the images I actually employed were works by Ed Ruscha and Jenny Holzer, noting that both of these text workers adamantly self-identify not as writers but as visual artists, a context distinction that has profound financial implications. Is a visual poet really just an artist who has taken a vow of poverty? This reminds me of the crack Charles Bernstein likes to make about a poem being a unique phenomenon that, when it is printed on a piece of paper, lowers the economic value of that otherwise blank page.

I’ve been looking for the past two weeks at the breath-taking work of Peter Ciccariello in his book Uncommon Vision, which I heartily & unreservedly recommend to anyone who has even the slightest doubt as to the potential value of vispo. The image at the top of this note, Language as Authority, actually doesn’t appear in the book itself, but it’s representative of Ciccariello’s best work and what you will find in those pages. Uncommon Vision divides Ciccariello’s work into two groups, images that don’t incorporate texts and those that do, the latter section (appropriately designated “Word”) headed off with a one-page appreciation by Geof Huth, tracing writing back to the very idea of drawing letters¹ and talking about the experience of confronting these as texts without actually discussing in any great detail how Ciccariello does all this & only starting to suggest its implications for the process we think of as reading.

The Digital ImageMaker, where Ciccariello won a photography contest for one of the non-text works, Bird in a Basket, that does appear in Uncommon Vision², describes Language as Authority as

a digital collage containing a number of photographs and fragments of text all merged with an underlying structure of geometric forms texture mapped with additional photographs and rendered in Bryce. Postwork is done in Photoshop and Painter.

Don’t you just know this is how Charlie Simic characterizes his writing process also? Not likely. But then again, me neither. I’m still drawing words in notebooks, but they don’t especially look any different once I type them up from other text-ridden (or written) poetry.

What you read when you read a visual poem differs markedly from poet to poet, poem to poem, just as with any other genre of verse. What you’re not going to get, here or most other places (George Starbuck & the shaped poems of John Hollander excepted perhaps), is persona or the old, cold verse form conformities of an earlier century. In fact Ciccariello’s work is not that far from the scrawl texts of Robert Grenier where the task of the reader is ultimately to fathom out what it says. Where Grenier gives you nothing but the hand of the poet, using marker or even crayon, Ciccariello offers landscapes that recall the works of Dali or sci-fi book jackets across which texts are stretched & folded much as they are on the figure above. Letters are discernable, words less so, themes – well, themes are really a balance between what the landscape itself tells us and what few words come across, or even what font. There are, for example, multiple layers to the text above with its image of a ghost warrior & giant lower-case g foregrounded as it is. Both Language as Authority and the landscapes of Uncommon Vision remind me of passages of Claude Levi-Strauss’ great Tristes Tropique where Levi-Strauss compares reading to the visual inspection of a field, whether that of a contemporary geologist’s or a pre-modern hunter. Where does reading begin works like this beg of us. How do we even think to make sense of the visual field? Grenier and Ciccariello have very different responses to this – I can’t imagine Grenier engaging the concept of depth perception as part of his project, while it feels close to central to Cicciarello’s – I’m tempted to say that his work is all about seeing depth on a two-dimensional plane, tho I know that’s an overstatement. And where Grenier deploys fairly rudimentary colors to distinguish word from overlapping word (thus this reads “I saw it where is it”), the real process of Greier’s poem the coming to recognition of the word, Cicciarello is far more about effects that are at the edge of language, one of which is his obsession with the color brown (it can’t just be that he lives in Providence, home to a university by that name), which is “off the charts” on the old color wheel & which brings forth a whole terrain’s worth of connotation – in most of his works, the text is lighter than its background. What changes when you read it like that? Is that, or is that not, a mode of meaning? And which meaning is that?

If Grenier then offers us a poetry of coming into language, of recognition, Cicciarello seems far more a poet going in the other direction, concerned instead with the moment things pass into unintelligibility, the instant of rupture. Several of the texts in Uncommon Vision speak to this in their titles as well: Our own vestigial language shuddering toward obscurity or Proposed monument to the language of rupture.

All of which is to note that I’m persuaded, completely, by this work. Ciccariello would seem to me to be a perfectly reasonable candidate for any major book award you might think of, and would certainly be far less of an embarrassment as PLOTUS than that position’s current appointee. So, let me ask you again, why the total exclusion of visual poetry?


¹ Anyone who has ever tried to make their way through my own pathetic penmanship will recognize that drawing letters is exactly what I do and no amount of Palmer method script training ever has been able to break me of this primal habit.

² Bird in a Basket also won first prize in the Donnie 2007 Award of the Museum of Computer Art.