(sections 4-20 via "Read More" below)
Iconic Words: When Text is Visual Art
This is the text and accompanying images of a presentation I gave last night at the RSC meetings in Quebec City. -- FD
1. In my recent biography of Canadian poet and lay psychotherapist bpNichol I outlined the arguments he developed around 1964 for writing visual poems. Unaware of the international concrete poem movement, he was calling his proposed new poems “ideopomes.”
2. These “ideopomes” would help him, he believed, avoid didacticism and self-pitying emotional expression, which he saw as the main weaknesses of his conventional poetry. He also believed that self-pity and narcissism were serious limits on the Freudian psychotherapy he was undergoing, and limits to the success of any psychoanalysis.
3. He would later call his visual poetry a means of resisting “arrogance.” In these arguments one can perceive the shadow of high modernist arguments against Victorian moralism and sentimentality, and in favor of imagism and impersonality; collage and “objective correlative” in early Eliot, and of Pound’s “ideogrammic method.”
(sections 4-20 via "Read More" below)
4. Within months Nichol became aware of international concrete poetry, including practitioners in Canada such as Earle Birney, Lionel Kearns and Judith Copithorne. In 1967 he published his first book, all visual poems, with a British small press.
5. With a small press he founded himself, he published in 1969 an envelope of mostly visual poetry by Birney - Pnomes, Jukollages, & other Stunzas. This envelope contained the first publication of Birney’s panopticonic “Canada Council.” At the time, the Canada Council was both an arts and an academic-research funding body.
6. Among the three books for which Nichol himself co-won the 1971 Governor-General’s Award – from a Canada Council jury – were two boxed collections of visual poetry – his own Still Water – its ‘cover’ itself a visual poem – and his anthology The Cosmic Chef.
7. The signature Canadian visual poem of this period has remained “The Birth of God” by Lionel Kearns, with its prescient announcement of the birth of digital culture, first published in 1965 on the back cover of the British visual poetry magazine Tlaloc.
8. The signature poem of Canadian visual poetry in the 1970s was Steve McCaffery’s Carnival in which McCaffery used the traditional typewriter to push the alphabet into a carnivalesque near-galactic display of patterns beyond meaning. It was the first major Canadian event of non-referential – or perhaps self-referential – language art.
9. Two things about this work in the displaying of words and letters have especially interested me – one, its relationship to visual art and two, its relationship to contemporary conceptual poetry which is often a collage of short quotations sometimes a hundred or more pages in length.
10. There is almost always a layer of non-lexical signification created in both visual and conceptual poety, one that appears less in the letters or words employed than in the non-standard presentation of them.
11. An additional layer of non-lexical meaning is invariably created when the words displayed are quotations, as in this page from American poet Robert Fitterman’s recent Holocaust Museum, a long poem constructed entirely of reprinted captions of the displays of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.
12. The viewer looks at a representation of a representation constructed of words and can be simultaneously aware of the agency and possible motivations of both the poet and the constructor of the text which the poet has quoted.
13. Curiously, back in the 1960s when Birney, Nichol, Kearns, Copithorne and others were developing a Canadian visual poetry, Canadian painter Greg Curnoe was also developing an art of displayed text, using ink & collage initially and later watercolour and purpose-made rubber stamps.
14. Some of Curnoe’s paintings of this period appear to be, much like Fitterman’s Holocaust book, an art that is about the representation of the visual world, and that questions and effectively prevents – much like Nichol’s concerns about sentimentality – its potentially picturesque depiction.
15. Others seem to be about the visual representation of time, as in his 1966 “24 Hourly Notes.” Time here overrides line breaks and word structure and creates its own terminations.
16. Though few other Canadian painters have done such work with words and letterforms, in the 1990s these became a prominent part of the toolkit of some international feminist artists, especially Louise Bourgeois and Judy Chicago.
17. Bourgeois has created paintings of misogynist phrases, paintings of the negativity implied by a man’s tie, and of the seemingly endlessly repeated assertion “I love you” being used as an instrument of domination – a work apparently based on her childhood sexual abuse by her father.
18. Much contemporary conceptual poetry has inherited the anti-self pity anti-expressionist anti-lyrical intentions of Nichol’s 1964 “ideopomes” – and through those the anti-sentimentalism of high modernism – while also invoking and teasing readers with lyricism’s pleasures – as in this page from Canadian poet Lisa Robertson’s just released Cinema of the Present.
19. Conceptual poets such as Fitterman who foreground the fact that their texts are a collage of quotations don’t tease the reader so much as parody the lyric self-pity of many contemporary bloggers and internet posters. Here is a page from Fitterman’s latest, titled No, Wait. Yep. Definitely Still Hate Myself.
20. These recurrences in the vanguard art of high modernism, the Sixties, and the present suggest that the modernist struggle against sentimentalism has been a long one – that mass culture has just kept finding new ways of being Georgian. But there’s nothing maudlin or self-expressive or self-pitying in the language performances of Canadian poet Christian Bök.
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