Poetic Aesthetic: Susan Howe and Erica Baum
For this week’s Canvas, I thought I would look at some poetry! Specifically, a section of visual poetry from Susan Howe’s That This. The book is about the death of her husband and how she can possibly find sense or meaning in his death. It alternates between relatively straightforward prose and poetry. My favorite section is called “Frolic Architecture.” Here’s a sample:
I am not a huge fan of concrete poetry, or of Dadism, (they tend to be a bit too literal for my taste) but some of those ideas are at work here; reappropriation of symbols/impressions through collage, form as a literal representation of content, etc.. The thing is, these aren’t really poems you read. That’s kind of their point. They reduce symbols back down into shapes. I would say that they are almost anemic poetry, writing meant to look like writing but purposely holding no actual meaning. But that isn’t quite true; the glimpses of meaning or some discernment of a piece of the text are part of the fun of these pieces. It seems to me that Howe is accomplishing visually, and more violently, what Gertrude Stein set out to do in Tender Buttons, visually rather than aurally; an aesthetic destruction of meaning, an alienation of context.
The poems are more about their shapes, the shapes and directionality of their lines, than about actual content. But a lot of modernist poetry displays at least some of this structuralist/language poetic ideals, whether consciously or not. For example, a poem by William Carlos Williams:
This Is Just To Say
I have eaten
that were in
you were probably
they were delicious
and so cold
What elevates this to poetry? The scene is relatively mundane, the wording pretty, but simple and familiar. The title even indicates this, that it is largely inconsequential. I would argue that at least some of the poetic value comes from it’s form. The line breaks, the spaces and the blankness of the page help with the feeling of the poem, but its structure too is familiar.
For you see
arranged like this
there is some
It’s a matter of shape. The arrangement here, the relationship between the physicality of the words on the page, is what gives poetic meaning to the words. Howe’s fragmenting and destruction of this form is the source of any meaning of the text itself.
Researching Susan Howe, I somehow came across a series of photographs by Erica Baum that I wanted to share as well
These are from a series titled Dog Ear, a series of found/created collages formed by structural wormholes (marked by a stop in time, a pause in a narrative).. Aren’t these just such tactile fantasies? As a bookworm looking at these, I can really smell that 70’s ink and must, can really feel that pulp under my fingers. It’s so simple but so familiar that it creates a haptic sensation, a sense of touch intrinsic to the work. And this memory of a motion instructs the motion of the piece. The physicality is central to the work; not only can your fingers recall the crease and crunch of bending paper, but the actual reading of the poetry demands some physical interaction: you cock your head to the side as you read. You can write it out:
made her feel as if / of objects shaped / doubt, even her / sagging boards / were giving in h, etc, etc.
But this cuts out the fragments of letters and the movement of the text (along with the coinciding physicality of the tilting of the head). As for meaning, you try to find bits of coherence, and are delighted when you do find those moments, as your mind wants to form meaning always, but the “poems” always ultimately circle down into a jumble of particles. The forms of these pieces, like Howe’s, actually destroy meaning as well as imbue it.
Above all though, Howe’s and Baum’s pieces are fun visual objects, in that they demand some interaction from the viewer and actually remind us of the physical spectacle of language. It is after all, just shapes on a page.
And if you’re interested, check out this sweet article for a more in-depth analysis of Baum’s work, and a bit of Howe’s work too.