James Stuart reviews Words and Things

7 December 2004

Words and Things (Patrick Jones, ed)
Reverie Press Publications, 2004

“Despite my slightly over-the-top and easily pregnable assertions about what are to my mind the lesser works enclosed therein, it became clear to me as I read (looked?) that Words and Things had a significant contribution to make to our understanding of contemporary poetics. Foremost among these is the question of what constitutes a concrete poem and, more generally, what constitutes visual poetry.”

OK. I'll start this review with some facts:

a) Words and Things is a comely little book, printed with a rough, 230 gsm enviroboard cover.
b) It has been elegantly and organically designed by Ian Robertson, who followed the lead set by John Cage's Cunningham mesotics in which ‘[t]ypeface, size and style (roman, italic, bold, etc) [are] determined by chance.'
c) It is edited by Patrick Jones and published by Reverie Press Publications.
d) Its matt 150 gsm pages are printed with Eco Resista vegetable oil based inks but do not have any page numbers.
e) It features works by nine Australian concrete poets and text- based visual artists: Geoffery Baxter, Aleks Danko, Patrick Jones, Peter O'Mara, Alex Selenitsch, Marie Sierra, Jeff Stewart, Richard Tipping & Peter Tyndall.
f) The ISBN is 0-9580307-2-3.

For those of you would like a more opinionated review, mine goes like this:

Words and Things (Patrick Jones, ed)
Reverie Press Publications, 2004

In introducing the book, Jones describes a 1999 trip to Scotland, following which was the ‘refocussing' of his library, based on a desire to explore the poem beyond the literary. This in turn led to the realisation that ‘there was a whole continent of artists and poets (living and long dead) who have attempted, especially in the past two centuries, to dismantle the art/literature wall enforced by a parallel age of specialisation.' This notion of dismantling that art/literature gap is key to approaching the works enclosed in Words and Things, as well as the whole concept of “visual poetry” — a term to which I'll return later.

As for the artists, Baxter and Danko continue a long tradition of wordplay in the concrete poem through more conventional typographic means, while contributions by Sierra and Jones build upon this tradition by reinterpreting the wording (and effect) of traffic and pedestrian route signs. Tipping's Whispering Fence 2003, a sequence of engraved picket fences, is also an amalgamation of the physical and textual object, the continuation of a life-long theme in his work. The strong impression of play and irony that links these contributions is balanced out by the perhaps more sober text-based pieces from O'Mara and Stewart, and the enigmatic, almost textural work of Tyndall and Selenitsch, who is an old hand in Australian concrete poetry.

It would be both difficult and not necessarily useful to discuss all of the enclosed works. So, I'd like to offer the following highlights package:

1. O'Mara's “concrete haikus” (my own term), which combine to “word” a compelling snapshot of contemporary western consumer culture, and those it casts to one side as other;
2. Baxter's often humorous and intelligent interpretation/presentation of found textual objects (such as Livy's “Hannibal Crossing the Alps”); and
3. Sierra's Twice as Natural series, which re-contextualises literature and art by placing quotes from the likes of e e Cummings and Henry Wadswoth Longfellow inside a traffic sign positioned within the public domain. Jones's own series of concrete/absurdist road and pedestrian signs is in the same vein.

Nevertheless, it is not all clear sailing:

1. Danko's Song(s) of Australia: dead cocky on the kitchen floor (fed-up mix) displays a bland middle-class lefty wit, that while worth the occasional smile, does not amount to much either visually, poetically or politically.
2. Tyndall's series of scans/photos of old/original edition book covers by, to name two, John Brooks and Jean-Paul Sartre. Though Jones claims that Tyndall is ‘a distinctive counterpoint to abstraction' that continues his long-term focus on how ‘we read things', I have the distinct impression that a nerdy librarian with a point to make (as well as significant contacts in the art world) could have put together a similar oeuvre. Having said that, the book covers, all captured digitally at high-quality, are engaging according to their own aesthetic. Still, one questions whether their value is archival rather than artistic. Actually, to be perfectly honest, by the end of writing this paragraph, I sort of see the value in this piece as one stares closely into the configuring of meaning inherent in the cover design, but the whole thing's still a bit problematic so I thought I'd leave the previous comments in, regardless …

Despite my slightly over-the-top and easily pregnable assertions about what are to my mind the lesser works enclosed therein, it became clear to me as I read (looked?) that Words and Things had a significant contribution to make to our understanding of contemporary poetics. Foremost among these is the question of what constitutes a concrete poem and, more generally, what constitutes visual poetry.

I daresay, with only a minor historical knowledge of the forms involved, I am in no position to offer any definitive statement on the matter. But perhaps there is something to be gleaned from the rather comprehensive Poems for the Millennium, where the concrete poem is defined as:

a reduction of the poem to a sign (often in bold typography, sometimes in colour) that typically eliminated syntax & even words themselves, thus offering up an image open to interpretation (reading) at a single glance. (1)

Meanwhile, the late (2) Barrett Reid's introduction to the exhibition catalogue of Words on Walls: a survey of contemporary visual poetry, ‘the first of its kind in Australia', suggests that there is a polychromatic visual poetry movement in 1989 Australia. His understanding of the term embraces ?´pattern poetry, concrete poetry, and concepts developed by the Lettrist movement which grew out of a ground of calligraphy, and others which grew from a base in typographic design.' (3)

And yet, as I perused the catalogue all I found were visual poems, which, while for the most part well-wrought, eschewed the literary for the graphic, as per Ruth Cowen's ‘eating my heart out', which is quite cute but — well I don't really need to use another adjective to describe it. This is concrete poetry where meaning, intent and origin are most certainly reduced to the status of one-glance-required.

This is comment is not to disparage what has been accomplished in “Visual Poetry” up until now (though I really didn't like much of what I saw in that particular catalogue ?± Words and Things displays far more sophistication). No: what I am getting at is that in attempting to dismantle the art/literature divide, it strikes me that much of contemporary visual poetry and text-based art (which, to keep the word count down, I'll henceforth lump into the one term “visual poetry”), actually builds a bridge between the two sites and then goes to live on the visual side of things with little regard for its more traditional poetic brethren who are all living in a state of self-exile in shantytowns at the edges of literature land.

To put it otherwise, without again resorting to piss-poor metaphor, it strikes me that what is carried across from poetry into visual poetry is not so much the poetic, as I understand it, but its compression to a graphic trope in pre-defined textual spaces. Perhaps there are other ways of dismantling the art/literature divide with a view to different effects. Perhaps the emphasis should be upon blurring the divide, not dismantling it.

If this just seems like pedantic and polemic semantics (which it is, sort of, but I hear it's cool to get really picky of one's choice of words in these sorts of circles), you should download and read the rather detailed PDF of an extended essay that contains and contextualises this review (while also featuring lots of pretty pictures, including some from Words and Things). It also expounds upon the incredibly vague statement “the poetic as I understand it”.

Notes

(1) Rothenberg, Jerome & Joris, Pierre, Poems for the Millennium: The University of California Book of Modern & Postmodern Poetry (From Postwar to Millennium, Vol 2), University of California Press, 1998. I forgot to write down which page exactly.
(2) I use the term “late” here to make it sound like I knew who he was while alive.
(3) Reid, Barrett ‘The Unknown Art: Visual Poetry in Australia' in Words on Walls: a survey of contemporary visual poetry, Barrett Reid (ed), Heide Park & Art Gallery, 1989. p.5

This entry was posted in BOOK REVIEWS and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.
James Stuart

About James Stuart


James Stuart’s first full-length collection of poems, Anonymous Folk Songs, is published by Vagabond Press (2013). His other book is Imitation Era (Rare Object Series, Vagabond Press, 2012). He was a 2008 Asialink literature resident in Chengdu, China and works as acommunications manager.



Website:
http://www.nongeneric.net/

Further reading:

Related Posts:

Comments are closed.

Please read Cordite's comments policy before joining the discussion.