In Uncategorized on August 3, 2010 at 11:17 am


Photo: Eileen Myles


My essay  IT WAS RUNNING INTEREFRENCE: POETRY AND (ART-)  WRITING is now online in the latest issue of Jacket, edited by Pam Brown and John Tranter. Read the full article here.  

The essay began as a review of Eileen MylesThe Importance of Being Iceland: Travel Essays in Art (Semiotext(e) 2009). Written between 1983 and 2008, the book offers powerful testimony of how poetry  and arts practices relate to one another, both in Myles own practice and in the New York arts scene of which she is a part.

Myles’ subjects include the New York School poet art-reviewers such as James Schuyler, through Robert Smithson and Carl Andre – and a generation of sculptors whose practices are in many ways formed around the material of language – to more recent art-poetry fusions in the work of, say, Kenneth Goldsmith and Jenny Holzer.

Myles writes of her involvement in several projects organised by Hans Ulrich Obrist, also responsible for last years Poetry Marathon at the Serpentine Gallery. I had been thinking about Caroline Bergvall’s critical comments on the marathon – in which she participated.  Starting with Myles and Bergvall’s thoughts, the essay became a broader consideration of the role of poetry and language in historical and current arts practice.

The essay also includes the publication of two photos by Myles, which are also reproduced here. For a fascinating take on many of the issues raised in this essay, see the wonderful Laura Moriarty edited anthology of A Tonalist Poetry, also in the current issue of JACKET.   

The essay begins: 

It’s almost too much, as a starting point: William Carlos Williams delivering Robert Smithson in his role as GP, in Passaic, New Jersey, 1938. If genealogies of art and literary history are usually less direct, Williams-Smithson remains a useful starting part for a history of art-poetry connection, both for its bodily immediacy and as metaphor. The New York School and the conceptualists would be key points on most narratives, and Williams-Smithson are but a step away, not central parts of either narrative, central to others, connections back and forth and askance. Such off-steps are a key part of this story.

One contemporary manifestation of this relationship was the Serpentine Gallery’s Poetry Marathon in October 2009. The event was criticized by one participant, Caroline Bergval, who concluded that “whilst amazing… the pink elephant in this open-air enclosure was language itself. Or rather, a fear of language, a fear about not controlling a knowledge of language that demands its conscious, careful, and studied semiotic and semantic manipulations across a whole range of environments.” Another participant, Eileen Myles, seems more relaxed, testifying to a profound uncertainty principle underlying the relationship of art and poetry on both aesthetic and infrastructural levels:

But when the event was over it was clear that nobody really knew what a poem was but the Serpentine was behind it, this poem thing. It was a usefully baggy approach to the meaning of the poem thing, making its existence known to the world, again. It seemed the art world was wavering towards us in some watery way. Splashing and moving their flippers and making bubbles. All we had to do as poets was accept this love. And I do. I think our acceptance of this unknowing love is the pretext for poetry’s new relationship to art in the 21st c. It’s all around us. It’s not us around them. Trying to slip our tentacles into their party. 

Myles’ relationship to the art world’s octopus seduction technique is unfolded throughout The Importance of Being Iceland: Travel Essays in Art, a collected essays in which the art-poetry question, amongst others, unfolds through a series of encounters, with artists (the work and the person), places (mostly New York, Provincetown, and Iceland), and with her own mind-body and its ongoing process of expression into language. The essays here were written between 1983 and 2008, then collected together — through another recent art-poetry interface — when Myles received a grant in the Warhol/ Creative Capital foundation’s first art writing cycle. It was through this that the long title essay was written. Ditch Smithson-Williams’ umbilical moment, New Jersey, 1938. Iceland is where the artists and the poets really combine.

It was from Myles I got the Smithson-Williams story. In her 2000 essay on Robert Smithson’s The Collected Writings, Myles writes:

… all of these guys were writing [Smithson, Judd, Carl Andre, Sol LeWitt], words were the ground of the work, even more than the material it was “made of,” and seeing these writings explains a missing link in how we wound up with the poetry and art culture of today. No one who knows the 70s really has to ask where Language poetry comes from. It was part of the work. Language was sculpture and vice versa.

Extracted, some of this paragraph appears like Sol LeWitt’s much anthologized “Sentences on Conceptual Art”, notably Words were the ground of the work and Language was sculpture and vice versa. But the tradition of art and poetry Myles explores doesn’t have that (even retrospective) certainty. I also found myself needing to spoil the party right away with some more problematic art and poetry examples. Like Lawrence Weiner’s oft repeated declaration that poetry is not what he is doing; or Carl Andre avoiding the term. A necessary cautionary note, then, as texts by Andre, Acconci, Graham and others continue to be re-published.

Photo: Eileen Myles


Maybe, following Myles, I should splash and make bubbles. For many contemporary practitioners — and archival projects such as Ubuweb — these histories are part of a broader gathering of experimental language practices. Perhaps, I imagine Myles saying cheerfully, I should lighten up and focus instead on what can be learned from Smithson’s writing style:

Smithson’s method of writing is unique — where a quickly engineered set of associations begins to build language as you would build buildings, a quick suggestion that “the skyline is a sentence.” Smithson urges “ why not reconstruct one’s inability to see? Let’s give passing shape to the unconsolidated views around a work of art, and develop a type of anti- vision or negative seeing.” Writing is such blindness, I think he meant. 

If Smithson’s art writing is one founding moment in the art-poetry relationship as we might conceive of it today, then poets writing art criticism is another. This, too, is a fraught history. After all, Smithson’s generation, and the criticism of, say, Artforum, is in contempt of all the poets earning a few pounds writing for Art News and, more broadly, the subjectivity of their response (and prose)…

Continue reading here.


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