For the latest installment of the DEMOTIC ARCHIVE OF ART WRITING, VerySmallKitchen presents two texts on the relations of visual arts and poetry, by Denise Levertov and Barbara Guest, alongside statements, images and poetics by Jessica Smith, Giorgio Agamben, Arakawa, Norma Cole, and Titian. The archive seems to becoming a group show.
Denise Levertov’s short essay LOOKING AT PHOTOGRAPHS offers a useful perspective on the relations of poets to other art practices. Levertov begins by asserting her connection to painting, but identifying a greater commonality between poetry and photography.
I apply Levertov’s essay to the widespread “poet among painters tradition of, say, O’Hara and Schuyler, seeing such work as articulations of a space of a distance rather than/ out of affinity, what Levertov calls a “compositional gesture sense” rather than a specific engagement with the visual.
Which raises the question of precisely how the visual might be functioning, and also how this relates to the politics-art debate as it figured, for example, in Levertov’s correspondence with Robert Duncan. The second text here, by Barbara Guest, can be seen as offering a reinforcement of Levertov’s view.
In Guest’s “On the value of criticism from painters, rather than writers”, the painters value is connected to “compositional gesture sense” revealed via the painter’s conversation and small talk. To use the terms of Levertov’s essay, painting approximates the common dailyness of language and photography through its presence in conversation, in friendships and acquaintances through which this talking, convivial knowledge occurs.
In such context, it is useful to recall Giorgio Agamben’s short text on friendship, where he observes:
It is common knowledge that no one has ever been able to satisfactorily define the meaning of the syntagm “I love you”; so much is this the case that one might think that it has a performative character: that its meaning, in other words, coincides with the act of its utterance. Analogous considerations could be made regarding the expression, “I am your friend,” although recourse to the performative category seems impossible here. I maintain, rather, that “friend” belongs to the class of terms that linguists define as nonpredicative; these are terms from which it is not possible to establish a class that includes all the things to which the predicate in question is attributed. (29)
DENISE LEVERTOV, Looking at Photographs
I have always had a strong love for looking at paintings – a love for color, for the thickness or thinness of paint, and for the miraculous coexistence of sensuous surface reality – brush marks and the grain of canvas showing through – with illusion, the depicted world to be entered. And in thinking about the process of writing poetry, I have often drawn analogies with the painting process, feeling a correspondence, for instance, between the intuited need in one poem for a limpid fluidity of diction and rhythm and the intuited need for transparent color and flowing line in a certain painting; or again, between the compositional need for strong and harsh outlines or heavy thick paint in one painting and for halting rhythms and thick heavy words in a certain poem. The standing back to regard the whole canvas from time to time, then returning to the close embrace of details, also has its parallel in the experience of writing a poem. Yet I have come to see that the art of photography shares with poetry a factor more fundamental: it makes its images by means anybody and everybody uses for the most banal purposes, just as poetry makes it structures, its indivisibilities of music and meaning, out of the same language used for utilitarian purposes, for idle chatter, or for uninspired lying.[
Because of this resemblance in the conditions of the two arts – because the camera, like language, is put to constant nonartistic use, quotidian use by nonspecialists, as the painter’s materials (though often misused) are not – a poet finds, I think, a kind of stimulation and confirmation in experiencing the work of photographic artists that is more specific, closer to his poetic activity, than the pleasure and love he feels in looking at paintings. I can often turn to fine photographs to help myself discover next steps in a poem I am writing: almost it’s as if I can respond to such photographs because I’m a working poet, while my response to painting, intense though it is, is in some degree detached from my life as as active artist, is a more passive receptivity.
Even though one may never write a poem directly inspired by a photograph, these images drawn from the same sources the poet’s own eye can see (photography having even at its most individual, subjective, or transformational, a relationship to the optical far more basic than that of painting) and which are transformed into high art through a medium of unexotic availability, connect at a deep level with the poetic activity; and are, in fact, possible sources – as nature is source – for the poet, to the degree that paintings are not, even to someone who loves them as much as I do. Perhaps another way of saying it would be that photographs – and I don’t mean only documentary photographs – teach the poet to see better, or renew his seeing in ways closer to the kind of seeing he needs to do for his own work, than paintings do; while the stimulus of paintings for the poet as poet. i.e., their specific value for him aside from his general human enjoyment of them, may have more to do with his compositional gesture-sense (as music may) than with the visual.
2.BARBARA GUEST, On the value of criticism from painters, rather than writers
“Even when crippled by arthritis, Titian
kept on painting Virgins in that luminous light,
as if he’d just heard about them.”
“Those old guys had everything in place,
the Virgin and God and technique, but they
kept it up like they were still looking for
something. It’s very mysterious.”
“You have to keep on the edge of something,
all the time, or the picture dies.”
-Willem de Kooning
APPENDIX: JESSICA SMITH
In thinking through the relations of art and poetry I’m currently appreciating writings which offer a certain clarity that allows both similarity and difference to emerge. The Levertov essay possesses this and, for a more contemporary example – specifically in relation to the architectural – I recommend Jessica Smith’s introduction to her book Organic Furniture Cellar. Smith writes:
Organic Furniture Cellar seeks to develop what I call “plastic poetry.” Like Arakawa’s buildings, these poems respond to a preexistent topographical space as well as to existing syntactical structures in the reader’s mind. Poetry always does this on some level – the blank page does not correspond to a blank page in one’s mind (just as the blank background of a blueprint or musical score does not actually correspond to a blank landscape or silent listening space, as American composer John Cage observed). The positioning of the words on the following pages attempts to acknowledge, represent, and play with these strata.
With plastic poetry, I want to change the reading space in such a way that the one who reads is forced to make amends for new structures in his or her virtual path. The words on a page must be plastic in virtual space as architecture and sculpture are plastic in real space. Thus, while plastic arts disrupt an agent’s space: plastic poetry must disrupt the reader’s space. This rupture does not stem from, as in the ordinary plastic arts, a real physical occupation of space, but rather from the disruption of the virtual space that one moves through when reading a poem. (12)
One way to address both the painting impulse and the poetry impulse was to consider how Welish has written about painting and use that writing as the journal work, the commonplace book, as her “other” for poetry. This would be an accommodation to both, as well as a speculation about sets of relationships or possible relationships.
SOURCES: “Looking at Photographs“ appears in Levertov’s The Poet in the World (New Directions, 1973), 87-88. It is appended by the following note: “Written in response to a request from the photographic magazine, Aperture, and published as a kind of advertisement for it in Stony Brook. Barbara Guest “On the value…” appears in Forces of Imagination: Writing on Writing (Kelsey Street Press, 2003), 44. Giorgia Agamben, “The Friend” in What Is An Apparatus and other essays (Stanford University Press, 2009), 25-37. Jessica Smith, “The Plasticity of Poetry: A Poetics.” Organic Furniture Cellar: Works on Paper 2002-2004 (Outside Voices, 2004), 11-20. Norma Cole, To Be At Music: Essays & Talks (Omnidawn, 2010), 152.