Issue 75, Spring 1979
Visual poetry, sound poetry, concrete poetry, minimal art, conceptual art, performance art: the names of recent avant-garde movements direct our attention to the materials and premises of the activity of making art, and in doing so claim that only a self-reflexive art, an art fully conscious of its primary processes can be truly radical. Radical? Yes, once again, we encounter an art probing its roots and asserting, at the same time, that a new and possibly liberating vision of art and society will result. That old avant-garde impulse remains a constant presence in our culture. It has become an institution of sorts, subdued and incorporated within the estab-lished, if marginal, institutions of the literary journal, the gallery, the museum and the university. Nevertheless, no matter how anticipated and encapsulated, the continual demand for experimentation and innovation in literature and art signals some unreconciled need, on the part of artist and audience alike, to reject the conventional means of expression and behavior in this society and to seek other forms of articulation which might lead to new perceptions, new awareness of oneself and ultimately of one’s culture.
The works in this portfolio indicate but one direction of contemporary literary innovation. In general, they investigate the visual dimension of literary and social language, in some cases, juxtaposing visual images and linguistic texts, in others, playing with the graphics of the letter, word, or Language itself. The process is, as Scott Heimes suggests, an exercise in self-discovery, for we exist largely as linguistic creatures, and much of how we speak, how we identify ourselves and address others, is shaped by our words, our very entrance into language. But, as Alain Arias-Misson and Lucia Marcucci declare, the question of language is much larger than the merely personal. Rather, it forces us to inquire into the social dimension of discourse, into the semiotic codes and ideology of our culture. The language of the visual poets consequently involves not only the particular configurations of word and page, but the images of the extended discourse, the mass media, photo journalism and advertising, television iconography and political cant, ripped free of their customary contexts and provocatively joined with words similarly displaced from the literary domain. The results are personal, yes, but they are necessarily social and political.
In this collection, works which emphasize the social dimension of language are presented first, from Marcucci’s teasing “poetry’s romantic theme” to de Vree’s “Hooligans, Look Out Babylon.” Following these pieces, Arias-Misson’s “Apocalypse” shifts the focus toward the personal or less explicitly ideological extensions of poetry. The portfolio ultimately moves toward the self-reflexive, linguistically oriented works represented by Helems and Takahashi. And in keeping with the spirit of the works, some of the writers’ statements about their art appear intermittantly, as subsidiary to the visual work
These concerns, of course, are not limited to the writers represented here. If there is one element, in fact, common to all contemporary innovative writing, it is this self-reflexive questioning of the nature and limits of personal and collective language. This is seen, for example, in the works of many contemporary “postmodernist” novelists, such as Barth, Coover, Federman, Burroughs, Sukenick, Cortazar, Sollers and Robbe-Grillet. Uniting their novels is precisely this insistence on the explicit investigation of the act of writing, on the possibilities and restrictions inherent in language, in the text, in literary convention, and in social discourse. The writers—the “poets”—in this collection, however, are not primarily concerned with modifying narrative tradition, but with offering works which create, if not a new aesthetic language, then at least a new type of poetic metaphor based on the conjunction of disparate images, here visual and textual.
Most of these writers are associated with a particular movement, Poesia Visiva, which is centered in Italy, but which includes writers from Japan, the United States, East and West Germany, Czechoslovakia, France and Belgium. Alain Arias-Misson, one of the most articulate members of the group, has generously aided in the compiling of the works of those visual poets who we wanted to represent in this portfolio. Other writers, such as Scott Heimes and Charles Elwert (as well as Ian Tarnman, Richard Kostelanetz and David Arnold who are not presented here), represent a growing number of American writers who, without a specific group identity, are exploring similar lines of graphic and textual experimentation. Their works, because they reject the privileged status of the literary word, because they are, in fact, illegible in a strict literary context, are infrequently printed in literary journals, It is hoped that this issue of The Paris Review (and future issues as well) will help make public some of the most interesting work of the visual and graphic poets.
Alain Arias-Mtsson: Visual Poetry
The world, original, adamic, God-made is mediated by language (culture) or, the world is language (man-made). The word-as-language was sufficiently spacious, fictitious, to allow people elbow-room, to walk about and admire the view, to look out, to imagine other worlds.
Gradually the world has been saturated with the technological production of language (texts), the atmosphere condensed, making it increasingly difficult to distinguish forms and events “in here” from those “out there.” Then in a burst of acceleration in recent decades, it hardened into a surface of photo-imagery.
The photo-image has become the dominant, as well as the dominating, mode of mass communication. Whereas the text is always a fragmented space because it is “narrative” in its course through time, the photo-image is totalizing; frozen, configuring; it is the very image of the totalitarian order. It is a hardened crystal of time. not in time: instantaneous as act of production; as product; content; an arrested instant of life. The politics of the photo-image are paralysis and impotency, exclusive and conservative— regardless of content, by virtue of the structure as medium.
Visual poetry is a poetic strategy for dealing with the language stasis of the photo-world.
Visual poetry: the surgical ingrafting of the word into the image occurs in two phases—physical manipulation of the photo-surface (rupture) and textual labelling of the intervention.
Disruption of the photo-surface implodes its neutrality—exposes the photo as artifact, medium, instead of an ersatz-reality The ontological permanence of the photo-image, its absolute surface, is shattered, its pseudo-articulations (a dumb mechanics) undone by the physical disturbance.
This handling of the surface material dislocates the significance of the photo: a different syntax is introduced in the visual space of the photo;semantic events are suggested.
Lucia Marcucci: On Her Visual Poetry
Visual poetry is a new form of language sprung from the media’s massive incitements to consumption, from the many constraints of our capitalist society, from the accumulated information with which we are bombarded and enslaved ceaselessly through imposed forms and habits. The creation of this new language which has reappropriated magmatic, alienating models to oppose them, to carry out a guerilla action around, within and against them, has made it possible to resume a critical awareness of reality through a political operation.
My work began with the manipulation of slogans and images collected from posters and publicity, making counter-manifestos in the style of wall-posters, writing exclamations on newspaper pages, borrowed from the speech-balloons of cartnoons. Female images are often used in my work, with a change of “sign” calculated to irritate the habitual voyeur, accustomed to assuming the reproduction of women’s images as a consumption of beauty. I continued this operation by next using the images of classical sculpture, corroded and almost decayed by time, or gothic carvings eaten away, apposing an ironic create an unexpected message.
Then I moved on to collage, using the imprint of the female body and writing: the imprint as fetish or as myth of the world of impurity and/or of technological purity; the application of writing as a revival of an improper poetry, contaminated and compromised with the “memories” of a given and acquired culture. The imprint of the body is an expression of unease, anxiety and discomfort with the natural, material encumbrance we possess and have to move about and put everywhere. The bodily presence of the artist In the political context of the mass of the public: its raw, uncultivated testimony as such, with regard to the cultural constructions of its surrounding environment. The body and the arches of triumph, the body and the skyscraper, the body and the book, the body and sculpture, the body and the photograph of the body, the body and the hero, the body and the modified landscape of the “cultural animal”: man and technology.
The message is formulated through a new codex, through the iteration of elements which must coexist: matter, imagination and technology. Hence the works of visual poetry do not proceed from literature or from painting, but as an autonomous art out of the conflict of man with the mass media
Alain Arias-Misson: A Visual Poetics
I tear, twist, rip, crumple, bend, jab, crush, puncture, squeeze, gouge, fold, slice, sew. bum a photograph. Then with a wording I occupy (mil.) the freshly revealed space.
The photo-image (news-picture, fashion photography, tv) has the hardness, the incontrovertibility of an object—as if it were a possible object of language—whereas it is a language, as Sontag has said; more exactly, a written language, an object-writing (writing with light).
The visual writing has a look of flawless transparency as if one were looking through simply what-is-there. But, devious, it is always saying something else.
Text captions, voice comments the photo-image, but they slip on its impenetrable surface which offers no grip, no foothold.
The logic and coherency of the photo-image are given to the observer en bloc and offer no occasion for dialogue; the image appears unassailable, appears as reality itself.
The text is porous to tbc imagination, roomy. The contours, edges of words, their images, are elusive, dissolve beneath the fingertips—the tactile, haptic nerve-impulse Is frustrated by this gauzy texture.
In the effort to grapple with the intangibility of the intelligible, contemporary poetry has tended toward concretion (from the imagists to concrete poetry).
A certain new fiction bas also hardened over with the surfaceness of the photo-image.
At its most material, language reverses into image: from language as text and text as “image.” to image as text (visual poetry).
The visual poet meditates the image in order to discover a hypothetical, dotted line where the literary, the metapborical may be inserted—the photo is wrenched or bent or plied open.
He discerns the lineaments of literary desire on the surface of the photo, then excavates the literary image inside the photo.
The word penetrates the gash. gap, bole, soft spot in the photo-image. fertilizes/verbilizes the sterile techné.
Word-rupture interrupts the image, disrupts its monist discourse, produces a dialectic.
Language is the oxygen of the image, allows it to breathe, to have a Voice.
Luciano Ori: Poesia Visiva
The coexistence of diverse expressions (and styles in Visual Poetry) is the mark not of conflict, but of a dialectic and synchronicity. Finally, how this “plurality” becomes unity will be quite clear when the ideological model peculiar to visual poetry has been understood: appropriation understood as expropriation, as a convergent, revolutionary moment which acts and is resolved within the productive structures of art. Ideological unity, in a word, but which is also formal unity, insofar as it is determined and constituted by the common appropriation of heterogeneous techniques and materials expropriated from the various territories of communication. Here it should be immediately said that this operative method cannot be restricted to the mass media alone, as was the case in the primary phase of visual poetry. . . .That sort of demystifying and semiological “guerilla” enacted in the confrontation of the coercive messages carried by the mass communication channels (publicity, posters, etc.) was inadequate and needed, in the logic of a “design” which demanded a broader ideological perspective, to extend expropriation to every field of communication. To plunder every and any linguistic universe, if the productive apparatus of visual poetry was to be supplied with an interlinguistic, synchronic material with which to oppose the codified languages; because these are the real “antibodies” of any neocapitalist society capable of immunizing activity against the more radical processes of social transformation.
The quality of the (iconic and verbal elements).. should be examined, the degree and percentage of their fusion, their combinations and variants. The antiquated and familiar definitions from now on serve only to radicalize the old ambiguities, and the more diffuse typifications such as “paintings to read and poems to look at” will not contribute to any greater clarity. In fact, I would say that this latter is precisely the most ambiguous and erroneous, inasmuch as it situates visual poetry in an intermediate zone between painting and poetry. Whereas it has become increasingly clear that visual poetry docs not occupy any intermediate areas, but is a new reality whose identity is peculiar to itself and non-teferable. Now this may only be resolved, and so explained, as a new means of artistic production.
Scott Helmes: Clues to Myself
Although I was trained in architecture, I consider myself a generalist. My interest in the problems of art, design, communication, and poetry led to an interdisciplinary approach to many of the projects I have undertaken.
My particular revelation in poetry was stimulated by an ongoing interest in communication and the reading of Wright’s Future of Architecture. My interest in communication led me to experimenting with ways of writing. My first serious poems were a mathematical series in 1972. Through some teaching situations, I discovered poetry, but did not pursue it immediately. When reading Wright’s book, where he writes about wanting his work to become poetry, I thought why spend money and resources to create buildings. Since then I’ve concentrated my creative energy on experimental poetry.
I write because it is a challenge and discovery of self. My writings reflect the release of the tangible from the intangible. It becomes a way of learning, discovering, and communicating elements of language, new languages, and inexpressible language. It is thought translated into vision.
Takahashi Shohachiro: Text for “to”
Visual poetry is artifice, or hole. It may be said that the artifice or the hole is a result by the insertion of “to ” (:and. with, against, as and so on) as a postpositional word functioning as an auxiliary to a main word in Japanese, or by a sudden lacking, or by a change and a transfiguration.
I. (Case) It is joined with the substantives or the words in the same way.
A. It means the indication of “that.” Being followed by words of “see,” “hear,” “think,” “say” or something else resembling a verb, “to ” is joined with their complement.
B. Meaning “saying,” “thinking,” etc.
C. Authorizing that these are certain things or states: by way of; like as, as if; in such a situation as; being joined with conclusive words of transformation.
D. Meaning cooperation:
1. Showing the object of movements or operations.
2. Showing the co-operative man of movements and operations, “together.”
3. Using the case of strengthening the meaning of two repeated verbs, “everything, the hole.”
A. Joining an end-form of declinable words, showing that movements happen continuously or habitually.
B. Showing a light paradox, “whether________ or_______ ” Reading, again, “to ” as a noun suffix of Japanese.
“to ” 1. The fifth of the “t ” series of Japanese syllabary.
2. The spelling pronunciation of a voiceless consonant (t) and a vowel (o). (t): letting the tip of the tongue join to the back of the front teeth and to the front hard palate, and let the breath explode.
III. A hiragana (the Japanese syllabary alphabet) “to”=” derived from il: =“stop” in sosho (grass characters). “to ” Name of number. Ten. Door. Gate. Flap. Entrances and exits of a stream. 4.765 U.S. gallons. A unit of capacity. Measure. Ladle for drawing up sake. The Great Bear. The sixth star of the Archer in the southern sky. A square shape. Outside. Water closet. Drawing. Scheme. Sharpness. Sound. Bird. Vain. Whetstone. Bet. Stain. Grain boter. Harmful one in the inside. Rattan. City. Man.