Some Observations about Poetry in the World of Appearances: “The medium in which we think… The medium in which we live”

TOMMASO RANFAGNI

 

Throughout the ages, poetry has enjoyed a role arguably unmatched by any other art form because, like philosophy, it creates an imaginary of concepts that construct meaning. Through the use of language, the poet creates a new vantage point through which we gain greater perspective on the society in which that poetry was produced. What is more, due to its use of figurative language, poetry has been able to establish a privileged relationship with the visual arts, eliciting a profitable exchange between word and image. This relationship has endured since the classical age, when poetry was the driving force behind some of the most important avant-garde movements born at the beginning of the 20th century, such as Futurism, Dadaism and Surrealism, and, to an even greater degree, the subsequent movements of Fluxus and Visual Poetry. Although philosophical interest in poetry has dwindled since the 1970s, the dialogue between poetry and the visual arts remains alive and fertile today.

In an article for Frieze Magazine entitled Art Hearts Poetry: the role of poetry in the world of appearances, Quinn Latimer discussed the attention that language, especially its lyric component, has elicited among artists in the last decade. In a brief overview, Latimer lists some of the formats in which words have found an effective synthesis with visual resources in artworks today. These include the film-essays by Moyra Davey, where language plays a key role in providing the meaning of objects dulled and controlled by the artist; the voice-overs used in hyper-real avatar character monologues by Ed Atkins, which employ a style of metaphysical poetry expressed through the language of the digital; and the lecture-performance by Hito Steyerl, which, in blurring the line separating art from discourse about art, is able to raise the value of conversation to that of a medium that produces knowledge. Not least there are the text-based performances by Sue Tompkins, where poetic fragments, laid in vitrines, framed on the walls, and placed in stacks on the floor, draw attention to what phrases mean through repetition and re-contextualisation, and, more so, to what they lack.

These are formats that were first born in the 1960s, and that are now flowing with new energy into the contemporary, evolving as they are introduced through new media. This evolution is timely: if we reflect on the words of Eugenio Montale who, in his speech at the celebration of the Nobel Prize for Poetry in 1975, argued that “The only possibility for poetry to ensure its place in the future is if it will manage to overcome its barriers: to become a miraculous occurrence and, at the same time, to absorb the spirit of the age, sympathising with the new medias which belong to the present time.” Yet the evolution of poetry presents a new spectrum of challenges, not least the difficulty of defining what poetic language consists of, and where its place in modern literature is. It is not by chance that Sam Riviere, reviewing Ed Atkins’ book Primer for Cadavers, wonders what the “domain” of poetry might be. In the end, Riviere concludes that most definitions point to the “intensity” of linguistic usage as the sole qualifier. Intensity. Beyond every question, the intensity of language lingers as the main characteristic of this instrument, poetry, born for creating – and, at the same time – investigating meaning. Roman Jakobson takes this view, describing poetry as “organized violence committed on ordinary speech” insofar as it constitutes a deviation from average speech that intensifies, invigorates, and estranges mundane speech patterns.

Poetry’s special qualities have attracted another kind of attention, leading poetry to be phagocytised by the capitalistic forces of the contemporary art world. As Latimer has noted, poetic language has been appropriated for adding value to art not only by artists, but by “those who make business around them”. This occurrence was discussed in the summer of 2012, when the website Triple Canopy published a controversial essay entitled International Art English: On the Rise – and the Space – of the Art-World Press Release by artist David Levine and Alix Rule, a sociology PhD student. In a bid to provide a scientific analysis of the linguistic quirks of what they dubbed IAE (International Art English), the pair computer-fed press releases collated from the online art journal e-flux, and discovered such IAE tics as: habitually improvising nouns, hammering out fashionable terminology, and abusing prefixes. Both of the authors conclude that we appreciate the press release not for its “bugged-out” hybridising of advertising copy and academic discourse, but for its “lyricism”: not for its sense, but for its sensuousness. Lyric poetry is the result of an intimate and solitary meditation, and, for that, stands in opposition to the demands of modern society; nevertheless, capitalism, like contemporary art, is omnivorous and is able to devour and assimilate everything. Thus in our postmodern society poetry has become detached from the values that it used to express. From the margins of the cultural system, it has a new place in the mainstream, but has lost its complexity and weight. So used, the poetic language loses its traditional alliance with the practice of ekphrasis, the verbal description of a visual work of art, and turns towards the motives of the market.

As Latimer suggests, the present adoption of poetry by contemporary artists is a consequence of the growing influence that philosophy is exercising on contemporary art. As she underlines, since antiquity, poetry and philosophy were considered similar and sprang from the same source. According to Hanna Arendt, “What connects thinking and poetry is metaphor”, that is, metaphor is to poetry what concept is to philosophy. However, Arendt cautions, “Nothing we see or hear or touch can be expressed in words that equal what we are given by the senses”, an occurrence that results in a discrepancy between “the words, the medium in which we think, and the world of appearances, the medium in which we live”.  Perhaps this discrepancy could be the domain where poetry operates, triggering a meaning-making process with which we can restore the unity of our own fragmented worlds?

The loose region between inner reality, expressed by language, and outer reality, the world of appearances, is the arena in which Laura Castellucci situates her work. Castellucci (1989) is an Italian artist based in Florence. Deeply influenced by the work of the psychotherapist Carl Jung, Castellucci approaches language in a manner similar to that of the automatic writings of the Surrealists. Together with her interest in paper as a material, her investigations into language have led her to the creation of her first verbal-visual works through the medium of collage. In her collages, visual poetry is constructed through the combination on paper of words or single letters cut out from old books, in order to compose short statements, often inscrutable and ironic, and full of inner meanings, presented within a graphic frame.

On one hand, the works of Laura Castellucci can be located within the verbo-visual experimentations born in the 1950s, and particularly in the development of this medium towards visual poetry in the 1960s. Like visual poetry, verbal materials in Castellucci’s works are organised to engender a graphic, phonetic reflection on language. This is an inquiry into words, and beyond words, which enhances the physicality and materiality of language. On the other hand, the collages have their own specific peculiarities. Instead of employing a wide range of fonts taken from newspapers and commercial posters, as is typical in visual poetry, in Castellucci’s work the impressive effect of visual poetry pieces is replaced by one of the uniformity of plain fonts sourced from the same book. This visual economy shifts attention to the source from which the fonts derive, the book’s pages, and onto the authorial act of stealing them away. The words are uprooted from their original context and relocated in a different dynamic verbal system, where they take on new meaning. Since the verbal perspective – poetic, rhythmic and phonetic meaning – is the main interest of Castellucci, the graphic frame in which she displays her pieces focuses attention on verbal expression, whereas, in visual poetry, the emphasis is traditionally placed on the iconic role of poetry.

Historically, visual poetry was used by artists as a tool for the interpretation of reality. It met the purpose of intellectuals to reclaim language from the capitalist system which, through mass media, had adulterated the role of language as a tool of communication. The original analytical purpose of visual poetry is renewed by Laura Castellucci, who uses it as a tool to study the intimate. The way in which the verbal materials for her collages are chosen involves an introspective procedure that the artist describes as “trusting hearkening”. Alone in her laboratory, the artist skims through the pages of books, stopping only on those words which resonate with her inner voice. The disjecta membra of her subconscious is rebuilt by the artist in a more rational way in order to compose small phrases based on a meaningful syntactic chain. The faith that Laura Castellucci places in her inner voice allows the artist to extract elements of her inner complexity, taking fragments that may have been lost or buried, and to embrace these fragments of her self by creating her visual pieces.

This method would appear to have much in common with a procedure used by psychologists known as poetry therapy. Poetry therapy involves the therapeutic use of poems, narratives, and other spoken or written media to promote well-being and healing. It involves taking advantage of the characteristics of poetry – meaning, words and rhythm – in order to push patients to explore feelings and memories that are buried in their subconscious. The process aims to promote self-reflection and exploration, and to help individuals to make sense of their present situation. The healing effect of words has long been recognised, and it is as old as the first chants sung around the tribal fires of our ancestors. The feelings aroused by the words, rhythm, and the hypnotic quality of the repetition of certain sounds helps to create a “secret place”, a bridge to the unconscious. This is the place from which poems spring, integrating chaotic inner and outer events into one’s own experience. Freud once wrote: “Not I, but the poet discovered the unconscious”. Laura Castellucci’s short poems and phrases, which are simultaneously suspended and animated on the page by graphic rhetoric, stretch the boundaries of poetry and evoke the sense of confusion and precarious balance that characterises the lives of modern humanity. “Poetry operates according to its own essential dynamic”, Laura repeats, quoting one of her favourite poets, Mario Luzi, “which is to destroy the word in order to restore and expand the spirit.”

In poetry there dwells a strange paradox, which is to aspire to permanence using the poorest and oldest means. The poet writes using an unknown side of themself, which they share with everybody else, and which springs from a secret part of their inner being. Poetry is a form of knowledge based on the disclosure of a previous world. Poetry reveals something which was before us, and which connects these two different worlds: from the medium in which we live to the medium in which we think.

 

Tommaso Ranfagni is currently a research fellow at Glasgow University.