Systematic Poetics

A Personal Statement (Summer '08)

by Lonely Christopher


Bruce Andrews posits that for a structuralist poetics, “the medium of writing is language, understood as a system,” and that, “Just as representational literature (dominant form) rests on an implicit definition of words as largely transparent tools of reference, other kinds of writing practice correspond to [a] relational definition of the medium (sign/language).”* When I began to focus more on the functions of form and meaning than on semantic referents I considered my work relative to process --- and began to use words and complexes of signification as units of composition. The project that resulted in the book Vocabulary was an attempt to discover a writerly Minimalism that applied the practices of artists in other mediums like Philip Glass and Richard Serra. I have experienced negative reactions to Vocabulary by those who looked at it and declared it to be a bunch of unrelated words, assembled randomly, that don’t cohere into significant meanings. I tried to restrict my use of form to the measurement of sentences of prose. While this admittedly forwent something comparable to the complicated architecture of a piece by Glass, I think it succeeded in articulating a writerly Minimalism that, through the microscopic focus of its composition, allowed the work to be textual and systematic (insofar as language was expressed as a system). It might be easy to assume the writing in Vocabulary was thoughtlessly thrown together and doesn’t reflect much authorial intent, skill, or effort --- but the fifteen poems took five months for me to complete and constitute what I consider to be a major project in the context of my writing in the past three years. I was rather frustrated when I later discovered Bruce Andrews (of the Language Poets) and learned that my concerns as a writer for process, structure, and the materiality of the word are not unique. I think that I once endorsed labeling my poetry as process-based, or Minimalist, or relative to the present wave of Conceptual Writing, but I do not subscribe to a movement or work amongst peers that share a similar structural or systematic aesthetics. I think it has become common for some to introduce my writing to others as “Language Poetry” (I am even guilty of making the comparison when feeling especially lazy around strangers), but that is a misnomer of convenience inasmuch as that movement is tied to a specific time and politics unrelated to me¾one of the only significant general correlatives being that the achievements of Gertrude Stein are foundational to the development of my poetics. Recently I was described as a writer who “believes in the genius of language as a system” and applies that principle to my work. My poetry includes abstractions like, “District hypotheses meat bracelet soar / And palming maladaptive front hotel,” while my fiction is, on the level of composition, as concretely referential as the sentence, “She did not say anything because she was not thinking anything, she was just accepting what was there in front of her: a perfectly white dog, taller than any dog Martha had ever seen, with a coat that shone from the florescent lighting and intent azure eyes that watched her.” I think my fiction constitutes a project to critically analyze the structure and function of the medium in a way that uses the formal aspects that define fiction to create a conceptual (instead of an Aristotelian) narrative. The project that developed from the completion of Vocabulary (and the collaborative work that directly followed it, I Found You There: A Children’s Book of Faces) is a cycle of 154 English sonnets. I am continuing with a style that articulates a systematic language but using the structure of a sonnet in iambic pentameter as an architectural form that shapes that language. Previously my compositional practice was predicated on conceptual conceits but uninvolved with poetic form --- as Kenneth Goldsmith said of my approach in Vocabulary, I was using “constraints, but then in the end kind of kicking the thing away and letting it stand.” Yet I think poetic form has a place in a systematic approach to language. In the sonnet cycle it causes form to exist in contradistinction to content as they articulate each other. The model, historically referential, is re-appropriated in a way that alters its constitution (devaluing signification while enabling modes of functionality). When this is understood as comparable to canonized achievements in painting --- Warhol’s silk screens, Rauschenberg’s white paintings, Pollack’s dripping, Rothko’s color fields, and so on --- the question of why important developments in language have been retarded by derision and lack of interest becomes a problem. In my conversation with Goldsmith he suggested that writing is a more conservative medium because, “language is the means through which we communicate with each other. If we disrupt that communication flow then chances are, according to the conservative idea, we can never understand each other. [...] We can’t make business together, for example, if we don’t have a common language. It’s very sacred to a lot of people so they get very threatened by rupture in language.” Yet I am not sympathetic toward anyone who refuses to make room in his understanding for poetic developments simply because they use the same material (language) as semantic communication (instead of paint, musical notes, et cetera). I think everybody is advanced enough to separately understand and critically engage with the daily operations of language, structuralist poetics, and the qualities of canonized literature. (I am frustrated by anyone who rejects contemporary approaches to language in poetry because he believes they implicitly devalue canonized work predicated on a different understanding --- personally I appreciate Gertrude Stein and William Shakespeare.) While Goldsmith, whose practices of Conceptual Writing are seminal in that movement, acts rather defensive in insisting a work be suitably definable by its contemporariness to be important (this devalues, for instance, the writing of a novel --- which he calls a Victorian form), I feel that art can grow from discourses amongst disparate approaches and across mediums. I wrote this as a reaction to recent requests that I summarize, define, or explain my writing, but there is no singular explication of a linguistic or semiotic theory of poetics that would render my work elementarily definitional. To explain my work as structural or systematic is reductive, but almost purposelessly so because it often leads to the question, “What does that mean?” At an event where I was reading from my chapbook Satan somebody asked me if I considered myself a poet. After reading what was to become the first part of Vocabulary at an event held for Richard Loranger somebody approached me and asked, “Is that supposed to make sense?” When I become deeply involved in offering explanations I begin to feel challenged by a line from a poem by Loranger, “So tired of [...] those who see poetry as a form of poetics and not a form of life and light, no longer poets but poeticists who advance poetry for the sake of poetics.” But I will say in answer: yes I am a poet; that depends on what is meant by “make sense” (I suspect that “subscribe to the same referential modes of signification used in daily interpersonal communication” is meant, in which case I would say not often or exactly); and there is a difference between poetics and pretension. The “genius of language as a system” is foundational to my perspective, but I don’t write theory I write poetry.

* from Paradise & Method: Poetics & Praxis (Northwestern U Press, 1996), taken out of the context of Andrews’ actual argument and repurposed, sort of.