Objects and the reiterative quality of art
Some poetry functions by facts. Just the facts. We are to take the facts—their great prophet Ezra Pound, often tragically misunderstood, perhaps even by himself, called them “images,” stripping the page of any and all modifiers—and let the objects stand on their own. Whatever meaning can be derived from the presentation of facts is, in the process, de rigueur, subjectivized. The subject reads the objects and interprets them for what they are. “A rose is a rose is a rose is a rose,” etc. But as Gertrude Stein’s famous poetic quip proves, each time the fact is reiterated, the subject sees the same object as something new. Did the object change in its reiteration, or did the subject, the reader, change upon observing the multiple iterations? It is the same word, the same object, so we must assume that it is the subject, not the object, who is mobile. However, in Stein’s poem, the object is now pluralized, and so therefore produces a sequence of set theory to be interpreted ad infinitum. It is not the same object as plural or series of permutable plurals, but nevertheless it forces the reader to subjectivize if the subject is to keep reading and engage with the objects. It is true, the object, in repetition, can hardly be said to remain static, but it nonetheless acts as the seducer, the woman who slowly undresses down to her natural beauty to attract, as does the rose, the subject to her, so that he discovers her, the object of his desire, and all her facets of beauty. In love, it is a cliché to say that women are objects of men’s affection, but the truth is, the woman does actively want to be the object of his desire and sees in this the full assertion of control. So it is in this type of poetry, where the image presents itself as the nude in an art studio: the body of student interpreters forced to subjectivize. She is the actor and they, the acted upon. For these two reasons then, that the image is stripped bare and casts off any modifiers of its own, and forces an act of subjectivization, in this poetry of pure images where the object asserts primacy.
In Luis Buñuel’s The Obscure Object of My Desire, we see this kind of play dramatized, where Fernando, the Spanish protagonist, is psychologically tortured by the woman he is supposed to have captured. He can never truly hold her, but he is maddeningly locked into an ever more tightly wound net he has made for the attempt. So it is with art, with poetry of this kind anyway.
How are we to read poetry then, particularly the lyrical poem? The lyrical poem was robbed by the followers of Pound, in a sense, of its lyrical nature by shortening it so much that it just sits there plopped on a single page in front of us. We can read it from left to right; however, we can, if we readjust and indulge ourselves, see it as a whole object in and of itself. Often, in fact, this is how we see the poem before and after we’re done with it, as a single object to poke at, like an insect on a pin cushion.
Pound, remember, started his career with a series of portraits in his small book Persona. He ended his career not unlike Buñuel’s mad Fernando chasing the object to its infinite extreme in his unfinished Cantos. There his obsession led him as far as Chinese characters, because the letters themselves have developed from pictures. He can be considered brave for such obscurity, like a sort of Magellan who died at sea and is nonetheless credited for completing his circumnavigation. But perhaps he should be disdained as a cautionary tale of obsessive compulsion. He had just driven himself crazy.
The worst example of poetry itself as object is the “concrete poem,” producing the wax apple.
This poem is particularly vomit-inducing precisely because the emphasis is on its artificiality. Not to relegate Ms. Finley May into the category of the deceased daughter Emmeline Grangerford’s poetry about the dead, which Huck Finn happens upon, but I wouldn’t be surprised to find her in the next room, maniacally scribbling out her doggerel. But then, George Herbert’s alter is hardly any better.
So poetry has followed Cezanne’s obsession with still life.
The impressionists reduced everything to still life. Degas, in his extreme, took the most frantic movement of ballet dancers and made them still. Toulouse Lautrec, another extremist, flattened them out. Cezanne, the pivotal modernist, did the only thing you can do at the point you freeze frame everything: break it apart and try to look at it from all angles. Picasso did so even more radically.
We are no longer moved by poetry of this sort. I don’t mean that it doesn’t emotionally engage us, though perhaps it doesn’t. I mean, taken as it wants to be taken—literally—we do not have to turn the page to keep up. It just sits there like a still-life apple. The lines often run together, not stopping until the finale. You could call this movement, if you are the type to read linearly, but you might also eat it whole, as unbroken unity, like a kind of boulder. It’s rounded out, but it doesn’t really roll.
I am reminded of Henry Moore’s sculpture, perhaps best seen in Kansas City’s Nelson-Atkins Museum.
Behold the multifaceted, reclining female nude:
And here Moore is, in his typical reiterative fashion, counting sheep:
The nude is firmly planted. She is reclining, after all. The sheep, however, appear to have movement, connected to the ground as if real. But of course they are lifeless.
The modern taste for image repetition in sequence, particularly in poetry, strikes me as an imitative gesture of the early cartoons of cinema, each image moving just slightly each time to create a scene. Pre-digital movies created from rapid-fire still shots (photography) of, say, a moving horse or train.
Gertrude Stein’s “Sacred Emily,” and much other work of hers, seems to share this effect, and the effect is very different from poetry, say, of the romantics, which move the reader along with rhymes of ancient mariners or the adventures of a young Don Juan. It’s true, “Sacred Emily” is a story, but the story is broken apart for examination, much like in the scenes of Cezanne or of Picasso.
Today, the contemporary American poem seems to be jammed, as if a stick were stuck in the spokes of the proverbial red wheel barrow, sticking to a single image described in excruciating detail within about ten or so lines. The poem is supposed to evoke some emotion in us, but I don’t think it’s really meant to cause any big waves—just a ripple—the kind you get when you skip a stone.
What has the world come to? It has moved from Jean Gebser’s blitzkrieg a-perspectival world of dada, futurists, surrealists, cubism, etc., to churn like a stick in the mud. This in stark contrast to the lightning speed of film, Internet, etc., as if to claim a sacred chapel in the midst of a commercial superhighway. The chapel may be necessary, but what is it doing there? The people driving by are playing rap.
Ideas as metaphysics – a lost cause on materialists?
The poetry and art described above can be called “object art.” Is life anything more than objects? The philosopher and writer Tristan Garcia – I first learned about him through Graham Harman – would like to reduce everything to a thing one or two. Ideas are objects too, he says, and are not to be given primacy over any other object. Everything is a thing in a two-dimensional flatland of objects which compose our tangible or conceptual world.