Tag Archives: cy twombly

Sarah Kelly’s ‘cables / to the telescopes’

This has a number of disclaimers. Last year I wrote about Sarah Kelly’s work in the ‘Better than Language’ anthology and made these pertinent observations:

In this instance the halo effect refers to qualities that we like in ourselves that we see in others. It is something managers are told to guard against when selecting candidates for employment, we are likely to select those that appear to be most like us regardless of whether they are the best candidate for the job.

The thing is that Sarah Kelly is writing the kind of poetry that I would be writing if I didn’t think that poetry is currently too poetic. The other thing is that Sarah Kelly is much better at writing the kind of poetry that I would be writing if I wasn’t making poems out of sketch map labels and Gillian Welch set lists. This does at least have the advantage of not having to write poetic poetry ever again which is a bit of a relief but it’s also a bit weird because I feel as if I know what’s going on in this work at an unusually deep level so I read it as a kind of co-conspirator rather than as an ordinary passer-by.

Obviously, this stuff is absolutely brilliant and will single-handedly save the poetic sort of poetry from itself. It fulfils and surpasses all of the Bebrowed criteria:

  • short lines;
  • absence of titles;
  • absence of big or foreign words;
  • a satisfyingly sparse intensity
  • exceptional word choice;
  • great endings.”

The next part of the disclaimer (before we get to the digression) relates to the fact that we have corresponded fitfully since the first piece was posted and I remain of the view that Sarah’s work is essential.

The bad news is that I might have to start writing ordinary / normal poetry again instead of culling sketch maps and set lists because Sarah’s work has taken a new direction which means that there is now nobody writing the kind of poetry that I would write if I believed in poetry. The good news is that this new direction is stunning and shows to the rest of us (me) that our thinking is really one-dimensional even when we’re trying to be original.

Set out below are three images from a series currently entitled ‘cables / to the telescope’-

page 3 from the cables series sarah kelly

page 4 from the cables series sarah kelly

page 8 from the cables series sarah kelly

This is what Sarah has to say “which is a collection of around 35 poems called ´cables/to the telescopes´ using collograph too and the same technique of putting everything inside the paper rather than inscribing it upon the surface. Here are some of the images, the plan had been to turn them into a kind of artists books, but we´ll see. For now, it´s hugely rewarding and pushing me in different directions which feels like movement, and movement for me is at the very crux of it all”. Sarah has been learning to make paper and these pieces have come from that, the key thing for me is the idea of putting text inside the paper as part of the process of making the paper which sets off a whole range of thoughts related to good wrongness because text isn’t supposed to have three dimensions, it isn’t supposed to be tactile and it should exist on the surface of things rather than within them.

In the earlier post I identified Sarah as a co-conspirator because I seemed to grasp at an intuitive level what she might be ‘about’ and this remains the case, the possibilities from this new work are certainly making me think again about text as image and about text as thing.

I now need to digress, artists are better at putting poetry in pictures than poets are at putting pictures in poems. Anselm Kiefer and Cy Twombly both incorporated lines from poetry into some of their more famous works, books have been written about Kiefer’s use of Celan and books will be written about Twombly’s use of Rilke. Poets have made pattern poems and concrete poems and have written poems about paintings and to accompany paintings. Some time ago I was of the view that poets should steer well clear of the visual, that what mattered where the words on the page and what they meant and that anything else is just distraction. Then I came across the work of Erica Baum which seemed to suggest that image and text (or image of text) can function as a viable (whatever that might mean) alternative to the poem on the page. I then had a look at Caroline Bergvall’s work and decided that I want to be Caroline Bergvall so I thought I was reasonably au fait with this corner of things poetic. Sarah’s work has thrown this into doubt because the text-as-thing within instead of on the page seems to reconfigure my assumptions and remind me of how little I know and how deeply unoriginal my thinking has been. This reconfiguration seems to have caught some of the Whitehead notion of process.

Digression- I spent some time yesterday recording a layered reading of a poem, I did this with two friends who own the equipment. What was interesting / satisfying for me was the way in which we were able to work together to get something from out of my head and into the real world. I was pleased that this process (which was deeply tentative) worked but the ‘doing’ seemed as important / interesting as the audio file.

Sarah’s new work is about process and showing that movement through to final object which can be seen and felt across the contours of the paper and the text and what’s just becoming additionally interesting is how and when you decide that the object is ‘finished’ / ‘complete’ and I am fighting the opportunity to take this too far down the Whitehead route.

Unusually, I haven’t discussed the words and this is in part because of the brilliance of this particular conceit but also because I think I need to find a different way of writing in order to do justice to the material and it seems that conventional enthusiasm isn’t going to be enough.

Charles Olson and the Maximus Poems

Two months ago the only thing that I knew about Olson was that he had taught Cy Twombly at Black Mountain College in the early fifties and that Twombly had dedicated a painting to him. I then noticed that reference is made to the Maximus Poems on the back of the first Bloodaxe edition of Prynne’s poems. I read a bit more about Olson on the web and bought the Maximus volume edited by George F Butterick and published in 1985.

I have to say that the Maximus experience has been a complete revelation. This is a huge sprawling work centred on the town of Gloucester in Massachusetts and describes the town’s history and its geography in great detail. It has been variously described as ‘an essential poem in the postmodern canon’ and a weak example of  ‘sub-poundian’ verse. I don’t think it’s either of these (by definition you can’t have a postmodern canon  and it certainly isn’t weak) but I do think it’s an entirely honest attempt to write about space in a very original way.

This may not sound like much but space is fascinating and something we give far too little consideration to. Some of the finest writing over the last fifty years has been about what we do with and how we react to where we are (Henri Lefebvre, David Harvey, Ed Soja). Olson is one of the very few poets to give space its due. He traces the birth and growth of Gloucester both by means of its only industry (fishing) but also records the way that land and buildings were passed on from one generation to the next.

Olson lived in Gloucester and isn’t at all afraid to place himself in the poems. We see him on fishing boats, we see him wandering about the town and its environs, being struck by wonder at the strangeness and majesty of the sea. Someone else has observed that Olsen felt that the past was always present in the present and there are attempts to express this in the poem but what comes across most clearly to me is the celebration of place in all its contexts.

There are some longueurs, I could have done quite so many references to myth although some are quite effective, but the overall effect is a celebration of place. Nearly at the end of my second reading of this epic, I know what it is like to be in Gloucester both now and in the seventeenth century.

What I don’t understand is how this magnificent work has fallen from grace. Olson had his advocates in Robert Creeley, Ed Dorn and Jeremy Prynne yet ‘Maximus’ seems not to have inspired others to follow suit (with the exception of Dorn’s ‘Gunslinger’) in writing spatially. Perhaps that’s because we’re still culturally obsessed with time (one of the things that postmodernism was meant to overcome) or because Olson has become ‘infected’ by the stain of Ezra Pound.

It’s no secret that Olson knew and admired Pound nor is it any secret that Pound was ferociously anti-semitic but the Cantos and the Maximus series (apart from both being long and ambitious) are as different as chalk and cheese both in terms of ‘voice’ and subject matter yet the stain still lingers. The other problem is that the culture we live in has no time for big poetry which takes more than five minutes to read and is layered with meaning – this is our loss as poetry should have space for the ambitious and the majestic.