Discretely Concrete

[An essay I wrote in response to this class]:

I remember going to art galleries as a child. It was the modern art that always fascinated me. Not because it sparked new ideas in my young head about the nature of humanity or the universe. Not because it was innovative–I couldn’t have told you what kind of traditions it was working with or against. Not because it made me ask the Big Questions. No, those large monochrome canvasses or painted lines or triangles or circles in circles both inspired and enraged me (yes, enraged) because this kind of art made it clear to me that art has absolutely nothing to do with talent, only with how cleverly said artist convinces you to swallow his bullshit.

You see, it’s not about the piece itself. It’s about the justification for doing it, for presenting it in whatever way it is presented. I am beginning to feel the same way about concrete poetry. My seven-year-old nephew can pluck some playful words out of the air or a dictionary and arrange them into a column or a square or a circle in a circle, and I bet that some unknowing critic or professor somewhere could convince a group of graduate students of the absolute brilliance of how it comments on the lives that we are living or not to their fullest potential. This is not to say that I consider my seven-year-old nephew to be some kind of no-talent hack. This is just to say that often, in art, the analysis is the defining factor of the work, and I don’t believe in that. I believe that a poet, artist or musician has an undeniable need to create beauty, to experience it, share it, communicate it. What does it say about the artist if the message doesn’t get through? According to standards of innovation, this is genius–obviously these artists are speaking wisdom so profound that it would be heresy to actually understand the message. What?

For example, part of Julie Patton’s poem, “Teething on Type,” includes one page that is nothing but a giant, outlined letter “B.” It takes up a whole page and inspires nothing more in me than the desire to color it in. It is fine for a child’s learning book, but why should I consider this as art? Where is the necessary talent, creating beauty? Why Julie’s word processor and not another? I am finding it difficult to stomach a lot of this bullshit. And while I do admit the possibility that these people are just geniuses beyond my limited and feeble comprehension, that Finley’s “Star/Steer” is actually communicating something that I cannot hope to grasp, somehow I doubt that I am entirely lacking in the intelligence department. I believe that if these messages are worth anything, they should be accessible–even to folks like me.

As I consider my own experiments in concrete poetry, I find it increasingly difficult to take myself seriously. It might be arrogant, but I hold the opinion that my talents deserve better than this. Every idea I have for a “concrete” poem seems too simple. So simple that I am positive that it has been done and over done long before I entered this scene. Somebody has most certainly written this word in this way with this intention before me. How can I feel confident in this? Even if it turns out not to be true?

Here is one of my concrete poems:

W I T H O      T

Has this been done?

How about this:

W    T H O U T

Am I an innovative genius or just a clever wordsmith? Does this reveal something about my life or yours? Who has used this word in this way before now? Is it plagiarism if my intentions are different than the original “artist’s”? And if they are, can my bullshit survive guilt free?

I understand the significance and power of pieces like “Silencio,” and I take pleasure in the simplicity of “Gloria.” However, as much as works like “WaveRock” and “Acrobats” amuse me, I do not understand how they are poems. I can see the visual art in them, but I cannot experience these works as I feel a poem deserves to be experienced. I am having trouble making poems of this kind. I’ve strung together words for the play of them and the sound, yet I cannot take these clusters seriously as poems. Perhaps I must argue for an entirely new word or label–other than poetry, other than art. Maybe I could accept a new word for what they call “concrete poetry” that didn’t step on Poetry’s toes, conventions and traditions. However, I do not feel that the creation of the new vocabulary is up to me at this time.

I have grown more uncomfortable with the discussion of concrete and visual poetry as poetry the longer we look at examples. The more we see and discuss and attempt to create, the more I squirm in my chair. Instead of giving rise to my artistic outpourings of passionate intensity, I find myself in philosophical turmoil. I am questioning my own poetic intentions and ambitions, questioning the nature of art itself. What if all artists are just con artists? What is art but small talk? A bullshit conversation between those who are pretentious enough to believe that they are creative geniuses because they don’t want to get a real job? And as for talent, I guess it does take a certain amount of talent to convince enough of us to go along for the ride–despite the fact that we’ll only end up back where we started, a little bit dizzier and wondering where all our pocket change went.

[I then proceeded to make a “poem” that draws the word “art” from the word “bullshit.” Concrete enough for ya?]

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