No, this isn’t Lotte Lenya. Eileen Myles enjoys ‘post-modern’ moment at the Serpentine. Du hast kein Hertz, Kunstler, und ich liebe dich so.
50-some poet, 36-hour poetry marathon at the Serpentine Gallery in London on October 17–18. Part of Caroline Bergvall’s dispatch on Harriet follows:
Although a number of the chosen artists are known for dealing with writing and language pertinently and intrinsically as part of their artwork (Susan Hiller, Tacita Dean, Sean Landers, Jimmie Durham, Jonas Mekas, Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster), it was something of a disappointment to see so many of them react with undisguised anxiety at that same word, “poetry.” Otherwise lucid, articulate artists found themselves in the throes of open self loathing, “I don’t know poetry,” “I dont know what to read,” choosing to calm the audience by reading from known values such as Eliot, Ted Hughes, Lorca, and Hamburger’s Celan, rather than tracing their own engagement with writing as part of the event. Here, poetry itself was treated as a historical, in the sense of acquired, decorative, rather than productive, mode of functioning.
What happened? Tim Griffin, poet and editor of Artforum, said in his opening remarks that poetic investigation might provide a needed grammar for the arts in a period of crisis. This insightful point was echoed by Eileen Myles, who reminded us that a number of poets in the late-20th and early-21st centuries have certainly at times sought out arts environments for a wider, looser, more open renewal of their forms and modes, but that it was now time for the visual arts seeking out writing and literature to query their more profound questions about writing. How and why might they be courting poets and poetry, how and why might they wish to including reading and writing as part of their practices, and more pointedly, what were poets doing at the Serpentine?
So what’s the problem? Here again, it seems to me that the event confirmed that the debates between art and poetry remain superficial and usually kept on a back foot, or at arm’s length. Apart from artists or writers who specifically develop ways of working across these disciplines or modes, the cultural status quo is still very much, and in an often unexamined way, one of irreconcilable historic and formal differences between the literary and visual arts. The mood was certainly very different a year ago when the Serpentine hosted a large retrospective by the filmmaker, painter, and poet, Derek Jarman.
The prejudice of much art towards poetry is that it is inherently passeistic when not informed by artistic modes. The question of writings by artists is that writing is an instrumentalized, functional activity. This ignores the fact that the whole question of applied (or writerly) language is also that of histories of language and of literary and semiotic applications. All this forms a specific skills base that is indeed pertinent to the demagogic and mediatized rhetorics of our times.
The reluctance of the artists present to engage with poetic material and the absence of more British poets effectively created the feeling that the pink elephant in this open-air enclosure was language itself. Or rather, a fear of language, a fear about not controlling a knowledge of language that demands its conscious, careful, and studied semiotic and semantic manipulations across a whole range of environments. The fact that poetic and literary cultures in Britain are still resolutely separate from other artforms, unless dealing with theatrical performance, certainly plays an important part in generating this sort of sclerosis between verbal and non-verbal arts.
—Caroline Bergvall, October 26, 2009
I agree totally with what you say. Poetry is seen as a pejorative term by most people in general and perhaps by some artists. Or seen by artists as an inferior discipline which cannot achieve the same ends. I often talk to people who can talk to me at ease about contemporary art but when they find out I write and read poetry look at me like I’m a stamp collector and ask ‘what do I write about’ – meaning ‘what’s the topic of my poems?’ Is it about war? or maybe about seeing the strangeness in the everyday.
This is due to the canons of art and poetry not matching. Many people simply are not aware of contemporary poetry (hopefully this event will have alerted them) .Anyone who hasn’t dismissed the popular canon of poetry has no knowledge of possibilities: but they might well know text art. The problem lies with the fact that the popular canon of art is essentially contemporary whereas the popular canon of poetry is modernist (and almost to a state of regression): dull or embarrassing. —James Davies (Harriet comment)