Tuesday, June 28, 2005

The message

Marjorie Perloff, interviewed by David Clippinger:

DC: Why do you think abstract art is more accepted than abstract poetry? Does the aura of the museum offer a form of validity that poetry cannot access, or does the fissure go beyond the issue of institutions?

MP: I think there are two answers to this question. (1) visual art, abstract or otherwise, is much more accepted by the public than is poetry. Ours is increasingly a visual culture: a few years ago, I went to a Magritte exhibition at the Armand Hammer Museum here in Los Angeles. It was packed; one couldn't get near the paintings. But if one asked the same people to read surrealist poetry, comparable to Magritte's painting, they would be at a total loss and say the poetry was much too difficult, too obscure. Thus Max Ernst's paintings and frottages are Big Business whereas André Breton's poems are barely known in the U.S. And the same would be true of Dada or Italian Futurism. Kurt Schwitters, for that matter, is well known as a painter, but his poems remain almost unknown!

But (2) "abstraction" in language is a very different thing from abstract painting. I take it by abstract poetry you mean non-sensical? Like Clark Coolidge or Bruce Andrews? I think the hostility to such poetry has to do with the simple fact that words (unlike paint strokes or dabs of color) inevitably have meanings, and so the reader inevitably wants to "make sense" of a poem and is frustrated when he/she can't. I don't think it's the aura of the museum versus the university classroom. Then, too, poetry is taught especially badly: in even the best high schools the only modern poets read are Robert Frost or Langston Hughes or maybe Elizabeth Bishop and Sylvia Plath. There is no training in HOW TO READ whereas art history classrooms do better by paintings and sculpture. . . . we suffer from the awful high school (and also college teaching) which reads poems for their "messages." I always have to remind students not to think in terms of "the message."
You can read the interview by clicking here.

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