Saturday, December 25, 2010

Reading Balzac Backwards: The Poet as Painter

Balzac's classic short story The Unknown Masterpice, the painter Frenhofer says to his friend Porbus, "Never forget, Porbus, we're not just artists, we're poets!" I've always wanted to say the same thing in reverse (to whatever poet happens to be close at hand): "never forget, we're not just poets, we're painters!" Poets and painters share a good amount of common ground: an obsession with "lines," methods of "coloring," modes and mechanics of "rhythm," ins and outs of form, formal processes. Writing-space, like canvas, is two-dimensional, and poetry these days veers wildly between abstraction and representation. Most would associate "representation" with Centrist poetry and "abstraction" with experimental verse, but of course there's a certain amount of overlap, and boundaries tend to disappear when we use these broad, universal terms.

So, if poets are painters, how do they become "painterly"? The immediate answer would seem to be a recourse to "projective" modes, wherein the physical appearance of the poem has an impact above and beyond the words themselves. But a problem has developed for experimental poets of my generation; we tend to write "left-justified" because we all publish on the Net, and Net publishing finds "projective" writing problematic. Blogger won't accept it, HTML tricks are a pain in the ass to learn, it's simpler to avoid "painterly" appearances. Can "left-justified" poems be painterly? Well, yes; I tend to think of 
Rothko'srectangles & Pollock's "allover" compositions, which exude a kind of muscle and heft, a contradictory, impenetrable earth and airiness that good "left-justified" poetry sometimes replicates.

But doesn't that align us against LANGUAGE poetry, all the Old Guard? They rebelled purposefully against "left-hand margin" poetry, now here we are taking it up again, for our own particular, very practical reasons. Just goes to show how much poetry is born out of contemporary necessities, rather than "free-wheeling" improvisations and inspirations. We can't paint with the jagged meandering menace of 
De Kooningbecause he finds no echo in "left-justification." Barnett Newman, with his "zips", is someone we find some affinity with. Likewise, we might find ourselves returning to Eliot, who leaned towards "left-justification", rather than proto-projective Pound. Now, it's taken for granted that young Centrist poets (whoever they might be) won't have this problem-- they're writing for print journals. The irony, of course, is that "left-justified" is a trademark of Centrist verse. So, on a surface level, there may seem to be a homogenous quality developing in the coming generation and their work. But limitations are a challenge to invention, so us experimental "painters" have to find new ways to invent-- new kinds of lines, new rhythms, new "colorings," etc. It won't be easy. Or, some technology might come along that makes the "left-justified" problem disappear, and we can all go projective again. Actually, the more I think about it the more I enjoy the idea of a forced "left-justification" rule. Limitations can be liberating, just as too much freedom can be a burden. In any case, it will be curious to see what develops. Keep your eyes on the left hand margin, folks....

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