I recently started planning a course which I'm tentatively naming "Poetry as Design." In this course I want students to consider poetic practice through the more pragmatic approaches often associated with commercial design. One of the first poets I turned to for material was Louis Zukofsky. Reading his epic A, I could imagine his meticulous formalism melding, yet also troubled by the institutionalization of American handcrafts advocated by the Index of American Design, for which he wrote proto white papers from 1938 to 1940. This federally sponsored art project was an attempt to revive and archive early American decorative arts, handcrafts, metallurgy, and a variety of other object oriented art forms. The thought provoking essays he wrote for the Index are collected in A Useful Art, from the Wesleyan Centennial Edition of the Complete Critical Writings of Louis Zukofsky.
As I compared A's sculpted design with the publicity posters for the Index of American Design, which often synthesized Modernist inspired color schemes and collages, I realized they shared a similar impulse. Though the posters do not as subtly blend commercialism with art, as the artists of the Viennese Secessionists did, the relationship of function to art object displayed on these commercial surfaces, returned me to an important kernel in the discussion of contemporary poetry's value as nonfunctional art object.
The difficulty of Zukofsky's poetry is often attributed to readings of him as a high modernist and Marxist, but even more often it is attributed to the hermetic quality of his formalism. Though each of these approaches is warranted, and they inflect a consideration of his poetry's functionality, his fusion of a highly institutionalized (Federally sponsored) project with this hermetic formalism suggests that he considered poetry's functionality integral to more social formal experiments. His interest in Marxism lead him in a materialist direction, and provided a political aspect to his poetry, but his demand for "objectification" through a meticulous sculpting of the poem raises another pertinent question. If we consider the formally virtuosic craftsmanship of his poetry as a type of design, what is its function in a larger social sphere? I don't have that answer yet, but the questions it inspires are mostly object oriented, which means on one level that the poem must have some practical function. It's craft alone must do something, it must operate with, through, and on culture. I enjoy this idea because it causes me to consider the function of a poem as a relationship between at least three dimensions, much like these American Design posters visualize: aesthetic, material, and functional.
Following the impetus in the analogy Zukofsky makes between poetry, drawing, and sculpture, in Sincerity and Objectification, my course "Poetry as Design" might develop a thinking of the poem as a functional object, sculpted from this entanglement of poetry with the more concrete arts like the craftsmanship of tin and ironwork he describes in his proto white papers. Barry Ahearn finds a connection to materiality in Zukofsky that establishes a clear link between the craftsmanship of poetry and American design work, "The same values [Zukofsky] finds in their craft exist in his..."A" itself...is an American handcraft" (90). Ahearn is right, but I wonder if Zukofsky's analogy torques the relationship between function, object, and poem far enough? I'm not sure that an analogy is still adequate for the contemporary value of poetry as a nonfunctional object. Perhaps it is more helpful to think of poetic handcraft as a speculative materialism, with its roots in the vital matter of American pragmatism.
While I'll leave that line of thought open, Zukofsky's analogy helpfully foregrounds an object relationship to the poem: how does one hold it?; Is the grip soft enough to hold during periods of strenuous use?; Will someone need more than one?; Will it work alone or does it need other components?; How can I shape this for other people to use in their environments?; Will this have multiple affects?: Will it peel potatoes? So to extend this thinking of poetry as design, it might not simply be an analogical relationship, but a particular type of differential object relationship. It is a relationship that equates the design process with substance, and in so doing, focuses on the interrelationships of form, behavior, and environment.
For me, this leads to one of the larger questions for the class, which Zukofsky's design essays and the meeting of institution, art object, and function raise. If we define poetry's revolutionary powers through non-functionality, than the ways in which the poem operates in and on the world are limited. These limited operations tend to aggrandize its ornamental, occasional, deconstructive, and/or socially exclusionary qualities. But if the poem operates functionally, like a chisel, might it operate by crafting small perceptual shifts in materiality that mutually transform the respective functions of poem and object? At the very least, this might promote more of the cross-disciplinary exchange between design and poetry that seems to be dominated by commercialism at this point.
The final advertising poster on the left, of a hand in mid paint stroke, visualizes the exchange I am considering. Oddly prescient of the digital age's capacity for repetition, the thumbnail of the larger image makes the elementary gesture of poetic function, it extracts an "aesthetics" from the framework of the institutionally functional image. However, there are two important differences in this gesture. First, the lines between larger image and thumbnail resemble the harp strings near the paint brush tip. They seem to resonate as the paintbrush flicks over them. This not only changes the brush's function from vehicle to plectrum, but unites the thumbnail and larger image through vibration, a fundamentally destabilizing but connective motion. Second, the repetition of this image, while seeming identical, produces a visual rhythm that "plucks" small perceptual "shifts" from this slight dissimilarity. Though minimal, this vibration marks a point at which the poster is no longer exclusively art, or advertising. It is both. Importantly, this visualization of the elementary gesture connecting art and design employs the functional surface of an institutionalized advertisement.
So for the class "Poetry as Design," we will speculate on poetic practices within the more pragmatic approaches often associated with design. Perhaps the incredible "handcrafts" of Zukofsky's A can be a test of poetry that plucks at the institutional/aesthetic dynamic? A test that reinvigorates a necessary multifunctionality in poetry today and reintroduces its capacity to be used, to operate, like all cultural products. A poetics that is not solely a conflation of art and design, an occasional poetry, nor a neo-formalism but an aestheticized modulation of materiality that extends Zukofsky's formalism into morphogenesis.
I'll update these rough ideas after I've planned and held the course. So, talk soon.
Ahearn, Barry. Zukofsky, Marxism and American Handicraft." Upper Limit Music: The Writing of Louis Zukofsky. Alabama: UP, 1997. 80-93.