Poetry

The publication of Visual Language also closes a particular way of working, initiated in 1967 and largely culminated by 1969; for my creative endeavors in the past year have been largely in sequential forms--closer to fiction than poetry--that still eschew the prosaic form of expository sentences. By 1970, the pieces collected here strike me as very spare; and from this "minimalist" beginning, I would now like to work outwards, not only beyond the single page but also into visual space (such as a piece now in progress, whose most appropriate published form would be as a map). Contemporary art, I once suggested, must be either much more, or much less, than earlier art; and whereas these pieces are largely much less, in the future I should like to emulate the complexity and abundance of, say, the British word-image artist, John Furnival, at his very best. "So far as I am individually concerned and independent of pocket," wrote Herman Melville, "it is my earnest desire to write those sorts of books which are said to fail."

Visual Language (1970)

One fact I should like to note about my creative career is the absence of any early conventional work; there are no juvenilia--no poetry in either traditional or modish forms, no linear fiction, no representational drawings, which is to say none of the trappings that indicate that I mastered some academic lessons. I began my creative career at an extreme position and have, I think, simply moved only further out. The idea of imitating what is taught in school--or either proving myself or establishing my credibility through the mastery of classroom exercises--has never interested me. One reason for this absence is that I came to creative work not from an apprenticeship in poetry and/or fiction and/or visual art, as nearly all creative writers and artists do nowadays, but from the neutral territories of intellectual history and expository prose which, of course, I continue to do as work distinct from my poetry. On the other hand, I think it can be seen that my poetry belongs to a tradition, mostly American, that is concerned with radical inventions within the machinery of poetry--a line that includes Walt Whitman, E. E. Cummings, and Gertrude Stein among the classic Americans; Dick Higgins, Paul Zelevansky, Norman Henry Pritchard II, Bliem Kern, and Harry Polkinhorn among my contemporaries. Indeed, if there is a single ambition for me, it is not to write acknowledged masterpieces or to become a poetry professor but to be the most inventive poet ever in American literature, forging possibilities that others might choose to develop, perhaps surpassing me in excellence. Even though there are few competitors in such pioneering enterprise, I'm not done yet.

Though superficially diverse, not only in media but styles, my creative works still exhibit certain unifying marks: risk-taking, rigor, clarity, structural explicitness, variousness, empiricism, conceptual audacity, signature, avant-garde ambition, noncommercialism, and high (or late) modernism (rather than "postmodernism"). These qualities might also characterize my critical writing, perhaps because they define my personal temper (and are thus as close as the work can be to being me), as well as my creative concern with innovative structure, which is, to no surprise, a principal theme of my arts criticism and my anthologies. Two goals in mind for both my art and my criticism are that they be more complex and yet more accessible, if only to prove that these aims need not be contradictory. Just as no one else has produced a body of work like mine, it is doubtful whether anyone else, even a loyal acolyte, has sufficiently various experience to write anything remotely resembling this introduction. (It is no accident that poetry such as mine is customarily excluded from the anthologies nowadays and why people doing it, including me, are never invited to teach in M.F.A. poetry programs.)

Wordworks (1992)

In the fall of 1967, the poet Paul Carroll, then editing The Young American Poets (1968), asked me for a statement of purposes; and the reply I then supplied still strikes me as appropriate to most of the pieces collected here: "The discovery, or the devising, of expressive shapes for individual words or groups of words that particularly haunt me; or the infusion of words and letters into resonant and/or familiar shapes. In both these respects, the ideal result of my ingenuity would be a word-picture whose meaning and shape were so effectively complimentary that the entire image would have a unified integrity and an indelible impact." In retrospect, the major inadequacy of this statement lay in my failure to distinguish simple and obvious representationalism--most conspicuously popularized by Robert Carola in Playboy--from more complex and unusual visual forms for words. What I discovered in "readings" before live audiences--done with slides in a carousel projector and voice-over narration--was that, while obvious shapes were easily forgotten, the less expected, or more imaginative forms had both greater immediate impact and stronger potential for "after-image," not to speak of more esthetic virtue. This superiority is particularly true of those shapes that not only enhance the legible words but do something else besides, such as referring to other realms of experience or more general processes. I wish I had added, three years ago, that despite its structural constraints, which serve to discipline the imagination, especially away from the temptations of familiar expressions, I find this new medium is capable of representing a wide range of meanings and emotions.

Visual Language (1970)