Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Wednesday, 17 January 2007

"Painterly Abstraction in Modernist American Poetry" by Charles Altieri

Quite a few US poets of the later 20th century were interested in contemporary art (some of the New York school wrote Art Criticism). What are the similarities between their poetry and the art? Altieri says that "Pound and Stevens ... became for poetry what Picasso and Mondrian were to painting" (p.10) and that "What poets learn from visual artists is usually not what those artists see in one another's work" (p.9). So what do they see? On p.38 he identifies 6 recurrent traits in abstract art

  • foregrounding of the structuring activity of the artist - "in Mondrian and, to a considerable degree, in Stevens' late work, there is simply no dramatic energy except for the constructive energies composing the surface" (p.38)
  • compensating for "lack of dramatic intensity or ideological resonance" by use of "direct, self-reflexive energy and conceptual scope" (p.38)
  • self-sustaining artistic legitimacy without relying on mimetic principles or "received cultural mythology" (p.38)
  • making the work "difficult to correlate with the assumptions about personality and the predicates used to make social judgements fundamental to representational art in Western society" (p.39)
  • "The art is not offered as an interpretation of experience, but as a pure state" (p.39)
  • "the sense that the need to respond to modern cultural conditions required a different, more ambitious, and more problematic concept of the artist's purposes than had been the case even for the Romantics" (p.40)

Can the non-representational be expressive? If so, can it ever be expressive enough to replace mimetic art? Such "questions once posed by Romanticism can now be pursued again without the risk of embarrassment and self-disgust" (p.41)

I skimmed some sections I didn't understand, and couldn't appreciate the supplied explanations of work by Malevich, Stein and WC Williams, but still found much of use. He doesn't try to supply historical evidence of influence between artists and poets. Such influence needn't be deep, and certainly needn't be coherent. It can merely be a trigger, a realisation that something is "allowed". An appreciation in principle of a type of art doesn't imply liking that art (Valery for example, liked nothing more experimental than Degas, but wrote about younger artists. Proust's tastes were rather conservative, as were Yeats'). Lineages of influence covered involve Kant, Wordsworth, Keats, Manet , Flaubert, Baudelaire (who liked Delacroix), Mallarmé ("deduce all poetry from the very principle of language"), Valéry ("Utility dismisses reality; the meaning of objects dismisses their form"), Cezanne, Mondrian, Duchamp, Eliot, Picasso, Stein, Pound (who backed Whistler), Yeats, Moore, and CW Williams.

Romanticism loosened the primacy of mimetic art both by its emphasis on the artist's vision, and on the striving for Unity with Nature. "Interpreting Modernist abstraction ties one to an essentially Romantic project of cultural cure, but also requires the continual jettisoning of Romantic metaphors and Romantic visions of how the individual psyche finds itself empowered to proclaim its freedom from the socially dominant disciplines of inquiry" (p.57).

"Impressionism marked the climax of a movement that started in the 13th century. the greatest revolution in art since Graeco-Roman impressionism became Byzantine formalism" (p. 46). Like Romanticism, it sparked off seemingly contradictory responses. Renoir thought that "What seems most significant to me about our movement is that we have freed painting from the importance of the subject ... without needing to tell a story". Impressionism as well as having faith in truth-to-perceptions also set off an interest in color. This in turn, via Cezanne (and fortified by an intellectual distrust of appearances) led to Modernism and Abstract Art.

Picasso's collage cubism renewed the focus on the material, tying in with contemporary philosophy where there is "no sharp separation between the material properties of paint or words and their semantic function" (p.55). "By fragmenting not the illusion but the supporting material itself, one could make visible a logic at the very core of perception" (p.206).

Form and language began to be seen as alternatives to content and characters. Flaubert at times had similar aims ("What seems beautiful to me, what I should like to write, is a book about nothing, a book dependent on nothing external, which would be held together by the strength of its style"). Fry (in "Abstraction and Artifice") thought that "the appeal to 'pure' or cosmic feeling is indicative of a kind of mysticism not uncommon among abstract artists of a geometric persuasion", but less extreme appeals were common. Gabo wrote that "The apparently ideal companionship between Form and Content in the old Art was indeed an unequal division of rights" and that "elements of a visual art possess their own forces of expression". So "Constructivist abstraction foregrounds syntactic activity (which may have representational content) in order to encourage a situation where formal properties take on extraformal content". The work may need initially to puzzle the viewer - "The work invites the audience not to treat it simply as an aesthetic emotion, but to ask the prior question of how and why this refusal of traditional aesthetic content can pretend to carry expressive significance" (p.50). "By depriving the work of any action within the scene, the artist invites us to identify with emotion projected by the painterly hand extending the scenic into the symphonic" (p.174).

But the viewer/reader can reject this invitation! Some of the more pointed critiques of Modernism comes from Postmodernism (p.380-383) - "No one model for Postmodernist poetry prevails today. Instead, two radically opposed models (with several variants) compete for hegemony. The first takes the basic demand on contemporary poetry to be continuing the ideals of avant-garde experiment, but adjusting them to meet the social and epistemological conditions that contemporaneity imposes. The second insists on a conservative faith that poetry best addresses its society by relying on fairly constant ideals of lyrical expression. Ironically, each of these perspectives bases its appeal on claims that it can liberate us from what prove to be almost the same set of 'Modernist errors' ..."

  1. "modernist poetry negates a vital sense of life, because of excessive formalism"
  2. "The modes of presenting human agency become severely problematic"
  3. "The conjunction of impersonality with the imperative to formal autonomy severely reduces the social and psychological powers that can be claimed for poetry"
  4. "The ultimate sign of the Modernist failure is the conservative political sympathies that so many Modernist poets adopted late in their careers"

On p.222 Altieri points out the particular problems that modernist writers faced: e.g. that words (unlike notes, colours, or shapes) have everyday meanings. He doesn't mention using letters rather than words as the basic unit. Another problem is that "writers can try to imitate the visual arts' ability to express affective aspects of material substance, but do they not therefore sacrifice much of the power and significance that they otherwise could muster?" Besides, isn't this overvaluing experiment?

He looks at some specific writers, noting their contrasting responses to similar problems.

  • Eliot's "Preludes" (unlike "Prufrock") don't tie the imagery to any single speaker; does that make it more "universal"?
  • "Williams' rendering in language the full implications of Cezanne's break from the logic of the window, however, there are serious problems in his work, at its most ambitious" (p.223).
  • "Pound's work, say, from Lustra to the last Cantos, is the longest working out in any art of premises like those of Cubism", (Kenner, "The Pound Era", p.142).
  • Both Moore and Yeats came to distrust the Image

In the end, "Such work ... shows how the Modernists manage to recuperate, on very different grounds, Wordsworth's constitutive eloquence, Keats's projection of imaginative states where intensity breaks down all borders between the empirical and the transcendental, Flaubert's versions of Kantian autonomy, and Baudelaire's mobile subject, now no longer bound by the pathos that haunts both his struggles with Romantic expressivism and Eliot's efforts to find a transcendental alternative to that plight" (p.224), finally concluding that "poetry had to be abstract" to avoid "a tendency to exalt the private sensibility" and "simple or melodramatic experimental terms such as those of Futurism or Expressionist painting" (p.385)

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