28 August 2006


I have sometimes in the past been puzzled, or more accurately, annoyed, by people who question the borrowing of form or process from another poet. Most often that questioning has to do with forms that have been, sometime in the last hundred years or so, considered avant-garde or experimental. In other words, the claim has been, it’s not OK to use a form that looks or sounds like a Gertrude Stein stanza in meditation, or a Jackson Mac Low deterministic process, or a John Cage mesostic; yet it seems perfectly all right, with critics who don’t like such borrowings, to write a sonnet or a sestina or a villanelle. So maybe this is just a case of what Charles Bernstein calls official verse culture dismissing what is outside its veins and arteries. Yet I’ve even heard poets I consider experimental proclaiming that they can’t do a certain thing in a poem because it sounds too much like Stein, or because Charles Olson did that, or some such thing. Don’t forms created in the last hundred years deserve as much chance to become a part of the received tradition, there for use, as forms developed in the Renaissance or 18th Century or some other period in the more distant past? Doesn't one use a particular form because she or he feels the writing in process has a great need to use that form? And why is such a repository of forms and processes important, anyway? Well, maybe it’s not, or maybe the question isn’t the form, whether experimental or “traditional,” maybe it’s the spirit in which the form is used. This is why I was glad to come across, in this weekend’s reading, the following by Wasily Kandinsky, from “On the Question of Form,”

To use a borrowed form is called a crime, a deception, by the critics, by the public, and often by artists. In reality, however, this is only the case if the “artist” employs these borrowed forms without internal necessity, thereby creating a dead, lifeless semblance of a work of art. If, however, the artist makes use of one or another “borrowed” form, according to inner truth, in order to express his inner emotions and experiences, he is exercising his right to make use of any form that is internally necessary for him—no matter whether it is an object of everyday use, a heavenly body or a form that has been materialized in art by another artist.

This whole question of “imitation” is in any case far from having the significance that criticism attaches to it. The living remains. The dead disappears.

Indeed, the further we look into the past, the fewer imitations, sham works we find. They have mysteriously disappeared. Only the genuine art-objects remain, i.e., those that have within their bodies (form) a soul (content).

Further, if the reader looks at any object he pleases on his table (even if it is only a cigar butt), he will at once notice the same two effects. No matter where and when (in the street or in church, in the sky or the water, in the stable or in the woods), the same two effects will everywhere become manifest, and in every case the inner sound wll be independent of the external significance.

The world sounds. It is a cosmos of spiritually affective beings. Thus, dead matter is living spirit.

(Lindsay, Kenneth C., and Peter Vergo, eds., Kandinsky: Complete Writings on Art. De Capo Press, 1994. pp. 249-250.)


At 11:56 AM, Blogger Jordan said...

Great for the landscape, Charles.

At 9:53 PM, Blogger chris said...

We (i say, but must also echo, who is we?!) seem overly preoccupied with and concerned to be (considered) new sometimes. I'm not sure if it has more to do with the rhetorical effect of being in a particular community that values the new, or if it is that familiarity with tradition and form create a crisis for the artist, a challenge to be taken up, overcome, transcended. Or, maybe that way of thinking on it is also limited/limiting. Well, just musing here. Charles, I enjoyed reading this--thanks for posting it.

Best Wishes,

Chris Murray

At 10:58 PM, Anonymous lisa bowden said...

then the same argument could be made for any other art form (why study light with oil paint using rectangular canvases if it has already been mastered a century ago?) why make a mark, speak a word? such stake-claiming, art-flag waving sounds so corporate, so proprietary, so nihilistic.

joy has everything to do with artmaking; and whose got a corner on that?

At 7:22 AM, Blogger kevin.thurston said...

the most important comment of wk (really, it is the most important....to me)the further we look into the past, the fewer imitations, sham works we find. They have mysteriously disappeared. Only the genuine art-objects remain
when people criticize now, i think it is due to the huge amount of work that anyone can see in their present. did that make any sense?

At 11:14 AM, Blogger charles said...

Kevin, yes that makes sense. And I tend to agree with you. But it's also a bit tricky, as when you think back 100, 200, 400 years ago — who had the means & time to write poetry & make art? In some cultures, at least, those who had the means to become readers, the educated few, those who had some time for creative work. And now, at least in our own American culture, there has been an explostion in who can and does make art. Does that mean a higher proportion of contemporary work will remain with us? I don't know, but I think the notion that time winnows out the works that are "sham" is, while not false, only a part of the complex picture.

At 10:04 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


At 10:05 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...



Post a Comment

<< Home