Sunday, February 22, 2009

Minimalism as the Ultimate Conceit (Part 1)

When I went to high school, in the early 1960's, girls used to accuse boys, as a sort of ultimate criticism, of being "conceited."  I don't know the etymology of that usage of the word, but its original, and correct meaning, is as a literary term, referring to an extended metaphor, often carried to absurd lengths, in a work of poetry.  The Metaphysicals, particularly John Donne, were fond of it, as it was a convenient manner of ironizing and building expedient structures without being wholly explicit or obvious.
Poems of great brevity have a long and honorable history in English poetry. Examples such as Alexander Pope's Epigram Engraved on the Collar of a Dog Which I Gave to His Royal Highness,

I am his Highness' dog at Kew;
Pray tell me, sir, whose dog are you?

Or Ezra Pound's In a Station of the Metro,

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.

Or Louis Zukofsky's



--each is an interesting and entertaining example of how a poet can imply or infer large concepts or ideas through a very few, carefully chosen words.  "Found" poems, which usually are comprised of just a couple of words, occupy a whole anteroom to the larger warehouse of poetic genres.  

How far may we go in compressing meaning into language?  Is it possible to make poems so small and ingenious that no elaboration is necessary?  Can a small poem evoke a context of possible meanings broad enough to rival that which is possible through complex, elegant structures, like sonnets?  Can profundity be abbreviated?  

In mathematics, we know that small, neat formulas can summarize universal concepts. Einstein's famous E=MC2 is often regarded as the ultimate equation describing the elemental force trapped inside the structure of matter.  Mankind's eventual success or failure as a species may well depend on how we are able to utilize the wisdom contained in that kernal of mathematical description.

Against the legitimacy of this potential compression is the charge of pretense or fakery. Indeed, the tendency towards a reductio may reflect a desire for over-simplification.  Modernism, in its early and most famous crucial texts (The Waste Land, Ulysses, Mrs. Dalloway, Spring & All, Harmonium, The Cantos, Discrete Series, A, etc.), was explicitly generative, attracting a nimbus of interpretation and contextual responses which buttressed the texts, lending an adjunct legitimacy to what frequently seemed opaque surfaces, at least to the general reading public.  

In the post-War period, the possibilities of compression and concision were explored at length by Robert Creeley, starting near the end of Words [1967], reaching a crescendo in Pieces [1969], and lingering some into the 1970's, after which he resumed a less stringent aesthetic.  Anyone who knows Creeley's work is familiar with Pieces.  Somewhat less well-known, though just as important to the minimalist tendency, is his short collection Thirty Things [Black Sparrow, 1974], which is in many respects the quintessential statement of his commitment to the uncompromisingly short lyric, which is intended to carry the weight of occasion and meaning normally assigned to seemingly more ambitious formal efforts.  Taking, for instance, an example, this--

A Loop


anyone does

--or this--


if we go back to where
we never were we'll
be there [REPEAT] But

--the quality of riddle or of a meaning encoded is expressed with so few words that a sort of ultimate truncation opens up between expectation and method.  Poems such as these have, for me, the same quality of moving large concepts around, efficiently, as do mathematical formulas. In each of these two poems, a circularity or redundancy is used to express an obsessive mental "tic" or time hang-up.  Each uses a common vulgar phraseology, turned back upon itself through a discrete musical setting, revealing a logical "loop" or hitch.  

Are such little gadgets really poems?  Do they belong beside the considerable works of Marvell, Donne, Blake, or Hopkins?  Can ease of apprehension be offered as justification for their apparent accessibility?  Or does their lack of evident presumption and pretense guarantee that they will never be accorded the seriousness which people normally associate with Literature?

If our notion of conceit in the "metaphysical" sense can apply to elaborately conceived poetic structures, such as those typical of Donne, then highly compressed or abbreviated ones might also be considered such, through subtraction and great ingenuity.  An ultimate simplicity may accomplish the ultimate summarization of fact, or feeling.  This is certainly one of Minimalism's great attractions. 

We will have more to say in coming posts about Minimalism, and its various manifestations in post-Modern verse.                      


Kirby Olson said...

I'd like to know about your relationship to Larry Fagin, Aram Saroyan, and minimalist sculpture of the time, such as the sculpture of Carl Andre, and the paintings of Ellsworth Kelly.

While you're at it, tell me what you think of the more rococo musings of Kenward Elmslie (I just think he belongs in the same post with Ellsworth Kelly).

If American poetry in the NAM poetry scheme of things traces itself back to Whitman, where does minimalist poetry go back to?

I remember that Orlovsky used to say about Fagin that he had a stick up his ass.

Does minimalism have such a stick, or such a schtick?

Curtis Faville said...


Fagin published my short collection Ready as an Adventures in Poetry original back in the 1970's. We only met very briefly once, in Berkeley, many years ago, though we have exchanged e.mails about a year ago (I rarely get to the East Coast). Otherwise I have no "relationship" to him. I liked his work back in the day, but he's published so little, it's hard to know what to say about it at this point.

I got to know Aram a little bit back in the 1970's. I offered to publish a pamphlet of his, and we got pretty far along on the project, when he decided that his wife should design the cover; I disagreed, and eventually halted the project. I saw Aram twice in Santa Monica at the book fair there, and he was friendly and cheerful. I did a review of his book Minimal Poems for Jacket online magazine. He approved.

I only saw Elmslie read once. He's obviously a brilliant innovator, but I quickly become impatient with his method and content. He's like the flip-side of Brainard: Elegant, hip, pretentious, erudite, extravagant, wordy, etc. He was a bit older than his de facto "contemporaries" in the 1960's and 1970's.

Orlovsky isn't someone whose opinions I would put much reliance on.

Kirby Olson said...

Orlovsky was totally off the wall, I admit.

I knew Kenward fairly well at one point. We still write letters.

Kirby Olson said...

I would be especially interested in knowing why there was such a groundswell of minimalism at the time, and who and what do you think succeeded in that milieu, and on what basis.

Could you give us some poems by Fagin, and show what you think he was doing.

Also, same with Saroyan, and yourself?

Was there a theoretical underpinning to this group?

Were you moved by the art world, especially the realm of sculpture, such as Carl Andre's work?

did that give you a push of some kind, or did you see them as rivals?

Curtis Faville said...

I saw no one as a rival. I was totally isolated. I was not part of any "scene."

Saroyan was very visible at that time (say, 1965-1975) as the author of some very high profile minimalist works published, specifically, in two Random House editions.

I was very aware of Creeley's work (Pieces) and Robert Grenier's early manuscripts for A Day At The Beach. Both were investigating minimal formality intensively at that time.

I hope to delve more into the subject on subsequent posts.

Mark said...

I'm very much looking forward to the coming posts.

Curtis Faville said...


So am I.

Steven Fama said...