For the first six months of 2017, ArtForum used the word "poetic" in print or online 67 times. Five of those times, the word was used to describe some form of writing, including one book of poetry; the other 62 times, it was used to describe sculpture, painting, video, photography, drawings, theatre, choreography, collage, woodcuts, textile, architecture, concept art, mixed-media, a documentary, installations, historical and contemporary art movements, and notable museum or gallery events.
It's no big secret that artists and art critics have co-opted the word "poetic" to describe art. But just what does the word mean to non-poets? Do artists know? Do critics? Do poets?
Seemingly, no one can define the term. It's a term dropped and left: either it is so widely understood that it needs no explanation, or—more likely—none of us knows what it means. Generally, it's clear that when someone uses the word "poetic" to describe art, she means to give the artist a great compliment. In reality, a greatly vague compliment is given.
Charlotte Higgins, the chief culture writer for The Guardian, began her review of Peter Doig's retrospective at the Scottish National Gallery with the description of "the strange and poetic subjects of the painter Peter Doig." The article's headline also featured the word "poetic"—though nowhere in the review does Higgins explain how or why Doig's work warrants use of this modifier.
A 2004 article from Tate Etc. is another example of the divide between the two disciplines. The article, titled "He is Poetic, but . . ." is a transcript of a conversation between artists and critics regarding the work of painter Luc Tuymans. Participants included Adrian Searle, Paulina Olowska, Chris Ofili, and Peter Doig of the retrospective noted above.
[ . . . ]
And how about [Giorgio] Morandi?
[Luc] Tuymans wrote somewhere that he thought Morandi was
I think Tuymans has a habit of making brash statements. You can say Morandi is 'poetic bullshit,' but it's just muscle flexing. Tuymans though, is a poetic painter.
He is poetic, but he has a very specific idea about what poetic means. Anything can be poetic, and poetry can be violent. A bouncer can be a poet. He was a bouncer himself, was he not?
Yes, he used to tell everyone that story.
He loves anecdotes. What do you think of his idea of anecdotes in connection to the actual work?
[ . . . ]
A much more interesting direction for this conversation would have been for Olowska (or any of the participants) to elaborate on Tuymans's "very specific idea about what poetic means." They could have asked, "How is his work poetic? What in his paintings justifies this description?" Instead, a vague assertion is made that "[a]nything can be poetic"—and then the conversation moves on to a discussion of how anecdotes fuel Tuymans's work.
In her book Where Art Belongs, writer, filmmaker, and art critic Chris Kraus explains, "For years writers have played a circumscribed role in the visual art world. Our job is to write about art; to give it a language that translates into value." Kraus believes that writing is more than just a tool to give meaning to art—that it, too, is an art. Most artists probably believe this as well. But a different message is sometimes communicated.
Darren Bader, an artist selected for the 2014 Whitney Biennial and the recipient of the 2013 Calder Prize, showed at Andrew Kreps Gallery in 2014. Speaking about the show to ArtForum, he said: "[A]rt is commonly intuited as a home for the poetic [ . . . ] there are some good 'poets' out there. Mediocrity is normal, but good poetry is what matters." What does he mean? ArtForum didn't ask.
In 2015, Bader published fifteen poems called Round Room as part of his first solo show, "Reading Writing Arithmetic" at Radio Athènes in Athens, Greece. The poems, which are available for download through his website, are original works by Bader that were translated from English into Ancient Greek into Modern Greek and then back into English. The premise is interesting enough. He explains, "The necessary precondition to revel in the cascades of language and dislocations of meaning more than once is bilinguality."
As a poet, I appreciate Bader's interest in language, translation, and bilinguality, but too often the poems of Round Room disappoint, mostly due to his use of tired subjects prone to cliché. Descriptions of "vast desire," "love," and "time" abound: "Love may have been lost in time / Yet the heart still remembers it." To be fair, it's likely the poems sound exhausted because, through multiple rounds of translation, they've been distilled to the basics.
And it's the translations that are most important to Bader. The process and the concept make Round Room art—not the poems, which happen to be pretty crappy. When Bader advertised free poetry and gave away copies of the chapbook on opening night, he used the idea of poetry to elevate or draw attention to the other pieces that would remain on display in the gallery for the next month.
In 2010, installation artist, painter, and sculptor Dan Colen had a solo exhibit at Gagosian Gallery, simply titled "Poetry." It had zero poems in it.
Jerry Saltz described the show as having "paintings made of cheesy materials; kicked-over tricked-out motorcycles; those skateboard ramps." Purportedly, every piece sold, with prices starting at $300,000. (Is it worth mentioning that Jane Hirschfield, who wrote one of the best-selling poetry books of 2011, made only $6,000 in royalties? But it's not about the money.)
Colen's statement for his show, "Poetry," reads: "This show has a lot to do with failure and potential, accident and intention, and time at its most minute and most infinite. It's about how powerful a single simple gesture can be." Here, poetry is not mentioned. In reviews of the show, poetry is not mentioned.
In Paris in the early part of the 20th century—one of the most romanticized eras of art—there was, as Stephen Spender puts it, "a marriage between literature and painting."
It was, indeed, a time of great collaboration and experimentation: the principles of cubism and surrealism pervaded art and literary culture, eventually spreading to music, theatre, philosophy, and even politics. The effect was global, but it was felt most intimately between two groups in particular: the poets and the painters.
Leroy C. Breunig documents the relationship in the introduction to his anthology, The Cubist Poets in Paris: "The painters illustrated the poets' poems and painted their portraits; the poets wrote the painters' praise and defended them in journalistic wars. They loaned each other money, gave shelter to each other in times of need, inspired each other, and fortified each other's resolve through thick and thin."
Gertrude Stein's apartment at 27 Rue de Fleurus was a headquarters for the groups to meet and discuss ideas. Stein, for example, enjoyed a famous, lifelong friendship with Picasso. (Of the portrait he painted of her, she said, "I was and still am satisfied with my portrait, for me it is I, and it is the only reproduction of me which is always I, for me." She returned the gesture by writing him a portrait poem—"If I Told Him"—in the cubist style.) Other poets and artists—André Breton, Max Jacob, Paul Klee, Henri Matisse, Guillaume Apollinaire—forged similar bonds. Robert Motherwell famously noted, "One can only marvel at the instinct of Parisian painters to keep their art in the hands of poets."
This spirit continued in other movements, including the Fluxus movement of the 60s and 70s, where artists, writers, composers, actors, playwrights, economists, scholars, and others participated in the international movement to break barriers down between disciplines and become practitioners of "intermedia." In her book Fluxus Experience, Hannah Higgins describes the gatherings that artist Mary Bauermeister hosted in her atelier in Cologne as "non-hierarchical exchanges of information across national, disciplinary, and age boundaries" and "free exchanges among many kinds of artists" that were "international, interdisciplinary, and generationally broad."
So why today, in an era of interconnectivity with ever-increasing modes for communication and collaboration, does the relationship between poets and artists often feel disingenuous?
What if Dan Colen's poemless show, "Poetry," did include pieces that were actually "poetic"? What if he wrote poetry, or collaborated with a poet, and had the collaboration installed at Gagosian?
That very thing happened one year earlier at a different Chelsea gallery. The Bernadette Corporation, an international group of artists, organized a show that featured two things: photographs marketing a fake denim company, and a large-scale print-out of their 130-page poem, A billion and change, also referred to as The Complete Poem.
Corinna Kirsch describes the collective: for the past twenty-three years, "the Bernadette Corporation has taken a rebellious stance toward art: they've designed clothes, published magazines, customized terry cloth towels, altering just about anything that's not a painting on canvas. They don't give a damn; anything goes with their corporate ethos, because the world as we know it is a shithole."
With that in mind, it wouldn't be out of the question that their epic poem, A billion and change, was created to rankle the New York art scene.
The poem begins with an epigraph from an A.R. Ammons poem, "Garbage":
scientists plunge into matter looking for the
matter but the matter lessens and, looked too
far into, expands away: it was insubstantial all
And from there, the poem goes on to discuss the insubstantial:
Skinnyjeans are very tight.
Standing next to denim butts dancing.
I can't fall asleep on the sidewalk anymore.
Let's watch your figures in skinnyjeans.
In her review of the show, Kraus states that Bernadette Corporation's move to use poetry—actual poetry "displayed like a work of art in a gallery space"—was "terrifying to visual artists" and "deeply disturbing to most." She continues, describing overheard reactions to A billion and change, "'Is it sincere, or is it a parody? Is it—umm, any good?'" Jim Fletcher, a member of Bernadette Corporation, also recalled this reaction, with several attendees asking, "Is this a real poem?"
Kraus asserts that yes—it is a fantastic poem. It is "both sincere and a parody"—which is to echo Mary Ruefle's idea that so many great pieces of art (poems and otherwise) are both sincere and irreverent. The artist R.H. Quaytman agrees: "[It] is totally a real poem, actually."
In 2012 and 2013, Denver's Museum of Contemporary Art hosted "Postscript: Writing after Conceptual Art"—an exhibition dedicated to "the work of over fifty artists and writers exploring the artistic possibilities of language." The exhibit was an ambitious one, tracing conceptual art's history back to the Art & Language movement. It's an exhibit that ultimately works to eliminate the divide between conceptual artists and writers.
In conjunction with the exhibit, Denver's MCA hosted discussions between conceptual artists and poets in New York City. Surveys were given to audience members after each event. One of the survey questions asked, "What is the biggest problem with conversations between artists and poets?"
One audience member responded, "[T]he insistence on a distinction between the two titles, 'artist' and 'poet.' These are constructions that distract and present barriers between people who otherwise should experience constant, smooth dialogue."
Another person answered the same question, "People talk to poets? It's a nice thought, anyway."
The distance between poetry and art today perplexes and disappoints. At best, it's a cold but polite distance in which the art forms just don't understand each other; at worst, it's a deliberate divide in which the art world appropriates and mimics surface-level elements of poetry while excluding the real thing.
Is poetry to blame for any of this?
In July 2017, poet, essayist, and editor Matthew Zapruder published an essay in The New York Times called "Understanding Poetry is More Straightforward than You Think." The essay begins,
Do you remember, as I do, how in the classroom poems were so often taught as if they were riddles? What is the poet really trying to say here? What is the theme or message of this poem? What does this word 'purple' or 'flower' or 'grass' really mean? Like classical music, poetry has an unfortunate reputation for requiring special training and education to appreciate, which takes readers away from its true strangeness, and makes most of us feel as if we haven't studied enough to read it.
Perhaps Zapruder is right, and that poetry's reputation doesn't make it easy for genuine appreciation to happen, let alone organic, interdisciplinary collaboration. Perhaps some people view poetry as too mysterious, too untouchable, as something beautiful but incapable of being fully understood. And so it is put on a shelf, out of reach, and perhaps those people invoke its name only to compare something that is not a poem to the glorious puzzle that is one. Perhaps when they describe a Tuymans painting as poetic, they are really saying, "Like poetry, this is too difficult to try and fully understand but we know it's good."
Perhaps those people have it all wrong. Could it be as simple as what da Vinci recorded in one of his notebooks? "Painting is poetry that is seen rather than felt, and poetry is painting that is felt rather than seen." It could be.
Wallace Stevens asks us to "Consider:
a) That the whole world is material for poetry;
b) That there is not a specifically poetic material."
He is saying that poetry can be found anywhere. Which means anything can be poetic. Which means Paulina Olowska was right. Kind of.
Stevens is inviting poetry to be discovered in anything, perhaps especially visual art (cf. his book inspired by Picasso's "The Old Guitar"). He is encouraging the creation of "poetic" paintings, sculptures, drawings, films, video games—and I'm agreeing with him, but with one stipulation: Let's enlist poetry.
I do not mean to say that this never happens. As I write this, I look forward to the publication of Erica Hunt and Dawn Lundy Martin's anthology, Letters to the Future: Radical WOMEN / Black WRITING, which recently received a starred review from Publisher's Weekly: "The editors expand the frame of 'radical writing' to include the work of artists in other disciplines such as Kara Walker and Adrian Piper [ . . . ] this collection's ambition and vision sets it apart from seemingly similar anthologies."
Many artists are engaged with and motivated by poetry, and to their benefit. Experimental filmmaker Nathanial Dorsky credits John Ashbery as an early inspiration. A friend of Rexroth, Spicer, and Ginsberg, video artist Stan Brakhage said, "Probably in my life, my richest correspondence has been with poets." Installation artist Ann Hamilton identifies poetry as a major influence, and cites her friendship with poet Ann Lauterbach as being integral to her work (see Whitecloth, their collaboration). Collage artist Jon Beacham describes his most recent collaboration with poet Joshua Beckman, Porch Light (lamp and chair): "It's not just a poetry book. It's not just a book of visual art. It's not just a handmade book. It's a little bit of all those things, and every one subtly presented."
For the last few years, The New York Times ran the monthly series "A Picture and a Poem" in T Magazine. "A Picture and a Poem" is exactly what it sounds like—"A never-before-published poem, paired with a newly commissioned work of contemporary art — bringing aesthetic life to the written word." The power of the series is that it brought together an artist and a poet in one space (including Marilyn Minter and Alex Dimitrov, Christopher Wool and Eileen Myles, Shirazeh Houshiary and Monica Youn), with an invitation for the reader and viewer to reflect on the relationship between the two pieces.
We know it is possible for artists and poets to collaborate meaningfully, and for viewers and readers to enjoy these efforts. We also know it is possible for artists to use language responsibly as they describe their work. But is it possible for artists to create truly "poetic" art without that art having explicit ties to language?
Christian Marclay's 24-hour video collage The Clock is proof that non-language-based art can be "poetic." The word was forced out of me by my partner, a visual artist who was pleasantly surprised by my interest in The Clock. "What about it do you love?" he asked as we emerged from our first session of Clock-watching at Ohio State's Wexner Center for the Arts.
I bumbled through an explanation for several minutes before realizing that what I really loved about The Clock was that it reminded me of my favorite poems.
Despite it never being described as such in its dozens of high-profile reviews (and by critics who have generously applied the term to other pieces of contemporary art), The Clock is poetic. Here are five reasons why:
1. Element of Surprise
To make what many critics are calling a masterpiece, Marclay deftly stitched together thousands of clips from movies and television in which timepieces are featured. The result is a 24-hour video that plays in real time. Yes: The Clock is a clock. Every minute of the day is depicted on screen, embedded in a variety of scenes that are delightful to watch due to Marclay's clever editing.
In one scene, Marclay connects a foggy underwater shot of a large blue fish about to be hooked to a hallway shot with a door unlatching. Though the fish is now off-screen, the sound of the door clicking open suggests the fish's capture and imminent death. A few minutes later, a pink plastic watering can is kicked over and the screen bursts into flames. A little before 6:00pm, the Southern resistance fighter from the black and white short film, An Occurrence at Owl Street Bridge, is hung from a bridge that overlooks water. We barely see him hit the water when Marclay cuts to a color movie of a rocket shooting out of the water. It's a smart edit that nods to what happens next in the original film: the man escapes.
Marclay's pairings sometimes make sense and are sometimes absurd. The unpredictability of his editing heightens the viewer's interest. Around noon, he pairs a black-and-white shot of a bloated corpse lying among trash with a color shot of a woman smiling beneath a parasol. It's strange cinema that—though largely sourced from Hollywood—we never see in Hollywood.
This quality—the ability to surprise your audience—is a definitive quality in the best poems. Through language, poets can bridge words and ideas that seem unbridgeable. I love it when Lucie Brock-Broido describes light as being "[o]chre-wedded," when Robert Lowell personifies hay by making it "creak" toward the barn, when Gertrude Stein defines "salad" as a "a good cake," when Maggie Nelson tells us sex is "pink ants."
Poet and novelist Stephen Dobyns writes, "We call a work original when it surprises [ . . . ] and expands our preconceptions of the limits of the form. A given piece must appear both inevitable and surprising."
André Breton's "Free Union" (published in 1931 and translated by David Antin) surprises the reader with every line:
FREE UNION (excerpt)
My wife whose hair is a brush fire
Whose thoughts are summer lightning
Whose waist is an hourglass
Whose waist is the waist of an otter caught in the teeth of a tiger
Whose mouth is a bright cockade with the fragrance of a star of the first magnitude
Whose teeth leave prints like the tracks of white mice over snow
This poem made me breathless when I first encountered it, and permanently altered the course of my writing. Every line is anti-cliché: "My wife whose eyelashes are strokes in the handwriting of a child."
Though the structure of the poem follows a formula, the images in this poem (like in so many Breton poems) are unnervingly original. The speaker's strange comparisons (wrists to matches, fingers to fresh cut hay) are to blame, but so is Breton's unconventional style of writing a love poem. "[My wife] with the sex of an alga and old-fashioned candies." It's not a typical love poem, and it's not a flattering portrayal of his wife. Breton's refusal to follow the conventions of the love poem is in itself a fantastic surprise.
2. Nixing Narrative
I usually don't enjoy watching movies: I too easily sense the time passing, the herculean effort for everything to seem realistic, the inevitable yet unconvincing love story, the intent to gain a buck. Even a beautifully shot movie like Gravity was, for me, tarnished by an extraneous and vapid mother/daughter relationship. (Just show me the panning shots of space! Forget manipulating me with the death of a child whom we never meet.)
Devices like the dead daughter in Gravity are proof that American audiences are addicted to narrative. "Narrative, the great narcotic," Kraus begrudges. But in The Clock, Marclay doesn't take the bait. Featuring clips from thousands of movies and television programs, The Clock jumps from one to the next without building plot, adding to an established conflict, or developing characters.
"Marclay's sources are works of narrative, which means they turn on the expectation of what will happen next," A.O. Scott wrote in The New York Times. "But what happens next is that you are thrown [ . . . ] into another movie." In The New Yorker, Daniel Zalewski writes, "Marclay often included several clips from a movie in a single hour, daring viewers to anticipate a big plot turn—which never arrives. Nine clips show residents of Elm Street preparing for sleep, but Freddy Krueger doesn't appear. At 11:57 P.M., a young Vanessa Paradis proposes sex to a boy while disrobing him. At 1:19 A.M., they're sleeping in separate beds. Did they do it?" The answer is irrelevant. Marclay has left many questions unanswered because he did not make The Clock to tell a story. Zalewski ultimately concludes that The Clock is "anti-narrative."
G.C. Waldrep begins his first book of poems, Goldbeater's Skin, with the line, "I do not want story. Story has had enough." What follows is a book rich in style, diction, and lyricism. The poems are as dense as cinderblocks—brimming with allusions and comprised of words like "flensed," "ictus," and "fossae." If you're wanting narrative, this isn't the book for you. Goldbeater's Skin is a book built more out of words than ideas—which is similar to Marclay, whose Clock is built on snippets, and not any one overarching narrative.
John Ashbery published his first book in 1956; Some Trees was selected by W.H. Auden to win the Yale Series for Younger Poets Prize. The Poetry Foundation reports that Auden "famously confessed later that he hadn't understood a word of the winning manuscript." In 1998, after his publication of his seventeenth book, William Logan noted that "Ashbery's poems revel in their detachments, their refusal of narrative [ . . . ] Few poets have so cleverly manipulated, or just plain tortured, our soiled desire for meaning. [Ashbery] reminds us that most poets who give us meaning don't know what they're talking about."
William Carlos Williams defines a poem as "a small (or large) machine made out of words." Made out of words—not ideas. This idea is echoed in the famous conversation between painter Edgar Degas and poet Stéphane Mallarmé. Degas told Mallarmé that he wanted to be a poet, but that he couldn't seem to write well, even though "he was full of ideas." Mallarmé is said to have responded, "My dear Degas, poems are not made out of ideas. They're made out of words." The best poets build from words, just as Marclay builds from images, not a storyline.
Poet Sarah Gridley writes in her second book, Green is the Orator, "I could go / for a day / in the word canteen." Her poetry is defined by pushing words into new territories. She reassigns meaning through bold stylistic choices: odd line breaks, unusual word pairings, strange syntax, wordplay. "Pick a prefix for heart- / Or pick a prefix for every object you have touched," she writes in "Where Hardly Hearth Exists," inviting the reader to reassign word meaning with her.
In her first book, the following poem appears:
Thank you for leaving that tone in my machine. I?
am dealing blackjack. A breeze is tampering with a chandelier.
has gathered, all gloved. A peacock fans on a green felt table,
all eyes. A strange power
lights the garden. Need I say who, in the corner, coughing?
A cigar box opens.
The eyes raise. And I chose you. As if to explain flowers inlaid
in a lady's cabinet. Or peace in a dripping grotto. Or evacuation of
through secret, ivory keys.
Remember, Dearlungs, the body un-architected? Piled in a glass
case, the played-out reeds?
The grass? The hoppers? The thousand stops?
Gridley opens conversationally, warmly, and then presents a list of seemingly unrelated objects interspersed with questions—obscuring narrative. The idiom "all eyes" is used to emphasize the double-green we see: a peacock with feathers splayed stands atop a green felt table, the "eyes" also referring to the markings on the feathers themselves. "Inlaid" comes just before the same sounds in a different form: "in a lady's." Gridley takes a familiar abstract noun, "peace," and places with a tactile descriptor, "dripping." She divides the compound noun "grasshopper" in the penultimate line: "The grass? The hoppers?" The poem ends with the same word that opened it, "Hello"—giving the impression that it's not finished. Or perhaps, like The Clock, it loops back on itself.
3. Structured Unstructure
Films have a clear starting and stopping point. Even those with non-linear plot lines follow a linear progression: beginning, middle, and end. Everyone knew when to show up to the theater when Pulp Fiction was playing, and everyone knew when to get up and leave.
What happens when that isn't clear? When the film is a 24-hour looping video collage with no credits that roll at the end because there is no end?
Marclay wants the viewer to have the freedom to enter and exit The Clock at any time—stay for ten minutes or stay for three hours. It begins when you want it to begin, and it ends when you want it to end.
This way of watching is similar to how I read poetry. Though books of poems of course have an intended sequence, reading the poems out of order, as many readers of poetry do, doesn't ruin the book. (Apply the same technique when reading a novel, and it's literally a different story.)
This kind of reading experience is sometimes evident in singular poems. In Dancing in Odessa, Ilya Kaminsky fractures his long poem "Natalia" in two parts without assigning a reading order to either one. On the top of each page is what looks like a traditional poem: verse broken into lines. On the bottom half of each page, set up almost like a footnote, is a prose poem. The reader decides which section to read first—and how (or if) they connect.
Jamaal May wrote this stunning contrapuntal, which appeared in his debut, Hum:
I DO HAVE A SEAM
and you see it, there for you
in the center of my chest, of strings
to pull, a chrome zipper,
interlocking throat to sternum
a hollow from belly to thigh
or there is only a hole, barely
large enough for your
opening. Come soon,
puncture. Pull apart until
my halves billow open, and
muscle, sinew, and organ are
right there, pulsing
awake in your room. Woman,
within reach, woman
with plumb thumbs,
with slender fingers—
woman I'd fail for—
careful seamstress, you
needle in my sternum—
stitch my selvage as it frays,
you know how ragged I've been,
but do you know how
and why I've always wanted
to be thread, spooled through
the sewing machine of your hands.
May invites the reader to read the poem column by column, up and down, or by jumping across lines left to right. Any way of reading this poem is correct. The poem's versatility does not mean it is without structure—it is a tightly edited contrapuntal. Similarly, The Clock is not indiscriminate. Its entire premise centers on time, civilization's most basic structural element. But within these confines, Marclay and May and Kaminsky (and so many others) are free to push the limits of their art.
At a 2007 lecture in New York, poet Srikanth Reddy discussed how John Ashbery embedded forms into his otherwise form-less poems. This, Reddy argued, did not diminish Ashbery's experimental style, but rather emboldened it. The shadow of a sonnet amid blank verse served as a skeleton, some structure, to highlight the experimental voice that makes Ashbery Ashbery.
4. Irreverence & Sincerity
In a Q&A session at the Wexner Center for the Arts, Marclay refuted a claim that he was a movie buff, and admitted to not even liking movies that much. (I think of Marianne Moore's famous line about poetry: "I, too, dislike it.") He continued, without humor, "I really know nothing about cinema." This fact makes clear that The Clock is not meant to honor cinema so much as to manipulate it. Marclay is a collage artist, and film is just one of his materials. In using it, he realized an opportunity to toy with and even exploit popular methods of editing film.
"By putting the clips back into real time, it's contradicting what film is," Marclay explained to Zalewski, writing for The New Yorker. "You become aware of how film is constructed—of these devices and tropes they constantly use. Like, if someone turns abruptly, you expect someone else to be in the next cut. An actor looks down at his watch and, suddenly, you have a close-up of the watch. But, if the first clip is in black-and-white and the next is in color, you know you've been fooled." Through editing, Marclay conflates movies of different eras, different languages, different genres, different aesthetics. His mix-matching is sometimes jarring, often funny, and always prepossessing.
You could say Marclay's casual way of talking about his chosen medium is irreverent; the stolen clips from thousands of movies and television shows (used without permission) suggest legal irreverence at the least. Poet Mary Ruefle argues that all art is irreverent:
"[T]he newly made thing flies in the face of the already created and as such is based on negation (what already exists is simply not enough!)." In this way, The Clock is doubly irreverent, as it is made of 100 percent found material: Marclay has made a movie from movies that have already been made.
Ruefle goes on to argue in her essay, "Kangaroo Beach," that irreverence is often deeply sincere, and sincerity is often deeply irreverent—two sides of the same coin. She cites Jim Morrison's barfed-on, pissed-on, graffitied grave in Paris as proof. Those who decorate his grave with such things are typically deeply "sincere in their homage and tribute." She continues, asking, "Was Walt Whitman irreverent or sincere when he wrote his first unrhymed poem (March 22, 1850)?"
Sandra Simonds's long poem, "Poetry is Stupid and I Want to Die" (which first appeared in American Poetry Review), is a good example of how the two qualities can work together. An excerpt:
The way I love you is not as a sheriff
searches for a walnut it's more violent and I can't stay in the moment
of this poem long enough for the feeling to unfold I owe
the therapist $80 The woman wearing a fur coat with her six kids on a leash
who showed up to the South Georgia poetry reading in her stretchy jeans
I was proud to have been the host to that
the way one might write a hallelujah ode to a black hole
with roses and tulips shooting out of it Oh the grotesquerie
John Keats, you don't have to say "mother" anymore
This is my quietness, I am the bride and also the urn
And you are my foster child as I make you sit here
And listen to my prayers are sweeter than any rhyme
Sprouting out of a dog's skull the beautiful bud on the cold stone
Simonds covers many classic poetry topics in these thirteen lines (love, motherhood, death, the universe, flowers—even Keats and poetry itself), but with a biting tongue. Her honesty ("I owe the therapist $80" and "I was proud to have been the host to that") makes the poem sincere.
Along these lines, I'm reminded of the sharp, dark wit found in Nikki Wallschlaeger's phenomenal book Houses: "Parakeets make the best erasure poems by shitting / on the newspaper at the bottom of the birdcage." Or, "Pour a / glass of water & fall in love with the fish that used to live in it." Or, "Cops get to go on special paid leave / when they murder here." It is precisely this quality of irreverence that is behind some of the most exciting poems being written today (though I doubt it's the quality that people have in mind when they use the adjective "poetic" to describe non-poems).
In 2009, poets D.A. Powell and David Trinidad compiled a mash-up of celebrity autobiographies. In the style of Marclay's media sampling, they carefully excerpted and arranged lines from exactly 300 celebrity memoirs. Each sentence in their mash-up (a book titled By Myself) comes from a different source. The end result is an autobiography that is sprawling, hyperbolic, and larger-than-life. The passage below, for example, includes lines from autobiographies from Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton, Marguerite Duras, Agatha Christie, the Duchess of Devonshire, and Tina Turner, among others:
The journey into addiction has been described so often by so many people in recent years that I don't believe a blow-by-blow account of my particular path would serve any useful purpose. Everybody knows I like buttercream frosting on my birthday cake. I was sunk. And then in walks Bea Arthur. I hadn't seen Bea in seven years. She and I performed a very suggestive dance with me blowing away on the saxophone while she climbed all over me. I have always regretted interrupting that experience. Now, like to Eleanor Rigby's grave, nobody comes. I began to get confused and muddled over things. I'd lose weight and gain weight, never enough to make me obese, but I stopped working out. I didn't give a damn what I did, where I went, what happened to me. What the heart held back the anus couldn't: it let out all that was in it. If I had to spend my birthday alone in my room, I was sure as hell going to have a celebration. But after two weeks in there, my stomach went boof! That was my last connection with earth. I moved the butter.
Powell and Trinidad edited enough to have the writing make sense, but they've also left enough exposed edges to call attention to their process. Marclay is after the same thing: he wants you to question his process, which is to question his medium. He wants you to be aware of cinema's duplicity—to recognize that editing, sound, and lighting are tools meant to deceive. He even calls out the dishonesty of acting. At 11:56am, Richard Gere in Unfaithful has a tortured conversation with his adulterous wife, played by Diane Lane. Less than ten minutes later, he appears in American Gigolo, dancing around shirtless, snorting coke, and singing, "The promise of love was written on your face."
In this way, Marclay has made The Clock a game. Most Clock viewers I've talked to mention how obsessively they search for the clock in each scene; it becomes more than a motif—it's a trick. But spotting it is not always so straightforward; The Clock is not clockwork. Scenes pass without any apparition of time. In others, clocks are broken. They move backwards. Big Ben explodes. Sometimes you hear the ticking but don't see the clock. Sometimes you don't hear the ticking but you do see the sundial, or perhaps the hourglass, filled with gold dust. Incidences like this make it clear that Marclay not only wanted to meddle with Hollywood's conventions, but also his own.
My favorite allusions to time are the ones in which clocks are destroyed, broken, ruined—where time is negated. Around 2:45pm, Harry Lloyd in Safety Last! hangs from the hands of a clock affixed to the top story of a downtown building. His weight causes the giant clock's hands to drop and twist, until eventually the dial swings forward and the clock is a mangled mess. Around 5:20pm, Lily from Black Moon can't figure out how to stop a series of ringing alarm clocks and so she hurls them out of the window of an old woman's bedroom. Grandfather clocks are pushed over and dials are smashed as time becomes an object to experiment with. Around noon, Ben in Picnic at Hanging Rock realizes his watch has stopped, and asks Mlle. de Poitiers for the time. She turns to one of the students and asks to see her watch. The student replies, "Don't wear it anymore. Can't stand the ticking above my heart." In all of these scenes, time is negated.
Marclay explained to The Economist Online that "[i]f I asked you to watch a clock tick, you would get bored quickly. But there is enough action in this film to keep you entertained, so you forget the time, but then you're constantly reminded of it." Even though The Clock keeps impeccable time—every minute of every hour appears onscreen in real time—it's not tedious. It's addictive. Watching for twenty minutes easily becomes watching for two hours, and seeing twelve noon will make you want to watch twelve midnight.
Hollywood, on the other hand, cuts corners in order to heighten pacing and keep the viewer engaged (e.g. twenty-four hours of story becomes twelve minutes of real time, and so on). Even with this time bending, movies often feel tiresome, with canned plotlines and overstated dialogue. Is The Clock meant as criticism of Hollywood? Maybe not. But it succeeds in ways that Hollywood doesn't.
5. Sound as Bridge
In the 80s, Marclay made a name for himself through musical experimentation. One of his early art pieces was an instrument he invented: the phonoguitar, which art critic Kris Paulsen describes as a "self-styled wearable turntable." Before record scratching became popular, Marclay was doing it on stage in New York clubs, alongside Sonic Youth and John Zorn.
His roots in sound experimentation are evident throughout The Clock. At 6:31pm, Marclay connects a string of scenes from different movies that have the same rhythm. We start with a ticking pocket watch, and then move to a woman methodically chopping vegetables. Next comes a scene of people exiting an elevator—their steps match the pace of both the ticking and the chopping. After that, we see a group of people exiting a building and snapping open their umbrellas—again, to the tick of the preceding scenes. One man's umbrella gets stuck, however, and Marclay's rhythm hits a snag. Appropriately, the next shot is of a man crying—but the rhythm returns in the form of a boy squeaking his shoes across a waiting room floor.
Just as Marclay exploits the jump cut, he also meddles with both diegetic and non-diegetic sound. For example, he'll let an orchestra score swell and sprawl into other movies, only to shut it off like a faucet two scenes later, when a character, for example, opens a door. At 8:00pm, we see a digital clock but hear a pile-up of grandfather clock chimes. He's messing with us.
At 7:29pm, right after Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise get ready for an evening out in Eyes Wide Shut, Marclay cuts to a black and white film where a man lifts a needle from a record player and says, "Let's not play that"—the music stops. Around 5:50pm, the score swells in Cleo from 5 to 7 but shifts a minute later to a dramatic and ominous drumbeat, which Marclay pairs visually with a pendulum that abruptly halts mid-swing. At 5:43pm, Marclay lets the Delta Rhythym Boys "Dem Bones" connect an exterior shot at dusk from Rain Man to an interior newsroom scene of Being There. Around 8:15pm, there is a montage of theatre scenes, and in one of them, a conductor moves to music that doesn't match his gestures at all. Sound and visuals chase each other and interact playfully like this throughout The Clock—evidence of Marclay's belief "in the power of visuals to evoke sound."
Some of my favorite poems similarly feature playful soundscapes. Catherine Wing's prose poem, "Oh You," for example, is a Steinian exploration of assonance using nearly all one-syllable words.
Oh scruff, your moth song's sung. You shortcut through my
frost to long odds. Your buzz dumb luck locks onto my low
moon, but your blood's wrong. You don't. You won't do. But
pots of you, my mouth's drunk. Your shout shoots through
my lord 'n' jury. My bound-by-thought shuts off, shuts up.
You know, don't you? You know you do not do. Your soft
knock counts down: my crumb's out, our hour's up. But you
cur, you run roughshod up my old song; you don't fuck off
you hold on. Thus, knot my hollows. Thus, crown my cup.
You bolt my rock. You burn my sun. Your south. My soon.
Your should. My ought. But no, no, no, our oughts should
The poem, an address to an unknown "you," is a negation as well as a negotiation. The speaker here is recounting the reasons for rejection ("your blood's wrong," "you burn my sun"), and the sonic play heightens that. "Your buzz dumb luck locks onto my moon"—the speaker wants whoever or whatever it's addressing to buzz off and move on. It could be that the poem is trying to escape itself: to unlock and detach from the shackles of language and the push to make meaning with words. Does the speaker get what she wants? Not entirely:
"[Y]ou don't fuck off / you hold on." Just as The Clock is a collage stitched together by sound and visual cues, Wing uses end rhymes, slant rhymes, assonance, and alliteration to bridge seemingly disparate ideas.
The Clock's best sound collages occur every hour on the hour, after the minute hand has circled the dial. Marclay ascribes to a "more is more" philosophy and piles on the chimes, the chords, the cuckoos, the car horns, the crowds scuttling through Grand Central Station. Noon and midnight are especially spectacular, though each hour (at least the dozen I've seen) are a sight to see. At 6:00pm, George Banks arrives home in Mary Poppins, singing the cheery musical number, "The Life I Lead." The mood turns dark, however, as Marclay cuts to pounding, chord-heavy music to match the image of voyeur on a dark street. He makes another abrupt shift to include a cuckoo clock cuckooing, and then there's that scintillating shot from 1947's Black Narcissus: a nun ringing the 6pm bell on the very edge of a steep Himalayan cliff. Poet Marie Howe once described Frank Bidart's poetry as being "very loud in every way—like every possible knob is turned up as much as possible." This is the description I would give Marclay's editing style at the top of each hour—excessive and outrageous. Just how far will he take it? Ironically, the 6:00 hour ends with a character from The Time Machine (the 1960 version) demanding, "Time. Have respect for it."
As time ticks on, the boundaries between sound and image become blurry. At 1:37am, dialogue from one movie continues even after Marclay cuts to another. At 1:45am, the same wind soundtrack cycles through several cuts. Telephones ring from one scene to the next and the sounds of a storm are heard in numerous shots; the rain turns on and off throughout the night. At 2:24am, the sound of the creaking, sinking Titanic in A Night to Remember bleeds into a cozy, domestic scene of a couple in bed. It's as if the movies are different rooms in the same house, and the walls are paper-thin.
This echoing reminds me of the repetition that drives Kiki Petrosino's poem, "Or," which is written after Thomas Sayers Ellis's poem of the same title: "Or Oreo, or / worse. Or spork. Or smorgasbord. / Or tender lure of colored blood." Petrosino's repetition of the word "or"—a word typically meant to indicate choice—here suggests limitation, or lack of choice. Similarly, her use of very short lines implies constraint. The sonic effect of repeating "or," the poem's anchor, is the effect Marclay achieves in his editing of The Clock—sounds, words, and ideas carry over from scene to scene, from line to line.
Oliver Bendorf's beautiful poem, "Take Care," accomplishes something similar, both in terms of sound and subject. This circuitous poem centers on identity, though the joy of it is in the words and sounds that bridge each line and slowly evolve as the poem goes on: "Sometimes I mistake the sound of my voice / for a rubber tire on the shoulder of the road. / I mistake my shoulder for an angle formed / by two lines coming together in geometry. / I mistake geometry for the way mothers / are the holy holy holiest of holes in the heart / and I mistake my holy for a dried-up plant / rolled into the pages of someone else's vision." The poem goes on to compare time to space, seeds to nothing, glitter to hope, and hands to belief before returning to echo the poem's first line: "I want a compass. / I need deliverance. Good god, take me, / mistake me back to the soft shoulder, / which I mistake so often for the road itself."
In this poem, Bendorf is searching for something—perhaps for acceptance as a queer, transgender man—and he tumbles through a list of items he has mistaken for others before ultimately returning to the shoulder of the road where he began. Natalie Diaz writes in her judge's citation for the New American Poets Series award, "Bendorf's poems give us all we have ever wanted, to wake up and feel that the body we are in is ours, that the hands on the ends of our wrists—our body's gates of tenderness—are large enough to hold in them all the things we have desired."
Similar circuits are evident throughout the clock. Just as Bendorf begins and ends "on the soft shoulder" of the road, and just as Petrosino returns again and again to the word "or," Marclay returns to familiar touchstones—most obviously timepieces, though telephones, flowers, and other items reappear—including many of the same actors, but at different stages in their careers. Marclay's chosen subjects suggest a cycle, as does his editing style: he manipulates both sound and visuals in order to connect the thousands of scenes taken from movies and television that make up his 24-hour video collage.
Marclay's The Clock, a colossal accomplishment and modern masterpiece, proves that yes, art can be "poetic." It proves that the word "poetry" (and all of its variants) need not be used to mystify, intellectualize, or elevate other art forms. It proves that art need not be language-based in order to earn the comparison to poetry. The Clock proves it's possible to use poetry without using poetry. To learn from it. To pay homage to it. To make better art because of it.
This essay has been corrected from an earlier version, entitled "Symptom's of Misunderstanding: Poetry & Art in the New Millenium," which appeared in the print edition of Gulf Coast 30.2.