Collage and Poetry


Marjorie Perloff

for Encyclopedia of Aesthetics, ed. Michael Kelly, 4 vols. (New York: Oxford U Press, 1998), Vol 1, 384-87; Stein, Vol. 4, 306-10.

The word collage comes from the French verb coller and refers literally to “pasting, sticking, or gluing,” as in the application of wallpaper.  In French, collage is also idiomatic for an “illicit” sexual union, two unrelated “items,” being pasted or stuck together.  This undertone of illicitness is actually germane to the meaning of the word, for collage does not just apply to any paste-up.  “Si ce sont les plumes qui font le plumage,” as Max Ernst wittily put it, “ce n’est pa la colle qui fait le collage.”  In her monumental study of the subject (1968), Herta Wescher made clear that although, strictly speaking, collaging diverse elements is hardly a new idea, such familiar items as lace and paper valentines, or the trompe l’oeil pictures of vases made from tiny postage stamps, popular in nineteenth century America, or, say, the feather mosaic pictures made by the Aztecs of Mexico, are not quite collages in our sense of the word, for collage always involves the transfer of materials from one context to another.  As the authors of the 1978 Group Mu manifesto put it: “Each cited element breaks the continuity or the linearity of the discourse and leads necessarily to a double reading: that of the fragment perceived in relation to its text of origin; that of the same fragment as incorporated into a new whole, a different totality.  The trick of collage consists also of never entirely suppressing the alterity of these elements reunited in a temporary composition.”

It is this oscillation or doubleness that makes collage such a distinctive Modernist invention–perhaps, as Gregory L. Ulmer suggests, “the single most revolutionary formal innovation in artistic representation to occur in our century.”  When, in the spring of 1912, Picasso pasted a piece of oilcloth printed with a trompe l’oeil chair-caning pattern to the surface of a small, oval canvas representing a still life on a café table, and then “framed” the composition with a piece of coarse rope, he was challenging the fundamental principle of Western painting from the early Renaissance to the late nineteenth century–namely, that a picture is a window on reality, an imaginary transparency through which an illusion is discerned.   For collage typically juxtaposes “real” items–pages torn from newspapers, color illustrations taken from picture books, letters of the alphabet, numbers, nails–with painted or drawn images so as to create a curiously contradictory pictorial surface.  For each element in the collage has a kind of double function: it refers to an external reality even as its compositional thrust is to undercut the very referentiality it seems to assert.  And further: collage subverts all conventional figure-ground relationships, it generally being unclear whether item A is on top of item B or behind it or whether the two coexist in the shallow space which is the “picture.”

It is customary to distinguish between collage and montage: the former refers, of course, to spatial relationships, the latter to temporal; the former to static objects, the latter, originally a film term, to things in motion.  But it may be more useful to regard collage and montage as two sides of the same coin, in view of the fact that the mode of construction involved–the metonymic juxtaposition of objects (as in collage) or of narrative fragments (as in montage)– is essentially the same.  Both, moreover, are inconceivable without the technological revolution of the late nineteenth century:  the mass production of paper and textile products, with the attendant possibilities for splicing film, photographs, and printed materials.

Given its origins in the Cubist collage of Picasso and Braque of 1912-1913, collage is a term primarily used with reference to visual composition.  There are, as I have argued in The Futurist Moment,  significant family resemblances between Cubist and Futurist (both Italian and Russian) collage.  In Cubist collage, the objects, though disparate, are drawn from the same radius of discourse: usually domestic or everyday items like wine glasses, bottles, apples, calling cards, newspaper bits, vases of flowers, guitars, and so on.  And the larger scheme into which these fragments are drawn is still that of a unified pictorial composition.   Futurist collage–for example, Carlo Carrà’s great Interventionist Manifesto of 1914–is similar, although it tends to have a more overtly polemic thrust, relying on the juxtaposition of words and phrases as well as bold color planes to create an “agitprop” effect.

Dada and Surrealist collage deviate significantly from this paradigm.  In Dada collage, pictorial composition gives way to a new emphasis on the materials assembled themselves.  Kurt Schwitters, one of the greatest collagists, uses banal items like ticket stubs, buttons, advertising flyers, playing cards, bits of cloth and pieces of metal, and juxtaposes these so as to create subtle formal and material as well as semantic tensions.   In his Merzbilder (the title alludes to Kommerz as well as to merde [shit]) the fragments aren’t absorbed into the larger composition as they are in Picasso or Braque or Juan Gris;  they retain their separate identity.  Surrealist collage is different again:  here cut-ups from different sources are most frequently used to produce a fragmented narrative, rich in sexual puns and double entendre, as in Max Ernst’s La Femme 100 têtes.

All these variants on early modernist collage have been documented frequently, as have such verbal variants of Futurist collage as Marinetti’s Parole in Libertà (those innovative free-word compositions of the late 1910s in which giant letters, mathematical symbols, onomatopoeic verbal representations and schematic visual forms produce dynamic depictions of warfare, violent action, and so on).  But what is less well understood is that collage aesthetic plays a major role in all the modernist art forms, perhaps most notably in poetry.

As a mode of juxtaposition, David Antin has observed, “collage involves suppression of the ordering signs that would specify the ‘stronger logical relations’ among the presented elements.  By ‘stronger logical relations’ I mean relations of implication, entailment, negation, subordination and so on.  Among logical relations that may still be present are relations of similarity, equivalence, identity, their negative forms, dissimilarity, nonequivalence, nonidentity, and some kind of image of concatenation, grouping or association.”  This is an important point.  Take the famous conclusion to T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land:

I sat upon the shore

Fishing, with the arid plain behind me

Shall I at least set my lands in order?

London Bridge is falling down falling down falling down

Poi s’ascose nel foco che gli affina

Quando fiam uti chelidon– O swallow swallow

Le Prince d’Aquitaine à la tour abolie

These fragments I have shored against my ruins

Why then Ile fit you.  Hieronymo’s mad againe.

Dadda.  Dayadhvam.  Damyata.

Shantih      shantih     shantih

The first two lines might have appeared in a nineteenth century dramatic monologue:  the speaker has evidently found the resolve to begin a new life, to turn his back on his stultefying, arid past which the poem has so graphically presented and prepare to “set [his] lands in order.”    But whereas Browning would have had his protgagonist continue logically or at least sequentially in this vein, in The Waste Land, the protagonist’s question is followed by a series of seemingly unrelated fragments–from nursery rhyme (“London Bridge is falling down…”), to Dante’s account in the Purgatorio of Arnaut Daniel’s entrance into the purgatorial fire, to the plaintive song of the anonymous Latin poet of the Pervigilium Veneris, who wonders when spring will return (“O swallow swallow”), which here comes together with the cry of Philomela, raped by Tereus, and longing for the transformation her sister Procne has already undergone, to Gerard de Nerval’s Romantic lyric of dispossession (“Le Prince d’Aquitaine à la tour abolie”),  and Hieronymo’s decision, in The Spanish Tragedy, to participate in a grisly revenge plot to kill his enemies.   When the words of redemption (“Give.  Sympathize.  Control”) finally come, they are in the most esoteric and remote of languages–Sanskrit–as is the final “Shantih,”  the “Peace which passeth understanding” from the Upanishads.

What hope, then, for the Wastelanders?  Much ink has been expended on this question.  Take the London Bridge line.  It sounds very negative, especially in conjunction with the “Unreal City” passage in Part I: “A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many, / I had not thought death had undone so many.”  On the other hand, the destruction of the bridge (the song actually refers to the Gunpowder Plot) may lead to rebirth. In the same vein, Arnaud Daniel is purged of the sin of lust, and Philomela will be reborn as a nightingale.    But Hieronymo’s “Why then Ile fit you” leads to nothing but the grisly death of all concerned, and Nerval’s Prince of Aquitaine is cut off from his birthright as well as from possible transcendence.   It is never clear, then,  what the ‘fragments I have shored against my ruins” add up to.  And no doubt Eliot wanted it that way.  Coordination rather than subordination, likeness and difference rather than logic or sequence or even qualification–here are the elements of verbal collage.  The things described exist:  the poet puts them before us without explicit comment or explanation.

Ezra Pound’s Cantos  carry this collage principle even further.  Here is a typical sequence from the Pisan Cantos:

“Such hatred”

wrote Bowers,

and la Spagnuola saying:

“We are perfectly useless, on top,

but they killed the baker and cobbler.”

“Don’t write me any more things to tell him

(scripsit Woodward, W.E.)

“on these occasions


TALKS.”  (End quote)

“What” (Cato speaking) “do you think of

murder?” (Canto LXXXVI)

In what Pound himself referred to as the “ply over ply” method, he  collages the words of Claude Gernade Bowers, the Ambassador to Spain between 1933-39, who wrote Pound a letter about “the atmosphere of incredible hate” in Spain, with the comments of an unidentified Spanish woman, with the historian William E. Woodward’s wry reference to Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s response to Pound’s economic “advice” from abroad, and then with an allusion to Cato’s equation (according to Cicero’s De Officilis) of money-lending to murder.   In the space of twelve lines, the poem uses lineation, spacing, typeface and font (note the giant “HE,” which gets a line to itself) to convey the economic anarchy and decay of the Spanish Civil War and the pre-World War II years.  But rather than providing an actual analysis of this historical vector, the poem works by comparison and contrast:  the deprecating reference to Roosevelt (“HE / TALKS”) contrasted to the wisdom of Cato, and so on.  Notice that Pound’s effect depends on ellipsis and the denial of disclosure of key information..  “‘What (Cato speaking) do you think of / murder?’” belongs at the end of a sequence where Cato is asked what he thinks the most profitable feature of an estate and replies that it is raising cattle.  After a few such questions, he is asked “What do you think of money-lending?”  And it is then that the cited response comes.  In omitting the context, Pound both arouses the reader’s curiosity and heightens the Roosevelt/ Cato contrast.  Then, too–and this is how collage works–juxtaposition replaces exposition, a convenience given that a reasoned account of Roosevelt’s economic decisions might not produce the conclusions that Pound wants.

In its refusal of unity and coherence, of what Eliot himself called “the aura around a bright clear centre,”  collage has been open to criticism, both from the Right and from the Left.  For his fellow-poets as for the New Critics of the 40s and 50s, Pound’s Cantos were simply incoherent.  “He has not, Yeats declared, “got all the wine into the bowl.”  For a Marxist critic like Fredric Jameson on the other hand, the collage-composition of Wyndham Lewis (and, by implication, of Pound as well) “draws heavily and centrally on the warehouse of cultural and mass cultural cliché, on the junk materials of industrial capitalism, with its degraded commodity art, its mechanical reproduceability, its serial alienation of language.”  Collage, in this scheme of things, is a “degraded” or ‘alienated” version of earlier (and presumably superior) genres, an index to to the aporias of capitalism.

Whether or not this is the case, one thing that does seem certain is that the mode of detachment and readherence, of graft and citation, which is collage is a way of undermining the authority of the individual self, of the “transcendental signified.”  As such, it has become, in the later twentieth-century, an important mode of theorizing and model building as well as art-making: witness Derrida’s Glas or Barthes’s Empire of Signs/em>, or, in a different vein, John Cage’s chance-generated mesostic compositions like Duchamp, Satie, Joyce or Jackson Mac Low’s The Pronouns.    Whole “textbooks”–for example, bp nichol and Steve McCaffery’s Rational Geomancy (1992)–have taken on a collage form.

Ironically, however, even as collage has entered the critical-theoretical domain, it is beginning to withdraw from the aesthetic realm.  What was once a revolutionary technique is now the staple of advertising and greeting cards.  At the same time, postmodern artworks tend to be at once less “cut up” and yet, paradoxically more equivocal than their modernist counterparts.   In the poetry of John Ashbery, for example, the technique of juxtaposing citations or fragments of conversations has given way to what looks like a more seamless and continuous discourse–often a narrative–but which, on inspection, cannot be decoded as yielding any sort of coherent meaning.  It is as if the individual units are “always already” collaged to begin with.  Similarly, Jasper Johns number or alphabet series operate, not by collage principles (each canvas will have one letter or number, the textures of the encaustic itself producing the complexity and indeterminacy of meaning) but by the disruption of the “normal” contract between artist and viewer.  Even in Robert Rauschenberg’s famed “combine” paintings, the separate object layers remain starkly separate: they do not undergo the sort of transfer from one context to another that, we find in Picasso or Schwitters.

The shift in such “post-collage” works is from the juxtaposition of carefully chosen citations or statements (as in the shift in The Waste Land from “O swallow swallow” to “Le Prince d’Aquitaine à la tour abolie) to a focus on the inherent poetic and artistic possibilities of the “ordinary,” the “everyday” as in the contemporary poetry and fiction deriving from Gertrude Stein, herself by no means a collagist.  But for the better part of the century–in Joyce’s Ulysses as in Pound’s Cantos, in Joseph Cornell’s boxes as in Malevich’s “Girl at Poster Column,” in Satie’s “furniture music” as in Cage’s Europeras, collage has been the most important mode for representing a “reality” no longer quite believed in and therefore all the more challenging.


Antin, David.  “Some Questions about Modernism,” Occident, 8 (Spring 1974): 7-38.

Aragon, Louis.  Les Collages.  Paris: Hermann, 1980.

Group Mu, eds.  Collages, Revue d’Esthétique, nos. 3-4.  Paris: Union Genérale d’Editions, 1978.

Jameson, Fredric.  Fables of Aggression: Wyndham Lewis, the Modernist as Fascist.  Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1979.

Krauss, Rosalind.  The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths.  Cambridge and London: MIT Press, 1985.

Perloff, Marjorie.  The Futurist Moment: Avant-Garde, Avant-Guerre, and the Language of Rupture.  Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1986.

Poggi, Christine.  In Defiance of Panting:  Cubism, Futurism, and the Invention of Collage. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1992.

Seitz, William C.  The Art of Assemblage.  New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1968.

Ulmer, Gregory L.  “The Object of Post-Criticism,” in The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture, ed. Hal foster.  Port Towsend: Wash: Bay Press, 1983. pp. 83-110.

Wescher, Herta.  Collage.  New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc. 1968.

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