â€œCOLLAGE AND POETRYâ€
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 â€œpasting, sticking, or gluing,â€ as in the application of wallpaper.Â In French, collage is also idiomatic for an â€œillicitâ€ sexual union, two unrelated â€œitems,â€ being pasted or stuck together.Â This undertone of illicitness is actually germane to the meaning of the word, for collage does not just apply to any paste-up.Â â€œSi ce sont les plumes qui font le plumage,â€ as Max Ernst wittily put it, â€œce nâ€™est pa la colle qui fait le collage.â€Â 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 lâ€™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.Â As the authors of the 1978 Group Mu manifesto put it: â€œEach 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.Â The trick of collage consists also of never entirely suppressing the alterity of these elements reunited in a temporary composition.â€
It is this oscillation or doubleness that makes collage such a distinctive Modernist invention–perhaps, as Gregory L. Ulmer suggests, â€œthe single most revolutionary formal innovation in artistic representation to occur in our century.â€Â When, in the spring of 1912, Picasso pasted a piece of oilcloth printed with a trompe lâ€™oeil chair-caning pattern to the surface of a small, oval canvas representing a still life on a cafÃ© table, and then â€œframedâ€ 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.Â Â For collage typically juxtaposes â€œrealâ€ 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.Â 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.Â 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 â€œpicture.â€
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.Â 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.Â Both, moreover, are inconceivable without the technological revolution of the late nineteenth century:Â 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.Â There are, as I have argued in The Futurist Moment,Â significant family resemblances between Cubist and Futurist (both Italian and Russian) collage.Â 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.Â And the larger scheme into which these fragments are drawn is still that of a unified pictorial composition.Â Â Futurist collage–for example, Carlo CarrÃ â€™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 â€œagitpropâ€ effect.
Dada and Surrealist collage deviate significantly from this paradigm.Â In Dada collage, pictorial composition gives way to a new emphasis on the materials assembled themselves.Â 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.Â Â In his Merzbilder (the title alludes to Kommerz as well as to merde [shit]) the fragments arenâ€™t absorbed into the larger composition as they are in Picasso or Braque or Juan Gris;Â they retain their separate identity.Â Surrealist collage is different again:Â 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 Ernstâ€™s La Femme 100 tÃªtes.
All these variants on early modernist collage have been documented frequently, as have such verbal variants of Futurist collage as Marinettiâ€™s Parole in LibertÃ (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).Â 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, â€œcollage involves suppression of the ordering signs that would specify the â€˜stronger logical relationsâ€™ among the presented elements.Â By â€˜stronger logical relationsâ€™ I mean relations of implication, entailment, negation, subordination and so on.Â 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.â€Â This is an important point.Â Take the famous conclusion to T. S. Eliotâ€™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 sâ€™ascose nel foco che gli affina
Quando fiam uti chelidon– O swallow swallow
Le Prince dâ€™Aquitaine Ã la tour abolie
These fragments I have shored against my ruins
Why then Ile fit you.Â Hieronymoâ€™s mad againe.
Dadda.Â Dayadhvam.Â Damyata.
ShantihÂ Â Â Â Â shantihÂ Â Â Â shantih
The first two lines might have appeared in a nineteenth century dramatic monologue:Â 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 â€œset [his] lands in order.â€Â Â Â But whereas Browning would have had his protgagonist continue logically or at least sequentially in this vein, in The Waste Land, the protagonistâ€™s question is followed by a series of seemingly unrelated fragments–from nursery rhyme (â€œLondon Bridge is falling down…â€), to Danteâ€™s account in the Purgatorio of Arnaut Danielâ€™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 (â€œO swallow swallowâ€), 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 Nervalâ€™s Romantic lyric of dispossession (â€œLe Prince dâ€™Aquitaine Ã la tour abolieâ€),Â and Hieronymoâ€™s decision, in The Spanish Tragedy, to participate in a grisly revenge plot to kill his enemies.Â Â When the words of redemption (â€œGive.Â Sympathize.Â Controlâ€) finally come, they are in the most esoteric and remote of languages–Sanskrit–as is the final â€œShantih,â€Â the â€œPeace which passeth understandingâ€ from the Upanishads.
What hope, then, for the Wastelanders?Â Much ink has been expended on this question.Â Take the London Bridge line.Â It sounds very negative, especially in conjunction with the â€œUnreal Cityâ€ passage in Part I: â€œA crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many, / I had not thought death had undone so many.â€Â 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.Â Â Â But Hieronymoâ€™s â€œWhy then Ile fit youâ€ leads to nothing but the grisly death of all concerned, and Nervalâ€™s Prince of Aquitaine is cut off from his birthright as well as from possible transcendence.Â Â It is never clear, then,Â what the â€˜fragments I have shored against my ruinsâ€ add up to.Â And no doubt Eliot wanted it that way.Â Coordination rather than subordination, likeness and difference rather than logic or sequence or even qualification–here are the elements of verbal collage.Â The things described exist:Â the poet puts them before us without explicit comment or explanation.
Ezra Poundâ€™s CantosÂ carry this collage principle even further.Â Here is a typical sequence from the Pisan Cantos:
and la Spagnuola saying:
â€œWe are perfectly useless, on top,
but they killed the baker and cobbler.â€
â€œDonâ€™t write me any more things to tell him
(scripsit Woodward, W.E.)
â€œon these occasions
TALKS.â€Â (End quote)
â€œWhatâ€ (Cato speaking) â€œdo you think of
murder?â€ (Canto LXXXVI)
In what Pound himself referred to as the â€œply over plyâ€ method, heÂ collages the words of Claude Gernade Bowers, the Ambassador to Spain between 1933-39, who wrote Pound a letter about â€œthe atmosphere of incredible hateâ€ in Spain, with the comments of an unidentified Spanish woman, with the historian William E. Woodwardâ€™s wry reference to Franklin Delano Rooseveltâ€™s response to Poundâ€™s economic â€œadviceâ€ from abroad, and then with an allusion to Catoâ€™s equation (according to Ciceroâ€™s De Officilis) of money-lending to murder.Â Â In the space of twelve lines, the poem uses lineation, spacing, typeface and font (note the giant â€œHE,â€ 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.Â But rather than providing an actual analysis of this historical vector, the poem works by comparison and contrast:Â the deprecating reference to Roosevelt (â€œHE / TALKSâ€) contrasted to the wisdom of Cato, and so on.Â Notice that Poundâ€™s effect depends on ellipsis and the denial of disclosure of key information..Â â€œâ€˜What (Cato speaking) do you think of / murder?â€™â€ 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.Â After a few such questions, he is asked â€œWhat do you think of money-lending?â€Â And it is then that the cited response comes.Â In omitting the context, Pound both arouses the readerâ€™s curiosity and heightens the Roosevelt/ Cato contrast.Â Then, too–and this is how collage works–juxtaposition replaces exposition, a convenience given that a reasoned account of Rooseveltâ€™s economic decisions might not produce the conclusions that Pound wants.
In its refusal of unity and coherence, of what Eliot himself called â€œthe aura around a bright clear centre,â€Â collage has been open to criticism, both from the Right and from the Left.Â For his fellow-poets as for the New Critics of the 40s and 50s, Poundâ€™s Cantos were simply incoherent.Â â€œHe has not, Yeats declared, â€œgot all the wine into the bowl.â€Â For a Marxist critic like Fredric Jameson on the other hand, the collage-composition of Wyndham Lewis (and, by implication, of Pound as well) â€œdraws heavily and centrally on the warehouse of cultural and mass cultural clichÃ©, on the junk materials of industrial capitalism, with its degraded commodity art, its mechanical reproduceability, its serial alienation of language.â€Â Collage, in this scheme of things, is a â€œdegradedâ€ or â€˜alienatedâ€ 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 â€œtranscendental signified.â€Â As such, it has become, in the later twentieth-century, an important mode of theorizing and model building as well as art-making: witness Derridaâ€™s Glas or Barthesâ€™s Empire of Signs/em>, or, in a different vein, John Cageâ€™s chance-generated mesostic compositions like Duchamp, Satie, Joyce or Jackson Mac Lowâ€™s The Pronouns.Â Â Â Whole â€œtextbooksâ€–for example, bp nichol and Steve McCafferyâ€™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.Â What was once a revolutionary technique is now the staple of advertising and greeting cards.Â At the same time, postmodern artworks tend to be at once less â€œcut upâ€ and yet, paradoxically more equivocal than their modernist counterparts.Â Â 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.Â It is as if the individual units are â€œalways alreadyâ€ collaged to begin with.Â 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 â€œnormalâ€ contract between artist and viewer.Â Even in Robert Rauschenbergâ€™s famed â€œcombineâ€ 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 â€œpost-collageâ€ works is from the juxtaposition of carefully chosen citations or statements (as in the shift in The Waste Land from â€œO swallow swallowâ€ to â€œLe Prince dâ€™Aquitaine Ã la tour abolie) to a focus on the inherent poetic and artistic possibilities of the â€œordinary,â€ the â€œeverydayâ€ as in the contemporary poetry and fiction deriving from Gertrude Stein, herself by no means a collagist.Â But for the better part of the century–in Joyceâ€™s Ulysses as in Poundâ€™s Cantos, in Joseph Cornellâ€™s boxes as in Malevichâ€™s “Girl at Poster Column,” in Satieâ€™s â€œfurniture musicâ€ as in Cageâ€™s Europeras, collage has been the most important mode for representing a â€œrealityâ€ no longer quite believed in and therefore all the more challenging.
Antin, David.Â â€œSome Questions about Modernism,â€ Occident, 8 (Spring 1974): 7-38.
Aragon, Louis.Â Les Collages.Â Paris: Hermann, 1980.
Group Mu, eds.Â Collages, Revue dâ€™EsthÃ©tique, nos. 3-4.Â Paris: Union GenÃ©rale dâ€™Editions, 1978.
Jameson, Fredric.Â Fables of Aggression: Wyndham Lewis, the Modernist as Fascist.Â Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1979.
Krauss, Rosalind.Â The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths.Â Cambridge and London: MIT Press, 1985.
Perloff, Marjorie.Â The Futurist Moment: Avant-Garde, Avant-Guerre, and the Language of Rupture.Â Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1986.
Poggi, Christine.Â In Defiance of Panting:Â Cubism, Futurism, and the Invention of Collage. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1992.
Seitz, William C.Â The Art of Assemblage.Â New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1968.
Ulmer, Gregory L.Â â€œThe Object of Post-Criticism,â€ in The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture, ed. Hal foster.Â Port Towsend: Wash: Bay Press, 1983. pp. 83-110.
Wescher, Herta.Â Collage.Â New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc. 1968.
One thought on “Collage and Poetry”
Comments are closed.