November 26, 2013KR BlogUncategorized

A Long Way to Reach You Here: Serendipity, Found Objects, and Chance Readings, Pt. 1

“Found” poetry—no quotation marks necessary, really; I just mean to bring out the found-ness of the word “found”—has been on my mind ever since I started seriously reading the works of Bern Porter. I’ve written about Porter before and plan to write about him again, but the gist of my fascination lies in his knack for intuitively understanding how to manipulate the constituents of the material world and material culture in such a way as to prompt them to unravel, to cave in, to warp—to reveal, in other words, their grotesque contingency, but also to show how, despite all our protestations, we can neither avoid running into them nor escape their power as determining forces, controlling more about our lives than we might care to acknowledge.

This sounds fairly melancholy, so it’s important also for me to say that I see Porter’s work as a reprisal against those materials and those who produce them, a function not mutually exclusive with that of pointing out their power; if anything, recognition, and explanation, of their power makes the reprisal seem all the more necessary. His work is also a reprisal against received wisdom about artistic originality—namely, the romantic sort of creation story in which the artist features as a font from which flows the pure sublime or some other such nonsense, where the artist puts forth something wholly unseen before but also something that we recognize as deserving of sight (if that sounds absurd, that’s because, on one level, it is—but don’t take my cynical word for it). Against this he posits for the artist the role of arbiter, one who adjudicates the boundless flow of material influence with which capitalistic society inundates its inhabitants. Far from seeing the artist’s direct engagement with found objects—themselves including newspapers, photographs, diagrams, and all manner of printed ephemera; which, in a sense, might well be termed those objects that are forced upon us as opposed to “found”—as a concession to material culture’s influence, there’s a case to be made, I think, for seeing Porter’s work as an embodied assertion that the most effective way to confront and critique these material forces is to hold up a mirror to them. And he does this, it turns out, by mirroring them, by replicating their features in an environment—that of the page—where their out-of-place-ness, their “found”-ness, persuades us to see them afresh, often disquietingly so.

But there’s a more benign role for found objects and found poetry, one in which the citation of certain material items located in the world is just treated as another acceptable way of engaging with that world—as acceptable, say, as “borrowing” a phrase from Keats. And I don’t mean, in describing Porter’s work, to suggest that it is always an effective critique, or that it is the only sort of critique of material culture with any efficacy. What I do mean to suggest is that Porter’s work, far from being derivative or redundant or meaninglessly “self-indulgent” (a charge that gets leveled at anything subtle, even though it does, I think, have a proper application in criticism), proposes another justifiable manner in which ideology (or tradition, or convention, or the anxiety of influence—call it what you will) can be fought against.

Over the past few years, I’ve collected materials I’ve found on the streets of Berkeley and the East Bay more generally in anticipation of a collaborative project I’d planned to undertake with an East Coast friend. Many of them have been papers. Once, I got out of my car at a red light to grab a key glinting on a nearby post (it had been there for almost a month; I was fairly confident its owner had thrown it away or given up looking for it). The project, which, like so many things, is still in the planning stages, goes like this. My friend and I would begin collecting “interesting” (loosely defined) objects we came across during our daily commutes; the objects would have to be things that could be taken freely, with reasonable understanding that they had been disposed of by their owners—never stolen or bought items allowed. At various times in our correspondence, which was itself variously conducted over phone, email, and snail-mail, we’d send each other one object at a time through the mail; the recipient would then write something soon after the object’s arrival. We’ve gone through the whole process just once so far. She sent me a business card for a towing company and I wrote a poem after receiving it. The idea is not that the poem be “about” towing companies or whatever one thinks the object refers to, but to place a poem in temporal proximity to the discovery of a particular object. I receive an object and then write a poem with that object still sharp in my mind. The poem can be “about” anything. Often times, the object worms its way in. But it need not, and even if it never did so, the project would lose nothing conceptually. The point is to take into account proximities—in particular those proximities which our cultures, societies, influences, and professions have inclined us to discount as trivial, unimportant, unrevealing.

Still, there’s something curative and juxtapositional about choosing which objects the other person will encounter, even as the objects you yourself will receive remain unknown: at the end of the day, you’re still determining the sequence in which someone else will experience the world; there’s a layer, so to speak, between the objects and them—that layer is you, the Porter-esque arbiter.


Something else altogether, it seems to me, happens in that moment of first encounter, when a new thing is stumbled across for the first time: lines of ownership break down, networks of meaning peel off and fall away. The thing, whatever it is, becomes new again, but this newness contains a residue of its past lives, its past owners. I became acutely aware of this when, last week, I bought a copy of Denise Levertov’s 1962 book of poems O Taste and See. Someone had written on the title page:


A joyous Easter,



Between its covers were three objects as well as poems. What follows here is an attempt to re-create, to re-present, my first impressions of these objects, and to “read” them against the poems which have held them for years—just how many years, I don’t know. This is an exercise in extending the principles which found poetry applies to its source materials. It may or may not be radical anymore to invite the profane world of things into the world of poetry; perhaps it isn’t. But it is still, at any rate, an underutilized move, just as the invitation of these objects into criticism itself is an underutilized move. What I mean is this: even if we’ve accepted that poetry can come to encompass objects, that it can acceptably incorporate them into its repertoire of reproductions, it still seems to me like we haven’t yet issued a similar acceptance for criticism. Maybe this is wrong, or naïve; maybe there are critical movements that do just this. But how frequently, really, does the materiality of a book come into one’s writing about it? That sort of treatment appears reserved for manuscripts whose existences we are certain are rare, but not the contemporary poem, which isn’t yet a scarcity. (If only that were true!) No—the contemporary poem is treated as though it were composed of ethereal letters, floating out there on some urtext to which every printed copy merely refers. With the advent of digital master copies, that is perhaps partially true, but no more so than for the print generation with its plates. But what I’m trying to do here is read these objects as though they were in conversation with the poems to which they’re immediately adjacent. Because they were placed there by someone—someone I’ll never know—just as the words of the text themselves were.


To be continued