July 29, 2016KR BlogBlogCurrent EventsEnthusiamsReadingWriting

“Still unknown objects that belong together”: Poetry and assemblage

I recently recorded a poetry craft talk for The Writing University Open Courses program, which will implement another session of its “How Writers Write: Talks On Craft and Commitment” series in the coming year. My talk will be released along with talks from numerous other poets; readers and writers all over the world can participate, join discussions, and hopefully find inspiration for their own writing. I spoke about the poetics of accretion and assemblage, so it seems appropriate to collect just a few bits and pieces to share here. I hope you tune back in for the rest of the talk, when it’s available.


In the talk, I note some moments when poets seem to speak in and through their poems to a process of poetic making — meta-commentary on the poetics of accumulation, accretion, collage, assemblage, curation. I found myself focused on Michael Dumanis’s poem “Joseph Cornell, with Box,” which presents itself as a monologue in the voice of the visual artist Joseph Cornell, while it also functions as a kind of ars poetica, a poem about this kind of poem-making. The poem begins:

World harbors much I’d like to fit inside
that the parameters preclude me from.

I’m the desire to have had a say.
I’m the desire to be left alone

amid brochures for Europe’s best hotels
behind a locked door on Utopia Parkway,

where Brother, crippled, rides his chariot,
where Mother’s all dressed up and going nowhere.

Together, sotto voce, we count hours,
fuss over newsprint, water down the wine.

When I was shorter, we were all divine.
When I was shorter, I was infinite

and felt less fear of being understood.
I am the fear of being understood.

Cornell himself is best known for his “boxed assemblages.” If you’re not familiar with his work, think of a diorama, but instead of a child’s representation of a scene, Cornell’s boxes contain fragments, gewgaws, photographs, bric-a-brac, odds and ends. Although Cornell didn’t think of himself as a Surrealist, he taps into the Surrealist strength of arresting juxtaposition. In Dime-Store Alchemy: The Art of Joseph Cornell, the poet Charles Simic writes, “Somewhere in the city of New York there are four or five still-unknown objects that belong together. Once together they’ll make a work of art. That’s Cornell’s premise, his metaphysics, and his religion.” It’s no surprise that a poet, Simic, feels pulled to the work of Cornell, or that another poet, Dumanis, feels similarly. This sense of bringing together disparate things and finding the resonance between them, letting juxtapositions clash and reverberate, making meaning as the mind attempts to bridge their gaps — this sense is also the work of much of contemporary poetry.

cornell guggenheim little bear

In Dumanis’s poem “Joseph Cornell, with Box,” an imagined Cornell addresses his box directly:

You are the obligation, Box, to harbor
each disarray and ghost. I am the author,

the authored by. I am a plaything of.
Who makes who Spectacle. Who gives whom Order.

One might say the same of Dumanis, or any of us who tries to articulate our experiences of existence through the parameters of poetry: “You are the obligation, Poem, to harbor,” and so on.

Later, this version of Cornell and Dumanis says:

There is an order to each spectacle.

The poem ends:

I’m the ballet of wingspan, the cracked mirror.
Canary’s coffin. Sunshine breaking through.

cornell imagination

Ideas of both spectacle and order seem crucial when approaching a poetics of accumulation from a craft perspective. A poem like Wallace Stevens’s “The Man on the Dump” shares a kinship with the Cornell box as well, speaking to the art-making inherent in a cumulative accretion of language. But order is what distinguishes both the haphazard piling up of a dump and the curated space of Cornell’s box from the poems that reflect upon either one of them—as opposed to the dump or the box which exist as places and things but not as events, the poem curates not only space, but also time. The poet guides our attention through the “objects” of the poem, and we encounter the curated objects, images, and so on in a curated order.

In this sense, to get an accurate sense of the craft of a poetics of accumulation, we might need to make a distinction: the poem is not “like” the assemblage itself, or the dump itself—it is the record of one mind, vision, and sensibility’s encounter with that accumulation.

The initial process of accumulating the materials for such a poem might be haphazard — a magpie’s attention to the shiny bits and pieces around us — images that arise from memory or observation, fragments of speech, even simply favorite bits of diction — words that strike our ears and beg to be remembered. We might not be ready to give these materials an aesthetic context upon our first encounter, but we inevitably order the reader’s encounter. In Dumanis’s final couplet, we have a little Cornell box of details, but we also have the “order” to the “spectacle”—the poet takes us on a particular, personal journey from image to image. What might appear an artful jumble to a reader, is in fact an encounter with that jumble, orchestrated by the poet himself.

Cornell Guggenheim


While I focused on Dumanis in my recent talk, Cornell’s boxes also captured the poet Frank O’Hara’s imagination in his box-shaped poem “Joseph Cornell.” John Ashbery dedicated his “Pantoum” to the artist. Kristina Marie Darling wrote an entire collection, The Moon and Other Inventions: Poems After Joseph Cornell, inspired by Cornell’s techniques.

And the love affair between poets and Cornell went both ways. As Tamar Yoseloff writes, “Perhaps no other artist of the 20th century was so indebted to the poets he loved and read as Joseph Cornell,” citing the French Symbolists Apollinaire, Mallarmé, Nerval, as well as his “particular affinity” for Emily Dickinson, and his correspondence with his contemporary Marianne Moore.

Even prose writer Jonathan Safran Foer is captivated, and prompted other prose writers to explore their connections with Cornell’s work.

Simic’s poetic prose in Dime-Store Alchemy is a lovely place to begin reading about Cornell, and a lovely place to begin assembling poems inspired by Cornell’s techniques is… absolutely anywhere.