Saturday, April 2, 2011

Poetry and Architecture: Part 1

 In Walter Gropius's manifesto for the Bauhaus, he stated that "the ultimate aim of all creative activity is a building! The decoration of buildings was once the noblest function of fine arts, and fine arts were indispensable to great architecture;" what he has in mind was a synthesis of the plastic arts, independent of the temporal arts of music, poetry and literature.  Indeed, whereas by way of ekphrasis, there have historically been conduits between painting and sculpture and poetry and likewise music, architecture is not conventionally discussed in relation to poetry or music and vice-versa.  Steve Martin's oft-repeated soundbite, "talking about music is like dancing about architecture," has become a cliché for indicating when one thing is entirely unrelated to another thing.  

Perhaps we have Gotthold Lessing to thank for the definition of poetry alongside music as an art rooted (or, more appropriately, unrooted) in time and painting and sculpture and other visual arts as being static in physical space.  This distinction is abundantly clear in the notion that poetry is an exclusively "aural" form whose only pleasures are those of the ear, and that the page itself is merely a mute agent of the spoken word.  Perhaps this predilection goes back all the way to the oral tradition; nevertheless, it is generally assumed that poetry itself has no corporeal aspect.  Regardless of its origins, this dichotomy is dependent upon any unnecessary distinction between psychic and physical space.  

Gropius also said that "the primordial elements of space are number and movement."  That is, we have no conception of space apart from its relationship to space-occupying objects and our own travels through it.  If it takes me a long time to get from point A and point B, then the space is large.  The blind orient themselves in the physical world by way of time.  Insofar as poetry is a creature of rhythm, it therefore can be placed in relation to space, this space being internal rather than external, but space nevertheless.  The digitized Iliad is still a LARGE work, even though it occupies no space whatsoever.

What of exterior and interior?  A building has an inside and an outside, but a poem has no sides--its physical form, if considered at all, is exclusively two-dimensional.  This distinction again relates completely to a division between tactile and virtual space.  Consider a page of a collected Shakespeare--glance at it without focusing your eyes.  The effect is instantaneous, the poem is there but you do not inhabit it.  You are outside of it.  Once the process of reading begins, the poem is entered and the time spent therein is physical time. 

Interior architecture most profoundly concerns the passage of a human body through space; a building is designed (when it is designed) based upon its use, and the manner in which the body is intended to traverse from one part of the building to another.  Once entered, the poem is no different.  Consider the work of Gerard Manley Hopkins from "That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire and of the Comfort of the Resurrection":

Of yestertempest’s creases; in pool and rut peel parches
Squandering ooze to squeezed ' dough, crust, dust; stanches, starches
Squadroned masks and manmarks ' treadmire toil there
Footfretted in it. Million-fuelèd, ' nature’s bonfire burns on.

Hopkins trusts the reader's "inner ear" so little that he demarcates the caesura with his own de facto punctuation mark, and atypically uses accent marks in written English.  The reader's passage through the poem is carefully mediated.  The effect is akin to the cordons at a bank to move bodies through in neat rows, although Hopkins shepherding of our passage is far more pleasant.  Still later, Charles Olson and others would use physical space on the page to mark musical time in the reader's perception, though in a way that is intuitive and different from musical notation or Hopkins' language-music hybrid above. From The Songs of Maximus Song 1:

                     colored pictures
of all things to eat: dirty
               And words, words, words   
all over everything
                                              No eyes or ears left   
to do their own doings (all

invaded, appropriated, outraged, all senses

The effect of the unbound parenthesis is an architectural one: marking open space.  The eye encounters the poem in its own time, but still within the four walls of the poem; in this instance with door that opens to another wall.  There is nothing so quotidian as the house itself--vibrating with quotidian speech even after its occupying bodies have gone.

It is this very corporeality that would have baffled Lessing, and those after who cannot seem to reckon the physical poem, despite our time's characteristic drab materiality.  Even in the midst of this are contemporary poets who consciously or intuitively approach composition spatially and achitecturally.  I will devote some time in the coming days to look at some of this work.


Bergdoll, Barry and Leah Dickerman. Bauhaus: Workshops for Modernity. New York: MoMA.
Hopkins, Gerard Manley.  Poems and Prose. New York: Penguin Classics, 1985.
Olson, Charles.  The Maximus Poems. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1983.
Lessing, Gotthold Ephraim. Laocoön: An Essay on the Limits of Painting and Poetry. Tr. Edward    
     Allen McCormick. Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins UP, 1962.

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