Saturday, January 12, 2008

Cuts from Stone Reveal Cat Skat

In the first half of the 20th century Ezra Pound expressed the concept of 'writing as the sculpture within the block of marble' in reference to the work of his sculptor friend Henri Gaudier-Brzeska (1891-1915).

Henri’s career as an artist was short, four years. He was killed in the French trenches during WWI. His influence on Ezra Pound, and also Wyndham Lewis was significant and in part can be seen as an underlying conceptual element of Pound’s later Cantos, which, if any literary work can be said to do so, relies heavily on collagist technique.

A great deal of Pounds technique was rather simply to take what came to him, digest it within his accumulated being, and then to distil out a response. It is one of the reasons that scholars of Pound speak so often of what Pound was reading or experiencing as an ‘antennae of the race’ at various times in the production of his life’s work.

Of Henri Gaudier-Brzeska's work:

“"It was done" (Pound remembering) "against the whole social system in the sense that it was done against poverty and the lack of materials." He used oddments of stone left over from other people's—for instance monument cutters'—hackings. The " Cat" emerges from one side of a broken chunk of marble, "of no shape" save that Gaudier saw the cat lying tensed in it.” Hugh Kenner, The Pound Era, 1971, p 250.

Under this methodology of 'writing as the sculpture within the block of marble' I imagine it is a process where the writer puts down on paper a whole lot of words and non-words, coinages and nonsense... not too different than monkeys on speed typing... and then spends the time to whittle away all of the extraneous words until the core of whatever could possibly have some value is revealed. I assume what ends as the final product is at least of value to the whittler.

Though I know that the technique is entirely manageable on shorter texts, say to take 1,000 words and pseudo-words and condense them down into 2-3 sentences in a longer work of fiction in the long run the approach vastly loses all semblance of efficiency. As well, after the whittler’s initial enthusiasm for adventure and exploration wears down to the tedium of ‘work’ the long text is more than likely to result in lengthy runs of total nonsensical and tediously drooling gibberish.

From personal experience I know that if there is no element of precognitive desire and sensibility introduced the process can lead to objects that more resemble splots of cat skat than elegance.

"A sea chord timer (eye at the foal lox wine sunk ripe), as the blight bulk riding us frogs the ad hoc icon, the bulb reset tinge amp mango their cop undresses, a shim elf stain dung on the grotto fund, wax chad by the ash elm bay, a shin elk cob mink oat from the treated spry, waft chef by the yak tongue moan — the yoke flute Utu exit endued his hog oily, ship fling rats downy frogs heave veins (1 ms. from Ur adds: holy, his bail liar acne ilk lump mien aped for him the moon tarn caviar), he bus towel themes on holy Lugalbanda in the moot tern cakewalk..." jim leftwich, Death Text Book 9, 2003

Machines, in fact, the development of the personal computer is good for producing these texts in prolific abundance though the human element of such mundane tasks such as rewriting, and rewriting, helps to ensure the sustenance of an audience of readers.

Reference to a technique of artistic composition that dates back nearly 100 years is not exactly modern, let alone post-modern.

So I will jump back in the discussion regarding artistic methodology at least 200 years with a reference to William Blake, who was a practitioner of relief etching and argued for a very strong focus on the demarcation of the ‘line’ both in graphic and in textual media.

One characteristic of modern technique is collage, another is distortion, and with cubism there is certainly a clear sense of a demarcating line. In many respects the visual image of the modern was a reaction to the fuzzy image of the romantic and impressionist movements. In the visual collage technique of the modernists, Dadaists, etc. it is fairly clear when one looks at the work that one is looking at a cut-out image. One can see lines between images most clearly.

One of my most favorite artists along these lines (no pun left unturned) is Joseph Cornell. I have seen his work in museums. I have seen his work sitting on the sofa tables of my business clients.

I am a practitioner of the philosophy of Manureism [pre-chicken, chicken, post-chicken, post-post-chicken] and as such see a methodology that incorporates 'writing as the sculpture within the block of marble' with a collagist technique (a mosaic of fragments) that takes a focus on looking at the characteristic of the lines between the disparate images. A few lines are heightened in effect, a few are blended together to force the images to seem more connected than they would otherwise be experienced.

In the exploration of a text that seeks the potential of exclusion from translation into other aesthetic media there is a tacit recognition that the goal is as impractical as the development of a character that grows and stands up off the page as a self-realized walking, talking homunculus. There may be no final salvation, but there is the lingering hope of it. But what is relevant to me, at the least, is the exploration of the discrete ‘line’ that is revealed in the mish-mush.

It also presents a challenge to the reader as how one learns to read, how one is sensitive to their skills as a reader, conditions how they perceive and interact with the lines of the work.

My experience with stone causes me when I look at Gaudier's Marble Cat to wonder just how the stone knew to contain such a poor rendition of a cat that Gaudier could even imagine to find it therein. More remarkable to me is how whole movements of aesthetic comprehension are built up on the figments of fragments of intellectual cat skat.

Sadly, or not so sadly, for me the perception of a linear text (one word to follow another) is at least three dimensional if not five. I say five in that there is a past and future to our comprehension that is recursive to our internal experience of any text.


  1. I see your point about looking for the poetry within blocks of text. I've never really thought that way but I guess it's what I do only in a more abstract sense. I've struggled in the past to try and explain what I mean by 'thinking poetry' as opposed to just thinking. I suppose it's like having a particular filter applied to my thoughts so that everything I see and hear is assessed as potential poetry. A simple example would be, as I'm crossing a street, a voice in my head would convert that into words, like an opening line: "As he crossed the street…" which I then play with trying to see what could be added to that to make it more poetic. There is poetry in everything if you look hard enough. I'm not sure if it's a process of perception or extraction or a bit of both.

    There are different kinds of sculpture of course and I imagine very few sculptures get to work with blocks of marble these days. But most of them will have taken a lump of clay and done things with it. The thing about clay is that you can take away, shape it and add to it; with marble there is nothing but removal. Maybe that's why I've always struggled with it as an analogy for writing.

  2. It was Michelangelo who talked (often) about "freeing the sculpture in the block of marble", a reference, surely, to the need to work with the material and not try to force it into shapes that its nature will not allow. We have all seen sculptures in one material force to look as though they were cast or carved in another. They look false, even to the untrained eye. There are forms appropriate to each material - you could say that each has its own language - and you could apply that to word-smithing: it is one of the problems of translating, for example. Each language has its own forms.I