In a 1970 Arts Magazine article, art critic Gregory Battcock said: “The new curator is more concerned with communication than with art.”
In a 1958 essay on Jackson Pollock, Happenings artist Allan Kaprow said: “They will discover out of ordinary things the meaning of ordinariness.”
In a 1981 interview, poet John Giorno said: “I certainly won’t curl up in a chair with a book of poetry.”
Dial-a-Poem, Giorno’s New York City–wide poetry installation instigated in 1968, used the technology of the telephone, a plastic handheld thing, to relay poetry as if it were simple information. The messages were poems recorded by poets and artists, from John Ashbery to Bobby Seale. For a period of about four years, anyone could dial 212.628.0400 on a rotary telephone and hear a poem.
Art and writing at the end of the 1960s had expanded into new kinds of experience. Almost anything could suddenly be labeled “art”—a pile of tires, a conversation, the sound of rain outside a window. Turning away from the heroics associated with the Abstract Expressionist movement—the grand gesture—artists and writers suddenly understood the actions of an ordinary life as a type of poetry. In addition to art’s expansion, the poem on the page expanded, the definitions of “media” expanded, the frame of the picture expanded. Art and life, for a short time, became concomitant.
In a time before movie hotlines listed local showtimes, before psychics mapped out the coming year over the telephone, before phone-sex operators greeted lonely people late at night, John Giorno’s Dial-a-Poem offered up poetry for the everyday caller. The program changed regularly; one could make a phone call each day and encounter a different work by a new artist. Aram Saroyan stated simply: “Not a cricket / Ticks a clock.” Joe Brainard recited a litany of remembrances: “I remember ponytails.” Ted Berrigan reveled in the “[f]eminine, marvelous, and tough.” Diane di Prima read her “Revolutionary Letter #7”: “Meditate, pray, make love, be prepared/ at any time, to die.” Taylor Mead mimicked the sounds of a motorcycle: “Brrrrruuuumm, brruuuuuum, craaaaaash, craaaash!”
This sense of extraordinary ordinariness might have been what appealed to curator—and Frank O’Hara protégé—Kynaston McShine when he included Dial-a-Poem in his groundbreaking exhibition Information, mounted in 1970 at the Museum of Modern Art. The exhibition turned the museum into a laboratory of new technologies. No longer just a pure artistic space reserved for ineffable experience, the galleries in the museum resembled a science fair for the artistically curious. Dial-a-Poem, in this incarnation, existed as 12 telephone lines hooked up to 12 gray boxes that housed the recording devices. The museum visitor would pick up the receiver and hear a voice on the other line, reading a poem. Instant art.
The exhibition was described in a press release by the museum as “an international report on recent activity of young artists” and the catalog included work by Dan Graham, Yvonne Rainer, Carl Andre, and Yoko Ono. Vito Acconci had his mail delivered to the museum. Christine Kozlov submitted a telegram: “PARTICULARS RELATED TO THE INFORMATION NOT CONTAINED HEREIN CONSTITUTE THE FORM OF THIS ACTION.” Joseph Kosuth’s famous One and Three Chairs made an appearance. A chair, the photograph of the chair, a definition of “chair.” The chairness of the chair. The desired effect of this information art was to create an experience more active than that of just looking at a painting or sitting in a chair and reading a poem. It required engagement with the processes of language, pictures, and data. It avoided aesthetics and instead allowed for a personal interaction with ideas, concepts, and new forms of communication. It was a way of experiencing art through the very facts of our daily life.
How is a telephone in a museum with a placard sitting next to it different from the simple insistence of a telephone ring? The experience becomes self-conscious. The phoneness of the phone. What about a poem coming through that telephone? A site usually reserved for intimate conversation or the logistics of an appointment? How does the syntax of a poem respond to the act of calling for it?
When asked about Dial-a-Poem recently, poet Aram Saroyan explained that it wasn’t so much poetry that was transformed by the project but, rather, the environment of New York: “The way a melody will change when you add a new note to it.” Also, he said, “It recast a household item, the telephone, into an artistic accessory. And it was fun.”
Art critics and curators are often also poets (René Ricard, Peter Schjeldahl, Frank O’Hara . . .). However, poetry in and of itself rarely makes it into the gallery space. At MoMA the poem, delivered through the technology of the phone, could be masked as a form of information, a relaying of facts. None of the poems were created specifically for the Information exhibition. John Giorno sometimes recorded his friends at his loft or edited older recordings for inclusion. And this may account for the break in content and form as the poet-messages often transcended the flat-footed nature of the exhibition. Information is something that grounds us in the material world. The poem, more often than not, provides an expansion, a movement out of the particulars of our day-to-day life.
For instance, Ed Sanders spoke frankly of his mother’s death in “Cemetery Hill.” Recorded in 1965 at the Berkeley Poetry Conference, his voice intoned deeply:
yes I ran
out on to Terrace
in a death-vulsion
had said that
make me live
& I cried there,
stomped into the
And Frank O’Hara proclaimed “no more dying” in “Ode to Joy,” recorded in 1963 in New York, “We shall see the grave of love as a lovely sight and temporary.”
Other works were political, engaging with the basic facts of the world in the late 1960s, war and social revolution. Bobby Seale described “[t]he supple color of your jazz skin” and declared “We hate you white people.” English poet Heathcote Williams expressed his disgust with the English: “I will not pay taxes until the patients at the Putney Home for Incurables hold a deeply personal shit-in in Carnaby Street in the Kings Road.” Bernadette Mayer sweetly told the story of revolutionaries after the war: “Now we live in a big house. we have fresh water & we eat chickpeas, milk, & instant breakfast as long as they last. would you like to join us?”
Contrary to what a lot of people were saying in 1970, in Dial-a-Poem the medium really wasn’t the message. Taken together, these poems act as a type of time capsule of the late 1960s, both personal and political. The poems were not a straightforward account, like calling for the weather report or the time of day. What made them almost ordinary, though, was the very everydayness of the act—dialing the number and listening. Calling a poem on the telephone did not require as much effort as attending a reading or even reading a poem on the page. It was casual. A phone call. The ordinariness of the telephone heightened the impact of the content. Perhaps this is the very fact of information; illumination can’t exist without it.
Anne Waldman addressed the problem of technology and transcendence in her poem “How the Sestina (Yawn) Works,” recorded by Giorno in New York:
I really like to write poetry
it’s more fun than grass, acid, THC, methedrine
If I can’t write I start to yawn
and it’s time to sit back, watch television
see what’s happening to me personally:
war strike, starvation, revolution
This is a sample of my own revolution
taking the easy way out of poetry
I want it to hit you all personally
like a shot of extra-strong methedrine
so you’ll become your own television
Become your own yawn!
During the months I spent writing this piece, I called John Giorno three times asking to interview him. He never called back, and this seemed like a fitting ending to the essay. Why would he call back? After all, didn’t I learn through my research and writing that Dial-a-Poem was a one-way interaction? A calling-up and then a recorded poem, not unlike Giorno’s own brief message: a recital of his phone number and a “please leave a message.” But then, last week, a 212 area code appeared on my phone, and out of curiosity I picked up. “Hello, this is John Giorno. I’m so sorry I never called you back! I’ve been on tour for months.”
We discussed Dial-a-Poem and the idea of poetry as information. He talked fast and had a kind of New York twang to his voice. He calls poetry “information at its highest level.” He thought of the original Dial-a-Poem project one day while he was on the phone with a friend, recovering from a terrible hangover. “A friend was talking boring gossip at 11 o’clock in the morning and I didn’t want to hear it and I kept thinking, ‘Why am I so irritated? Why couldn’t this voice be reading a poem?’” So he recorded his friends and, according to Giorno, a type of intelligence emerged from the phone wires: “Wisdom inherent in a poet’s voice mixed with words is the wisdom of the poetry.” He says, “Wisdom is information.”