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Conceptual Poetics: Cole Swensen
Cole Swensen “What to Do Besides Describe it: Ekphrasis that Ignores the Subject”
(presented at Conceptual Poetry and Its Others Conference, University of Arizona, Tucson)
Cole Swensen began by stating: “In attempting to get beyond the ‘emotions recollected in tranquility’ paradigm, which is what it seems to me conceptual poetry in its widest sense is trying to do, I’ve been increasingly drawn to models of poetry as revealing something about the way we think and even expanding our perspectives or patterns of thought.”
She then introduced the concept of ekphrasis and the theories of Semir Zeki, a scientist who argued that the visual arts, particularly painting, train us to see constants and to gradually develop overall perceptual constancy. Swensen wondered what the implications and parallels in poetry might be. She commented that in the visual fields, the ways in which we’re asked to see and to “read” haven’t changed all that much, based as they are on a primary figure/ground relationship. What has changed, she argues, is subject matter. Swensen argues that “Increasingly, the visual arts and some poetry have worked to distill subject matter so that core structural elements and their dynamics are laid bare or at least made much more apparent. but it seems that the visual arts have been more successful at this than poetry, and in part, it’s because, after a very promising start, epitomized by Gertrude Stein, who recognized that there was something to be gained in translating cubism’s geometric and perspectival shifts into writing, poetry took a turn which confused distillation with simplification, turning precisely away from that which would expose underlying dynamics apparent through rhythm, echo, juxtaposition, etc. and toward simpler language, where ‘simpler’ was understood to be both ‘clearer’ and ‘truer,’” with the result being poetic language dominated by subject matter, by information.
Swensen posited that ekphrasis as a tool can help poetry by historically analyzing how the visual arts have accomplished this. She concluded with a lengthy participatory group discussion looking a numerous works of modernist visual art to show how a unifying principle between very different subjects could be seen as similar. She asked the audience to “think about how, in each case, subject matter has been modified, compromised, distilled in order to let the dynamics become a little more apparent.”