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Poetry Marathon at the Serpentine Gallery, London
Poetry contributor Caroline Bergvall attended the 50-some poet, 36-hour poetry marathon at the Serpentine Gallery in London on October 17–18. Her dispatch follows:
I’m writing in from London where I’ve recently been part of a highly ambitious poetry event. The internationally reputed Serpentine Gallery in Hyde Park has for the past 4 years been hosting a mad type of event, an annual 36 hours live event, a more or less non-stop art marathon of presentations. This year they decided to create it as a Poetry Marathon. Some 50 poets were slated to take part, each reading for approx. 15 mins—a decent time given the chain of readings and the expected strained attention span.
The event has been summarized in great detail online, complete with program notes, introductory remarks by the curator and high-end cultural entrepreneur Hans Ulrich Obrist, as well as pics and comments on many of the readers. Although amazing, I have to admit the event has left me thoughtful…
The decision to dedicate a whole weekend to contemporary poetry within a public art setting was immediately exciting to me. Inevitably, linking poetry to the visual arts or, rather, to its institutions, brings poets and poetry into a more public, less specialized sphere (one might wish to discuss the meaning of the term “public” since so many arts and poetry events are corporately funded) than that provided for by dedicated poetry environments. Certainly, events organized within museums or galleries are attended well beyond what one might usually expect from a poetry reading in a literary venue. I could tally audiences from similar events in NYC, as I’ve been involved in some of these in recent times, such as MoMA’s Modern Poet series (initially created by Frank O’Hara), Dia’s commissioning of poets for some of their events programming, the NY Art Book Fair at PS1 with its many readings and talks, even the recent Whitney one-off extravaganza of poetry as entertainment, to name but a few that you may be familiar with.
The array of historic art shows, notably around Concrete, Dada, and Futurist movements or those from more recent Environmental or Concept Arts, where the strict line between textual and visual exploration blissfully dissipates are another important linkage between artistic modalities. Poetic explorations of language can here be experienced in their interaction with different presentational and investigative forms; and be witnessed and discussed by a whole range of audiences otherwise often not involved in poetry. In an epoch so overly dedicated to the visual arts, where urban family outings can also take place in the malls and cafés of our large museums, the presence of poetic works at the very heart of art shows is a reminder of poetry’s and of treated language’s role in shaping the larger artistic developments we’re inheriting from the 20th century. Poets’ impact on the development of interdisciplinary arts provides a crucial, if often largely ignored, contribution to subsequent art or literary histories. It is this connecting line between the visual and the textual and literary arts that is at entry favored by the Serpentine event.
The Poetry Marathon used the idea of “poetry” very loosely, nearly archaically. It is more to do with doing and making (language) than with applying the stricter and formal bounds of any art form per se. Indeed the remit for “poetry” this weekend is “performances from leading poets, writers, artists, philosophers, scholars, and musicians.” As such it is an umbrella term, a reminder that everybody writes, sometimes. However, in the context of a highly secluded British poetry culture, perhaps they’ve taken the idea one step too far.
The highy diverse presence (live or remote) of poets/writers/performers, such as John Giorno, John Ashbery, Geoffrey Hill, Eileen Myles, Etel Adnan, Gerhard Rühm, Jacques Roubaud, Don Paterson, Alasdair Gray, Nick Laird, Sean Bonney, Kenny Goldsmith, Charlie Dark, Michael Horovitz, Vito Acconci or myself was promising. Here we had an internationalist (if Anglo slanted) event. A closer look revealed that only a very small handful of poets from the many (established and less established) scenes of Britain were represented. The gender and ethnicity count among these was also troublingly unequal, where this is in fact the one thing the Brit Po establishment has represented quite systematically, even at the expense of other, more formally pertinent values. This struck me as the clearest sign of the scission between visual arts and poetic practice in Britain. Indeed, to suggest that official poetry in the UK is increasingly associated with heritage art is a clear exaggeration (a recent survey found that many Londoners have no idea who John Donne is). Nevertheless, in a country where the sheer word “poetry” sends a shiver down many Brits’ backs and where the artist Tracey Emin, who opened the weekend, publishes her endlessly pre-teen poetry in GQ magazine, an aspect of the event did need to provide both a closer look at British literary poetry and a slightly more stringent definition of the operative term itself.
Furthermore, although a number of the chosen artists are known for dealing with writing and language pertinently and intrinsically as part of their artwork (Susan Hiller, Tacita Dean, Sean Landers, Jimmie Durham, Jonas Mekas, Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster), it was something of a disappointment to see so many of them react with undisguised anxiety at that same word, “poetry.” Otherwise lucid, articulate artists found themselves in the throes of open self loathing, “I don’t know poetry,” “I dont know what to read,” choosing to calm the audience by reading from known values such as Eliot, Ted Hughes, Lorca, and Hamburger’s Celan, rather than tracing their own engagement with writing as part of the event. Here, poetry itself was treated as a historical, in the sense of acquired, decorative, rather than productive, mode of functioning.
What happened? Tim Griffin, poet and editor of Artforum, said in his opening remarks that poetic investigation might provide a needed grammar for the arts in a period of crisis. This insightful point was echoed by Eileen Myles, who reminded us that a number of poets in the late-20th and early-21st centuries have certainly at times sought out arts environments for a wider, looser, more open renewal of their forms and modes, but that it was now time for the visual arts seeking out writing and literature to query their more profound questions about writing. How and why might they be courting poets and poetry, how and why might they wish to including reading and writing as part of their practices, and more pointedly, what were poets doing at the Serpentine?
So what’s the problem? Here again, it seems to me that the event confirmed that the debates between art and poetry remain superficial and usually kept on a back foot, or at arm’s length. Apart from artists or writers who specifically develop ways of working across these disciplines or modes, the cultural status quo is still very much, and in an often unexamined way, one of irreconcilable historic and formal differences between the literary and visual arts. The mood was certainly very different a year ago when the Serpentine hosted a large retrospective by the filmmaker, painter, and poet, Derek Jarman.
The prejudice of much art towards poetry is that it is inherently passeistic when not informed by artistic modes. The question of writings by artists is that writing is an instrumentalized, functional activity. This ignores the fact that the whole question of applied (or writerly) language is also that of histories of language and of literary and semiotic applications. All this forms a specific skills base that is indeed pertinent to the demagogic and mediatized rhetorics of our times.
The reluctance of the artists present to engage with poetic material and the absence of more British poets effectively created the feeling that the pink elephant in this open-air enclosure was language itself. Or rather, a fear of language, a fear about not controlling a knowledge of language that demands its conscious, careful, and studied semiotic and semantic manipulations across a whole range of environments. The fact that poetic and literary cultures in Britain are still resolutely separate from other artforms, unless dealing with theatrical performance, certainly plays an important part in generating this sort of sclerosis between verbal and non-verbal arts.
—Caroline Bergvall, October 26, 2009
* “Recently discovered letters from Philip Larkin to Monica Jones disclose that the poet became so obsessed with the hit television show Baywatch that he considered writing to the producers and offering his services as their new leading man.” —From the 2009 Serpentine Gallery Poetry Marathon program