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The Watts Towers as Poetry

By Garrett Caples

If I have one complaint about poets, it’s that they complain too much. These complaints usually boil down to I don’t have (enough) readers or I don’t get paid (enough), whereas it’s always struck me that if you’re looking for large amounts of readers or money, you’ve come to the wrong place. If you want to get paid to write, write about something large numbers of people are interested in, like music. But if you tie your sense of worth as a poet to audience numbers or monetary reward, you’re in for a lot of unnecessary heartache.

Against the culture of complaint that has taken root in our very midst, I propose a visit to the Watts Towers if you happen to be within striking distance of Los Angeles. The fact that you need to go into Watts to see the towers is fascinating enough, and serves as a reminder of what you don’t have to complain about. The Towers are unambiguously in the hood, but it’s a section of hood that’s grown accustomed to the incursion of strangers. Indeed, the neighborhood’s residents, particularly in the block-long strip of houses across from the Towers on East 107th St, seem justifiably proud of the tourist attraction.

Most of what I know about the Towers has been gleaned from The Los Angeles Watts Towers (Getty, 1997) by Bud and Arloa Paquin Goldstone, which I snagged at the gift shop. The book wrestles with the question of what the Towers are—unanswerable as they fit no pre-established category beyond the broadest sense of the word “art.” They’re more like architecture than sculpture, but “architecture” seems too purpose-driven a concept to apply to them. Nonetheless, they’re apparently the biggest structure ever built by a single person and their use of thin-shelled reinforced concrete predates the technique’s application in architecture proper. In person, they have the quality of being monumental on a human scale, if that makes sense. I’ve seen taller Ferris wheels, but the uneven, unfinished surface of the concrete, mirrored in the wild accretion of broken glass, shells, and crockery that brings the Towers to life more vividly than any electricity could, constantly impresses on you their handmade quality, nudging you back to a notion of the sculptural. Standing in front of them, I felt awe that one man, with no electric tools or machines, could make such a thing.

The man in question, Simon Rodia, was driven to make the Towers through an inner compulsion that even he couldn’t explain. It’s true he wanted an audience, in the sense that, say, a graffiti artist wants to pick a good spot where lots of people will see the results. Rodia seems to have purchased the triangle-shaped property in what was then a separate, unincorporated town called Watts Junction because it was at the intersection of seven street car and two railway lines. Well over 100,000 people would pass by each day. Otherwise he proceeded about his business, and unlike the builders of the eight other “folk art” sites on National Register of Historic Places, Rodia never tried to monetize his creation. Nuestro Pueblo, he called it, “our town.” He didn’t even care enough to make sure commentators got his name right, either “Sabato” or his self-anglicized “Samuel,” and has gone down in history with a name he never used. Clearly not giving a shit for such trifles in the face of creating THE WORK.

Rodia and the Towers have had a particular appeal to poets like Lamantia and Duncan, both of whom wrote poems in his honor. Ronald Johnson cites the Towers as a major influence on his long poem ARK. To me, the Towers are themselves a kind of poetry in their outlandish repurposing of fragments of utilitarian objects. It’s something like what we do with language. I’m also struck by the role chance played in their construction. On the one hand, Rodia never worked from any plans. On the other, a number of conditions conspired to even make their existence possible. Rodia began the Towers in 1921 and Watts Junction was absorbed into Los Angeles—with its building codes, inspectors, rules—in 1926; had they not pre-dated Watts’s annexation, I doubt he would have been allowed to build them. Even the nearby railroad tracks, which Rodia used as a vice to bend his steel rods into various shapes, would now be unavailable to him, as there’s now a fence rendering the rail yard inaccessible. The entire thing is nothing short of a miracle, recalling Lamantia’s definition of poetry as “a miracle in words.”

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Posted in Uncategorized on Friday, April 6th, 2012 by Garrett Caples.