Though I do not have a “favorite” of many things, I do have a favorite poem: Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art.” Its words on loss are so even-keeled for five stanzas that I immediately became a devotee of its matronly, metaphysical advice. But suddenly, in the sixth stanza, the poem cracks open, leaking vulnerability. I love the poem for its timeless subject, its progression, and especially for its title, which I consider a pun on my own professional interests as a curator. When I mentioned this to an English professor friend, he commanded I recite “One Art” like a pop quiz. I consented and got through four lines until my friend interrupted me—“Elizabeth Bishop would never use the word fluster.” An argument ensued, Google was consulted, and eventually I was vindicated.
Our argument was essentially an academic one about Bishop’s practice, but it mirrored ongoing debates about what type of language and forms are appropriate for poetry. In this case “fluster” was common, colloquial, too close to slang, and, for my friend, inconsistent with Bishop’s lyricism. It’s as if poetry’s only function were embellished erudition.
My own notions about what constitutes poetry veer toward the decorative as well, but when I think back on the poetry that first grabbed my imagination—“We real cool. We/Left school”—its diction was akin to slang. The monosyllabic words, the idiosyncratic meter, the creative verbs (to “Jazz June”?): these weren’t simple aesthetic choices for Gwendolyn Brooks, they were linguistic portraits. Like Brooks, I lived for much of my life on the South Side of Chicago. The familiarity of her cadences primed my young mind for poetry.
The familiar or colloquial isn’t base but inspirational—and, I would argue, necessary. Over one hundred years prior to “The Pool Players,” Charles Baudelaire stated that art must find its inspiration in the urban street, in the everyday, in the nineteenth-century version of the pool hall. Baudelaire was known as much as an art critic as a poet, and his ideas helped engender the cultural shift from the Romantic age into modernism.
Visual art and poetry have continued along separate aesthetic tracks, but I often return to poetry when I think about contemporary visual art. For instance, Kenneth Goldsmith’s concept of uncreative writing: Goldsmith—a true heir of Baudelaire’s dandyism—advocates for the wholesale borrowing or repurposing of language from any source rather than creating “new” text. It is a radical notion in a world saturated with cliches and nostalgic references. Goldsmith’s view is about making lateral moves rather than justifying what language is appropriate for poetry. It’s a vision of language that accepts “fluster.”
I also see Goldsmith’s ideas in direct conversation with visual art’s notion of the “found object.” An artist utilizing appropriation or a found object forces her audience to look anew—and critically—at the world. Artists and poets who do this go beyond style to pose conceptual questions: what does it mean, like Brooks or Baudelaire, to engage directly with the world surrounding you rather than looking toward the academy? How do you take advantage of the familiar while making it unfamiliar and surprising? These questions are now my guiding principles as I consider contemporary art.