Poetry Marathon at the Serpentine Gallery, London

By Fred Sasaki
Philip Larkin*
Philip Larkin*

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

Originally Published: October 28th, 2009
  1. October 28, 2009

    Caroline, I'm grateful for the thoughtful report on this ambitious event. I'm afraid--& I reckon you'd agree--that the problem you identify as "sclerosis between verbal and non-verbal arts" is not limited to Britain. Despite all abstractions issued regarding the value of interdisciplinarity and cross-media work, the institutionalization of the arts at large appears to necessitate self-disciplining & shelving in the form of media/genre specificity and near-immediate adherence to a school, channel, or ideology, lest one's production be left behind as anathema in the rush of reception; that's pervasive here as well, & all the more criminally in a haven like New York, which is so abuzz with interest and promise that it produces anxiety about what warrants, and what will return, the investment of every spectator's limited font of attention. That which fits itself squarely within a matrix already given is easiest to assess. Inhabiting languages' estrangement and exploring alien media risks unfolding outside of professional realms. Hence the canned presentations of preauthorized poetry in fearful museums instead of a truer collaboration of unforeseen consequences. I say "appears," "risks," because obviously there are exceptions. But not nearly enough.

  2. October 28, 2009
     mairead byrne

    I savor this: "Poets’ impact on the development of interdisciplinary arts provides a crucial, if often largely ignored, contribution to subsequent art or literary histories."\r
    The Marathon itself sounds stupendous but poetry's fugitive migratory osmosis-in-all-directions processes and friendly, if reclusive, handshakes invite notions of new structures, new metaphors for public performance/presentation beyond the monolithic, even the fertile and delightful monolith of the marathon. One of the interesting things about poetry is the extent to which audience and performers are one and the same, although this identification weakens perhaps the more famous the poet is.\r
    Contemporary information environments demand a level of sophistication both verbally and visually: this affects both visual artists and writers. Just as writers have to, at least minimally, make decisions about font/color/image/design in digital environments so visual artists have to claim a level of fluency and flexibility with language on a day-to-day basis on the web. Poetry brings *voice* to the enterprise; maybe that's what gives people pause. heck, *voice* gives poets pause too -- few poets raise their voices, widen their voices, narrow their voices, do anything with their voices at all. And a lot of people don't much like speaking in public (including a lot of poets). Obviously poetry issues an open invitation for fun with every aspect of voice but few take it up.\r
    I see my students, at Rhode Island School of Design, looking down at the page as if it were a stage, approaching text as if it were an archaeological dig, using color, working with great subtlety with sound, locking text away, just doing too many things to text, in particular, and the performance of reading and writing to an extent, to list here. Students are not institutions, I concede. But another interesting thing about the economy of poetry is the extent to which it operates one-by-one.\r
    I like that word "scission"!

  3. October 28, 2009
     James Davies

    I was incredibly disappointed when I found out about this event late on and could not attend. This seems like it could be one of the most important and exciting events in the UK for a long while in terms of audience numbers and having alarge group of great poets together at any one time. The list of poets you mention are mouth-watering. The premise of the artists sounds great and obviously I cannot comment on their performances but I would have found them interesting for this one off event.\r

    However I agree totally with what you say. Poetry is seen as a pejorative term by by most people in general and perhaps by some artists. Or seen by artists as an inferior discipline which cannot achieve the same ends. I often talk to people who can talk to me at ease about contemporary art but when they find out I write and read poetry look at me like I’m a stamp collector and ask 'what do I write about’ – meaning 'what’s the topic of my poems?’ Is it about war? or maybe about seeing the strangeness in the everyday.\r

    This is due to the canons of art and poetry not matching. Many people simply are not aware of contemporary poetry (hopefully this event will have alerted them) .Anyone who hasn’t dismissed the popular canon of poetry has no knowledge of possibilities: but they might well know text art. The problem lies with the fact that the popular canon of art is essentially contemporary whereas the popular canon of poetry is modernist (and almost to a state of regression): dull or embarrassing.\r

    People know how to read contemporary art and therefore should be able to read contemporary poetry (and by this I mean innovative, experimental, etc.) but there is a block, almost like a malfunction; people assume that poetry is twee and simply a flowery/clever description of something and that anything interesting in language happens in text art: although contemporary poetry is far more interesting than text art on the whole. Text artists often have or seem to have no background in contemporary poetry and produce similar things to poets but which are not as interesting. It seems to me that because of the mix of poets and artists some audience members will have had an eye opener.

  4. October 28, 2009

    What if constant open exchange between the arts is impossible to sustain, is a developmental stage in the history of a culture (art's just going through a stage)...

  5. October 29, 2009
     Caroline Bergvall

    Thank you all, these are really great and valuable comments. Let me add one more thought to your varied responses. I think we agree that the questioning and at times great frustration as to how to achieve a productive, in-depth, integrated presence of poetry (or literary arts) within the broader contemporary arts is one that many of us have been experiencing. Jordan's point that there might not always be the necessity of open exchange between the arts is important here. I venture to take it one step further. I think it is to do with shifting value rather than exchange. Exchange, or thwarted exchange, might be a current by-product. By this I mean, there are separate skills and sensibilities, and importantly also, separate or rather parallel histories. But I wonder whether the peculiar, at times strident, perceived separateness or discrepancy between knowledges (and influence) in art is not also psycho-social. I wonder whether it isn't also to do with the reshaping of culture away from the singular authority of verbal and literary authority (what speaks to culture and how), as we are moving towards a more multi-sensory, less unified approach to artistic experience, knowledge and public influence. Indeed, younger writers are frequently familiar with all sorts of techniques and tools that are also an integrated part of other art modes. This of course also pushes to be applied to our teaching practices and necessitates the development of a responsive curriculum within English, for instance. Which is why it is so important to keep on thinking this one through. This could mean that much of our acquiescence to the vitality of visual and sound arts and the potential that one can see in poetry as an expanded mode of writing (the many forms this might take) might simply be part of a long-term societal restructuring of art. Our discomfort, the imperfect fit we're going through becomes relatively minor or liveable seen from this perspective. It becomes something one might need to take into account in what we do as poets. What we can achieve does have to do with creating or maintaining a conscious and radical understanding of language's work.

  6. October 29, 2009
     mairead byrne

    I wonder if Jordan could give good examples of times in history when the arts/artists were impervious to each other; and what geographical/sociological/political conditions prevailed. \r

    Caroline, I like your reference to the array of tools and techniques with which young writers are adept. Last week I was at a conference at the School of Visual Arts where Janet DeSauniers described School of the Art Institute of Chicago graduate classes in which half the students are writers, half studio artists, and the across-the-table/screen/platform exchange of tools and permissions which takes place. At no time, perhaps, have teachers of writing been obliged to learn from their students at such breakneck speed. The teacher/student relationship is reversed before it is established; in fact, reversal *is* the establishment.\r

    At the same time, while accommodating flux, institutions cherish institution; some people work best within disciplines. I suppose my solution to the silo v field tension is the farm, where both silos and fields are necessary. But I have to learn more about farming in order to apply this with more specificity!

  7. October 29, 2009
     Dan Flynn

    I love Philip Larkin’s poetry and his use of language has informed my appreciation of poetry as well as my own writing. I am reminded about one of his slightly polemic poems, “Sunny Prestatyn” (1962). This poem explores the irony of an artful travel ad, which is subsequently vandalized by felicitous art and ultimately replaced by less art, succinct language. I too can laugh at parody, after all, such lateral, visual connections allows us to inherit meaning, go further in metaphor; however, the artist’s rendering of Larkin in a bathing suit, perhaps too suited, remains too far from reality. I think the connection to what informs us as writers and readers must always be tangible or at least believable. We may lose poets and artists as we go and this loss may not be our choice but the abundance of contemporary poets and artists must wait to fit in that canon. I am left thinking that poets can stand anywhere and read but artists must use a limited wall space. Also, didn’t Baywatch air after Larkin’s death?\r

    Titch Thomas

  8. October 29, 2009

    Mairead, I'd say now is a fairly good example of a time when interart commerce is limited.

  9. October 29, 2009


    At first I think, yes, little commerce, but then I remember the movies. The movies subsume all the arts -- poetry, painting, music, story. Gesamtkunstwerk, baby.\r

    And hey -- just remembered! I'm working on a book of poems with an abstract painter friend. Her work is gorgeous; I'm delighted to be working with her on the project.

  10. October 29, 2009

    > then I remember the movies\r

    See, I would have called that a case in point.

  11. October 29, 2009

    I'm sorry -- I'm not sure what you mean. That the movies aren't art?

  12. October 29, 2009

    The movies are another insular art form - there doesn't appear to be much dialogue between movie makers and... well, anyone (dictation isn't dialogue).\r

    Of course movies are art.

  13. October 29, 2009

    I disagree about movie makers -- they're always working with visual artists and musicians, and even, sometimes, poets. The degree of dialog versus dictation varies from filmmaker to filmmaker, of course. \r

    Heck, Stan Brakhage made a movie of . . . Louis Zukofsky! I saw it 20 years ago; don't remember it much.

  14. October 29, 2009

    Oh, twenty years ago -- I thought we were talking about now.

  15. October 29, 2009
     mairead byrne

    Jordan, I admit my perspective is informed by immigration (between cultures) and migration (from university to art school), and know that a predilection for migration/mixture/diversity marks my poetics too. I'd be interested to read a more expansive treatment of your argument for *now* as a time\r
    "when interart commerce is limited." Also, do you use "commerce" as a metaphor or are you talking about money-making enterprise?

  16. October 29, 2009

    20 years ago *is* now. :-)\r

    And Brakhage's film is more than 40 years old . . . \r

    In the realm of the "individual" arts of poetry, music, painting, sculpture, I pretty much agree with you; film I see as a "collective" art, though, and, while directors get the glory, they rely on a lot of other people, including composers and writers, even poets.

  17. October 30, 2009

    Caroline, I'm really goaded by your second comment and by Mairead's thoughts about student communities at RISD & SAIC, as this is something I've been thinking about a lot lately. I remember this train of issues being spurred powerfully by a night at the Stone four years ago at which you were present, and also by the Openport festival. These are emergent issues that arise from an experience and stultification of work, as receiver and maker, & out of collaboration with a younger generation in teaching, which also, lastly, beg for a kind of theorization, & thus far I don't see the latter happening in a satisfying way; prose that thinks about the alteration of reading and authority incipient in production generously is still quite specific to distinct media sets. Commitment to reckoning with a "multi-sensory, less unified approach to artistic experience, knowledge and public influence" (yes!) calls for the expansiveness to press well beyond given categories, to recognize the continuum between scanning and interpretation, reception and composition, gesture and authority, between distraction and orchestration of knowledge. And also beyond the discursive--so that, it seems to me, the best thinking in these environs is in art itself. Some initial groping reflections of mine around a poetic/aesthetic tendency toward alloverness & ambience are due out soon in boundary 2, if you're interested. But the stress on the "psycho-social" implications is terrifically compelling, as it impinges on the ways that communities of knowledge are being altered in this moment. A colleague of mine at UC, Lauren Berlant, is working on what she's calling "ambient citizenship." That's a direction with potential. As teachers we can form responsive curricula that take a longer historical view; as poets I suppose a kind of abeyance is obliged, so that one floats the work before a forum is necessarily there, & hope it takes somewhere.

  18. October 30, 2009

    > I'd be interested to read\r

    Me too. Maybe somebody will pay me to write it. \r

    > do you use\r

    I use it as it is used in Pound's very silly poem to Whitman.

  19. October 30, 2009
     mairead byrne

    Maybe they will!

  20. October 31, 2009
     prom girl

    I think this is art.

  21. November 6, 2009
     wystan curnow

    Hi Caroline, I like your added thought/s. I've been in two minds about 'poetry' for a while; 'poetry' is a genre, which is to say in the context of this marathon it harks back to a time when the visual arts were painting and sculpture, not to a present time of in which visual arts practice is largely 'post-medium' or 'post-genre'. As is demonstrated by the Serpentine's exhibition programme, and its inclusion of poetry. I prefer to think the literary arts are in some measure art similarly post-genre and post-medium, and certainly that any present day traffic between the visual and the literary is most likely to be of use on such a basis, but this is hardly received wisdom. It is not merely a matter of the relations between media or genres but of a different conception of the art object and its relation to its receiver. I agree that a longer term societal restructuring of the arts is going on, and is operative at many levels.\r
    In Auckland there has been marked recent upsurge in publishing by commercial and artist-run galleries, the later are publishing literary writing by emerging artists, a quite new phenomenon. A local version of New York's Printed Matter opened earlier this year. As at Chicago's Art Institute, there are changes taking place at the University of Auckland in the composition of classes and the skills they possess. Fine Arts and Music School students have made a large impact on my current English Department Writing Poetry class, especially their knowledge of and feeling for modes of presentation and performance.