Tony Trehy (the author of 50 Heads) is curating the Text Festival, an exhibition that opens at the Bury Art Gallery in Manchester (UK) on April 29, during the weekend of the Royal Wedding.

Tony Trehy has managed this festival three times since 2005, doing so in order to stage an encounter between the culture of poetic practice and the culture of visual artistry, just to see what happens when the writing on the page (by the likes of Bob Cobbing and Ron Silliman) meets the writing on the wall (by the likes of Joseph Kosuth and Lawrence Weiner). While we might expect poets to upstage all other artists in the use of language as an artful medium, few poets of advanced, literary renown have ever enjoyed the level of either artistic prestige or monetary success, typically experienced by any famous, visual artist who uses language in a gallery exhibit. The visual artist might produce a linguistical installation that gets presented at a glamorous, grandiose scale—but to poets, such an installation might often appear “unpoetic” in its use of language, missing obvious chances to demonstrate the kind of artful merits, seen in the most expert usages of both concise rhetoric and unusual metaphor. The poet might deploy language more artfully than the visual artist—but alas, poets seem to be incapable of filling the white cube of the gallery with their own words, since poets lack the stylistic expertise that might give them access to the “vocabularies” of novelty, glamour, and fashion, required to address the world of art with an impressive, innovative gesture. For Trehy, his festival provides poets with an opportunity to expose themselves to such an, otherwise insuperable, environment in order to learn artistic lessons from it, if not to offer literary options to it.

Brion Gysin notes in 1959 that “[w]riting is 50 years behind painting,” and Kenneth Goldsmith likes to argue that, even 50 years after its first, witty enunciation, this truism still applies to writing in our current culture. Goldsmith notes that avant-garde techniques of uncreative automatism and forthright plagiarism (all taken for granted in the world of visual artistry) still have yet to gain widespread acceptance in the world of poetic practice: for example, the Conceptual aesthetics of the 1960s (with its rigorous, automated procedures and its detached, readymade production) have only now found a literary response in the Conceptual literature of the 2010s. I have often argued that, whereas a school of avant-garde art in the early 20th Century might have referred simultaneously to both a poetic activity and a visual practice (as seen, for example, in the precedents set by Symbolism, Futurism, Dadaism, and Surrealism), writers and artists no longer seem to collaborate with each other very directly in order to found aesthetic movements—and in many respects, artists no longer have much to learn from writers at all. I suggest that, since the marketplace for novel ideas demands that artists must constantly experiment with innovative materials for design and unorthodox contexts for display, just to keep up with all the ground-breaking, world-changing contributions in the field, the ambitiousness of art now far exceeds the artisanal activities of the poet, whose imagination, by comparison, seems entirely crippled. I believe that, if poets wish to redress this chronic problem, they may have to range very far outside the catechism of their historic, literary training in order to acquire the future skills needed to reclaim the status of significant visionaries within the current culture of art….

Originally Published: April 19th, 2011

Christian Bök is the author of Crystallography (Coach House Press, 1994), a pataphysical encyclopedia nominated for the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award, and of Eunoia (Coach House Books, 2001), a bestselling work of experimental literature, which has gone on to win the Griffin Prize for Poetic Excellence. Bök has created artificial...