At a recent, and it’s always the last place you look, discussion on materialism,[i] there was a lovely tense moment during which the philosopher’s desire for transcendental materialism (less contemplation, more matter) and the art critic’s desire for material transcendence (less reification, more contextualization) came into a sort of sympathetic collision. In other words, the problem facing philosophy is how to overcome its habitual desire situate the subject outside its stubborn biological container. That doe-eyed form that persists in and by us, and is both amenable to and disproves, pure abstraction; that “one” that is not the very center of all existence but is the center of all its apprehension. Whereas the problem facing art is its hand-held dream that the real materials of art may be transformed by art to something beyond art, something more real that either art or even artlessness. One problem smacks of the elevated past, a kind of ontological nostos, the other of a pathetic hope for a future topoi that must be forever unrealized. This is hideously reductive, but this is really not my point. My real point is, and this is where you come in, what is the material of poetry? I.e., is it Laura or language that makes the sonnet? Through which end does our particular brass telescope look? For it would seem the question of poetry’s material might give a clue as to it current problem. But I’m getting ahead of myself, which is why I seem taller on screen. For while it is more or less obvious that art found language indispensable at the very moment it ditched the albatross (a beautiful diving bird, but ungainly in a street-fight) of representation (around 1913, give or take), language is itself representational. And while there are always those efforts to make it less so (Stein, Dada, plus less Western-usual suspects), this too is a Pushmipullu which will simultaneously insist that meaning mean. Something more than what is literal, or what inheres in the letter as such. Such that, like with abstract art, if the words themselves are not sticky with significance, then we step outside to another language—the language of the framing device, specific or Zeitgeist—to inscribe sense to the senseless. Primers, manifestos, essays, exegeses, skeleton keys fabricated by friends and family. The allegories of conceptual poetry. But this still is an answer where we don’t yet know the question. For if the dream of art is to reach, by way of the process of art, to that which is more than art, what is the myth of the materiality of poetry? Is it lingual slash artificial, so the myth is that it allows us to say the unsayable, in the manner that one might argue a house is a structure plus air? Is it lingual slash representational, so that we want a glossia of the  hyper-real, that extra bit of light and learning that makes dust motes dance so well and shirts hang on line breaks. What’s nice is that this is a contentless question. If the goal is to say what otherwise cannot be said, then we can get rid of such idiocies as mandating that poetry be moral or political or representative or any other such nonsense, given that all poetry, as all art, is moral and political and comes shrink-wrapped in its ideological skin. (It may be bad morals and rotten politics, but I just work here.) Is the materiality of poetry then simply as signage—the signification in language-like sound of signification, the aural and literary equivalent of the like button on facebook? Or am I making that other Cartesian mistake, that poetry move something internal, like my love of god and country, or my appreciation of your summer’s day. If I lick Laura, will I like her better? If I like Laura, is that better than a lick? Is a lick the same as a lyric? What about a like? I suspect that none of this is the case, but rather, in a perverse twist, poetry is a proof in the pudding of self. Poetry persists not because it represents the moment or the momentous, all perfectly represented by much more elegant and exhaustive media, but the necessity for the conceit of “I.” Because the “I” is, for you and me, the irresistible part of all really sexy ideologies.

"Elle a chaud au cul."

[i] Credit where due: the panel was sponsored by CalArts, and moderated by Amanda Beech; the philosopher was Adrian Johnson and the art critic was Suhail Malik.

Originally Published: April 9th, 2013

Poet and criminal defense attorney Vanessa Place earned a BA at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, an MFA at Antioch University, and a JD at Boston University.   In her conceptual poetry, Place explores the impact of context and expectation. In a 2010 interview for Lemon Hound, Place has...