Field poetics may be defined by a systematic integrity that overrides individual authorial intention. The system in play is usually a form of language, purely acoustic, or purely visual, often scored speech or another verbal matrix. Among the most uncompromising works with this characteristic are the mesostics and chance-based compositions of John Cage and works associated with Oulipo: Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle (Workshop of Potential Literature): Raymond Queneau, François Le Lionnais, Claude Berge, Georges Perec, and Italo Calvino. Typical of Oulipo poetics is the “S + 7” method, by which each noun is systematically replaced by the noun to be found seven places away in a chosen dictionary. The method frees text production from personal agency, yielding fascinating results that speak to the essential arbitrariness of all linguistic conventions. The productions of the Noigandres Group in Brazil and of the Vienna Group, both highly abstract in their methodologies, speak to a similar ethos of composition and to the international scope of different forms of field poetics. Abstract and experimental processes of text production like those cited here refl ect a widely held belief that alternative models of language hold the potential for renovating current usage, restoring human and spiritual universals that have become obscured by social alienation and contemporary consumerist values. In 1919, speaking for the Dadaist Revolutionary Central Council, Richard Huelsenbeck and Raul Hausmann demanded, among other items, “The immediate expropriation of property (socialization) and / the communal feeding of all; further, the erection of cities of light, and gardens which will belong to society as a whole and prepare man for a state of freedom.” This manifesto reflects a desire characteristic of field poetics: to renew through radical change.
Precursors of contemporary field poetics include the symbolist stage of Stéphane Mallarmé, futurism (both Italian and Russian), the imagism and vorticism of Ezra Pound, and the antipoetics associated with dada. An important distinction must be made between the use of white space as a weighted silence in Mallarmé’s “Un coup de dés” (A Throw of the Dice) and the imagist impulse as shaped by Pound. Pictorial function is secondary, distinguishing these poems from emblems or word-pictures, for instance, the calligrammes in Apollinaire’s collection of that title. In his “Vorticism” essay of 1914, Pound defined the image as “the word beyond formulated language” (88). “The image is not an idea,” Pound continued; “It is radiant node or cluster . . . a vortex, from which and through which, and into which, ideas are constantly rushing” (92). A similar use of the image of the vortex was integral to Italian futurist poetics—for instance, Carlo Carra’s Interventionist Demonstration (1914), associated with F. W. Marinetti’s “Paroles en liberta,” a spinning wheel of words, reflecting machine speed; however, Pound’s evocative theorization of systems of self-sustaining form, correlated to the flow of an energy like an electrical current, remains deeply influential for most poetries associated with field poetics to this day. The Noigandres Group of Brazil specifically acknowledged this indebtedness to Pound’s poetics, as did far-flung avant-gardes such as the VOU Club of Japan (Kitasono Katue) and the objectivists associated with Louis Zukofsky in the United States. Pound’s poetics greatly influenced the Beat, black mountain, and language poetries of North America.
VOU Club poetics, like works produced in Germany and associated with the Bauhaus or the Merz poetics of Kurt Schwitters as well as works produced in Russia under a suprematist or cubo-futurist impulse, implement a concrete and abstract formalism that might seem to belie the acoustic function of these texts as scored speech. Notable examples here are the zaum texts of Velimir Khlebnikov, Kurt Schwitters’s Ursonate, and the sound poetry of Bernard Heidsick and Henri Chopin. The evolution of different forms of scored speech clearly originates with Italian futurism, then morphs both in German through dada and in Russian through suprematism into an abstract and highly formal or constructivist poetics. Continuing examples of this practice may be found in works by Gerhard Rühm, Ernst Jandl, Friederike Mayröcker, and other members of the Vienna Group. Readers of English are indebted to Rosmarie Waldrop for her translations of these texts and to Rosmarie and Keith Waldrop for their publication of them through Burning Deck’s Série d’Écriture (see bibliography at end of article).
Italian futurism itself generally prized explosive violence and machine aesthetics over individual expression. Many readers are distraught over this celebration of violence and the eventual association of futurism with fascism. Referring to the Italian campaign in Ethiopia (1935–1941), Marinetti wrote, “For twenty-seven years we Futurists have rebelled against the branding of war as anti-aesthetic. . . . Accordingly we state: . . . War is beautiful because it establishes man’s dominion over the subjugated machinery by means of gas masks, terrifying megaphones, flame throwers, and small tanks. War is beautiful because it initiates the dreamt of metalization of the human body.” In Marinetti’s visual texts sonic structures replace the usual human markings of verbal expressions.
The lettrism of Isadore Isou, very different in its political impulse, leading to the politics of the Situationist International, also undertakes to embrace a universal sense of human integrity, located in experiences of sound prior to conscious individualism. Lettrism derives from the performance art of the dadaists, such as Hugo Ball and Marcel Janco. These artists explored the interface of antipoetic systems and acoustic experiment, verging on babbling. Tristan Tzara and Francis Picabia pushed the relation between free form verbalism and machine aesthetics toward the mapping of individual psychic apparatuses.
The exploration of interiority is a continuing function of field poetics insofar as a search for spiritual integrity motivates the practice. Whether interior space seems best adumbrated by the Buddha or Carl Jung, field poetics obviates the subjectively compromised spaces of the Freudian imagination. For instance, the sources of poetics as different as Cage’s chance operations and Jack Kerouac’s “spontaneous bop prosody” are Buddhist. Wilson Harris’s “cross cultural imagination” evokes spiritual resonances with the collective psychic processes described by Jung, as does the poetry of Charles Olson. Clausfriedrich Claus, working with small transparencies, creates overlays of Jungian and mystical texts where desiring machines, resembling large insects, crawl over the landscapes of layered texts.
The spiritual inflection is present in many practices associated with field poetics. Pound’s composite or ideogrammic images inscribe readings of a divine imprint or coherence. Spiritually based readings associated with acrostics, riddles, and palimpsests are central to the alphabetic mysticisms of the Gnostics and Jewish interpreters of Kabbalah. Concrete poetry shares some aspects of this history, having an affinity with mystical functions of the emblem or icon. Field poetics, in its scoring of the visual and acoustic properties of language, operates as a distinctly empowering decoding or reading practice, taking the form of annotations, secret keys, and glosses of a source text. One of the most striking examples of this latter process is the work of the contemporary poet Susan Howe. Religious traditions of visual poetry are also associated with trance states, producing glossolalia (or speaking in tongues), predecessors of the dada performance pieces and also of the mystically inspired Gematria of Jerome Rothenberg and Harris Lenowitz, and the ethnopoetic experiments undertaken by Rothenberg in association with tribal informants (for instance, the Horse Songs of Frank Mitchell).
The discovery of a divine or spiritual imprint within the textures of language refl ects for some the ancient religious yearnings of human beings. In this context poetry of pared-down concretions, like PAUL CELAN’s fi nal works in Threadsuns, provides examples of processes associated with field poetics. For instance, in the lines cited here images of holocaust and of feverish reading of sacred texts collide:
Jetzt, da die betshemmel brennen,
eß ich das Buch
(Now, as the prayerstools burn,
I eat the book
with all the
Seemingly unrelated to Celan’s impulse, recent poetries such as those associated with Fluxus (Dick Higgins, George Brecht, Toshi Ichiyanagi, and Yoko Ono, among many other practitioners) or the work of Canada’s Four Horsemen (bp Nichol, Raphael Barreto-Rivera, Steve McCaffery, and Paul Dutton) share the desire to articulate a divine or spiritual presence. This vector has consistently identifi ed field poetics in the English language practice. Charles Olson in his essay “The Human Universe” articulated the best-known and most comprehensively constructed model of field poetics, citing the quantum mechanical realities described by Werner Heisenberg and Riemann calculus, as well as his own fieldwork in the Yucatán. Olson’s theorizations, especially his “Projective Verse” (1950), influenced both Fluxus poetics and the spontaneous bop prosody of Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. The sound poetry of Canada’s Four Horsemen, also influenced by the range of Olson’s practice, has been described as rhizomatic, “tunneling invisibly below the surface to appear in unexpected places.” In many ways the philosophy of desiring machines mapped by Giles Deleuze and Felix Guattari is descriptive of the underlying push of all varieties of field poetics, understood as a vector or line of flight leading away from individual egotism toward an embrace of systems that either purify or renovate human affective potential, placing perception and process ahead of conceptualization, and thereby warping the theory-practice loop that underlies Western pragmatism, print culture, and the accountant’s grid.
The conceptual integrity of field poetics with respect to layered processes of composition was established early in the modern period. Like Pound, Marcel Duchamp considered the linear nature of standard syntax to be counterproductive to a grasp of the field of available meaning in any one instance. Duchamp, anticipating Wittgenstein, employed language games that derive from the machine aesthetics of futurism, the antipoetics of dada, and the intellectual intensity that arises from ironic operations on language at the simple level of the phoneme. For instance, the title for his painting Le passage de la vierge à la mariée enacts a small warp in its verbal field, highlighting a complex punning association between “vierge” (virgin) and “verge” (the common French word for penis). The play of significance lies in the difference created by the presence (or lack) of a single letter, the “i” of “vierge,” teasingly representative of an individual ego, among other possible meanings. Today’s language-centered poetries in the United States (by Charles Bernstein, for instance) embody a continuation of a similarly trenchant punning sensibility. Contemporary French poets identified with the practice of écriture (Anne-Marie Albiach, Claude Royet-Journoud, and Emmanuel Hocquard) explore the difference between subjective positions and author functions, modifying common senses of both “literal meaning” and “lyricism.”
An antihumanistic aspect is common to different practices of field poetics. For some, like Duchamp, this impulse originates in a critique of the often selfish individualism associated with the family drama, hence the turn toward the purity of manufactured items or toward found objects lacking personal history; for others, the wor[l]d system based on Western philosophical thought and its humanistic citation of the rights of man has been a mask for ruthless exploitation, including slavery and environmental destruction. This later critique is the source for Charles Olson’s poetics and important to other poets—including Wilson Harris and Aimé Césaire—associated with emerging identities in formerly colonized regions of the world. Readers of English are fortunate in that many of the works cited in this essay can be found in Poems for the Millennium, edited by Jerome Rothenberg and Pierre Joris. Ubuweb (www.ubu.com) is a particularly rich online resource for many of the topics relating to field poetics.
Albiach, Anne-Marie. A Geometry. Translated by Keith Waldrop and Rosmarie Waldrop. Série d’écriture. Providence, R.I.: Burning Deck, 1998. Celan, Paul. Light Duress. Translated by Pierre Joris. Los Angeles: Green Integer, 2005. Hausmann, Raoul, and Richard Huelsenbeck. “What Is Dadaism and What Does It Want in Germany (1919).” In En Avant Dada: A History of Dadaism. The Dada Painters and Poets: An Anthology, edited by Robert Motherwell. Reprint, Cambridge: Belknap, 1989, 21–48. Hocquard, Emmanuel. A Test of Solitude: Sonnets. Translated by Rosmarie Waldrop. Série d’écriture. Providence, R.I.: Burning Deck, 2000. Jandl, Ernst. Reft and Light: Poems by Ernst Jandl with Multiple Versions by American Poets. Providence, R.I.: Burning Deck, 2000. “Mallarmé, Stéphane. Collected Poems. Translated by Henry Weinfield. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994. Mayröcker, Friederike. Heiligenanstalt. Translated by Rosmarie Waldrop. Providence, R.I.: Burning Deck, 1994. McCaffery, Steve. “Sound Poetry—A Survey.” Excerpted from Sound Poetry: A Catalogue, edited by Steve McCaffery and bp Nichol. Toronto: Underwich Editions, 1978. Motte, Warren F, ed. Oulipo: A Primer of Potential Literature. French Literature Series. Chicago: Dalkey Archive Press, 1998. Olson, Charles. “Human Universe.” In Selected Writings, edited by Robert Creeley. New York: New Directions Press, 1971. Pound, Ezra. “Vorticism.” In Gaudier-Brzeska: A Memoir. New York: New Directions Press, 1970, 81–94. Rothenberg, Jerome, and Pierre Joris, eds. Poems for the Millennium: A Global Anthology of Modern & Postmodern Poetry. Vol. 1, From Fin-de-Siècle to Négritude; Vol. II, From Postwar to Millennium. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995, 1998. Royet-Journoud, Claude. i. e. Translated by Keith Waldrop. Série d’écriture. Providence, R.I.: Burning Deck, 1995. Rühm, Gerhard. I My Feet: Poems and Constellation. Translated by Rosmarie Waldrop. Providence, R.I.: Burning Deck, 2004.