The Poetics of Collage: An Interdisciplinary Conference. Review by Gavin Goodwin

The Poetics of Collage: An Interdisciplinary Conference,
16th May 2014, Centre for Creative Collaboration, London
Organisers: Rona Cran and Helen Taylor

In 1959 Clement Greenberg argued that collage was ‘a major turning point in the whole evolution of modernist art’. On this warm and dazzlingly bright morning in 2014 we gather in the oddly-shaped modernist cabin that is the Centre for Creative Collaboration to discuss the ongoing relevance and vitality (or otherwise) of this most polymorphous of artistic and literary practices.

Robert Hampson’s keynote address is a perfect opening. Essentially an erudite overview of the development of collage and its effect on poetry in the twentieth century, it sets the scene for much that follows. Hampson starts by outlining some of the ‘key moments’ in the history of collage: Picasso and Braque gluing pieces of oilcloth or wallpaper to their canvases in 1911/12; Dada’s (particularly the Berlin Dadaists’) appropriation of collage for specifically political purposes; post-World War Two: the Independent Group, and later Pop Art’s use of advertising, comic strips and magazines in collages where it became ambiguous as to whether they were critiques or celebrations of consumer culture. Turning to poetry, the influence of collage can be seen, Hampson argues, in two (often overlapping) strands: ‘poetry that uses found or pre-existing materials’ (as employed by, say, Adrian Henri) and ‘poetry that uses what might be seen as collage methods’ (such as Lee Harwood’s early work). Both of these approaches will be returned to and unpacked by different speakers throughout the day. But some of the texts Hampson himself uses to explore how collage works in poetry include Hope Mirrlees’s Paris (1920), as well as collage works by Pound and Olsen (who ‘use[d] their collaged material they way scholars use citations’). Following the trail of literary  collage into the 1960s, Hampson notes how William Burroughs’s cut-ups were informed by an urge to ‘escape from linear verbal experience’ and were ‘techniques of resistance and deconditioning’.[i]  And it is as a method of resistance that collage poetics are frequently employed by contemporary poets. Hampson brings his address to a close, appropriately, by discussing the work of two poets who will give readings here later this evening: Allen Fisher and Redell Olsen. Hampson’s timeline and his highlighting, either implicitly or explicitly, of key issues (juxtaposition and contiguity, instability and indeterminacy, citation and the simultaneity of different points of view) is helpful in that it allows us to place the more singularly focused papers that follow into a broader context.

Fragmentation is focus of the first panel of the day, and first up is Martin Scheuregger’s paper, ‘Kurtág, Kafka, and the Musical Fragment’. The talk focuses on Hungarian composer György Kurtág’s  Kafka Fragments (1985-86) which ‘pieces together forty musical fragments to create a collage in which scale is of paramount importance.’ Scheuregger draws on David Metzer’s distinction between the ‘remnant’ fragment (a remaining part of larger work) and the ‘invented’ fragment (created to look like a fragment), and explores how we perceive and understand a piece of (fragmented or collaged) music by drawing on the theories of Jerry Levinson, Robert Fink, and Heinrich Schenker. These conflicting ideas allow Scheuregger to consider the music as ‘moment-to-moment perception’ (Levinson) but also as a “‘whole” work viewed from afar’. He argues that ‘coherence is achieved at a variety of levels’ but that there is always ‘a tension between the concept of the bigger picture (the whole) and the musical fragment (its parts)’.

Next, Patrik Sjöberg discusses the Kuleshov effect to emphasise how ‘the meaning of every fragment is open to new meanings and associations depending on what it is combined with’. In his paper ‘An Exploded View of History’ he takes ‘the basic components’ of documentary and experimental films (that is, ‘the archive, the fragment and the editing table’) and examines them ‘according to the centrifugal logic of fragments being scattered according to the dynamics of an explosion’.

Furthering the discussion of how collage can be ‘combined with a vision of the social and political functions of art’ (Hampson), the last paper in this panel, by Rebecca Justice, examines ‘Lynching Collages’. Justice speaks to how these works by African American artists Kara Walker, LaShawnda Crowe Storm, and Jennifer Scott use ‘collage techniques to oppose a simplified system of racial difference […] challenging a narrative of stark contrast’. These collage works are powerful, Justice argues, because they turn ‘us into active participants in piercing together the truth of lynching and its legacy’.

The second panel, ‘Unexpected Collage and Reinterpretations’, begins with Andrew McMillan’s paper ‘Poetic Collage – the seemingly unconnected image and the pursuit of truth through non-narrative means’. He is an animated and entertaining speaker, and his enthusiasm for the texts he speaks to is palpable. The real concern of McMillan’s talk though is teaching. He is interested in communicating to Creative Writing students that the linear ‘narrative glimpse’ (which he believes to be a good starting point for students) is not the only way to organise and craft a poem, and how poetic collage can offer an ‘alternative method of practice’. His focus is not on cut-ups but rather on ‘poems where images or lines are “collaged” together on the page’. Anne Carson, John Riley, Allen Ginsberg, and Christopher Middleton are all considered in his exploration of the paradox that a more ‘truthful’ narrative might sometimes be achieved by non-narrative means.

Maude Emerson’s paper begins by focusing on Robert Rauschenberg’s ‘Red Paintings’. Through close study of these monochrome paintings, Emerson reveals how they work as assemblages, ‘collages featuring a range of hues and textures’. Emerson goes on to relate Rauschenberg’s compositional method to the poetry of Frank O’Hara, and argues that both ‘reconfigure the relationship between material and experience in a way that manages to avoid symbolism while retaining the possibility of very different kind of expressivity’. This is the day’s first prominent appearance of the New York School but from now on they will become (along with Adrian Henri) a recurrent reference point throughout the conference.

Things turn more ‘unexpected’ with the next two papers, which take us out of the twentieth century – firstly back to the mid-nineteenth with Ralph Waldo Emerson, then all the way back to Beowulf. Benjamin Pickford’s paper ‘Urbane Cannibalism: Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Piratical “Manners”’ problematises the view of Emerson as ‘self-appointed inspirado and vatic sage’ by considering the many plagiarised passages that appear in his essay ‘Manners’ from 1844. This issue of plagiarism, and questions regarding collage and authorship, will be tackled again later in a contemporary context by Andrew Taylor.

The last paper of the panel is Simon Thomson’s ‘Making an old text new: Reading Beowulf in an eleventh century collage’. In a dynamic and engaging presentation he makes a compelling case for the importance of reading Beowulf in conjunction with the other texts it was originally grouped with in the Nowell codex: that is, The Passion of St Christopher, The Wonders of East, and Alexander’s Letter to Aristotle. Thomson traces ‘some of the ways in which the texts speak to one another and are transformed when read as part of a unified composition’. These last two papers are interesting in that they both draw attention to how the  idea of collage can be used retrospectively to think about pre-twentieth-century texts.

The morning closes with Catherine Marcangeli’s keynote talk: ‘Adrian Henri: Total Art’ (also the name of an exhibition of Henri’s work which she is currently curating at Liverpool John Moores University). Marcangeli presents an expansive and fascinating overview of Henri’s work. Although he is most commonly remembered as a painter and poet, Marcangeli explores Henri’s ‘multi-faceted oeuvre from the 1960s and 70s’ which included his foray into rock music with the Liverpool Scene and his ‘collective practices of staged Happenings’ which can be understood, Marcangeli argues, as ‘multi-media collaborative collages’.

The afternoon begins with Kirsten Hoving’s intricate and illuminating discussion of Joseph Cornell’s seven-page essay ‘The Crystal Cage [portrait of Bernice]’. Hoving concentrates particularly on Cornell’s use of astronomy, collaging bits of celestial maps to create ‘a poetry of cosmic nostalgia’. But she also draws attention to how ‘the fluttering zig-zag’ of Cornell’s creative process encourages the reader/viewer to perform ‘acts of completion’. Andrew Houwen carries forward this investigation into the pictorial and poetic with his paper on the Concrete Poetry of Niikuni Seiichi. He explores how Seiichi’s work ‘combine[s] characters in spatial arrangements’ and how the poet’s breaking apart of individual characters ‘call[s] attention to their visual roots’. Houwen discusses this process in relation to Ernest Fenollosa’s poetics, whose ideas were so ‘crucial in the formation of Ezra Pound’s ideogrammic method’.

This panel also featured papers by the two conference organisers: Rona Cran and Helen Taylor, who looked at John Ashbery and Adrian Henri, respectively. Cran’s examination of Ashbery (whose visual collages were on display throughout the day) focuses on the controversial The Tennis Court Oath collection from 1962, where he ‘attempts to collage together’ creative practices borrowed from Surrealism with ‘the more ruminative styles’ of Baudelaire and Eliot. The many ‘fleeting intersections’ within these poems create, Cran argues, ‘constellations of imagery which can, but are not necessarily required to, represent anything beyond themselves’.

Picking up from Marcangeli’s wide-ranging talk on Henri, Helen Taylor telescopes in on Henri’s book-length poem City. In this book ‘pencil drawings, fragments of information, stream of consciousness sections, and poetry’ are utilised to present a fuller ‘picture’ to the reader. Another salient aspect of this text which Taylor draws particular attention to is its use of lists. Helen Taylor argues that Henri uses lists as a way ‘of separating out individual fragments and highlighting that individuality whilst at the same time bringing them together to form a new whole’.

Henri returns for the next and final panel in Andrew Taylor’s paper ‘Collage and “over-mapping”: Adrian Henri and Allen Fisher, influence on a personal poetics and practice’. Collage’s relationship to plagiarism is also interrogated  most strongly here (the panel is called ‘Plagiarism and Process’). The plagiarism issue had been broached earlier in Benjamin Pickford’s discussion of Emerson. But Taylor, mentioning recent examples (CJ Allen plagiarising Matthew Welton, for instance), goes to the heart of the contemporary predicament by examining his own writing practice and making a case for the difference between collage and plagiarism.

The New York School is also revisited in Yasmine Shamma’s paper examines just how central a figure Joe Brainard was to the New York writers. His I Remember sequences were influential (on Kenneth Koch and Anne Walden, for instance). Further to this, the cover designs and illustrations he produced for many prominent New York poets suggest, Shamma argues, ‘a general tendency towards assembly across the disciplines of text and image’.

This issue of text and image is also the focus of a free-wheeling presentation by the writer, artist, cartoonist and one-time stand-up comedian Joris Vermassen. Drawing on the multimodal practice of W.G. Sebald  and the ideas of Nelson Goodman and W.J.T. Mitchell, Vermassen challenges  the ‘vague’ and ‘merely ideological principles’ that distinguish between ‘natural and conventional signs’. He talks us through his construction of short stories composed of ‘text and two- and three- dimensional images’. These beautifully made objects (passed around the delegates) were his attempt to ‘deconstruct’ by means of collage, the ‘barriers between language and art’.

Camilla Nelson’s paper ‘Collaging Environment: Rethinking Environment through Material Reform’ expands ‘the technique of collage […] to the bodily experience of cross-cutting indoor environments (desk and library) and outdoor environments (tree) as a literary practice.’ The paper discusses work by Alec Finlay, as well as examples from Nelson’s own practice-based research project (‘Reading and Writing with a Tree: Practising “Nature Writing” as Enquiry’) to consider the concept of collage within the context of ecology and environmentalism.

The conference closes with a short plenary talk by Geoff Ward. The tone of the talk is jovial and generous, beginning with an anecdote about Adrian Henri, before presenting brief but close readings of poems by John Ashbery and David Chaloner. Despite collage’s multiplicity and indeterminacy, Ward maintains that a good poem clears the head. He also speaks to the importance of humour in poetry (something that had not been much mentioned today, despite the focus on the New York School), the importance of not withdrawing that most human and humanising of communicative tools.

More than a century after ‘Still Life with Chair Caning’, the talks given here today have presented collage as an enduringly useful, perhaps vital, art practice whose many applications and possibilities are being persistently reassessed, reimagined and renewed. As if to embody this point, post-conference readings are given by Redell Olson and Allen Fisher. As Robert Hampson commented at the beginning of the day, both these poets, in their different ways, have pushed and are still pushing collage into new and interesting directions. It is a fitting end to a thought-provoking day.




[i] Jamie Russell, Queer Burroughs (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2001), 58-9.

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