Colloques & Conferences de l'Universite Lyon 2, Modernism and Unreadability / Modernisme et Illisibilite

American Unreadability: the Influence of the Visual Arts

Bonnie Costello

Temps: 2008-10-24  09:00  – 10:00
Dernière modification: 2008-07-07


As Charles Altieri has argued in Painterly Abstraction in Modernist American Poetry, the visual arts provided a crucial example to early 20th century American poets looking for modes of response and agency within their contemporary reality. In this paper I will argue that the example of the visual arts also contributed to the "unreadability" of these texts in both negative and positive senses. I will discuss work from three different decades: William Carlos Williams' Spring and All (1922), Marianne Moore's Selected Poems (1935) and Wallace Stevens's "Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction" (1942) and indicate how the particular engagement with the visual arts in each work reflects the historical moment of the work and informs strategies of unreadability relevant to that moment.

I will begin the paper with a discussion of the poem "XIII" ("crustaceous/wedge/of sweaty kitchens") from Spring and All, a volume dedicated to Cubist-Dadaist painter Charles Demuth and prompted by both movements, especially in their use of collage. The modernist artists who inspired Williams had undertaken their own strategies for making the image illegible in terms of the conventions of representation, and Williams's importation of techniques from a silent medium further shifted the emphasis of the poem from a thing said to a thing made. Williams' text is typical of the revolutionary spirit of the early Twenties in the brokenness of its composition and its rejection of old orders in pursuit of new, heterogeneous forms. Williams' goal, declared throughout the manifesto-like prose of the volume and evident in this poem, is to break with illusion and form a new, independent, entity where "the aggregate/ is untamed."

Moving to the 1930s, where social, economic and racial themes pressure modernist experimentation, I will examine Moore's "The Buffalo" (1933) published in Selected Poems. Moore evokes a catalogue of classic buffalo images (from John Steuart Curry, Thomas Rowlandson, and various journalistic and archival depictions) only to continually usurp the logic of unitary depiction in her words and line breaks. Her adjectival hyphens create bizarre cross breeds in the imagination and break apart static perspective and classification. Underlying these ruptures is a wary parallel between domestic breeding and representation, and a critique not only of formal practices but of structures of subjugation as well.

I will conclude with a look at Wallace Stevens' canto VI from "Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction," written in the midst of the second world war, an era which gives a special resonance to the phrase "an abstraction blooded, as a man by thought." The reference to Frans Hals at the beginning of the canto is itself obscure--what can Stevens mean by "weather by Frans Hals" when the artist is known primarily for portraiture? But it is Cezanne, not Hals, who drives the chiasms and cancellations of this passage as it moves toward the innominate ideal. Stevens attempts a poetic equivalent of the artist's intense struggle for "realization" in a time when rhetoric has led to lies and bloody conflict.