As Walter Benjamin, Roland Barthes, and Susan Sontag amongst others have told us, when it comes to photographs, the caption is essential in relation to what we think we see: if the contextualizing text is changed, the meaning of the work as such will change significantly. In this light, it might be interesting to ask: what happens to the caption when there is no longer a photograph to contextualize? When the caption is isolated, it now refers to a referent that is no longer there. That is one of the issues raised by the American writer Robert Fitterman in his book Holocaust Museum, first published in 2011 and reprinted several times since in the US and in Great Britain.
In an unpublished letter to Robin Blaser and Jim Felts from the mid–1950s, Jack Spicer cautions his addressees against preserving their correspondence for posterity. “This will become a literary document,” he warns, “if you don’t burn it.” Similarly, in a list outlining “What to do with the Boston News Letter” scrawled in one of Spicer’s notebooks, he advises readers of the poetry pamphlet to “[p]ost whatever pages of it you think well of in the most public place you can find — i.e. an art gallery, a bohemian bar, or a lavatory frequented by poets,” and to “[b]urn or give away the pages you do not want to make public. Do not keep them.”
Two poems in Ron Silliman’s poetry collection The Alphabet,“Jones” and “Skies,” are yearlong projects. For “Jones,” as Silliman writes in his notes, “Every day for a year I looked at the ground,” and similarly for “Skies,” “Every day for one year I looked at the sky & noted what I saw” (1060).
It is difficult to conceive of a literary work spun out of “spatial motion.” To read and consider a poem that defies iconographic metaphor and symbolic interpretation, a poem intrstead composed out of language’s own phenomenal play, is to butt up against traditional values about poetry that still slide toward the pictorially descriptive.