Susan Howe’s recuperation of Emily Dickinson’s visual prosody marks a pivot point in American poetics, insofar as it calls attention to the long effaced but paradigmatically American enterprise of self-invention that Dickinson’s practice depicts. And in depicting her work, the picture is the work, hence the holograph images that for the most part replace block quotes in texts like Howe’s My Emily Dickinson and the essay from which I’ll cull this epigraph, “These Flames and Generosities of the Heart.”
This space is the poem’s space. Letters are sounds we see. Sounds leap to the eye. Word lists, crosses, blanks, and ruptured stanzas are points of contact and displacement. Line breaks and visual contrapuntal stresses represent an athematic compositional intention.
Howe, and by extension Dickinson, are reference points for discussing the work of Mark Booth, printmaker by training, a painter, who also works in sound and performance, but whose practice is in some sense reducible to writing.
In 1970, Hannah Weiner exhibited a telegram in Oberlin College’s conceptual art survey Art in the Mind. After the “mail strike,” her letter to Virginian Dwan was delivered to the gallerist (page one and page two). In it Weiner complains that Vito Acconci’s telegram-piece should be exhibited in Language IV along with Walter DeMaria’s telegram, arguing that the medium was immaterial, and that the artwork, in either case, consists in its sphere of reference. So that there could be no redundancy involved. She cites her piece at Oberlin.
But she might have also claimed more significance for the telegram. A primitive speech-to-text technology, it is a phonic ticker, defamiliarizing the otherwise imperceptible but crucial transfiguration that takes place between sound-image and thought.
In this commentary, I want to contrast two artists’ visual prosody. In previous commentaries I have paired an artist and a poet. In this case, both of the writers are artists and have practically never been called poets. Here I am interested in setting Adrian Piper and Hock-E-Aye-Vi Edgar Heap of Birds side by side, and as an heuristic, specifically, two pieces: Piper’s Concrete Infinity 6” Square (1968) and Heap of Birds’ Vacant (1995). My excuse for pairing these examples is not art- or literary-historical so much as it is guided by the motif of a “derelict void.”
The southern New Critics bequeathed to generations of American English students a reductive but serviceable distillation of poetics into versification, fickly defining prosody as according to an obviously conservative set of lyric values. But “the new criticism” was a phrase coined by Joel Spingarn, whose impressionistic depiction of poetry carried little of the taxonomic and finally deadening thrust of “close reading.” Close reading had to do with hearing (the inner voice) and looked at a page only closely enough to take a strictly alphabetic set of cues. This kind of inspection could be quickly learned and reading poetry thereby could be easily tested.
Hannah Weiner's Clairvoyant Journal is the last in a series of autobiographical texts. The Fast, Country Girl, Pictures and Early Words, and BIG WORDS precede it. This series begins with her first written account of visionary experiences that would develop over the 1970s, years during which Weiner invented a unique literary form to portray them. The series culminates in this invention.