Quarter After Eight: A Journal of Prose and Commentary

Volume 2: "On Found Form and the Proze/Verse Distinction" by Alex Cigale

As the editor of a magazine based on the aesthetics of Found Art, I have found it convenient to draw connections between the development of modern visual and written arts. My intention has been that the designation "found poetry" would be familiar because of the example of Found Art, which has become so central to modern art and, by extension, to popular culture as well. I myself prefer the more inclusive and precise "found forms," which admits the idea of "The One Art," and that either the "context" or the "text" may comprise the found element, a Pop example being the way Roy Lichtenstein adopts for his work the medium of the comic book. The polyartists and collaborators of the Surrealist and Dada circles-Salvador Dali and Luis Bunuel, Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray, Max Ernst, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Kurt Schwitters and Tristan Tzara-made it plain to see that, concerning methods and influences, the connections are complex and many. I have not even thrown into the mix the music of composers such as von Webbern, Satie, Varese, and John Cage.

The debate about the appropriateness of appropriation in art originated as a byproduct of the Dada revolution, circa 1917, when Marcel Duchamp scandalized aesthetisticians by attempting to exhibit in New York a free-standing porcelain urinal he titled Fountain. His first known Readymade, Bicycle Wheel, dates to 1913. (Duchamp also produced a not inconsequential body of poetry and prose under the pseudonym

Rrose Selavy.) As early as 1913, Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque were attaching to their paintings fragments of commonplace objects (papers and newsprint, cloth and oilcloth, rope and string, etc.). The Italian futurists—Marinetti's typographical collages, Boccioni's sculptures, Severini's paintings—were doing so a year earlier and the Russian constructivists (Tatlin, Malevich) by the following year. In 1913, a critic described Apollinaire's poetry in Alcools as ". . . an old junk shop. . . a mass of heterogeneous objects has found a place there and, though some of them are of value, none of them has been made by the dealer himself. . . A truculent, bewildering variety takes the place of art in this assemblage." And Boccioni's Technical Manifesto of Futurist Sculpture (1912) prefigured even Apollinaire's proclamation on the use of unorthodox materials: "a futurist composition," he wrote, "will use . . . furry spherical forms for hair, semicircles of glass for a vase, wire and screen for an atmospheric plane, etc." He proceeded to enumerate "twenty possible materials. . .. . glass, wood, cardboard, iron, cement, horsehair, leather, cloth, mirrors, electric lights, etc., etc." (This is, by the way, exactly how I make use of phrases, words, whole sections of text.)

But the granddaddy of them all, of all these modernists, was Isidore Ducasse, better known as Lautreamont. It was his phrase—"the chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on a dissecting table"—a prescription for wild, undirected beauty, that served as the definition for Surrealism. In 1870, in his Poesies, Lautreamont was already writing, "Personal poetry has had its day. . . Let us gather up again the thread of impersonal poetry, rudely interrupted since the birth of the manque philosopher of Ferney, since that great abortion Voltaire." Also, "Plagiarism is necessary. It is implied in the idea of progress. It clasps an author's sentences tight, uses his expressions, eliminates a false idea, replaces it with the right idea."

Art is an archprinciple, as sublime as the Godhead, as inexplicable as life, undeniable and without purpose. .. . The work of art is created only by an artistic evaluation of its elements.. I know only how I do it; I know only my material, from which I derive, to what end I know not.

—Kurt Schwitters

I will often clip a newspaper article and carry it around (if not literally then in my head), sometimes for years, until the time that I feel comfortable, confident of having fully assimilated its contents. One of the first "founds" I composed was "India Widow's Death at. . . ," its enigmatic title simply the first seven syllables of The New York Times headline from an article on the Hindu custom of sati, the ritual self-immolation of a widow on her husband's funeral pyre. The organizing principles of this "poem" were syllabics (and its associated stanza forms) and montage, the French for "arrangement." In this instance, during the lengthy period of absorption, I was haunted by a memory likely to be familiar to most members of the generation that came of age in the 1970s: an image of a human form in flames, the photo of a Buddhist priest whose self-immolation in protest of the Vietnamese Invasion of Kampuchea in 1972 caught the world's attention. This photograph, the recorded image, was potent enough to attain the status of icon. In his Stardust Memories, Woody Allen paid homage once again to Ingmar Bergman (who had used it twice in Persona) by blowing the image up to cover an entire wall in the apartment of the main character.

My borrowings are verbatim. Just as there is in our cultural repository a pool of resonant Images (Jung would have said these are fed by the collective unconscious; similar to Yeats's Spiritus Mundi), so the quality of language which makes it memorable seems to me to draw on pre-existent forms that cannot be improved upon by the mere "author." Noam Chomsky's ideas about grammar being innate also square nicely with this notion. Syntax following nearly organic laws would seem to confirm the writer's experience of having to whittle language down to its purest-syntactically, aurally, visually-most precise yet economized configurations. In this Aristotelian sense, writing then is a search for and the discovery of these "ideal forms."

Most everyone has, at one time or another, seen a "junk sculpture"—an assemblage of scrap wood or of metal—a "Readymade" by Marcel Duchamp, one of Man Ray's absurdly redesigned "objects," or the "box" constructions of Max Ernst, Joseph Cornell, and Louise Nevelson. Common objects were reproduced in Pop Art, the most obvious example being Andy Warhol's screened acrylic representations of media icons, from Campbell's soup cans to photographs of endangered animals, Marilyn Monroe, and Mick Jagger. Even before Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg had made use of photographs from print journalism and copyright-free drawings as collage elements in his "combine paintings."

Each guilt-sprayed compartment. . . functions as a unit in a poem of eighteen stanzas. Those qualities that Schwitters loved—traces of human use, weather, forgotten craftsmanship—still exert their magic here. . . This authoritative work resembles a reredos, an altar.

—from gallery brochure, on Louise Nevelson's "Royal Tide 1"

As Wallace Stevens in "The Man on the Dump" associates nouns and adjectives one would not naturally associate, so Stankiewitcz associates a spring, a weight, and the casting from the top of a gas cooking stove to make a non-machine. . . .

—Fairfield Porter on Richard
Stankiewitcz's "junk sculptures" in School of New York

The sensation of physically operating on the world. . . Shaping and arranging such a relational structure obliterates the need, and often awareness, of representation.

—Robert Motherwell on working with found objects

Marcel Duchamp was among the first, and by far the most radical, in formulating these ideas into Art, with capital "A." His Readymade objects, whether framed or not, made the act of selection itself the artistic virtue. His recourse to mechanical reproduction of his own works likewise brought into question the privileged position of "uniqueness" and "originality' as essential attributes of Western art. Jerome Rothenberg, in his anthology of experimental poetry, Revolution of the Word (The Seabury Press, 1974) wrote of Duchamp's method as a "withdrawal from art." (I am certain he meant "art" with the capital "A," " art" in the sense of "artifice.") The roots of "art," "fiction," and "poetry"—I  mean this literally—the etymological roots of all three are akin.. Having to do with labor and process, these are variations on the verb "to make." The divisions that have been built up, through the middle centuries of Western history, between literary genre (prose and verse, etc.), between art forms, between traditional and innovative forms, between high and low culture, even the definition itself of art from non-art (the categories of folk, functional, and decorative arts)—all these are artificial constructs, useful only as a matter of convenience, as "handles" made necessary by the dictates of market forces and which in their development were particular to a historically mercantile society marked by a highly regulated system of property rights and class divisions. The persistence of these categories of art and literature is itself likely a reflection of the persistence of class divisions that in turn props up, and by doing so determines, what is "Art"—the art market.

Our arrival at Found Art might have proceeded logically long ago, from Aristotle's proposition in his poetics, that the object of art is an imitation of life. But whereas Neo-classicism was caught up in reproducing the glory of the Greco-Roman past, and Romanticism with the glory of the Individual and of life, (both without doubt important imperatives), my reading of Greek tragedy, comedy, history, and architecture, and specifically of poetics, has always suggested that the proper emphasis would have been"Art imitates life," on methods rather than on the subject/object duality.

In Eastern thought, where art and life were more intimately linked, the distinction between subject and object was recognized not at all. The value of an object, for example, of a rock, was and is determined by a set of highly personal criteria. This might explain the seemingly inordinate market that Japanese demand has created for Van Gogh's paintings, likely because his particular kind of "abstraction" of natural forms strikes a very Japanese note. Never mind the prices paid; that a society should invest art with such value is the thing!  If we let Japan serve as an example, daily rituals like the tea ceremony, flower arranging, the cultivation of bonsai trees and rock gardens, the practice of the martial arts {karate, judo, archery) are all long-standing, aestheticized, forms of spiritual expression, which have also served to affirm national and social bonds. Similarly, "primitive art" was always but an extension of function and ritual. Perhaps in part as a product of the 20th-century synthesis of Western, Eastern, and "Third World" thought, it is this concern with the thing itself that has gained the upper hand both in modern visual and literary efforts..

There has been a shift in emphasis in the practice of the arts of painting, music
and dancing during the last few years. There are no labels yet. but there are ideas. These ideas seem to be primarily concerned with something being exactly what it is in its time and place, and not in its having actual or symbolic reference to other things.. A thing is just a thing. It is good that each thing be accorded this recognition and this love.

—Merce Cunningham, cited in
Richard Kostelanetz's The Old Poetries and the New.

That Merce Cunningham failed to include poetry in this observation is no omission; to do so would have been to state the obvious. In American poetry, the method of collage, of juxtaposing found elements, was at the core of Ezra pound's practice, his use of the catalogue as a technique for elucidating historical parallels through, in Rothenberg's words, the "juxtaposition of data." (Pound coined a word, vorticism, for the proposition that "all times are contemporaneous.") Interestingly, Pound's collage of elements had a nearly contemporaneous parallel in film in the method of montage, and both methods owed their origins to Pound's and Sergei Eisenstein's respective researches in the literatures of the East. Just as Pound's "at the Station of the Metro," so Eisenstein's elucidation of the methods of montage, as acknowledged in his Film Form, owe much to the imagistic, miniaturist Japanese syllabic forms (tanka, haiku). In each case, the juxtaposition of isolated details combines to give an impression of a whole, the synthetic-dialectic function being performed by the reader/observer.

Pound's promotion of Imagism, the intellectual parent of both Eliot's "objective correlative" and Williams's "no ideas, but in things," has always suggested to me that the emphasis in his famous phrase has been misplaced. It ought to be made clear once and for all. "Make it new!" Pound would not have been hyping the New; being a transitional figure between classicism and modernism, he was promoting a wise reclamation of the past and the use in literature of objective forms. As he wrote to Williams regarding the uses of "materials": "the crux, as with art and music using 'collage,' is the presence of the collapsed element (for eye and ear. . .)" The full significance of found forms, I think, lies in this inclusion of the perceiver (reader, viewer, audience), allowing him/her to take credit in the collaborative artistic experience. This reaction to familiar material, the pleasure of recognition, serves to establish an immediate empathic bond between the artist and the reader/viewer/audience.

The technique of Marianne Moore's practice was likewise essentially "collagist." Jerome Rothenberg quotes her on the nature of her encyclopedia entry, instruction manual-like poems, what he calls her collection of "bits. . . of raw material": "My writing is, if not a cabinet of fossils, a kind of collection of flies in amber." Her work is "natural" in the most literal sense; her language, images, themes are taken directly from the world of things. The same concentration on things and sources recurs in the "Objectivism" of Reznikoff, Zukovsky, Olson, and Oppen. Charles Olson's characterization of the aesthetic of the objectivist movement as "the getting rid of the lyrical interference of the individual as ego" seems to me to provide the psychoanalytic basis for the minimalist aesthetic of modern music, verse, and prose.

No discussion of the subject of found form would be complete without invoking the populist verse of Carl Sandburg, as well as the name of John Dos Passos and the Newsreel technique of his U.S.A. trilogy. The popular American literary forms—the comic book, the True Story magazine, the paperback novel—as well as America's love affair with celebrity, with tabloid journalism, the current popularity on network television of reenacted and "live" (read "acted out") news programs and of fictionalized "based on a true story" docudramas is no accident, but part of a peculiarly American art form.

The most interesting development in the second half of this century with respect to Found Art has been "chance poetry," notably by John Cage and Jackson Mac low. The technique of aleatoric verse mirrors the method of random composition in the visual and music arts. Similar experiments with prose were carried out by William S. Burroughs and Brion Gysin. In generating syntactically meaningful texts through randomly recombining sentence fragments, a technique they called the "cut-up," they prefigured the new technology of gene splicing, recombinant DNA. In fact, the methods of experimental literature, music, and art can be said to be an application of the scientific method in the production of the modern aesthetic.

More recently, "computer poetry" has threatened to carry the elimination of the "interference of the individual" to its extreme conclusion, proposing to do away with the writer entirely. Just as all plots can be generated and developed from news stories, as is sarcastically proposed in Robert Altman's recent film The Player; so the unusual recombinations of words/images we identify as "poetic" can be programmed. Since perhaps the most important function of verse is musicality of language, what Pound called "melopoeia," there has always been a semantically random element in versification. The formal demands of verse themselves determine the partly arbitrary nature of poetic diction.

Apropos is the following story from The Princeton Handbook of Poetry entry on computer poetry (from Milic, Possible Usefulness) about Dylan Thomas, who "recorded likely short ordinary words in a notebook he carried with him (and called his 'dictionary') and which he would consult at random when at a loss for a word." It is this serendipitous selection process, whether intentional or arbitrary, that contains the artistic impulse.

Recently, having begun to send out work from my own found poetry project to journals, I sent a selection to a magazine bearing the word "Fiction" in its title. With the returned manuscript I received a note saying: "We do not print verse" and was tempted to reply: "Should not then your magazine be called 'Prose' and not 'Fiction'?) Other editors have returned the poems with such comments as "That was Quite some trip that Mr. Straight took," referring only to the poem's narrative and by doing so indirectly confirming my suspicion that verse narrative is fictional, while expressing their inability to make an aesthetic judgment as to whether this is indeed a "poem" or "not-a-poem."


It is in this very context that the poetry/prose distinction makes no sense, that the foundation of any discrimination would collapse under the weight of its own strict application. The current popularity of prose, its claim to democratic and utilitarian principles, is perhaps a fitting revenge for the millennia of poetry's cultural dominance, but I would think that anyone serious about literature would not gloat for long over this situation. I will not comfortably call myself a poet—self-identity is a complex thing—but on behalf of poetry, I must argue for a larger territory than it now occupies. It seems to me that poetry is a quality inherent in language. "Language" in the larger sense. It is the expressive quality of communication itself, as in "poetry in motion," that poetry which is observed in dance, in that category of human activity we call sport, in all motion really—the graceful intelligence of the body and of all forms. One could easily argue that poetry is independent of communication at all, that it is the basis for all aesthetic experience, and so is the property of the generative activity of the observer. In this context, found poetry is significant in that it represents a medium by which the "reader" becomes an "author"— the making personal of the public and the received is the essence of the creative process!

"Poetry" as a market category, by this late date of the 20th century, at least in the United States, has served only to ghettoize that segment of literature which tends towards musicality. This has been particularly the case since Rock and Roll and other popular lyrical forms (punk, rap) have superseded the place of poetry in our mass culture. No wonder, given the competition ("can't beat them join them"), that in the age of MTV and the performance poetry it promotes, that poetry critics, Dana Gioia primary among these, champion the melding of poetry with musical forms, and that there is an ongoing resurgence of blues and jazz poetries Given the additional pressure that computer Hypertext hype has put on poetry as a written word, how will poetry survive?

Marianne Moore, towards the end of her life, said in an interview, "What I write could only be called poetry because there is no other category in which to put it." I have a feeling that were she writing today, she might as I do sense the need to dispense altogether with poetry as a category. It seems self-evident to me that poetry's formal elements span (and expand) the definitions of prose, fiction, and non-fiction, technical writing, advertising, popular song (for all of which the prospect of market exploitation does exist), that in terms of form poetry is precisely the confluence (and/or the source) of these, that in terms of content modern poetry (and all of "avant-garde") is the cross-pollination of forms, genres, academic disciplines, cultures, the synthesis of scientific method with process/play.

The current and common assumption that poetry is difficult, even irrelevant, stems directly from the conclusion that it is different from other kinds of writing. This distinction has not served poetry well and should be blurred, if not erased. poetry's apparent elevation has led to its relegation. What is needed, at the end of the century, the beginning of a millennium, is a poetry that comments, documents, and informs.

My rationale for a revival of "found form" is that poetry which draws on the public media will attract an audience that poetry does not now reach but richly deserves. What I have in mind is a synthesis of Ezra Pound's modernist classicism, the objectivist Intentions of Charles Reznikoff's verse documentaries, and Charles Olson's verse histories, the more Pop, cynical/ironic revival of the reform by John Giorno and others in the 1960s and Robert Peters's and George Hitchcock's postmodernist context of the 1970s.

That is not all. With these essentially ego-less poems, I hope to counteract the caricature of the self-absorbed poetic persona that has come to dominate post-war poetry in the public mind—the beat, confessional, language, and performance poetries that have gained prominence in each successive decade, from the 1950s through the '90s—to the detriment of poetry itself. The goal of "found poetry" is evolutionary: not to replace the Romantic myth of lyrical genius but, for this crucial time, to refocus the value and sources of poetry in the collective experience, in knowledge that is shared

Brotherly Love Powers a Lawn Mower

Alvin Straight, 73, too
blind to get a driver's license
drove 240 miles on his lawnmower
from northWestern Iowa
to 5outhwe5tern Wisconsin
to Visit his ailing 80-year-old brother.

He bought a 1966 John Deere
got a 10-foot trailer to haul
gasoline, clothes, food, camping equipment,
and Started driving on July 5.

On good days he averaged five miles
an hour along U.S. 18. About five days
into the trip the engine failed, in West
Bend, 21 mile5 from where he had started,
In Laurens, Iowa. Mr. Straight spent
$250 replacing points, condenser, plugs,
the generator and the starter.

He made it to Charles City, 90 miles
from West Bend, when he ran out of money
in mid-July, and had to camp out until
his next Social Security check arrived.
Aug. 15, two miles from his brother's house,
his mower broke down again. A farmer
helped him push it the rest of the way.

Henry Straight did not know his brother was
coming. "All I could do was unhitch his
mower. It ain't hard to unhitch," he said.
Alvin Straight might head home in about a
month. Despite offers of help he plans to
make the return trip on his lawn mower.

Everything can be used, but of course one doesn't know it at the time. How does one know what a certain object will tell another?

—Joseph Cornell

I have always loved—it is a sort of vice—to employ only the most common materials in my work, those that one does not dream of at first because they are too crude and close at hand and seem unsuitable for anything whatsoever. I like to proclaim that my art is an enterprise to rehabilitate discredited values. . . .

—Jean Dubufett


Blue, by far America's favorite color (44%),
is most appealing to people in the Central
states (50%) between 40 and 49 years of age
(49%), conservative (47%), white (46%),
male (45%), making $30,000- $40.000 (50%),
who are not sure if they'd take the art or the
money (51 %) and who don't go to
museums at all (50%).

The appeal of blue decreases as the level of ed-
ucation increases: 48% of people with high
school education or less like blue, as against
34% of postgraduates.

The appeal of red—favored by 11% of Ameri-
cans—increases with education level. 9%
of those with high school or less like red, as against
14% of postgraduates.

Red does best among people in the Northeast
(15%). It does better among liberals than
conservatives (14% vs. 9%).

Conservatives prefer pink/rose a bit more than
liberals (4% vs. 2%), and moderates prefer
gray a bit more than either liberals or con-
servatives (3% vs. 1 %).

The appeals of black increases as income drops:
people making less than $20,000 are almost
three times as likely to prefer black as those
with incomes over $75,000..

The appeal of green increases with income:
people making more than $75,000 are three
times as likely to prefer green as those who
make less than $20,000.

Not a Found Poem, Source: The National Institute/Komar & Melamid, The Nation, March 14, 1994.

"C'est n'est une trouve." The above table is reproduced from an interview/article/poll conducted by The Nation with the Russian-American artists Alexander Melamid and Vitaly Komar, called "Painting by Numbers: The Search for a People's Art." This may be a poem (I think it is poetic); however, it is certainly not my poem. For the pleasure of working with found language is in constructing an intention (the irony was by design already present in this particular piece), shaping a narrative and thereby discovering for myself the appropriate form. These decisions are what make for individual work, "Art."

What has always interested me personally is the tension that arises out of the juxtaposition of classic (high-culture) forms with modern or popular (often low-culture or non-literary) content The verse form offers the frame within which we are forced to view the material in an entirely novel context. But it is only a frame. A frame does not necessarily alter the content, only our perception of it. The found poem is a collaboration between the author of the text and its arranger/presenter. I did not alter "Fire Guide" in the sense that it retains its main purposes to instruct and to entertain. "Brotherly Love" is still that journalistic artifact-a feature story. Is it my breaking of lines of prose into verses and stanzas that makes this poetry? I don't think so! It is more than that or (depending on the prose and one's chosen method) less.

Alexander Melamid concludes from his utilitarian poll of mainstream American aesthetics that "we all work by orders. We are all commissioned" (thankfully, this is not the case), "we'll have to be trained in this blue landscape. . . Let's serve the people. Stop playing this game that we're freewheeling artists. We're Not! We're slaves of the society. We have to find—we have to choose our masters. Unlike in Russia, we have this choice." The choice of serving the masses, I suppose, is more progressive than art for the sake of the upper classes.. But such a cynical interpretation can only be understood within the context of Soviet Pop Art (Sotsart—a Pop Art-like parody of the Soviet Socialist realist aesthetic). Another foreign observer of the birth of American democracy warned us of the inherent threat of "the tyranny of the majority." Is this ever more true than in the conditions that govern the creation of art?

The truly significant numbers revealed by the poll were that Americans oppose spending more federal money on the arts, almost two to one, and the idea that the public can exert its censorship over art that is publicly displayed is favored nearly three to one. The greatest surprise, to me at least, was that one quarter of adult Americans do not attend museums at all, one quarter do so less than once a year, thirty percent once or twice, and only nineteen percent more than two times a year. To go along with this mob, to take literally the prescriptions of what Komar and Melamid call (and offer for sale as) the "People's Choice portfolio," seems to me to put a particularly abhorrent spin on "Politically Correct." (Of course I wouldn't push it past those Russians; this all may be that ultimate irony, the publicity stunt.)

My advocacy for a "found poetry," for the "writing of mixed means" (intermingling of genre) is neither prescriptive nor programmatic. Our poetry would be poor indeed if these were its only means. A final note, a disclaimer made necessary by the usual counter-argument that is by now so easy to foresee: I am certainly not for an "impersonal poetry: only for shifting the balance in the equation between ego and art, and while we're at it between artistry/poetry and utilitarian/prose as well.

Alex Cigale edits SYN/AES/THE/TIC, a literary magazine based on the aesthetics of Found Art. His poems have also appeared and are forthcoming in Exquisite Corpse, Poetry New York, Abiko Quarterly, Spring, Gypsy, Kiosk, Japanophile, and Poetry in Performance.