National Poetry Month

National Poetry Month: Liz Kotz

Welcome back for our last blog post for National Poetry Month!

This week we’re featuring Words to Be Looked At by Liz Kotz.

In this book Kotz discusses language and art from the 1960s onward. While many mediums are covered, including music, dance, and visual art in New York City from 1958-1968, poetry is one of the main highlights of the book. As Kotz writes: “Yet the notion of poetry as a notation—as language that is inseparably instruction, record, and activated inscription—introduces possibilities that are by no means bound to oral realization. Instead, some of the most innovative poetic experiments turned to experimental music as a model, seeking to redefine poetry as an expanded field of language analogous to composer John Cage’s redefinition of music as an expanded field of sound.” 

Kotz examines two poets in particular: John Ashbery and Mac Low. Both poets were hugely successful, and their work is still influential today, but early on in their careers both were struggling to express their creativity. In particular, Kotz addresses the yin and yang of the two men who were writing during the same time period. 

“Discussing these two poets side by side inevitably evokes a set of institutional polarities. Ashbery, winner of every major literary prize and widely regarded as “the most important living American poet,” has successfully negotiated the transitions from Yale younger poet to avant-garde marginality to literary canonicity, as his fifty-year poetic output has spawned an everexpanding industry of publication, criticism, and scholarship. Mac Low, several years his senior,was the almost-archetypal underground poet whose early works received delayed publication in the most marginal of venues, and who, despite his fifty-year involvement in New York’s downtown art world, attained relative visibility only through the belated (and in some respects problematic) embrace of his work by the loose grouping of experimental writers referred to as “language poets.”6 In the 1950s, however, these institutional disparities were not yet evident, as both writers undertook a series of experiments with found materials and aleatory compositional strategies, significantly informed by contemporary art and music.

In a series of poems from the late 1950s published in his second book, The Tennis Court Oath, Ashbery famously employed improvisatory techniques to cull fragments of prior texts into fractured compositions understood in analogy to abstract expressionist painting as “a sort of record of its own coming-into-existence.”7 A few years earlier, Mac Low had begun devising systematic methods for selecting and organizing fragments from published “source texts” in order to generate shattered poems designed for collaborative public performance and bodily enactment.The dominant critical receptions of both projects—the assimilation of Mac Low into a purely oral “performance poetry,” and the emphatic inscription of Ashbery’s poems within a Western lyric tradition of agonistic self-discovery and displaced autobiography—privilege a quasi-atavistic “orality”or a highly contrived poetic “voice,” neither of which can account for their procedural reanimation of existing texts.

Instead, taken together, Ashbery and Mac Low’s 1950s’ experiments represent a crucial moment in the transformation of collage aesthetics into process-based models in postwar American literature.Both Mac Low’s 1954– 1955 “5 biblical poems” and Ashbery’s 1958 long poem “Europe” borrow from existing texts to fragment sentences, fracture syntax, and isolate individual words in expanses of blank space, eroding meaning and poetic form to an extent rarely seen in American poetry. Despite their frequent dismissal as “inconsequential nonsense”and “meaningless banality,”these works are by no means without signification.”

We hope you enjoyed celebrating National Poetry Month with us!