Sunday, January 02, 2005

On Paper

. . .let's face it, poems are not made of words, but paper.
Tony Tost

Paper provides innumerable colors in a large range of shades
and tints ready for immediate use.
Josef Albers

Happy New Year.

During the holidays, I spent some time reading Josef Albers' Interaction of Color, which I am enjoying immensely. The experience can be compared to reading Pound's ABC or Wittgenstein's On Certainty. These books all seem guided by Pound's question, "What is the simplest possible statement?"

Albers insisted on the value of investigating colour as colour (and not, as Eliot might say, some other thing.) And this led him to some very simple and very effective presentations of this phenomenon ("the most relative medium in art," he said.) The book is really a textbook -- a set of studies that can be reproduced in the classroom, affording the student very precise experiences of colour. In a similar way, On Certainty and the ABC lead the student toward very precise experiences of conceptual and literary order.

This insistence on making the relevant experience available in the writing is what I want to start the new year with.

Because of the laboratory character of these studies
there is no opportunity to decorate, to illustrate, to represent anything,
or to express something -- or one's self. (Albers, p. 9)


The careful study of simple cases, where the desired effects are immediately available, can be applied in philosophy and poetry. One proceeds by the comparison of (easily accessible) examples. The writing is nothing other than the arrangement of these cases. Wittgenstein called it perspicuous presentation; Pound called it the ideogrammic method; Albers called it interaction studies.

The paper is important as a medium; it is at once the source and the destination of composition. A method suggests itself, one by which writing may be both studied and perfected. In looking for colour samples to work with, Albers discouraged the use of "prepared paper sets representing specific color systems."

Sources easily accessible for many kinds of color paper are waste strips found at printers and bookbinders; collections of samples of packing papers, of wrapping and bag papers, of cover and decoration papers. Also, instead of full sheets of paper, just cutouts from magazines, from advertisements and illustrations, from posters, wallpapers, paint samples, and from catalogues with color reproductions of various materials will do. (p. 9)

That is, he proposed to use colours that were already in use. The study of colour must connect to actual usage. His colour studies depended on the arrangement of colour samples that were not prepared (indeed, unprepared) for the study of colour interactions. Ordinary colour.

I want to say that what colour was to Albers' work, emotions were to Pound's, and concepts were to Wittgenstein's. All were intent on bringing these phenomena back from their metaphysical to their ordinary uses. They wanted to reveal their usage, their grammar.

Poems are made of paper, not words. That is, they are made of words already set down, cut out of their original texts and rearranged in new contexts for novel effects.

2 comments:

Tony Tost said...

I painfully had to return my borrowed copy of Albers' book this New Year's. The clarity in it is good tonic. I think it's a great insight of yours comparing it to the Wittgenstein & Pound; finding the simplest workable model! Your post also made me think of Gertrude Stein in Poetry and Grammar discussing how counting could be 1, 1, 1, 1, 1 instead of 1, 2, 3, 4. A precision of observation that shows a seam or pivot for decision making that I at least wouldn't have discovered on my own.

Great to have you back.

Tony

Thomas Basbøll said...

Thanks, Tony. It's good to be here. Thanks also for the Stein connection, which I'll have a look at more closely (this response is based on some quick googling), especially in regard to Wittgenstein's number series. My first reaction is to leave both possibilities open. We could, it is true, count like Chinamen (or Stein's little aunts) 1,1,1,1,1 but we often find it more useful (and more grammatically correct) to count 1,2,3,4,5. This difference has to do with accepted usage in most situations. It IS a telling difference, and indicates the pivots or joints of grammar. But what I get from Wittgenstein, in any case, is not that saying 5 after 1,2,3,4 is arbitrary, only that it is not the first four numbers that determine (according to a rule) that five is the right thing to say. Five, however, is in most cases right, and describing this correctness is the task of logic. This, as Stein would say, definitely has something to do with poetry. Language allows us to say,

A rose is a rose is a rose

and/or

A rose is a rose is a sore

and/or

A rose is a sore is an arse

The poetical effect is related to the way lists and repetitions work. It may be a question of grammatical accounting.