Collage, Collaboration & Bookish Beasts


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George Mason University

“A good stealer is ipso facto a good inventor.”
-- Marianne Moore, notebook entry

"Collage construction enables images to become a form of thinking."
-- Charles Altieri

Intro / How to / Background ... & don't forget the writing operations (linked at right), many of which involve cut-ups, pulled text, or collage.

Intro: some questions about collage poems --

What is the texture of each piece of language in the poem? What are its dictions? its sounds? its rhythm? its images? its tone?

What happens at the gap where pieces join? What does a reader do as s/he moves across the gaps? Fill in what might be missing? Just jump?

What is made? Is it like a sculpture, or a Cubist painting, in which different planes are angled together to make a whole? Is it like a quilt stitched together from a hundred fabrics? Is the whole like any of its parts?

How is poetic voice constructed or deconstructed? Are the pieces of language drawn into an overarching voice that speaks the poem to us? If not, what are you hearing? If so, how does the voice control or distance itself from the pieces of language quoted or layered in? Or is there a third possibility: that a speaking voice may be just one of the "pieces" that make up the poem's linguistic surface?

If you read for story, speaker, context of the poem, the bumpy, alien texture of the poem's pieces may recede. If you read for the poem's ingredients, its linguistic parts,  the story, speaker, or context of the poem may recede. Can you focus your attention in a way that allows you to be aware of both levels of reading simultaneously?

How does the poem relate to conventional ideas of a poem as speech, a reader as auditor? What is a poem if it isn't that?

A how-to lesson:

Adrian Lurssen's notes on the writing of a collage poem, "I'm Not Hollywood." You may find them useful if you are wondering how to revise and fully claim a poem that began as pulled text or cut-up. Adrian is a poet born in South Africa, now living in California.

Some background:

William Burroughs on cut-up poems.  This is an entry on,
the definitive source for Visual, Concrete + Sound Poetry as they say of themselves. Read about it here.

Burroughs speaks as though collage had never been available to poets before 1959, but poets had been creating various textual collages since the years just before World War I. Here are a few paragraphs from 
Marjorie Perloff's "The Invention of Collage," one chapter of The Futurist Moment: Avant-Garde, Avant Guerre, and the Language of Rupture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986.

Collage composition, as it developed simultaneously in France, Italy, and Russia (and slightly later in Germany and Anglo-America) is distinguished from the "paste-ups" of the nineteenth century in that it always involves the transfer of materials from one context to another, even as the original context cannot be erased. As the authors of the recent Group Mu manifesto put it:

Each cited element breaks the continuity or the linearity of the discourse and leads necessarily to a double reading: that of the fragment perceived in relation to its text of origin; that of the same fragment as incorporated into a new whole, a different totality. The trick of collage consists also of never entirely suppressing the alterity of these elements reunited in a temporary composition. (34-35)

Or, in Louis Aragorn's words... ("The principle of collage is the introduction [into the painting] of an object, a substance, taken from the real world and by means of which the painting, that is to say the world that is imitated, finds its whole self once again open to question."  (119) 47-48

Here it may be helpful to remember that collage, literally a pasting, is also a slang expression for two people living (pasted) together -- that is to say, an illicit sexual union -- and that the past participle collé  means "faked" or "pretended." The word thus becomes itself an emblem of "the systematic play of difference," the collagemise en question of representation that is inherent in its verbal-visual structure.  51

An intuitive grasp of how the world might be put together -- here is the mainspring of collage structure as the artists of the avant-guerre envisioned it...

Collage is, by definition, a visual or spatial concept, but it was soon absorbed into the verbal as well as into the musical realm. From Marinetti's Zang Tumb Tuum,
it was just a short and perhaps inevitable step to Apollinaire's Calligrammes, William Carlos Williams' Kora in Hell or T.S. Eliot's [The] Waste Land, a poem whose collage composition is at least partially the result of the cuts made by Ezra Pound, himself the great master in English of collage form.  72

[you you can view Zang Tumb Tuum at - look for The Italian Futurist Book exhibit]

On the visual level, collage entails the loss of a coherent pictorial image; on the verbal, the loss of what David Antin calls "the stronger logical relations" between word groups in favor of those of similarity, equivalence, and identity. In collage, hierarchy gives way to parataxis -- "one corner is as important as another corner." Which is to say that there is no longer a central ordering system, that presence, as Rosalind Krauss puts it, is replaced by discourse, a "discourse founded on a buried origin." (38) 75

As the mode of detachment and readherence, of graft and citation, collage inevitably undermines the authority of the individual self, the "signature" of the poet or painter.  76

Indeed, to collage elements from impersonal, external sources-- the newspaper, magazines, television, billboards -- is to understand, as it were, that, in a technological age, consciousness itself becomes a process of graft or dictation, a process by means of which we make the public world our own. "L'art," says Louis Aragon in La Peinture au défi (1930), ...(Art has truly ceased to be individual, even when the artist is himself a confirmed individualist, for, even as we neglect individuals, we can trace across the moments of their separate thoughts, a vast argument that borrows from their conscious intervention only in passing.") (57)

But it does not follow that collage is essentially a "degraded" or "alienated" version of earlier (and presumably superior) genres. "...(There is born from these negations, an affirmative idea that has been called the personality of choice). (53) 77

Sources cited in these passages:

Group Mu, eds. Collages, Revue d'Esthétique, nos. 3-4. Paris: Union Générale d'Editions, 1978.

Rosalind Krauss. The Originality of the Avant-Guarde and Other Modernist Myths. Cambridge and London: MIT Press, 1985.

Louis Aragon. Les Collages. Paris: Hermann, 1980.

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