English 619:002 / Spring 2004 / Susan Tichy / George Mason Univers/ity / Mondays 4:30-7:10 / Robinson B442



Notes on collage as a method of composition


From Charles Altieri's "The Objectivist Tradition." In The Objectivist Nexus: Essays in Cultural Poetics, ed. Rachel Blau DuPlessis & Peter Quartermain. University of Alabama Press, 1999. 25-36

On the most general level, there are probably two basic modes of lyric relatedness--symbolist and objectivist styles. The former stress various ways the mind's powers to interpret concrete events or to use the event to inquire into the nature or grounds of interpretive energies, while ojectivist strategies aim to "compose" a distinct perceptual field which brings "the rays from an object to a focus." Where objectivist poets seek an artifact presenting the modality of things seen or felt as immediate structure of relations, symbolist poets typically strive to see beyond the seeing by rendering in their work a process of meditating upon what the immediate relations in perception reflect. Louis Zukofsky provides one index of this distinction by defining two properties as basic to objectivist poetry:
In sincerity shapes appear concomitants of word combinations, precursors of ... completed sound or structure, melody or form. Writing occurs which is the detail, not mirage, of seeing, of thinking with the things as they exist, and of directing them along a line of melody. Shapes suggest themselves, and the mind senses an receives awareness...
This rested totality might be called objectification--the apprehension satisfied completely as to the appearance of the art form as an object... [Its] character may be simply described as the arrangement, into one apprehended unit, of minor units of sincerity--in other words, the resolving of words and their ideation into structure. ("Sincerity and Objectification" 273-74)
Where a symbolist poet would concentrate on relations that dramatize meanings beyond the event, the poet in "Western Wynd" wants to make relational forces intensify "the detail, not mirage, of seeing." To do so articulates a field where one can think with things as they exist. The primary relations here are denotative (in an imaginary world) rather than connotative or metaphoric. In order to keep the denotations intensely resonant, the poet marks his or her field --perceptually and musically--by a dense interplay of direct perceptions standing toward one another as planes in a abstract painting. The poetry is in the parallels between forms of desire and energy held together in a perceptual space. Wind and desire are less metaphors for feeling than its direct equivalent in physical fact, so that nature and person's nature are adequate vehicles for one another, echoed again in the overt energies of the writing... the plosive play of alliterating syllables and of strong vowels modulating the kinetic energies of speech from back to front of the mouth. Desire here takes form, not by being mastered, but by achieving full expression in each of the overlapping energy fields -- perception, memory, projected future, and act of writing... The literal will suffice, provided one has learned the craft of the letter.

This model of poetic art needs to be continually reinvented because as soon as perceptual and compositional energies grow slack or seem inadequate to the mind's needs, writers seek to supplement concrete detail by symbolic generalization.  (25-27)

Altieri then presents passages of Shelley's "Ode to the West Wind" and Coleridge's "Dejection: An Ode" in which "[t]he wind has little objective status" and is significant only as tenor for spiritual metaphors. While acknowledging the important perceptual and philosophical energies of Romanticism, Altieri argues that the Romantic need for transcendence leaves the mind vulnerable to "a return of self-consciousness insisting on the merely conceptual and fictive grounds for its orders and driving the self back into a despondent and passive relation to the natural energies its interpretations displace." [28] These "modes of relatedness", Altieri continues, which drafted the Sublime into a metaphysical struggle with Enlightenment rationalism, "may no longer be accessible, or desirable, for our culture." (28-29)

In the essay's second section, Altieri presents the polar weaknesses of Romantic-Symbolist and Objectivist poetics. In pursuing the "semi-allegorical gleam" of transcendence, the Symbolist poet may end up with no firm ground at all, only "the triumph of will singing its own incoherence, the louder for every self-conscious reminder of the fictive status of its half-believed mythic substitutes for religion," creating the dissociated sensibility lamented by Eliot, vacillating between "abstract rumination and uncontrolled flights of feeling." (30)  On the other hand, an insistence on objectification can reduce poetry to the mere making of perceptual images, as in the Imagist phase of Ojectivism. And: "[f]ear of "prophetic role playing" can create [a] tension between poetic discourse and political commitment" that silences the poet, while distrust of ideas in poetry can lead to "enervated satiric evasiveness." (31)

The problem, then, is to escape both the transcendent fictions of Romantic-Symbolist poetry and the limited descriptions and satires of Imagism. Altieri frames the task by quoting George Oppen as he defines an attempt to construct meaning, to construct a method of thought from the imagistic technique of poetry -- from the Imagist intensity of vision. (Oppen in Dembo, "The Objectivist Poet" 161)."

Thus Altieri arrives at a fundamental principle, that "[c]
onstruction, not description, would be the basic source of models of relatedness, and these would find their roots in...collagist techniques.... (31)

He then continues:

The basic principle of collage construction in poetry was once described by Ron Loewinsohn as "the layering of frames of reference." This layering can consist of elaborate cultural units, as in the Cantos, in the organization of discursive thought units characteristic of Olson, or in the delicate alignment of perceptual and syntactic units we have observed in objectivist nature poetry. In all these cases, collage allows a direct series of discrete objective notations fused into complex dimensions of interrelatedness not dependent on the interpretive will for dialectical synthesis. Consequently, poets need not submit to principles of dramatic order that encourage the pursuit of intensity by theatricalizing the poet's self-conscious stances in quest of sublimity.,,, Poets can emphasize the significance of emotions intrinsic to complex acts of perception, rather than to the dramatic process of attributing meanings to perception by means of metaphor and symbol. "The accomplished fact," as Zukofsy put it, might carry "the maximum of the real." And, most important, by defining "the maximum of the real" in terms of perception in discrete yet intensive relations dependent upon compositional acts, the poets reinterpret the nobility of acts of mind. Nobility inheres not in transcending facts but in constructing their relations into immediately satisfying wholes. Because the real is "accomplished," not simply given in perception, acts of disclosure and formal composition demand all those energies which romantic poets often felt could only be expressed either in apocalyptic vision or in dramatizing ones' awareness of the dilemmas inherent in pursuing that vision. The real can be sufficient.

Collage construction enables images to become a form of thinking. Two closely related principles -- field and measure -- define the nature and value of that thinking. These concepts evade both description and symbolic interpretation by exhibiting meaning as itself dependent upon collage principles, upon the dynamics of relationship in a distinct field. In Oppen's terms, "things explain each other, / Not themselves" (Collected Poets 134). And "measure" is the term for describing the values created by discrete relations within a field. We can then consider the same principles at work in the ways objectivist poets handle the romantic bogey of self-consciousness. So long as language remains essentially denotative and the energies of mind can be maintained within the compositional lines of force that the field establishes among the layered references in the poem, there need be no residue of unnamable desire or shaping will behind the poem, no need for universals beyond it. There is nothing that can return in self-consciousness to haunt one with the fear that his or her fictions evade to transcend empirical conditions. The mind's act brought to objective form is as present to itself as are the objects it brings into relationship. The writer can be intensely personal; still the personal energies are at once exhausted and maintained within the composition. The measure of the self, and the measure of the mind, is what stands in what one makes, not what one desires or intends or glimpses of universals only provisionally shadowed in particulars. Self and mind require no myth: their being is the intensity of their power to focus the "the" as it takes form through hesitations of mind and melodic movements. Objectivist poetics creates an instrument sufficiently subtle to make attention and care -- to the world and to the corresponding energies the world elicits -- ends in themselves. (31-32)