Carl Andre, Poet

Carl Andre is famous for his sculpture but anyone who takes an interest in his work soon discovers that he is a writer as well. One suspects his career could have gone either way. But when the art took off he stopped pursuing publication.

In official channels, that is. Due in part to the importance of the visual elements of his poetry, he periodically exhibited it in galleries and published limited edition books, also through galleries. These books were produced in very small editions and, given Andre’s fame as a sculptor, the few copies that come up for sale are priced out of reach of the average reader. I have never seen one and it is doubtful I ever will.

The Tate in London announced in 2013 that they were planning a complete edition of the poetry but the project has not reached fruition. If they do produce such a book it will be massive. The announcement numbered some 1,500 documents. As a catalogue raisonné such a book would be produced as a quality art book, probably in several slipcased volumes. And would be very expensive.

Currently those who aren’t rich collectors, gallery owners or curators at the Tate can only read Andre’s poetry in bits and pieces through an image search online or in various art books as repros scattered amongst the photos of his sculpture. The only easily available collection of Andre’s writing—a book called Cuts: texts 1959-2004, is mostly prose and most of that are artist statements. The nicest selection of the poetry I’ve seen in an available volume is included in Carl Andre: Sculpture as Place, published by Dia/Yale in 2014. The Dia/Yale book includes about 50 pages of reproductions of poems, including excerpts from longer works such as America Drill. Some of these repros are so small they can only be read with a magnifying glass. It’s as if the publishers thought they were meant to be looked at, certainly, but not so certainly to be read.

Carl Andre’s poetry has always been considered ancillary to the sculpture as a kind of visual art in itself, wonderful to look at and reading optional. But Andre is a very good writer and from the evidence I’ve seen he is a great poet. If his work is concrete poetry, it is so far and above the other works in that genre I’ve seen that I’d say it is (like his sculpture) in a class by itself. Andre’s poetry deserves to be published in affordable volumes for readers of poetry. The quality as well as the uniqueness of the work demands it.

To be sure I would love to see the Tate book published. It’s right and proper that these poems be shown as they exist. They are indeed beautiful artworks and should be reproduced as they exist. I am simply making an argument for readable editions of the work in addition to an essential publication of reproductions. As a basis of comparison, it is essential to know, and more significantly to see, what Robert Walser’s “microscript” documents are. But it is just as important to be able to read them. And you can have both in one volume. Carl Andre’s poetry deserves the same treatment.

Andre produced much of his concrete poetry in the 1960’s and 70’s with a manual typewriter. Each character on a manual typewriter occupies an equal amount of space. This mechanical feature of the writing tool allowed Andre to arrange his word compositions on a grid. The poems were treated like single art objects in the sense that they were painstakingly produced. One mistake and he’d have to start over. They were made in astonishing variety and, as noted, they were indeed exhibited as art objects in galleries. It is certainly possible and desirable to produce clean, modern printed text versions of the poems that preserve the spacing and color.

Now with the sales pitch over (to whom? and who listens to me?) a note on Cuts.

As stated, the book is mostly artist statements in various forms, including interviews, dialogues and letters to friends. The writings are arranged by subject and although there is overlap (he is a visual artist, a sculptor), the longest section is the one on poetry. I find his poetry and his thoughts on poetry every bit as valuable as his sculpture and his thoughts on sculpture. One text, entitled, The Curve of Utterance: Chaucer, Shakespeare, Bacon, from 1964, is particularly interesting. He begins with Hugh Kenner’s comment that Shakespeare did not have a dictionary. Andre states that Shakespeare

lived at a time when “reality” and “language” were congruent and conterminous. In the circle of privileged minds, reality was produced by language…. [Cuts, p 203]

This is what we call the “Classical” era. A time when names and things were equal. Things were what we called them. Chaucer, called the “father of English poetry” by Wikipedia, wrote at a time when man, who named things, was created in God’s image and God had the final Word. Chaucer did not make/mirror reality in language. As a child of God, he “participat[ed]” in the reality made by God. With Shakespeare, Andre writes,

man makes reality as an act of mind and to Shakes., the ultimate act of mind was language. Hence that great age in English literature: its confidence, power, and mastery. But that age contained the seeds of its own betrayal: Bacon is the first obvious subversive.

Bacon, Andre says, questioned “the authenticity and integrity of a man-made, mind-made reality” and questioned the “efficiency of language as a means of expressing relationships” between men and the natural world.

Chaucer believed that “the continuous curve of utterance” (that made man and reality one for Shakespeare) was “the voice of God”. For Bacon, the “literary imagination was not the same as nature and the curve of nature was not divine, but physical”. Andre ends by bringing another of Shakespeare’s contemporaries into the discussion, John Webster:

Webster still has the literary imagination as the full curve of utterance, but his plays slowly go mad as they evolve. Characters in Shakespeare go mad, but in Webster the plays themselves go mad, betray the consistencies of structure and logic of character which make the curve continuous. After Webster, English verse ceases to be dramatic and universal and becomes lyric, private and fragmentary.

Earlier in the text Andre claimed to prefer Chaucer, who, like post-classical poets, was “fragmentary”, who used “language as a palette rather than a canvas”. And here we can’t help but notice that as a poet Andre uses language itself as his subject, and nouns in particular. Nor can we ignore an idea that Andre comes to again and again in his rumination on poetry, that the noun is the primary element of poetry, that the first poets were “namers”. One might crudely put it that Andre is a modern Adam after the Fall if we didn’t first consider that the first namers may very well have come before the Christian God.

Today we know that we are made by nature and other people even while we cannot ignore the imperative to create ourselves. Andre’s poems are objects of visual beauty. But they can also indeed be read.

In Andre’s poetry language is a fact of life, an artifact in the world as we perceive it, like the sky, the death of a bird, a human war or the color green. We are read by words before we ever begin to read ourselves.

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