has published an interesting discussion by Anna Hallberg (in Danish) of the visual poem Al-Jazeera by Lars Mikael Raattamaa (a facsimile of the first page is to the left; bigger images are in Hallberg’s article). Hallberg’s greater aim is to find a new, more independent literary criticism, but in her exploration of this, she also discusses the resistance of critics to such a text as Raattamaa’s. She discusses specific ways in which critics have rejected this piece, among them these:

  1. It’s simply trying to provoke the reader, it’s nonsense, the reader is well-schooled and sees through this lack of meaning.
  2. It’s not literature. It may be charming and original, but the only way it is interesting in literary terms is as a demonstration of the limits of literature.
  3. Fear is a third response. The reader is frightened by the text, which baffles the reader and makes the reader feel stupid, and causes her/him to long instead for a cup of tea and a good book.
  4. The text lacks a clear voice, it lacks basic literary qualities. It shouldn’t pretend to be high literature, it should declare its status as part of some obscure little “ism”.

There’s a lot more in this article, but I’m hungry and will have to return to it later…. Let me simply note that these rejection strategies are often used about electronic literature too. And that I really don’t know how to read a poem like Al Jazeera – but I would love to find out. I wonder which category of reader that puts me in?

7 thoughts on “how to reject unfamiliar literature

  1. Alan Sondheim

    It’s difficult to know where to begin without the entire poem in front of one. What immediately comes to mind is the presence of a field, and given the title, a politicized field at that; there’s also the visual (concrete) poetic reference possibly to a wall or masonry etc. There seems to be a polyglot of languages and it’s unclear whether or not this is a form of ‘codework,’ i.e. the abstracted elements might or might not be produced programmatically. If so, they’re referencing an underlying but corroded structure; if not, they might be read through Peircian ikonics as a form of abstract writing paralleling the kinds of abstract painting (referencing writing) by such artists as Twombly or Franz Kline. In any case, reading a poem like this (and ‘poem’ itself is problematic here) is a form of shape-riding, hunting out, skimming, surfing the typography – for myself, I’d look for constellations of meaning/words that resonate, and if not, why not?
    = Alan

  2. Jill

    Alan, what a marvellous beginning strategy for reading. Anna Hallberg also discusses some ways of reading this, actually, so I should really read her piece more carefully.

    Are there any, well, summer schools for people who want to learn how to read concrete and visual poetry? I suspect the best way to learn would be in discussion with other (interested) readers. Failing that, are there good introductions? I haven’t yet found the connections between more conventional concrete poetry where the verbal aspects are fairly easy to understand and this newer kind. And I’d like to learn.

  3. Simon

    Here I come with my scepticism again. Is it a text? Not if text is defined in terms its words. No words, no text – whatever else it happens to be.

    Perhaps it *is* art. I don’t know. So long as I’ve been to art-school, and what I produce sells as art, I can sell screwed-up balls of paper as art.

    What a state the humanities are in!

  4. Jill

    Well, there are many definitions of text, you know… And it’s composed entirely of symbols found on a typewriter/keyboard. I don’t think this is a threat to the humanities!

  5. Lars

    Actually, I don’t think this is such a hard poem to read.
    It is probably hard to write, and very hard to analyse. I look forward to seeing some theoretical work on this kind of concrete, visual poetry (maybe one should borrow from music or visual arts theory?) But it is not hard to read if you’re just reading it. Only takes a few minutes of your time. I’ve read it several times already — doesn’t mean I understand it, but I’ve read it.
    (And Simon: This is text. The more interesting question is: What kind of text is it? A job for the humanities, surely).

  6. Jill

    Good points, Lars. You’re right, it’s easy to read. It’s not so easy to understand…

  7. Simon

    I agree that it’s a case for the humanities, but I would claim that it is not a case for the literature department. Perhaps I would deem it an attempt by a visual artist to appropriate and subvert textual forms. I would not attempt a textual analysis, though, because it doesn’t say anything in text (words). Nothing at all. Pass it along to the history-of-art people.

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