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The Poetics of Renunciation Posted on January 3rd

Duchamp: Art or its Renunciation?

A few years ago I received a book by the poet Laura (Riding) Jackson as a gift. My friend gave the book to me with this exclamation: “Laura (Riding) Jackson is a wonderful poet! She renounced poetry!” My first thought was that a poet renouncing poetry was like a rock band’s “final” live concert–a grandstanding gesture meant to hype up interest. Beyond that, (Riding) Jackson’s modified name made me suspicious–if she was bold enough to renounce poetry, why does she insist on clutching an old name in parenthesis?

But when I actually read Jackson’s preface to her Selected Poems (where she renounces all of poetry, including the poems that follow), I realized her reasons for giving up poetry had implications for all art. Jackson’s believes that there is an inherent gulf between the aim of art and its craft, describing it as a “discrepancy, deep reaching, between what I call the creed of poetry and the craft of poetry–which I might otherwise describe as its religious and its ritualistic aspects–that I perceived the impossibility of anyone functioning with consistency in the character of poet.” The essential tension between the creed and craft of poetry is between “humanly perfect word-use” and “artistically perfect word-use,” the former being a spiritual achievement for humanity overall and the later being a sensual “nicety, pleasing to human pride.” In Jackson’s view, poetry professes to be a truer kind of speech, but forced beauty of its craft obstructs that which it claims to reveal.

Jackson, like many artists and writers, is an idealist. Her sights are fixed on no less than a spiritual overhaul of language, and in her essay this ideal is described how all lofty ideals are–vaguely. She refers to “the margin…[where] truth begins and poetry ends,” “reflecting the human-conciousness-at-large” and “the something after.” In short: the unsaid. But no matter how opaque and absurd Jackson’s goals for language might sound, both her renunciation of poetry and her committed striving for the ideal illustrate two important ideas for artists.

Jackson was a good poet, and her success may have been due to her growing suspicion of poetry. A healthy distrust of art is beneficial for artists for a few reasons. First, believing in the inherent value of all art can easily lead to a complacency about one’s own work: the belief that if what you make is called art (or poetry) than it must have at least some value. Secondly, an unchecked belief in art can actually limit art. If you believe wholeheartedly in art, you are also believing in art as it is now or has been, and would be inclined to preserve it. But if you are unsure about the value of art, you might try to undo, challenge, and push what art is. Duchamp’s ready-mades are an example of an artist making new art out of a renunciation of what art was. The better artists become, the more reasons they have to renounce art–those who try to overcome art’s limitations are those that know them best.

Jackson’s attitude about the ideal in art could also be useful for artists.  She may have called it ‘perfected speech” or “general human ideal in speaking” but the central idea was that Jackson saw poetry, and art, as methods by which to attain an ideal and not an ideal in itself. There was no such thing as good poetry in Jackson‘s view, because good poetry would be straining so hard to go beyond itself that it would be hardly recognizable as poetry. For Jackson, the medium of art is irrevocably opposed to the higher purpose of art. This may be fanatic, but reaching for something beyond art while making art can both motivate artists and liberate them from too much stress on craft.

Anyone who makes art should be familiar with two concurrent goals: a craft-related or content-related goal (I.e. I want to write a good sonnet or I want to paint an abstracted waterfall) and a diffuse, idealistic goal (I want to evoke a strange blend of loss and exhilaration…the sublimity of nature…the peek-a-boo presence of God…etc.). The second goal could be anything ranging from an ideal like Jackson’s about language use or something more ineffable–simply a sense in the artist’s mind. Jackson is entirely right when she points out the tension between craft and an artist’s airier goals. I’m sure every artist has had the feeling that no matter how carefully they arrange words or apply paint, they still cannot evoke what they want to evoke–it often feels like the word and the paint are the very things that stand in the way.

This might be so, but paint, words, etc. are also the only things that can make it manifest. But by keeping one’s eyes on the ideal, ineffable goal the craft of art can also improve. It reminds me a little of jumping horses. When approaching a fence, the rider is instructed to look up and beyond because looking down is the surest way to lose your balance or cause the horse to refuse. Technique tends to take care of itself when riders keep their eyes locked on where they want to go (over) rather than where they are. Jackson makes the mistake of thinking technique is bound to obstruct the vision of poetry, rather than realizing that a strong enough vision compels craft to follow. In jumping horses, and in art, the sightline is part of the technique.

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Some Responses to “The Poetics of Renunciation” :

  1. I think the paint or words are not only needed to make the art manifest, but the resistance of the medium strengthens — I’ll stop short of saying is required for — the art. It is very interesting that one will struggle a great deal to make something difficult appear effortless, but that seems more the point than the problem. Renouncing because “perfection” is unattainable strikes me as overwrought.

    Commented Steve Durbin on January 5th, 2008.
  2. Steve-
    That’s a great point–that the struggle with the medium itself is meaningful. If achieving “humanly perfect word-use” was as simple as opening your mouth, I doubt it would be as valuable as the struggle against human limitations that poetry (and all art) represents.

    The “perfect” or the “ideal” is something to aim for, but the very fact that is cannot be achieved is what gives great art energy and power. A world of perfect expressions easily achieved would eliminate the need for art, humor, personality, excitement, hope, and anything that’s worthwhile.

    Commented admin on January 7th, 2008.
  3. One of the seemingly necessary conditions for any medium that is used to support superior art is that the medium offer resistance to the artist as well as support. That may be why digital art never reaches a level that I could characterize as superior. The digital medium is complicated and all, but there seems to be nothing that it cannot do.

    Commented catfish on January 10th, 2008.
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