Blurring the Signifier

What is poetry anyway? What’s art anyway? For some, poetry tends to mean an outpouring of innermost personal feelings, while for others it’s more to do with a love of language and the craft of language. Poetry, and art, can mean many different things to different people. Art is one of those words that will never settle to a stable, generally-agreed definition. Probably by definition.

There are plenty of debates, and there’s plenty of theory behind the debates, but this isn’t the place to go into all that. The modernist theorists of the early twentieth century were fond of definitions, but later, postmodern theorists (another very hard word to define) have often taken a delight in challenging definitions and conventions, turning them on their heads, and flouting expectations: which artists themselves have tended to do too, often enough. Artists themselves frequently ignore “theory” altogether. Others play games with it. Yet others take it very seriously indeed.

Tracey Emin famously exhibited her own unmade bed. Is anyone’s unmade bed art, or only an artist’s unmade bed? What about my overflowing laundry basket? Or is it the fact of being exhibited in an art gallery (or printed in a poetry magazine) that makes it count as art? I knew someone who went to a postmodern art exhibition, waited till no-one was looking, then emptied the contents of her handbag in the middle of the floor, and stood looking at it, stroking her chin with a serious concentrated expression on her face. Within minutes a circle of gallery-goers had gathered round, studying this new exhibit. You may have heard of the cleaner who, thinking she was just sweeping up the rubbish, destroyed thousands of pounds worth of postmodern art. There are people who mutter about the Emperor’s New Clothes, but then there are people who say that those people are just Philistines, stuck in their ways, not open to new challenges.

I know a performance artist who invented (he claims) a form of performance art which he calls shoplifting in reverse. He used to buy cans of food from one supermarket (for instance Asda) and then slip them onto the shelves of another supermarket (for instance Sainsbury’s), and then enjoy the puzzled reactions of both shoppers and staff alike. Part of his enjoyment was that none of these people realised that what they were puzzled by was art.

Perhaps the people who came the closest to a definition were the Russian Formalists, in the early decades of the twentieth century. Academics were pretty ambitious in those days, aiming to define, analyse, categorise social and cultural phenomena in a more or less scientific way. Just as biologists could explain the difference between different species of bugs or birds or bushes, the Formalists wanted to classify, in technical terms, different types of text, and explain which ones were poetry (or art) and which ones weren’t.

If you want the details, you can look up exactly what they said in any number of books or websites on literary theory. Some will explain it more clearly than others, and some will describe how the theory fared, how influential it became, what the standard critiques of it have been, and how and why people reacted against it after a while. But in a nutshell, to keep the story short, the Formalists argued that art is produced by a foregrounding of the signifier as opposed to the signified – which means the outward form, or the surface form, as opposed to the meaning of that form.

Which means, for instance, that an artist in oil painting is more interested in paint itself – perhaps specifically in oil paint itself – than in what they’re painting a picture of. They’re interested in colour, texture, composition. That’s why they paint boring things like “still life” (mouldy fruit and empty bottles). In the Renaissance, when the best-paying customers were the Catholic Church and the nobility, they did pictures of Biblical scenes or portraits of rich people. In Russia after the Revolution, when the only patron was the Communist Party, who wanted “Socialist Realism”, they did farmers and factory workers. It’s all the same to the artists.

So poetry, according to this theory, is writing in which the main interest is language itself, rather than whatever the language is about. This can mean the surface sounds and shapes of language – rhyme, rhythm, alliteration, metrical patterns, verse shapes: or it can mean the rhetorical structures of language, such as metaphor, narrative, the patterning of imagery, the aesthetic shaping of the whole piece, and so on. The more that the poet seems interested in the content of the poem – whether that means a religious or political message for instance, or the expression of personal feelings and experiences – rather than the form, then the less “poetic” is the poem. So they said.

Now while this theory has certain uses, it also has its limits. One of them is that artists, in whichever medium, often instinctively want to challenge any prevailing theories or conventions, want to turn them upside down and move beyond them. So if, for instance, it’s generally agreed that music (as opposed to noise) means a series of sounds that have been deliberately selected and put together to produce a pleasurable experience, then it won’t be long before musicians start experimenting with random sounds instead. Especially when technology appears that makes it easy to do. So twentieth-century musicians started taping traffic noise, road drills, odd electronic bleeps. Then John Cage went the other way and composed a piece consisting of just silence. And yes, it’s been performed to paying audiences and it’s probably out on CD. (Bet it’s on MySpace by now.) Visual artists have chucked paint over canvas at random, or exhibited “found” objects, or blank canvasses. And writers have produced books with just one letter on each page (the same letter, it doesn’t matter which), or with just blank pages. (You can buy blank notebooks at any stationer’s for a fraction of the price, but that’s not art.)

Bob Cobbing, for instance, used to write poems consisting of apparently random letters and ink smudges. Sometimes there were snatches of fragmentary meaning too but often there weren’t. For copyright reasons I won’t quote a genuine Cobbing poem here, but here’s one from one of his lesser-known followers that’ll give you the idea:

Years ago I went to see Bob Cobbing at a club called Apples and Snakes, in Covent Garden, London. Apples and Snakes was (maybe still is?) essentially a Poetry Performance club, featuring poets whose work tended to work on the stage more than on the page, and with a reputation for blurring the boundaries between poetry, drama, music, and anything else you felt like blurring. There weren’t that many people there, and while we were waiting for the show to start I got chatting with odd people. I mentioned to someone, for instance, that I was just curious to see how Cobbing could read aloud, or perform, these random letters and ink smudges. This person (and I’m sorry if he was some famous alternative celebrity, I’ve really no idea who he was) went white, took a step back, lifted a hand to his wide-open mouth, and exclaimed in shock: “What, you’ve never been to a Bob Cobbing gig before? Ever?”

Well, no, I had to admit, as it happened I hadn’t. The man was quite flabbergasted. He went round the room, pointing me out to everyone: “A first-timer!” I don’t know where he’d been in his life, or hadn’t been, but it seemed he’d never met anyone before who’d never been to a Bob Cobbing gig. Or, apparently, ever imagined that there could be anyone who’d never been to a Bob Cobbing gig.

When the show started my curiosity was soon satisfied. I found out how Bob Cobbing performed his random letters and ink smudges: he wandered round the stage pulling funny faces and making funny noises. And yes, it was entertaining. Better than a blank canvas and a CD of silence any day.




Michael Bruce

May 2010


Other articles by Michael Bruce:

Editing, marketing, and the fretful porpentine

The last day of June

The Blues 2010

or try: David Kitchener on Samuel Beckett

or: back to Natterjack articles


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