Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Cubist poetry

After writing about Georges Braque the other day, I started wondering what the equivalent of cubism would be in terms of poetry. I guess in order to think about that I'll have to try and define what cubism entailed for Picasso and Braque when they started experimenting with it in the period of 1907-1913. I see two phases in the construction of a cubist painting. The first phase involves:

(1) representation of landscapes or objects as groups of geometrical forms.

(2) use of a limited variety of colours.

Both of these steps result in a simplification of the objects being painted. The use of a limited palette necessarily reduces the depth of the painting. The second phase involves:

(3) transformation of simplified objects into broken, intersecting planes.

(4) introduction of letters, fragments of words and muscial notes.

(5) application of sand, sawdust or pieces of woods that give the painting relief, making it more like an object.

These steps create the illusion of something more complex. They are deliberate confusions of the original object being painted. They can also increase the depth of the painting.

Cubism is therefore a two-step process of transformation: first the simplification of objects into geometrical shapes, then breakage of these shapes into more complex, illusionistic arrangements. It is this second step which allows the painter to analyse the simplified object from different points of view, for example, to incorporate a full-face view with a profile view in the same picture of a head. Depth is first of all taken away by limited use of colour, then it is returned by other means.

Cubism is in fact a sort of protest about the limitations of realistic painting. It emphasises the fact that although a realistic picture is accurate, we have only to take a step sideways and the picture is no longer a correct representation. It reminds us of the moment when we notice the profile of a person who seems beautiful to us. Then we wait with baited breath for the moment when the person will turn towards us and allow us to see the full-face view. The two views are not necessarily aligned. When the head turns, we may be in for a disappointment, or a pleasant surprise.

How would this two-step process be carried out in poetry? First, the process of simplification:

(1) Rendering of complex experience in simplified terms. For example:

The road wound this way and that as they travelled in the car through the autumnal forest, red and yellow leaves flashing in the sunlight as they fluttered down through the branches.

would be simplified to:

The car through the forest winding, they saw the red, the yellow leaves flutter down, flash sunlight.

(2) Reduction of language to a more primitive, flattened state. For example:

The car the forest winding, they saw the leaves red yellow sunlight flashing.

The next phase is the illusionistic process in which the simplified text is built up into a transformed experience. Possible analogies for the introduction of words, notes etc. into pictures might be the reverse process of introducing images into poems. This is what Guillaume Apollinaire did in his book 'Calligrammes' where poems were written in the shape of a pocket watch for example. Apollinaire was a friend of the Parisian Cubists and in 1913 wrote a book on cubism in art. It is perhaps therefore not surprising that he thought of using this technique in his first calligramme poems composed in 1914.

A possible analogy for broken, intersecting planes might be the fracturing and repetition of parts of the sentence in a way that will given the impression of one experience overlying another. Below, I have taken the earlier simplified sentence and amplified/composed it by repetition and rearrangement:

Through them the winding car, the forest
flashing over. In reddened sunlight fluttering
leaves. It stays there, everything they saw:
the wind, the car, the forest flashing, over.

I've broken the sentence up into poetic phrases now, because I've also started to think about the rhythm of the words. What I have done is try to arrange the words in new ways in order to create new meanings and ambiguities. I have also reused words to try and create natural rhythms. The phrases now suggest different view points. Some observations are from the driver's perspective, others are from a narrator's perspective.

It is still possible to make out roughly what is going on, but each sentence is ambiguous. In making rearrangements, I have also found new images (e.g. the forest flashing over the car) which are, I think, more powerful than the original description.

Playing around with the grammar has also suggested to me an overall meaning to the poem which gives the fact of their seeing an added significance. They see the forest, but they can't take it with them. This might suggest that they are driving too fast to really capture and reflect on their impressions.


June Nandy Chaudhuri said...

Informative blog. Thank you so much.

Couple of questions.:

1. Since there is minimal colours used in cubist painting...should the cubist poetry distance itself from spectrum of colours?

2. Okay, I break the surface into objects (geometrical) and then construct a whole, does that mean I will not smoothen the jaggedness..and let it be...so that the reader completes the visual?

3.I find, the words tend to synergise the cubist and the surrealist technique, what remains so unique in paintings? Is there a way to give them their individuality?

I'm not sure, I was clear enough in my questions....

Hope to read your answer Sir.

June Nandy

Jonathan Wonham said...

Hello June

Thanks for your comments.

This article was an examination of a possible process by which cubist art was made. A sort of cookbook.

The are two steps: simplification then illusionistic complexification. To answer your question about colour, perhaps this could be applied in the second step?

As for jaggedness, that is a good question. I don't think the cubists would have worried too much about the jaggedness, and I don't think the poet should either. Jaggedness is a part of the modern. It is a reaction against art which has a finished appearance with all rough edges smoothed off.

Your third question, about the uniqueness of cubist work is also perceptive. Why is cubist painting not like surrealist painting? I think it is because it was to do more with the physical material of the artist (paint, woood, texture) than with the content of the painting. If cubist poetry was similarly interested in the texture of language, the sounds it made, and not the meaning, then it would not come close to surrealism.

Best wishes, Jonathan

June Nandy Chaudhuri said...

Thank you Jonathan.

I'd so much appreciate if you can direct me to some good works on cubist poetry.

I'm experimenting on this genre and was actually surfing the web for more of such work;it is then that I came across your blog Treasure trove).

I'll try to keep in mind the points you mentioned. Let me try on sounds, as well as the texture of languaage (tactileness). I'd certainly love it as it'll break the banality.

Thanks so much for this help.

PS. I'm linking your blog.

Jonathan Wonham said...


There is a short paragraph on wikipedia Cubism in other fields which lists a number of French poets influenced by cubism and a couple of American ones. I would look first at the work of Gertrude Stein who was a friend of Picasso and then you might also try to find some work by the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E school of poets, for example Joe Ross. His book called Equations = Equals is a book I would highly recommend.