Notes on the Poetics of Erasure

hablemos en blanco
hablemos perdiendo los signos

repitamos el primer y último acto
de ser devueltos
en la cópula mínima
del polvo
en la luz

Hanni Ossott

On a visit to the 2016 Prix Canson show at New York’s Drawing Center, I came across the work of finalist Bethany Collins. She presented two series addressing the obliteration of the written word. The first consisted of practically illegible paragraphs, printed on paper, then torn and shredded except for certain isolated words; the other, a set of loose pages from the Southern Review, in which she had blacked out parts of the text (sometimes all of it) with ink. This confluence of literary and graphic subtraction, framed within a visual art exhibition, led me for the first time to interrogate the operation of erasing as an aesthetics and a poetics.

 

Art history is full of erasure, blurring and coating of diverse nature: we know about petroglyphs obliterated by the elements or the neglect of humans, texts carved in stone eroded by the wind, papyrus faded by water. We have seen x-rays of paintings that reveal hidden drawings, discarded and coated. There are also intentional erasure strategies that seek to add meaning while subtracting content from an image or text, and take the image or palimpsest to be as a sculpted stone; through these erasures, artists dialogue, criticize, abolish. Finally, we deal with the complication of the notion of “erasing” in the electronic realm –deletions that happen in closed spaces and open spaces within themselves–, and the use of erasure as a creative strategy in digital art.

It could be said that the “primary” erasure is that produced by the passage of time and the incidence of nature. Many of the texts from Antiquity that survive to this day contain blank spaces (usually denoted with brackets in transcripts) caused by stains, missing pieces, and wear. The text is thus “half-accessed,” and yet both translator and reader are able to interpret the whole of its meaning and its poetics. For instance, this fragment of a poem by Sappho discovered in 2014:

They whose fortune the king of Olympus wishes
Now to turn from trouble
to (…) are blessed
and lucky beyond compare.

As for us, if Larichus should (…) his head
And at some point become a man,
Then from full many a despair
Would we be swiftly freed.

(Transtlation by Tim Whitmarsh, published by The Guardian)

Researcher and poet Travis Macdonald argues that blank spaces in ancient documents have their own weight within the text: “We read  into them history’s tumult.” Depending on their position in the verse, the punctuation that influences them, the words that precede them, etc., these spaces can lend themselves to a greater or lesser degree of speculation, allowing the reader to participate in the construction of the meaning of the text. This is a good starting point to delve into the poetics of erasure.

In his essay “A Brief History of Erasure Poetics”, Macdonald proposes a continuity between the erasures of Sappho and the work of Armand Schwerner. In 1968, the American writer published the first part of his magnum opus, The Tablets: poems presented as archaeological finds, transcribed by a “scholar/translator” and with the following legend: “(….)” represents untranslatable passages, “+++” stands for missing text, (?) provide variant readings, and “[]” indicate “sections supplied by the scholar/translator.” Schwerner simulated the onslaught of time on a text (of his authorship) attributed to an imaginary society, the meaning of which is presented as doubly opaque. On the one hand, the translator frequently “doubts” his own reconstructions and presents multiple meanings for the same word –which complicates and broadens the meaning of texts. He also eventually intervenes to question the authenticity of a certain tablet. On the other hand, the supposed physical deterioration of the tablets generates absences and, in general, calls into question the veracity of the structures that are introduced. Similar to The Tablets, though with obvious structural differences, is the work of Jackson Mac Low, an American poet and composer affiliated to the Fluxus movement. Between 1953-1954, Mac Low created a “found” poetry experiment with passages from the Bible,  titled 5 Biblical Poems. The title of each poem contains a series of numbers that indicate the number of “events” in each line. Each event, Travis Macdonald explains, is a word or a mark of “/ ____ /,” indicating a silence of the duration that the reader chooses. While Schwerner arbitrarily modified his text, Mac Low used dice to decide how many “events” would occur on each line. We deal with two kinds of “organizing criteria” for erasure: a continuous one, which simulates climate and time, and a discrete one, more attached to the conventional meaning of algorithmic. In both cases, the association of erasure and wear with the antique –millenary tablets, Biblical verses– is evident: the text is rendered inaccessible either by its physical conditions or by its mysterious origin.

Mac Low recommended that readers be guided by their own heart rate to determine how quickly to perform the poem (a biological algorithm). Since the text was created with the explicit purpose of being read aloud, it could be said that here absence is a functional element: the blank spaces fulfill an interpretive function or, rather, serve as a sort of musical notation, as they represent a measure of time and, according to Macdonald, “the physical silence imposed by the poet.”

 

 

Another pioneer of subtractive poetry is Ronald Johnson, whose work Radio Os (1977) is a careful erasure of John Milton’s Paradise Lost. Inspired by the musical voids in Lukas Foss’s Baroque Variations, Johnson impulsively bought a copy of Milton’s Poetic Work and began to cross out entire lines. The result is a “poem-by-excision” from Paradise Lost, which can be interpreted either as a derivative of the original or as an original product (and practice). Some, like Anderson himself, say that this is not a mere revision of a text but the creation of something original: Paradise Lost is the space in which Johnson sought to generate a meaning of his own (always in dialogue with the base text); therefore, Radi Os, as an independent text, does not belong to Milton. Travis Macdonald characterizes the excision process involved in Radi Os as that of a sculptor: “Johnson approaches a preexisting work with the knife of a sculptor and carefully grazes its surface, which gives rise to a strong relief.” In his view, the resulting work belongs to both writers or to none, since both the spatial disposition of the text and the vocabulary are by Milton, while the “voids” and the meaning of the text are by Johnson. In this case, erasure is a strategy to generate a “friction” (in Macdonald’s words) between aesthetics and expressions.

A fourth practitioner of erasure poetry (though his work is also painterly) is British writer Tom Phillips, who in 1966 set out to intervene a second-hand book from start to finish, employing techniques such as collage, painting and trimming. Phillips used a forgotten Victorian novel entitled A Human Document, by W.H. Mallock, and called his own work A Humument. Since its alteration began, A Humument has gone through innumerable transformations and has been edited in at least 30 versions. Phillips draws on the text, hides it, mutilates it, highlights it, blurs the line between illustration and type. His selections of words are sometimes arbitrary, sometimes determined by self-imposed algorithms; this renders the experience of reading the novel fragmentary.

 

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