Do Not Speak His Name: On the Failure of Recent Protest Art

We’ve entered a new era of protest poetry, activist art, and other creative means of political engagement and resistance. For many, this is entirely new territory, so it’s understandable that, well, we’re not very good at it.

Here’s where we fall short: the moment we mention his name, or evoke his image, or cite his words, we’ve only furthered his agenda, and failed at ours.

That I do not have to say his name proves my point: it’s always at the front of the mind, the tip of the tongue. For the past year, a day hasn’t gone by where it hasn’t dominated my Google News feed’s “Top Stories.” Those stories are determined by volume of mentions and clicks. They’re indices of our obsessions.

It could be argued that protest art is critical of its subject, calling him to account. That’s true, but it’s also beside the point. As Elias Canetti explains in Crowds and Power, “Fame is not fastidious about the lips which spread it. So long as there are mouths to reiterate that one name it does not matter whose they are.”

It’s the name itself that matters. Canetti: “Names collect their own crowds. They are greedy and live their own separate lives, scarcely connected with the real natures of the men who bear them.”

More: the critical art works, especially the ones that zero in on our subject’s most outrageous claims or tweets, only help his cause. Ryan Holiday, author of Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator, explains that it’s easy for the offender to weaponize the offensive. By “deliberately attracting the attention of the people who hate what you do and get[ting] them to denounce you as loudly as possible,” you transform them into a perverse megaphone for your ideas. “If 9 out of 10 of the people that hear it hate you but 1 out of 10 hear about you for the first time and are open to the ideas, you have made a new fan. It’s a jujitsu move, really.”

But it goes beyond the name. Every aspect of him is branded. He’s a walking collection of logos: the hair, the mouth, the tie. He even has a branding color, as recognizable as UPS brown. He speaks in slogans and repeats them endlessly. Referring to him in your artwork is the equivalent of product placement in a movie.

So that’s the problem. The solution—how to protest without becoming an unwitting mouthpiece of what you’re protesting—is another matter. In a sense, it’s a problem each artist must solve in his own way. Yet it may be instructive to look to artists who have made protest/politically engaged art their life’s work, and who have managed avoid the many pitfalls of the genre.

Consider Ai Weiwei’s Remembering, his response to the Sichuan earthquake in May 2008. During the earthquake, many schools collapsed, killing over 9000 school children. The true cause of this tragedy was the Chinese government’s corner-cutting substandard construction, which is why it tried to cover up the extent of the devastation. Remembering consists of 9000 backpacks placed on the façade of the Haus der Kunst, arranged to spell in Chinese “She lived happily for seven years in this world.”

Remembering is devastating. It goes beyond outrage, though that’s part of it, and makes us confront the magnitude of loss. Instead of focusing on the perpetrator’s outrageous actions (and inaction), it exposes the consequences of those actions. Instead of stating the self-evident, it transforms a number that could easily slip into abstraction into something palpable and unforgettable. It honors the victims and makes the tragedy real, without evoking those who, in effect, orchestrated it.

Of course, the magnitude of the event that prompted Remembering is unmatched by anything we’ve had to endure under this administration (yet). But its lessons apply to our current situation. It demonstrates how an artwork can shift our focus away from the self-evident and irrelevant—say, an individual: his personality and his outrageous statements—towards what matters: the real consequences of his rhetoric, actions, and policies. It allows us to feel those consequences at a personal level. Artwork that engages its viewers in this vital way has the capacity to change minds and to provoke change.

Images of Ai Weiwei’s Remembering:




The Difficulty of the Familiar: Gertrude Stein and Still-Life

Part 1 in a series of posts on still-life and 20th-century poetry


Picasso: Still Life (1922). Originally owned by Gertrude Stein.

Landscape painters have it easy: The astonishment of a landscape painting simply reproduces the awe that we experience in person when we take in an expanse of land and sky. But still-life confronts what I’d call “the difficulty of the familiar”: that these everyday objects—glasses, vases, plates, flowers, fruit, books—have become virtually invisible through our constant acquaintance with them, submerged in the service of use.  So viewed, the task of the still-life artist is to restore a strange splendor to that which is close at hand. This is the draw of still-life, especially for painters from late-19th century (specifically, Cézanne) and beyond.

I’m oversimplifying things, of course, but this description does help explain so many 20th century writers’ unlikely interest in still-life and its verbal equivalent. Gertrude Stein and her brother, Leo, for instance, were collectors of paintings by Picasso, Gris and Matisse—artists who expanded the vocabulary of the still-life.  With regard to Stein’s own writing, the titles of prose poems that make up the first third of Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons (1914) read like a collection of still-life objects (with a few exceptions): “A Carafe, That is a Blind Glass,” “A Box,” “A Plate,” “Eye Glasses,” “A Chair,” “A New Cup and Saucer,” “A Table,” “A Little Bit of a Tumbler,” “A Feather,” “Book,” etc.

Here’s “A Table”:


A table means does it not my dear it means a whole steadiness. Is it likely that a change.

A table means more than a glass even a looking glass is tall. A table means necessary places and a revision a revision of a little thing it means it does mean that there has been a stand, a stand where it did shake.

The table is the least noticed, but the most common, object in a still-life.  It’s overlooked even within discussions of this genre of the overlooked. So it’s no accident that Stein shines a light on the table, and in the process, provides a general statement regarding her interest in the genre: the table is a “whole steadiness”—the essential yet invisible ground of still-life. Stein “shake[s]” this steadiness to urge a “revision”—a re-seeing—of the “little thing[s].” As she puts it in another poem in Tender Buttons, she seeks “to see a fine substance strangely” (“A Box”).

Prose poetry is a fraught genre, but in this case, it’s the perfect choice. Like the objects of a still-life, prose (at least when contrasted with poetry) is considered a tool of utility. Convention has it that prose works best when it is “clear,” that is, when it conveys information without drawing attention to itself.  It’s supposed to function like the “looking glass” upon Stein’s table. But Stein demolishes such notions: Tender Buttons shakes up both the means by which we see—prose—and the objects of that seeing.

Addressing the Wound: Anadiplosis in Recent Poetry

In past posts, I’ve explored the use of anadiplosis in modernist and contemporary poetry, from Laura Riding (link)  to Geoffrey G. O’Brien (link). Anadiplosis is a rhetorical ordering technique in which the last word (or words) of a phrase is repeated at the beginning of the subsequent phrase. For example, consider this passage from Troilus and Cressida. Ulysses explains what will happen if the “rule of degree” (roughly, hierarchy) is neglected:

Then every thing includes itself in power,
Power into will, will into appetite;
And appetite, an universal wolf,
So doubly seconded with will and power,
Must make perforce an universal prey,
And last eat up himself.

Anadiplosis is often—though not always—climactic, building from minor to major, less important to most important, etc, creating a sort of hierarchy itself. The nifty thing about this passage is that it forms what you might call an anti-hierarchy, from bad to worse to worst. It works by degrees to describe the loss of degree.

I most recently encountered anadiplosis in last week’s Guardian Poem of The Week, “The Lake of Memories” by Howard Altmann. Click here to read the poem. Carol Rumens’s discussion of the poem is outstanding, and I encourage you to read it. I won’t attempt anything as encompassing here.

You’ll notice that anadiplosis structures the entire poem, with the last word of each stanza initiating the following stanza. Before I dig into that, however, I’d like to look at a couple other salient structural characteristics. The poem describes a house and its surroundings, which bleeds into being a sort of metaphor for the self. It begins:

Voices sit
like broken chairs
in a room.

A room stands
for the ceremony
of impermanence.

Impermanence cracks
the façade
of self

The progression of the poem’s 7 stanzas is interesting. It starts inside the room of the house, then progresses to the room, to the facade, to the walls, and concludes all out of doors. The camera, so to speak, starts with a still life, and slowly pulls back to an aerial view.

However, not all aspects of the poem line up in a tidy sequence. For instance, each stanza is governed by a single verb, located at the end its first line. In order, they are sit, stands, cracks, builds, frames, bridge, and winds. Looking at them like this, I see no obvious sequence, but 3 pairs of quasi-opposing terms: sit/stands, cracks/builds, frames (as in, enclose)/bridge (to connect), with “winds” standing on its own.  

That “winds,” and its prominent placement as the final verb, may be a clue regarding Altmann’s use of anadiplosis and how it fits into the poem’s thematics. Here’s the rest of the poem:

The self builds
its walls
of healing.

Healing frames
the house
of wounds.

Wounds bridge
darkness and light
over time.

Time winds through
the lake of memories
in frozen tongue.

To wind is to move in twisting motion; it suggests complication and entanglement. Each successive use of anadiplosis—room, impermanence, self, healing, wounds, time, [tongue/voices]—creates its own sort of entanglement, with “healing” happening before “wounds,” and wounds doing the unlikely work of bridging. Anadiplosis is essential to the poem’s calculated confusion of categories, where abstractions like “impermanence” and “self” are somehow embodied by architecture.

The prepositions—especially “of,” which appears 5 times—do a lot of heavy lifting, and underscore the irresolution of the poem: “the self builds / its walls / of healing.” “Walls of healing” could be walls created by means of healing, or walls that are a source of healing. “Of” allows for either reading, and this spare poem does not provide much evidence to support one reading over the other. The other instances of “of” work in a similar fashion, as does “over” in the 6th stanza, and “in” in the final line.

The poem is an accumulation of the complicated, the not-quite-resolved, with each successive stanza attempting to join past and present, abstract and concrete, and not fully succeeding. This is not a fault, but a brilliant poetic strategy. If the poem is addressing a wound, then anadiplosis serves as a kind of stitching, and the poem itself becomes the record of imperfect healing: a scar.

Ruin Bares Us: William Bronk and the Poetics of Demolition

William Bronk is a chronically neglected poet. He occasionally gets a blip of attention—for instance, when his poem “Midsummer” was cited in Ben Lerner’s 2014 novel 10:04—but those articles are more interested in explaining why he’s obscure than encouraging readers to give his work serious consideration. It’s unfortunate. While he has garnered the enthusiasm of a wide range of contemporary writers—poets such as Joseph Massey, John Taggart, and US Poet Laureate Kay Ryan, as well as fiction writer Lydia Davis—his poetry never seems to take.

Of course, one may guess the source of this neglect: think “poetry” and its typical associations—lush language, music, metaphor, description—and you’ve just described everything a Bronk poem is not. But that’s precisely the reason we should be reading him. The value of Bronk is his relentless skepticism regarding almost all conventional poetic means.

Yet Bronk’s skepticism is not mere PoMo “problematizing.” The stakes are high: his writing is fueled by a “want” or “desire”—favorite words for Bronk—for “the world” or reality in the largest sense. And it’s clear that for Bronk, that desire can never be fulfilled, especially by language:

How almost like the beasts, with only barks

and cries we are, so tangent is any speech

to all we know.

But Bronk doesn’t merely shrug and say everything is “beyond words.” He turns language’s failure into an asset. As he explains in his essay “Copan: Historicity Gone”:  “It is by our most drastic failures that we may perhaps catch glimpses of something real, of something which is.” He puts it more succinctly in his poem “On the Street”: “Ruin bares us.”

For Bronk, writing is ruin, something that appears to have once been inhabited and whole, but is now an expression of absence: “Thought is what we think and then shed; / We turn and look back on thought, lamenting it” (“Beatific Effigies” LS ). This shattered indication of what was once there is the best poetry has to offer:

People are passing; I look in passing at them.

Look, how the light comes down through them: they glow.

Once, I grasped at one. Oh, it was sweet.

It had nothing to do with me, or anyone. (“Passing” LS 182)

A poem is to reality as a lens is to light: the seemingly important thing—the light, the world—is what passes through. And passing is the right word here, connoting both something transitory, on its way to elsewhere (what Emerson called abandonment), and also something that’s dead, the mere remains of the living—ruins.

However, this is not merely a thematic concern, or a theoretical description of all language as such. Ruin, or more specifically, the process of ruination, is an essential poetic technique for Bronk. Take this brief untitled poem:

The truth has many forms which are not its form
If it has one. What has a form of its own
Or, having, is only it? There is truth.

The first line and a half forms a series of small demolitions: The opening statement “The truth has many forms” is immediately questioned/contradicted by “which are not its form.” Then both the statement and its contradiction are reduced to the merely hypothetical: “If it has one.” Next, the notion of form itself is questioned, then dismissed as irrelevant, whether it exists or not.

By the end, the poem has abandoned everything that it attempted to predicate of “the truth.” All that’s left is the bare word, sans definite article: a placeholder for something we cannot have or know, hitched to an impersonal expletive construction, seemingly indifferent to human agency.

Ben Lerner and the Transcendence of Words

Leonardo Da Vinci famously argued that painting is superior to poetry, in part because painting calls upon the “more worthy” sense of vision, whereas poetry merely acts “by way of the ear.” Moreover, a portrait clearly resembles its subject, but the verbal equivalent of a portrait, the subject’s name, is arbitrary, and corresponds in no clear way to its bearer. Finally, Da Vinci points out that a painting of, say, a battle, will have more viewers, provoke longer consideration, and garner more praise than a poem about a battle.

Some have said that Da Vinci’s argument is merely a clever rhetorical exercise, and clearly, his is not the final word on what has come to be known as the paragone (Italian for “comparison”) between the verbal and the visual. Recently, for instance, the topic was taken up in Ben Lerner’s short story, “The Polish Rider,” in which the unnamed narrator states that “I love [stories] that involve ruined paintings or missing paintings or unmade paintings.” He goes on to discuss non-existent paintings that have been described in fiction, pointing out that they demonstrate how writing/literature is superior to painting:

words can describe paintings the crazy artists can’t actually paint, or intuit canvases that were as of yet unpainted, unpaintable. And isn’t it really true of all ekphrastic literature, fiction and poetry, that even when it claims to be describing or praising a work of visual art it is in fact asserting its own superiority?

In an interview, Lerner acknowledges that while the narrator’s point may be overstated, we should still take him seriously. Lerner explains:

Take the classic example of ekphrasis: the description of Achilles’ shield in the Iliad. The description is so elaborate and expansive as to cease to be realistic; no actual shield could contain all that detail… . The verbal, while pretending to give life to the visual, often transcends it: words can describe a shield we can’t actually make, can’t even effectively paint… .

Lerner’s claim that words can “transcend” the visual is strikingly similar to a comment Coleridge made about Milton. For the sake of clarity, I include the passage from Milton that Coleridge discusses:

Screen Shot 2017-07-04 at 9.39.05 AM.png

Milton’s description is a tissue of contradictions: a shapeless shape consisting of an insubstantial substance: “for each seemed either.” Coleridge explains that Milton’s passage compels the reader to attempt to visualize “the unimaginable,” which will not be reduced to “a mere image,” thereby “exhibiting the narrow limit of painting, as compared with the boundless power of poetry.” We simply cannot picture what this passage attempts to depict. In other words—specifically, Lerner’s—Milton “transcends the visual.”

The idea that the verbal can somehow overwrite the visual is underscored by the title of Lerner’s story, “The Polish Rider.” It’s also the title of a well-known painting by Rembrandt. Rembrandt is never actually named in Lerner’s story about two missing paintings. It’s as if the painting has been supplanted by a story that itself describes a provocative absence.

Yet Lerner’s thinking does not stop there. Words not only have the capacity to figure the unimaginable, but—as Lerner argues in his recent book, The Hatred of Poetry—they can also describe a literature that cannot be written. Lerner points out that Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn” “describes an ideal music the poems themselves cannot achieve”:

Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;
Not to the sensual ear, but, more endeared,
Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone.

Lerner cites Michael Clune regarding Keats’s “images of a virtual music,” and explains that it’s “a music Keats can describe but not play (and that nobody can play: it’s not difficult, it’s impossible). Literary form can’t achieve Keatsian music, it can only figure it… . [W]hat [Keats’s lines] describe can’t be realized by any human instrument in time.” This is the source of poetry’s “hatred” of itself: “‘Poetry’ is a word for a value no particular poem can realize… . Hating on actual poems, then, is often an ironic if sometimes unwitting way of expressing the persistence of the demand of Poetry.”

Capital-P Poetry, then, is an impossible ideal that can be posited, but cannot be achieved, by individual poems. Or as Wallace Stevens put it 60 years before Lerner, each poem  is “a part, but part, but tenacious particle, / Of the skeleton of the ether, the total / Of letters… “ (“Primitive Like an Orb”).

Our / Vertical / Miseries / & / Joys: A Fantasia on Noelle Kocot’s ‘Phantom Pains of Madness’

Typically, I write on a legal size notebook, turned long-side horizontal, treating the page more like a blackboard. But in honor of today’s topic, Noelle Kocot’s new book of poems, Phantom Pains of Madness, I’ve gone vertical, since her entire book consists of poems with one-word lines, like this:

(from “Life is Beautiful”)

All / Of / This / Propelling / Me: the writing does propel, in that it feels incomplete, straining after an impossible wholeness:

(from “Limitations”)

You’d think, and I know you’re expecting me to say, that Kocot’s lineation emphasizes each word. But that’s not quite right. The stress—that is, the emphasis and the tension—is on the following word, a relentless sense of anticipation, of endless nextness. As the false endings accumulate, the reader is put on edge:

(from “The Gone World”)

(from “The Future”)

This format is perfect for expressing anxiety as well as creating it in the reader. It’s unsettling: you could say that Kocot’s lines are paratactic, a jolt from word to word. Or you could say they’re enjambed. I’d argue that it’s always both, and that it’s up to you, dear reader, to decide at each turn how to read it. The word verse—etym. Latin, “to turn”— was never more appropriate: each word/line is a turn.


Why do they call it longing, that aching sense of yearning/grief/desire? Kocot’s line scheme makes these poems long. In fact, you could say that Phantom Pains of Madness is a phenomenology of longing:

(from ”Yarn”)


(from “Pills”)

A yearning for

(from “(____)”)

Or an irrecoverable past:

(from “Stains”)

In “Sunstorm,”  Kocot mentions “Salad / Days,” a phrase that finds its origin in Antony and Cleopatra. It’s Shakespeare’s most enjambed play—its lines, like its characters, always overspilling their bounds—and appropriately enough, it’s a play of longing: “Give me my robe, put on my crown, I have / Immortal longings in me.”

Or as Kocot puts it:

(from “Addict”)

(from “On Paul V’s Birthday”)

To Go Close Means Forgetting: John Berger’s Art Criticism

Many gallery and museum goers are guilty of what I’ll call the identification fallacy, that is, confusing the name of the artwork/artist with the experience of the work. For many viewers, that moment of identification—usually accomplished with the help of a wall label—marks the end of seeing. As a result, a rich, intricate artwork that has the potential to occupy our eyes and minds for hours is reduced instead to “a Picasso” or “a Martin.” But for the critic who wants to encourage viewers’ deep engagement with the work, the question becomes, how to help viewers resist this birder-like tendency to treat artworks as names to be collected/checked off a list?

I’ve been dipping into John Berger’s essays on art, and I’m fascinated by how he solves this problem. Here’s the opening of the appropriately named essay, “A Gratitude Hard to Name”:

Is it still possible to write more words about him? I think of those already written, mine included, and the answer is “No.” If I look at his paintings, the answer is again—for a different reason—“No”; the canvases command silence. I almost said plead for, and that would have been false, for there is nothing pathetic about a single image he made—not even the old man with his head in his hands at the gates of eternity. All his life he hated blackmail and pathos.

Only when I look at his drawings does it seem worthwhile to add to the words. Maybe because his drawings resemble a kind of writing, and he often drew on his own letters. The ideal project would be to draw the process of his drawing, to borrow his drawing hand. Nevertheless I will try with words.

In front of a drawing, drawn in July 1888, of a landscape around the ruined abbey of Montmajour near Arles, I think I see the answer to the obvious question: why did this man become the most popular painter in the world?

You’ll find the full essay here.

When it comes to art criticism, we’ve been trained to expect to be told the name of the artist somewhere in the first paragraph, if not the first sentence. Here, only in the 3rd paragraph do we begin to have a guess as to who the artist might be, and even then, Berger does not name him, but only mentions his status as “the most popular painter in the world.”

In fact, Berger never mentions the artist’s full name, giving us only his first name, 2 lines away from the end of the essay. I’ll quote the final 2 paragraphs so you have a full sense of the effect. Berger imagines the artist working on the drawing of the ruined abbey:

As he sits with his back to the monastery looking at the trees, the olive grove seems to close the gap and to press itself against him. He recognizes the sensation—he has often experienced it, indoors, outdoors, in the Borinage, in Paris, or here in Provence. To this pressing—which was perhaps the only sustained intimate love he knew in his lifetime—he responds with incredible speed and the utmost attention. Everything his eye sees, he fingers. And the light falls on the touches on the vellum paper just as it falls on the pebbles at his feet—on one of which (on the paper) he will write Vincent.

Within the drawing today there seems to be what I have to call a gratitude, which is hard to name. Is it the place’s, his, or ours?

Berger employs this delayed naming in many of his essays on art (to varying degrees: sometimes it’s just a paragraph), as well as in his profile pieces. For instance, in his essay “A Girl Like Antigone” he does not name his subject, Simone Weil, until the very last sentence. But the effect is the same: we engage particulars instead of generalizations; our preconceptions are suspended, and line by line a new understanding emerges, with Berger as our guide. Our relationship to Berger’s writing as well as to his subject becomes more intimate. As Berger says elsewhere, regarding the artistic process in general, “To go close means forgetting convention, reputation, reasoning, hierarchies and self.“ Berger helps us forget so we can go close.


A note regarding the new anthology Portraits: John Berger on Artists, edited by Tom Overton. The “delayed naming” technique is clearly important to Berger’s “project” (a word that Berger himself would probably find too grandiose), as he has employed it in essays from the ‘60s to the present. For this reason, I’m dismayed at what I imagine was Overton’s editorial decision to remove the original titles of the essays, and replace them with the name of the artist they discuss. So now “A Gratitude Hard to Name” is bluntly called, “Vincent Van Gogh.” Of course 500+ pages of Berger’s incredible writing gathered in a handsome volume is to be celebrated, but it’s unfortunate that Overton compromised the integrity of the titles.


This essay is a follow-up to my piece posted on Essay Daily last week: Colluding with Accident: John Berger’s Artful Artlessness