I’m so excited to come across James Stuart’s Master’s Thesis “It Begins in the Book: Writing the Material Poem” freely available online. An expansive thesis, it comprises an 80-odd page exegesis and 3 creative projects (The Material Poem, The Homeless Gods and Conversions). The overlap between his interests and my own is startling, given the niche nature of my concerns.
My reading of Stuart’s written thesis has sparked many ideas for my own research, specifically around his three-pronged model of materiality:
“what enables, and how does, a reader to respond to a literary work (material basis); what socio-cultural forces influence the relationship between writers, readers and the language-object (materialism); and finally, the actual material expression (or materiality) of a language-object.”
Coming from his background as a poet, Stuart’s examples and references are new and fascinating to me, and his analytic focus on poetry (specifically in its definition re: its material basis) has given me a lot to chew on.
Mallarmé is the starting point, as he was for my own investigation into experimental typography (as touched upon in my MA Thesis), and it’s interesting to see the different path Stuart charts from there as compared to my own. His definitions create a strong backbone for his thesis, but critically, the emphasis on differentiation between prosaic language and poetic language, and the following and repeated justifications for the necessary material consideration of poetic texts, seem a bit stunted and obvious, especially to any designer who lived through the so-called “legibility wars” of the 90s.
The lack of attention paid to design discourse of this period, as charted through the pages of Emigre (let’s not forget, which started as a poetry zine), seems to me to be a glaring omission. Furthermore, the forays into new media texts (in Chapter 3) also feels quite dated, given the currency of hypermedia explorations back in the day of the DVD-ROM. The evaluative structure Stuart proposes for his projects, almost as a conclusion, feels quite limiting, given the breadth of his thesis, and again could have benefitted from an understanding of the decision-making process/analysis of design practice.
There’s no doubt that Stuart’s thesis deals with his subject matter with far more rigor than most design writing (including my own), but I can’t help but feel that there’s still quite a bit missing, and a lack of real attention paid to the actual material expression that he alludes to. How does ink and paper, metal and wood, and fine, the screen, mean? And what of the socio-cultural, political currents that affect the modes of production (materialism from a Marxist perspective) and consumption of poetry?
If I’m levelling these criticisms, it is not to discredit Stuart’s thesis, which is generous and engaging in dealing with a subject I hold dear, but it emerges out of a frustration with the valorisation of design discourse (at least, design discourse of a certain period) within related disciplines. Stuart does conclude with a theoretical architectural model (based on Arakawa and Gins work), but misses the contributions of graphic design thinkers dealing with arguably far more similar subject matter. The development of graphic design theory liberally borrowed from literary criticism, it is a shame that it isn’t a two-way road. The gap needs to be bridged.
Reading “It begins in the book” has inspired and frustrated me, inciting me to revisit those old Emigre essays (and the important Visible Language series), with Rudy Vanderlans, Anne Burdick, Andrew Blauvelt, Van Toorn, et al. It has also encouraged me to continue to dig deeper in developing my own research, and hopefully eventually contribute to a sadly lacking contemporary discourse. Finally, and this IS something, it has confirmed my continued interest in poetry, but also my rejection of it as a from of working, I’ll stick to the term ‘poetics’.
Keep walking, this isn’t poetry anymore…
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