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Sport 9: Spring 1992

♣ Joanna Margaret Paul — Notes on a Poetic Language

page 112

Joanna Margaret Paul

Notes on a Poetic Language

My interest is in a poetic language; or more precisely the non-literal levels on which words operate and which allow the possibility of poetry.

I start with 'a few slides'; then try another take; and end with a little eulogy.

My illustrations are for the inner eye and begin


With a sign seen outside a drycleaner's and not a barber's shop—

10% is ten per cent

This is clearly not definition or tautology but an emphatic assertion
(let me spell it out for you).

An image for second projector might be a painting by McCahon in which I and One inhabit the same space.

By allowing difference between what are virtually identical signifiers we are pressed up to the limits of what can be said. Further, McCahon's cyphers divorced from their conventional tribe refer to the self and by a continual interchange invest the I (eye) with isolation.

i / one


flower st is in Grey Lynn (this is still McCahon territory—he lived in Partridge Street).

flower st in a market garden area would be banal. In industrial Grey Lynn the name wonderfully evokes absent life and colour.

If the tension is too great of course between word and context connotation collapses—for example flower corp.

The relation here of word and prime facie connotation is parody.

Talk delivered at the Now See Hear! seminar, Wellington City Art Gallery , 29 July 1990

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Next, a sign I read from my house against the opposite green hill says (in large white letters) 4 sail.

4 become one sail—the word a larger squat one in perhaps a boat by Alfred Wallis in perpetual motion on green water.

(The silly pun and real estate intent are obliterated by the evocative power of the words in their landscape context.)

[I touch here of course on Ian Hamilton Finlay, a very serious punner/ punster/punter for whom the single word poem is completed by its (often landscape) environs—poem as act as well as fact.]


well, jesus will save—lower case, painted on corrugated iron fence.

Normally religious tracts, political slogans, hoardings, graffiti don't admit of qualification.

So, 'well' in this context subverts the message. The sentence is of the same order nearly as LIBERTY FOR SOME on Finlay's crumpled French flag. Qualification is as subversive as a denial—more because it punctures the rhetoric with a small pin.

[One could put up here one of McCahon's elias paintings

Elias will save. . .Will he come and save

and say that on the other hand there is a vital relationship between doubt and faith. Doubt implies the possibility of something called faith and faith which differs from certainty implies the possibility of doubt.]

The sentence 'Well, Jesus will save' catches one's interest whereas religious texts outside a church create a kind of embarrassment which one might analyse in four ways:

  • the sign is inappropriate—♥on sleeve
  • the sign is trivial;we already have the sign of the church
  • the sign is undermined and contradicted by urban clutter and
  • the sign is subsumed to advertising but signals without
page 114

black and white drawing

page 115

A final found image

black and white photograph

perceived on a roadside blackboardthe white letters, well-formed, plain, the equivalent black spaces one reads and holds an unqualified qualifier in suspense before moving on to (pumpkins 70©).

another take

I imagine a painting of the Wanganui River. Between the cloudy sky and the clouds reflected in the water one might paint brick warehouses with doors and lintels—or one might intercept Vermeer's view of delft. Or one might insert a sentence like

     A Persian bishop was present at this conference nor was even a Scythian
     found wanting to the number.

an ornate sentence, obviously translated from the Latin which would serve to stand for the classical language of architecture.

One might introduce a few expletives, half words or advertising slogans to stand for what has been built in the syntactical gaps of Taupo Quay and Drews Avenue.

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If you reduced these rhetorical words—which ripped from context [Eusebius:Life of Constantine] perform a function rather than discharge a meaning—to mere capitals with serifs, the fact of their classical origin might fade before the tendency of an initial to stand for something.

One might be reduced to using fragments of letters or to the invention of a thingwith elegance—a waist and serifs.

It is in fact the mimicry of letters which makes Killeen one of the most interesting artists in the use of words—quasi autonomous fragments in syntactical relation some of which look likethings—though association with thebeing-in-the-worldof a horse for instance is evoked in order to be suppressed.

Obviously a horse beside a heron beside an algae beside an inverted landscape behind stripesis different from a horse grazing in a pasture.

It is one cipher in an alphabet, image bank or sign system, just as sheep grazing in a green meadow and under blue take on the aspect of a word or cheque or token for a whole imaginary.

In the secular hieroglyphs of Killeen and the spatial pronouncements of Dawson there is thought about words, their power and panache and their dual capacity to dance a little ballet by themselves—andto point.

nostalgia without nostalgia

. . . a little eulogy on Ian Hamilton Finlay

As heroic—

a hero is one who does more than write to bureaucracy twice in resisting the erosion of time and place by never leaving Little Sparta resisting— the rush of the simulacra down the black hole of the appetite
of the masses etc.

binding backthe past [<re-ligio]

insisting on a natural relation to tradition

never ending is the homesickness of classical temples

refusing to stand in a quicksand present in digital time where the only relation is appropriation.

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Rather than being 'unrelated' I see all Finlay's objects unified in relation to the classical past he quickens. His modes are: elegiac / mock heroic / pastoral / epigrammatic—the whole gesture an accumulation of shards, and epic.

His nostalgia escapes nostalgia by the freshness and inventiveness of its equivalents.

His puns cherish the domestic.

[domus = temple]

Tired but happyis all we need for the conclusion — or even — of the story.)

Contra Terry Smith ('2-dimensional'*), this simplicity, I think, allows his symbols, 2 dimensionalindeed as slides, solidity as artifacts, polyvalence as symbols.

While the Missiles of Apollo surprise

apollo his music his muses his missiles

the medicine man of Little Sparta might provide with his war toys homeopathic doses of a reality our art and thought is reluctant to assimilate.

Finally Finlay / his enterprise revives artifact and artisan in modi operandithat are so to speak time honoured . . .

black and white image

"Nature is the Devil in a fancy waistcoat."
Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Translation for out time:
"Nature is a storm trooper in a camouflage smock."
Ian Hamilton Finlay

Wild Hawthorn Press, Little Sparta, Dunsyre, Lanark, Scotland

* In conversation, Now See Hear!