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Sport 11: Spring 1993

A Note on Reduction

A Note on Reduction

love = leaving space around loved one.

(John Cage)

black and white photograph

‘As poetry admits not a Letter that is Insignificant, so Painting admits not a Grain of Sand or a Blade of Grass Insignificant—much less an Insignificant Blur or Mark.’

(William Blake)

Recently, Joanna Paul came to the opening of an exhibition of my drawings at the Bowen Gallery in Wellington. She looked at one of my larger pictures and remarked at the profusion of elements within the work. (Perhaps this is the visual equivalent of the ‘prolific noise’ I just accused Baxter of.) She said artists usually put the pressure on the other way, they aimed at reducing the work to the fewest elements, filtering it down to its essence.

page 143

It would be fair to say this emphasis on ‘reduction’ is what Paul is doing in her writing and visual art work—culling all superficial or superfluous elements, removing everything that is not intrinsic. Language, in her poetry, is frequently drawn back to monosyllables, the plain words of ‘common prayer’.

though grass may die
its roots remain
and shoot again
at the year’s prime,
not so my pain
its root is green
its shooting time
needs no spring rain

(from ‘2 Versions of a Chinese Poem’, Joanna Paul, A Chronology)

Joanna Paul is concerned more with the cultivation of space than with the using up or domination of that space. The poems have an objective feel—a sense of pictorial space, the careful placement of object/image within the poem, and a sense of composition (the harmonic blending of sounds and materials into a coherent, yet strangely ‘open’, picture)

There’s a delicacy and sensuality you’ll seldom find in Baxter, and a receptiveness to the unordered natural world which contrasts with Baxter’s constant need to read natural phenomena as part of his autobiography or inner journey.

Like William Blake, Baxter was also after a kind of reduction to essentials, if not always in his poetry (which sometimes tended towards the verbose) then at least on a personal level as he sought to enact a ‘primitive’ Catholicism which shunned materialism, the cluttering of one’s life with money, possessions, worldly aspirations. In a social sense, Baxter’s Jerusalem community was striving for a comparable reductionism, renouncing the profusion of trappings and trivialities which dominate modern life.

Poets like Joanna Paul and Bernadette Hall succeed in attaining a purity of intention and form in their work. What is possible within their private worlds proved impossible for Baxter as he continually grappled with the world at large, characteristically overstepping the mark of what was humanly, individually achievable to embrace Utopian, communal ideals.

page 144

black and white drawing

The tragedy of Baxter is that, while he was aware of the individual’s need for spiritual and mental ‘realisation’ (and acknowledged this as a pre-requisite for social life), only his poetry proved capable of such realisation—in both his public and private lives it eluded him.

Like Hall and Paul, Michele Leggott manifests a minimalism or elementalism—her poems are mindscapes across which images and forms (of language, of speech) drift. But for all their floatingness, they present a worked-over, intellectualised universe. Sometimes lush and orchestrated, at other times a kind of brainy driftwood, the poems offer a secular take on territory similar to that of Joanna Paul, invoking, as they go, the lineage of Objectivism, from William Carlos Williams to Louis Zukofsky to Lorine Niedecker. In having a secular base as opposed to a transcendental one, Leggott’s relationship to poets like Paul and Hall can be seen as a refreshing, warm-spirited variation on—or revision of—the Baxter�C. K. Stead standoff of the 1960s.