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MINIMALISM AND ITS EXPANSIONS

(Sketch for a chapter of Leaf Mosaic)

by Karl Young


"Minimalism" and its cognate terms have gone through some strange changes in the last 40 years. Much used in a laudatory sense and as something like a rubric for widely divergent methods during the 1950s and 1960s, it later developed negative connotations as the 20th Century drew to a close. As a pejorative, the terms evolved without much sense of what they had stood for in the 60s, and took on a life of their own. All sorts of people writing such things as "X isn't a minimalist, she's a maximalist," without defining what the terms meant. Minimalism did work toward a definition of itself when it was trendy, and art historians still find it useful for works done in one era. "Maximalism" has never come close to identifying itself as a movement or a method or anything other than a means of distancing itself from "minimalism," even though those who use it don't seem to have a clear idea what they're distancing themselves from. Without reference to the essays of Lucy Lippard, Harold Rosenberg, Barbara Rose, Sol LeWitt, Sam Wagstaf, or Clement Greenberg, the terms seem to suggest triviality. And despite the problems associated with the trends of the 60s, triviality has been precisely what works that could informally be called "minimalist" have moved away from. Good recent examples of this can be found in the work of Marton Koppany. Most of his work could be seen as minimalist on the grounds of the economy of words in poems some function with no more than a few letters, or one letter or one word, dispersed over multiple pages. Koppany's acute sense of the problems of language has moved him to try to get as close to the patterns of thought and perception as possible, and to create work that can be read by people who don't speak the language in which he writes, be it Hungarian or English. As a professional translator, he is well aware of the problems in shifting from one language to another, and, as far as I can determine, has created works in which nothing gets lost in translation. There's nothing trivial about seeking basic patterns, and there's nothing in any way trivial about trying to find poetic forms that go beyond the limitations of one language. Seeking to transcend the boundaries of local languages has been a goal of a number of 20th Century literary forms, Mail Art being the most expansive of them. Of the minimalists who have sought wider accessibility through their work, few have done as well as Koppany.

Problems and paradoxes with Minimalism as a movement or tendency seem to arise from the nature of limitation outside individual works, and these proved severe in historical context. I've written enough elsewhere about the catastrophes caused by the Concrete poetry anthologies which limited the art to minimalist modes. The problem wasn't in individual works in the anthologies, but the limitation of the art to works of that type. Moving into a different art, the minimal stage sets used in productions of plays by Bertolt Brecht and Samuel Beckett worked admirably, not only in the way they contributed to the plays themselves but in the way they leant themselves to presentation by theater troupes without much money and in the way they brought about a shift in attention among audiences. Like anything else, however, when such procedure became a pointless fashion statement, or, worse yet, turned to dogma, they became limitations. Extremes of minimalism, whether in the paintings of Ad Reinhardt or the poetry of Jorge Luis Castillejo, function best in an environment in which other procedures flourish. Poets in the Beat lineage tend to rail against minimalism, yet the Beats from Day 1 to the present have written Haiku, a rigorously minimal form, and have avoided the cooperative nature of its parent, linked-verse Renku.

I came of age in the 60s, and like many others pursued minimalist procedures. This lead in a number of directions, and however austere individual works may have been I didn't think of these methods as exclusive. I didn't know where they would lead, or, perhaps comically, that during one period a single minimalist work would be all I did. At the same time, the changing nature of abbreviated forms covered a wide range.

In the mid 60s, seeing how much you could compress something, or how much you could do without, seemed like an adventure, a challenge, and a means of focusing attention in a chaotic environment. I don't remember to what extent models in poetry and other arts contributed to my first extreme miniatures. I believe painting exerted a stronger pull in this direction than poetry, though examples ranging from Aram Saroyan to Cid Corman were abundant enough. I think that some of the endless discussion of Zen Buddhism not related to poetry made a significant contribution, as did the emphasis on detail fostered by some of the drugs in the cornucopia of the time. However much any identifiable factors may be articulated, there was something in the air that encouraged the tendency to seek small forms.

Of my early minimalist poems, the one that stands out most prominently and remains a favorite, could be represented as:

 
be home tonight

 
That's the complete text, though I call it a representation because it needs a blank page around it. The verbal nature of the poem consists simply of realizing the many layered implications and tensions of the three words, and resisting the temptation to say more. Finding a place for it on the blank page took considerably more time. Placing it squarely in the center of the page had a different significance than placing it near one of the edges, and each edge altered its significance in one way or another. The final position I decided on was to place it toward the upper right, in the place where the first words would appear if the page had been filled with prose along standard lines. I like the idea of the utterance appearing as a beginning better than taking a central, edgy, or aggressive position.

During the mid-60s, I tried a number of one word poems and poems in which two words acted as a compound. Of these, the one I liked best was:

 
lighttime

 
This poem turns on a number of axes, from the abutted letters "t" to the association with the commonly used phrase, "night time" to discussions of physics and relativity theory current at the time. Unlike "be home," however, this poem lead, as do many minimal poems, toward sequences, sets, and other extensions. I did a number of poems in which "light" forms one half of a compound.

Another early favorite took extensions and repetitions into it. It's basic lines are

I had mimeo reproduction in mind when I did this poem, and the roughness of impression added to it. The basic turning point of the poem works on sound. Read aloud, you should be able to hear the movement of the loom in it. The placement of the letters flush right suggests the movement of a loom. I don't remember how many times I initially repeated the poem's cycles, but later it seemed important that it should be repeated until it more or less went from the top of the page to the bottom. It should suggest endless cycles, but, like "be home," it doesn't lend itself to permutations or other variations.

Some of the small poems I wrote at this time could be considered minimalist or simply as poems related to such short forms as haiku or quatrains. A poem like the following could be considered either way:

 

Aubade

We better get up

It's getting dark

 

Poems that run on minimums usually pull in conventions of one sort or another, and this is where many take in their maximum potential. This one takes part of its significance from the classic Aubade, or Dawn Poem, in which a couple who have spent the night in amorous sport are exhorted, or exhort themselves, to get out of bed for the day. The lines of this one would work well enough by themselves, but take on more significance when placed in the tradition by the title. Perhaps they work best when the ground against which they work is as simple as blank paper and terms taken for granted, as in "be home."

Looking back from the perspective of the late 1980s-early 1990s, the poems from the 60s that still seemed worth reading were those that remained brief. These I put together into a manuscript which I titled "What To Whisper Until It Rains," the title coming from one of Jerome Rothenberg's minimal scores. Revising these poems for the most part involved such oddities as agonizing over the placement of a punctuation mark. Again, these small poems have an uncanny urge to combine with something else, and the series was published with a set of poems by Sherry Reniker as a few short lines. The title for the book comes from a standard blues kenning, since blues (whose lyrics maintain a strict economy) had exerted profound influences on both of us, and remained one of the most basic and far reaching of American art forms.

During the next decade, subject and tones suggested sequences relying on tight and laconic verbal structures. I discuss one of them, A Book of Nocturnes in "Acoustic Books at the Beginning and End of the World." The other important one from this period, S T A R S A N D, began with the following poem:

 

wash

down

 

the

dust

 

of

years

 

 
(stars)

 

This pulled several minimalist poems originally written in the 60s into its orbit. Although I wasn't thinking about it at the time, this does rely in part on the same physics as "lighttime." It also plays off toasts, in the way Aubade played off the genre of Dawn poems. As usual with minimalist poems, this one has had its valence, drawing itself into a collaborative work. It also followed an odd trajectory. It appeared in a Larry Eigner/Karl Young issue of Room magazine. I don't know why, but at the time of Eigner's death, it seemed an appropriate memorial to pass around to friends; it comes as close as I can to Eigner's exquisite and unparalleled sense of the reverberations of delicate attention.

Other minimalist poems of the 1960s insisted on sneaking or pushing their way into other works. In 1986 when I decided to sum up my lyric poems, two 60s miniatures seemed absolutely necessary as frame for the book. Days and Years fits its cycle of four weeks, four seasons, and one lunar month between these brief suggestions. The minimalist poems share a deep link with poems based on fragments, an area of effort that I discuss in "The Valence of Fragments." The two modes seem to share a chicken and egg relationship, each seeming to come from an incarnation of the other.

meditations on the Word, which I think of as the most important of the minimalist works, should have notes of its own. It seems interesting in terms of these notes, however, that during a stretch of some four years it was the only poetry I wrote. It may seem curious that in one section it should take work from a voluminous, ranting poem and reduce the expansive poetry into a component of something highly distilled.

In my own work, minimalism has moved in and out of other approaches. This seems healthy and constructive, a process that has benefited all efforts, including those that proved to be dead ends. I mentioned several poets and artists who could be considered minimalists at the beginning of these notes. Others who have been particularly important to me include Seiichi Niikuni, Vasko Popa, and Robert Lax. Niikuni's complete opus consists of some 40 poems, of which less than a dozen make up what to me is one of the most important bodies of work produced in the 20th Century. Perhaps the concentration required to produce such masterpieces of necessity keeps the scale of the work tight. Individual works by these poets stand in their own right, and, like my "be home" poem, require and perhaps create space around them. Still, at its best, minimalism becomes part of a larger artistic ecosystem in which all components benefit by their association.


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