On Carl Andre's Poems
by Rob Weiner
Carl Andre provided a new perspective on sculpture when he placed work flat on the floor; his touch as a poet was no less radical. Andre designed the shape of poetry according to his own understanding of the word as a concrete module, similar to the squares of industrial metal, wooden timbers, or bricks in his signature three-dimensional pieces. His poems don't always incorporate complete sentences, phrases, or even associative terms, but use words sequentially. Shaped text functions as both pattern and poem - visual art and literature simultaneously. On the occasion of his first gallery show at Tibor de Nagy, Andre said he wanted to "seize and hold the space", and the same is true in his command of the clean, white, 8 1/2 X 11 inch sheet of paper, a standardized, manufactured material. Here the words are methodically punched out on a manual typewriter, or hand-written with a felt-tip pen; mostly dense, black text on a white background, sometimes the reverse, and occasionally red.
A rigorous, formal structure is applied to each of Andre's poems, and he has written over 1,000 pages since the late 1950's. The placement of the letters which form the words, and then how the words sit on the page have provided him with great diversity in shape and pattern. Often the arrangement of the words creates a defined field, a text-landscape, carefully placed on the page. For exhibition purposes, the poems are positioned, according to Andre's specifications, in handsome wood and glass vitrines, of his own design - a composition within a composition. These poems are not meant to be read in a book but seen, like art on display. Since Andre always takes the architecture of a room into consideration when installing his work, there is equal attention paid to the organization of each element in his poetry. The pages form deliberate patterns, such as grids or checkerboards, in display cases placed back to back. There are eight pairs standing in one long row -- an arrangement that stresses the length of the building. Andre has often remarked that his ideal piece of sculpture is a road. Here in Marfa, the room, the cases, the poems themselves evoke similar terrain.
In many of Andre's poems, he abandons the spaces between words that tell us where one stops and another starts. The words seem hidden within greater fields of letters. His playful manipulation provides a way into poetry through the particular beauty of words in meaning, naming and presence. Andre said "I am trying to recover a part of the poet's work which has been lost. Our first poets were the namers, not the rhymers. The great natural poem about anything is its name." There are no nonsense words used, and most are chosen from everyday usage - nothing to look up.
Just as Andre stripped the notion of constructing a sculpture down to the brick, his process essentializes poetry down to the simplest elements. Words -- common objects -- according to Andre, "have palpable tactile qualities that we feel when we speak them, when we write them, or when we hear them, and that is the real subject of my poetry".
In the early work, words form sentences, but more often in the later poems, contour takes the place of syntax. The pictorial strength in the work comes from Andre's great ability to compose. The link between his sculpture and poetry is easy to make in this regard. Words are laid end to end, or stacked in vertical columns. The poems visually re-examine how words function as a symbolic arrangement of letters fitted together. The overall design of the page is evident long before you try to read it for sense. Andre treats the words and the space between them pictorially; by adding to it or leaving it blank, he allows the text to register as drawing.
Andre's graphic arrangements incorporate lists, grids, fields, maps, stacks and other patterns to order information. At the same time, classical literary forms such as sonnets, songs, odes, lamentations, operas, dithyrambs, even novels, inform the poem's final shape . In one hundred sonnets (I ... flower), 1963, the repetition of single words command the page by forming a sequence of fields directly related to the "places" created in Andre's metal floor work.
The text has a topography. The absence of space between the word, leaves a field to pulse with graphic action. Each page is composed of only one word repeatedly typed, lower-case. There are a total of 99 separate words, resulting in 99 poems on that many sheets of paper, plus a title page. A small field , 2 3/4 X 2 1/4 inches, is centered on each page, and created by stacking 14 identical lines, one atop the next. The suite of poems is arranged in a grid formation, and occupies six long vitrines. Within the repetitious clustering of letters used like tiles or beads on a string, visual rhythm and pattern varies, and the overall meaning or spirit behind the work dramatically intensifies with the appearance of each new word. As you move along the cases there is a growing expectancy as to where the ordering will go, and how the familiar terms might thematically develop. Andre's view of the world in this series is majestic, and the long sequence affects your breathing like the view from the top of a mountain. Pronouns, body parts and fluids, elements, colors, and numbers, the terms accumulate associatively (...we...arm... blood... prick... yellow... three...sky...sea...sand...), and continually expand the focus. The series is composed of blocks of the most ordinary words, some neutral or calm, others borrowed from a bathroom wall: all of them surrounded by gracious white space. one hundred sonnets is a vast and emotionally complex view of humanity as described by isolated fragments. These ambitious poems offer epic sweep, and then become elegiac in their quiet simplicity.
The design of the vitrines present the poems at podium-angle, compelling the reader to silently mouth the words, or quietly read them aloud. Andre, like Samuel Beckett in his shorter radio plays, called some of these prose works Operas, with the text conceived as a vocal score, but not set to music in any traditional way. Andre's Poem for Three Voices, 1963, includes 30 numbered lines of spoken text. Only three words (one per person) are uttered during this brief opera: no - light - now, words that might come directly from Endgame's Hamm and Clov, or any of Beckett's stage directions.
Not only the scored poems for voices have this aural quality. In some poems the words are grouped alphabetically, stressing alliteration. In other works the sound of the manual typewriter seems to emanate from the page. In Shape and Structure, 1963, Andre relieved punctuation of all grammatical responsibility, and avoided words altogether. In this series periods, dashes, and asterisks become the tools for creating pure design. These poems are like delicate drawings: line and space are created by the incessant banging out of punctuation. Dashes are typed in a triangular formation, or in vertical stripes broken by irregular spaces. The effect looks like a sheet of rain. Periods are arranged in two large grids, one slightly overlapping the other, causing a moire. Asterisks float across the page like snow.
Pattern is also created throughout the work by the juxtaposition of upper - and lower- case lettering. Words are broken apart and re-organized on the page like a puzzle waiting to be solved, an acrostic which deliberately obfuscates meaning. Read all the letters running down the left margin of a page from Andre's Lyrics, 1958 - 1964, and discover the following words - a hidden vertical sentence: W E A L L S H I T A N D P A S S W A T E R Y O U R F A T H E R M Y M O T H E R O U R J E S U S. In another work from this series, POEMONASCULPTURETO ECGO ODSEN1968, Andre used words in methods similar to those he mastered as a sculptor in his 1963 work, Cock. The poem has two tall stacks of words, closely centered on the page: one column sitting flush left and the other flush right. The number of letters in each consecutive word increases by one, so that the final serrated shape of the stacks, or more specifically, the space between them, resembles Brancusi's radical column. If, according to Andre, Lever, 1965, was his first solution to putting the Endless Column on the floor instead of in the air, then this poem was the equivalent on the page.
Although Andre's poems are not driven by narrative, they often chronicle the stories of famous men, himself included -- lives that are evoked through the listing of terms, phrases, or dense fields of text. The characters are disparate and complex, but linked by their heroic dimension: Charles Lindbergh, King Philip, Edward Muybridge, Jackson Pollack, Arshile Gorky. The Hanging of Roger Casement, 1963, is a poem which hypnotically suggests the final moments in the life of the Irish Nationalist and revolutionary. In a dirge-like sequence of somberly repeated or overlapping phrases, (thy hands I commend my / calmly he walked to the / to the scaffold fasting so / spirit his last words were) Andre pays respectful hommage to this martyr-patriot, wrongly executed for treason. Part of a much larger series entitled Historical References, 1963, these poems offer a broad view of social and political events, albeit through episodic fragmentation ‰ lists that reflect what sticks in the mind, or is most essential to the larger story. The suite of poems dedicated to King Philip's War, Andre said, is "not a narrative poem or a history", but " the isolation of the terms of the war, and then a recombining of these words to produce a poem."
In a suite of related works, also part of the Historical References, letters and words are visually fused as in weaving, while the text explores the pulp territory of Chandler or Cain, with Film Noir-ish bits of overheard dialogue. "This statement, for I know I am dying... the reason he shot me was because I was back a short distance...and then advanced toward Davis into the street from the Pacific Hotel sidewalk... I heard a shot and heard somebody say 'Lookout!'." and so on. Amidst a visual cacophony of loaded phrases, which fill five pages with overlapping lines, one poem is sliced through the middle by a single, clear thought, a sentence that might be an epitaph reads: " loyal to my town and always expressed myself". Andre's interest in 'place' has been known; he often referred to this term in his sculptural vocabulary. In his poems, words are used to evoke moody locations and environments in a less metaphysical way . Places, like names and dates, are memorialized, for example, the repetition of the following words from Odes, 1963 -1964: northpointdockabout1868muybridgesittingonthedock.
Andre works naturally with words, so it's no surprise to learn that he started writing verse as a child, in a house already steeped in literature. "First poem in the third grade, and the great pleasure and satisfaction in writing it. After the age of twelve a steady production". Andre has been comfortable expressing himself through poetry since he was six years old , and as a toddler may have already taken some pleasure in using the alphabet as an ordering structure. One of the last images in the current Chinati installation, is a suite of poems entitled Autobiographical References, 1963, Andre's self portrait, where each page lists the letters of the alphabet eight times, in two rows of four, down the left hand margin: a primer of sorts. There are a total of ten numbered poems of decreasing density. The first poem lists a word for each of the 24 letters, except X. Terms include places, (some sounding like comfortable saloons), fellow artists, or lovers: people honored by remembrance. By the final poem, the focus has profoundly narrowed. Every letter, except for S, sits alone - with no word to direct them. S, however, mysteriously honors Sylvia. ("Who is Silvia?, What is she?, that all our swains commend her?")
Hollis Frampton, Carl Andre's childhood friend, (he, along with Sol Lewitt is acknowledged in a number of the poems), commented briefly on the artist's writing in a 1969 catalogue essay: "That words have spatial and plastic qualities along with their sonorous and associative properties, was a discovery that exfoliated systematically in the space of pages divided by the typewriter into a uniform grid". These few words only begin to explore the verbal and pictorial complexity in Andre's cannon. The Chinati Foundation is honored to have his words on permanent view; the more the poems are seen and read, the sooner they will assume a natural place along side Andre's larger body of seminal work.
1. Tuchman, Phyllis, "An Interview with Carl Andre", Artforum, June 1970, p. 55
2. Andre, Carl, "On Certain Poems and Consecutive Matters", unpublished manuscript of conversation with Hollis Frampton, March 3, 1963.
3. Andre, Carl, "On Literature and Consecutive Matters", unpublished manuscript of conversation with Hollis Frampton , Dec. 8,1962.
4. Transcript of tape made for an exhibition of Andre's poems at the Lisson Gallery, London, and the Museum of Modern Art, Oxford, July, 1975.
5. Bourdon, David, A Redefinition of Sculpture, exhibition catalogue, Carl Andre Sculpture; 1959 - 1977, Jaap Reitman.
6. Andre, Carl, "On Certain Poems and Consecutive Matters"
7. Letter from Carl Andre to Reno Odlin, June 17, 1963
8. William Shakespeare, Two Gentleman of Verona, Act IV, Scene II.
9. Develing, Enno, Carl Andre, exhibition catalogue, The Haags Gemeentemuseum, The Hague, The Netherlands, 1969, reprinted in 1974. Includes letter to Develing from Hollis Frampton.