Poems are written on the margins of popular culture. If you receive any formal training as a writer, you are told — repeatedly, by tutors, agents, editors, and publishers — that you will have to keep a day job and writing alone will not sustain you. If you happen to be a poet, that conversation does not even happen; there are a lot of sympathetic ‘hmm’s in the air, and then someone offers to buy you another drink. Poets are either dead or invisible, and neither need sustenance.
Yet, there seems to be a change in public’s perception of the genre. Slight enough not to make poet a desired occupation on par with doctor, but palpable enough for the Nobel Prize Committee to give last year’s award to Bob Dylan. The most obvious mark of this change is Rupi Kaur, an Instagram-based author whose published collection milk and honey (2015) is a bestseller and can be found on the bedside tables of half a million people. There are now generations of people for whom the Internet is the vehicle — ‘the medium is the message’ — and platforms such as Instagram and Tumblr have proved to be very useful for the proliferation of contemporary poetry.
That said, it has to be a particular type of poetry: highly visual, never too long, prepared as a quote, fit for a tattoo. Austrian artist Anatol Knotek has an online collection of such visual poetry, existing between literature and typography, occupying walls in galleries and office spaces, billboards and blogs. What such work has in common is that it becomes too big to ignore: all capitals staring at you from the screen, neon lights interrupting urban spaces, texts set aflame. Robert Montgomery, a London-based sculptor and poet, has created some of the most notable art in this tradition.
As a student at Edinburgh College of Art Montgomery became fascinated with the Situationists, a group of avant-garde artists that existed in Europe between 1957 and 1972. Ideologically coming out of anti-authoritarian Marxism, the Situationists believed that consumption had replaced directly-lived experiences, and as artists they tried to engineer everyday situations that would reawaken one to authentic desires, life, and adventure. In practice that meant graffiti, guerilla art, and creating the famous slogans of the Parisian protests of May 1968: Il est interdit d’interdire (‘It is forbidden to forbid’), Soyez réalistes, demandez l’impossible (‘Be realistic, ask the impossible’), Sous les pavés, la plage (‘Under the paving stones, the beach’).
Spontaneity was an important characteristic for the Situationist art. It often responded to political events and so timing was crucial, but it was also in the nature of the movement to disrupt urban landscapes. The Situationists chose to place their art in the streets, on the walls of factories, to wear it, and to avoid galleries or other spaces intended for art. It was a conscious decision that allowed the movement to both reach its intended, proletarian audience and to retain the element of surprise and adventure.
By his own admission, Robert Montgomery works in a ‘melancholic, Post-Situationist tradition’. He started by writing on the sides of buses and spraying graffiti on the walls, progressing to plastering billboards with poetry and to creating elaborate LED-light installations. ‘Melancholic’ refers to the tone of his messages, subtly political, often painfully aware of injustice. ‘Post-Situationist’ comes with the further changes in the society. In his 2012 interview with The Independent, the artist referred to the Situationist term ‘Spectacular’, meaning characteristic of the ‘life where humans will feel disconnected from the things we make’. Montgomery thinks we are now living in the Spectacular age, one where the ‘domination of a social interaction mediated by images’ takes place.
This where things become truly interesting.
When the Situationists were creating their works in the 1960s, producing partisan propaganda, texts and images, allowed them to occupy what had previously been a heavily institutionalised space. Bypassing bureaucracy, they filled universities and streets with curious, often absurdist slogans, connecting to the audience without any kind of higher approval.
Visual poetry — online-based poetry, in particular — benefits from a similar approach. There is no curator between the artist and the public when the artwork is published on a personal website or blog. Although Montgomery creates physical objects, such as installations and posters, it is the images of them shared on the Internet that reach the bigger audience. 6,3 thousand people have shared (sic!) ‘How to be a punk poet’, the Dazed article written about Robert Montgomery a year ago, which means many more looked at the photographs of his works included in the article. A picture of a fire will outlast the fire, and the Internet audience dwarves the eyewitnesses.
While democratic in its approach, the Internet definitely qualifies as ‘Spectacular’. Memes and gifs used as means of dialogue would make the Situationists despair and consider Luddism. The online ease of communication comes with the prevalence of second-hand experience and frequent disconnection from ‘real life’.
What does that all mean for visual poetry?
The main danger is in creating more of the same. Let me rephrase that: the main danger is in favouring the same as a reader and a viewer. When the technical means are provided by platforms and the popular styles are easy enough to imitate, it is the public’s prerogative to distinguish and to choose, to continue looking into the faraway corners of the wide web in the search of authenticity and originality.
Personally, I find Montgomery’s works touching and beautiful, and I would be very excited to come across one ‘in the wild’. And as for poetry in general, all of its subgenres are endangered species. We can be happy that the white rhino is no longer on the brink of extinction and still worry about orangutans, and we can share-like-retweet the instances of visual poetry while still giving copies of Night Sky With Exit Wounds as birthday presents.
Current album: Amy Macdonald, Under Stars
Current book: Margaret Atwood, Handmaid’s Tale
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