Fieldworks: From Place to Site in Postwar Poetics

Fieldworks: From Place to Site in Postwar Poetics

by Lytle Shaw

Fieldworks offers a historical account of the social, rhetorical, and material attempts to ground art and poetry in the physicality of a site.

Arguing that place-oriented inquiries allowed poets and artists to develop new, experimental models of historiography and ethnography, Lytle Shaw draws out the shifting terms of this practice from World War II to


Fieldworks offers a historical account of the social, rhetorical, and material attempts to ground art and poetry in the physicality of a site.

Arguing that place-oriented inquiries allowed poets and artists to develop new, experimental models of historiography and ethnography, Lytle Shaw draws out the shifting terms of this practice from World War II to the present through a series of illuminating case studies. Beginning with the alternate national genealogies unearthed by William Carlos Williams in Paterson and Charles Olson in Gloucester, Shaw demonstrates how subsequent poets sought to ground such inquiries in concrete social formations—to in effect live the poetics of place: Gary Snyder in his back-to-the-land familial compound, Kitkitdizze; Amiri Baraka in a black nationalist community in Newark; Robert Creeley and the poets of Bolinas, California, in the capacious “now” of their poet-run town. Turning to the work of Robert Smithson—who called one of his essays an “appendix to Paterson,” and who in turn has exerted a major influence on poets since the 1970s—Shaw then traces the emergence of site-specific art in relation both to the poetics of place and to the larger linguistic turn in the humanities, considering poets including Clark Coolidge, Bernadette Mayer, and Lisa Robertson.

By putting the poetics of place into dialog with site-specificity in art, Shaw demonstrates how poets and artists became experimental explicators not just of concrete locations and their histories, but of the discourses used to interpret sites more broadly. It is this dual sense of fieldwork that organizes Shaw’s groundbreaking history of site-specific poetry.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“In Fieldworks Lytle Shaw makes a brilliant case for a site-specific approach to poetry by foregrounding cultural history, community, installation, anthologizing, process, presentation, and context. In his series of detailed studies, Shaw uses the vocabulary and framing of contemporary visual art criticism to illuminate the dynamic role of place in postwar American poetry.”—Charles Bernstein, author of Girly Man and Attack of the Difficult Poems: Essays and Inventions

Fieldworks is inventive, provocative, and readable from start to finish. It is rare to encounter a manuscript that discusses both contemporary poetry and the contemporary visual arts and does so with equal sophistication and creativity.”—Brian M. Reed, author of Hart Crane: After His Lights and Phenomenal Reading: Essays on Modern and Contemporary Poetry

Product Details

University of Alabama Press
Publication date:
Modern & Contemporary Poetics Series
Edition description:
1st Edition
Product dimensions:
6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.00(d)

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From Place to Site in Postwar Poetics



Copyright © 2013 The University of Alabama Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8173-5732-0



Boring Location

From Place to Site in Williams and Smithson

The "boring," like other "earth works," is becoming more and more important to artists. Pavements, holes, trenches, mounds, heaps, paths, ditches, roads, terraces, etc. all have an esthetic potential. —Robert Smithson, "towards the Development of an Air terminal Site," in Robert Smithson

North —Mud, salt crystals, rocks, water
North by east —Mud, salt crystals, rocks, water
Northeast by North —Mud, salt crystals, rocks, water
east by North —Mud, salt crystals, rocks, water
east —Mud, salt crystals, rocks, water
east by South —Mud, salt crystals, rocks, water
Southeast by east —Mud, salt crystals, rocks, water
Southeast by South —Mud, salt crystals, rocks, water
South by east —Mud, salt crystals, rocks, water
South —Mud, salt crystals, rocks, water
South by West —Mud, salt crystals, rocks, water
Southwest by South —Mud, salt crystals, rocks, water
Southwest by West —Mud, salt crystals, rocks, water
West by South —Mud, salt crystals, rocks, water
West —Mud, salt crystals, rocks, water
West by North —Mud, salt crystals, rocks, water
Northwest by West —Mud, salt crystals, rocks, water
Northwest by North —Mud, salt crystals, rocks, water
North by West —Mud, salt crystals, rocks, water
—Robert Smithson, "The Spiral Jetty," Robert Smithson


My sec ond epigraph is Smithson's description, from the center of his The Spiral Jetty (1970) in the Great Salt Lake in Utah, of the context or site of his environmental sculpture. Perhaps the most famous essays and artwork associated with the site-specific art that had been emerging since the mid-1960s, Smithson panoramic and numbingly identical catalogue self-consciously echoes a passage from book 3 of William Carlos Williams's Paterson, in which Williams details the results of a soil sample in Paterson, dug to a depth of 2,100 feet. Also set off from the page's left margin and organized as a kind of vertical catalog of geology become poetry, Williams's list, however, seems structured around variety:

65 feet ... Red sandstone, fine
110 feet ... Red sandstone, coarse
182 feet ... Red sandstone, and a little shale
400 feet ... Red sandstone, shaly
404 feet ... Shale
430 feet ... Red sandstone, fine grained
540 feet ... Sandy shale, soft
565 feet ... Soft shale
585 feet ... Soft shale
600 feet ... Hard sandstone
605 feet ... Soft shale
609 feet ... Soft shale
1,170 feet ... Selenite, 2 x 1 x 1/16 in.
1,180 feet ... Fine quicksand, reddish
1,180 feet ... Pyrites
1,370 feet ... Sand rock, under quicksand
1,400 feet ... Dark red sandstone
1,400 feet ... Light red sandstone
1,415 feet ... Dark red sandstone
1,415 feet ... Light red sandstone
1,415 feet ... Fragments of red sandstone
1,540 feet ... Red sandstone, and a pebble of kaolin
1,700 feet ... Light red sandstone
1,830 feet ... Light red sandstone
1,830 feet ... Light red sandstone
1,830 feet ... Light red stone
2,000 feet ... Red shale
2,020 feet ... Light red sandstone
2,050 feet ...
2,100 feet ... Shaly sandstone

Where Williams mines, Smithson strip-mines. Where Williams uncovers buried difference, Smithson covers exposed sameness. Where Williams taps into energy, Smithson trips into entropy. And yet Smithson is by no means simply parodying Williams, whose geological sample seems to operate at a number of levels, or depths, within the context of Paterson. In his essay "The Virtue of History," Williams writes: "Let us dig and we shall see what is turned up—and name it if we can." If the entire poem of Paterson is a vertical mining of the city's history, this passage might stand as the most literal enactment of that process—one in which a wide range of identity positions and models of contact between races and classes within Ameri can history gets mobilized as a critique of the narrower, Puritan-based version of American identity put forward by America's most influential nineteenth-century historians. Williams put the problem programmatically in The Embodiment of Knowledge: "The effect of education is surely to keep us, as Americans, from each other; the history we are taught is particularly blank—or rather the history we are not taught is terrifying when one looks back at the years that have been spent solely to keep us ignorant. But the chief effect of it all is to have allowed time to pass during our most impressionable years without coming into contact, actually, with what has happened and is happening around us." But before we too quickly understand Williams as a radically democratic geologist (whose juxtapositions and variations of kaolin, selenite, pyrites, shale, sandstones, and even quicksand suggest a figure for the rich multiplicity just under the American ground and past), we must pause over his emphatic literalism, his choice to reproduce what many took to be the driest and most excruciatingly detailed technical information in a poem. For this passage is also polemically prosaic, rhetorically literal. And this may be why Smithson calls it "proto-conceptual art."

Smithson's interest in the writings of his childhood doctor seems to have been overdetermined: Williams was not only a close examiner of their home state of New Jersey, a geological enthusiast, and a protoconceptual artist. He was also an experimental writer on place who was interested in decay and disorganization. Of the "aspect of falling" involved in Smithson's dumping pieces like Asphalt Rundown (1969), in which he poured a dump truck full of asphalt down a steep dirt incline in a quarry near Rome, Italy, the artist remarks: "you might say that there's also a correlation to Williams. You know, all the associations you could have with the falls from Paterson.... All the aspects of gravitational flow" (RS, 216). Smithson turns this question of gravitation in Paterson into a foreshadowing of his own fascination with entropy. Smithson's use of place as a flexible organizational rubric for experimental writing is equally tied to Williams. At the most basic level, Williams uses the category as a way to bring together a range of historical and contemporary materials, holding them in a kind of charged suspension without imposing a simple synthesis. As Clark Lunberry suggests, Williams saw Paterson, the city, as a "patient ... that, always exceeding itself, was never to be quite completed, never fully, perfectly discovered." This refusal of synthesis extended the work of the poet in time toward that of the ethnographer, and in particular the thwarted field researcher: "Blocked. / (Make a song out of that: concretely)" (P, 62).

Seemingly immediate and material, Williams's "place" nonetheless resists representation: "There are no 'truths' that can be fixed in language. It is by the breakup of the language that the truth can be seen to exist and that it becomes operative again" (EK, 19). Refusing "a crude rush of the herd which has carried its object before it like a helpless condoning image" (AG, 190), refusing synthesis and fixity, "place" still seems to organize constellations of cultural and literary materials into a critique of dominant models of historiography. Its primary moment negative and demystifying, the turn to place also seems to ground the hybrid identities and cultural positions Williams finds missing in American history. Or does it? How, exactly, does Williams's practice interact with the field of history writing? Williams makes answering the question difficult; unlike Charles Olson, for instance, Williams's writings on history from In the American Grain to The Embodiment of Knowledge to Paterson refuse to engage contemporary American historiography directly. Most oft en Williams squints at the field, generalizing about it (as he does about science) with characteristic bluster and disdain: "It is only against a nonexistent fetish that a treatise is directed and must be" (EK, 38). But if Williams rarely engaged historiography specifically at the level of his critical prose or letters, still his books themselves (both poetry and prose) present a rich and imaginative recoding of its terms, in particular of place-based historical practices. It is this relationship I want to trace in this chapter, which will situate Williams's model of the poet as experimental, place-based historian in relation to prominent American models of the historiography of place from nineteenth-century romanticism, through interwar relativism, to the vast historiographic project undertaken by the Works Progress Administration (WPA). In expanding poetry's field, Williams at once defamiliarized the generic and tonal markers that authorized historical discourse and unwittingly replicated outmoded aspects of historical practice.

At a thematic level, Williams did not so much challenge a historiography based on generative "germ" ideas and heroic actors as revise the canon of ideas and actors. "Thematic levels" in Williams, however, are never quite separable from his writing's complex embodiments and enactments. And this is what makes the attempt to position Williams in these debates interesting. Williams's insistence on polyreferentiality did not just open up several simultaneous narratives in the past; it also tended to position any present interpreter of history as one suspended (or "blocked") in a fieldwork practice whose impossibility of synthesis rendered it potentially infinite. Which is another way of describing Williams's attractiveness for Robert Smithson.

In the last part of the chapter, then, we will consider just how it is that Smithson's "A tour of the Monuments of Passaic, New Jersey," operates, as the artist suggested, as "a kind of appendix" (RS, 298) to Paterson. In fact, we might imagine Smithson as providing a voice-over for our tour of Williams's poem, pointing out the sites of interest and recoding its concerns into his own. This will allow us to see how Williams's historiography of place, with its figure of linguistic potentiality and democratic subjectivity emerging from sedimented and now suspended layers of historical fragments, becomes in Smithson a kind of aporia about the present, which is continually overwhelmed not merely by the past (including the geological past) but by futurity as well. Overall, I will be identifying two occasionally overlapping trajectories in Williams: First, what we would call the vocabulary of his place-based historical imagination—characters (both canonical and not), disembodied ideas (like contact), and heroic or tragic events (like Sam Patch's fall). The other trajectory—an acknowledgment of the fundamental muteness of things, and the limitations of the individual observer—tends, not surprisingly, to qualify and disrupt the first. In the end, I want to propose that we see Smithson's reading of Williams as an attempt to move from the former trajectory to the latter by shifting focus from the town or place of Paterson, with its complex historical webs, to the suburb or site of Passaic, with its bald, though eerie rhetoric of futurity.

Williams's turn to American historiography in the 1920s is usually understood as a matter of trying to establish a cultural genealogy and current space for his own work, with its model of "contact." It is true that Williams's main objection to romantic historiography is its failure to consider Catholic missionaries, with their model of active engagement with the Native Americans, as part of the country's meaningful genealogy. Though this objection seems to lead to a more "democratic" history, Williams also resists the smooth narrativization of place into labor history that was typical of the WPA writing on New Jersey, for instance. Williams's objections to both of these models of writing history, however, are not simply to the larger value judgments but also to at least some of the structural conventions through which historical writing creates authority effects: from the consistent tonality that stabilizes history as a genre to the scholarly citations that buttress its claims. And it was in part to contest this generic parceling that Williams blurred the lines between documentary and literature, between poetry and historiography, and between narrative and vignette or sketch.

If Williams was interested in "the lifting of an environment to expression," he was equally compelled by that environment's weighty resistance to this act: Paterson is every bit as much about interpretive blockages, illegible signals, and inadequate methodological frames as it is about smooth connections. These complications seem to lead Joseph Riddel, an early poststructuralist critic of Williams, to understand the category of the local in Williams as pointing only toward questions about man's more profound immersion and actual habitation (in a Heideggerian sense) within language, "man's and therefore the poet's place of dwelling." "The interpretations radiate from the detail, but come to rest at no point. If one follows the clues from point to point he does not arrive at a place outside the poem. He comes to the recognition of design, of the poem as a text interwoven with a number of previous texts, themselves interpenetrating pretexts. What the interpreter experiences is the experience of interpretation itself, the experience of words as relations which is the poet's experience."

But despite Williams's repeated acknowledgment of the linguistic nature of consciousness, Heidegger's understanding of language in general, and his sense of the relationship between language and dwelling in particular, are simply not Williams's, who was interested not in the primary experience supposedly made available by the recovery of obscured etymologies but in a model of defamiliarizing language that does not accord special status to "roots." After Heidegger remarks in his famous 1951 essay "Building Dwelling Thinking" that "the proper meaning of the verb bauen, namely, to dwell, has been lost to us," he goes on to suggest that this retraction "is evidence of the original one of these meanings; for with the essential words of language, what they genuinely say easily falls into oblivion in favor of foreground meanings.... Language withdraws from man its simple and high speech. But its primal call does not thereby become incapable of speech; it merely falls silent. Man, though, fails to heed this silence."

For Williams, the call of language that he locates in Paterson's Falls says almost exactly the opposite: while its buzz will not be reduced to linguistic summary and while this uncapturable potentiality may be taken as a figure for place more generally, the affect it generates, or what Heidegger would term its primal call, is not toward an obscured etymological ori gin but toward contemporary linguistic variability—or what Heidegger dismisses as "foreground meanings"—invented idioms and an array of sonic features in the spoken American language of the 1940s that complicate, transform, and hybridize etymologies, fundamentally challenging their authority (and ability) to call us back to some lost essence of language. It is true, as Riddel suggests, that the project of tracing out details in Paterson does not allow one to "arrive at a place outside the poem." And yet the poem itself, in all of its heterogeneous referentiality, is already, paradoxically, a complex constellation of places outside the poem.

As Williams goes about reading and interpreting Paterson, trying as much to record the blockages of his own interpretation and identification as to narrate its encoded histories in fragmentary form, as he at once questions and celebrates his ability to explicate place and the American idiom more generally, he creates a hybrid kind of writing that is neither quite epic poetry nor proper historiography. We might understand Paterson then not, in J. Hillis Miller's model, as a book about the dashed hopes of uncovering a "meaning that is already there, in the ground" but as one that turns to the ground, as in the soil sample, as a way to pluralize and multiply the models of pastness that could underlie or ground the present.

Excerpted from FIELDWORKS by LYTLE SHAW. Copyright © 2013 by The University of Alabama Press. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF ALABAMA PRESS.
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Meet the Author

Lytle Shaw is an associate professor of English at New York University. He is the author of Cable Factory 20, The Lobe, and Frank O’Hara: The Poetics of Coterie.

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