A review of SLANTING, an artists book produced in 1994,
by the late John Forbes
First published in Agenda #36, 1994.
At first glance, SLANTING looks like an exercise in vanity publishing, although without the usual aping of publishing conventions and self promotion that adorn poetry books produced in the same way. But a more careful reading shows that however pointless SLANTING may be, its author is at least serious in his intentions. Just what they are is hard to gauge – just because there are none of the conventional indicators as to what category we should put this book into. This is all to the good and it is a pity more books of ‘real’ poetry aren’t produced with the same austerity and self effacement. But then, many successful poetry books are more mirrors of their buyer’s self image than anything else: the artistic merit or otherwise of their contents being completely irrelevant compared to their ‘message’ and what this brings to their purchaser’s self regard. Chris Fortescue is not guilty of this. SLANTING is not selling us an image of ourselves or of its author.
The book consists of single words or, at most, simple sentences, set out on separate pages, with this isolation often emphasised by the facing page being blank. When Aram Saroyan did this sort of thing, the minimal presentation emphasised how the tiny fragments stood in for, or encapsulated, a bigger narrative of a cute and zany life. For instance,
oh oh oh oh oh oh oh oh oh
oh oh oh oh oh oh oh oh oh
or, one of my favourites
The Language poets practise another form of this minimalism, These examples are from Clark Coolidge, the Ezra Pound of Language Poetry.
prune acrylic whose
marls pays loops watts
lock mix deem
ounce code orange
While these aren’t bad, as words, this sort of poetry is usually justified by a dumb linguistic essentialism that locates the capitalist structuring of reality in grammar and syntax. And while Stalin was wrong in saying that language wasn’t part of the superstructure, this sort of poetry is about as successful at fracturing bourgeois consciousness as the Sparticists are at raising the revolutionary awareness of the proletariat. Which is not to say some language poets aren’t very good. And not all of them write like this. The trouble with this sort of poetry is that unless the poet has an eye for attractive language, it is really boring.
Fortescue’s words and phrases are neither mini mini-series nor linguistically experimental. They are more like meditative texts or Zen koan. But the tone of his work often suggests a cross between Delphic pronouncements and crossword clues. For instance,
This suggests either, “That’s where we’ll build a temple to Poseidon”, or “geographical feature (8 letters)”. Other ones are grimly Hegelian:
or the almost Chestertonian:
and the strictly geometrical:
So what? In the early Seventies, the American art critic Peter Plagens complained that Conceptual Art was always telling you to do things. These ‘poems’ (and the urge to italicise the word reinforces the point I want to make) work the same way. They are telling us, or inviting us, to use our imaginations. I mean the thing I enjoyed most about this book was making up the characterisation of the example quoted. And that is the point of it. In the visual arts, the audience is used to doing this, and is often required to do it to an exhausting degree. But with written art, even people aware of the visual arts are still slaves to narrative and message, which are like drugs providing an enjoyable but passive experience in which everything is laid out for the consumer who judges them the way we do motel rooms or meals in restaurants. And questions like ‘What does it mean?’ which at best betoken naivety in visual arts contexts are perfectly OK when writing is the subject of some well-disposed consumer’s attention.
In fact, if SLANTING had been produced as a book of poems, decked out as such and launched in a literary context, it could not count on any more intelligent a reception. Despite 50 years of Raymond Rousell, Harry Mathews, OULIPO and Language Poetry, the literary world still likes its books to do the work for them and, you know, be about something. Even John Ashbury’s present fame largely depends on people seeing his work as an endless internal monologue, presenting a typical postmodern consciousness that mirrors a typical fragmented, discontinuous postmodern reality, etc, etc. It’s easier that way. And Plagens all those years ago was right – Conceptual Art wants us to do the work.
No wonder painting didn’t die.