by Susan Rosenbaum
Although surrealism is considered central to European modernist experimentation during the interwar period (1919-1939), recent work on New York School poetry and on women writers and surrealism has begun to spur reassessment of its post-World War Two influence. 1 Along these lines, I am interested in exploring how poets associated with the New York School drew on the surrealist tradition in their attempt to forge an avant-garde at a time when art's distinction from mainstream culture no longer seemed possible. More specifically, the rise of institutional forms of patronage for the literary and visual arts in the form of government-sponsored arts endowments; the growth of creative writing programs and teaching posts; the establishment of museums for modernist art; and the rapidly expanding consumer market for postwar art, all rendered a space for aesthetic practices "outside" of the dominant economy and its cultural institutions difficult.
Postwar artists in New York -- painters as well as poets -- certainly participated in and profited from the institutional patronage of the arts. Yet this patronage was double-edged; many were critical of institutional intersections with cold war militarism, expanding markets abroad, and repressive social and moral codes at home. The renewed presence of surrealism in New York, due in large part to the European surrealists in exile, influenced the call for an "art of everyday life" that could resist the hegemonic pressures of state and corporate power. 2 In Europe, Dada and surrealism had defined themselves as avant-garde movements by opposing the aims and values of bourgeois culture as embodied in the art museum. The museum would prove a potent symbol of cultural production in the post-World War Two U.S. as well; thus we might consider the oppositional energies of theatrical "happenings"; of the situationist movement; of Joseph Cornell's miniature boxes filled with the ephemeral objects and debris of urban commerce; and of the poetry of Frank O'Hara, John Ashbery, and Barbara Guest in the context of the museum.
Often, poets writing after 1945 represent the museum as the embodiment of the forces of rationalization, bureaucratization, and commodification which threaten to subsume, absorb, or negate the lyric as an individual utterance (I am thinking here of Ashbery's "Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror" and O'Hara's "Lunch Poems"). 3 To counter this threat, New York School poets not only blur distinctions between high and popular culture, art and experience, but also attempt to carve out a space for "private" desire within the framework of cultural institutions and postwar consumerism. 4 Ashbery and O'Hara did so while working professionally as art critics and in O'Hara's case, as a curator at the Museum of Modern Art.
With the museum as a site of cultural production in mind, I would like to consider (in very preliminary fashion) the 1940's poetry of Mina Loy, "Compensations of Poverty" (1942-9) alongside Alice Notley's most recent book, Mysteries of Small Houses (1998). 5 Although Mina Loy is not usually discussed in the context of the New York School, I would argue that her work written in New York in the 1940s has much in common --thematically, stylistically, and culturally -- with New York School poetry of the 1950s and 60s. Loy left Paris for New York in 1939 and remained there until 1953; while in New York she was in contact with other European artists in exile and developed a close friendship with Joseph Cornell, whose work would prove influential to post-1945 American poets. Alice Notley, a self-described "second-generation" New York School poet, left New York in the 1980s for permanent residence in Paris, reversing Loy's trajectory. In the texts I discuss, both poets articulate and even celebrate a poetry grounded in poverty and anonymity; while we might be tempted to view these gestures as reinscriptions of the women poet's marginalized status, reading Loy's and Notley's work in the context of avant-garde responses to the museum in the post-1945 era suggests that both poets view anonymity as the grounds for a gendered cultural critique. While Ashbery and O'Hara make room for oppositional desire inside the museum, Loy and Notley use their exclusion from such institutions to expose the machinery of cultural power.
II. Mina Loy, "Compensations of Poverty"
The destitute men and women who people Loy's 1940s poems are not simply figures for the poet, but Loy's interest in these figures certainly permitted her to reflect on her own status -- as an émigré, as a former celebrity now living in anonymity in the Bowery, as an aging woman, as someone who appears to have no further use to society. Thus she begins "On Third Avenue" with a quotation: "You should have disappeared years ago" (LB 109). While this voice might represent that of mainstream society, directed at the bums whose presence mocks postwar productivity and progress, we might also read this voice as directed at Loy, a "relic" of European modernism who has shamelessly hung on past her moment. Loy responds, "so disappear / on Third Avenue / to share the heedless incognito / of shuffling shadow-bodies," and in "Compensations of Poverty," the poet beckons us to follow.
Maeera Shreiber argues that these poems register the trauma of World War II:
Most of these poems are written either during or shortly after World War II; and, by virtue of the aged status of many of the bodies represented there, it seems clear that Loy's 'angels' are truly of 'history' -- at least in the sense of being time-bound. By considering how these poems constitute a response to the trauma of what has been described as a 'historically ungraspable event' ... we can perhaps begin the project of engaging with these poems as an integral part of Loy's corpus. 6
While history and trauma have undoubtedly caused the poverty and homelessness Loy witnesses, the pain of the destitute remains inarticulate, visible only as it deforms their bodies, "animate with frustration." They drift through life without impact, as ghosts or "mummies / half unwound." Marked by their "vast unfuture" (LB 135), they seem to await death; as Loy comments in "An Aged Woman," "The past has come apart / events are vagueing / the future is inexploitable / / the present pain" (LB 145).
We might read "On Third Avenue" and "Hot Cross Bum" -- Loy's guided tours of the Bowery --as transformations of "Lunar Baedeker," Loy's earlier tour (1923) of "Delirious Avenues / lit / with the chandelier souls / of infusoria" (LB 81). The landscape of "Lunar Baedeker" is a "Necropolis," both metropolis and cemetery (the OED defines "necropolis" as "a dead city, a city of the dead; a city in the final stages of social and economic degeneration"). As such it is a city defined by visible absences, by the signs of what was once present, a city as seen in dreams or negatives held up to the light. The narrated journey is colorless, guided only by glowing "Phosphorus" and the "eye-white sky-light / white-light district / of lunar lusts"; the craters are "evacuate," the Orient "oxidized," and Eros "obsolete." All is used up, dry, bloodless, an imagery of absence which culminates in Loy's view of the lunar necropolis as a museum:
Placing "Immortality" in quotation marks, Loy suggests that it is a product of the museum, defined by the museum's claims to the permanent value of its collections. Immortality (and works deemed immortal) are ironically, therefore, subject to history (mildew) and change. Loy may also invoke "Museums of the moon" to juxtapose human museums (and concepts of history, value, and permanence) with the history of the moon. The moon in its remoteness, age, and impenetrability mocks human efforts to map and master it; in the poem, the moon can only be approximated by Loy's dashes or by the disfiguring personifications of literary tradition. Loy's "baedeker," then, while it makes room for her imagination, also serves as an anti-tourist guide, a guide to human pretensions to knowledge and immortality embodied in the museum and in the guidebooks which claim to chronicle a nation's cultural treasures.
While "Lunar Baedeker" invokes dreams and cocaine as agents of vision, "On Third Avenue" and "Hot Cross Bum" rely only on human sight; the speaker in "Third Avenue" walks down a "red-lit thoroughfare," illuminated by "neon-signs" rather than "stellectric" signs (LB 109). Like Frank O'Hara, whom she resembles in her peripatetic style and accumulation of visual detail, Loy describes the stuff of the street and of mass culture lovingly, as worthy of reverence in her 1940s poems. More pointedly, Loy finds value in that which is human, mutable, and fleeting, that which resists the permanence of the "museums of the moon":
are compensations of poverty,
in the dust,
The "luminous busts" connote the grandeur and memorializing function of the museum, yet their beauty lies in their vanishing and consequent anonymity. Maeera Schreiber reads this interest as continuous with Loy's "life-long spiritual quest" (469); thus, "Loy's visions are as much concerned with what is concealed as with what is revealed" (474).
Yet Loy's interest in concealment and anonymity also speaks to her efforts to make visible lives that were erased by postwar culture; like the earlier "Lunar Baedeker," her tours of the Bowery constitute an effort to register the values and pressures of mainstream society through its visible absences. Trash -- and its removal -- becomes the central metaphor and medium for Loy's Bowery Baedekers, as this passage from "Hot Cross Bum" makes clear:
refuse more profuse than man
Empty garbage cans serve as the counter-balance to the museum: while the museum displays that which the nation deems significant to its values and heritage, the empty garbage can signifies the nation's efforts to erase from sight and memory that which threatens its values. Carolyn Burke suggests a critical engagement with the avant-garde (specifically Du Champ and Cornell) at work in Loy's choice to use actual trash as the material for the collages she made in the 40s, observing that "...unlike either of these innovative recyclers, Mina brought to her shabby materials an acute sense of the cost involved for those who searched the garbage cans: rather than posing as outsiders, as the avant-garde had done, they actually lived at the bottom of the heap." 7
In other words, Loy -- at this late stage in her career suffering both anonymity and critical neglect -- was able to bring to the avant-garde position of "outsiderdom" a lived sense of "the cost involved." While anonymity was not a choice, in its guise Loy extended her project in "Lunar Baedeker" to the visible necropolis of the Bowery, exposing the suffering and beauty of those who live outside "the museums of the moon."
III. Alice Notley, Mysteries of Small Houses
Alice Notley describes the aim of her book Mysteries of Small Houses (1998) thus:
I was firstly trying to realize the first person singular as fully and nakedly as possible, saying "I" in such a way as to make myself really nervous, really blowing away the gauze and making myself too scared of life and death to care what anyone thought of me or what I was going to say. Saying I in this way I tried to trace I's path through my past... I came to the conclusion, in the final poem of the book, that self means "I" and also means 'poverty,' it's what one strips down to, who you are when you've stripped down. 8
The volume moves from past to present as Notley traces "I's path"; she titles many of the poems with a year ("1965") or with an image or allusion that crystallizes a past experience. In "Alette," Notley reflects on the writing and publication of her book The Descent of Alette (1992); she describes this experience in terms of walking through a museum:
walk into" "this corridor" "lined with cases" "full of the specimens"
world" "it's my worshipped world"...
Notley imagines her poems as specimens in a museum exhibition to convey the psychic alienation she experienced when she published Alette: the museum bodes forth the poet's fears that transforming her private experiences into public texts has rendered Alette a relic or remnant of the self. Thus Notley describes Alette as "dead in me," and confronts in the museum her "own form / stuffed and staring." The repeated use of quotation marks (which Notley also uses throughout Alette and which she describes as a new form of "measure") imply that the separation of self and text is inevitable, the act of writing marking the entrance of her language into the public (quotable) domain. As a symbol of the forces of public recognition and commemoration, the museum threatens to subsume Notley's past experiences and her private investments in her poetry into its rationalized understanding of her work's historical importance and value. Notley resists this, stating that she is not interested in Alette's "literary worth" but simply wants it "alive again." She names the museum a "tyrant," alluding to the patriarchal tyrant the narrator of Alette confronts in the course of that poem.
What is surprising, however, is that Notley ultimately reverses this externalization of the threat to the self, suggesting that the museum is of her own making: "everything in me" "that stays frozen" "is the tyrant which" "I've made of it" "Where is my real self" "in this exhibit?" (MSH 110). In the resolution of the poem, the speaker does not find this "real self," but walks "down the corridor" "Into more" "darkness..." The specimens come alive and the poet declares:
"Now I fly for I" "was not this world"
in the past" "but in the present" (MSH 111)
The cost of the speaker's forward movement is allowing Alette to "melt" or disappear into the past.
Although the "museum" and the public pressures it represents are certainly real ones, alluding to the unspoken pressures of living as a professional poet, Notley implies that she can resolve these pressures by rejecting the values embodied by the museum. Like Loy, she invokes the museum to distinguish her work from it, choosing anonymity and an understanding of self as temporal process over the museum's powerful yet static forms of recognition and commemoration. This embrace of anonymity is not a rejection of the desire to have her work's importance and merit recognized, but is rather an attempt to elicit a particular kind of recognition on the part of her reader, a recognition opposed to the forms of naming she aligns with the museum.
Notley's prose description of Alette clarifies the feminist values implicit in her embrace of anonymity and her critique of the museum:
It [Alette] was for me an immense act of rebellion against dominant social forces, against the fragmented forms of modern poetry, against the way a poem was supposed to look according to both past and contemporary practice. It begins in pieces and ends whole, narrated by an I who doesn't know her name and whose name when she finds it means appendage of a male name; her important name is I. (http://wings.buffalo.edu/epc/authors/notley/disob.html)
Notley implies that "not knowing one's name" or un-naming is the condition for imagining possibilities of self-hood not constrained by patriarchy. In this light, her use of quotation marks in "Alette"/Alette serves to defamiliarize everyday uses of language, to resist the cultural weight of inherited meanings so as to open up the possibility of resignification. Or, as she states in the final lines of "Lady Poverty":
we're taught not to count on
In her embrace of anonymity, Notley asks her reader to resist the desire to "name" her (put her in the museum, award her celebrity, determine her literary worth), seeking instead to elicit a readerly "impoverishment" akin to her own.
IV. Suggestions rather than conclusions
While this essay hasn't resolved how "anonymity serves as the grounds for a gendered cultural critique," what I have suggested is that an understanding of how gender shapes Loy's and Notley's embrace of anonymity and poverty in their poetry must account not only for the history of avant-garde women writers' professional marginalization, but also for the critical potentials of institutional outsiderdom in the post-1945 era.
1. The anthology Surrealist Woman claims the importance of women to surrealism's post-World War II manifestations, with sections on "Surrealism vs. the Cold War" and "The Making of May '68 and Its Sequels." Penelope Rosemont, ed. Surrealist Women: An International Anthology (Austin: Univ. of Texas Press, 1998). The forthcoming collection The Scene of My Selves: New Work on New York School Poets (National Poetry Foundations, 2000) includes essays on Barbara Guest and Grace Hartigan as well as essays which explore the roles of gender and sexuality in New York School poetry. (back to text)
2. Serge Guilbaut, How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art: Abstract Expressionism, Freedom, and the Cold War (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983). Martica Sawin chronicles the exile of the surrealist group in the U.S., a group that included Marcel Duchamp, Salvador Dali, Max Ernst, Andre Masson, Roberto Matta, Gordon Ford, Wolfgang Paalen, Kurt Seligmann, Yves Tanguy, and Andre Breton. Surrealism in Exile and the Beginning of the New York School (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1995) v. 8. (back to text)
3. Other post-1945 works that engage the museum directly include Rita Dove's "Museum"; Susan Terris's "In the Holocaust Museum"; Elizabeth Bishop's "Crusoe in England." But we might consider ekphrastic poetry from this era as implicitly commenting on the museum. See James Heffernan's book on this subject, Museum of Words: The Poetics of Ekphrasis from Homer to Ashbery (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993). (back to text)
4. I address this in "Frank O'Hara, Flaneur of New York," The Scene of My Selves. (back to text)
5. Alice Notley, Mysteries of Small Houses (NY: Penguin Books, 1998). Mina Loy, The Lost Lunar Baedeker ed. Roger L. Conover (NY: Noonday Press, 1996). I refer to these texts with the abbreviations MSH and LB. (back to text)
6. Maeera Shreiber, "Divine Women, Fallen Angels: The Late Devotional Poetry of Mina Loy," Mina Loy: Women and Poet eds. Maeera Shreiber and Keith Tuma (Orono: The National Poetry Foundations, 1998) 482. (back to text)
7. Carolyn Burke, Becoming Modern: The Life of Mina Loy (NY: Farar, Straus & Giroux, 1996) 420. (back to text)
8. Alice Notely, "The Poetics of Disobedience." February 28, 1998. SUNY Buffalo, Electronic Poetry Center. http://wings.buffalo.edu/epc/authors/notley/disob.htm September 20, 1999. (back to text)
BIO: Susan Rosenbaum is an assistant professor of English at Loyola University Chicago. She is currently at work on her first book, Confessional Commerce: Lyric Sincerity and Professional Authorship. Her essay on Loy and Notley is part of a project in its early stages on Surrealism, the New York School, and the Museum.