Savage Sight/Constructed Noise: Poetic Adaptations of Painterly Techniques in the French and American Avant-Gardes
David LeHardy Sweet selects Apollinaire, Reverdy, Breton, Frank O'Hara and John Ashbery for his discussion of Modernist poetry's assimilation and adaptation of the concepts and techniques of nonrepresentationalist painting, particularly Cubism. Acknowledging Marjorie Perloff's brilliant work on Franco-American synergies, Sweet opts for a technical and philosophical treatment of the transnational confluences and divergences between visual and verbal media. With a steady focus on writerly processes and strategies, Sweet discusses French poetry's mediation of collage technique, and the American poets' dispersed debt to their French Modernist forerunners. Sweet begins with an analysis of Apollinaire's art criticism, reading it as a site of the tensions played out in the poetry between abstractive drive and humanizing impetus. Reading 'Un fantôme de nuées' (pp. 50–51), he demonstrates the slippages between Symbolist and Modernist impulses, between music/memory and painting/immediacy. There follow persuasive readings of linguistic texturing and framing devices in 'Les Fenêtres', and of the 'cultural contingency' of 'Lundi Rue Christine', the latter viewed as a hybrid of chance and aesthetic necessity. Sweet's exploration of the ideological strains articulated in the calligramme 'Lettre-Océan' emphasizes tropes of technological, affective and political resistance, and celebration. Sweet's meticulous readings integrate the critical tradition in Apollinaire studies and take forward perspectives informed by Derrida and Compagnon. Reverdy as a major theoretician of the image receives his due place in Sweet's study, linked more to late Cubism than to Surrealism. For Sweet, Reverdy's definition of the image founded on 'deux réalités lointaines et justes' performs the balance of audacity and moderation that is key to Modernist image-theory. Keen insights into the hermeneutic potential of Reverdy's poetry are provided as Sweet examines typography, layout, syntax and signifiers, and concludes that the purity synonymous with Reverdian style [End Page 411] is rivalled by the poetry's darker atmosphere, analogous to the disturbing ellipses to be found in the metaphysical painting of De Chirico. Sweet considers Breton's idiosyncratic reading of Apollinaire's calligrammes in its critique of their aesthetic quality and its approval of their mimetic aspect. He goes on to chart Breton's developmental with the visual arts — from resistance to the rationality of constructivist modes to immersion in the interior impulses shaping Surrealist painting, particularly that of Ernst. Frank O'Hara, with his playful assimilation of Symbolist, Cubist and Surrealist strains, emerges as a postmodernist practitioner. O'Hara is shown to move on from French influences, notably that of Reverdy, both to Abstract Expressionism and to Larry Rivers's 'smorgasbord of the recognizable'. Sweet reads John Ashbery's writings on French avant-garde art as the 'proto-poetics' of a writer usually more intent on obscuring his debt to French poets and painters. At a time when domestic and disciplinary specificities are being rethought in productive fusions, Sweet's probing of variable verbal–visual interactivity contributes substantially to the critical negotiation of transnational currents in modernist/postmodernist cross-over.