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From Place to Site in Postwar Poetics

Lytle Shaw

Publication Year: 2013

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.

Published by: The University of Alabama Press


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pp. C-C

Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. i-iv


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pp. v-vi


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pp. vii-x


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pp. xi-xii


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pp. xiii-xvi

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Introduction: The Penning of the Field

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pp. 1-14

It’s early in 1955 and Claude Lévi-Strauss has set to work writing up his field notes on the Caduveo and Bororo tribes in Brazil from twenty years ago— from the era before World War II when he was not yet the well-known author of The Elementary Structures of Kinship. Since this halcyon period of his professional adolescence Lévi-Strauss has been from Marseille to Martinique, ...

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1. Boring Location: From Place to Site in Williams and Smithson

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pp. 15-44

My second 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 ...

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2. Olson’s Archives: Fieldwork in New American Poetry

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pp. 45-66

In the summer of 1944, Barnett Newman, exhausted from the work of curating his Pre-Columbian Stone Sculpture exhibition that spring at Betty Parsons Gallery in New York, retired to the Massachusetts coast to take in the sea air. In Gloucester, one of the earliest points of contact between the European world and America, where sixteen years before the Plymouth colony,...

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3. Everyday Archaic: The Space of Ethnopoetics

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pp. 67-88

In the 1960s, American poets increasingly sought to dismantle and reinvent the concept of history both by reorienting it toward notions of temporality borrowed from anthropology and by grounding it within concrete spatial locations. This reinvention at once mobilized previously excluded versions of the cultural past and authorized new modes of lived experience in the present,...

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4. Baraka’s Newark: Performing the Black Arts

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pp. 89-115

Rather than seeking to end the Vietnam War remotely through an unstoppable “force field of language” that might be unleashed from anywhere, Baraka tries to extend the war concretely to a second front by digging in to his hometown—Newark, New Jersey, whose famous riots of July 1967 were still in the future.1 Galvanized by role-reversing “magic words” that...

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5. Non-Site Bolinas: Presence in the Poets' Polis

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pp. 116-149

The word “Bolinas” produces a knowing look in poets who lived through the 1960s. But like the writing we associate with the town whose road sign on Highway One has long been a tradition for residents to remove, the look seems to indicate a state of unrecoverable experience, a “condition / to be occupied” and thus a spatiotemporal engagement in a here-and- now that ...

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6. Smithson’s “Judd” : Androids in the Expanded Field

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pp. 150-191

For many artists in Smithson’s generation, site-specific art that took place in the landscape and explored the sculptural qualities of nonartistic materials (like rocks, mud, ice, and salt crystals) was celebrated because it denaturalized the studio as the inevitable site of artistic production, collapsing it like the House of Usher. But most of these artists (and many of their ...

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7. Smithson’s Prose: The Grounds of Genre

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pp. 192-209

Like geological writing and travel narrative, science fiction is one of the elemental materials of Robert Smithson’s prose. If all of these materials (and others) are transformed and retrofitted, their tonal and epistemological traces are nonetheless fundamental to our experience of Smithson’s heterogeneous writing. The derelict space, for instance, that generates Smithson’s 1970...

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8. Faulting Description: Mayer, Coolidge, and the Site of Scientific Authority

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pp. 210-230

Seeming at first to advocate the familiar category of place, Bernadette Mayer’s paragraph destabilizes the very ground it presents—fabricating the natural-historical authority on which such a ground would rely. A similar displacement is at work in the above line from Clark Coolidge—a line that seems to summarize what he and Mayer have set about doing in their collaborative ...

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9. Docents of Discourse: The Logic of Dispersed Sites

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pp. 231-257

In artworks like Mark Dion’s New England Digs (2001), with its cabinets of curiosity filled with plastic combs, buttons, marbles, and soiled toothbrushes unearthed at unremarkable locations, and Renée Green’s Import/Export Funk Office (1992), an information kiosk that presents a German expert on hip-hop as an object of ethnographic scrutiny, something fundamental...

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Afterword: Measuring Sites, Unbinding Measures

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pp. 258-264

A tour of the landscape of site-specific poetry since Williams might seem to lead us to two diametrically opposed conclusions or viewing promontories, as if set on either side of the final parking lot. The first is the notion that the linguistic turn in the humanities of the late 1960s finally disabused those remaining positivists of the idea that there could be a fit between words and...


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pp. 265-344


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pp. 345-364


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pp. 365-379

E-ISBN-13: 9780817386436
E-ISBN-10: 0817386432
Print-ISBN-13: 9780817357320
Print-ISBN-10: 0817357327

Page Count: 400
Illustrations: 55 illustrations
Publication Year: 2013

OCLC Number: 845050919
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Fieldworks

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Subject Headings

  • American poetry -- 20th century -- History and criticism.
  • Place (Philosophy) in literature.
  • Setting (Literature).
  • Poetics -- History -- 20th century.
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