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  • Serial Realism: Poetic Narrative in Perspectives
  • Andrew Fitch (bio)

Serial Realism

For late-modernist painters opposed (in critic Clement Greenberg’s terms) to “using art to conceal art,” perspective-based realism proved the apex of vulgarity (“Modernist” 68). Similarly, for prominent advocates of postwar poetic experiment, the adoption of a first-person “I” limits a poem’s scope to one of narcissistic confession and/or self-inflating insight. Yet this reductive preference for the abstract over the representational gets problematized with the advent of Pop—both in Pop painting, and in Pop poetics.1 For just as the serial repetition of Warhol’s readymade icons produces as dramatic a dispersal of single-point perspective as any “flattening” of the picture-plane ever could, so Pop lyricism provides as provocative a critique of Confessionalist norms as does any overtly “opaque” text (Greenberg, Collected 29).2

Of course, Pop lyricism’s fusion of prepackaged data and perspectival multiplicity remains less renowned than does Pop painting’s.3 But by reconsidering the narrative complexities of Warhol’s and Roy Lichtenstein’s Pop output, I aim to recast artist/poet Joe Brainard’s undervalued I Remember text (1970–75) as an astute consolidation of Pop poetics—of a polyvalent form with (potentially) broad appeal: as endearing, anecdote-based assemblage; as shrewd art/literary hybrid; and as pointed commentary upon prevailing poetic paradigms.

Crucial to Pop-art’s departure from static, single-point perspective—to its construction of a dynamic, multiplicitous perspectivism—is its reintroduction of narrative trope within the avowedly anti-narrative discourses of postwar painting and, later, poetry. Crucial to the establishment [End Page 123] of a critical vocabulary with which to better analyze Pop poetics is an importation of the keenest conceptual-apparati concerning Pop painting. Since Brainard considered himself primarily a visual artist (an artist more comfortable, it is worth noting, with the readymade materials of the assemblagist than with the neo-classical-painter’s palette to which he aspired), Brainard can serve as propitious focal-point for further comparisons between these fields.4 In what follows, I thus want to suggest (using scholar Wendy Steiner’s study of the convoluted relationship between perspective-based realism and realist-narrative’s repeated subject as my model) that Brainard’s Pop-inflected, serial-realist “autobiography” fuses tendencies toward epiphanic insight, imagistic mimesis, disjunctive collage, and matte alloverness—all within the guise of accessible, first-person narrative.

Serial Perspective

Half a millennium before Warhol’s, Lichtenstein’s, and Brainard’s birth, Renaissance treatises concerning single-point perspective (here recounted by Steiner) proscribe narrative progress, even as they establish the proto-photographic template for all subsequent conventions regarding “realist” representation:

The logic of the Albertian model, in which a picture was to represent the view of a perceiver at a fixed distance from the scene viewed, demanded that the perception be atemporal, a single moment of vision.


Like the ecstatic lyric moment, the perspective-based image claims to offer a crystallization of acute perception—amid the eclipse of story.5 In Leonardo’s Annunciation, for instance, the painter constructs Gabriel’s angel-wings (according to popular legend) by copying from a live bird in flight, and thus conflates the sacred, hypersonic message with the artist’s singular “moment of vision.” In The School of Athens, Raphael convokes several centuries of philosophers amid a single, spectacular assembly, thereby suggesting that the most privileged pictorial-instant remains an “atemporal” one. Exemplars of Renaissance single-point perspective, Leonardo’s and Raphael’s paintings collapse complex narrative into dynamically constructed tableaux vivants.6 “Fixed,” focalized distance precludes the possibility for durational drift. [End Page 124]

To restate this principle in terms borrowed from twentieth-century poetic scholarship: the detached instantaneity of Imagistic description (“Petals on a wet, black bough” [Pound 11]), the tortuous simultaneity of Confessionalist retrospection (“One dark night . . . I watched for love cars . . . . My mind’s not right” [Lowell 191]) can appear impossible to reconcile. And one way to evade this contradictory legacy (of “objective” immediacy, of “expressive” reminiscence) is to shun mimetic representation and/or psychological reflection altogether—as Bruce Andrews, Charles Bernstein, Steve McCaffery, and Ron Silliman call for in 1977’s “Politics of...


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