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Jacket 16 — March 2002   |   # 16  Contents   |   Homepage   |  Catalog   |    

Joe Brainard feature

Jerome Sala:

I’m Glad I Don’t Understand the Writing of Joe Brainard

Photo of Joe Brainard

I used to think that I loved Joe Brainard’s writing because it was so simple, direct and accessible.
    I see now that I was wrong. And that I loved it, and still do, because it is so complicated and hard to understand.
    Many people say and write things based on ordinary language. And ordinary ways to think.
    Others say and write things based on literary language. And artistic ways to think.
    Joe Brainard is the only poet in the history of the world (so far) who could do both simultaneously. That’s why the word ‘poet’ is not the right one to describe him. It’s too narrow, too limiting. Poets write poetry. They can’t write in non-poetry, especially when they’re writing poetry.
    This is why Joe Brainard is so complicated.
    Take I Remember. On the one hand, it’s so ordinary that pre-literate people (little kids) can enjoy it — and learn to read and write from it. On the other, the ‘work’ I Remember is a highly complex, conceptual piece of literary art — one that explores the wild variations found in sameness; and that stacks weighty discourses atop one another — from oral history, to cultural criticism to identity politics — with an offhanded grace and wit that would seem shockingly authentic, if the whole notion of authenticity weren’t thrown into question by its ultra-cool aesthetic.
    Or take this anti-poem, called ‘Art’:

Looking through a book of drawings by Holbein I realize several moments of truth. A nose (a line) so nose-like. So line-like. And then I think to myself ‘so what?’ It’s not going to solve any of my problems. And then I realize that at the very moment of appreciation I had no problems. Then I decide this is a pretty profound thought. And that I ought to write it down. This is what I have just done. But it doesn’t sound so profound anymore. That’s art for you.

    I love this poem because I don’t understand its very understandable language. It starts out as a tale about how the ordinary, a glance at a book, can turn into the extraordinary (‘art’, ‘truth’, the ‘profound’) and then back again — in a split-second deflation. It’s as if the journey between everyday life and art takes place upon a Mobius strip. So that this piece, about the failure of art to be extraordinary, is a success because by refusing the extraordinary it becomes so, as it achieves the artistic by being non-artistic. So the moral of the story is incomprehensible — because you don’t know if writing is worth the effort or not.
    That’s art for you. That cool place where you can be and not be at the same time.
    In the 60s movie Mickey One, there is a conceptual artist who appears off and on to punctuate the mysterious narrative. Throughout the film, he’s slowly building a huge, complicated contraption — a Rube Goldberg-like machine whose goal it is to explode itself. Joe Brainard’s work is singular, not so much in that it marries creation and destruction in like manner, but that it does so in such a seamless and effortless way that it makes traditional experimental approaches look strained. And yet, his work in no less systematic about its implosions. Check this out:

A Sign of the Times

‘A sign of the times’ are posters plastered up all over West Broadway announcing a new magazine called ‘No Magazine’. (Can hardly wait for the first issue!) Seriously though — and aside from finding it all a bit silly — it’s kind of sweet too — don’t you think? — that we can care so much, as to try so hard, irregardless of...but then why bother?

Or this:


oh, I don’t know.

The philosopher Lyotard once wrote something to the effect that one should act like an entrepreneur in socialist situations and like a socialist in entrepreneurial ones.
    I’m not sure why you should do this (to achieve success by being a ‘contrarian’, like some stock pickers advise?), but it seems like a good idea.
    Joe Brainard’s writing suggests you should find the incomprehensible in the common (i.e., everyday language), and the common in the incomprehensible (i.e., art talk).
    This seems like a great idea to me. And I’m glad I don’t understand why.

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