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David Berridge

“It was running interference”: Poetry and (Art-) Writing

on Eileen Myles:
«The Importance of Being Iceland: Travel Essays in Art»


It’s almost too much, as a starting point: William Carlos Williams delivering Robert Smithson in his role as GP, in Passaic, New Jersey, 1938. If genealogies of art and literary history are usually less direct, Williams-Smithson remains a useful starting part for a history of art-poetry connection, both for its bodily immediacy and as metaphor. The New York School and the conceptualists would be key points on most narratives, and Williams-Smithson are but a step away, not central parts of either narrative, central to others, connections back and forth and askance. Such off-steps are a key part of this story.


One contemporary manifestation of this relationship was the Serpentine Gallery’s Poetry Marathon in October 2009. The event was criticized by one participant, Caroline Bergval, who concluded that “whilst amazing… the pink elephant in this open-air enclosure was language itself. Or rather, a fear of language, a fear about not controlling a knowledge of language that demands its conscious, careful, and studied semiotic and semantic manipulations across a whole range of environments.” [1] Another participant, Eileen Myles, seems more relaxed, testifying to a profound uncertainty principle underlying the relationship of art and poetry on both aesthetic and infrastructural levels:


But when the event was over it was clear that nobody really knew what a poem was but the Serpentine was behind it, this poem thing. It was a usefully baggy approach to the meaning of the poem thing, making its existence known to the world, again. It seemed the art world was wavering towards us in some watery way. Splashing and moving their flippers and making bubbles. All we had to do as poets was accept this love. And I do. I think our acceptance of this unknowing love is the pretext for poetry’s new relationship to art in the 21st c. It’s all around us. It’s not us around them. Trying to slip our tentacles into their party. [2]


Myles’ relationship to the art world’s octopus seduction technique is unfolded throughout The Importance of Being Iceland: Travel Essays in Art, a collected essays in which the art-poetry question, amongst others, unfolds through a series of encounters, with artists (the work and the person), places (mostly New York, Provincetown, and Iceland), and with her own mind-body and its ongoing process of expression into language. The essays here were written between 1983 and 2008, then collected together — through another recent art-poetry interface — when Myles received a grant in the Warhol/ Creative Capital foundation’s first art writing cycle. It was through this that the long title essay was written. Ditch Smithson-Williams’ umbilical moment, New Jersey, 1938. Iceland is where the artists and the poets really combine.

Liotard Photo by Eileen Myles

Photo by Eileen Myles


It was from Myles I got the Smithson-Williams story. In her 2000 essay on Robert Smithson’s The Collected Writings, Myles writes:


… all of these guys were writing [Smithson, Judd, Carl Andre, Sol LeWitt], words were the ground of the work, even more than the material it was “made of,” and seeing these writings explains a missing link in how we wound up with the poetry and art culture of today. No one who knows the 70s really has to ask where Language poetry comes from. It was part of the work. Language was sculpture and vice versa. [3]


Extracted, some of this paragraph appears like Sol LeWitt’s much anthologized “Sentences on Conceptual Art”, notably Words were the ground of the work and Language was sculpture and vice versa. But the tradition of art and poetry Myles explores doesn’t have that (even retrospective) certainty. I also found myself needing to spoil the party right away with some more problematic art and poetry examples. Like Lawrence Weiner’s oft repeated declaration that poetry is not what he is doing; or Carl Andre avoiding the term. [4] A necessary cautionary note, then, as texts by Andre, Acconci, Graham and others continue to be re-published.


Maybe, following Myles, I should splash and make bubbles.
For many contemporary practitioners — and archival projects such as Ubuweb — these histories are part of a broader gathering of experimental language practices. Perhaps, I imagine Myles saying cheerfully, I should lighten up and focus instead on what can be learned from Smithson’s writing style:


Smithson’s method of writing is unique — where a quickly engineered set of associations begins to build language as you would build buildings, a quick suggestion that “the skyline is a sentence.” Smithson urges “ why not reconstruct one’s inability to see? Let’s give passing shape to the unconsolidated views around a work of art, and develop a type of anti- vision or negative seeing.” Writing is such blindness, I think he meant. [5]


If Smithson’s art writing is one founding moment in the art-poetry relationship as we might conceive of it today, then poets writing art criticism is another. This, too, is a fraught history. [6] After all, Smithson’s generation, and the criticism of, say, Artforum, is in contempt of all the poets earning a few pounds writing for Art News and, more broadly, the subjectivity of their response (and prose).


Myles’ musings on this subject recall, too, Peter Schjeldahl’s 1976 poem “Dear Profession of Art Writing.” This lampooning of figures in the US art world was written when Schjedahl — currently art critic for The New Yorker — felt he was abandoning art criticism. It was read aloud, instead of a lecture, before the Friends of Modern Art at the Art Institute of Chicago “who hated it a lot.” [7] Myles, thinking about James Schuyler, engages with similar personal and professional tensions:


Let’s face it, they’re hiring writers, not poets. A poet I know, James Schuyler, told me about writing a catalogue in which he was specifically invited to write poems in response to the work in question. He did it cautiously, one of our great poets who’s written “about” art for the greater part of his life, finally responding in his original medium to the art in question. He said he always writes in poems initially, but then “turns” it into prose. It’s an act of translation, it seems to me. That initial response, the poet’s notes, are an independent work of art, an act of perception, the poet as camera, recording his or her own responses to an art object without going the next step and flattening the response into conventional prose. [8]


Myles offers a powerful vision of the consequence of such treachery:


It’s actually a terrible sacrifice the art world demands of poets, the virgins thrown into the volcano, so that the shiny painting and sculpture of their time will have its equivalent in print, sort of. The poets will have backed off from the spikiness of their own perceptions for the glory of instantly appearing in print at all, and for the glamour of being associated with such state-of-the-art art as modern art and even the small sum we receive for writing the average short review. Of course we like art. But that’s not the point. My notebook is filled with poems too. It hasn’t been a great poetic age of late, it’s been an age that’s non-verbal, media-oriented, ultra-visual and naturally pro-money, so no one really understands the loss, only knows that poetry is something art writers do when they are young. Or behind the art world’s back. [9]


Or as Schuyler more pithily observed: “I think anything that’s all poetry is boring, don’t you, babe?” [10] Myles direct and indirect counter to this throughout the book is a demonstration that, as the back cover informs, she “has reclaimed poetry as a public vocation.” For Myles this begins when “my desire to do everything… made me a poet because I could have some purchase on everything and do a little bit of it all the day. Just chipping away.” [11]


Another measuring rod for such a position is Myles comment of how Ginsberg with Howl “wrote both a poem and a culture to put it in.” [12] More specific clarifications are every essay in this book. Poets may be grubbing about writing art reviews of artists far wealthier than they are, but, in Myles account, it’s the poets who get all the sex. [13]


Myles sometimes thinks through these distinctions via a working concept of “nature.” Take this:


The thing I’m getting to is that a poem is nature. Part of my mind, that whirligig that sits by the window and spins. Continuous. I looked the word whirligig up and indeed, it’s a turning job. But I mean your whole life becomes a turning job, not just the poem. The poem is just a little piece of that. [14]


A poem is nature! This could get messy, but Myles is too punk and deft to get caught in literal or intellectual bogs, quickly outing herself as a nature poet who doesn’t notice the leaves changing, and misses rare celestial phenomena because “I forgot to look.” [15] This — and also flossing, the subject of another essay here — is a good way to unfold John Cage’s sense of imitating nature in its manner of operation, although Myles also has Provincetown and Iceland, where she is getting out and looking.


Through this nexus of observation and motivation Myles works out a more fundamental position that combines perception, experience, sex, style, poetry, art and terror. This meaningfulness is always emerging through being caught up in the moment, as Myles’ puts beautifully in her talk on, again, James Schuyler:


It seems to me that the time that we experience when we bathe in moonlight, or even become aware of it, is endowed with the nature of change itself. He dips his attention into the rapidity with which the human mind considers scale: tiny, then intergalactic, then looking at the host of this travel, the human brain, as it dances from mood to mood. I feel like I’m constructing prose translations here, when I look at passages in Schuyler’s poetry that take my breath away. I’m participating, I find, in an operation not dissimilar from standing in lower Manhattan the first time I looked at the devastation there and my friend and I began reciting like children, “okay a building three times larger than that was struck by a plane… ” Even magic is subject to communal reasoning and the glory of the poetry we’re looking at is that it has been for this purpose too. To be the last piece of awe, to be ritually unpacked, feared or enjoyed, and returned to its pattern again. Each time seeming a little different but going to that place. Like nature. [16]


Separating and returning are recurring motifs throughout The Importance of Being Iceland. Take the end of the Smithson essay: “The very things in [William Carlos] William’s landscape become language and then returns to landscape again.” [17] Something, then, about not holding, about writing in a process, whereby it is not the end event. Writing about art, also, writing providing a way in which art objects become acknowledged as objects in dialogue, not solidified lumps of real estate. The art object, through Myles shifting, virulent prose, acquires something of the fluidity and non-economic chutzpah of the poet, freed and/or kidnapped from its white cube mortuary.


But if this is the poets take, then what of the artists and their art? What are they thinking? In a 1993 essay “Prints of Words” Myles goes on a trawl of language based art shows in Manhattan. Start, she suggests, not with names, but with the etiquette. People are complaining, Myles says, that “they’re sick of standing in galleries reading.” New forms of physical and mental behavior are Myles’ starting points as “a poet looking at how visual artists use words in their prints”:


Often I got to sit down. I bought my coffee and was incredibly careful… I began counting, something I never do when I look at poems. In general, visual artists are more anal about language than poets are. It’s the thingness of words that they’re after and thingness often comes in pieces. [18]


At a Lesley Dill show Myles encounters “poem sculptures”, in which Emily Dickinson’s poems are made into sculptures. Language become sculpture, and the changing notions of materiality and reading that involves could offer a useful dramatization of the issues of the poet-art-writer, although Myles seems unimpressed:


The materials of her sculpture, the allusions they make, are more interesting than what she does with the poems. They are literally mined for ore, and recast as a drooling nerve, or in Poems Hands the lyrics are bright red type running down the fingers of two paper hands on strings. Yet Dickinson’s poems are rods for a kind of invisible lightning and by making the rods hand-shaped, etc., Dill makes them attract less or differently, I think. I wonder if she realizes it’s a form of re-writing. [19]

Radiant Stalag, photo by Eileen Myles

Radiant Stalag, photo by Eileen Myles


Myles writes elsewhere about Roni Horn, but doesn’t mention if she finds Horn’s own Dickinson “poem sculptures” — lines from poems on tall cubic poles arranged horizontally, vertically and at various heights around a gallery space — any more satisfying. Myles’ disgruntlement on her trawl often, as here, comes down to feeling the artist’s ungenerosity, closure, and mean spiritedness. Glen Ligon, she observes: “is illustrating texts that were doing quite well by themselves” and, concludes Myles, “I mostly appreciate the artists who use their own words, or their collaborators, or appropriated well so no one anywhere is inadvertently silenced.” [20] Here, to Atlantic hop back to the Serpentine marathon, is where Myles seems closest to the concerns Bergval expresses.


Another place of art-poetry convergence is the list. Myles notes how:


The very soul of poetry is the list. Conceivably every poet is making an abridged list of all creation, filling in a little over here, not mentioning what will only bog you down. The best poetry keeps moving at all costs. Most lists in poets’ hands are highly elaborated and understated, in fact, downright solipsistic. So as to be generally unrecognizable to the non-poet. [21]


Myles doesn’t specify how the lists of visual artists might differ from this, in product or intent. Her objection to “101 Uses for Sex or Why Sex is So Important by Annie Sprinkle” is that Sprinkle concludes her list work by writing “The End”, whilst, for Myles, “Her name at the end would suggest multiplicity.” [22]


Myles, however, isn’t a downbeat writer. Part of what defines her poet-reporter-critic identity is worldliness mixed with wide-eyed enthusiasm, perhaps a non-naive naive awe. From “Prints of Words” I’ve extracted three examples of artists using language in ways Myles finds positive, and which might contribute to a conception of poetic-artistic practice beyond the divisions of the Serpentine Marathon. In the first two instances all I can do is present the material, leaving implications to unfold later and elsewhere.


Example 1: Kay Rosen


… one can easily imagine the artist, Kay Rosen, a genius, facing a blank piece of paper, a rectangle, and then she imagines a margin on all four sides so it’s a poetic situation, yet it’s public — a print is intended to go on a wall, isn’t it? So her page is more like a movie screen, or a sign. There are five lines on each of six prints. The colors of the prints change. They move from white to gray to cream to black and back to white. It’s a typographical drama. [23]


Example 2: Christopher Wool


I think [of Wool’s painting RUN DOG RUN] it is the essentialist poem of the 20th century. Three words written on a wall and one used twice. The shape of our view is rectangular. Poster-shaped. We come in closer, we move to the left or the right. That’s it, there’s no way out. This is really such a desperate work. The meaning is flattened out, which makes “run dog run” more meaningful like the pores of someone’s face magnified are no less human, but horrifying so. [24]


Example 3: Kenneth Goldsmith


For readers of Jacket, Goldsmith is the artist here most in a poetry orbit. In the context of Myles essay he also moves furthest beyond text by becoming music (a score by Joan La Barbara) and a dress (by Sylvia Heisel). As Myles comments:


Poetry by a good-looking well-dressed person who reads really well. It’s sort of elegant and to demand more, I suppose, is no less witless than to ask that all great poets be good-looking, though some certainly are. Stepping back I have to say I like this clatter and this elegance, look forward to hearing the CD and seeing the dress. [25]


Myles comments on the work too, but I think something about this approach via style is what is most relevant here to any attempt to think through emergent art-poetry practices. Myles own writing may be rooted in a direct, subjective narrative Goldsmith’s aesthetic often abhors, but the two are linked in shared ambition and optimism for a more eclectically located — and relational — writing practice. [26] They reach similarly through music, fashion, film and elsewhere, for an aesthetics that reflects the intermingling of central and margin, high and low, near and far, self and other, filtering this through the peculiarity of their own chosen (poet)(language) path.


Getting specific, the art-poetry connection began for Myles when invited by Hans Ulrich Obrist (now Serpentine Gallery director and Poetry Marathon instigator) to take part in the first Do It show, at the Kjarvalsstadir Museum in Reykjavik in 1996. The project itself involved the submission of instructions that were then installed or fulfilled by other artists. More important for Myles, however, was the subsequent discovery of the explanatory power of the “importance of being Iceland”. If Myles describes well the Icelandic landscape, attentive both to natural geography and the pre- and post- crash social fabric, it is how both impinge on her own practice that shifts her response from travel journalism to methodological enquiry. Here are two examples:


This book is what I’ve been writing for years. Between things. Sometimes I got paid, sometimes not. I’ve never thought that distinction was formal at all. Though often it meant whether I could write something or not. Writing for pay is a little “pitchy” that’s all. They say no, you say well how about this. The power of money creates a kind of movement. You adjust or quit. And when a poet friend referred to some reviews of mine as “commercial” I realized I had hit yet another class wall. Iceland will give this dilemma its home. [Italics mine] And a class of its own. Which is language. [27]

Amy Silliman invited me to her studio to tell her art students about poetry. This like last week and during my warm up she nervously asked if I was going to tell them about language poetry. Like that was the good food they needed to get. I said something but I should have complained. I mean I kind of stand on assembling identity as a way to find knowledge. I’m Icelandic [italics mine]. I mean as an object of mediation. I mean I’m not not a Language poet. Click on the country on your desktop and it opens on everything else. A country is an icon, a portal it seems. [28]


I appreciate the value “Iceland” has for Myles, whilst remaining unsure about the overall effect, and what “Iceland” is in this context. Something about “being Iceland” seems essentialist in ways counter to the desire for fluid identity constructions leading Myles to adopt it as a rhetorical strategy after observing “I’m a poet and a novelist… among other things. Generally as many things as possible.” [29] Applied to other places, of course, the trope quickly becomes ridiculous. The Importance of Being New York or Sydney? Or “being Tower Hamlets,” to focus on the London borough where I am right now? As with Roni Horn, though, Iceland, for Myles, seems to have “special status” to enable this variety of essentialism compatible with difference. [30] I should go.


“Writing is such blindness”, as Myles noted of Smithson, and The Importance of Being Iceland offers powerful witness of a particular form of “poet-vision.” If contemporary art’s recent engagement with language is often based on staged faux envy [31], then one of this books many pleasures is Myles fully inhabiting and unfolding her poet job description of “what I lead with, what gave me my life, my vote, more or less.” [32] Myles is confident enough, therefore, is translate art practices into her own situation: “the way I think of my own “studio.” Where I do my work. It’s no place and everyplace and it’s made out of language and goes where it goes.” [33] What Bergval finds so dispiriting about the Serpentine Marathon seems partly the lack of a vocabulary or will for translating back the other way, and the recognition of mutual practices, traditions and competencies this would involve.


Within a debate still unfolding, Myles pedagogical anecdote offers a useful place both to conclude and, hopefully, open out:


I offer “writing” yet to be frank I am really not wanting to teach so instead I was attempting to offer an explication of “writing design.” Not how to write, but the craft of it without the production because that is the downside of teaching. You want them to do their work but you don’t want to read it. So instead I tried to create the space of it happening. To manifest the writer’s studio. To that everyone brought as well as paper and pen some stuff: an outsize pair of wooden dice, perfume, an ancient stuffed bunny (mine), and someone (Pablo) brought this DVD of a road trip. My actual intention was to do more than create the ambience of the writing space. Ultimately I was thinking: The World. One works in a small space to secure something larger. The knickknacks on your desk become the dashboard of your car. Intertwining the front of the road, the sides and your daily teeming thoughts, all that craft, yields a kind of living shrine. And that’s what I mean by writing. The construction might sound a little stilted. But I actually saw this freeway move. [34]


[1] Caroline Bergval’s “dispatch”, with a follow-up discussion, appears on the Poetry Foundation’s Harriet blog at

[2] Eileen Myles comments were part of her response to The Poetry Foundation’s survey “2000–2009: The Decade in Poetry” which asked contributers to “describe the poetry “event” that most shaped their view of the decade.” The full set of responses can be found at Myles “merge[s]” the Serpentine Marathon with a moment at the Advanced Poetics Seminar at City University of New York, also in October 2009, which — through a discussion of Lisa Robertson — opened up possibilities of “beginning to understand feminism as a sly term that can hold a lot.”

[3] The Importance of Being Iceland, 85.

[4] Charles Bernstein usefully summarises this history when, referencing Lytle Shaw’s Frank O’Hara: The Poetics of Coterie, he identifies “not only the aversion of radical poetics and poetry in formalist and October-flavored criticism of the 60s to 80s, but also the fear of the taint of poetry by even such apparently poetry-related artists as Lawrence Weiner (who declines to have his work exhibited in poetry-related contexts).” For Bernstein the list of art- offenders is extensive and ongoing: “Consider, for example, that Meyer, in his introduction to a recent collection of the poetry of Carl Andre, never mentions the word “poetry.” The lesson is that linguistic works of Weiner or Andre (Vito Acconci or Jenny Holzer) can only be deemed significant as art if they are purged of any connection to (radically impure, content-concatenating) poetry and poetics. As Dominique Fourcade noted at the Poetry Plastique symposium, poetry literarily devalues visual art (we were talking about how Philip Guston’s collaborations with Clark Coolidge had a lower economic value than comparable works without words). But perhaps this devaluation provides a necessary route for removing visual art from any Aesthetic System that mocks both aesthesis and social aspiration.” Charles Bernstein, “Is Art Criticism Fifty Years Behind Poetry?” originally published in Parkett 84 (2009), available online at

[5] The Importance of Being Iceland, 86.

[6] The following account draws on the numerous oral testimonies gathered in Amy Newman, Challenging Art: Artforum 1962–1974 (New York, Soho Press, 2000).

[7] Peter Schjeldahl includes “Dear Profession of Art Writing” in “On Art and Artists: Peter Schjeldahl”, a transcript of a video interview with Robert Storr, in the former’s The Hydrogen Jukebox: Selected Writings of Peter Schjeldahl 1978–1990 (Berkeley, University of California Press, 1991), 180–188. Schjeldahl fits Myles observations in several ways: one reading of his biography offers the narrative of poet as an activity for a young man, subsequently abandoned. But, as this poem reveals — and as Schjeldahl’s prose style also complicates — even this narrative can get convoluted.

[8] The Importance of Being Iceland, 109.

[9] Ibid, 109–10.

[10] Ibid, 138.

[11] Ibid, 255.

[12] Ibid, 292.

[13] In this regard, Myles poet contrasts with that of Barbara Guest, who observes: “During the explosive era of Abstract-Expressionism we not only admired the work of painters breaking rules of art performing on the canvas the otherwise concealed, emotional state of the painter, we became envious of the activity of their personal lives.” Guest goes on to explain how: “This may be taken by a few as a frivolous remark, but the remark contains a metaphor in which the natural gravity of life is replaced by the gratification of secret desires. Art as a reflection becomes more instantaneous, willful, enthusiastic, freed by action. Painters naturally gravitate toward expensive cars, lofts and chateaux, urged by the prices affixed to their art. Money, fame pursue painters with a frequency that stuns the poet.” Myles, in contrast, is noticeably un-stunned, perhaps due in part to the more explicit, direct presence of her own desire both as subject matter and as motivation. Barbara Guest, Forces of Imagination: Writing on Writing (Berkeley, Kelsey St. Press, 2003), 51–52.

[14]Ibid, 159.

[15] Ibid, 94.

[16] Ibid, 212.

[17] Ibid, 87.

[18] Ibid, 95.

[19] Ibid, 96.

[20] Both Ibid, 103.

[21] Ibid, 97.

[22] Ibid, 98.

[23] Ibid, 98.

[24] Ibid, 101.

[25] Ibid, 100–101.

[26] As well as in his numerous book works, the historical dimension of this position is revealed in Goldsmith’s recent podcast “The Malady of Writing: Modernism You Can Dance To” at

[27] Ibid, 14.

[28] Ibid, 46.

[29] Ibid, 13.

[30] Myles own phrase for this condition might be “an imaginary” (314). Myles uses this term to describe an article she is reading about the potato and the Irish, which describes Irish life before the English occupation. She also applies it to her own practice, and I think it applies to her relationship to Iceland, with the added twist that the physical experience of Iceland strongly informs this condition.

[31] See, for example, Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster’s observation that: “I see myself as a failed writer. My obsession, my dream, is to be a writer. I cannot be, but with time I realised that my obsession with literature and maybe my place in literature is to transfer some aspect of literature into space, there is a possibility of a literature that is beyond print and paper, and probably this is where I hope to be.” Interview with Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, in Morgan ed. Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster TH.2058 (London, Tate Publishing, 2008), 168.

[32] The Importance of Being Iceland, 13.

[33] Ibid, 315.

[34] Ibid, 342. This is extracted from one of the blog posts Myles wrote for, collected here as the book’s final section. The blog form, in its limitations of length and immediacy, suits Myles, who uses her posts to distill a lot of her preoccupations about writing, culture, spectatorship, and involvement. In relation to connections of “style” and a new art-poetry practice, Myles enacts a full range of attention, between art shows, her cat, friendships and work.

David Berridge lives in London, and makes language works for exhibition, performance, print and on line publication. The Moth Is Moth This Money Night Moth is published by The Knives, Forks and Spoons Press and Game Global Green Grown Guys by Beard of Bees. The Shadow of a Train, a script for an exhibition, will be realized at the Totalkunst Gallery, Edinburgh, in June 2010. Work online in Soanyway, Streetcake, Rubric and fillip. He curates VerySmallKitchen at

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