PRINT March 2006


Vito Acconci

THIS IS A GOOD BOOK, a valuable book, but there’s something awkward about the title, which is misleading in at least two ways. This is not a collection of the early essays or manifestos of a famous artist, as the subtitle suggests. It’s a book of poems. Vito Acconci is a well-known artist, but from the mid-’60s to sometime in the early ’70s he was mainly a poet, fashioning language works that would have situated him within a loose network of experimental writers including Jackson Mac Low, George Brecht, Emmett Williams, and Robert Grenier, and that probably would have projected him into the center of the circle of Language poets who were just coming onto the poetry scene as Acconci was leaving it for the art world. But no more than twenty or so of the hundreds of pages of poetry collected in this book have ever been published, until now. So we are confronted with work that was part of its time without having been seen in its time. Which is what makes the main title unhelpful, because Language to Cover a Page suggests either a kind of concrete or graphic poetry in the manner of Augusto de Campos (it is not), or a familiar polemic promoting the treatment of words as nonreferential objects (a reading most of these poems don’t support).

The question of how to think about a radical body of art that was part of its time but was not seen in its time has come up before, maybe most strikingly with the work of Emily Dickinson. When she died in 1886, she had published nothing and left behind an oeuvre of more than a thousand poems, most of which were composed between 1858 and 1865. If these poems had been published then, Dickinson’s jazzlike angular rhythms, her dissonant off-rhymes, her gnarled syntax, her oblique metaphors, and her subversive relation to Christian pieties would have shown a poet as radical in a small space as Walt Whitman had been in a large space. In 1890 a benevolently bowdlerized version of 115 of her poems was finally published and gradually became a model for “musical and sensitive” verse. It wasn’t until 1960, with the publication of Thomas H. Johnson’s edition of the Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, that a reasonably faithful version of her texts was made available to a poetry-reading public who could see that her work anticipated some of the innovations of the Black Mountain school and that she had greater affinities with the self-questioning stop-rhythms of Robert Creeley than with the conventional musicality and sensitivity of, say, an elegant 1920s poet like Elinor Wylie. Dickinson’s poetry is now seen as a kind of prophecy of some version of a valuable present, and its valuation is based upon these considerations, not on its meaning in 1865. And recently the scrupulous editing of Johnson has been challenged by contemporary poets like Susan Howe who see, in Dickinson’s manuscript markings, signs of an even more radical relation to textuality. So Dickinson is modern or postmodern avant la lettre, depending on who does the evaluating.

But Acconci, unlike Dickinson, did not work in isolation; though his poetry may have remained mostly unpublished, his oeuvre as a whole was well suited to the overlapping interests of the community of experimental poets and artists of the late ’60s, many of whom were moving freely across the genre boundaries that had separated poetry, art, and music. Was John Cage a composer or a poet? Was Brecht a performance artist or a sculptor or a poet? And Acconci himself coedited the experimental journal 0 to 9 with the poet Bernadette Mayer from 1967 to 1969 while actively writing and performing. In January 1970 he exhibited a hybrid performance/installation at Robert Newman’s Gain Ground Gallery in New York, in which each day over the course of the show he emptied out the furnishings and appliances of his apartment and deposited them in the gallery, to which he would have to repair to make use of them. Three of the other exhibitors at this gallery during the 1969–70 season––the poet/art critic John Perreault, the concrete poet Hannah Weiner, and the Conceptual artist Eleanor Antin—had all published poetry in avant-garde journals. What almost all of these boundary-crossing artists had in common was a sense of the need to reexamine and challenge the fundamental suppositions upon which the separate arts were based, and one of the most basic suppositions that came under question was the expectation of subjective expressivity. In Acconci’s work this questioning shows up very neatly in poems like this:

I am here.
I am here as I go by.
I do it, go into the other.
I do without it, stop outside.

It’s not hard to read this as a narrative of frustrated desire, but these four cryptic sentences don’t do too much to encourage such a reading. In fact, the effectiveness of the piece—its wit—depends upon the discrepancy between the magnitude of the personal crisis that might be inferred and the minimality of its representation. In this reading the poem seems to invoke litotes, the rhetorical trope of understatement familiar from the bumper sticker “One atom bomb can spoil your whole day,” but the usual form requires a strong sense of the scale of the event against which the understatement plays. Here the neutral style of the representation renders a personal reading absurd without completely erasing it. A number of the short poems in the first section of the book, which is appropriately called “Idiom,” seem to invite crypto- or pseudonarrative readings, though most of them tend to break up in a kind of punch-line ending as in

I have made my point
I make it again
Now you get the point.

or, as in another short poem:

His hand was raised and
(and then) in a manner of speaking and
(and then) he put his foot in his mouth.

which, with its parenthetical intrusions and repeated line-ending “ands,” reads more like a parody of a Black Mountain School poem than a represented anecdote.

The whole of “Idiom” is a laboratory consisting of eighty-seven pages of linguistic and textual experiments. The longer poems employ somewhat Gertrude Stein–like repetitions or mechanical variations reading as parodic grammatical exercises, as in the following poem that starts

(He moved yesterday) (
(He walked once) (
(He stirred there) (

then continues for another thirty-two lines running thirty-two more changes on the verb and its adverbial complement, through “shuffled,” “rolled,” “danced,” “drifted,” “flew,” “darted,” coming to an end on

(he waddled until then) (
(He lurched that long) (
(He passed by Tuesday) (by this time, Wednesday)
(He trotted to the post) (

It gets most of its impact from the range of the verbs, the puzzling parenthetical bracketing, and the more puzzling open parentheses, which suggest some abrupt and arbitrary termination of the text. The rest of the poem supports this suggestion, particularly two lines in which phrases are chopped off not only mid-sentence but also midword, ending on a single letter.

It's hard to give an adequate account of the range of interesting and witty linguistic effects in “Idiom,” and there are five other sections to contend with—“Printed Matter”; “Four Book and Related Texts”; “Transference and Related Texts”; “Translations”; and “Discourse Networks.” The most radical artistic experiments—the Conceptual poems that fitted most neatly into their time—are concentrated in these five parts. The question is what to make of them now.

Toward the end of “Printed Matter” there is a fifteen-page instruction poem, each page of which directs readers to a particular place in a particular book where they are instructed to make certain editorial changes, ranging from excising and replacing one or two phrases to deleting a period, or to vocalize that portion of text in some definite way, or simply to take note of it. Since potential readers were unlikely to have these specific publications on their shelves, and even less likely to go to the public library to commit these small acts of attention or vandalism, the text can be considered either a bibliographical poem or the scenario for a Conceptual artwork, the execution of which is of questionable likelihood.

Four Book” begins with a set of minor variations on an extensive group of definitions of the word top, and then opens onto a kind of Minimalist, graphic collage poem that runs eleven pages; each page juxtaposes a Xeroxed image of a different page of the Manhattan phone book with a column of phrases or single words. The piece might have worked as a contrasting pair of litanies in a performance for two simultaneous readers. I’m not sure if Acconci had anything like this in mind.

Transference” consists of thirty-five pages that run a vertical column of either one or two letters, all taken from either the right or left margin of some specified pages in a particular edition of Roget’s Thesaurus. Maybe it was an amusing gesture in 1968 or ’69, but it’s hard to find any real significance in it now. After several more dictionary-sampling text pieces that are reasonably effective, “Translations” moves into forty-six pages of very sparse samplings from Whitfield’s University Rhyming Dictionary. This is too long to be more than mildly amusing. The section ends in eight pages covered with coordinate listings drawn from Hagstrom’s map of the five boroughs of New York City—J12, G13, G12, B11, K9, and so on. Its only appeal would seem to lie in trying to figure out what program generated the apparently arbitrary choices of the coordinates.

But “Discourse Networks” contains “Act 3, Scene 4,” a nine-page piece of hourly New York telephone weather reports running from sunrise December 26, 1968, to sunrise January 2, 1969, carrying with it the rich range of human experiences of a New York winter. It reads like a sketch for Kenneth Goldsmith’s grand cycle of seasons in his recently published book, The Weather (2005). “Discourse Networks” also contains a startlingly interesting “documentary poem” charting, in a meticulously deadpan manner, the progress of the Apollo 11 moon launch, which ended in success, against the progress of Acconci’s desperate efforts to get back together with the girlfriend who had recently left him, which ended in failure, all over the course of eight days from July 16 to July 23, 1969. Yet these successful poems, like all the other successful works in the book, were generated out of the same experimental sensibility that produced the failures—the ones that seem meaningless to us now. And what kind of experiment can proceed without failure? If there are no failures there is no experiment, and Acconci’s success rate is better than most.

David Antin is a poet, critic, and performance artist.


Language to Cover A Page: The Early Writings of Vito Acconci, edited by Craig Dworkin. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006. 428 pages.