A Poetics of Place and Site-Specificity in Contemporary Poetry
My review of Lytle Shaw’s Fieldworks: From Place to Site in Postwar Poetics (University of Alabama Press, 2013) is in the current edition of Hyperallergic Weekend. Here is how it begins:
Lytle Shaw’s Fieldworks is a big and ambitious study that is a welcome addition to the dense, unruly, and relatively unmapped field called “postwar poetics.”
Starting with William Carlos Williams’ and Charles Olson’s monumental treatments of Paterson and Gloucester in their late modernist serial epics, Shaw takes us on a sweeping diachronic tour of a poetics of place. He makes strategic stops among embodied communities of the New American Poets (visiting such points of interest as Gary Snyder’s Kitkitdizze; Robert Creeley’s and Joanne Kyger’s Bolinas; and Amiri Baraka’s Newark), detours through Donald Judd’s Marfa and Robert Smithson’s “Spiral Jetty” in Utah’s Great Salt Lake, descends into Clark Coolidge and Bernadette Mayer’s collaboration The Cave, and finally ends with the “discursive site-specificity” of Flarf and conceptual writing via the installations of Mark Dion and Renée Green.
It is, to be sure, a lot of ground to cover, and one risks in this book — which approaches 400 pages — getting lost or sidetracked along any number of backroads and byways; but if one is willing to finish the trip, one will undoubtedly come away with a renovated and up-to-date understanding of contemporary American poetry.
There’s a good interview between Shaw and Andy Fitch in The Conversant. In it Shaw explains what sparked the project:
After publishing my 1999 book Cable Factory 20, which emulated site-specific work, I wanted to tell myself a history of site-specific art’s relation to the poetics of place. But most work coming out of a poetics-of-place tradition embarrassed me—whereas Smithson, particularly his version of site specificity, fascinated me. Of course Williams and Olson didn’t embarrass me, so much as how this poetic impulse got domesticated into a workshop mode by the late ’70s. You no longer had to proceed reflexively. You could just represent yet another place through lyric form.