“I’ve come to free the words.” — Brion Gysin, 1960
Poetry is like a perfume—or body odor—slithering between cracks in the wall, wafting under shut doorways, stealthily sneaking in the back door unnoticed. Because nobody really pays attention to it, it dons an invisibility cloak, free to go where it wants and when it wants. Poetry doesn’t need you: it doesn’t require your permission to exist; it doesn’t care if you love it or not. Because it has no remunerative value, it is liberated from the orthodoxies that constrain just about every other art form. As such, it is obliged to take chances, to be as experimental as it can be. After all, as they say, when you ain’t got nothing, you got nothing to lose.
Poetry is an uncontested space. No one is going to bother to fight you over this one. You want poetry? Take it. It’s yours. You want to be MoMA’s Poet Laureate? Take it. It’s yours. Good luck. While relational aesthetics talks a good game, relational aesthetics, like all visual art, has found a way to market and monetize its practice. Poets don’t begrudge them for this; in fact, we’re envious of them and wish there was some way to get rich by what we do. If we had our choice, we’d ask for $500,000 advances, like most mid-level novelists. We only wish our field gave us this option. But we’re stuck with our ideals, alas. It’s all we have. And there’s a utopian idea still alive in poetry that being historical is more important than being rich. Since rewards are not forthcoming any time soon, we tend to take the long view of things. Remember: anyone who is interested in poetry is interested in it for the right reasons. Otherwise, they’d be out of their minds to stick around.
While most of MoMA’s eyes are on the front door, ogling the bajillion dollars’ worth of art on the walls, poets tend to think about things differently, seeing potential in the negative spaces. Andy Warhol once said that if you want to collect something in New York, you’ve got to find something that no one else is interested in—hence his ridiculously extravagant collection of ceramic cookie jars (which became insanely valuable once he began collecting them). If Andy were alive today, he’d surely be interested in poetry: unoccupied, uncontested, unclaimed, and unloved. Friends, here and now I’m giving you fair warning: I’m grabbing it before anyone else does—and slathering it all over the Museum.
Uncontested Spaces, a series of guerilla readings performed in selected spaces throughout the Museum, takes place Wednesdays and Fridays at MoMA. The series is part of MoMA’s Artists Experiment initiative.