‘A work is never beautiful unless it escapes the author in some way’ wrote Sartre . This is not controversial at all, to say art is created by transcending the personal, that at the very least our work has to pass through some kind of lens which allows the poem to emerge into its true image (which is not our own). Collage is a way of working which is concerned with the effort of escaping the personality. I’ve found it to be a way of getting deeper into myself, my material and my engagement with the writing process, as well as enriching the language I habitually use. It’s also a form of creative play, particularly good when feeling a bit stuck. That said, it has its own particular challenges and raises questions which may be relevant whether using collage or not.
John Ashbery is a poet for whom the unconscious mind, the dream, has always been important. While living in France after writing his first collection, he collaged American and English books and magazines as a way of re-engaging with his native tongue and trying something new. He states his intention was to take ‘language apart so I could look at the pieces that made it up. I would eventually get around to putting them back together again, and would then have more of a knowledge of how they worked, together.’  He would apply similar techniques in his later work too, sometimes collaging his own material as well as ‘found’ texts.
It’s the collaging of a writer’s own material I want to highlight here. This is an important distinction to make because I think the obligations are different when using found material, where the author of the texts collaged is not yourself and possibly the work used is already well-known. The collaging of one’s own material, almost a process of cannibalising, is not as degenerative as it might sound; instead, it can be a tool for accessing the deep seam, and while it may be more ‘personal’ than found material in some sense, it is not at all ‘confessional’. Ted Berrigan felt his early work, written ‘straight’, was so sentimental he wanted to disown it. Then he wrote The Sonnets in which he collaged his own, sometimes earlier, writings. The Sonnets are a slightly frustrating read, but what becomes enjoyable in them is the reappearance of the same phrases in different contexts, making a sort of book-length rhyme of phrase. Only at this point did Berrigan feel he was writing something worthwhile.
It takes a little while to discover what kind of tool collaging is, the restraints it requires, the work it does best. But it’s a method which gives a feel for the texture of language, as Ashbery suggests. I’ve found it makes me more attentive to syntax and musicality, as I’ve observed which texts give rise to the best collages and which collages go on to work best as poems. At this point, a second distinction between collaging and ‘cut-ups’ might be helpful. With cut-ups, texts are chopped into phrases which are then reordered according to conscious choice or any number of chance operations. The result tends to be more faithful to the original material, but strong, disruptive and comic effects may be achieved, suitable to a spirit of subversion and mischief. Collaging may also involve the arrangement of phrases, sometimes from a variety of sources, which each retain the solidity of their phrasing, but not their context (though it may be implied) – this is the sort of collage that is Eliot’s Waste Land and Berrigan’s Sonnets.
The form of collaging I’ve used most involves cutting up material into individual words. These are laid out randomly and scanned for the word (or words) that will set off down the track of the new poem, gathering other words and phrases from the confetti on the desk. It’s an interesting conflation – I’m using sight, but it’s really my ear that’s scanning, picking up the sounds of the words I can see, hearing their patterns. By cutting material down into words, the syntax of the original is broken as well as its phrasing, the result of which is a more decisive tool for getting behind a text and seeing what might be there: a different voice or a subversive, hidden meaning, for example, or the heart of the text that was difficult to articulate directly, or was swamped by irrelevant detail or held down by the control of conscious meaning-making. It is in the spirit of discovery that you take up the scissors with such vengeance – and it is one perhaps best suited to the process of excavating your own material.
The process is beguiling: it can make something really sound like it’s a poem. But herein lies the crucial ‘beware’. It’s easy, at first, to become dazzled by the surprising juxtapositions of images or ideas the conscious mind would never have conceived of in its plodding wakefulness. But such dazzlement does not make a poem. In other words, the process of collaging should not be expected to lead directly to the poem. What it does do is lead to a first draft. In order to get to the poem – and, for me, that is a lyric poem – I find myself dealing with the multitude of familiar questions that can arise with any kind of material, questions of form, lineation, metre and so on. What I do after collaging varies so much from poem to poem that it’s hard to generalise.
That is, with one significant exception: the tussle with clarity, which is the predominant issue for moving from collage draft to poem. There is no other practical consideration, I think, that matters more. After collaging, I find myself working with a slightly intractable text which flexes about joints which are disjunctive or surprising or difficult to justify logically. The text has been generated by a process of ‘letting go’, but working with it is about taking hold again and making something – which is a form of responsibility (I always think the unconscious mind isn’t too bothered about responsibility; its only concern is its own freedom). The responsibility is of taking the material back into the world: it’s dream interpretation, a kind of translation, the ongoing, difficult decision of what constitutes ‘meaning’.
To deal with the question of clarity depends on your poetic aesthetic. Already, I’ve indicated the crucial consideration for me when working with collage: my aim is a lyric poem. The lyric perhaps requires a more lucid kind of clarity, a way of making sense that is familiar. But it’s not the only way to go. The American critic Marjorie Perloff traces two traditions: one leading from Baudelaire through Eliot, and one which leads from Rimbaud through Pound . The former is a tradition where there is still some solidity of reference (the work is recognisably in this world, you could say); the latter is a tradition of ‘indeterminacy’ (the work remains more in the world of the unconscious mind), leading to poets such as Ashbery.
For me, so much of the meaning in Ashbery seems to reside in the momentum of his surfaces – the meaning glides along, it doesn’t sink down further into the vertical recesses of the poem. This can make for an exhilarating ride. Maybe we have come to know poetry as deepening vertically rather than being a horizontal surface rooted in a single moment. One of the attractions of collage is its apparent ability to respond to the condition of exile, to enact dislocation and to generate the multiplicities and paradoxes which seem to feature in the unconscious mind and in the modern world. It might be tempting, therefore, to foreground in the final version of a poem the means of its generation – that is, the poem might remain recognisably collaged and the process of drafting would therefore be undertaken with this spirit.
There are good reasons why this might be done. Maybe we bear more authentic witness by choosing not to temper the qualities of collage – and we might agree with the surrealists for whom the use of methods which contact the unconscious mind more directly was a political act, freeing the mind from its outwardly imposed constraints. Some have argued that it’s more democratic to leave meaning open, by having what Ashbery calls ‘an open field of possibilities’. The idea is that in the very indeterminacy of sound, imagery and narration, these poems are a way of representing human thought and ‘challenge us to take up ideas’ – presumably our own rather than those we are disposed to assume.
But there are issues in making a poem a surface, no matter how effective a mirror that surface might be. And the main one is to do with clarity. As Perloff says, ‘Too much disclosure produces contrivance; too much concealment, unintelligibility and boredom.’ It can be a difficult balancing act. Indeed, if the work cannot be understood by anyone other than the author, then in what sense can it be said to be revolutionary? Working with collage texts is like a process of mapping. Whether working towards making sense in a more conventional manner or not, you can’t just go from any A to any B – that is, put any phrase or image with any other phrase or image. It has to be the B that creates some kind of connection. How one defines that connection is the important decision to make. And I think it’s difficult to work with collage drafts without considering the implications of our choices.
Adrienne Rich – who is not a collagist but a poet interested in pushing boundaries – has argued for what she calls ‘a ligatory art’ rather than ‘an echo chamber of fragmentation and alienation’ . In some sense, we are still working at the problems of the early twentieth century and with the ‘primal unsilenced questions’ that modernism and postmodernism have tried to address. The challenges are essential to forming a writing practice and are surely ethical too. How best to bear witness to our times (rather than simply mirror them), given the absence of grand narratives? Our personal response to this determines how we might choose to work with collage drafts.
For Charles Simic, observing his native Belgrade was formative for his ambitions: ‘In the city, everything is collage. How can this ugly building be next to this other building that is exquisitely done?’  He compares poems to boxes into which ‘fractured and scrutinized language, images and symbols can be arranged and rearranged until their deeper meaning is uncovered.’ It’s interesting that Simic compares the poem to a contained space – a very different image from Ashbery’s ‘open field of possibilities’. These are two kinds of poetics, deriving from different landscapes, both literally and politically.
In the end, collaging often seems to end up being about itself: writing about writing. This is a method which is highly conscious of itself, even if it has subdued us, the writer. Eventually, though, it returns us to ourselves. For me, the lyrical intentions of the poem are superior to its mode of construction, to its has a responsibility to fragmentation, alienation or exile but also to the idea of a ligatory art and a truthful form of witnessing. As humans, we live with contradictions all the time, but I’ve often wondered if the power of the lyric, as articulation, comes from its ability to contain polarities and contradictions while still seeing ‘the one thing’. Personally, I’m interested in how to make a unity – or an interesting dialogue – between different kinds of material and processes. I hang on to the words of George Oppen :
One must not come to feel that he has a thousand
threads in his hands,
He must somehow see the one thing;
This is the level of art
There are other levels
but there is no other level of art
1. What is Literature, Jean-Paul Sartre (Routledge, 2001)
2. John Ashbery in conversation with John Tranter, New York, 1988; see www.jacketmagazine.com
3. The Poetics of Indeterminacy, Marjorie Perloff (Northwestern University Press, 1999)
4. Foreword to Arts of the Possible, Adrienne Rich (Norton, 2001)
5. ‘The Poets’ Forum on Aesthetic Diversity’, Charles Simic, see www.poets.org
6. Collected Poems, George Oppen (New Direction Books, 1975)