Versus “palpable design” / GEORGE QUASHA

Untitled [axial art], George Quasha, 2023

Says Keats definitively, for nineteenth-century Romanticism and its descendants into the next two centuries: “We hate poetry that has a palpable design upon us.” (Or as Nicanor Parra said: “Contra la poesía dirigida,” against poetry of one direction”). This way, the force of critique enters modern poetic practice, everywhere. 

I am hearing Keats and the whole radical Romantic tradition when reading Vicente Huidbro, the Chilean poet of Altazor, of “superconsciousness” who locates palpable design as an intrusion of the “horribly official stamp of approval of a prior judgment (perhaps of long standing) at the moment of production” (my emphasis). Palpable design, while it may have been internalized, comes from without, from the social and cultural spheres, from “custom,” from the panopticon, from a voracious market economy with its association of any product, including a poem, with its acquisition, and from gender, race, and class inequities; it appears in poetry as received forms and received modes of speech that produces the familiar and consoling. “From the moment you assume the intention to write, your thought stream is already controlled” (Huidobro). Satanic control, a dybbuk of creation, stations itself at the forefront of your mind and on the tip of your pen; genuine poetic response must overcome such resistance in the very act of thinking-writing. We need to recognize that Keats is distinguishing poetry made with a palpable design from that which isn’t. There are different kinds of poetries just as there are different kinds of readers of poetry! The schools and universities and major publishing houses without question encourage poetry of palpable design, and what is most outrageous because contradictory, the teaching and studying of Romantic poetry and the visionary poetry that follows it decades later that so fearlessly battles palpable design, is taught under the sign of mastery.

Design, however, does not have to be “palpable”! Its presence, coming from the imagination, from afar, is a crucial strength: as Blake says, “Reason is the outward bound and circumference of energy,” to create a poem without domesticating its material is to dare frame a fearful symmetry. Aesthetics must operate in the service of the independent “life of things.” For Huidobro, the true poet doesn’t draw on “dream” or “automatic writing” (Surrealism), but “from the moment you decide to pick up your pen, consciousness instantly rejoins the game.” The conscious pen, so to speak, helps the poem to discover its own design, which will include the strange, or as he says: “There is no such thing as a poem unless it entails the unaccustomed.” Or this from the Chinese-American poet Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge: “The chance occurrence is remarkable, when it appears to happen by design.”

George Quasha writes:

“When I do think of how [my axial art] is art I think principle art. That is, it is not conceptual in conceptualizing itself as realized object in advance of the act of its making; its conceptual force is surrendered to a principle, which I am calling axial. The principle in this instance may be stated this way: Any entity upright in gravitational space (in this case a person drawing) has an axis (the spine) which allows one to behave coherently in dynamic balance; if one operates predominantly from that space, freely and with integrity, rather than attempting to control the full outcome on an exterior surface, certain revelatory states of attention and consciousness may inscribe themselves in the resulting action and effects. (This species of drawing is probably closer to certain open-process improvisatory dance approaches than to most art drawing, and in my practice is influenced by decades of t’ai chi chuan.) I draw with two hands simultaneously, usually with multiple implements in a hand (whether graphite or brushes with ink or paint), disposed by the lower center of the body and leaving arms/wrists/joints energetically released. The bodymind state of intention, integrity and listening determine the outcome interactively with the materials and the event space. The result is neither chance-determined (as in the theory and practice of John Cage or Jackson Mac Low) nor automatic (as in the theory and practice of certain Surrealists)—I regard “chance” and “automaticity” as belief systems and encompassing narratives which I don’t engage; axiality in my view is self-organized, self-configuring, and liminal to interior and exterior forces. An axially realized entity is in some sense intelligent within itself”.