by on Mar.24, 2011

It is amazing to me that almost every time I come across the word “ornamental” it is accompanied by the word “excess” or “excessive.” The one word demands the other.

This can in part be traced to modernism, to the very origins of modernism, for example in Ezra Pound’s various imagist manifesto:

1. To use the language of common speech, but to employ always the exact word, not the nearly-exact, nor the merely decorative word.

5. To produce poetry that is hard and clear, never blurred nor indefinite.

6. Finally, most of us believe that concentration is of the very essence of poetry…

Of course, Imagism soon became too ornamental for Pound, so he rejected it as Amygism – ie it was too feminine.

But there’s another element to that and that seems to be Modernism’s idea of itself as a muscular, healthy body.

The ornamental is feminine and ornamental, but also an unhealthy and fatty “indefinite.” The fatty, ornamental body is related to the past; the modern body is healthier, more fit, more energetic.

You see this all the time in our friend Ron Silliman’s modernist rhetoric – his favoring “rigor,” his dismissals of “soft [or fat] surrealism,” his emphasis on the “good [not deaf, not unhealthy] ear” (a term that came up notably when he was talking about why he didn’t trust foreigners’ skills in translating). But it’s wrong to just single out Silliman; this rhetoric is all over the place. And of course it ties into anti-kitsch rhetoric of modernism: kitsch is ornamental. It doesn’t move into depth, it moves zig-zag on the surface.

For a more interesting take on fat, we may go to Swedish poet Aase Berg, who wrote a manifesto in the late 90s drawing an explicit connection between poetry and the body: “It’s Not OK to be a Fatso.”

Here’s an excerpt from that:

I hope for poetic expressions that are aggressive, baroque and esoteric; I prefer ridiculous and embarrassing to perfection. On the literary market, which is dominated by the aesthetic and social ideals of the upper middleclass, it is unacceptable to be excessive in any way – one adjective too many and you’re out. There’s a stubborn cliché that the sober, quiet and elegant, the so-called “simple” is categorically more informative than the noisy. The fleshy, screamy and overdone, the vulgar, desperate and pathetic are so taboo in our culture that there must be dead rat buried in the phenomenon.

And the other day, Joyelle wrote about the blubbery quality of Haryette Mullen’s poetry:

I do not want to argue that Harryette Mullen’s Muse & Drudge is a necropastoral, exactly, although, to paraphrase Marvin Bell, it is a necropastoral inexactly, inexactness being one measure of the necropastoral itself, the balance that won’t zero, the membrane that serves both as medium and material, the deformation zone, the text as a site which passes itself through itself. Mullen’s work is not as Gothic nor as herbaciously inclined as most of the Necropastoral, but it is a kind of bios where bodies are media registering the waxing and waning, accumulating and debriding material of the text. Moreover, like the Necropastoral, Muse & Drudge is a flexing membrane, a hyperpermeable and permeated membrane, a paradoxical, non-binary zone which refuses to be economical but generates doubling, impossible spectres.

Another interesting take on this fat/moralistic dynamic might be Dadaist George Grosz’s paintings of capitalists with their curvacious prostitutes, both of which suggest excess (and crime, there are frequent lust murders in these images). But Grosz was obviously turned on by the curvy women and when he drew a picture of his wife, she is indistinguishable from the prostitutes, while showing himself as an automaton.

Just thought of this: In Ron’s defense, I remember him talking about Larry Eigner and how Eigner’s troubled breathing called into question Charles Olsons’ mantra of “the breath.”

5 comments for this entry:
  1. James Pate

    I’ve been reading a book on Paul Thek–Lucas also has a great poem about him in the new Action, Yes I noticed–and it struck me that his meat pieces are examples of works that bring together the ornamental (they’re bright sci-fi sculptures for the most part, objects that could be used to decorate some ultra-spare room of the near future) and the excessive (they include bright red or purple (wax) meat).

    The same for “The Tomb”: you have a pretty block-pyramid inside of which is a figure of a mutilated body (a figure of Thek himself). On one level, the ornamental could be said to “contain” the excessive. But on a more interesting level, the meat implodes the ornamental, creating a truly baroque aesthetic.

  2. Johannes

    Just noticed: I didn’t give credit to Camille Rose Garcia, who made the “fat,” ornamental painting at the top of the post.

  3. Lara Glenum

    “The meat implodes the ornamental, creating a truly baroque aesthetic.”

    Hooray! Go meat!

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