Post 18: 7/26/05
The Addison Street Project
On 2 July 2005 I visited the Addison Street Project, a one-block stretch of literary landscape in Berkeley, California, where some 126 quotations from poets who lived, prospered, died in, or just visited Berkeley are installed. The project was curated by Robert Hass and Jessica Fisher, and designed by David Lance Goines; the selections range from early Californians to poets of the Silver Age of San Francisco to the high modernists, the San Francisco Renaissance, and the Language School. The installation of the plaques, it turns out, is also split between the progressive, nearly teleological argument on the north side of the street—ranging from Native American songs to language writing—versus an eclectic mix of poets of the present day, not organized by epoch or affiliation, on the south side. Between synchrony and diachrony, in other words, runs the no-man's-land of the street, installing a great divide that may be further interpreted as populism versus tradition, vernacular versus elite—much like the split in Bay Area poetry during the "Poetry Wars" between "elitist" formalists and "populist" expressivists. To be perfectly honest, as soon as I figured out this split, I devoted the time I had for the visit to documenting the sequence and argument of the north side of the street—which is where my own work, and that of most of my forebears and friends, is located. Uncannily, apart from Gertrude Stein and George Oppen, most of what I take to be my own poetic lineage, historical and present-day, is on the same side of the street.
There is a certain logic to this divide if it is taken in the context of the intentions of the developers, which I assume to be, first and foremost, to educate the public to the greater good of poetry as a shared legacy and present horizon of the city of Berkeley, with its specific humanist, progressivist, and countercultural history. So it is the people of Berkeley and their uses of poetry that the project addresses to begin with. These uses may be simply to provide a evanescent moment of reflection during the downtown business day, when one may have reason to walk down Addison Street from Shattuck to Milvia on any number of quotidian tasks, and one becomes suddenly aware of the poetry at one's feet. "Why didn't I notice that before," and "How long has that been here," a passerby may wonder—or she may simply not notice at all. On the day I visited, very few if any of the pedestrians on the street seemed to look at or care about the plaques; in fact, there were quite a number of garbage containers, construction site cones, and sawhorses obstructing them. The scale of the plaques is anything but monumental, and it would seem to take an act of prior decision to stop and notice them. The audience for poetry in a more quotidian framework, then, would probably be those who had already chosen to look and to read. At night, I can imagine a somewhat different manner of use, as patrons of the several (quite recently opened?) theaters and cafés on the block might pause, in a more receptive mood, to read what is written on the very firmament after having taken in a play, say, at the Berkeley Repertory Theater. In an aesthetic mood, or in a similar state of open receptivity, the uses of poetry will be much more available.
Given that the targeted manner of use for the plaques is nonintentional and contingent, either evanescent or meditative, how does their poetics, as it were, install itself in the viewers? Here, again, synchrony versus diachrony stakes out a rough axiomatics for poetry as an introject. What does the structure of our experience—time, place, and manner—have to do with the way we are hailed, in the ideological sense, by poetry? The theory of the quotidian reader seems to be that, much as a passenger on a bus suddenly looks up and reads poetry where there once might have been simply advertising, there is a fleeting substitution—ostranenie working on our unconscious processes—that puts in place an edifying, redemptive message where once was a commercial, reified one. If there is to be consciousness at all, we need to see its structures; poetry in public breaks through the gridlock of commercial habitus to find an originary spark. This poetry could be just about anything and still do its work, although there seemed be a particular assumption, on the south side of the street, that a politics of identity is the privileged vehicle. Thus, the implicit assumption is that synchronic poetry is a poetry of the moment that counters habit by substituting a moment of identification (which must also be a moment of disidentification as, of course, not all identities reading poetry in public places are the same). Identity is synchronic interpellation, in any case. And, it turns out, this poetry can be just about anything that provides difference—street poet Julia Vinograd blowing bubbles on Telegraph Avenue—as long as it counters the normative. The normative just is the profound lack of identification the public world contains us within.
What, then, is the theory operative on the other side of the street, the diachronic and historical, where examples are placed in relation to specific traditions and tendencies? Here, it is the gap between the Ohlone song and an inscription on the wall of the Angel Island immigration center, on one hand, or the felicitous connection between poems by Kenneth Rexroth and Gary Snyder, on the other, that constructs or dismantles narratives that depend on a sequence of reading. The time of the quotidian, then, opens up to the continuity of—dare one say it—tradition, if not that precisely the continuous dreamtime of the modern or postmodern condition. The work I am represented by, a section of the prose poem "Real Estate" (written about 1978 in San Francisco and published in 1–10 , roughly midway between my student days at UC in the 1960s and our return to a house on Stuart Street in 1986), fits remarkably into this logic. On the one hand, as in the mode of poetry in public, it opens time in the quotidian by means of an interruption in the normal orders of cognition; it is a moment of nonnarrative ostranenie releasing us from habit. On the other, it defines that moment in spatial terms, as indicated ironically by title, "Real Estate." In this sense, it follows the site-specific work of Robert Smithson—which it comments on directly—in making an aesthetic, receptive, meditative state of consciousness (or dreaming, it doesn't matter which) into a site for reflection as much as a time in which one reflects. This conflation of time and space—a political argument, if there ever was one—is anticipated by Denise Levertov's account of the street politics of the 1969 People's Park riots, now returned "for all time" on the streets. "The War comes home to us . . ."—would that we would never forget! "Real Estate," however, assumes in an agonistic way that history is forgotten, but its installation on the street portends a reversal. "The cloud arrives at ground zero, ready to stop at once" is just a negative inverse of action.
Poetry opens a hole in time and creates a space for reflection. The argument on the north side of the street is that this has been happening for a long time, ever since the Native Americans (or any people—poetry, as Roman Jakobson remarked, is one of the few cultural universals). History, then, is organized along an axis of nonnarration; it is only the space between instances of the poetic where the connections of narrative can be made. The selections of the Addison Street Project do tend to notice this special relation of nonnarrative to narrative in poetry; while many poems have narrative content, many do not, or only partially. It is the suspension of the one in the other—of lyric in the continuity of meditation, of narrative within the dissociation of an instant—that makes the installation both aesthetically and politically effective. Even if my view of it is only partial, in other words, that is all right; working the partial and incomplete is a major aspect of poetics. I was moved, then, both by the attempt of the installation to be historical (in installing a series of specific references to a history, both literary and civic) and at the same time by the sense that it really doesn't matter whether the historical point is made. The best tradition of public art since the 1930s—from Diego Rivera's murals to the myriad installations of the WPA—has always understood that such a refusal of attention is in fact a public good. The public wants to be entertained, or they don't give a damn—and the emergence of political consciousness takes this into account. Patrons streaming from bars, restaurants, and theaters step on poetry on their way to whatever, and this indifference must always be understood. The point is the make that unconsciousness beautiful, and, as with Williams's crowd at the ballpark, to realize the stakes of the game.
In the growing genre of urban installation art, postmodern heir to the public works of the Popular Front, this is a highly successful example. One hopes its uses will continue to be promulgated, as intended, through acts of sudden illumination and sustained reflection. And one hopes, as well, that Berkeley's Public Works Department will give better instruction to those responsible for its care on how to preserve the site. Already, any number of the plaques are chipped or spray-painted; significant damage is visible after only one year. One has to wonder what real duration will come of the "for all time" of the work's monumental promise to install the evanescent in stone. This is work we should be passionately committed to preserving. The stakes of human accomplishment are just too high—as with Larry Eigner's illumination, never more perceptible than in the gap between "have fun," and "they say"—now brilliantly disclosed as the ground under our feet. Which the people step on, they could care less, they are on their way somewhere else, to have fun. The poet dissolving into the "they say" of the people in their pleasure, leaving his mark for all time.
I can only express my gratitude to the organizers of the project for including my work, and for situating it in a rich historical and aesthetic context of those near and far. My closest friends and colleagues. People I don't know and those who attacked my work in the press. Distant forebears whom I would grant all recognition, and anomalous inclusions of the most dubious taste. No, this is an excellent piece of work that will serve as a model for inculcating poetry in the public.
[Photos and text copyright © Barrett Watten 2005. For a complete account of the project, and the text of the poems included, see Robert Hass and Jessica Fisher, eds., The Addison Street Anthology: Berkeley's Poetry Walk (Berkeley: Heydey Books, 2004). Not to be reprinted without permission, except in short excerpts in electronic media.]