Lyrical Materialism, a working theory

In June, I published four poems along with a statement of poetic research in the dynamic journal Common-Place. The statement gave me the opportunity to work through some of my thinking about the how and why of what I am writing. I’m reprinting it here since the Common-Place website makes it hard to find past issues of their poetic research section.

Poetic Research Department


The poems published here take a lyrical materialist approach. They are part of a series on which I am at work called Palimpsests.

Lyrical materialism is my term for an aesthetic approach that takes beauty as its object of concern and finds it in the world as it is. As a post-modern poetic, it is engaged with the problems of indeterminacy in language. It asserts that nothing more than the material reality of the world is required for beauty to exist, which is to claim that aesthetic is a value over and above self-interest.These four lyrical materialist poems depend for their cultural depth on informed awareness of historical context.

Palimpsests explores the theme of presence and absence with respect to a sense of place through the aesthetics of functional (even if lingering) industrial spaces. These poems embody the sounds and rhythms of factories, industrial farmlands, and ports. Whether rural or urban, the places of these poems have survived the shift to a post-industrial economy and merit deep attention for the role they play in constructing the materiality and aesthetic of our daily experiences. Sacramento, California’s port; Columbia, South Carolina’s last grist mill; Iowa’s industrial cornfields; and Black Mountain College’s repurposed campus all share a history of transformation.

“At this Point, a Confluence” is based on research into the efforts beginning in 1860 to dredge the flood-prone Sacramento River and raise the streets of California’s fledgling capital city. The emerging railroad businesses invested heavily, since Sacramento was the western terminus of the first transcontinental line. Buildings, streets, and sidewalks were literally raised on jacks to create a new, floating street level, high above the flood line. The first loading docks and walkways were built from the wood and boilers of disassembled steamships that had carried miners and supplies to the city’s river banks. In addition to traditional archival research, I used digital tools to align and merge historical maps with contemporary satellite imagery in various layers of transparency. The resulting digital palimpsest allowed me to see how the path of the American River and the patterns of city development have changed since the 1860s. The poem’s concluding notion, that the transcontinental railroad “obliterated time and space,” is taken from historian Richard White’s Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America (2012).

1. “Steamer Landing, and Pacific Railroad Depot. Sacramento City, ” photographic print, published by Lawrence & Houseworth (1866). Courtesy of the Prints and Photographs Division of the Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. Click on image to enlarge in a new window.

Dutch immigrant B.R. Crooner founded the Adluh grist mill in Columbia, S.C., around 1900. The Allen Brothers Milling Company continues to operate the mill alongside boutique hotels in the heart of a revitalized former industrial district. The origins of the name Adluh are a mystery, yet the enigmatic word—lit in blinking neon red capital letters atop the tall building—has been a beacon for generations of residents of South Carolina’s capital city. As Carl Sandburg put it in “Skyscraper,” which was first published in Chicago Poems, “Spelled in electric fire on the roof are words telling miles of houses and people where to buy a thing for money. The sign speaks till midnight.” One local legend holds that Adluh is the mirrored spelling of the founder’s daughter’s name, Hulda. However, census records do not bear this out.

“Succession in Iowa” paratactically sets technology at odds with what is missing from the landscape: the herds of buffalo that once roamed the great plains and were hunted nearly to extinction. The poem’s final predicate, which links changes in technology with changes in the biotic community, illustrates a normative element of lyrical materialism. Images like those from the first half of the nineteenth century showing herds of buffalo that extend beyond the horizon contrast sharply with the “Sketches in the far West” from Harpers Weekly in 1874, showing men curing buffalo hides and bones at a trader’s store. The piles of bones in the background typify the scale of the killings.

2. “On the Prairie,” Robert Hinshelwood, engraver, after W. H. Beard (image and text 26 x 32 cm., on sheet 46 x 58 c.), William Pate & Co. (New York, 1869?). Courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society, Worcester, Massachusetts. Click on image to enlarge in a new window.

3. “Sketches in the Far West-Curing Hides and Bones,” wood engraving, Frenzeny & Tavernier. Illustration in Harper’s Weekly (April 4, 1874 suppl., p. 307). Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. Click on image to enlarge in a new window.

The final poem, “Palimpsest,” is perhaps the most difficult and layered of the four, because the form of the poem is structured around the changing layers of information in a map that persists through time. A palimpsest is a document on which writing or drawing has been erased to make room for later writing and on which traces of the previous draft remain visible. Palimpsests are common not only in times when writing materials are scarce but also in times of exploration, when boundaries are contentious. A palimpsest, then, is the metaphor that I employ in this poem for the shifting boundaries driving the avant garde.

The Black Mountain College, the radical campus experiment outside Asheville, N.C., operated between 1933 and 1957 in two locations. After the college closed, both campuses converted to other uses. During its brief existence, BMC included among its faculty some of the most pioneering visual, literary, and sound artists of the mid-20th century. Josef Albers, Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, Willem de Kooning, John Cage, and Buckminster Fuller all held teaching positions at one of BMC’s two campuses. The poem opens with an image of wild turkeys that continue to use daily the paths which they have used since a time before human encroachment and despite the development (and therefore changed map) that has grown up around them. “Palimpsest” closes by exploring the limits of what information maps convey, how maps themselves are historical documents the moment at which they are produced, and the inability of maps to account for changes over time.