Wednesday, February 25, 2009
Hannah Weiner is one of the guiding spirits of the Ad Hoc Shop as introduced to me by Lee Ann Brown. There is a video in three parts on You Tube posted by the tireless James Kalm, the photographs of Hannah with her cat were shown amongst others that evening by Carolee Schneeman. I have been searching the internet for photographs of her semaphore poems but will have to settle for excepting an article here.
poem as code
From the moment she took up writing, as Weiner related to Bernstein in a 1995 interview, it was never a matter of self-expression, but a means of displacing the self. She began to write poetry in 1963, and upon receiving a scholarship to the New School for Social Research, she took writing classes with Kenneth Koch and Bill Berkson, although, as Weiner notes, she "could not write New York School poetry" (LINEbreak).  Weiner recalls, in fact, that she felt compelled to work with found texts (a discovery she made through her association with "talk-poet" David Antin).  Weiner's Code Poems, a compilation of poems and performance pieces written in the mid-1960s, is one such result of having encountered a sufficiently alienated form of language with which to compose. The texts in Code Poems are based on a synthetic, nineteenth-century set of given messages comprising the International Code of Signals for the Use of All Nations, "a visual signal system for ships at sea" (3). Code Poems should be considered a landmark collection in the American avant-garde for a number of reasons. As Jackson Mac Low writes, "Weiner's Code Poems are notably original. Outside of a small group of aleatoric poems I made c. 1963 ... I know of no other code-book poems written in the 1960s. I also know that Weiner, when composing hers, knew nothing of mine: I have transcribed none of them from my notebooks" (97).  The significance of her poetic experiment lies not only in the novelty of employing this medium, but in the way she tests the limits of the material to comment on language. John Perreault observes that Weiner was "asking certain questions before it was fashionable to ask them. Is language a code? Is poetry a code? Can you use one code to describe another code? Can personal expression be avoided?" (8). Code Poems makes the compelling case that the official messages encrypted in the code harbor secrets hidden only from themselves as self-identical: within them lie communiques of an alternate totality, heterogeneous and cohere nt.