January 21, 2005

A Famous poet?

Lawrence Upton writes

“The brief online text (on the Text Festival website –
www.textfestival.com) says that Cobbing is "famous for his use of the photocopier"

This is often said and it isn't untrue, but... IN FACT he was first famous for his use of the ink duplicator If one were to date his career from SOUND POEMS / ABC IN SOUND, then the photocopier came into use in his hands slightly over half way through the career. If one were to date his career from his earliest arttistic use of the ink duplicator which he chose to preserve, then the photocopier came into use during the last 3rd of his career.

This does not invalidate at all the work he did with the photocopier, which is often *at *least as good as the ink duplicator work; but to stress the photocopier is misleading.

The blurb speaks of "his classic poems". One has to guess what that means, but I would have thought it is likely to refer to poems which, when they are graphically-oriented, rely on effects obtained by creative misuse of the ink-duplicator and not the photocopier”

Having discovered more and more about Bob Cobbing during the preparation for the forthcoming retrospective, and having discussed him and his work with many people who knew and loved him, including Jennifer Cobbing, I know that this is true. Bob was a remarkable multifaceted artist. What interests me in Lawrence’s response is more the issue of how language works and the place of compromised intention. It should be clear to anyone that the website (and forthcoming) brochure are simply promotional vehicles – shorthand summaries as accurate and close to the artist’s spirit and work as ‘it’s the real thing’ is to Coca Cola. The key work is ‘blurb’. The marketing department could have used the slogan: ‘it’s a sugary drink full of chemicals’ but that wouldn’t have sold it. The BLURB on website has as much relationship to Bob’s work as Coke’s claim to reality; it’s purpose was not to accurately encapsulate the defining characteristic of his work but to get people to drink it. There was actually a fair amount of agonising about whether the website should work differently, featuring much more work and analysis but it was decided that the important thing was making it as transparent as possible to ensure people could access what was actually on.

There are two questions Lawrence raises: fame and ‘classic poems’. I think the definition of fame (or should I say ‘a definition/my favourite of fame’ in case there are any pedants out there) is you are famous when someone knows you and you don’t know them. Putting aside the repost that a famous poet is a contradiction in terms, is someone’s (poet or anything else) fame solely definable to a single aspect of their life/work? And who decides? Is Paul Gascoigne a famous footballer or a famous drunk? Is Gary Glitter a famous pop singer or a famous paedophile? If you don’t know the whole of someone’s oeuvre but acknowledge their fame then while it may be inaccurate, it is legitimate to equate that fame to their later production. The use of the term ‘classic poems’ touches on an issue that I expect I will return to in future, essentially the process and power determinations involved in the creation of a canon. The Establishment are very good at this and have successfully written many good poets out of history - sometimes you can even wonder whether Modernism happened. By defining some Cobbing poems as classics we are putting a marker down that Cobbing created classic poems. Why are they classics? Because we say so.

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