Monday, February 4, 2019

Steve McCaffery | Ow’s Waif and Other Poems

Steve McCaffery
Ow’s Waif and Other Poems
Toronto, Canada: Coach House Press, 1975
[160 pp], 16 x 12 cm., hardcover
Edition of 500

Concrete poetry by Toronto author Steve McCaffery, in the form of a "comically abbreviated" version of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's 1845 collection of poems The Waif.  McCaffery aimed to create "a near to total separation of form from content, the entire 'borrowing' of content as a prepared word-supply and a creative concentration on the invention of the poems' forms as verbal fields free of presupposed or prerequisite rule structures of grammar and syntax."

The work is a collaboration of sorts, designed and illustrated with innovative typography and ‘Instant Lettering collages’ by Robert Macdonald. Macdonald was then a prolific freelance designer (50 titles a year, reportedly) and later ran the The Banff Publishing Workshop.

"Artist's Book may not seem like quite the right term for the resultant productions. Illustrations, for example the reproductions of old engravings underlying the text in In England Now that Spring and the anatomical drawings in Panopticon, are sparse, and the innovative typography, used in the early works like Ow's Waif, gives way, in the recent Black Debt, to a long, continuous block of large type with justified left and right margins. Compared to, say, John Baldessari's or Martha Rosler's artists' books, McCaffery's look amateurish and a shade drab. One would not expect to see them in art galleries or at "book art" exhibitions.

But as Johanna Drucker has shown in her recent The Century of Artists' Books, the only distinguishing feature of "artists' books," a genre that has come into its own only in the twentieth century, is that "they call attention to the specific character of a book's identity while they embody the expressive complexity of the book as a communicative form." Drucker places McCaffery's work in the chapter "Books as Verbal Exploration," and more specifically under "Typewriter Works." Her emphasis on the book qua book, with its tension between the apparent conventionality of the codex form and and the "inexhaustible possibilities" of its composition, echoes an earlier discussion of artists' books by Richard Kostelanetz. "[An] essential distinction," he writes, "separates imaginative books from conventional books. In the latter, syntactically familiar sentences are set in rectangular blocks of uniform type (resembling soldiers in a parade), and these are then "designed" into pages that look like each other (and like pages we have previously seen).

An imaginative book, by definition, attempts to realize something else with syntax, with format, with pages, with covers, with size, with shapes, with sequence, with structure, with binding--with any or all of these elements." In this sense, McCaffery's are certainly exemplars of book art, pages functioning as "trellises" upon which lettrist and verbal experiments are hung, the whole giving a very different impression from the individual page on the one hand and the conventional illustrated book on the other.


These "supply texts"--the Concise Oxford Dictionary, the works of Shakespeare, the I Ching, various newspapers, magazines and abandoned drafts of earlier poems--were subjected to "numerous chance and random techniques to assist me in word selection and partial syntactic structuring to a degree such as would keep me excluded from the content part of the compositions." The reader will recognize this as a technique similar to Jackson Mac Low*'s chance-generated poems and especially to John Cage's "writings through" texts from the Bible to Finnegans Wake."

* Note: the copy of the Ow’s Waif and Other Poems above (from The Idea of the Book site) is inscribed to Fluxus artist and concrete poet Jackson Mac Low, November '75.

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