Q. Russell Atkins was an experimental poet. What's so experimental about Atkins?
“Experimental” is always a vexed term in discussions of poetry and poetics, but I suspect virtually all readers would agree that whatever “experimental” may denote in the world of poetry, Russell Atkins is an instance of it. The grammar of the question is interesting, though. “What’s so experimental about Atkins?” Striking, because the experimentalism of the mid-twentieth century has worked its way so deeply into the core of American poetry that much of it doesn’t seem so experimental to us today, much as the Bop music of the 40s that sounded so strange to ears raised on swing, or the Free Jazz of the sixties that sounded strange to some ears tuned to Bop, never sounded strange to me, and yet Atkins remains an outlier, someone whose work can still confound as it compels.
I’ve written before about the problem of people construing the term “experimental” too narrowly, of thinking of experiment in the arts within the parameters of scientific experiment. Zola spoke of his “experimental” novels and described his approach as very nearly akin to science. Having constructed a social situation and placed his characters within it, he would have readers believe, he then saw what would happen. I’m not the only one to harbor doubts, but I also don’t read French and may overstate the case. Clearly, though, few poets work that way. You could think of some poets who use aleatoric methods, Cage and Mac Low come to mind, as truly conducting experiments. The composition itself is not really all that indeterminate, in the sense that once the poet has set his algorithm to work, the outcome is in fact determined, no matter how indeterminate the outcome of that reading may prove, but the poet himself does not know at the outset what words will be thrown onto the page by the process.
But that is not Atkins’s way. In his instance, as I’ve argued over the years, we need to think of “experimental” in its earlier sense of experiential. The poem is not a verbal window opening onto a vista beyond. The poem is not a communicative channel through which content gets transmitted. The poem is a thing made of words (and other markings!), an event in space/time, a field in which poet and reader enter and create and interact.
Russell Atkins has expressed some pride over the years in being an early Black experimentalist, and has staked a claim to being the first African American concrete poet. He has experimented in music (as in his composition “Objects for Piano”) and in prose (essays like his works on phenomenologies of sound and poetry) as well as in poetry. To this day, few critics have written on the topic of African American visual poetics, or, for that matter, even the visual elements in Black verse. Readers often don’t know what to do with the opening lines of an Atkins poem sometimes called “The Long Place,” which, in addition to scattering letters across the page, includes scored lines and an Arabic numeral among its features. How are we to read those angular lines. Are they signs of division? Representations of a hilly slope? Just lines? And how are we to read their relationships to the dispersed words on the page?
Another category of experimentation in Atkins’s work is the syntactic. Modernist fragmentation is one thing. Quite another is an Atkins poem that opens: “the across and rain of away. I took shred of an umbrella” – This is not “the proper word in the proper place” in any customary sense, but that is hardly Atkins’s interest as an artist. In an age when condensare was the watchword of good poets and prose writers alike, when the poem was to operate as cleanly and efficiently as a machine, Atkins went a different direction, engaging in, to use his terminology, conspicuous technique. This was to make of him an experimentalist among the experimenters. Rather than the hard, clean surface of a Williams or a Hughes, Atkins, Poe-like in this respect, sought writing that would never let you forget that it was writing, writing that made no pretense of delivering its audience to a predigested meaning. We are meant, if we can speak of intentions in a case like this, to stay with the writing on the page, the sounds in the ear, even as our minds seek to make connections outside the poem. Many cultures, the Japanese being a prime example, have held the view that the great work of poetry is one which is completed in the mind of the reader. An Atkins poem is a made object with which we contend, remaking it in our readings. When we encounter lines like “ambition yores behind–“ our work of meaning making is seemingly unending, which is the point. “Familiarity / coins more commonplaces” – but there will never be anything commonplace about this steadfastly unfamiliar poetry, a poetry that cannot be reduced to a singular message, that cannot be satisfied with the sighs of satisfaction from a catered-to audience.
I don’t need a poet to tell me what I already think, the thought dressed up in pleasant rhythms. I don’t really want a poet to tell me how she feels, the telling garbed in overwrought imagery. I want poetry that makes me think something new, and then does it again upon rereading. That’s what I find in Atkins. With Norman Jordan, he created the Muntu poets of Cleveland. During the Black Arts Movement, he wrote of a phenomenological nationalism, which had a close cousin in the Dasein poets of Washington, D.C. These, too, were experiments of a sort, as much as was his poetry and music.
Atkins may well have been, as he claims, the first African American to create truly concrete verse. What is of such interest to me is that, much the way Modernists said poetry was news that stays news, Atkins’s work remains an unassimilated experiment to this day. Since I wrote long chapters on his work in the books Black Chant and Integral Music we’ve begun to see stirrings of renewed interest in his work. Craig Dworkin’s wonderful ECLIPSE web site has made downloadable copies of many Atkins chapbooks available, and I strongly encourage people to get those texts, volumes you’re not likely to find in the library. Also, Kevin Prufer and Michael Dumanis have recently edited a superb volume titled Russell Atkins: On the Life & Work of an American Master, which includes a healthy sampling of Atkins’s work along with several new essays on his career.