From a Distance All Poems Look the Same

In view of the radical distribution plans, The Word’s Head project at the Oslo Pilot project space demonstrates a surprisingly conservative view of poetry.

The Word's Head, installasjonsbilde fra Oslo Pilots lokaler. Foto: Nikklas Lello.
The Word’s Head, installation view from Oslo Pilot’s office. Photo: Nikklas Lello.

“Dying means you’ll never be alone again,” chanted Gunnar Wærness in a well-modulated Trøndelag dialect during the poetry reading that took place at the launch of The Word’s Head project, held at the Oslo Pilot project offices on 17 October. An international group of poets has been invited to contribute to what will eventually become an anthology of poems – and the first publication in the Oslo Pilot series Cycle Wording – New Editorial Line. Behind all this are two curators, Per Gunnar Eeg-Tverbakk and Eva González-Sancho, together with an eight-person editorial staff. Concurrently with the new publication the project also aims to put the poetry out into the public sphere; exactly how and in what format will be negotiated separately for each individual contribution. At any rate, all the poems were first presented here in the freshly redecorated premises of Oslo Pilot in Prinsens gate.

The wider public sphere that the poems will eventually enter was symbolically present at the launch: the intruding noise of machinery being operated just outside the door made it difficult to hear what was being said at times. The Swedish-Latvian poet Juris Kronbergs even picked up on the theme as he read, incorporating the sound of the diggers into the poem he was reading out, much to the delight of the assembled audience. Considering this was a poetry event that took place at two o’clock in the afternoon on a Saturday, the around forty people assembled, which included six of the contributing poets, must be considered a decent turn-out. Whether they constituted a group representative of the wider public is another question. Most likely they didn’t. But then again I doubt anyone was expecting an avalanche of popular enthusiasm, so to point out that one didn’t take place is tantamount to kicking in open doors.


Fra Gunnar Wærness' opplesning under lanseringen av The Word's Head. Foto: Nikklas Lello.
Gunnar Wærness reading at the launch of The Word’s Head. Photo: Nikklas Lello.

Even so, a reminder of the marginal position occupied by this genre is merited when poetry is ascribed political potential, as is the case there: in her opening speech, González-Sancho stated that poetry represents resistance against capitalism’s occupation of language. Shortly afterwards she rhetorically raised the question of the relevance of poetry, immediately proceeding to dismiss that question as “irrelevant”, enlisting Franco Bifo Berardi and Slavoj Žižek as guarantors. Given that Oslo Pilot claims to conduct “research”, albeit research of a loosely defined, art-world kind, such premature conclusions are rather suspect. The possibility that poetry is mainly an existentialist lifebuoy for a limited number of sensitive individuals while being completely irrelevant to the wider public should remain open (however unpalatable the thought may be from a curatorial point of view). A more apt point of departure for a supposedly research-based project would be questions such as: does poetry have any social relevance at all?

Discussions about the social function of critical art and poetry often evade the question of what actually happens in the encounters between such works and their audience (if any audience exists). What is the real effect of encountering poetry? No single, clear-cut answer can be provided to that question; far too many factors are in play for that to be possible. This very uncertainty is what makes it so tempting to pile on speculative claims about how these modes of cultural expression fulfil important social functions, such as keeping capitalism reined in.

Leaving the question of its effect on society aside, the waning popularity of poetry (except within the field of arts) suggests that people generally do not find their encounters with poetry particularly engaging. Is it likely that the broken-up format of poetry is well suited to prompt “new ideas, thoughts and realities”, as the curators claim the project sets out to do? At the risk of reaffirming prejudices about the average reader’s lack of interest in modern poetry, it is tempting to conclude that the likelihood of any such optimum encounters between poem and reader decreases dramatically when the poem is lifted off of the book page and out into the public space. This is not to say that the plans for more widespread dissemination are without merit; what is lacking is a greater will to address the issues of relevance and impact.

The Word's Head, utskrifter av dikt til utdeling. Foto: Nikklas Lello.
The Word’s Head, printouts of the upcoming anthology. Photo: Nikklas Lello.


The Risograph printer purchased by Oslo Pilot – coupled with their announcement of this purchase and the prominent position given to the printer in their exhibition – accentuates the fact that mass distribution is the order of the day. In fact, the curators come very close to making this somewhat hyped, serigraphy-like printing technology a main motif of the event. The printer certainly catches the eye more effectively than the poetry: Crisp printouts of the upcoming anthology have been printed onto sheets of paper in the A3 format, most of them retaining their usual font size, and these sheets are hung shoulder by shoulder on the light grey walls. Identical prints were also placed in piles on low shelves, inviting you to help yourself. During the launch, someone was apparently pasting these printouts onto the walls and noticeboards of the city, too.

The exhibition situation quite tellingly reveals something about what the art context does to the poems: to impatient observers a display of visual individuality is the most efficient way for an object to draw notice. The poems’ general focus on their own text-specific issues caused most of them to sink unresistingly into the wider exhibition set-up. Humbly occupying the centre of the outsized pieces of paper, these unassuming islands of text primarily act as pictures of poems. It should be noted that the project does not end with the poetry being presented as Risograph prints on the walls of the Oslo Pilot rooms; the project is still in its infancy. Even so, the situation tellingly demonstrates part of the challenge inherent in taking poetry out of its original setting. The public space will also constitute a compromised reading environment, perhaps even more so than the art space, thereby entailing a risk of the poems disappearing altogether. In this context it may be relevant to paraphrase the Wærness quote above in a modified version: For a poem, to no longer be alone with the reader is to die – in a way.

The Word's Head, installasjonsbilde fra Oslo Pilots lokaler. Foto: Nikklas Lello.
The Word’s Head, installation view from Oslo Pilot’s office. Photo: Nikklas Lello.

Is it necessary to know that a poem is a poem in order to meaningfully interact with it? Many art projects staged outside the usual art spaces employ a dual approach to their audiences: the core demographic interact with the work retrospectively, through critique and documentation, whereas a larger group are more or less oblivious participants in processes they do not necessarily recognise as art. When poems are distributed to unprepared audiences through new channels, similar problems will inevitably arise – depending, of course, on the exact nature of the transferral and how radical it becomes. Will this seem like poetry at all? Will it be necessary to use preambles and announcements along the lines of “here’s a poem”?


The function of poetry need not rely on reaching a large audience, or even on personal encounters with dedicated readers. Perhaps poetry – whatever its social function may be – operates beyond the formative encounter between reader and text. The mantra coined by the conceptual poet Kenneth Goldsmith, “Assume no readership”, points very poignantly to the implications of a poetics where the reader’s interaction with the actual text is only of secondary importance; the poem is a concept that exists and circulates independently from the text. It is true that Goldsmith’s lethargic method of appropriation can become something of a self-fulfilling prophecy, itself the cause of the decline in readership it predicts. Even so his pessimism certainly seems relevant, especially for poetry that chooses to join the hectic flow of information found in public spaces today.

In their selection, Oslo Pilot demonstrate remarkably little interest in this conceptual aspect of contemporary poetry. Most of the works feature language that is dense with meaning and intention. The closest thing you get to a de-literalisation of the poem may be a rawlings’s terse texts (“x x x”, “Det er ugler i mosen/Det er ulver i mosen/Det er elger i mosen”)* written in black type against a dark grey background. Here, too, the poem presents itself to us as a sensuous, irreducible whole. Indeed, rawlings can be said to presuppose an ideal reader to an even greater extent than the other texts because this poem quite literally incorporates its backdrop; by including the horizon against which they will be read, these poems insist on an almost total autonomy.

Fra The Word's Head, a rawlings bidrag. Foto: Nikklas Lello.
Installation view from The Word’s Head, texts by a rawlings. Photo: Nikklas Lello.

Some random white spots in the black areas – presumably unintentional traces left by the printing process – imbue rawlings’s text-images with a painterly patina and augment the impression of being face to face with a unique piece. Terje Thorsen’s “ei lita blå maskin” (“a small blue machine”), in which he conjures up evocative images of the fragile poet’s body passing through the city, also calls forth a certain kind of authenticity, albeit within the framework of language. However, it doesn’t really matter whether a sense of uniqueness embeds itself as a result of irregularities in the machinery used to mass-produce the poem or through an idiosyncratic use of language. Both aspects point towards the poem’s role as a breeding ground for subjectivity and as a site of the formal traces left by that subjectivity.

It is difficult to imagine how contributions like Thorsen’s long, digressive text can abandon the intimate connection with readers provided by the page and still escape unscathed. By contrast, Morten Wintervold’s blown-up all-caps poem seems better equipped for handling the challenges of a distracting reading environment. But striking passages such as “hvem er hvem som helst” (“who is whoever”) can very easily be reduced to platitudes when screamed out at you from a 10×20 metre poster attached to the façade of the Oslo train station (not that the project intends to do this; I do not know their plans for public display). Despite – or because of – their daring layout, Wintervold’s poems seem to be nurtured by a dialogue with the established conventions of books and poems; conventions from which it cannot be easily dissociated.

How can a poem avoid becoming an insipid advertisement for itself when it enters the public space? The launch event’s tentative, decorative format need not indicate the direction that this project will take. However, the premature anthologisation of the material – and the solid, but ever so “poetic” table of contents – leaves one with the impression of a somewhat nervous and reserved position regarding the opportunities presented by poetry. One might hope that the imminent migration to less literature-specific formats will bring us poetry that is less eager to be read; after all, it is most likely that it won’t be.

* The latter being untranslatable pun on the expression “Det er ugler i mosen”, which means “mischief is brewing”, “I smell a rat” or “there is something fishy where”, but literally translates as “there are owls in the heather/moss”, subsequently substituting wolves and moose for the owls.

The Word's Head, dokumentasjon av opphengning ute i bybildet. Foto: Hilde Barstad.
The Word’s Head, printout on a lamppost. Photo: Hilde Barstad.

Updated on 30.10.2015 at 16:45, to correct the numbers of contributing poets present at the launch.