Reviewed by CJ Underwood
May 15, 2010
When a sculptor sets to work on a block of stone it is in one of two mindsets. The first, is that through the act of carving they are imposing their creative will on the inert material, forcing it to conform to their particular design in order to produce an original artwork. The second is that the physical process of sculpting is merely a way of exposing a recognisable form innate to the block of material; the art is not carved rather, unleashed.
It is hard to decide which one of these perspectives to apply to Kleon’s work. His verse is composed via a process of elimination, through which he blots out sections of newsprint until only a few carefully chosen words remain visible. Depending on how you look at it, he is either carving the existing print into a shape of his own devising or liberating the words he finds so that their tenuous connections become more lucid. During a traumatic bout of writer’s block Kleon turned to a stack of papers besides his desk thinking, as he states in the preface, ‘I might have had no words, but there, right beside me, were millions of them.’ With that in mind it could be said that Kleon’s work is tantamount to appropriation, but if that is the case then it is in the best of literary traditions, and hints at the latter rather than the former of the aforementioned aesthetic principles.
Given the nature of his source material, American provincial newspapers, it is somewhat surprising that Kleon has managed to craft a collection of such exquisitely understated poems. But therein rests its greatest strength. By seizing the mundane and rendering it into the magnificent Kleon’s work reminds us of one of the essential truths of literary art, that words give themselves purpose regardless of their initial form or original function. Whether those words are censored or allowed to speak in their own right, the purpose they have here is to cunningly reveal the increasing fragility but lingering robustness of contemporary society and culture.
If you have been looking, as I have, for an insight into modern America that is not just paying lip-service to that nation’s great writers, then you could do worse than to begin here with this unusual book from an author who I hope remains just as unorthodox.
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