Vito Acconci once described poetry as “at the bottom of a hierarchy of the arts—not because it’s lesser, but because it’s the base, the undercurrent, the sub-structure of the arts. But, as a base, it’s only a beginning.” As legend has it, Acconci stopped writing poetry in the late 1960s in order to concentrate more fully on performance and video art and, more recently, architecture. Language to Cover a Page provides the opportunity to read a substantial selection of Acconci’s “poetry” and decide if his subsequent career is an extension of, or shift away from, his earlier calling.
Read on their own terms, these writings reveal some of the most relentlessly experimental poetry ever produced in the United States. The book is a veritable page-turner, piquing the reader’s curiosity as to what Acconci will possibly do next—a feat rare even among avant-garde poets, most of whom eventually settle into a conventionally idiosyncratic style. “I extend the line the lineage the lineal the lineament the lineation the,” Acconci writes in a single-line poem, the implication being that this line extends off the page and into the world, a trajectory both his poetry and career as an artist resolutely followed.
Critics and Acconci himself talk about the relation of his poetry phase to his performance work in terms of treating words as material objects. From this point of view, his poetry resembles the tooth imprints Acconci made on his body in Trademarks (1970). Less charitable readers might compare some of the work in Language to Cover a Page to the jerking off he did in his famous performance Seedbed (1972). But it is hard not to appreciate the restless and original intelligence Acconci has always displayed in whatever medium he takes on. In fact, discussions of words as material objects seem secondary to a larger process of constant displacement that fractures and constructs meaning anew each time.