Two of the surprises of the Textfestival exhibition in Bury are a number of early abstract paintings from the 1940s and 1950s, which prefigure his later work, and a number of duplicator prints from the 1970s that he (obviously) could not reproduce (Well, he could have done after he’d his photocopier in the early 1980s, but by then they were in storage.) There are works there that even Jennifer Cobbing had not seen before.
However the two larger single selections are from two photocopier sequences, as it were, the Domestic Ambient Noise sequence that he produced with Lawrence Upton, which hangs from the ceiling, and the Third ABC in Sound, which is a particular favourite of mine. Here are some notes on these two.
Domestic Ambient Noise
Between 1994 and 2000, working with Lawrence Upton resulted in an astounding collaboration of both texts and performances. Entitled Domestic Ambient Noise, the completed project consists of 300 booklets; each processes a single theme drawn from the other poet’s work to produce 6 page variations. Partly because it is a collaboration with the younger poet Upton, who brought his experience of cartoons, clip art, posters, computer art and more conventional forms of Linguistically Innovative Poetry to the project (as well as his experiences of performing with cheek, Fencott, and Cobbing, in the 1970s) it is an eclectic exploration using various techniques. The two poets drew (and dared) each other into new areas as one created ‘variations’ from the ‘theme’ produced by the other, any of which may, in turn, have become the ‘theme’ for the next stage.
From the point of view of Cobbing’s development it is fascinating to see that he had a superb eye for selecting and imaginatively processing any Upton theme into a distinct set of ‘original’ Cobbing variations: icons and computer graphics are crumpled into innovation; images are abstracted; handwriting becomes ideogram; a banal smiley face suggests a new set of surreal portraits; a negative review of Verbi Visi Voco is magnified into a visual poem. In the text Cobbing produced on his 75th birthday, Domestic Ambient Moise, Upton’s cut up handwriting is transformed into six beautiful suggestive calligraphic visuals, some of them demonstrating Cobbing’s experimentation with speed, movement and arrest. The risky dialogue between the two writers ensured the injection of unpoetic materials, even by Cobbing’s standards: packaging, clipart, Marmite smears as well as calligraphy, found texts and even semantic texts. Cobbing and his latest photocopier could process any materials he was challenged with, and transformed them into surprising and beautiful texts.
The Third ABC in Sound
The Third ABC in Sound, a work of Cobbing’s 80th year, 2000, revisits the alphabet poem, but whereas the first ABC of 1964 demands oral, but still relatively conventional, performance, the reader of the new poem would have to be familiar with Cobbing’s performance methods outlined above. Despite its title and despite the presence on each page of a letter (sometimes minimally, sometimes as the entirety of the visual component), its suggestive visuality is what is most immediately striking.
The letters of the alphabet become elements of play in the visual field, not dominant structural alliterations as in the first ABC. Variable font styles almost symbolize the intrusion of the arbitrary into the apparent orderliness of the alphabet. On the opening page, we see a bloated bubble ‘a’, backed by a ghost of its shape, and some vague intimations of text, even a roughly cut fragment of a word at the bottom of the page. The whole rises above a textured, but cracked background, with the arc of a curve slashing through to the left. ‘G’ (or ‘g’) is dominated by a lower case letter, the bottom oval forming not the ‘grin’ of the 1964 alphabet, but a glowering, menacing, empty mouth shape. (Compare them at Bury!) Other texts show a pull towards angularity and clarity. ‘L’ is lost against a latticework of girders, one of the few visually mimetic traces in the texts. The letter M looks disassembled, its almost sculptural components rest angled against a sloped background of the night sky. ‘O’ consists of beautifully arranged white arcs against a pure black background. None is complete, yet each suggests the circle that forms the oldest letter shape in the world. On the other hand, ‘K’ looks like a powdery tornado, and only if one knows the page is alphabetic, is one likely to notice the K at the base of the twister. Turn it 45 degrees and the viewer realizes the image is a shadowy depiction of a pair of lips, as though Dali’s Mae West Lips had met the ‘U’ of the Five Vowels, an earlier sequence. ‘S’ resembles a negative of one of Duchamp’s nudes, and has the stately beauty of an art lithograph. ‘V’, on the other hand resembles (perhaps even derives from) a mysterious scientific photograph of jumping particles (in v shaped trajectories). The apparently microscopic is tensioned against the cosmic, and there is a vertiginous loss of scale in these texts.
Cobbing clearly utilizes the full possible articulations of the mechanical devices available (photocopying, overprinting, cutting, juxtaposing, enlargement, cracking images, dispersal through magnification, mis-inking, etc.) yet it is difficult to determine how he has produced many of these texts, possibly because techniques are mixed. After the exploratory to and fro and deliberate hit and miss of the Domestic Ambient Noise collaboration, the care over each page - and the stylistic individuality of each - is evident. In ‘X’ the letter is half obscured and wedged by other shapes. This points to a late development in Cobbing’s work; there is often in (rather than on) these pages a clear sense of figure operating against ground, with the letter often, but not exclusively, acting as the figure. The combination of the earliest form of concrete poem, designing with the basic alphabetic graphemes of the language, and concrete poetry’s outer point of development, the use of the print-sound-scape which Cobbing has made his own on the page and off it, is the work’s impressive novelty. A marvellous later flowering.