An Idea of Rigor

“You just go on your nerve.”

-Frank O’Hara

John D’Agostino, Corinthians, 2010.



WORDS BY: John D’Agostino
WORKS: www.EmpireofGlass.com



John D’Agostino, Loadstone Virtue, 2010.












Dreams of A Dark Abyss


The dreams of a dark abyss are a chosen hardship, like a poem.

 To enter into such a place is to engage in a poetic kind of thinking. Because the clear demarcations and road signs are all gone, only an imaginative, strenuous and curious state of mind will suffice to traverse the way. An idea of rigor pervades all poetic thinking.

Rigor is a measure of a content’s quality. It is the experience of “hard things” that are engaging and rewarding. But it is more than just a question of simply challenging or difficult content. Rather, rigorous content is personally and emotionally challenging. So too is poetry.

Poetry, as a relentless, mutli-faceted and demanding medium, has much in common with the traditions of the visual arts, most especially that of abstraction. Both abstraction and poetry are complex, ambiguous and provocative. Both have high expectations, and impossible personal standards. In both, the subject learns to “read” the poem/picture as he experiences it. The learner accepts some responsibility for his learning, and he must work to understand it. To not only elaborate on the material’s ever present suggestions, but sometimes even to add his own content to it. To complete it.

Rigor mortis, literally translated, is the stiffness of the body after death. It signifies a kind of severity, an exhaustive, point of no return, if you will. Both poetry and abstraction are similarly severe and extreme forms of their respective domains. However, perhaps ‘rigor vitae’ may be more appropriate here, as both disclipines engage a re-vivifying and re-enegergizing state of mind. The reader/viewer accepts the challenge to decode and understand the mysterious work laid before him, and is more alive for the effort.

The poetic image revels in its illusory nature. It exults in the impossible. A poetry of the impossible is a release from the constriction of normal things, an attempt to smash through the construction of the literal world. The poet’s use of words is quite different, just as the artist’s use of his imagery is different. The words are the same, the paint or ink or charcoal may be the same, but their values are different. Poeticization changes the value of well known things. They become musicalized, irretrievably transformed. The poet loves his words for their strangeness and mystery, not just for their obvious meanings.

The phenomenon of the poetic image is the phenomena of freedom. Excercise is often described as “rigorous,” and perhaps this is apt, since the rigorous image is similarly an excercise of the imagination. Mental muscles are flexed, stretched and tested. Freedom is not merely given, it must be exercised. Great images are often a blend of memory and legend. They have a history, and a pre-history. Poetic imagery engages this history, by summoning and evoking the history of images within each viewer, who must rely on the entire wealth of his mental records just to make sense of it.

Poetry, in guise as either word or image, retains a greater competition of surprises than perhaps any other discipline. It implies the decision to change the function of language, just as abstraction seeks to change the function of the literal, representational or identifiable image. What is found in either realm is that which is often passed over in daily life: the miraculous, the unknown, the undreamt of.


In the dead linen in cupboards

I seek the supernatural

- Joseph Rouffange

Chinese Whispers

John D’Agostino, Entropy’s Blade, 2010.

Poetic images revel in Chinese whispers and communication breakdowns. What gets lost in the translation from person to person is often the most interesting. Imposing new meanings, misusing words, or using them for other purposes, maybe even cross purposes – is the metier of poetry. It sees the world as an iceberg: there is more below the surface of the water than above. These are not words or pictures, but maybe, ghosts.

Gaston Bachelard felt that the poetic image has a dynamic uniquely its own. That it is fundamentally variational. To read or see the poetic is to daydream. As J.P. Jouve called it, “thought enamored of the unknown.” All of Bachelard’s work, and not just his seminal The Poetics of Spaces, is in fact an eloquent and daring defense of poetry itself, which has had its many detractors, and may never win popularity contests. Surrealist Andre Breton called this animosity to the poetic the “hate of the marvelous” – arguing that the hostility towards such works was motivated more by fear and misunderstanding than by righteous contempt.

This text first appeared as part of the paper The Abyss Gazes Also: The Pains and Pleasures of Seeing in the Dark by John D’Agostino, 2012.
View the full paper online here.
Purchase Hardcopy here.
Daydreaming is important. It is not just lazyness. It is sophisticated, three dimensional investigation. What the poet does is essentially create a trap for dreamers. As for me, Bachelard says, “I let myself be caught.”   •