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Mimesis In Abstract Poetry: Reflecting on Acker's "Language"

Celeste's picture


I started writing in the sixth grade.  Under my bed (to this day), tucked inside a plastic bin of winter sweaters, there is a green binder inked with the words “LE JOURNAL OF CHRISTINA” on the front.  The first entry reads,

“December 17 2006.  Hello. My name is Christina Celeste Stella.  I am eleven years old and this is my diary.  I attend Moravian Academy, and I think it’s safe to say that I hate it.  Sometimes I can be nice, and sometimes I can be a bitch.  I like to think that I’m funny, but it’s probably not true. But I do have two cats! That’s true. And a brother, and a mom and a dad, and we did just get a fish who I named Solomon. I named him that because Solomon was the name of a King, and all fish are kings of their own castles (or fish bowls, whatever Sol likes better).  I have pretty cool friends. I’m in love with Derek Turner.  He’s so beautiful.   It’s really cold out, and I’m tired, so I’m going to bed. I love you diary! Good night.  I’ll tell you how tomorrow goes.  You don’t have legs, so I’m not really that worried about you being there when I wake up, and if you’re not, I’m going to call the police.  Love always, Christina!”


I consider this entry one of the first pieces of creative writing I ever made.  It was deliberate. Some words were erased and replaced with others.  An entire line is indented and stained with eraser smudge—the grave of some axed line halfway through the entry. I had to get it right.  Presenting a false identity meant cheating my diary out of really “getting” me—and what’s the point of that?  I was aware of the different between fiction and memoir.  As the raconteur, it was my sole responsibility to never portray myself incorrectly. When writing for an inanimate object, one cannot receive affirmation or dissent from its audience.  There is no outraged booing or scream of “Bullshit!”. Diaries are amorphous audiences.  Having no experience with other artists, no taste, and no sense of self, they are the anti-critics.  I was acutely aware of this.  Suddenly, there was the freedom to complain, to reflect—to critique and examine the world under a stiff eye. Having that expressive power felt impossible outside of my little green book.  Things were “safe to say” (Stella 1).  I was never the same after having that realization.



I have always assumed too much of common language. For me, its effectiveness was never something to question or doubt.  Whole ideas, images, neatly placed concepts. It always seemed as though every form of artistic expression lead back to words. With form came description and signification—the act of being represented. I have mistaken it for the primary.  Kathy Acker’s Seeing Gender touches upon this.  Ultimately, Acker argues that language focusing on the relation of subject to object inherently does not perform mimesis.  It had not occurred to me on first read that Acker opposes traditionally structured language as the primary way to express, stating that “. . . language was being. There was no entry for me into language. . . I was unspeakable so I ran into the language of others.  In this essay, as yet, I am only repeating those languages.” (Acker 80).


This was somewhat mind blowing to read.  Words always felt so infinite. All the adjectives in the world were (and still are) at my fingertips, just waiting to be googled.  In other words, it seemed that there was no such thing as an indescribable body or thought; it was only ever a matter of my intelligence. If I was smart enough to know the word that could do the job, I used it. If not, that was my problem.  It meant that I was not well read enough, nothing more than a fraud.  When I was stumped on how to “put x into words”, I began to practice the self-destructive habit of stealing images and phrases from other writers. Like stray balls of lint, plucking a concept from somebody else’s prose became somewhat of a requirement in order for me to develop my own poetry.  Something had to make it onto the page, right?


The pressure to adequately express was never placed on the language itself; merely I, the blacksmith.  The assumption went a little like this: I, the body, could be converted like a chemical into language.  In this form, all of my conscious (Freudian) self could be discovered. Although my mind was the primary “document” of my existence, it could be co-equivalent with language through description and expression. Poetry. What could possibly be more linguistically representational?  I was once told by a poetry teacher that, “If the soul had a mouth, it would speak poetry.”.  It stuck. My goal as an artist has always been to illuminate the connection between the two—to uncork that assumed threshold and allow the real voice to flow forth, passing through me. It would slide out of my core in a ghostly movement, yet be the lively and distilled essence of my life.  I imagine my true self contained in that hidden, slumbering unit.

 A shiver trickles up my spine, and I am reminded of Whitman’s Song of Myself: “I am the poet of the Body and I am the poet of the Soul, / The pleasures of heaven are with me and the pains of hell are with me, / The first I graft and increase upon myself, the latter I translate into a new tongue.” (Whitman, 21, 1-3).  In the end, it is about power—not accuracy—within language and therefore poetry, regardless of whether it has or has not been “made up or created” (Acker 84). The two are indeed related, and share a symbiotic relationship.

I decided to test it.  For my anti-self portrait, I wrote two separate literary pieces—shall I call them poems?  Right now, I will hold off on that.  In both, I sought to express myself as fully and accurately as possibly using two differing methods.  Version one features a non-abstract tone, using the conventional rules of language, making for a more academic approach to my existence.  I stuck to facts and aspects of my self that are simply true, not surmised or interpreted as true.  It immediately became obvious that the poem was felt like something-cide.  As sentences were spewed onto the paper, my heart started to slip away.  I truly felt like I was losing my “actual” self in the process of being conventionally accurate and literal.  Nothing is false in that document.  It’s all fact—it all happened—but what is missing are my feelings.  My reactions, fears and tastes are silenced, making for a hollow interpretation of myself.


Version two features an abstract look at myself.  The piece features many of the colors I identify with my personality, such as lilac and Prussian blue, representing the colors of my emotions and where they are felt in my literal and linguistic body.  Much of my memory bank consists of splintered images.  With age, they have been damaged and lessened in number, but some times they flicker across my mind in snapshots. The image of myself playing with my father surely correlates with the mention of my early “fascination with my father”.  Seeing him was a treat when I was little.  We would play the “Peach Baby Games”.  He’d throw a big ball with an Alien printed on it, I would run away, I would saunter around him, he would grab me by the feet and pull me into his elusive, sacred embrace. 

Forgetting about punctuation and the correctness of grammar, writing a piece in which I could control the way words aligned (or separated) from each other meant a greater depth of emotional variety.  Many more emotions, memories, and images were featured in a much more economic fashion throughout Version two.  As an artist, it felt right.  As a student, I expected confusion from my peers at the exhibit.  It was nerve racking to think I may be rejected and labeled some hipster who merely wants to impress with empty words.  My language was mine.  Everything felt more honest; my gender expression, my sexuality, and my perspective, because like emotion itself, little is ever clearly defined.  We are mosaics of ourselves.


Then I thought more on accessibility.  It seems to be a big topic in our class.  I especially remember a particular Tuesday when our class was examining whether or not a work of memoir should be watered down for an audience, or preserved in its assumed complexity.  No consensus was reached.   I began to question whether it was my responsibility as an artist to provide a way “in” for those who would read the piece.  Is part of presentation leeway to understand? Am I underestimating or overestimating my performance to be understood?  By purposefully making my work accessible, as is exhibited in Version One, the art loses qualities that I feel are important.


I once struggled with this problem when completing a commissioned poem for Interlochen Center for the Arts, an arts camp and boarding school located in Northern Michigan.  Interlochen was interested in making a video about the camp, using images set to my presumed poetry, inspired by the lines I wrote.  The director instructed me to write a poem about Interlochen, for Interlochen.  That was all.  It quickly became obvious that “writing a unique poem” meant being constantly lorded over by the director and his photojournalists to stay “universal” in the poem.  At the end of every creative conference with the production team, my poem emerged less and less my creation.  It affected the honesty of my piece negatively, which I resented heavily but could not contest.  In that situation, accessibility meant a less meaningful piece of art, which killed me. 


 I fear being misunderstood less now. I am more willing to take these risks.  For my Emily Balch Seminar, our class read Emerson’s Self Reliance.  The text provides a refreshing and self-sustaining antidote to the fear of creative rejection.  Emerson wrote, “To be great is to be misunderstood.” (Emerson 6).  As human souls, we are to some extent unknowable, preserved inside our psyches.  Overall, I felt failure as I taped my two sheets of computer paper onto the wall before class.  Perhaps I failed to be accessible to myself.  It keeps me up at night—I am consumed with the thought that I will never get it right.   I realize now that quite possibly, just maybe, that means I’ve gotten it right this time. 

Works cited:

Acker, Kathy. "Seeing Gender." Critical Quarterly 37.4 (n.d.): 78-86. Print.

Whitman, Walt. "Song of Myself." By Walt Whitman : The Poetry Foundation. Web. 06 Oct. 2013.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo.  “Self-Reliance.”





Anne Dalke's picture

"we are unknowable"


You begin by describing what it was like to write when you were younger, when “it seemed that there was no such thing as an indescribable body or thought”; when the “pressure to adequately express was never placed on the language itself; merely I, the blacksmith.” You don’t go on to say explicitly why-and-how that changed for you: do you now think that language is always inadequate expression? That it can not describe all we want-and-need to describe?

What you focus on instead is the relative value of two pieces of your own writing. Verson one “stuck to facts”: “losing my ‘actual’ self in the process of being conventionally accurate and literal….it all happened—but what is missing are my feelings.  My reactions, fears and tastes are silenced, making for a hollow interpretation of myself.” But this version, of a flattened you, was more accessible to others.

Version two featured “an abstract look at myself. Everything felt more honest,” as you acknowledged that “we are mosaics of ourselves.” But this more meaningful version was less accessible to others. Questioning your “responsibility as an artist to provide a way ‘in’ for those who would read the piece," you decide that you’re not so afraid of being misunderstood after all, that “as human souls, we are to some extent unknowable, preserved inside our psyches. “

This acknowledgement of our fundamental “inaccessibility” to others makes me think that you’d probably like the work of Elizabeth Ellsworth (whom I seem to be recommending to many of you in my responses). For her, the “self” capable of the kind of rational performance most often sought in classrooms is itself illusory: “The fact of the unconscious ‘explodes the very idea of a complete or achieved identity’—with oneself through consciousness, or with others through understanding.” Using the film studies notion of “mode of address” to talk about who the teacher and the curriculum “think students are,” Ellsworth describes the “eruptive, unruly space between a curriculum’s address and a student’s response (as) populated by the difference between conscious and unconscious knowledge, conscious and unconscious desires.” Rather than suggesting ways to bridge this gap, Ellsworth argues that it is to be preserved as the space of agency and of learning. If such a thing as a “perfect fit” were possible, it would in fact guarantee that no learning would happen.

Oh! And on being “consumed with the thought that I will never get it right,” see Getting It Less Wrong.

Polly's picture

I think your ideas about

I think your ideas about audience and interpretation are important in both writing and in illustration. You talked about how a diary, an inanimate audience, cannot criticize your writing, but our class could criticize your self portrait. I think that audience is very important in our discussions of accessability and gender. If we write/create for ourselves, our work may not turn out to be accessable to others. But, if we know that a specific audience is viewing our work, we will probably adjust the writing (or other medium) to be more accessable for that audience (or perhaps less accessable?). I think that part of the reaon that children's book illustrations are so plainly stereotyped is that their audience is children, who haven't yet learned that there is something beyond the binary of genders.

EmmaBE's picture

Is mimesis our common

Is mimesis our common language? You express that Version 2 of your anti-self portrait, which you felt lacked mimesis, also lacked accessibility. Maybe the mimesis is what makes our language accessible, so why is it a bad thing? (Acker claimed it was because mimesis in language forwards patriarchy, but what do you think?) You said that as your poem about Interlochen became more accessible, it also felt less and less your own. Is true art only to be fully experienced by the artist? Zadie Smith mentioned last night that readers experience a text in a completely different way than its author. You said you don't worry about being misunderstood, but you also cannot create art completely in a vacuum. I guess I'm really wondering if your writing is intended to be for an audience or for yourself. If it is only for self-expression, as your essay seems to point out, then why worry about misinterpretation or failure? Is this your fallible human self (maybe your ego, as Freud would call it) seeping into the pure soul and instincts of the artist? Do you plan to transcend that? Do you think you ever will?