Robert Rauschenberg

“This and That and This, Too: Musings on Collage and ‘Leaving St. Francis Hospital, the Poems of My Wife’s Back Pockets Idle’

The poetic line has never seemed enough to me. No matter how expansive, no matter how musically chiming, no matter how taut, how redolent of lacunae and the presence all that emptiness delivers.

I want the song and the swaying backup singers. I want the painting and its artist of flesh and oils. I want the feathers, the nest, the sidewalk’s cracked eggshell as well as the woman who tracks her eye from ground to tree to nesting-bird-minus-one beneath its folded wings.

Should’ve been a sculptor, you’d say. Should’ve painted and danced and scribbled all at once Black Mountain style. Should’ve played the piano with one hand and dribbled paint upon the page with the other. Yes, and always. No, and probably.

Like most writers and artists, I want more of everything. And I want less – and more of that, too.Robert Rauschenberg

That’s why I’m drawn to Robert Rauschenberg’s contrarian insistence on Cuisinarting artistic mediums others prefer served in separate dishes. Rauschenberg is the happy child at the dinner table scooping peas onto his mashed potatoes topped off with a maple leaf pocketed on his dusk walk home. His "Combine" paintings relish dialogue among various aesthetic mediums, dialogue between what’s handmade by the artist and what the larger world offers up as ready-made pap. Say, brushstrokes and JFK’s newspaper photograph. The topography of his rumpled bed quilt landscaping the canvas’s flat plane. A man’s necktie stitched into the painting “Rhyme” so sound and surface hold hands in dance.

We writers recognize the throes of taking on the “big” subject that seems at once apt but overreaching: a midnight epiphany beneath the full moon. The thorny rose of gender, race and class. Your spouse’s sudden illness.

What to do when handcuffed by silence or by despair, its blabbermouth cousin? For me, the collage poem – in the manner of Rauschenberg’s "Combines" – enacts and thus embodies both frustration and surprise intrinsic to the writing process. Like the vexed speaker’s “All right. Try this / Then,” opening James Wright’s “Northern Pike,” the poet throws paint, word, and sound, against the poem’s wall to see what sticks. What joy there is in trying this and that and this too. Let metaphor boast A is B and C and D and so on. With glint and nod, let simile wink A is like E, F, and Z. Flush with risk, let nothing fall bland upon the tongue and ear.

The realm of the page and our earth's flux blend an alphabet of uncertainty disguised as certainty, trench coat the poet opens for all to glimpse the intimate. What joy in accrual as approximation, a tottering Dagwood sandwich to be relished in one big bite of pleasure and precipitous awareness. 

Kevin Stein

Kevin Stein has published eleven books of poetry, criticism, and anthology. Among these are Wrestling Li Po for the Remote (Fifth Star Press, 2013) and four volumes in the University of Illinois Poetry Series, including Sufficiency of the Actual (2009) and American Ghost Roses (2005), the latter 2006 winner of the Society of Midland Authors Poetry Award. His first collection A Circus of Want won the Devins Award for Poetry. Critical works include the essays Poetry’s Afterlife: Verse in the Digital Age (University of Michigan Press), the Recommended Book Private Poets, Worldly Acts: Public and Private History in Contemporary American Poetry (Ohio University Press), and James Wright: The Poetry of a Grown Man (Ohio University Press).

His poems and essays have appeared in publications such as American Poetry Review, The Kenyon Review, The Gettysburg Review, Missouri Review, Poetry, Ploughshares, Southern Review, TriQuarterly, The Writer’s Chronicle, and elsewhere.

Honors include Poetry magazine’s Frederick Bock Prize, the Indiana Review Poetry Award, Fifth Wednesday Journal Editor’s Prize as well as fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. Serving as Illinois poet laureate from 2003-2017, Stein received the Order of Lincoln, the state’s highest honor for professional achievement and service.

Artwork provided by the Robert Rauschenburg Foundation

Top: Robert Rauschenberg
Ace, 1962
Combine: oil, paper, cardboard, fabric, wood, and metal on canvas
108 x 240 x 7 1/2 inches; overall (274.3 x 609.6 x 19.1 cm)
Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York
Gift of Seymour H. Knox, Jr., 1963
©Robert Rauschenberg Foundation
RRF Registration# 62.003
Bottom: Robert Rauschenberg
Rhyme, 1956
Combine: oil, fabric, necktie, paper, enamel, pencil, and synthetic polymer paint on canvas 48 1/4 x 41 1/8 inches (122.6 x 104.5 cm) The Museum of Modern Art, New York
Fractional and promised gift of Agnes Gund in honor of Richard E. Oldenburg
©Robert Rauschenberg Foundation
RRF Registration# 56.005