Fieldworks offers a historical account of the social, rhetorical, and material attempts to ground art and poetry in the physicality of a site.
Arguing that place-oriented inquiries allowed poets and artists to develop new, experimental models of historiography and ethnography, Lytle Shaw draws out the shifting terms of this practice from World War II to the present through a series of illuminating case studies. Beginning with the alternate national genealogies unearthed by William Carlos Williams in Paterson and Charles Olson in Gloucester, Shaw demonstrates how subsequent poets sought to ground such inquiries in concrete social formations—to in effect live the poetics of place: Gary Snyder in his back-to-the-land familial compound, Kitkitdizze; Amiri Baraka in a black nationalist community in Newark; Robert Creeley and the poets of Bolinas, California, in the capacious “now” of their poet-run town. Turning to the work of Robert Smithson—who called one of his essays an “appendix to Paterson,” and who in turn has exerted a major influence on poets since the 1970s—Shaw then traces the emergence of site-specific art in relation both to the poetics of place and to the larger linguistic turn in the humanities, considering poets including Clark Coolidge, Bernadette Mayer, and Lisa Robertson.
By putting the poetics of place into dialog with site-specificity in art, Shaw demonstrates how poets and artists became experimental explicators not just of concrete locations and their histories, but of the discourses used to interpret sites more broadly. It is this dual sense of fieldwork that organizes Shaw’s groundbreaking history of site-specific poetry.