The Professor Opines on the Design Richness of a Single Poem

paradox: the necessity of willful poetic misinterpretation to the design profession 

The Professor wants industrial designers to read more poetry. He wants them to be inspired by words, not just things or technologies (digital or otherwise). He wants designers to be able to learn from [re]sources outside of design.

Put at a more literal level, if you are designing an object to sit on, he’s saying that you now need to know much more than manufacturing or materials or the history of chairs. To create something truly meaningful in the present day The Professor believes that you need to be intimately involved with poetry.

To begin with, to imagine industrial design in 2015 as only a self-referential discipline is to do it a profound disservice: to impoverish it at the very moment of its ascension. Make no mistake. This is a time to expand design’s present and future possibilities with respect to innovation, sustainability and quality of life. Settling for anything less would be a failure of design’s collective and creative imagination.

The Professor acknowledges that many industrial designers will continue to focus on the business of design and the design of business, the view that has held sway since the 1980s, But he also believes that the most interesting design projects of the near-future will involve previously unconnected domains of thought or knowledge. Like poetry.

For The Professor, this is both a necessary next step for the design community and a mark of professional maturity. It means that design isn’t merely a field of study, a service for hire, or a way to make new gadgets. It is about how design can be a cultural process-project that brings meaning and is of service to those in need, and especially to those in crisis. It is the way that designers will become the leaders they should be.

In the spirit of expanded creative possibility, consider the poem “Prayers” by University of California professor Rae Armantrout that appeared in the New Yorker magazine three years ago [7 April 2012, p.77]. This brief but powerful poem piqued The Professor’s interest; the problem was that he didn’t know what to do with it. He liked the sound of the text, the brevity of the message, the poignant ending. So he clipped it from the page and placed it amongst an evolving collection of similarly orphaned articles, images and materials he kept on his desk.

Over the years these collections of personal souvenirs have become a key component of The Professor’s process and part of his method for the discovery of new patterns that connect, to use biologist Gregory Bateson’s phrase. This close-at-hand library of memorable images and words has become a healthy and diverse ecosystem of ideas that are often used as the raw material for new creations. Many find their way into the handmade books, paper collage artworks and datebooks that The Professor has been keeping since before he first became a teacher.

Thus, here is Armantrout’s “Prayers,” which gathered strength—and scribbled first thoughts—for The Professor for several years until recently when it inspired further exploration:

[the photocopy of rae armantrout's poem [photocopy of rae armantrout’s poem “prayers” as it appeared in new yorker magazine]

At first read, “Prayers” has no apparent connections to the world of design. But that’s only on the surface. As The Professor has learned, everything on some level is connected with design because everything we make as humans is some kind of design—even a poem.

In this case, the poem is both a creative product and a malleable material; a perfectly finished artifact that could be considered “raw material” for the creation of other kinds of creative products. The Professor realized that “Prayers” moved him because it addressed a number of issues that he was already thinking about. Armantrout appeared to be zeroed-in on similar coordinates. She was fixated on the boundary conditions, for example, where one thing was in the midst of changing into another.

The 27 lines of text that make up “Prayers” are a model for how a single thing can approach the paradoxical state of being more than one thing at the same time. The poem accomplishes this in a specific way: it is simultaneously focused and diffuse, careful and carefree, “both/and and not either/or” to reference the distinction drawn by Robert Venturi in his still-influential book Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, [MoMA, 1967, p.23].

There is also the brevity of “Prayers.” Its tightly targeted terseness in the first part sets the tone for the poem that then carries through the second part. Such a spare, lean approach demonstrates an economy of means and a minimum of materials. Relative to design, it echoes modernist axioms from architect Mies van der Rohe—less is more—and engineer Buckminster Fuller—doing more with less. It is minimal in text and maximal in impact.

The Professor has long believed that a successful design solution embodies a state of stratified simplicity. That is the type of simplicity that gives way—upon closer examination, with extended usage and over sufficient time for interaction—to a multi-layered dimensionality; simplicity becomes almost a contradiction in terms. That’s because it is a type of simplicity that has been distilled to achieve “design richness” rather than merely reduced design. “Prayers” has this design richness in the way that its apparent simplicity gives way on other levels to a multiplicity of meanings.

The Professor has found that things—be they poems or products—that get richer, better and actually change with the passage of time and regular use are increasingly part of the 21st century-designer’s agenda. Their value is not based on heritage or preciousness of material so much as it is on emotional resonance and meaningful individual connection. They help people to tell the stories that they are hungry for; they are appropriate to their time in both an aesthetically- and an emotionally-fulfilling way.

Thus, the artisanal, the authentic, the idiosyncratic and locally-sources, the transparently produced and the carefully, even lovingly made thing is now preferable. It’s part of the desire of younger people everywhere to live a more grounded and meaningful life. This is an example of a sustainable creative product that provides aesthetic and emotional satisfaction. These kinds of responses help us to overcome the dual fears dueling at the close of Armantrout’s poem: The fear that all this will end. And the fear that it won’t.

In his response to the Armantrout poem [below], The Professor—in the spirit of his 1980s NYC colleague the graphic designer Tibor Kalman who aimed to “get it wrong just right”—has given each line of the Armantrout poem its a purposeful misinterpretation, its very own “dedicated mondegreen rhythm section” based off of the original. A mondegreen is a mishearing that gives similar-sounding words new meaning. The Professor’s favorite mondegreen of all time: Jimi Hendrix’s Purple Haze “’Scuse me while I kiss the sky” which became “Scuse me while I kiss this guy” to the puzzlement [or delight?] of teenagers everywhere in the 1970s.)

For this mondegreen exercise, The Professor followed the sound and rhythm of the original to see where it would lead. A creative constraint, if you will. Even the paradigmatic figure of mid-20th century design Charles Eames endorsed the idea that constraint was one of the necessary conditions for designers. As Eames put it in 1972: “I have never been forced to accept compromises but I have willingly accepted constraints.”

So, do willful constraints lead to new discoveries?

So just as designers choose to accept constraints, poets also willingly accept constraints for the free space they create. Remember the structures of rhyming couplets, the 5-7-5 pattern of the haiku, the line rules of the sonnet and the quatrain? Similarly, the 20th century French literary forum Oulipo was founded in 1960 by mathematician François Le Lyonnais and writer Raymond Queneau. The Oulipo—the Ouvroir de littérature potentielle or workshop of potential literature—was famous for devising constraints capable of generating novel modes of literary expression. Including other European writers such as Italo Calvino and Georges Perec, Oulipo’s members began by emphasizing the creative possibility of limitations, going against the prevailing mythology that unfettered blue-sky thinking was the key to creative breakthroughs.

The results?

A 300-page book written entirely without using the letter “e.” A simple story written in 101 different stylistic approaches. Stories in which the same event is described by a cast of different narrators, each of whom [Rashomon-like] can only see what their reality is relative to where they are and what they have been through. These constraints had a special legitimacy in the modern world: they existed to show the provisional and constructed nature of reality, and even more, to open up new territories.

They turned the creative process from a game of hide-and-seek into a game of discovery.

In previous posts, The Professor has referred to such interventions as “misinterpretations on purpose;” in this instance, its misinterpretation is based on the use of near-homophony. The intention isn’t to be true, or to be related to Armantrout’s original meaning; it’s to do something new, different and yet somehow oddly appropriate to our cultural moment.

The Professor’s willfully poetic misinterpretation of “Prayers” reads as follows:

1.
Weep prey
And theories erection happens
Hear earthy young
Egg in
Snipe, Ping, and Gig cling
Tin glee
On wringing phones
2.
Owl, we ask,
Is that tower thinking?
Sussed-stain moment, mmm,
Eye dent iffy targets.
The Press, sure
In my low herb back
Rice sink, tubey recognized
Ahh, Spain.
Tableau trying gulls
Honda rug
Reap Pete, ding,
Cumming cup,
A disk cushion
Honda, you sez
Of torch chair
The fear
That Aldous
Will lend
The fear
That hit won’t.

And then it simply made sense to The Professor to juxtapose the two poems, to place them together as a way of highlighting their same-but-totally-different results. Such usage also invoked the call-and-response format that musicians and entertainers use to engage their audiences:

1.
We pray
Weep prey
And the resurrection happens.
And theories erection happens
Here are the young
Hear earthy young
Again,
Egg in,
Sniping and giggling,
Snipe, Ping, and Gig cling
Tingly
Tin glee
On ringing phones.
On wringing phones

2.
All we ask
Owl, we ask,
Is that our thinking
Is that tower thinking?
Sustain momentum,
Sussed-stain moment, mmm,
Identify targets.
Eye dent iffy targets.
The pressure
The Press, sure
In my lower back
In my low herb back
Rising to be recognized
Rice sink, tubey recognized
As pain.
Ahh, Spain.
The blue triangles
Tableau trying gulls
On the rug
Honda rug
Repeating
Reap Pete, ding
Coming up,
Cumming cup,
A discussion
A disk cushion
On the uses
Honda, you sez
Of torture.
Of torch chair.
The fear
The fear
That all this
That Aldous
Will end.
Will lend
The fear
The fear
That it won’t.
That hit won’t.

Note, this method isn’t a guarantee of creative success. The Professor’s effort with “Prayers” shows that purposeful misinterpretation can have mixed results. Some line changes and word transformations work better than others, just like certain materials and forms work better in the physical world. Some of the reiterated lines are evocative and surreal while others are clunkier and more erratic.

What this method can do, however, is to generate ideas that otherwise would never have been given form, scale or scope, or even seen the light of day. Consider The Professor’s response a failed but nonetheless useful word prototype—one that offered a teachable moment and a design-centric lesson about the necessity of paradox—arrived at through a building process that emphasized the creative possibilities of constraint.

For The Professor, the most interesting, often most arresting work is that which balances on the edge of indeterminacy. When he reads “Prayers,” for example, he is left with a haunting message: what’s happening all around each and every one of us could disappear with a snap of the proverbial fingers. Or, perhaps worse in some cases, things could continue exactly as they are. That’s indeterminacy, and it provides the creative surface tension upon which the words of the poem skate about.

They are also a parable of sorts for The Professor since one of his challenges is to live a life dedicated to the betterment of self and the improvement of others while contending with chronic illness. For The Professor, like Armantrout, there is the constant “fear that it will end and the fear that it won’t.”

The answer comes from recognizing that both fears are completely true and equally likely to happen. So it either all matters, or none of it does. Or looked at from the other side, none of it matters, and that’s why it matters so much. Deep down, things are still—despite all of our wondrous instruments of technology and agents of visualization—paradoxical and mysterious; there is always another layer or level for artists, designers and scientists to discover and explore.

That is how we need to see our world. We have to be able to learn from our own creative history but also from far outside of it. Therefore, it is The Professor’s hope that his students and colleagues will strive to be connected to as many conceivable things as possible outside of their art, design and thing-making. Done thusly, the “project of design” can, in the macro view, be both a way to show care and a way to shout conviction about what we believe matters most.

The Professor therefore can’t help but wonder: Could there be a way to create the equivalent of an Ouvroir de design potentiel—or workshop of potential design—in which we willfully create constraints so as to unleash new creative possibilities for the creation of our objects and experiences?

The Professor answers his own question: “Unequivocally Yes!”

In fact, this is what design education and design practice must do to lead the way forward: teach its young students and recent graduates that they can be both the empathic leaders and the engaged producers of contemporary culture. Poetry is more than a simple [re]source for designers—it can help make that paradox of leadership and productivity possible—and that’s why they call him The Professor.

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