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Lye Poetry Sampler

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Urged on with his writing his friends Robert Graves and Laura Riding, he loved collaborating with his mates. Whether recalling eidetic childhood memories, or describing creative acts on the spot as they occur, Lye's fixation on sensation and stored or released energy we see here to be linked (as you'd expect) to his exuberant films, kinetic sculptures, photograms, batiks and paintings. The poems are selected from the five volumes of Len Lye writings published so far.

Len Lye

Edited with a substantial introduction by Roger Horrocks
With small drawings and b/w photographs
Paperback, 76pp

Published by Govett-Brewster Art Gallery and Len Lye Foundation 2021

A thin pocket-sized publication for reading on the train or in a dentist’s waiting room, this portable sampler (with little illustrations) has Lye biographer and anthologiser Roger Horrocks broadening the Lye material offered as poetry, now in his selection cleverly including some unorthodox portions of essays, spontaneous notes or short dissertations that capture Lye’s imaginative ways of word choice and juxtaposition.

Continuously flowing (paragraphed) prose poems and discrete vertically dropping line clusters are happily mixed by Horrocks, so Lye’s exhilaration at the bodily processes of something even as common as writing or drawing—its muscularity, the weight of the limbs, yellow-paged pad and sound producing nib—are emphasised; highlighting the materiality or physicality involved.

Urged on with his writing by his friends Robert Graves and Laura Riding, he loved collaborating with his mates. Whether recalling eidetic childhood memories, or describing creative acts on the spot as they occur, Lye’s fixation on sensation and stored or released energy we see here to be linked (as you’d expect) to his exuberant films, kinetic sculptures, photograms, batiks and paintings.
They are selected from the five volumes of Len Lye writings published so far (that Horrocks has edited)—most written in the forties—that often cross-connect.

For example, there is a marvellous image of himself as I’ve described above, drawing with a pad on his knee and his wonky hand holding an even wonkier pencil—with the drawing rendering an x-ray version of the inner bone of his supporting right leg.

Positioned on the opposite page (p.40) is a poem about the meat in his limbs that parallels the salient constantly-moving elements of the earth’s body:

Silk inside stone
to me is marrow
making of red and white
blood so I hold
words in the bone

seas of tall tree waves
clouds in our depths
tides of green grass
in sinews of earth
moving beneath surfaces

to reach the taut skin
of my know of you

Sixteen pages later in Body English:

I have to stop writing to feel it in me as the enjoyment of sitting and feeling a good weighted leg across the thigh near the knee on top of the other and the bread-board on the slope of the crossed leg’s thigh with the left-hand’s fingers holding the plain yellow notepaper, and the pen-nib ink flowing on it as the nib makes a pleasant rubbing sound on the sounding board of the bread-board and I can feel its vibrations transmitted to my thighbone and I’m dealing with sensation….

On the righthand page is A Feeling for Motion:

When not observing motion I feel it in my actions…There isn’t a motion that one cannot isolate and feel in relation to one’s own solid body.

Another work, How to Write a Poem, is about commitment to a necessary promotional task that artists often do, within maximum comfort. A cup of coffee and a pastry are needed close at hand.

Get a brioche in a small white bag and go to a café, and while waiting to order an expresso, put the brioche in its thin wax paper on the table, flatten out the bag, find a short 5 inch pencil (in hip pocket), and write a description of the painting Land and Sea…

Order expresso (at last! busy) and conclude the writing.

Horrocks has divided this sampler mini-anthology into four sections: Myths and Dreams (prose poems that relate to the ‘Old Brain’ narrative threads underpinning Lye’s visual imagery); Moments (snippets of prose explanations or expositions); Experiments (wilder discussions referencing art history and his own activities); Later Poems (a couple of works from around the end of his life in 1980).

And while his awareness of the avant-garde writing of Stein, Riding, and Cummings is plainly evident, this book showcases Lye’s personal writing idiosyncrasies: the joyful ‘leaping about’ nature of his texts as if they are his body—the way they look on the page, their acoustic qualities when read aloud, and the synthesising of juxtaposed (once disparate) meanings that run parallel to his evocative moving and static images, drawn up from his ‘Old Brain’ subconscious.

For long term Lye fans this little book will remind them once more of his magic with words and how language was just another material for him to expertly play with. For those not familiar, it is a great chance to have his written voice at close hand for easy access. So easy to delve into and explore. So rewarding. Twelve bucks only.

John Hurrell

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This Discussion has 2 comments.


John Hurrell, 10:20 a.m. 20 February, 2022

Here is a great piece of extended writing from Roger Horrocks, the Lye editor, who is also an essayist and poet. I don’t agree with all of it, but I do most (you probably will be the same)--and it is terrific to see such a well organised, succinct, eloquent critique of contemporary times in Aotearoa and the state of the Arts.

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John Hurrell, 10:05 a.m. 21 November, 2023

Here is a writing/research award for art historians interested in the life and art practice of Len Lye:

The Evan Webb Award for Len Lye Research

This award, offered by the Len Lye Foundation, commemorates the artist Evan Webb (1952-2023) who was a key figure in the research and restoration of the work of Len Lye.

The award will be open to any researcher. The sum of $1500 will be given annually to the best original contribution to Lye scholarship from at least one of the following categories:

1) An unpublished research essay on some aspect of Len Lye’s sculpture, film-making, or work in other genres, or his ideas, or his aesthetics;

2) An unpublished research essay which makes an original contribution to knowledge of Lye’s life and career;

3) A proposal for research in the Lye archive at the Lye Centre in New Plymouth;

4) An engineering design or research proposal which offers original suggestions for the restoration or building of a Lye sculpture. The proposal should aim at the improvement of existing procedures or contribute to the development of a work which existed only in the planning stage.

The length of the essay or proposal is not a key factor -- what we are looking for is soundly-based, original work.

The prize will be annual, but the Len Lye Foundation will not be obliged to make an award if it considers than no application fully meets the criteria. If its current resources and the quality of entries permit, the Foundation may also offer a second, similar award, or enter into further discussion with the winner about a proposed engineering project or plans for research at the Lye archive.

The date for submission will be the end of August each year (starting in August 2024) and the result will be announced by mid-October. The winner will be selected by a committee of the Foundation.

Applications should be sent to Roger Horrocks who is coordinating the award on behalf of the Foundation: If postal submission is necessary, the address is: Len Lye Foundation, c/o New Plymouth District Council, Govett-Brewster Art Gallery, Private Bag 2025, New Plymouth 4340, Aotearoa New Zealand. Please pass on information about the award to anyone who may be interested. The coordinator can help to answer questions.

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