Austin Kleon’s Concrete Poetry

A debt to Tom Phillips, and extracting music from an obituary

An Austin, Texas–based artist and all around generous thinker about creativity, Austin Kleon is a great admirer — as am I — of the late Tom Phillips, who died last November at age 85. Kleon is also a marvelous practitioner of one of Phillips’ primary techniques, which was to extract concrete poetry from pre-existing texts. 

Phillips achieved this most famously in his ongoing project The Humument, which had several editions, all of them exacting reworkings of an earlier book, called The Human Document, by William Hurrell Mallock, who died in 1923, 14 years before Phillips was born. 

Where Phillips often employed dramatic colors and textures, Kleon often brings an energetic, brutalist vibrancy to his pieces. Shown here is a recent favorite of mine, reproduced with the artist’s permission:

Kleon, who often bases such poems on newspaper clippings, explained to me that this one came from a New York Times obituary (gift link) from last August for Sy Johnson, an arranger who collaborated with Charles Mingus, the jazz bassist and composer. I love the “music” that Kleon found within an obituary that had music as its topic, and I love the idea that such a phrase could emanate from the original, unbeknownst to the overall text’s “first” writer. 

The scenario reminds me of an often quoted comment about aesthetics by novelist Don DeLillo: “when I work I have a sculptor’s sense of the shape of the words I’m making.” Kleon is, as well, a sculptor in this manner, making shapes from raw materials provided, unwittingly, by another writer, who in DeLillo’s thinking is also a sculptor.

When granting approval to share this piece, Kleon also explained to me an aspect of his approach: “I don’t ‘read’ the article first when I make these — try to think of them as a raw field of words, like a word search puzzle.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *