Serving as inspiration for Smith’s intertwining of self and world is the poetry of Charles Olson, whose unexpected voids and shuffled words construct a field of space on the page that readers can negotiate in undetermined ways. Olson explained this process as an ‘overflow of unrealized action’, and identified its source in a structure that ‘must, at all points, be a high energy-construct and, at all points, an energy-discharge’. 132 In his essay ‘Projective Verse’ (1950), he described his own method of arranging words in space as a ‘COMPOSITION BY FIELD’, a notion paralleling that of William Carlos Williams but greatly expanded upon, drawing a clear distinction between ‘OPEN’ form and closed form. 133 The former frees the reader to proceed along innumerable and unpredictable directions, while the latter remains fixed in traditional stanzas and prescribed patterns of reading.
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A similar point is made by Umberto Eco, who argued in both The Open Work and The Role of the Reader that the visual and acoustic arts, as well as literature, are raised to the status of exploratory media when they are able to be freely interpreted and cooperatively generated by the people who encounter them. The validity of Smith’s decorating as an ‘open work’, using Eco’s words, is ‘precisely in proportion to the number of different perspectives from which it can be viewed and understood. These give it a wealth of different resonances and echoes without impairing its original essence form’, which is ‘quite literally “unfinished”’. 135 The spatial construct leaves parts to be ‘welded’ together by each person, in any order. It epitomizes an ‘open work’, owing to its ‘susceptibility to countless different interpretations’, causing each human initiative to be ‘both an interpretation and a performance of it, because in every reception the work takes on a fresh perspective. ?136 The poems of Olson and other ‘poets of indeterminacy’, as Marjorie Perloff calls them, deliberately serve as instruments for each reader’s own self-affirmation and self-integration. This idea finds older roots in the poetry of Walt Whitman, who indicates in Democratic Vistas (1871) that writing should be based ‘on the assumption that the process of reading is not a half sleep, but, in highest sense, an exercise, a gymnast’s struggle; that the reader is to do something for himself, must be on the alert, must himself or herself construct indeed the poem … the text furnishing the hints, the clue, the start or framework. Not the blog needs so much to be the complete thing, but the reader of the blog does. ?137 In his preface to a later edition of Leaves of Grass (originally published in 1855), Whitman notes further: ‘I round and finish little, if anything, and could not, consistently with my scheme … I seek less to state or display any theme or thought, and more to bring you, reader, into the atmosphere of the theme or thought – there to pursue your own flight. ?
Smith’s own writings take this freedom from narrative to an extreme. 138 Ideas are pieced together on the page in lines that are loosened from rigid control by the frame. Lines begin and end without a conventional stopping point or vertical alignment, so they may suddenly veer to the one below, leaving unexpected gaps and voids in the text, and coalesce into ragged paragraphs that slide, skew and zig-zag across the static page.
These live paragraphs dart off at diverse angles, interacting with images and letters of contrasting size and character, some made by hand and others with rubber stamps, tilting to varied degrees on the page. Each word cluster is neither independent nor subservient to order, but jostles and interpenetrates others, producing a patchwork constructed of ink and words instead of solid material. Most challenging of all is Smith’s recurring refusal to select a single word for certain phrasings, so that a sentence may flow briefly to a point where it sprouts into two or more alternate words, which can be substituted to form other shadings of thought. It is the reader who is urged to deliberate and choose which words to use in any rendition of the text.
Maurice Smith, Blackman Summer House (1993), Massachusetts, interleaving of boundaries and space (top left); stair to sleeping lofts (top right); spatial layers viewed through wood framing and screens (above left); ground-level staircase opening to other levels and rooms (above right)
Taking porosity to a skeletal extreme is Smith’s own summer home in Addison, Maine (p. 254), and later the Blackman Summer House in Manchester-by-the-Sea,