new zealand electronic poetry centre

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a new zealand journal of poetry and poetics


1,000 Words or a Picture:Could Poetry be a Contemporary Art? 



Styrofoam, invented in the USA in the early 1940s by the Dow Chemical Company was to become, in the form of a simple cup, an iconic model of reality that is totally ‘twentieth-century’; so portable, so light, so throwaway, so versatile and utterly suited to a fast-paced world.

I want to present two poems that complicate the picture of the cup. Poems that make almost entirely different pictures yet faithfully avow the cup as part of the postmodern era.

The first poem, written in 1990, is by the Australian poet, Ken Bolton:

Timeless Moment  (Little Cup Sestina)

       a true account of talking to a styrofoam cup, one night,
             outside the university architecture department

                                                                        for David Saunders & Bruno Taut

Little styrofoam cup
I really like you:
in my mind's idea.
That sort of
round, inflated look
astronauts have

in that pearly light they have
inevitably to get photographed in, cup,
a look
you take almost with you,
wherever you go, the look of
a thing to which illusions don't stick: the Idea

of the future as a rosy thing, the idea
that a sort of 1910 visionary German architect might have
had ("shining cities of
the night," for example), little cup,
you don't support.  You
look grubby no matter how clean you look.

The look
of shading, where you turn away from the light, cross-hatching
     can't suggest: the idea
of clean and dark as a continuum you
have at your shady edges, & have
in any light, is like a smudge!  Little cup,
you are so resolutely the repository of

so many things you never wished to be the repository of.
Most of them negative(!)  I like your look,
I think you are allright.  Cup,
Roland Barthes says: farce is the negation of the idea
of materialist hope (cf. Vico, Marx & others).  Have
you heard of that?  It is the notion, in your case, that you

repeat the idea represented by Cup (you
are one!), like farce repeats the idea of
tragedy-minus meaning, noble meaning.  The idea the Bauhaus might have
had: about good design both being, & symbolising, The Future-you look
like you say nix to that.  The idea
of you it is said, is degree zero, where zero means "32 below"-emotionally
       like 'cryonics for the brain', not that I don't like you.
       What do you say, cup?

"I like you too - cup to human - you
have a clear idea of my status as replacement of
the Table & the Chair, as philosophical exemplars of reality, thru
       my look, real and artificial, & so reminding, comfortably, of
       Progress.  Well I guess I don't remind of that, & that's what
       you're saying.  You say, Don't worry but.  And I like that.
       I'm useful too-did you forget?  Probably you didn't.
       Maybe you should have a Coke out of me, if you have
       enough money.  Do you have?"
       "Stop there!" I said.  "Yes I do," I said, "I have."


A decade later, in the multifarious jumble of poetic anomie and experiment of early twenty-first century post-modernism, the US poet Brenda Hillman’s poem ‘Styrofoam Cup’ rewrote John Keats’ ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’. Unlike Bolton, Hillman doesn’t embrace the little cup nor does she question, philosophically, its form, its function, its artificiality - instead, she defiantly constructs, from Keatsian traces, a short and witty anti-ode. She hurls the phrase ‘thou still unravished’ back two centuries to the young poet, a man of his own times, -
‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty," - that is all
        Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.’
said John Keats. And the contemporary urn, beautiful or not, is made of chemicals, says Brenda Hillman.

Styrofoam Cup

thou still unravished thou

thou, thou bride

thou unstill,

thou unravished unbride

unthou unbride


When I chip away distractedly at a styrofoam cup am I somehow unthouing an unbride?


Works cited

Bolton, Ken. Sestina to the Centre of the Brain. Adelaide, SA: Little Esther, 1990.

Hillman, Brenda. Cascadia. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 2001.

Keats, John. The Complete Poems. Ed. John Barnard. Middlesex,UK: Penguin, 1973


Pam Brown  


Last updated 25 May, 2009