Reading Erica Hunt’s poetry reminds me of a scholarly book that has yet to be written. Such a book would trace avant garde practices through their relation to forms of activism, intervention, and social responsibility. Were such a book to eventually be written, Hunt should find herself among a host of other poets and artists including Murielle Rukeyser, Tillie Olsen, Adrienne Rich and George Oppen. The scholar of such a study might focus their attention on the way activist work shapes an aesthetics whereby forms themselves become not only meaningful, but culpable. A central question our hypothetical scholar might ask, and which might guide her thesis: why do some artists and writers involved with activism work through formal modes which may be said to be transparent or facile, while others resort to “difficulty,” and thereby risk not making sense to a larger readership?
To risk not making sense, in Hunt’s poems, is to risk the public sphere itself, as that which is defined by our ability to make meaning and communicate among one another. To challenge common sense is therefore to reimagine what forms a public sphere can assume. In Hunt’s work, these problems perhaps owe as much to Louis Zukofsky’s Bottom: on Shakespeare, wherein one finds Zukosfky quarreling with Spinoza and Wittgenstein, as they do to traditions of African-American lyrical address, sermon and music.
In an Objectivist spirit, Hunt prioritizes “thinking with the things as they exist”—as Zukofsky famously states the problem of “Sincerity and Objectification” in his 1931 Poetry magazine editorial by the same name, where “things” = words, and “with” belies the communal function of all writing. Throughout Zukosfky’s work recurs a famous incident from Spinoza’s letters, in which the philosopher records himself saying the grammatically incorrect phrase “the window flew through the bird” instead of the grammatically correct one, “the bird flew through the window.” Zukofsky’s point in citing this incident: that sense-making is only as good as context, deixis, relation, and of course the desire to understand; what’s more, what people too often call “making sense” does not take account of poesis—the fact that the production of meaning is always an activity shaped by shared processes, experiences, and beliefs.
From Zukofsky to African-American culture is never a far cry, where the Blues, for instance, or Hip Hop constantly attain music’s “upper limit” by intensifying the rhythmic and melodic qualities of speech. Although Hunt tends to work at the sentence level, often accreting long lines, or prose paragraphs, much of her work remains essentially lyrical. Likewise, her use of the “I,” while it of course troubles the centrality of the author function, nevertheless serves as a fluid index for the poet’s autobiography. In fact, compared with many of her contemporaries, it is refreshing to read the “I” of Hunt’s poetry as an unironic, however witty and playful, critical vehicle.
In Hunt’s 1996 Kelsey St. book Arcade, a collaboration with visual artist Alison Saar, I am struck by a related sense in which we must take Hunt’s problem of sense. In this book, Hunt and Saar attempt to bring their reader back to her senses, both through Saar’s black and white and color wood cuts which complement the tactile and imagistic qualities of Hunt’s poems, but also insofar as Hunt’s text extends a series of propositions about the senses during an era of spectacle and information consumption. Where the noun "arcade" summons the Paris Arcades of the 19th and early 20th centuries, after which Walter Benjamin constructed his theories of allegory and dialectic, I cannot help but also hear in arcade a more contemporary definition: that place where people (typically white male teenagers) gather to play video games.
If in the video game, television programming, and now the Internet lie the conquering of sense, it is the mass desensitization of our culture Hunt’s work criticizes, and conscientiously plays with. Against these mediums of desensitization is the word itself—and poetry as it tests the limits of what words can do. Through the pleasures of poetry as discourse pragmatics, Hunt takes back the senses, reinjecting them with some feeling for being common, public, related, and shared. Or as Hunt herself puts it more eloquently in an artist’s statement for a 2001 Foundation for the Contemporary Arts’ grant:
As is true with many poets, I am drawn to language for its music, for language's capacity to limn thought, its connection to experience, its power to still and magnify the world while one writes/reads the world/book. But equally, I have been interested in techniques that purposely unsettle the crisp ride and appropriate shade of register and vocabulary. I like to read or write to topple the balance between controlled allusion and opacity. And so I have been drawn to the disjunctions of surrealism, Oulippians, improvisers and scat cats as aesthetic methods to seek new and unsuspected connection. This makes it sound like too tranquil an operation: I write poems that teeter on the verge of legibility, blur private and public, set boundaries anew and implicate us as practitioners of this moment and the next.