Richard Cory Kostelanetz. A man with a poem in his name. Polyartist (his coinage). “Earl of Wordship” (his playful self-characterization). King of the New York City literary and artistic underground. Author, editor, compiler of hundreds of books, a one-man production centre for innovation and inventiveness. “A principal theme of my creative work has been the exploration of esthetic extremes, or literary options that have scarcely, if ever, been tried before.” Kostelanetz has produced literature in audio, video, holography, prints, book-art and computer-based installations. What remains at the centre of everything he does is the word.
In 1968 Kostelanetz created a poem that re-enacts Shakespeare’s “Seven Ages of Man” in a one-word, seven-line poem called “Disintegration.”
The poem performs what it communicates; it takes the eye for a walk through the rise and fall of life from intact wholeness to broken fragments, the circle everyone wears as flesh in the lurch toward oblivion.
Kostelanetz makes our biological clock, and perhaps our planetary clock, visible. Time rips into word-flesh unmercifully. If you voice this visual poem, your voice begins in crescendo and ends in diminuendo. You read each line after the clear enunciation of the first with an increased stutter until your voice trails off in incomprehensible burps of sound. Shakespeare ferries you through the stages of infant, schoolboy, lover, soldier, maturity, old age and second childhood. Kostelanetz quickens the pace. Swoosh. You go from baby to babble in a blink.
When you read something this shockingly new, this shockingly true, you fall into a cliché: anybody can do it. Yes, they can once an artist has shown them the way. When Picasso took a bicycle seat and handlebars in 1942, joined them and pointed them towards the viewer and called the hand-fashioned sculpture Head of a Bull, a viewer might have said to himself: I could do that. Thats simple. And it is, once someone has thought of it and done it.
Picasso drew on napkins, painted on newspapers, made sculpture from found objects. The world at large, whether as junk or more refined matter, was a source for his fertile imagination and inventive hand. I picture Richard Kostelanetz the same way – writing on grocery bills, parking tickets, or candy-bar wrappers, everything at hand a potential clay slate for his incessant and incorrigible creativity. Like Picasso, Kostelanetz can’t help himself; he cannot refrain from making a word or an image, polyartistry as central to his being as breathing.
Kostelanetz’s “Disintegration” is a gift to the public. A one-word manifesto of truth-telling. Darkness comes to us all, but for a moment in the presence of a work of art we can call it by its proper name. Is there a pinch of consolation in such clarity and articulateness?