II: The Map and the Poem
Imagine an atlas with a structure ordered to tell a story greater than those told by each individual map, an atlas with something more clearly on its mind than keeping the maps off the floor. There are terrific examples of narrative atlases, self-consciously narrative in precisely the way I’m advocating. The series inaugurated by Michael Kidron and Ronald Segal—The State of the World Atlas, The New State of the World Atlas, and so on—is especially exemplary. Below the title of each of their maps is a pithy, almost aphoristic, verbal summary of its point. This effectively and immediately removes the maps from the class of reference works (a reference map may have a subject, it cannot have a point) and encourages reading the maps as links in a chain of argument. The sharply pointed quality of the captions makes it clear to even the most obtuse reader that this atlas is not a hodgepodge of “neutral” maps but a lively polemic about a self-perpetuating system of sovereign states so preoccupied with aggrandizement and conflict as to lead to world cataclysm. The sharpness of tone promotes close attention to the maps (if only in search of alternate readings). The concision propels readers to the explanatory notes (which explicitly discuss the quality of the data). It soon becomes apparent that the plates build on each other, that the divisions of the atlas have a rhetorical—not arbitrary—basis, that the notes are vital to any deep understanding of the maps. It is clear that the atlas is declaring itself an essay on the destructive potential of the nation-state. Nothing but an atlas could have accomplished this with equal force. Bill Bunge’s The Nuclear War Atlas and the series of historical atlases Colin McEvedy made for Penguin are other examples (McEvedy opened his Penguin Atlas of African History with, “What it is not intended to be is a reference atlas”).
These atlases further distinguish themselves with maps that are essentially modern, and I do mean “Modern.” Given the ubiquity of Modernism, it is astonishing that it laid so light a glove on mapmaking. Yet as Modernism was noisily turning its back on the failed rationalities, empty harmonies, and make-believe coherences of both Enlightenment and Victorian thinking, cartography was clutching them ever more tightly to its breast. Painters may have been deconstructing pictorial space, composers shredding inherited tonalities, architects stripping walls of pilasters, cornices, and dentil moldings, poets following Pound’s cry to “Make it new,” and novelists indulging a self-consciousness that was all but the hallmark of the age, but cartographers were content to hone, polish, and extend inherited forms. Cartography exalted its unreflective empiricism as its raison d’être and cherished the graphic conventions it had laid down in the 19th century. Even today few maps acknowledge the 19th century’s gone.
Exceptions, such as Otto Neurath’s Isotype maps, came from outside the profession. Neurath was a Vienna Circle polymath—a philosopher, originally a political economist—who, as director of the Social and Economic Museum of Vienna, developed a way to describe social, technological, biological, and historical phenomena in a “world language without words,” a kind of pictographics he called Isotype (International System of TYpographic Picture Education). I know you’ve seen these: phalanxes of identical little men or cars or cows, all in poster colors, arranged to form graphs. Reductive minimalism. Stripped down. Almost aggressively modern. Sans serif typefaces (Akzidenz-Grotesk). There were Isotype maps too, and through Neurath’s visits, Soviet mapmaking acquired a modern accent missing in other traditions. Harry Beck’s map of the London Underground is a better known example.
But Beck and Neurath are exceptions that prove the rule. Look at Herbert Bayer and his World Geo-Graphic Atlas. Bayer was an archetypic Bauhaus designer—he both studied and taught there—with a distinguished U.S. career as an iconic modernist. His atlas, commissioned by the Container Corporation of America as a corporate giveaway, may very well be the “benchmark for information graphics that has yet to be equaled” that it is so often claimed to be. Its self-consciously narrative orchestration of double-page spreads of information-rich graphics opposite maps has proved lastingly influential. Yet the maps themselves were literally off-the-shelf, commercial products of the most pedestrian variety (the maps of the U.S. came from Rand-McNally). There was nothing remotely modern about them. They were, in fact, relics of 19th century design. It was as though the map were protected by an impenetrable carapace of reference work authority, an aura that kept the designer’s hands off: he could work around it, he could not touch.
Well, of course, he couldn’t! He wasn’t a cartographer, not a professional cartographer! Only a cartographer can make a map! Or so the cartographers would like you to believe. But then Neurath wasn’t a cartographer either, and Beck was an engineering draftsman. For that matter, Mike Kidron was a Marxist economist; Ronald Segal an anti-apartheid activist, writer and editor; and Colin McEvedy a psychiatrist. Why were all these non-professional mapmakers making maps? Because cartographers couldn’t or wouldn’t make the maps they needed, because cartography refused to make the leap into the 20th century.
As a graduate student in geography studying cartography, this all made me very queasy. It was the 1960s. I was listening to Stravinsky and Cage and Smokey Robinson and the Beatles. I was looking at de Kooning and Jim Dine and David Hockney. I was protesting the war and resisting the draft. Geography as an academic discipline was determinedly ignoring Vietnam, civil rights, and feminism. It knew little of Marx, nothing of Foucault, and it seemed content to pump out papers like “Vacation Homes in the Northeastern United States: Seasonality in Population Distribution” and “The Changing Status of New Zealand Seaports, 1853-1960.” Cartography was even worse, taught as a craft with vellum, bow compasses, quill pens, and Leroy lettering templates. What the fuck was all this antique shit!? I quickly tired of dot distribution maps of Kansas hogs—a map so often seen it was turned into a joke tee-shirt—but I was also exhausted by the recruitment of university-trained mapmakers into what was then the U.S. Army Map Service to make maps of targets for U.S. bombers.
The line between the hog mapping and the target mapping was short and direct, a kind of repulsive instrumentalism to which Modernism, as I understood it, was irrevocably opposed (Dada, Surrealism, Gerrit Rietveld, Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht, Situationism, concrete poetry, New Wave film, you name it). Modernism came with a predisposition for resistance and smashing traditional forms, for going someplace stripped down, essential, real, for asking, Why not? Already in graduate school I was feeling around for a new map that wasn’t of the same old subjects, that didn’t have the same old forms, that looked and felt modern. Schoenberg wan-ted to emancipate the dissonance. Arp wanted to destroy existing modes of art production to counteract “the trumpets, the flags and money, through which repeatedly killings of millions were organized on the field of honor.” And I wanted to destroy existing modes of mapmaking through which millions were repeatedly killed. I wanted to emancipate dream and desire as subjects of the map.
What a delirium!
Looking for a job in geography was disheartening. There was zero interest in hiring someone like me (my dissertation was entitled I Don’t Want To, But I Will), substantially less than zero when it came to cartography. All they wanted was a technician, someone to keep the cartography lab running smoothly while completing enough research to satisfy the provost when it came to promotion (“Group and Individual Variations in Judgment and Their Relevance to the Scaling of Graduated Circles”). Mapmaking was understood as a trade or as a fee-for-service profession: the neutral, unbiased, value-free provision of maps for employers or clients who wanted to bomb the land, mine it, drill it for oil, run roads across it, plant suburban subdivisions on it, promote it as a tourist destination, or buy and sell it. Love it? Don’t talk to the cartographers, talk to the poets. What if mapmaking were an expressive art, a way of coming to terms with place, with the experience of place, with the love of place?
When I talked about these things at the obligatory faculty-student colloquia, I was met with blank stares (What is this madman talking about?!) and no job offers: “It will not come as a surprise to you to learn that we are not offering you a position on our faculty. Indeed, it did not seem to us that you wanted one.”
Indeed, I didn’t.
In 1974 I ended up at North Carolina State University in Raleigh teaching environmental perception to landscape architecture students. I used mapping as a way of selectively focusing their attention on those aspects of the landscape that, in the instrumentality of their training as future professionals (at least they were open about it), they were apt to overlook: the way the land smelled, the way it felt in their legs when they walked it, the sound of the wind in the oaks after all the other leaves had fallen, the way twilight made all the difference. At least this was all useless knowledge—nothing a developer or a bank could monetize—and the maps were fun to make. And because landscape architecture students are design students, there was both an attention to polish and an imaginative drive to find the less “mappable” things that, from the beginning, set their work apart from that of cartography students who were more concerned with “getting it right.” Even so, I couldn’t get them to leave the streets off their maps.
As they mapped the nearby neighborhoods—Cameron Village, Cameron Park, Deveraux, Brooklyn Heights, and Boylan Heights—the streets seemed to be the irreducible subject, the what-it-was that made neighborhoods neighborhoods. If you’re laying out subdivisions, as many of these students would end up doing professionally, streets really are all you have to play with, which is exactly why I was all the more eager to get rid of them. The streets seemed to inhibit the other qualities to which I was trying to draw their attention. The streets always emerged in the foreground no matter how far into the background you intended them to recede.
Then in 1982 we were working on Boylan Heights, on a whole atlas of Boylan Heights, specifically a map of street lights, and we began paring away the inessential, the map crap (the neat line, the scale, the north arrow), the neighborhood boundaries, the topography, finally the streets: first the scaled streets, then a schematic grid of the streets, and finally, then even a hint of a grid of the streets. Daylight went too—that default daylight that most maps take for granted—so that we were fooling around with circles of white on a black background. It became clear that the map wasn’t about the lamp posts, but about the lamp light, and light was something we weren’t sure how to deal with. Certainly, the uniform white circles we’d been drawing caught nothing of the way the light was fringed at the edges, and one night, armed with a camera, we scaled a fence and climbed a radio tower on the edge of Boylan Heights hoping to catch the night lights on film. What a disappointment! The view from above was nothing like walking in and out of the pools of dappled light on the streets below. But I had a pochoir brush at home, and when Carter Crawford—who’d put himself in charge of atlas graphics—used it to draw the circles, it was magical. That was the way it felt to be walking the streets at night!
Nothing but blotches of white. The usual “efficient” map would have located everything on the street onto a single sheet—that is, different marks for lamp posts, fire hydrants, street signs, trees. Our inefficient map concentrated on a single subject, and, rather than lamp posts, it brought the pools of light into view. No legend, no north arrow, no neat line, none of the usual apparatus. At last, a modernist feel! Maybe even a sense of poetry, something imagistic, a little like Pound’s “The apparition of these faces in the crowd;/Petals on a wet, black bough;” or Williams’ red wheelbarrow, but as it might manifest in a map, a map attentive to the experience of place.
That’s when I knew we could write poems in maps, and I began thinking seriously about a poetics of cartography.