Conceptual Poetry: Shrug
Charmless and Interesting: What Conceptual Poetry Lacks and What It's Got:
Fourteen months after reading at the White House, Kenneth Goldsmith found himself in the real center of American power: cable television. His appearance on The Colbert Report, though, coincided not with a general celebration of the conceptual poetics with which he is associated, but with two stinging attacks on such poetics: one by the young poet Amy King in The Rumpus, and another by the esteemed poet-critic Calvin Bedient in Boston Review. King’s criticism revolved around the idea of conceptualism as an in-group phenomenon, and on the hypocrisy of conceptual poets striking anti-establishment poses while simultaneously seeking, and beginning to find, such laurels as the established institutions of American poetry have to offer. Bedient’s article criticized conceptualism for a lack of concern with emotion and affect, which he linked with both a truncating of poetry’s possibilities and a kind of reactionary political stance. People’s responses to these criticisms, to judge by the emails, texts, phone calls, and Facebook messages I received, were passionate—half of my friends in the little world of poetry expressed delight that the horrible careerist bastards were finally getting called out for their sins, while the other half spluttered in outrage at those who dared try to quench the glorious yet fragile flames of poetic innovation.
This is a moment, then, for an assessment of the virtues and vices of conceptual poetry. What does conceptual poetry lack, compared to other poetries, and what does it have to offer? Any brief answer will, of course, be too general, but we can begin to sketch things out with reference to two aesthetic categories: the charming and the interesting. Whatever else conceptualism has got going for it, it lacks—at least in its pure form—the former. And whether one likes conceptualism or not, anyone who has engaged with it has found that it has, wonderfully or frustratingly, got plenty of the latter. . . .
I encourage the interested reader to peruse the rest of this article first, as what I am writing here is essentially a response to Mr. Archambeau.
My fundamental reaction to the brouhaha of pro/con argument regarding conceptual poetry as currently practiced is a resounding "Meh."
I shrug at the idea that anybody really cares about any of this except those already engaged in defining the argument and nature of conceptual poetry. While I highly respect Kenneth Goldsmith as an archivist and cultural bellwether, in my opinion his ideas about conceptual poetry, as most such are, give me nothing but smoke and mirrors, an no meat on the bone. I feel like Mr. Archambeau has come up with a very good synopsis of the whole situation, in his article, although he very politely avoids ripping the curtains aside to reveal the non-wizards behind them.
Conceptual poetry is, like conceptual art—and the point has been made that poetry lags behind the other arts in which this battle over conceptualism has already been fought and settled—the idea that once you understand the concept behind a poetic work, you don't actually have to read the work: the concept IS the artwork, the idea itself is what you are supposed to perceive as the aesthetic moment, while the artistic product itself is unimportant.
This applies to a lot of writing that is exactly like sample-based music: sampling art made by other artists, over which one layers one's own rap, or concept. It applies to re-writing an existing poem, to recontextualize it as a new work simply by putting a new frame around it. (This is not the same as John Cage's practice of, say, "Writing Through Finnegan's Wake," because Cage used an existing text to make a new experience of the text in a new way, which is a lot more than merely placing a new dust cover on an existing book.) You see a lot of writing nowadays made by doing a web search online then assembling a "found" text as a new work. Much conceptual poetry is anti-originality and anti-writing. A lot of it is about sampling, often without changing anything.
Of course, another way to think about this kind of poetry is that it really is nothing new, but rather is mannerist, or in the art-historical sense, Mannerist.
That is, self-referential (as opposed to observational or original), decadent (as in not interested in doing anything other than forms of conceptual quasi-masturbation), and late-historical in the sense that it is the end of an artistic epoch rather than itself being a new artistic epoch (post-modernism is to Modernism as Mannerism was to the Baroque, a recycling in exaggerated form of already-existing ideas). I see all of that in "pure conceptualism," especially when one considers that the idea that one doesn't actually need to see the art or read the poem to get the concept is an idea that Marcel Duchamp and the Dadaists already did. Arguably, Duchamp did it better, too, and not just because he was first, but because he was a better artist. Similarly, "found" poetry is a very old practice.
I would think more of conceptualism if it actually had something new to present, either in terms of idea or in terms of product—but it doesn't. And that is precisely why it lacks all charm, even though it can be interesting.
And I do find it interesting. But most of it, having encountered it once, doesn't ever need to be encountered again. Like puzzles, once you solve it, there's no point in doing it again. There's no discovery in repeating the problem-solving experience because you already know the outcome.
And that is the problem in a nutshell: art needs to be charming—engaging, enticing, enveloping, inviting—not just interesting. I mean, if there's no point in having an audience, even if that audience is just a few friends, what's the point? Pleasuring oneself alone? (The dreaded M word again.)
"Interesting" in this context is just mental. There's no soma to it, no body, no sensuality—and they're PROUD of that. But art is an experience, not just a mental game. I've written before on the point that poetry that appeals only to the intellect is ultimately going to fail, and fail to have any kind of audience other than those who make it. Sound familiar? (Here again. And here.)
I find it hilarious when poets complain about lacking any kind of significant popular audience when they have worked so hard to create that very situation in which no one is interested in what they're doing.
"Charm" on the other hand is precisely what attracts us to poetry, or art, or dance, or music, which is as much as about embodied sensuality as it is about intellectual interest. In the context of conceptual poetry, "charm" is actively negated. So is anything but purely intellectual interest and engagement. This wing of the contemporary avant-garde in poetry, which sometimes oxymoronically calls itself the post-avant, is very much about disengagement, unoriginality, disembodiment, and disenchantment. I view it as an artistic dead-end. It might be very interesting in the present moment, but ultimately there's no man behind the curtain: he has been willfully removed.
So I remain unconvinced by the arguments supporting conceptual poetry—it should be said that some practitioners, like Mr. Goldsmith, seem to enact arguing about conceptual poetry as a form of performance art in its own right. I don't have a strong argument about the contents themselves of conceptual poetry, which for the most part are uninteresting, and deliberately so. I regard the meta-concept (the conception of conceptual poetry) to be itself fundamentally mannerist, and the arguments in favor of the meta-concept to be often transparently, hilariously inept. It's as if we all know that there's no man behind the curtain, but we all must wink at each other knowingly as we pretend otherwise. It's all a game. It's writing about writing that pretends to itself be writing: a labyrinth of recursive mirrors at a party hosted by narcissists.