Sunday, August 04, 2013

Conceptual Poetry: Shrug

In the ongoing, often heated debate about conceptual poetry, some voices have a more grounded analysis than others. One of these is Robert Archambeau, of Samizdat blog, who recently contributed an article to a Poetry Foundation roundup about all this brouhaha:

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.

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Blogger Fluffy Singler said...

I was at the Conceptual Poetics conference held at the U of Arizona poetry center in 2008. Craig Dworkin talked about a desire to link a literary movement to an artistic one, which hadn't been done I think, since Dada/Surrealism. Of course, it's a self-conscious, rather than an organic linking. But I think the desire behind it is a good one.

I agree that much of the techniques employed are very similar to ready-mades and to cut-up poetry, etc. I doubt that most of the conference participants would identify exclusively as conceptual poets, except maybe for Goldsmith, although hearing his work at the White House, it wasn't really the work that he is known for promoting either.

I think of conceptual poetics as trying to update and expand on Dadaist and post/modernist poetry practices. I think it is useful for discussion of what poetry is and is not. I use some of Goldsmith's writings in my community education classes, which generates a lot of heated debates because ultimately, people DO want poetry to be charming or beautiful or to help people make connections between seemingly unrelated objects and situations.

Like Surrealist techniques, I find Conceptualist Poetics to be very good for maintaining a writing practice and for stimulating thought (since Goldsmith would be against the idea of stimulating "creativity.")

It can be helpful getting people to believe that everyone can write poetry. (I used to have this debate with people at open mics who would claim everyone is a poet. Not everyone is a poet, anymore than everyone is a plumber, a doctor, an accountant, or a dancer. But everyone should write poetry, dance, be able to do math, and take care of their health.)

There is much that can be borrowed and learned from previous art movements and from updating our venerated avant-gardes which, if they have any value to offer, can and should be updated. It is a tenet of modernism to declare what came before you as dead and to proclaim yourself the new hot thing, which ironically, is both what conceptual poetics is out to deny, and a stance which conceptual visual artists frequently embraces.

9:36 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Thanks for the comments, I appreciate them.

Nothing you say, however, seems to contradict my assertion that the only people who care about this are those engaged in it. Nor does anything you report contradict my assertion that this entire project is mannerist.

Recycling and updating and expanding High Modernism is all very well and good, but let's call it that, rather than giving it a new -ism with it's own manifesto. I am happy to report that Samuel Beckett influenced some of my writing, but I don't feel the need to come up with a new school of poetry to do it within. It's as if "influence" has become a forbidden word, which has been supplanted by "imitation."

As for linking poetry to other arts, well, again, nothing new. The Beats very much linked their poetry to jazz. The New York School of poets in the 50s very much linked their poetry to the NYC painters doing Abstract Expressionism, as well as to jazz. So my response to Mr. Dworkin would be, again, nothing new there. Not even the self-conscious aspect of linking is new, since the New York School were very self-conscious about linking with the painters. (Having read two bios of Frank O'Hara in the last year, I feel quite confident in saying that.)

I quite agree that the desire to link up the arts is a good one, in fact speaking as a multi-media artist myself I claim it to be a necessary one; but it's also a perpetual one, with such linkages always happening in most of the arts. It's perennial. We make it new by doing it for ourselves, but the practice of linking itself is not remotely new.

I know very well that most poets are not purists in practice, although the rhetoric and constant stream of post-avant manifestos seems to want to create an ideology behind every poetic -ism before the poems are actually written. That, too, is a mark of mannerism, in terms of art history. The problem is that almost all poetry that results is crap: whenever a poetic ideology is prescriptive rather than descriptive, you get lots of great ideas and usually a lot of bad art.

Even when the ideas are interesting. I happen to agree with most of the ideas behind Language Poetry, derived as many of them are from the avant-garde of mid-century, influenced by Cage and his circle; but most of the poetry that results from LangPo's manifestos is frankly unreadable. Like conceptual poetry, the idea seems more important than the product. I know full well that conceptual poetry is rooted in LangPo, and what poets like Silliman have declared to be their lineage. Each of these claims to update the previous avant-garde, but in practice you get repetition more than change. You can change the label on a can of beans but it's still a can of beans. (Perhaps my viewpoint on that is uniquely that of an outsider, one who worked a long time in marketing and advertising rather than academic poetry. In other words, a change of label without changing contents seems incredibly obvious to me.)

11:41 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Anyway, I digress. I was agreeing that most poets are not purists in actual practice, nor does a rigorous poetic conception prevent them from doing other things. Anne Carson, for example.

I find it intriguing, if not exactly in a positive light, that the most ideologically purist about conceptualism, as well as most other -isms, produce the least interesting art. But as I said before, prescriptive theory rarely produces good art. Theory should come after, not before, the actual process of making art. Else it tends to remain charmless.

For my own writing, I don't find anything useful in conceptual poetry's techniques; although I have enjoyed playing some of the old Surrealist parlor games from time to time, such as Exquisite Corpses. But then, as a poet just as a composer and visual artist I never feel the need for practice or exercise, I just do it. I fully understand that I am in many ways atypical. The truth is, I never run out of stuff to Make. And I also come from a background in experimental music, with a strong knowledge of Cage, so indeterminacy to me is very familiar. As a jazz musician, I have the most fun playing in free jazz groups where there are no rules but to listen to each other and respond. So even the old Surrealist games seem quite tame to me, when you set them beside indeterminacy, ranging from Cage to Ornette Coleman.

I do agree that everyone ought to practice a creative discipline, be able to do math, etc. That's just part of being a well-rounded human being, and most of the world's cultures have always emphasized multi-modal existence. Specialization is very much a product of the Industrial Revolution, and very much a product of technical culture; it is a relatively new phenomenon within the history of our species. Ancient uneducated downtrodden peasants were generalists, even then, and could do many different tasks other than just farming or herding, usually including music of some kind. Again, a very old truth, not a new one.

That conceptual poetics ironically denies the Modernist (which is really a Late Romantic) ideal of supplanting and updating and improving upon the past only underlines that conceptual poetics, like post-modernism in general, is mannerist and decadent. The irony is even more powerful when we consider that they seem to actively embrace their own Mannerism.

11:42 PM  
Blogger Fluffy Singler said...

And I wasn't totally disagreeing with you. (Notice the absence of "but" or "what you fail to realize," that punctuates debates.) I was just saying how I use CP and where I think it can be useful.

I get pulled in so many directions, that sometimes I do need an artistic practice that allows me to enter in on a fairly banal or quotidian way and get to something good eventually. I often lose myself artistically and some of the practices of CP, just as with Dada and Surrealist practices, help me get back to it.

11:55 PM  
Blogger Archambeau said...

I'd just like to jump in and say that there are works that are called conceptual that do have considerable charm in the language itself -- Dwarkin's Mote, for example, or Bok's Eunoia -- I was writing about what Vanessa Place calls "pure conceptualism," the sort that does not need to be read.

10:22 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Laura, I realize that. I see your point about using it as an exercise. I get pulled in a lot of directions, too, although I find that all I have to do to make a poem, or piece of music, is listen. My natural tendency is intuitive and Dionysian, if you will, in contrast to the intellectual and Apollonian tendencies that dominate much of contemporary post-avant poetry. Is there any poetry more Apollonian than pure conceptual poetry? One of the problems that I have with a lot of post-avant poetry is that it is unbalanced: it tends to be all head and not much heart. Confessional lyric poetry on the other hand tends to be all heart and no head. Usually the best poetry, in my opinion, is both.

Bob, thanks for the clarification. I was referring to the same body of work, the "pure conceptualism," assuming that folks might have read your article first. I guess I didn't say so clearly enough for my part. One of the issues that remains true, I think, even for the readable examples of conceptualism, is the distinction between theory and praxis. I think in the case of pure conceptiualism we can see a correlation between the purity of the concept and the unreadability of the result. Where charm creeps in to some conceptual work, it makes me think that the concept is less rigid, less purist, and maybe more tuned to the needs of art-making that is itself less purely intellectual and more somatic.

12:15 PM  
Blogger Fluffy Singler said...

Now that I have had a little time to sleep on it and reflect further, I want to add this, which is something I have ruminated over for years.

There are people who contend that the avant-garde is dead because there is nothing new that they have discovered. I agree with the premise that we have, for the current time, exhausted the available types of writing and possibly even of art. But as Rosalind Kraus and Robert Hughes have both asserted in various ways at various times, the so-called "Shock of the New" need not be the defining aspect of the avant-garde and in fact, avant-garde practices are rarely new.

In just the few pages that I have read of his book Uncreative Writing, Goldsmith acknowledges his debt to the early avant-gardes of the 20th century.

Perhaps avant-garde isn't even the right term. Perhaps it should be the "outre-garde," the other garde, although in our current cultural and academic lingo, where those who have been marginalized are being spoken of as the "other," that phrase is also problematic. But I would contend that these practices are done in contradistinction to the mainstream and that those who participate in these practices identify themselves with avant-gardes or experimental writing and art.

We don't say that writing itself is a bore, or even that mainstream practices, so-called, are boring or passe. But we still call out experimental writing practices for not being new or fresh enough. I think there is much that surrealism or dada or fluxus or any other avant-garde has to offer the world because I think, especially as regards literature, they were often incomplete revolutions, exactly because much of the right is difficult to downright unreadable. But then again, maybe just as it requires a different writing practice, it might also require a different approach to reading, which I am sure that you appreciate, Art.

Toward that end, I believe there is great value in revisiting and updating these avant garde practices every 20 or 30 years and reintroducing them to new generations of writers, even with a different name than Neo-X.

I agree that the distinction between theory and practice can be great. There is a lot of, in my opinion, not very good poetry produced by Language Poets or Conceptual Poets, as well as by Fluxus and Dada-leaning poets. Those poets would contend that there is a lot of crap produced by all poets, regardless of what school they belong to. I find much mainstream poetry equally unreadable, but for different reasons.

Further, again, if you can read differently and appreciate the work for the experimentation it does rather than the way the words sound on the page (which coming from music, I would not be surprised if that is what you are reading for), then you are reading for different reasons. Beauty is not the only thing that can affect us, and to my mind, experimenting with language is one of the last and best things that poetry can still do.

I am not sure what you mean by mannerist, I have to admit. But those are my thoughts on some of your other comments.

2:31 PM  

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