history, literature

Wasting time on conceptual poetry

I borrowed from my local public library Postmodern American Poetry: a Norton anthology (2nd edition), edited by Paul Hoover. I am not quite sure what was the impulse that led me to this step, perhaps it was a feeling that I had little real sense of what was up in the current poetry scene, and that I should give some attention to the profuse ideas about writing that my contemporaries have given voice to. It was a kind of anxiety of no influence, and a fear that my own writing practice is cut so adrift from the songs of others that they can only die solitary and alone.

If that was my intention, I soon found myself confirmed in shunning the poetics of these postmodern poets. which went by a bevy of terms I read for the first time in the anthology’s introduction in place of a manifesto – terms like proceduralism, uncreative writing, language poetry, Newlipo, cyberpoetry, Flarf, post-language lyrics and conceptual poetry. The last the anthologist proclaimed is what represented The New, which is a new form of the incarnation of the sacred, tinged with revolutionary politics.

Of course I was familiar with terms like post-modernism, and found in the introduction some old and familiar practitioners of slippery academic prophecy, in miscast runes, like Frederic Jameson. Jameson is quoted approvingly as the announcer of the postmodern which the anthologist declares the reigning style of this era and of its culture: “It is safest to grasp the concept of the postmodern as an attempt to think about the present historically in an age that has forgotten how to think historically in the first place.” This rather gnomic piece of circular self-deception comes from Jameson’s 1991 treatise named Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, which reassures its revolutionary readers of its prophetic truth with that little adjective slipped in, late. It is of the same cloth that much of the faux prophecies and drunken manifestos of various kinds of Revolutionary, Post-Modern and New poetry. Jameson seems temperamentally unable to admit that the literary critic simply has not bothered to look around the university, or even outside its fevered halls, for some people who do think historically, i

But this is very much a common infection among the conceptual poets. I learned from the anthology that Kenneth Goldsmith is the reigning arch-priest among these poets. Goldsmith practices a self-declared form of uncreative writing. His notable works include word-for-word (or something approximating such verisimilitude) reproductions of a newspaper, a report on terror, and a transcript each word he has spoken over a period of a week, in all their quotidian inanity. They are entirely uninteresting. They are only known because of the self-promotions that they serve. Indeed at UbuWeb he is his own custodian of digital permanence and trustee of the avant-garde as forever chic, sadly for me appropriating Jarry’s Pere Ubu and presenting Beckett as a sunglasses model.

He has recently lost the mantle of the New and the Radical by reading, with significant but minor alterations, the autopsy report of a African-American man shot by the police. This act quite understandably offended many people involved in the Black Lives Matter movement, and although there is a persecutorial leftism in the tone of the criticism, it is a sign that idle word games and enfant terrible poses for publicity are no match to deeply felt emotions.

Goldsmith’s radicalism is generously supported by an academic position at an American University where he teaches his brand of poetic practice with such courses as “Wasting time on the Internet.” Here he practices a form of mid-Western american shuckster fakery that promises to his students that “this class will focus on the alchemical recuperation of aimless surfing into substantial works of literature.” He destroys poetic practice and turns it into an entertainment driven series of stunts. Conceptual poetry, it seems to me is nothing more than that, a series of media stunts that leave nothing behind.

Still, Goldsmith clings to a stage persona of the great artist. His uncreative writing does not practice a humble craft but like a thousand avant-gardists before him, offers a masterpiece of dada in the wish to be known as a great artist.  It is American consumerism’s darkest hour, when it has turned those paid to teach poetry and to guard the culture into exponents of an uncreative writing that proposes that lists of online purchases and browser histories “be churned into compelling works of identity-based literature.”

Unsurprisingly, such a busker of the New has a poor understanding of history. He is quoted towards the end of the introduction as writing in a debate on the current state of poetry:

“Any notion of history has been leveled by the internet. Now, it’s all fodder for the remix and recreation of works of art: free-floating toolboxes and strategies unmoored from context of historicity… All types of proposed linear historical trajectories have been scrambled and discredited by the tidal wave of digitality, which has crept up on us and so completely saturated our culture that we, although deeply immersed in it, have no idea what hit us. In the face of the digital, postmodernism is the quaint last gasp of modernism.” Goldsmith quoted from “The Tortoise and the Hare,” 2009

His interlocutor in this false debate between the new and slow poetry is Dale Smith who advocates a slow poetry, which dwells, like this blog, in the mysterious image created by Walter Benjamin’s philosophy of history.

“We’re surrounded by the past in the form of digitized archives. I understand that. But Benjamin’s notion of history is rooted in a sense of the catastrophic failures of history in the twentieth century, too. Paradise is a dream – a true liberating force (an impossibility?) – that is rooted in a meaningful search for images. We are surrounded by artifacts, endless fodder for remixing as you say. But how do we proceed with this material in respect to the catastrophe? Are we really free to ignore the contexts and situations produced by these images?” Dale SMith quoted from from “The Tortoise and the Hare,” 2009.

Without Smith’s tinge of longing for a radically changed paradise, I believe in his slow poetry. Conceptual poetry, such as that practised by Goldsmith in the cursed tradition of Andy Warhol, is a series of empty gestures, venerating the career of the artist above the suffering about which the poet ought to give testimony. History is not kind to artists who try to turn her into a fun-house for their happenings, and at least so I believe, it is the private lyric voice, who is not acclaimed in their time as New or Radical or Shocking that is the true and lasting voice of poetry.


3 thoughts on “Wasting time on conceptual poetry”

  1. a brilliant piece. at first i thought it was going in a direction toward a criticism of the writing of poetry proper in the Contemporary age, which i was going to have to disagree with, as i class myself as a Contemporary poet, who is witnessing his experiences now, i think this is Contemporary, otherwise i have no idea what it really means.
    but what you have chosen to focus upon is a form (of poetry?) which i cannot accept as a form that will see a renaissance in the way people envision language & poetry. but i also think poetry must move forward, but that is not by rebelling against history, but rather realizing that you are a part of its making at each moment, & that the poet of sensitivity to this can give voice, can measure it up, can contextualize it. this may sound like journalism, & i suppose it could be contested that it is, but highly stylized. poetry is craft, that is why Goldsmith fails miserably. i like poetic manifestos, so long as real poetry is written. one i am keen on is Inflectionism, which John Sibley Williams & A.Molotov devised for their excellent journal theinflectionistreview. i am on board with it because it cultivates craft & produces poets of astounding talent, such as Jose Araguz.
    i could talk all day about this article, but i’ll wait for a reply rather than rattle on.

    1. Thank you for these thoughtful comments. I will read about inflectionism before responding at more length. I do feel a poetry of nobility, to echo Wallace Stevens from an earlier post, is not only possible in today’s fractious cultural conditions, but for me at least a kind of necessary spiritual, yet not religious, vocation.

      1. i can only write something of substance if what i read has substance enough to inspire something of substance. phew. i would be interested to know your thoughts on Inflectionism, read the journal too.
        i think my entire reason to write poetry is due to Wallace Stevens saying it isn’t everyday the world forms into a poem. i am paraphrasing, but nevertheless, it is the reason i write poetry.
        poetry comes from diversity, we live in an ideal time for good poetry.

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