Follow Harriet on Twitter
Conceptual Poetics: On Appropriation
A question I’m often asked is, how is conceptual poetry’s embrace of appropriation anything new when, after all, poets have been appropriating from time eternal. They claim that, particularly in the twentieth century, with the advent of collage and pastiche, it’s all been done before. And then there’s always the mention of Kathy Acker, who was a brilliant collagist, but less an appropriator. I find myself answering that, yes, while collage and pastiche are commonplace, actual appropriation is rare to non-existent in literary history.
What is the difference between collage / pastiche and appropriation? When a poet collages a non-aleatory work together, one selects choice fragments to construct a meta whole, often predicated upon the taste — and whim — of the poet, ripe with intention. Even types of writing that worked hard to eschew conventional textual construction, such as certain strains of Language Poetry, out for prioritized, highly specified textual fragments placed on a page next to each other for the ultimate “zing.”
Appropriation, following a visual arts model, lifts a text in its entirety, reframing it on a page or in a book. There is very little intervention and editing; the intention begins and ends with the lifting. As such, textual appropriation often involves issues of quantity: how much untreated text is grabbed determines the action. If something — say a haiku — is appropriated in its entirety, then the amount of language is small. If, on the other hand (as suggested in recent comments to these posts), the Gutenberg Bible is transposed, then the amount of language is enormous. Referring to Marjorie Perloff’s idea of Benjamin’s Arcades Project as a precursor to conceptual poetics, that book deals in complete chunks of pre-existing texts, often running untouched for up to ten pages. If we compare this to Pound’s Cantos, we’ll see the difference between the whole and the fragment, a very different project, indeed.
The visual arts began this practice in the twentieth century with Duchamp’s appropriation of a urinal and found its legacy in the consumerist photographic critiques of the 1980s, particularly in the works of Sherrie Levine’s re-photographing of modernist masters and Richard Prince’s and Jeff Koons appropriations of unaltered advertisements. Today, of course, appropriation is old hat in the art world. But writing — with its reception still fifty years behind visual art — is just beginning to struggle with these issues.
Not all appropriation is good appropriation: while it seems easy, it’s difficult to do well. Duchamp did it well. Had he chosen, say, an old shoe instead of urinal, we wouldn’t still be talking about Duchamp. It is the machine or the intention that makes the work, an eye for exactly what to reframe, how to reframe. Relevance, once again, becomes key. Or does it? One can imagine an expanded field of textual production based entirely on the massive reproduction of existing texts, moving from one container to another endlessly, automatically, effortlessly. (see Darren Wershler-Henry and Bill Kennedy’s The Apostrophe Engine)
With the rise in awareness of intellectual property issues since the advent of file-sharing, the subsequent rise of literary appropriation is no surprise. Who’s text is it? What is authorship? With notions of stable identities under attack in cyberspace, the question of authorship — and ownership — weighs heavy upon the writing community as alternative authorial models appear: anonymous textual production, the repurposing and reframing of existing texts, un-authored texts, re-authored texts, anti-authored texts, pre-written texts, a sort of post-writing; a writing where one can no longer fear a blank page, free of that age-old nag, writer’s block.