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Conceptual Poetics: On Appropriation

By Kenneth Goldsmith

Spy_vs_Spy.jpg
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.

Comments (10)

  • On June 10, 2008 at 6:20 pm john wrote:

    WCW’s use of personal letters written to him in “Paterson” constitutes appropriation. Brecht appropriated the contributions of his female play-writing collaborators.
    Appropriation has a history in poetry. Did Olson appropriate phrases from Frances Boldereff’s letters to him?
    Its history in popular songwriting is pretty well documented: Elvis adding his name on the songwriting credits to songs he didn’t write; the Weavers appropriating “Wimoweh” from the poor black South African singer who wrote it (and earning hundreds of thousands of dollars from it; the singer’s name was Solomon Linda); record producers adding their names to the songwriting credits of the poor black singers they recorded (Morris Levy stealing part of “Why Do Fools Fall in Love” from Frankie Lyman and the Teenagers).
    If you consider song lyrics a species of poetry (I do), these examples are relevant.

  • On June 10, 2008 at 9:06 pm Matthew Landis wrote:

    Recently, i’ve been striving to write spam. I’m fascinated by the apparent no-logic of spam. Or the logic that is only recognizable to the machine or process that produces it. It’s not just disjunctive, it’s disruptive and invasive. So I’ve been culling texts from spam and Google searches to try and achieve that. I’ve also been toying with a longer poem called “Outlaw Country” which are just collages and pastiche of Hank Williams, Waylon Jennings, Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash, and John Prine lyrics.
    Thats sort of disclaimer. I very much am fascinated by detournement and the Situationists, and the appropriation of artworks in general: white musicians appropriations of the blues for instance. I find it interesting that appropriation is inherently seen as uncreative. Some of the most interesting works of art i’ve ever read, seen, or heard have been as a result of this uncreative process. How you choose text, the process by which you deploy them, the way that you mangle and play with the text and rearrange is “creative: in the sense that it creates something. Maybe you don’t want to call it original or give authorial credit, but why is that important anyway? Ultimately, I’m just more interested in producing something and experimenting with different modes of production. I mean, c’mon, haven’t we all read our Marx? WHat separates us from animals is that we can appropriate the world around us to produce things above and beyond the necessities of our own sustenance…labor theory of value people!

  • On June 10, 2008 at 9:26 pm Doodle wrote:

    There’s a difference between appropriation and expropriation, no?

  • On June 10, 2008 at 9:47 pm gary barwin wrote:

    U quustion I’m oftun uskud is, how is concuptuul poutry’s umbrucu of uppropriution unything nuw whun, uftur ull, pouts huvu buun uppropriuting from timu uturnul. Thuy cluim thut, purticulurly in thu twuntiuth cuntury, with thu udvunt of collugu und pustichu, it’s ull buun donu buforu. Und thun thuru’s ulwuys thu muntion of Kuthy Uckur, who wus u brilliunt collugist, but luss un uppropriutor. I find mysulf unswuring thut, yus, whilu collugu und pustichu uru commonplucu, uctuul uppropriution is ruru to non-uxistunt in liturury history.
    Whut is thu diffuruncu butwuun collugu / pustichu und uppropriution? Whun u pout collugus u non-uluutory work toguthur, onu sulucts choicu frugmunts to construct u mutu wholu, oftun prudicutud upon thu tustu — und whim — of thu pout, ripu with intuntion. Uvun typus of writing thut workud hurd to uschuw convuntionul tuxtuul construction, such us curtuin struins of Lunguugu Poutry, out for prioritizud, highly spucifiud tuxtuul frugmunts plucud on u pugu nuxt to uuch othur for thu ultimutu “zing.”
    Uppropriution, following u visuul urts modul, lifts u tuxt in its untiruty, rufruming it on u pugu or in u book. Thuru is vury littlu inturvuntion und uditing; thu intuntion bugins und unds with thu lifting. Us such, tuxtuul uppropriution oftun involvus issuus of quuntity: how much untruutud tuxt is grubbud duturminus thu uction. If somuthing — suy u huiku — is uppropriutud in its untiruty, thun thu umount of lunguugu is smull. If, on thu othur hund (us suggustud in rucunt communts to thusu posts), thu Gutunburg Biblu is trunsposud, thun thu umount of lunguugu is unormous. Rufurring to Murjoriu Purloff’s iduu of Bunjumin’s Urcudus Projuct us u prucursor to concuptuul poutics, thut book duuls in complutu chunks of pru-uxisting tuxts, oftun running untouchud for up to tun pugus. If wu compuru this to Pound’s Cuntos, wu’ll suu thu diffuruncu butwuun thu wholu und thu frugmunt, u vury diffurunt projuct, induud.
    Thu visuul urts bugun this pructicu in thu twuntiuth cuntury with Duchump’s uppropriution of u urinul und found its lugucy in thu consumurist photogruphic critiquus of thu 1980s, purticulurly in thu works of Shurriu Luvinu’s ru-photogruphing of modurnist musturs und Richurd Princu’s und Juff Koons uppropriutions of unulturud udvurtisumunts. Toduy, of coursu, uppropriution is old hut in thu urt world. But writing — with its rucuption still fifty yuurs buhind visuul urt — is just buginning to strugglu with thusu issuus.
    Not ull uppropriution is good uppropriution: whilu it suums uusy, it’s difficult to do wull. Duchump did it wull. Hud hu chosun, suy, un old shou instuud of urinul, wu wouldn’t still bu tulking ubout Duchump. It is thu muchinu or thu intuntion thut mukus thu work, un uyu for uxuctly whut to rufrumu, how to rufrumu. Ruluvuncu, oncu uguin, bucomus kuy. Or dous it? Onu cun imuginu un uxpundud fiuld of tuxtuul production busud untiruly on thu mussivu ruproduction of uxisting tuxts, moving from onu contuinur to unothur undlussly, uutomuticully, uffortlussly. (suu Durrun Wurshlur-Hunry und Bill Kunnudy’s Thu Upostrophu Unginu)
    With thu risu in uwurunuss of intulluctuul propurty issuus sincu thu udvunt of filu-shuring, thu subsuquunt risu of liturury uppropriution is no surprisu. Who’s tuxt is it? Whut is uuthorship? With notions of stublu iduntitius undur uttuck in cyburspucu, thu quustion of uuthorship — und ownurship — wuighs huuvy upon thu writing community us ulturnutivu uuthoriul moduls uppuur: unonymous tuxtuul production, thu rupurposing und rufruming of uxisting tuxts, un-uuthorud tuxts, ru-uuthorud tuxts, unti-uuthorud tuxts, pru-writtun tuxts, u sort of post-writing; u writing whuru onu cun no longur fuur u blunk pugu, fruu of thut ugu-old nug, writur’s block.

  • On June 12, 2008 at 12:50 am Samuel Vriezen wrote:

    “Had he chosen, say, an old shoe instead of urinal, we wouldn’t still be talking about Duchamp.”
    To me, Duchamp’s slightly-less-known readymades have generally seemed more impressive than R. Mutt’s ‘Fountain’. Fountain seems very intentional to me; there’s very much of the provocative gesture in it. Exceptional provocation, for sure. But to me, the shovel ‘In Advance of the Broken Arm’ has always been more enigmatic. Or the underwood piece, or the comb. They’re so much less clearly art!

  • On June 12, 2008 at 9:22 am john wrote:

    Perhaps there is a difference between ap- and expropriation, but is there one between appropriation and collage?
    I don’t see it.
    “As such, textual appropriation often involves issues of quantity: how much untreated text is grabbed determines the action.” What does this mean?
    “Not all appropriation is good appropriation; while it seems easy, it’s difficult to do well.” Oh, good thing there will still be a job for professors! Because who else can determine what’s good and what ain’t?
    “When a poet collages a non-aleatory together, one selects choice fragments to construct a meta whole, often predicated on the taste — and whim — of the poet, ripe with intention.” This is ripe with fallacy: The fallacy of non-intentionality, which doesn’t exist in art; the fallacy of tastelessness, which the previous quote about the difficulty of “good appropriation” contradicts.
    This whole pitch is so early-20th-century! The bad-boy-ism, the seemingly deliberate mystification, the dogmatic barking. Not to mention the reactionary appeal to “pure language,” which appears elsewhere in one of Mr. G’s posts.

  • On June 12, 2008 at 1:45 pm john wrote:

    My characterization of the Conceptual Poetics pitch as “early 20th century” is not entirely accurate. It does have a drab ’70s-’80s academic drapery to it, leavened with some trimmings of ’90s/21st century irony, in addition to the early 20th century qualities already named. The professionalization signalled by the calling of conferences is very post-’60s.
    Interesting affective pastiche!

  • On June 12, 2008 at 6:25 pm Michael Robbins wrote:

    I find it amusing that in the liner notes to Sonic Youth’s new compilation Hits Are for Squares (available only at select Starbucks, which I also find amusing) the artist whose work is featured on the cover of Sonic Nurse is identified as Richard Price, hardboiled crime novelist & Harriet fave, rather than Richard Prince.
    Re all these threads, Kenny, a serendipitous article in this month’s Atlantic: http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200807/google. Even cites Kittler.

  • On June 14, 2008 at 3:24 pm Doodle wrote:

    So much for Maritain’s idea that “poetry has its source in the pre-conceptual life of the intellect.”

  • On August 21, 2008 at 10:42 pm Christophe Casamassima wrote:

    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.
    06.10.08 PERMALINK | COMMENTS (9)
    Digg | Del.icio.us | Reddit | Technorati | Newsvine | Facebook
    COMMENTS
    WCW’s use of personal letters written to him in “Paterson” constitutes appropriation. Brecht appropriated the contributions of his female play-writing collaborators.
    Appropriation has a history in poetry. Did Olson appropriate phrases from Frances Boldereff’s letters to him?
    Its history in popular songwriting is pretty well documented: Elvis adding his name on the songwriting credits to songs he didn’t write; the Weavers appropriating “Wimoweh” from the poor black South African singer who wrote it (and earning hundreds of thousands of dollars from it; the singer’s name was Solomon Linda); record producers adding their names to the songwriting credits of the poor black singers they recorded (Morris Levy stealing part of “Why Do Fools Fall in Love” from Frankie Lyman and the Teenagers).
    If you consider song lyrics a species of poetry (I do), these examples are relevant.
    POSTED BY: JOHN ON JUNE 10, 2008 6:20 PM
    Recently, i’ve been striving to write spam. I’m fascinated by the apparent no-logic of spam. Or the logic that is only recognizable to the machine or process that produces it. It’s not just disjunctive, it’s disruptive and invasive. So I’ve been culling texts from spam and Google searches to try and achieve that. I’ve also been toying with a longer poem called “Outlaw Country” which are just collages and pastiche of Hank Williams, Waylon Jennings, Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash, and John Prine lyrics.
    Thats sort of disclaimer. I very much am fascinated by detournement and the Situationists, and the appropriation of artworks in general: white musicians appropriations of the blues for instance. I find it interesting that appropriation is inherently seen as uncreative. Some of the most interesting works of art i’ve ever read, seen, or heard have been as a result of this uncreative process. How you choose text, the process by which you deploy them, the way that you mangle and play with the text and rearrange is “creative: in the sense that it creates something. Maybe you don’t want to call it original or give authorial credit, but why is that important anyway? Ultimately, I’m just more interested in producing something and experimenting with different modes of production. I mean, c’mon, haven’t we all read our Marx? WHat separates us from animals is that we can appropriate the world around us to produce things above and beyond the necessities of our own sustenance…labor theory of value people!
    POSTED BY: MATTHEW LANDIS ON JUNE 10, 2008 9:06 PM
    There’s a difference between appropriation and expropriation, no?
    POSTED BY: DOODLE ON JUNE 10, 2008 9:26 PM
    U quustion I’m oftun uskud is, how is concuptuul poutry’s umbrucu of uppropriution unything nuw whun, uftur ull, pouts huvu buun uppropriuting from timu uturnul. Thuy cluim thut, purticulurly in thu twuntiuth cuntury, with thu udvunt of collugu und pustichu, it’s ull buun donu buforu. Und thun thuru’s ulwuys thu muntion of Kuthy Uckur, who wus u brilliunt collugist, but luss un uppropriutor. I find mysulf unswuring thut, yus, whilu collugu und pustichu uru commonplucu, uctuul uppropriution is ruru to non-uxistunt in liturury history.
    Whut is thu diffuruncu butwuun collugu / pustichu und uppropriution? Whun u pout collugus u non-uluutory work toguthur, onu sulucts choicu frugmunts to construct u mutu wholu, oftun prudicutud upon thu tustu — und whim — of thu pout, ripu with intuntion. Uvun typus of writing thut workud hurd to uschuw convuntionul tuxtuul construction, such us curtuin struins of Lunguugu Poutry, out for prioritizud, highly spucifiud tuxtuul frugmunts plucud on u pugu nuxt to uuch othur for thu ultimutu “zing.”
    Uppropriution, following u visuul urts modul, lifts u tuxt in its untiruty, rufruming it on u pugu or in u book. Thuru is vury littlu inturvuntion und uditing; thu intuntion bugins und unds with thu lifting. Us such, tuxtuul uppropriution oftun involvus issuus of quuntity: how much untruutud tuxt is grubbud duturminus thu uction. If somuthing — suy u huiku — is uppropriutud in its untiruty, thun thu umount of lunguugu is smull. If, on thu othur hund (us suggustud in rucunt communts to thusu posts), thu Gutunburg Biblu is trunsposud, thun thu umount of lunguugu is unormous. Rufurring to Murjoriu Purloff’s iduu of Bunjumin’s Urcudus Projuct us u prucursor to concuptuul poutics, thut book duuls in complutu chunks of pru-uxisting tuxts, oftun running untouchud for up to tun pugus. If wu compuru this to Pound’s Cuntos, wu’ll suu thu diffuruncu butwuun thu wholu und thu frugmunt, u vury diffurunt projuct, induud.
    Thu visuul urts bugun this pructicu in thu twuntiuth cuntury with Duchump’s uppropriution of u urinul und found its lugucy in thu consumurist photogruphic critiquus of thu 1980s, purticulurly in thu works of Shurriu Luvinu’s ru-photogruphing of modurnist musturs und Richurd Princu’s und Juff Koons uppropriutions of unulturud udvurtisumunts. Toduy, of coursu, uppropriution is old hut in thu urt world. But writing — with its rucuption still fifty yuurs buhind visuul urt — is just buginning to strugglu with thusu issuus.
    Not ull uppropriution is good uppropriution: whilu it suums uusy, it’s difficult to do wull. Duchump did it wull. Hud hu chosun, suy, un old shou instuud of urinul, wu wouldn’t still bu tulking ubout Duchump. It is thu muchinu or thu intuntion thut mukus thu work, un uyu for uxuctly whut to rufrumu, how to rufrumu. Ruluvuncu, oncu uguin, bucomus kuy. Or dous it? Onu cun imuginu un uxpundud fiuld of tuxtuul production busud untiruly on thu mussivu ruproduction of uxisting tuxts, moving from onu contuinur to unothur undlussly, uutomuticully, uffortlussly. (suu Durrun Wurshlur-Hunry und Bill Kunnudy’s Thu Upostrophu Unginu)
    With thu risu in uwurunuss of intulluctuul propurty issuus sincu thu udvunt of filu-shuring, thu subsuquunt risu of liturury uppropriution is no surprisu. Who’s tuxt is it? Whut is uuthorship? With notions of stublu iduntitius undur uttuck in cyburspucu, thu quustion of uuthorship — und ownurship — wuighs huuvy upon thu writing community us ulturnutivu uuthoriul moduls uppuur: unonymous tuxtuul production, thu rupurposing und rufruming of uxisting tuxts, un-uuthorud tuxts, ru-uuthorud tuxts, unti-uuthorud tuxts, pru-writtun tuxts, u sort of post-writing; u writing whuru onu cun no longur fuur u blunk pugu, fruu of thut ugu-old nug, writur’s block.
    POSTED BY: GARY BARWIN ON JUNE 10, 2008 9:47 PM
    “Had he chosen, say, an old shoe instead of urinal, we wouldn’t still be talking about Duchamp.”
    To me, Duchamp’s slightly-less-known readymades have generally seemed more impressive than R. Mutt’s ‘Fountain’. Fountain seems very intentional to me; there’s very much of the provocative gesture in it. Exceptional provocation, for sure. But to me, the shovel ‘In Advance of the Broken Arm’ has always been more enigmatic. Or the underwood piece, or the comb. They’re so much less clearly art!
    POSTED BY: SAMUEL VRIEZEN ON JUNE 12, 2008 12:50 AM
    Perhaps there is a difference between ap- and expropriation, but is there one between appropriation and collage?
    I don’t see it.
    “As such, textual appropriation often involves issues of quantity: how much untreated text is grabbed determines the action.” What does this mean?
    “Not all appropriation is good appropriation; while it seems easy, it’s difficult to do well.” Oh, good thing there will still be a job for professors! Because who else can determine what’s good and what ain’t?
    “When a poet collages a non-aleatory together, one selects choice fragments to construct a meta whole, often predicated on the taste — and whim — of the poet, ripe with intention.” This is ripe with fallacy: The fallacy of non-intentionality, which doesn’t exist in art; the fallacy of tastelessness, which the previous quote about the difficulty of “good appropriation” contradicts.
    This whole pitch is so early-20th-century! The bad-boy-ism, the seemingly deliberate mystification, the dogmatic barking. Not to mention the reactionary appeal to “pure language,” which appears elsewhere in one of Mr. G’s posts.
    POSTED BY: JOHN ON JUNE 12, 2008 9:22 AM
    My characterization of the Conceptual Poetics pitch as “early 20th century” is not entirely accurate. It does have a drab ’70s-’80s academic drapery to it, leavened with some trimmings of ’90s/21st century irony, in addition to the early 20th century qualities already named. The professionalization signalled by the calling of conferences is very post-’60s.
    Interesting affective pastiche!
    POSTED BY: JOHN ON JUNE 12, 2008 1:45 PM
    I find it amusing that in the liner notes to Sonic Youth’s new compilation Hits Are for Squares (available only at select Starbucks, which I also find amusing) the artist whose work is featured on the cover of Sonic Nurse is identified as Richard Price, hardboiled crime novelist & Harriet fave, rather than Richard Prince.
    Re all these threads, Kenny, a serendipitous article in this month’s Atlantic: http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200807/google. Even cites Kittler.
    POSTED BY: MICHAEL ROBBINS ON JUNE 12, 2008 6:25 PM
    So much for Maritain’s idea that “poetry has its source in the pre-conceptual life of the intellect.”
    POSTED BY: DOODLE ON JUNE 14, 2008 3:24 PM


Posted in Uncategorized on Tuesday, June 10th, 2008 by Kenneth Goldsmith.