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All the fun’s in how you say a thing

By Stephen Burt

Craig Dworkin’s new book of super-short poems is terrific, likely to land on my list of top fifteen, though maybe not top five, books of poems this year: they’re minimal, one- and two-line works in the spirit of Robert Grenier, Aram Saroyan and Tristan Tzara, with jokes, French-English puns, and appalled or wistful color commentary in the spirit of J. V. Cunningham (who would have hated them) or Archilochus.

On the other hand, and more predictably, he and Kenneth Goldsmith once again imply that almost all old-style, non-modernist literary creations, the kind where an author appears to have come up with the characters, the plot and the words, have become repetitive and obsolete as such, compared to the collection of bright shiny objects known far and wide as conceptual art.

Now anyone who has read enough old-style art knows that it’s all combinations of new things with old; that all Shakespeare’s plays except one take plots from well-known sources; that all the fun’s in how you say a thing; and that Arthur Danto once defined art, in general, as the sort of thing where a description of what the thing means and does can’t be exhausted by a description of its content.

And yet Goldsmith and Dworkin like to imply, or pretend to imply, or pretend to believe, that there’s nothing new under that sun, by providing generic descriptions of “mainstream” literary novels’ content.

In that spirit, here are ten equally flattening “descriptions” that fit most (though nothing fits all) of what’s put forward as post-avant, or groundbreaking, or rigorously new, or conceptual, poetry or poetics or post-poetic sorts of art:

1. Indeterminacies and undecidable positions within the text foreground the reader’s role in the construction of meaning.

2. Apparently identical objects can be distinguished only by their paratexts and cultural positions.

3. A readymade.

4. An infinite number of realized works of art can be made from a finite set of combinatorial possibilities.

5. This work is far smaller and apparently simpler than what you thought counted as art.

6. This work is far larger and apparently more chaotic than what you thought counted as art.

7. Apparently vulgar, offensive or politically incorrect language in fact takes part in sophisticated and self-aware acts of cultural critique.

8. Frames, descriptions, evaluations, gossip, and other parts of paratext go into the frame and become the focus of the work of art.

9. Part or all of a famous literary work gets scrambled or erased.

10. Part or all of an apparently unliterary work gets scrambled or erased.

11. Individuality and expression stand revealed as bourgeois illusions.

Quite a lot, maybe even a majority, of the work in Goldsmith and Dworkin’s fascinating anthology falls under one or more of these hungry headers. But that doesn’t mean that all the work sounds the same. Nor does it mean that you shouldn’t describe and classify works of art (we are so made that some of us cannot stop doing so, unless you take away all our free time).

So what does it mean, what do I mean, or what do “I” “mean”? Simply that Dworkin’s attack on the Booker Prize winners—and by extension on “mainstream” or “lyric” or “most of” poetry, just doesn’t seem very convincing: when you’ve shown that a work shares its large-scale plot, its generic outline, with a dozen or a thousand other works, you’ve told us something about what kind of literature we’ve got: but you haven’t said much about whether it’s of much interest, or whether we’re going to like it—you haven’t even said whether it’s done something new.

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Posted in Poetry News on Friday, April 20th, 2012 by Stephen Burt.