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Poetry Is Dead, I Killed It: an Essay by Vanessa Place
Even if conceptualism is facing crisis and decline, it is also being constantly (and artificially) reinvented, reinterpreted, refashioned, reborn, rechanneled, and repackaged. What allows this is an apparatus — a survival mechanism — that can seize upon any technique for squeezing out a pathway toward life: modulation, constant change, camouflage, mutation, predation, sabotage, parasitism, surveillance. As technology gets more sophisticated, so do conceptualist modulations acquire more reach, more agility, and more speed. After our production has become limitless in size and scope, after it has been quantified, analyzed, and left for dead, conceptualism will still find another vehicle by which to survive and expand.
Poetry is dead, I killed it.
While Johanna Drucker says that conceptualism has passed and Christian Bök points out that the corpse yet bleeds, I would like to confess to the greater crime—or at least that is my ambition. And though hope, as we know, is a thug with feathers, it is my desire that poetry finally be put out of its misery. In other words, what worries Drucker is a set of false and internally contradictory concerns; what cheers Bök is the prospect of pleasures to come, and what makes me nearly happy is the certainty that change changes nothing. If conceptualism is dead, it is because poetry is dead. If the author is diminished, it is because authority is rightly de minimis. If the precious snowflake self has gone the way of all snowflakes, or the crystalline critique turned dull and less delightful, it is because we are of an age that understands corporations are people too and poetry is the stuff of placards. Or vice versa.
Drucker’s central thesis is that conceptualism is a symptom of a smooth-faced crisis of the Zeit, in which systems exist to perpetuate themselves as systems rather than servants. Where we are we only as bits of webbing used to tat more networks that work to no other end but their own endless extension. This seems correct in a general sense and what of it? For, in a general sense, given that all we are are more or less attractive DNA delivery devices, why should our souls be any less utilitarian or bent towards something other than a dumb repetition? As Hegel noted, “Spirit is a bone.” Or, as Craig Dworkin has illustrated, the Man Booker Prize is awarded yearly to singularly unoriginal work, much like the pages of most poetry anthologies go tête à bête with their faithful readers. Too, it is too easy to note that the majority of poetry that is produced is produced as reams of subjectivity, and that the ability to sell one’s innermost and/or ethos is the call to market for many an MFA. Or that poetry is largely a cottage industry of the university, and like other university discourses, is the hand that feeds it. Or that much political poetry presumes that the moo-faced masses must be written at in order to be written for. But Drucker’s argument falls most apart in its particulars, from its belief that aesthetic movements follow each other like right and left feet, to its daisy chain of false predicates and caged assumptions. To wit: (valid) art is about opposition; opposition is about critique; (valid) politics is about critique; thus (valid) poetics is about (valid) politics; critique is about apartness; conceptualism is sameness; thus conceptualism is not critique; thus conceptualism is neither valid politics nor valid poetics. However, each semi-colon should serve as question mark, for each point betrays its own faulty presumption. To be equally reductive/reactive: art is about nothing but art, poetry is pointless except as poetry, and The Matrix was a very good movie indeed. Drucker wants to believe that once an aesthetic gesture has become institutionalized, it loses its critical cachet, which is its only avant ace. And she wants to believe this while also asserting the postmodern maxim that we are but culture products and producers, and while acknowledging the commonplace of cultural critique in a post-Institutional Critique culture of production, in which we are but producers, etc. But if we can agree that we may function critically not from the conceit of extramural critique, which is essentially a postmodern argument, but rather from a relational perspective, which is the more conceptualist approach, we can avoid the temptation to fall into the sweet satisfactions of self—including a sorrowful self that has seen it all before. The best minds of my generation are servile, but it is service with a purpose. We take it and dish it out and leave its rumination to other minds. For, as Marjorie Perloff argues, the genius of conceptualism is in the plating.
For Bök, contrarily, the conceptual crisis proves a crisis jubilee, as there is much left in the mix, including his own extra-textual projects. Similarly, Perloff sees the emergence of a new conceptual lyric, and there are younger American practitioners who play with the hyperbolic subject, licking rather than languishing before the mirror. Globally, conceptualism is manifold—both Sweden and Chile have long histories of conceptual writing which have nothing to do with data banks or the Internet—and manifest—a poet in Mexico cobbles lines from chat rooms marking drug murders as a French writer chronicles “the poetics of documents” in the hands of bureaucrats. And while I appreciate serving as signifier, it is not so much that women are coming around like cats, but rather that there is a practice and there are practitioners, variously enfleshed. For Bök, individual authorship is alive and kicking, and although Drucker references aggregate authorship, by which she seems to mean the appropriation as authorial gesture, and this is old news indeed, what it seems to me is we are in the happier state of the undead. Wherein I slap my name on whatever comes to mind and call it poetry and yet it is poetry, and, too, as Drucker rightly notes, if I return it to its usual habitus (the appellate court, the news station), its “poetic elements lose their defining identity quickly enough.” Thus my readymade is also a reverse readymade, and critique proves not so much a matter of contemporary segregation but of an intellectual encounter which may be properly rigorous and properly ahistorical because Kant’s a prioris no longer apply.
I have written elsewhere that conceptual writing is annoying. Kenneth Goldsmith is the first to say that it may be boring. Bad lyric stinks; bad conceptualism is just another idea. And, as I have said before, what conceptualism does do is kill not the author, but the text itself. The writing is inert, formerly utilitarian, now deformed into nothing but an aesthetic object. All mirrored surface, no reflected soul. Like a fountain as receptacle. There to be thought on, rather than learned from, it’s terribly egalitarian. If poetry sprang from the void, conceptualism is the void. If poetry is dead, act like a zombie. The fact is, I like boring things. They make such lovely holes.