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What are we talking about when we talk about Lyric?

By Sina Queyras

I was pleased to see Kenneth Goldsmith’s elegant response to the Lyric Conceptualism Manifesto, and appreciate the easy mastery with which he contextualizes and historicizes in his usual, generous, manner. I read the gesture as one of mutual pleasure, respect, and general curiosity and excitement about the unfolding tendencies of conceptual writing.

I love the image of women melting, manifesting, stealing and otherwise mucking about with the minimalist grid and think that the question of the poet’s relationship to art is an important one (though I’ll respond to that in another post…). As Goldsmith points out, there is a history of women outside of the gates of power (or canons) manifesting in the margins. I must note however, that the manifesto as such resisted the impulse to historicize, not out of disrespect for lineage, but as a resistance to canon making and as a resistance to mastery and ownership of ideas and aesthetics… Clubs have not been kind to women over the years. They tend to keep them out, or corral them into enclosures (domestic and otherwise), or push them to the backburner (read the TLS’s comments on women’s literature for an illustration of this, or see Vida’s count). Hence, the impure, guerillaish, outsider position of the Lyric Conceptualist muddying categories and stealing tools to be used in wild combinations at her discretion.

These kind of radical appropriations and interventions are great fun (as you will see in the I’ll Drown My Book anthology), and it seems to me that lyric, and writing in general, could stand a bit more fun; not only for the reader, but also for the writer herself. Fun is one of the marks of conceptual writing. The emphasis on thinkership. On community and discussion. Strangely enough though, so is clarity. As Goldsmith and Bök assert, the clarity of the idea of the procedure usually decides the success of a project, so, the writing itself is often unimportant, the description (take Christian Bök’s recent posts about Conceptual Literature in the wild for example) being enough to discuss. Though in reality we all know this isn’t true: encountering Goldsmith’s Day, or Fidget, is as essential as talking about it. The materiality of the texts illustrates the extent to which we are able to discard language.

On the other hand, conceptual thinking can also lead to the complicated, stylish and delicious take on the epic as rendered by Lisa Robertson, or the transelations of Erín Moure as she enters into the texts of Fernando Pessoa, or Vanessa Place’s 50,000 word sentence, Dies: A Sentence, as logically as it might lead to Day or Fidget, or to Christian Bök’s Eunoia.

The question of labor has always been an issue for me. As a supporter of conceptual writing, as someone who has now completely embedded it in my practice and my pedagogy, I note, with frustration, the narrative of conceptual writing = easy poetry (by both proponents and critics of the movement). This is simply not true. This leads to the empty conceptual gesture (as opposed to the empty lyric gesture!). Creating a good conceptual writing project is very difficult and involves much more thinking than the usual poetry projects—even if it involves stealing, appropriating, selecting, retyping. This is all labor intensive. Compiling, recording, transcribing, assembling, visiting archives—this is all very labor intensive. And the success of a project, in the purest conceptual sense, demands that the labor not be cheated on.

Aside from a good clean idea and hard labor, there is still the matter consciousness, the quality of the hand at the helm. The quality that asserts whether the terms of the procedure will be crystal clear or buried beneath the text. How the words will be handled, where they will be found, what is that quality? Is that identity? Self? Author? What is that mysterious creator? That bit that even Goldsmith argues we can never quite do away with. The quality that ensures that even if I have twenty students create erasure poems from the same core text they will all be radically different, the self, the poetic self, will be apparent in every intervention.

One of my central questions then, is can we really posit a binary that asserts a lyric impulse, or lyric creativity as opposed to what might be termed non-lyric, or “uncreative” creativity? Is this what conceptualism has developed in resistance to? What are we talking about when we talk about lyric? Lyric, or identity? As Lisa Robertson pointed out recently, they are not at all the same thing.

The problem of identity is something that Conceptual Writing has been very successful in deconstructing. Or, as I see it, in driving a wedge in between writing and the self. A canyon-like space, to think and pause and read and connect between the idea of a poem and the writing of the poem. This is an extremely important step, particularly, as I’ll argue elsewhere, for women. A good deal of work that I value, and in some of the key figures of Conceptual Writing (Darren Wershler, Christian Bök) illustrates how prying open the often hermetically sealed creative process of the writer broadens the canvas of the poem and both complicates and expands the sense of a poetic self. In other words, the tools of conceptual writing can, and do, invigorate the lyric mode by asking that the author consider a/ where she finds her content b/ how the content is processed (the procedure) c/ who and how the content is situated in conversation, and so on.

So is it a speaking subject, or the resistance to a complicated speaking subject, the tendency of the lyric poet to write against and/or in denial of the contemporary technological moment, the willful tendency to ignore philosophy, criticism, “other” poetics, the presence of technology, that irks? Poetry needs to get weirder, stranger, Darren Wershler tweeted recently, and yes, I agree. The word microwaveable needs to appear in poetry more often, Christian Bök wrote on this blog recently, and yes, sure I agree: poetry needs to reflect its moment more succinctly, and microwavable is more likely the experience of most north Americans than the hearth, bread rising on the counter, kissing a deer as you both nibble on a blackberry…absolutely, but that is not simply a problem of the lyric.

Poetry, all poetry, must help us make sense of our moment. It must reflect our time. To romanticize nature—or indeed the self—in the 21st Century is to have your head up your back end. But to think that the conceptual can kill the speaking subject, or that this is the answer to the problem, is equally problematic.

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Posted in Poetry News on Tuesday, April 17th, 2012 by Sina Queyras.