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Charmless and Interesting: What Conceptual Poetry Lacks and What It’s Got

By Robert Archambeau

Kenneth Goldsmith

[Note: Poetry will be featuring online exclusives by contributors as a way to respond to and comment on immediate, lively debates in poetry. This first installment is by Robert Archambeau.]

Fourteen months after reading at the White House, Kenneth Goldsmith found himself in the real center of American power: cable television.  His appearance on The Colbert Report, though, coincided not with a general celebration of the conceptual poetics with which he is associated, but with two stinging attacks on such poetics: one by the young poet Amy King in The Rumpus, and another by the esteemed poet-critic Calvin Bedient in Boston Review.  King’s criticism revolved around the idea of conceptualism as an in-group phenomenon, and on the hypocrisy of conceptual poets striking anti-establishment poses while simultaneously seeking, and beginning to find, such laurels as the established institutions of American poetry have to offer.  Bedient’s article criticized conceptualism for a lack of concern with emotion and affect, which he linked with both a truncating of poetry’s possibilities and a kind of reactionary political stance.  People’s responses to these criticisms, to judge by the emails, texts, phone calls, and Facebook messages I received, were passionate—half of my friends in the little world of poetry expressed delight that the horrible careerist bastards were finally getting called out for their sins, while the other half spluttered in outrage at those who dared try to quench the glorious yet fragile flames of poetic innovation.

This is a moment, then, for an assessment of the virtues and vices of conceptual poetry.  What does conceptual poetry lack, compared to other poetries, and what does it have to offer?  Any brief answer will, of course, be too general, but we can begin to sketch things out with reference to two aesthetic categories: the charming and the interesting.  Whatever else conceptualism has got going for it, it lacks—at least in its pure form—the former.  And whether one likes conceptualism or not, anyone who has engaged with it has found that it has, wonderfully or frustratingly, got plenty of the latter.

The Charmlessness of Pure Conceptualism

To begin, then, with definitions: what is meant, in aesthetics, by this thing called charm?  In Kantian thinking about aesthetics, charm is the appeal made by the matter, or the medium, of the work of art: the tone in music, the color in painting, the words themselves in poetry.  The matter appeals to the senses, and is agreeable to them.  The appeal is also pre-conscious: “we linger on charm,” writes Kant, “the mind all the while remaining passive.”  Charm, for Kant, is minor stuff, and doesn’t play a part in what he takes to be a true judgment of beauty, which has much more to do with structure, form, and pattern than with materials—indeed, Kant refers to taste that depends to any degree on charm as “barbaric.”  There’s a real downplaying of the value of the senses in this view, with charm being a “merely empirical delight.” “Mere,” as we’ll soon see, is an word also often attached to the other aesthetic category we’ll be mentioning in detail, the interesting—but the past denigration of these categories is not necessarily just or relevant. I use the terms here in a descriptive, not a judgmental, manner.

Conceptual poetry is charmless.  Immediately upon making this statement, I want to offer two qualifications: firstly, this is true only of a certain kind of conceptual poetry, the kind Vanessa Place and Robert Fitterman refer to as “pure conceptualism”; secondly, this is not a criticism, but as an observation.  It is no more a criticism to say that this conceptual poetry of a certain kind lacks charm than it would be to say that paintings lack sound.  The attraction of the art comes elsewhere.

What, then, is “pure conceptualism,” and from what other conceptualisms is it distinguished? “Pure conceptualism,” write Place and Fitterman in Notes on Conceptualisms, “negates the need for reading in the traditional textual sense—one does not need to ‘read’ the work as much as think about the idea of the work.”  The purely conceptual poem does not necessitate the direct experience of the words: this is about as radical a claim for something calling itself poetry as has been made in the present century.  That the idea of pure conceptualism is radical in the field of poetry speaks volumes of the relative conservatism of poetry compared to some other arts, though, since it was being bandied about in the realm of visual art at least as far back as the 1960s (and, arguably, earlier, in the provocations of Marcel Duchamp).  Consider the word of artist Sol LeWitt, who argued more than a generation ago in his “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art” that “in conceptual art the idea or concept is the most important aspect of the work…. What the work of art looks like isn’t too important.”  This takes Kantian disdain for the charm of material media to a new level, denying almost entirely the importance of the physical embodiment of the artwork.  LeWitt dreamed of an art free of charm, and pure conceptualism brings that dream into the field of poetry.

The most direct transmission of LeWitt’s ideas into poetry—one can hardly imagine a more direct one—came in Kenneth Goldsmith’s 2005 “Sentences on Conceptual Writing,” which reproduces LeWitt’s text almost verbatim, adding only a few modifications to change the subject from visual to written art (specifically, Goldsmith’s “uncreative writing”).  So we find, in Goldsmith’s text, statements like “Literature that is meant for the sensation of the ear primarily would be called aural rather than uncreative. This would include most poetry and certain strains of fiction.” Goldsmith’s kind of writing turns against the aural charms of words, what Ezra Pound would call their melopoeia, and seeks to give satisfaction elsewhere, at the level of the concept.

Goldsmith returns to the relative unimportance of the actual embodiment of the poem in words again and again, making it the foundation for his notion that the conceptual poem need not be read, but considered in the abstract, thought about, and discussed.  Here’s a representative statement, from an interview with Goldsmith called “Against Expression”:

The best thing about conceptual poetry is that it doesn’t need to be read. You don’t have to read it. As a matter of fact, you can write books, and you don’t even have to read them. My books, for example, are unreadable. All you need to know is the concept behind them. Here’s every word I spoke for a week. Here’s a year’s worth of weather reports… and without ever having to read these things, you understand them.

So, in a weird way, if you get the concept—which should be put out in front of the book—then you get the book, and you don’t even have to read it. They’re better to talk about than they are to read.

If there is any charm to the words of a purely conceptual poem as Goldsmith describes it, that charm is incidental, not an essential part of the art.  So keen is he to downplay the charm of the particular words (whether it be a matter of melopoeia, the play of associations, the visual organization of the words upon the page, or any other beauty derived from the words qua words) that, in “Conceptual Poetics,” he downplays the very idea of readership:

Conceptual writing is more interested in a thinkership rather than a readership. Readability is the last thing on this poetry’s mind. Conceptual writing is good only when the idea is good; often, the idea is much more interesting than the resultant texts.

There’s a great reversal, in pure conceptualism, of Mallarmé’s point in his famous exchange with Degas, in which the painter, saying he had many ideas for poems, was rebuked by the poet, who said “ce n’est point avec des idées que l’on fait des vers. . . . C’est avec des mots” (“you can’t make a poem with ideas… you make them with words”).  Pure conceptualism sides with Degas.

Even readers sympathetic to Goldsmith can find the actual experience of reading some of his works to be charmless.  Sianne Ngai, for example, writing about Goldsmith’s Fidget, describes it in terms that hardly invite a slow, luxuriant lingering over the words:

Goldsmith’s deliberately stupefying poems relentlessly focus on the tedium of the ordinary… the movements of a body not doing anything in particular. Simultaneously astonishing and boring, the experiment in ‘duration’ is taken … to a structural extreme… Goldsmith’s Fidget documents the writer’s impossible project of recording every single bodily movement made in a twenty-four hour period.

Stupefying to read, but interesting (to Ngai, and to others) to think about: Goldsmith’s art is, to use his own terms, thinkership-friendly, readership-unfriendly.

I have tried to be scrupulous in describing only pure conceptualism as charmless, because there are other kinds of poetry that are, in one quarter or another, called conceptual, and that do depend on a reading of the actual text.  These are conceptualisms that call for a readership, or in some cases a viewership, rather than a thinkership.  When, for example, Elizabeth Clark erases all of Raymond Roussel’s Nouvelles Impressions d’Afrique except for its quotation marks, she creates a work from which someone looking at the pages can derive considerable (albeit austere) visual charm.  And the Steinian verbal play of, say, Craig Dworkin’s Mote is very much a poetry of verbal charm.  Indeed, Marjorie Perloff has written about a genre, or sub-genre, she calls “the conceptual lyric.”  How these phenomena are related to pure conceptualism, and whether the relation is more than a matter of institution and affiliation is a large question, well worth pursuing, and a question beyond my scope here.  So, too, is the question of the relation of purely conceptual poetry to the longer tradition of poetry, which is very much a tradition devoted to readership, and to the charm of the particular word.  In what sense is pure conceptualism poetry, beyond the institutional sense of being distributed and considered through the channels by which poetry is distributed and considered?  It’s a question worth asking, given the radical nature of the break with the past.  I do not propose an answer.  Not today.

Those who feel that conceptualism is a malevolent phenomenon have, thus far, concentrated on institutional, political, and affective matters.  It would be of considerable interest to see what would result from the critics of conceptualism pursuing in greater detail the notion of the charmlessness of pure conceptualism, since some argue that the particularity of words as a medium of art isn’t just a matter of agreeable sensations (Kant’s role for charm).  When Ruth Padel, for example, writes in “Reading a Poem,” about the resistance offered by particular words, or particular arrangements of words, to reduction to concept, she implies that there are important hermeneutic and ethical possibilities that an inattention to these qualities would truncate:

[J.H.] Prynne’s word ‘resistance’: that is what is truly traditional; what creative readers value in all poems, from the past or from the present. One aspect of it is the subtlety which lets meaning be found through pattern. Not necessarily a rhyming or a regular pattern; any in which words make relationships with each other through sound, through their tactile being, as well as in all the meanings that can be woken from them.  In resistance, words become, as Coleridge put it, hooked atoms. They mesh and cross-mesh with all the other words in the language-net of the poem.

Meaning, in this view, is infinitely enriched by the qualities of the particular words, their irreducibility as individual entities and their irreducibility in their particular relationships to the surrounding words.  The invocation of J.H. Prynne is important, here, since his work depends on the particularity of words, their etymologies, the history of their usage, and their subtleties.  In Prynne’s works an ethics, a critique of the Enlightenment’s emphasis on concepts, and, some argue, a politics, depend upon the particularity of words.  A Prynnian critique of pure conceptualism would, one imagines, be withering.  The pluralist, of course, is likely to believe the world is large enough to contain both Prynne and Goldsmith, though pluralists, among whom I number, are quite open to the charge (rooted in Hegel’s sense of the “end of art”) that they lack both conviction and a sense of the importance of art.

The Interest of Conceptualism

“It was interesting,” we say, of certain films or books or artworks—or, perhaps we say it a little differently, with a slight hesitation: “It was… interesting.”  The pause is significant, I think, in part because the hesitation indicates an uncertainty about how the work in question would fit into any other aesthetic category.  “Interesting,” in general usage, often implies a certain indefinableness of the qualities of the object in question, an expression of approval, perhaps hesitant approval, perhaps even of qualified disapproval, without a firm grasp on the exact nature of the qualities of which we are approving.  This is appropriate, because the interesting is the aesthetic category least tied to the specific qualities of the text or art-object in itself, and the most dependent on context.

Ngai, whose seminal 2008 article in Critical Inquiry “Merely Interesting” is essential reading on the topic, describes this context-dependence precisely.  In ordinary, unselfconscious conversation, she maintains, we tend to use aesthetic categories as ways of referring to properties inherent in the object itself, with the cute referring to things small, soft, and non-angular; the gaudy referring to bright things with intense color, and so forth.  The interesting, though, is different, and makes us a little uneasy—a fact that the word’s frequent pairing with the adjective “merely” underscores.  Interest, says Ngai, is “bound up with the perception of novelty” and is therefore “much more radically dependent on context than features [of the object or text] such as round or bright.”  Since the interesting is so context-dependent, “no particular kind of evidence [for an object or text's interestingness] will ever seem… finally convincing.”

Novelty is now so thoroughly established as an aesthetic virtue that “innovative,” “experimental,” “fresh,” “original,” and the like are all terms of praise.  It was not ever thus: in the eighteenth century, Lord Shaftesbury could write about beauty as a timeless, natural harmony, and condemn innovations in the arts such as orientalism or the gothic with the epithet “novel.”  Even as late as the Romantic period, when the concept of originality or novelty was gaining philosophical ground, it could still be looked upon with suspicion.  German idealists contrasted the new or interessante with the classical or eternal schöne, often to the disadvantage of the new.  Much of the suspicion had to do with whether the new kind of art would be of lasting interest.  In fact, this sense of the moment-bound nature of the interesting has continued down to our own time, although without the accompanying suspicion.  As affect theorist Silvan Tomkins put it, “in contrast to the once-and-for-allness of our experience of, say, the sublime, the object we find interesting is one we tend to come back to, asking to verify that it is still interesting.”

The interesting, then, is modern in a broad sense of the term (that is: post-Romantic); it is bound to its context more thoroughly than other types of aesthetic appeal; and it is less dependent on the qualities of the object or text itself than are other aesthetic categories.  “With the exception of its special relationship to novelty (or more exactly because of it),” writes Ngai, “the interesting could… be described as an aesthetic without content and, as such, one ideally suited to the historical emergence of the modern subject as a reflective, radically detached, or ironic ego.”

Pure conceptualism’s downplaying of the reader’s experience of the text itself allies it with the notion of the non-content-dependent category of the interesting, as opposed to the charming.  Moreover, Kenneth Goldsmith has insisted on conceptualism as “a poetics of the moment.” In a response to some comments of mine Goldsmith, in his essay “You’d Better Start Swimmin’ or You’ll Sink Like a Stone,” described conceptualism as “the most relevant, contemporary, and engaged response” to our particular technological moment.  “Conceptual Poetics,” Goldsmith’s presentation at the University of Arizona’s conference on “Conceptual Poetry and Its Others,” elaborates on the idea of conceptualism as depending on the specific, novel, and transient technological norms of the moment, such as current technologies of “information management, word processing, databasing,” and the like.

What is more, the alienation of the conceptualist poet from his or her material—material which is generally found or systemically generated rather than presented as an expression of the poet’s unique and sincere subjective affect—is very much a product of “the modern subject as a reflective, radically detached, or ironic ego.”  Consider another passage from Goldsmith’s Arizona presentation, in which he describes the language of conceptualism in terms of:

Language as junk, language as detritus. Nutritionless language, meaningless language, unloved language… Obsessive archiving & cataloging, the debased language of media & advertising; language more concerned with quantity than quality.

He continues by describing the relations of the the conceptual writer to his or her text:

In their self-reflexive use of appropriated language, conceptual writers embrace the inherent and inherited politics of the borrowed words: far be it from conceptual writers to morally or politically dictate words that aren’t theirs. The choice or machine that makes the poem sets the political agenda in motion, which is oftentimes morally or politically reprehensible to the author.

One can hardly imagine a more detached and ironic ego than that of the Goldsmithian conceptualist.  Such a figure may shy away from charm or traditional forms of the beautiful or sublime—but his or her detachment and irony connect quite readily with the idea of the interesting.

Related to the novelty or moment-specific nature of conceptualism is another quality associated with the interesting: controversy.  As Ralph Barber Perry put it in his General Theory of Value, interest has a “disposition of favor or disfavor” for us.  Things we find interesting, much more than things we find beautiful or cute or gaudy or charming, invite and demand us to be with them or against them.  And here we find further explanation for the hesitation in that frequently heard phrase “it was… interesting.”  The pause can function as a moment of indecision, in which we try to decide where we stand on the thing: are we pro-, or are we contra-?  The interesting courts controversy, not necessarily through its contents or any polemical position about which it tries to be didactic, but through the way in which it collides with the expectations of the moment.

The criticisms of conceptualism by people like Amy King and Calvin Bedient, whatever their merits on their own terms, stand as testimony to conceptualism’s interest—and in this sense affirm conceptualism’s success on its own terms.  Charmless pure conceptualism may well be, but it is hard to deny its interest.  You may not be reading much conceptualism, and you may well be very much against it, but you’re thinking about it right now, as am I.  And whatever else we may think about it, however else we may judge it, we most definitely find it interesting.

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Posted in From Poetry Magazine on Friday, August 2nd, 2013 by Robert Archambeau.