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Journal, Day One

By Kenneth Goldsmith

Conceptual Poetics

. . . i had always had mixed feelings
about being considered a poet “if robert lowell is a
poet i dont want to be a poet if robert frost was a
poet i dont want to be a poet if socrates was a poet
ill consider it”

—David Antin

A poet finds a grammar book from the late 19th century and, inspired by Gertrude Stein’s confession, “I really do not know that anything has ever been more exciting than diagramming sentences,” proceeds to parse the entire 185 page book—every word and letter, from the table of contents to the index—by its own system of analysis.

Another poet teams up with a scientist to create an example of living poetry by infusing a chemical alphabet into a sequence of DNA, which is then implanted into a bacterium. Thousand of research dollars later, they are in the process of creating an organism embedded with this poem, strong enough to survive a nuclear holocaust, thereby creating a poem which will outlast humanity and perhaps even the lifespan of the planet earth.

Yet another poet decides to retype an entire edition of a day’s copy of the New York Times. Everywhere there is a letter or numeral, it is transcribed onto a page. Like a medieval scribe, the poet sequesters himself for over a year until he is finished. The resulting text is published as a 900 page book.

Sounds like something out of a Borgesian fantasy? No. These works are key examples of conceptual poetry, a broad movement that has been receiving a fair amount of attention lately. Conceptual writing or uncreative writing is a poetics of the moment, fusing the avant-garde impulses of the last century with the technologies of the present, one that proposes an expanded field for 21st century poetry. Not satisfied to exclusively be bound between the pages of a book, this new writing continually morphs from the printed page to the webpage, from the gallery space to the science lab, from the social space of the poetry reading to social space of the blog. It’s a poetics of flux, one that celebrates instability and uncertainty. And although its practitioners often come from disciplines outside of literature, the work is framed through the discourse and economy of poetry: these works are received by, written about, and studied by readers of poetry. Freed from the market constraints of the art world or the commercial constraints of the computing & science worlds, the non-economics of poetry create a perfectly valueless space in which these valueless works can flourish.

Conceptual writing’s concerns are generally two pronged, as manifested in the tensions between materiality and concept. On the materiality side, traditional notions of a poem’s meaning, emotion, metaphor, image, and song are subservient to the raw physicality of language. On the conceptual side, it’s the machine that drives the poem’s construction that matters. The conceptual writer assumes that the mere trace of any language in a work—be it morphemes, words, or sentences—will carry enough semantic and emotional weight on its own without any further subjective meddling from the poet, known as non-interventionalist tactic. To work with a machine that is preset is one way of avoiding subjectivity. It obviates the necessity of designing each work in turn; thus, it is the plan that designs the work.

In his introduction to the UbuWeb Anthology of Conceptual Writing, Craig Dworkin posits, “What would a non-expressive poetry look like? A poetry of intellect rather than emotion? One in which the substitutions at the heart of metaphor and image were replaced by the direct presentation of language itself, with ‘spontaneous overflow’ supplanted by meticulous procedure and exhaustively logical process? In which the self-regard of the poet’s ego were turned back onto the self-reflexive language of the poem itself? So that the test of poetry were no longer whether it could have been done better (the question of the workshop), but whether it could conceivably have been done otherwise.”

If it all sounds familiar, it is. Conceptual writing obstinately makes no claims on originality. On the contrary, it employs intentionally self and ego effacing tactics using uncreativity, unoriginality, illegibility, appropriation, plagiarism, fraud, theft, and falsification as its precepts; information management, word processing, databasing, and extreme process as its methodologies; and boredom, valuelessness, and nutritionlessness as its ethos.

Language as material, language as process, language as something to be shoveled into a machine and spread across pages, only to be discarded and recycled once again. Language as junk, language as detritus. Nutritionless language, meaningless language, unloved language, entartete sprache, everyday speech, illegibility, unreadability, machinistic repetition. Obsessive archiving & cataloging, the debased language of media & advertising; language more concerned with quantity than quality. How much did you say that paragraph weighed?

Conceptual writing’s primary influences are Gertrude Stein’s densely unreadable texts, John Cage & Jackson Mac Low’s procedural compositions, and Andy Warhol’s epically unwatchable films. Conceptual writing adds a 21st century-prong to a constellation of certain 20th century avant-garde movements that were concerned with the materiality of language and sound: Mallarmé’s spatialist concerns, the Futurist page, Zaum’s invented languages, concrete & sound poetry, Musique concrète, plunderphonics, sampling, and rap. On the conceptual side, it claims allegiance to the works of ‘pataphysics,’ Marcel Duchamp, James Joyce, process & conceptual art, as well as aspects of 1980s consumerist-based appropriation in the fine arts.

In its self-reflexive use appropriated language, the conceptual writer embraces the inherent and inherited politics of the borrowed words: far be it for the conceptual writer 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 often times morally or politically reprehensible to the author (in retyping the every word of a day’s copy of the New York Times, am I to exclude an unsavory editorial?). While John Cage claimed that any sound could be music, his moral filter was on too high to accept certain sounds of pop music, agitation, politics, or violence. To Cage, not all sounds were music. Andy Warhol, on the other hand, was a model of permeability, transparency, and sliver reflectivity; everything was fodder Warhol’s art, regardless of its often unsavory content. Our world turned out to be Andy’s world. Conceptual writing celebrates this circumstance.

With the rise of appropriation-based literary practices, the familiar or quotidian is made unfamiliar or strange when left semantically intact. No need to blast apart syntax. The New Sentence? The Old Sentence, reframed, is enough. How to proceed after the deconstruction and pulverization of language that is the 20th century’s legacy. Should we continue to pound language into ever smaller bits or should we take some other approach? The need to view language again as a whole—syntactically and grammatically intact—but to acknowledge the cracks in the surface of the reconstructed linguistic vessel. Therefore, in order to proceed, we need to employ a strategy of opposites—unboring boring, uncreative writing, valueless speech (these will all be explored this week in depth)—all methods of disorientation used in order to re-imagine our normative relationship to language.

David Antin’s sentiments in the epigraph are correct: 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.

And yet . . . there are moments of unanticipated beauty, sometimes grammatical, some structural, many philosophical: the wonderful rhythms of repetition, the spectacle of the mundane reframed as literature, a reorientation to the poetics of time, and fresh perspectives on readerliness, but to name a few. For an ethos claiming so much valuelessness, there’s a shocking amount of beauty and experience to be siphoned from these texts.

Further reading:
UbuWeb Anthology of Conceptual Writing
“Kenneth Goldsmith and Conceptual Poetics”

Posted in Uncategorized on Monday, January 22nd, 2007 by Kenneth Goldsmith.