Kenneth Goldsmith "Conceptual Poetics"
(presented at Conceptual Poetry and Its Others Conference, University of Arizona, Tucson)
I presented the journal on Conceptual Poetics that I did here for the Poetry Foundation last year.
In brief, 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. Conceptual writing's concerns are generally two-pronged, as manifested in the tensions between materiality and concept. 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 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.
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 often times morally or politically reprehensible to the author. 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.
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.

Originally Published: June 9th, 2008

Kenneth Goldsmith's writing has been called some of the most "exhaustive and beautiful collage work yet produced in poetry" by Publishers Weekly. Goldsmith is the author of eight books of poetry, founding editor of the online archive UbuWeb (, and the editor I'll Be Your Mirror: The Selected Andy Warhol...

  1. June 9, 2008

    Kenny G is Kenny G & will always be-- sax, sex, sic or no. I hear he's coming to the Diamond Casino-- now THAT'S conceptual.

  2. June 10, 2008
     Peli Grietzer

    I asked before but : the idea, what idea is that? The idea of what the text generated by the chosen procedure might be like? The idea of the symbolic value of the chosen procedure?

  3. June 10, 2008
     Zachary Bos

    If the idea is less interesting than the resulting text, is there not some way of presenting the idea without asking the reader to wade through the uninteresting text, and without requiring the author to generate an unreadable text? Seems wasteful; the former being a lost opportunity to read something the reading of which would be worthwhile, the latter a missed chance to write something worth the reading. We do have prose forms whose essential purpose is to convey ideas that have been removed from a poetical origin, e.g. the essay. Am I correct in thinking that as you characterize conceptual poetry, you are implying that the language of logic, of argument and analysis, is insufficient to the task of presenting conceptual content? If so, how so, insufficient?

  4. June 10, 2008
     Zachary Bos

    I meant to write that "If the idea is MORE interesting..." for the first sentence above.

  5. June 10, 2008

    If advertising consists of debased language, there must be a pure language elsewhere. Preferring one to the other is aestheticism.
    "Debased language" is a really old-fashioned concept. Save it for William Safire.

  6. June 12, 2008
     Matthew Landis

    The point of conceptual poetry (if it can even be called a point) is that readability is not a necessary condition for poetry. Ultimately, the argument about whether a text is worthwhile is a really futile one. I mean, I know a couple of rather well-read classicists who don't than Dante's Inferno is worthwhile. You could make the argument that almost any text "isn't worthwhile". It seems to me that conceptual poetry in some way really not only subverts the authoritarian voice of not only canonicity or "readability" but attempts to re-constitute what it means to "read". In that sense it also subverts the tyranny of subjectivity, i.e. the ability for any subject to have any opinion it wants, pass it off as fact or dogma and then hide behind the veil of opinion in order to be as dismissive and prejudiced as possible.

  7. June 12, 2008
     Ange Mlinko

    Didn't the Romantic invention of authorial personae also make it possible to claim a readership that didn't actually read the work? How many people who claim they "love Keats" have actually read Endymion? How many rock stars in Byron's lineage have read Don Juan? Does Anne Carson's superstardom have to do primarily with her oeuvre or with her mystique? This was conceptual too, and a workaround for the tedious labor of reading -- encoded, after all, in the boustrophedon, the turn of the plow at the end of the row.
    Actually, farming metaphors always make me shudder with relief at living as a decadent American. Which reminds me: I'd rather read than plow....

  8. June 22, 2008
     Reginald Shepherd

    There is more than enough garbage language, lying language, evil language in the world as it is. We are overrun with "Language as junk, language as detritus. Nutritionless language, meaningless language."
    Why reproduce it?

  9. June 22, 2008

    I guess the answer to your question, Reginald, is that reproducing it is a "concept," which doesn't, however, make it anything resembling poetry, no matter how expansive the definition: in the end, poetry would seem to require a little bit of actual writing to go with the concept!

  10. June 23, 2008
     Kenneth Goldsmith

    Hi Reginald,
    I feel the best critique of any language is to let it speak for itself. I feel that the interpretation of language is always subjective and that no amount of arm-twisting will change anybody's mind, hence my hands-off approach. I find that language contains enough morality or lack thereof that we don't really need to do much with it; we're working with explosive material here. I'm not interested in a hierarchical approach to language; I'm not interested in judgments or moralizing -- I don't feel qualified for such actions. Rather, I'd prefer to reframe, repackage and retype that which is already existing. In that way, I my writing is able to surprise me constantly, for I often write words I don't agree with.