Not all conceptual poems are created equal

By Harriet Staff

Phil Buehler’s All Work and No Play Makes Jack a Dull Boy is a novel which attempts to recreate and continue the manuscript pages of Jack Torrance’s writing in The Shining (which consist entirely of the phrase “All work and no play make Jack a dull boy”). In a review of Buehler’s book, Derek Beaulieu praises the concept and the attempt, but critiques Buehler for making certain inexplicable, or at least unexplained decisions, such as devoting a number of pages to a “minimalist” reworking of the sentence, in which only a few words appear on the page. Beaulieu writes:

Buehler chooses to construct only the first few manuscript pages from The Shining with obsessive detail, retaining every typographic error and idiosyncratic variation but, sadly, he only maintains that neurotic level of detail for the first few pages. After the introduction of such an obsessive practice, Buehler erratically maintains the page form from The Shining without the content (the errant capitalization, mistyped letters and erroneous indentation), thus turning his manuscript into less a documentation than a translation. This version of All Work is thus a series of permutations of the original sentence which suggest the source text without quoting it directly.

This is an interesting discussion because one of the key questions surrounding conceptualist work is the value of the final product’s fidelity to the original idea. While some practitioners espouse the fully-realized concept, others suggest that conceptualism will or should get messier and dirtier, and that these works need not stay true to the concept, but instead veer off into other, perhaps unexplained or unexplainable, directions.

Originally Published: November 15th, 2010