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Drew Gardner’s ‘Flarf is Life’ and Rachel Galvin’s ‘Lyric Backlash’ Respond to ‘Against Conceptualism’ at Boston Review
After “Against Conceptualism,” Calvin Bedient’s essay that wrestles with conceptualism’s neutral tone, Drew Gardner responds with flarf and affect at Boston Review and Rachel Galvin with a discussion beginning with the lyric, Oulipo, and César Vallejo, also at Boston Review. Both published today; we begin our synopsis with the beginning of Drew Gardner’s essay, then Rachel Galvin’s essay’s start.
In “Against Conceptualism: Defending the Poetry of Affect,” Calvin Bedient argues that poets are increasingly suspicious of conventionally lyrical expression and that more and more poets are devoting themselves to methods that involve emotional distancing. For him, the conventional use of affect in poetry is threatened by the existence of conceptual poetry and flarf, and poets should maintain a conventional way of thinking about and using affect in their work. His essay proposes a binary in poetry between thinking and feeling where poetry should operate on the side of feeling. I find several of the basic premises in the essay to be problematic, so I am going to start by backing up several steps, and several million years.
Gardner proceeds to raise and then answer questions such as What is Affect?, What is Lyric?, What is Conceptual Poetry?, and finally What Is Flarf?
In his recent piece, “Against Conceptualism,” Calvin Bedient seeks to “defend the poetry of affect” against the tide of conceptualism. I offer four responses here in nucleo before unfolding them below.
One. Contrary to Bedient’s interpretation, the Oulipo, that prolific group of writers and mathematicians (Ouvroir de la littérature potentielle), has never stood against subjectivity. The group aims to offer an alternative to the idea that poetry is born of divine inspiration, access to the subconscious through automatic writing, or procedures of chance. One benefit of Oulipian methods is that writers can avail themselves of literary forms and don’t have to envision the writing process as a protracted waiting-by-the-telephone for the muse to ring them up.
Two. Critics as well as advocates of conceptual poetry assert that it avoids subjectivity. At first blush it may seem counterintuitive, but both groups are invested in the same nineteenth-century values of artistic making. That is, they claim that the artist is the determining factor for the work of art and, ultimately, its guarantor of significance. My main point is that the arguments for and the backlash against conceptual poetry all re-inscribe the notion of the artist’s controlling consciousness and discerning judgment—in a word, her subjectivity.
Three. Both César Vallejo and M. NourbeSe Philip compose poetry according to formal concepts or constraints, and yet strongly communicate affect. The “lyric I” in Vallejo’s tradition-shattering verse is just as uncertain as the “I” of anti-subjective poetry. A lyric I is not a lyric I is not a lyric I.
Four. An alternative to conceptual or “uncreative writing” can be found in a cannibalistic logic of poetic displacement. Certain poets throughout the Americas—writing in English, Spanish, and Portuguese—are working against ideas of literary primacy (whereby an original with great cultural capital is followed by weaker copies). Instead, they are cultivating compositional procedures based in radical mixing. They provocatively rethink socio-political power dynamics and the race-based oppression that language is enmeshed with as they cut up and resituate texts, play with mistaken identities, and employ the cannibal as a figure of resistance to the colonial matrix of power.