Poetry News

'Can Conceptualism be a Springboard for Ways of Reading Poetry?' Lindsay Turner Gets Conceptual at Boston Review

By Harriet Staff

Steve Zultanski Steve Zultanski

What does it mean??? Prompted by Kristen Gallagher's interview with Steve Zultanski on Jacket2, Lindsay Turner considers ways that conceptual writing may open up new ways of reading poetry.

As it is described in an interview published last year in Jacket2, poet Steven Zultanski’s version of conceptual poetry has less to do with rules and concepts than it does with transgression and creativity:

It’s not so much about blending as about testing what counts as poetry […] The worst thing that could happen is that “Conceptualism” just becomes the name for anything weird, or un-poetic in certain ways, or unconcerned with the preciousness (or allusiveness) of the individual line or sentence. The best thing that could happen is that it functions as a spring-board for things we can’t imagine yet.

Zultanski anticipates the possibilities conceptualism might open for other writers, but since I’m not much of a conceptual writer, I want to use his remarks to reconsider the position of the reader of conceptual poetry. Can conceptualism actually be a springboard for a certain way, or certain ways, of reading poetry? I think it can.

Technically speaking, the conceptual reader is not supposed to exist. Kenneth Goldsmith earnestly recasts “readership” as “thinkership,” and so if I’ve forgotten to think about the conceptual work’s concept and started reading in my “old” way, either the work has failed or I have regressed into a sort of conservative readerly dinosaur. (In fact there is actually a rift between conceptualists such as Zultanski, Vanessa Place and Robert Fitterman, who acknowledge conceptual failure—the moments at which the concept ceases to control the work, becoming again invisible behind its language—as part of conceptual writing, and those like Goldsmith, for whom this failure can and should be avoided.)

Can conceptualism be a springboard for ways of reading poetry?

But “failure” of the concept is not necessarily failure of the poem if there is still the reader. I suppose there is a certain naïveté in the way I want to think about conceptual reading: the nervous partygoer gets caught trying to eat the plastic sugared grapes or smell the fake orchid. Or perhaps I’m trying to have my plastic grapes and eat them too: of course what separates a conceptual book from, say, the phone book is that to some degree it does tacitly create the conditions for the emergence of a certain kind of reader, or it anticipates her intrusion. And it might be argued that of course we are meant to “read” conceptual works in the traditional sense, to parse and unpack them, as Marjorie Perloff does with Goldsmith’s Traffic in her book Unoriginal Genius. But my point is that compositional method doesn’t dictate the reader’s way of reading any more than authorial intention or academic code. Habit no longer, reading becomes autonomous, a choice among multiple ways of reading. [...]

Read more at Boston Review.