Notes on Conceptualisms

Notes on Conceptualisms is a very likeable and shrewd collaboration by Robert Fitterman and Vanessa Place (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2009). I haven't finished the book yet, but the first half is already packed with my handwritten notes. Its chief theme so far is the allegorical nature of conceptual art:

Allegorical writing is necessarily inconsistent, containing elaborations, recursions, sub-metaphors, fictive conceits, projections, and guisings that combine and recombine both to create the allegorical whole, and to discursively threaten this wholeness. In this sense, allegory implicates Godel's First Incompleteness Theorem: if it is consistent, it is incomplete; if complete, inconsistent.

All conceptual writing is allegorical writing.
(p. 15)

And here's an interesting excerpt from pp. 24-25:

One might argue that devaluation is now a traditional / canonical aim of contemporary art. Thus there is now great value in devaluation.

Adorno and Horkheimer: "Culture is a paradoxical commodity. So completely is it subject to the law of exchange that is is no longer exchanged; it is so blindly consumed in use that it can no longer be used" (The Culture Industry: Enlightenment in Mass Deception).

Conceptual writing proposes two end-point responses to this paradox by way of radical mimesis: pure conceptualism and the baroque. Pure conceptualism negates the need for reading in the traditional textual sense--one does not need to "read" the work as much as think about the idea of the work. In this sense, pure conceptualism's readymade properties capitulate to and mirror the easy consumption / generation of text and the devaluation of reading in the larger culture. Impure conceptualism, manifest in the extreme by the baroque, exaggerates reading in the traditional textual sense. In this sense, its excessive textual properties refuse, and are defeated by, the easy consumption / generation of text and the rejection of reading in the larger culture.

Note: these are strategies of failure.

Note: failure in this sense acts as an assassination of mastery.

Note: failure in this sense serves to irrupt the work, violating it from within.

Note: this invites the reader to redress failure, hallucinate repair.

Success in any event, from the work of Yeats to the Poetry Slams to Kenny Goldsmith, comes with the proper framing and volatility of the SIGN. In conceptual poetry, the entire work is a sign requiring one instantaneous reading (and perhaps later study, such as "Hmm, what was that?"). Goldsmith's The Weather consists entirely of transcribed weather reports from the Northeast U.S. Nothing is written, as such; it is copied from life and transported to the printed page (the art frame). Simplicity is a virtue in such works. On closer look, the editing in The Weather allows for the elegiac in following the fullness and exhaustion of the seasons.

Baroque writing offers a simple sign also, that it intends to be complex, or at least very busy. The first reading warns to be alert and roll with the artifice.

The nice thing about conceptual art is not having to elaborate on it. A one-sentence description will suffice and on to the next conversation piece on your literary mantel. To legitimize the work, you have to actually DO the work of transcription. The power of its simplicity depends on the exhaustiveness of the found details: the literal weight of the book in your hands. Goldsmith's Soliloquy, consisting of every word he spoke during a week of 1996, is 500 pages in length and weighs 1.73 pounds. Like performance poetry, the conceptual work must be understood on the first reading or hearing. In that sense, it is "easy." Difficulty comes at the level of theory, when the art audience begins to question why John Cage simply sat at the piano, rather than played it, in his composition, 4'33". In this respect, conceptual art is always philosophical. The distinction between pure and baroque conceptualism is that between Marcel Duchamp and Wallace Stevens. Both are tongue-in-cheek and pose riddles, but Stevens, who recognizes the power of death, allows for lyricism.

Denver Quarterly 43.4 (2009)

The following concludes a long interview of me by Joshua Marie Wilkinson that appears in the new issue of Denver Quarterly.

JMW: There’s a lot to navigate for a novice poet/reader these days with so many books, journals, reading series, poets, blogs, presses, anthologies, etc. What’s your advice for somebody starting out in poetry writing?

This is the most difficult question of all, because it calls me out on the essential question, “Why write?” Since it is apparently not to make money, it must be for some other satisfaction, such as fame or a spiritual and/or political calling. I often heard the word “calling” while growing up. One was “called” to service in the church, a profession, or the arts. Having translated Hölderlin, I must have some interest in Transcendental Idealism and the motives of Romanticism, which lead toward inwardness and spirit. I should therefore counsel young poets, in allowing for spirit, to value language as incantation and magic.

I do believe that one’s ambitions in poetry should begin in innocence; that is, in the belief that one may see, know, and transform through words. Innocence includes irony. This perspective holds that communication is possible even in mysterious circumstances, like a Hart Crane or Gerard Manley Hopkins poem. Because it is textured and dynamic, the world speaks. Because we come with certain moods and intentions, it speaks through us differently. The weight of a word varies by its use. It’s not simply what a stone weighs when laid on a scale. Why write? Because life is short, bitter, and sweet.

Spiritual ambition counsels poets to ignore the depredations of the poetry biz. All the getting and spending should be related to the investigations of sensation, memory, and language, not crafting one’s style in order to gain publication in the New Yorker, Paris Review, or Fence.

On the other side of this calculation lies the socioeconomics of poetry, for example, the assigning of value to one poet over another, based on: (1) the perceived importance of their works (2) their position in society, in other words, social class and (3) the good or ill they can do to you as poetry politicians. A young poet would rather have the respect and admiration of an important senior figure, who might further his or her aims by the giving of prizes, blurbs, and publishing contracts. The fiendish plan of the flatterer is to curry favor for as long as it takes to gain advantage over the generous patron; whereupon he withdraws his flattery and seeks to steal all that the patron possesses. See Goneril and Regan. Ancient and abiding, this kind of behavior has its counterpart in the selfish patron, who influences the novice to write in his manner and publicize his importance, but in the end creates an empty entourage. Not one among them is strong enough to surpass the patron, as the patron has arranged.

A true master instructs the student to surpass his own achievement, but no true master is ever surpassed. Think of Plato and Aristotle, Joyce and Beckett, Freud and Jung.

The language I am using is of the courtly era. Most of the politics and social structure of poetry are still medieval. That’s not a bad thing in itself. But many of us lack the graces of court.

On the side of innocence is the long-honored practice of gift exchange. I write the poem as a gift to you, on your wedding, death, or coronation. It is freely written and freely given. This is the world of samizdat and the manuscripts of court and church. Have you read the poems of Donne? Yes, I’ll hand you the tattered manuscript at dinner. It is also the world of the poetry workshop.

Most of the poetry economy is gift-based. But it is not free of self-serving behavior. For example, it is generous of an editor to publish his or her magazine of high standard. The loathing and melancholy appear when one editor publishes another in order to be published in return. Because the great majority of poets have something like a magazine, reading series, or website to offer in exchange, a lot of negotiation and politesse is required. The fact that so many poets are entrepreneurial says something about poetry’s artisanal economic base.

My advice to the student is to aim brilliantly, ridiculously high, which means not playing it cheap; to make friends of other poets they admire, as they are a comfort and help along the way; and, in addition to writing well, to found a magazine and reading series, not for the purpose of gift exchange, but because the poetry you believe in can only be served by you. You are putting your queer shoulder to the wheel. Found only what you can eventually drop by the wayside. The nomadic nature of poetry, as well as history, prefers it that way.