Conceptualism... blah

I have this animus against the "Conceptual Poetry" phenomenon.  It's not reasonable, it's not informed, it's just a visceral dislike.  My attitude reminds me of my attitude back in the '90s toward Language Poetry.  It's not fair, it's just there.  So, being so terminally bored by the ponderous pronouncements of Kenneth Goldsmith & Vanessa Place - bored enough not to read much of it at all - I probably have little light to shed on this matter.  But I just thought I'd vent a little.

The whole movement seems to stem genetically from philosophical discourse.  The attitude of amused contempt displayed by the Conceptuals toward ordinary "poems" seems similar to that of Plato.  Plato's worldview was fundamentally binary and divided.  Mind was separate from Body; the material Cosmos is an imperfect reflection of the perfect, immaterial, transcendent, shaping Ideas which formed it.  Poetry, that unaccountable verbal what-not, that irrational chaos, that disturber of Plato's perfect (authoritarian) Philosopher's State, was to be dismissed, shunned, outlawed.

The Conceptuals don't want to outlaw poetry.  But they seem to have a parallel bias toward intellectual constructs over actual works of art.  Their progress through the authorizing institutions of Poetryland resembles Plato's dream of a philosophical coup, a take-over of ordinary this-world governance.  King Kenny & Queen Vanessa, the Conceptual Royals, institute their theoretical reign over the last tattered vestiges of the post-Romantic "lyric I".

Plato considered art to be fundamentally a matter of imitation, a mirror (a tarnished mirror).  But it's possible to conceive of other framing analogies.  One does not have to accept Plato's dualistic cosmos, split between matter and mind.  Instead, one can imagine a more holistic universe, an "incarnational" cosmos, in which mind and body, spirit and matter, may indeed be valid ontological distinctions - but not irreconcilable divisions.  Reality may be less like a system, and more like a story.  Poetry may be less like a mirror, a reflection, and more like a building - a construct rising out of the primal process of naming.  The act of giving a name to something involves more than reflection, mirroring.  Wallace Stevens called poetry "the sanction of life".  I think this gets closer to essence of the process of verbal shaping and ordering, its final purpose, than Plato's formulae.

The Conceptuals would like us to believe they have a special theoretical angle on poetry.  They apply a pseudo-radical tactic :  debunk the hoary Romantic concept of poetry, as subjective, lyric expression, by attacking the notion of personal identity itself.   Replace composition with the functionalism of meaningless, evacuated "text".  They might do better by recognizing that poetry is an integral activity which surpasses its own (or the philosophers') theoretical abstractions.  The Romantic theory that lyric expression is the essence of poetry - a theory which also stems from philosophical speculations, in this case those of J.S. Mill - may be long out of date.  But their attempt to replace poetic "substance" by theoretical concept, combined with an attack on personal subjectivity itself, seems more like a promotional gimmick than a real change in poetry or poetics.

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