Note contra Conceptualism

While the literary circuits of the nation are mostly on vacation, the pro/con debate over the value & credentials of Conceptual Poetry has been heating up of late.  Calvin Bedient just published an impassioned attack on Conceptualism; others, in defense, look to Marjorie Perloff's sophisticated essay from 2011.

With much of Bedient's erudite slam I agree : the approach of Goldsmith, Place, Perloff ("the conceptualist's conceptualist") et al. feels like a systematic shut-down of the emotional dimension of literature.  The trouble is, Bedient's argument tends to emphasize the supposed dichotomy between thought and feeling in poetry, upon which the Conceptualist movement constructed itself in the first place.

I think there might be firmer ground on which to make an argument.  The limitation, as I see it, in both the theory and practice of the Conceptualists, is very similar to that of its predecessors, Flarf and Language Poetry : all three were (and are) mere theory, mere practice.

By this I mean that Conceptualism reduces and reifies the art of poetry into a craft, which uses materials (words) and techniques (mostly theft and mimicry).  And by reducing poetry to a system of techniques, the essential thing slips through their fingers.

And just what is this essential thing?  The imagination.

Perloff, in her essay, writes in shockingly condescending cadences about the young would-be poets attending a White House celebration of the arts : they have no language!  they speak in cliches!  She criticizes their mentors for offering the illusory path of "self-expression", and a utilitarian notion of poetry (serving purely functional notions of social welfare).  Her solution to these philistine embarrassments, however, is purely technical : teach the kids to parrot the language of their betters; show them how to shape interesting collage-works out of the shards of verbal material.

There is a submerged desperation here, since the whole platform of the Conceptual movement requires the denial of the individual creative subject, the person - and of the human imagination, which (as Coleridge made clear long ago) is that synthesizing power, capable of harmonizing thought and feeling, concept and emotion, experience and its interpretation (or judgement).

I think Perloff's problem, and that of the Conceptualists generally, is a very American difficulty, shared to some extent by all of us.  We tend to reduce every problem, in no matter what sphere of existence, to a technical issue.  We are a nation of the quick fix (from duct tape to the war in Iraq).  Thus the problem of poetry is merely a question of how we are going to define what language is, rather than something more deeply rooted, more stubbornly contradictory - say, for example, how the human imagination comes to grips with the painful riddle of individual & collective, self & society, history & soul.

"The poetry doesn't matter", wrote TS Eliot, in a line from Four Quartets.  Paradoxically, I think Eliot meant something very similar to what Wallace Stevens meant by "The whole race is a poet that writes down / The eccentric propositions of its fate." ("Men Made Out of Words")  What matters is the inherent capability of human beings to respond imaginatively to reality - and thus to comprehend it, to survive in it, maybe even to "prevail" (in Faulkner's sense).  Communication follows vision (be it visual, aural, tactile, the whole sensorium) - not the other way around.

It will undoubtedly be argued that Conceptualism is itself a creative, imaginative, inventive new development of the art form - a fresh challenge to hackneyed styles in the sentimental, individualist, "lyric" mode.  But you can't have it both ways.  The techniques of the Conceptual poets - and the obsession with technique itself - are structured around a denial of poetry's pre-existence - its inherent givenness - in the dream-life of the human imagination.  "In dreams begin responsibilities."  And "we are such stuff as dreams are made on..."

Set against this "concept" of poetry, the Conceptualists come across as purveyors of technical tricks and gimmicks, quack doctors, hucksters, promoters, (very) used-car salesmen... familiar figures... the real American philistines.


Curtis Faville said...

I wrote a reply of sorts to your contra conceptualism essay, here--


I don't know that I disagree with your conclusion--which seems to be that there should be no conceptualism in poetry--but I think it is possible to accommodate a lot of very strange birds in the aviary without unnecessarily hurting attendance.

Henry Gould said...

Thanks for writing, Curtis. I'll go check it out. You are right to defend the variousness. The reason I go on the warpath is not to exclude anyone, or any harmless creative pursuit. I think I am responding to what appears (to me anyway) to be an ideology, a worldview, which actually opposes the existence of what I think of as poetry... it's all very un-scientific, vague & non-dogmatic. I am against sophisticated theoretical dogma in general, in which both the pro & con tracts on Conceptualism traffic at a very high level of abstraction...

Yigru Zeltil said...

Greetings from Romania,
Interesting writing on a subject that I have been dabbling in for some while - conceptual poetry.

Having read the (in)famous anthology Against Expression, I can say that this is a ism one can and should be a traitor of. In other words: there's obviously a dogmatic odor to conceptualism, which explains its appeal to MoMArific institutions (let aside the obvious connections with conceptual art).

As a marginal poet of a marginal country that some people have heard of only due to Dracula or who knows what other reason (and not for the fact that Tristan Tzara was born here!), I'd say an obvious solution would be to mock hard-edged conceptualism and use the conceptualist techniques for the opposite effect! Many of them rely on discourses that are intrinsically formal - just infest them with creatively placed subjectivity (instead of relying on the objective "taste" of hazard) and voila, glorious pseudo-conceptualism!... now talk about creativity...

Henry Gould said...

Yigru, thank you for writing. Yes, I like your idea. Obviously there is nothing wrong with creative conceptualism in art & poetry - the "ludic" imagination is its joy & lifeblood. But when it is reduced to a technique, a strategy, then both ideas & things are somehow corroded, denatured. It's this dualism between concept / artifact, between form / matter, etc. which seems programmatic, dogmatic. & in the case of the American Conceptualists, an example of trivial academic magic-tricks.

p.s. Bravo, Romania! I wold like to go there sometime & visit the old wooden painted churches up in the mountains.