Reply to Curtis Faville

It's gratifying to find Curtis Faville's thoughtful, articulate response to one of my squibs (Note contra Conceptualism),  posted at his blog Compass Rose on July 29, 2013.  As an ordinary poet, who's been laying such eggs & thinking about them since way back in 1959, I often feel like an amateur wilderness crying out in a scholastic voiceland.  The footnotes are pre-programmed, the silence is collegiate.

Curtis begins agreeably enough by stating that he doesn't disagree with me.  It's only at the end of his post, in the final paragraphs, that reservations emerge. 

He first outlines, clearly and persuasively, some basic factors, which have befuddled countless artists & critics : ie. the cultural watershed represented by World War I, and the subsequent character of such phenomena as modernism, avant-gardism, conceptualism.  These have all played into debates over recent "Conceptual Poetry" (the Harriet blog tallied several contributions, here ).  Kent Johnson, Calvin Bedient, and Keston Sutherland have questioned the credentials of the Conceptualists, as in any sense new, radical or revolutionary, since much of the work seems intent on re-presenting conceptual moves which are actually 50 or 100 years old.  It may be the case that Conceptual Poetry, in the U.S. at least, is merely an academic phenomenon : an attempt to spoof what are understood to be outmoded and parochial Creative Writing shibboleths, centered around methodologies of the "personal lyric voice."  In other words, a little game of petty provocations, carried on in safety 'neath yon high-walled ivied gates.  But this critique, true or false, is not the focus here.  Curtis is addressing something more substantial, ie., the geometry of relations between sensibility, concept, technique, and art object.  This within a context both historical and ontological : the tension between tradition and change.

In his closing three paragraphs, Curtis gets at the crux of his reservations about my piece.  He defends the "conceptual" as inherent in all art.  As poet David Jones emphasized, art is a "fitting together" of things into a whole - an activity which only homo sapiens/homo ludens, among earth's creatures, appears to have both intellect to conceive, and free will to accomplish.  "Concept" stems from the shaping, inventive imagination : yet, as Curtis writes, "All art is technical."  Here he is revising my note's perceived derogation of technical craft.  Conceptualism, in Curtis's view, is a kind of lever of renewal and change : one of the tools of expression, a sort of making manifest or self-conscious what is already integral to any art work (ie., technique).

Finally, he asks : "Would it be possible to write a poetry or paint a picture unconsciously?--living within the dream of language or within the known colors and shapes of our reality?  Possibly.  But we cannot not know what we know."  Well put - and it reads like a riposte (probably unintended) to my own follow-up statement (Natural Poetry).

I provide all this inadequate paraphrase, as a way of gathering my own sense of things by way of reply.

Curtis argues that conceptual art, in general, is a practice of standing outside accepted and traditional modes & purposes of art-making - treating these traditional processes with detachment - in order to invent something new, to see what we've always seen with new eyes.  In this endeavor, experiment is indeed a kind of quasi-scientific operation.  Such art can be understood as participating in, and representing, the scientific and industrial revolutions of modernity in general.  It is this very participation which grants avant-garde/conceptual art its authority : it is relevant, it is realistic with regard to modern conditions.

All this I find impossible to quarrel with.  It states the modern case.  But in order to present my sense of things, I must, ineluctably it seems, stand outside the "progressive" theory of modernity.  Art, again to follow David Jones, is a "making of signs" - the shaping of some significance out of its materials.  But poetry, then, is a making of signs out of signs : the art of the word.  And words, ultimately - in their fullness (which is poetry) - cannot be alienated from the human speaker who shapes, evokes and voices them.  In this view, poetry is the "art of arts" : for a sign made of signs returns to, is seamlessly bound up with, its maker.  Paul Celan explored this mysterious reflexivity, this circular labyrinth, in a complex, jocular short story "Conversation in the Mountains" : a conversation about, among other things, how poetry, finally, is detached from the very "alienation effect" which Curtis describes as the hallmark of modernity.  Poetry becomes, in this sense, a kind of art beyond art : circling back to nature, to our common "sensibility" - to the human/divine spirit - to the ghost in the machine.

Osip Mandelstam, as usual with me, comes to mind : he put this more gracefully in a poem from the very dawn of the "Modern movement" (1910), titled "Silentium".  Here's the final stanza, translated by Robert H. Morrison :

Remain foam, Aphrodite,
and, word, turn back into music,
and be ashamed, heart's heart,
poured out from fundamental life!

1 comment:

Curtis Faville said...

Well, Henry, I think we're on the very same page, and you end up making an argument with which I agree almost 100%.

My only caveat would be that in order to make it new, any artist or writer must be sufficiently aware of his own methodology (to "know everything" about the world) to produce something truly unique and compelling.

David Jones would be one poet who did that very thing.

Gerard Manley Hopkins would be another.

Another interesting example would be Ronald Johnson, in his earliest collection A Line of Poetry, A Row of Trees--where reference and quotation and citation are marshaled in an entirely masterful way.

I'm not really "in favor" of conceptualism--though I have always admired Duchamp's wonderful revolutionary resuscitation of the world of art. I've written a couple of blogs about this--one, here--


which may be instructive.

I'm happiest when I read a poem which seems to "transcend" the hackneyed techniques of lyricism and augments my sense of the possible, which manages to "say something" which is startling, or new, or strangely inevitable.

Conceptual art may be, in its current manifestations, just a hedge or trick. And I wouldn't necessarily associate it with the "alienated profile" of the Modernist tradition. I think we need conceptual views, though most of them will fail to convince.