Friday, August 02, 2013

Charmless and Interesting: What Conceptual Poetry Lacks and What It's Got

The brouhaha over conceptualism continues, with more and more people chiming in. There's a roundup of current opinions over at the Poetry Foundation, and the PF has been kind enough to allow me to lay down my own views.  Here are the first couple of paragraphs:

Fourteen months after reading at the White House, Kenneth Goldsmith found himself in the real center of American power: cable television.  His appearance on The Colbert Report, though, coincided not with a general celebration of the conceptual poetics with which he is associated, but with two stinging attacks on such poetics: one by the young poet Amy King in The Rumpus, and another by the esteemed poet-critic Calvin Bedient in Boston Review.  King’s criticism revolved around the idea of conceptualism as an in-group phenomenon, and on the hypocrisy of conceptual poets striking anti-establishment poses while simultaneously seeking, and beginning to find, such laurels as the established institutions of American poetry have to offer.  Bedient’s article criticized conceptualism for a lack of concern with emotion and affect, which he linked with both a truncating of poetry’s possibilities and a kind of reactionary political stance.  People’s responses to these criticisms, to judge by the emails, texts, phone calls, and Facebook messages I received, were passionate—half of my friends in the little world of poetry expressed delight that the horrible careerist bastards were finally getting called out for their sins, while the other half spluttered in outrage at those who dared try to quench the glorious yet fragile flames of poetic innovation.
This is a moment, then, for an assessment of the virtues and vices of conceptual poetry.  What does conceptual poetry lack, compared to other poetries, and what does it have to offer?  Any brief answer will, of course, be too general, but we can begin to sketch things out with reference to two aesthetic categories: the charming and the interesting.  Whatever else conceptualism has got going for it, it lacks—at least in its pure form—the former.  And whether one likes conceptualism or not, anyone who has engaged with it has found that it has, wonderfully or frustratingly, got plenty of the latter.

The rest is up at the Foundation's site.


  1. Anonymous5:01 PM

    Hi, I'd seen Carl Bedient's piece, so not only read your first two paras but popped over to Harriet and read the whole lot - I was going to say very interesting, but really mean an excellent read, well written and well informed and (with a little help from Wikipedia on some of the characters you cite) helped me to understand more of the debate.

    The comment I put on the bottom of the Boston Review piece was because I objected to Bedient treating Poetry as a singularity rather than a collective noun. Although I've spent plenty of time with Hegel and Kant I'm much more comfortable in a postmodern phrasing in which Hegels ineluctable rush to the conclusion is instead infinitely deferred and we can get on with the muddle of culture in a post-imperial world where cultural diversity enriches rather than threatens or requires to be taught its table manners and what makes proper poetry.

    The reason I comment here is because I entertainingly realised that conceptualism (much to its surprise) as a consequence of your explanation, must cover the poetry of those who have a brilliant concept but dress it in poor rhymes, hapless rhythms, unimaginative metaphors etc. The idea such poetry is really good poetry, in so far as it contains a brilliant concept, greatly amused me.

    The context is that we've just opened a global platform for poetry by way of providing digital tools for people to take advantage of the opportunity the internet offers - security, accessibility, control, conviviality, diversity - we incorporate text, sound and vision. The idea is that (after the printrun expires) it would be good to create a repository/archive of your work and manage your own presentation - as you like - then engage with social and other media as appropriate and reading and be read by others.

    Naturally, we take a degree of conceptual flak that the site will be full of bad poetry as we are a platform not a gated community. We're unabashed because on YouTube people tell the difference between cute animal videos and lectures from Nobel prize winning physicists without difficulty - they each have their place. So it is with PoetryZoo.

    However, now I know that "bad" poetry might actually be good conceptual poetry, I will chuckle at the very concept.

    All the best and thanks for the read.

    Best regards

    Richard Saville-Smith

    1. Thanks! And best of luck with the poetry zoo!

  2. Excellent article, thank you.

    I wrote a response here:

  3. I think you present here one of the most clear-headed discussion of the topic that I've ever encountered. You really get at the core of the issue, for me.

    My response is here: