Friday, October 02, 2015

The End of An Era: Cathy Park Hong and Kenneth Goldsmith

If you're inclined to think that active controversy about poetry in the mainstream media is a sign that things are going well for the art, then we're living in a very auspicious moment indeed. Poetry isn't just being tepidly reviewed in magazines whose pages aren't filled primarily with poems: it's being debated with considerable heat. Take, for example, the current issues of The New Yorker and The New Republic: if you'd told me in, say, 2009, that these journals would not only be covering, but participating in, serious debate about Conceptualist poetry, I'd have replied by saying "sure, sure: when pigs fly and a socialist is leading in the Iowa primaries."

In The New Yorker we find Alec Wilkinson saying "Kenneth Goldsmith's poetry elevates copying to an art—but did he go too far?" while in The New Republic Cathy Park Hong takes issue not only with Goldsmith but with Wilkinson's representation of the controversy surrounding Goldsmith's reading, as a poem, of a modified autopsy of the slain Michael Brown.

For the record, I'm inclined to sympathize with Cathy Park Hong's largest point—that the American poetry world, including the avant-garde, is no more immune to institutionalized racism, subtle or otherwise, than any other part of American society. I think she's right, too, about how Wilkinson's essay, despite gestures toward objectivity (such as including parts of an interview with her) presents Goldsmith in a far more sympathetic light than it does his critics. And while I have no x-ray vision to see into Goldsmith's soul, I suspect she's on to something when she says that Goldsmith's reading of the Brown autopsy had something to do with a desire to keep such spotlights as shine on poetry pointed at him. Some time ago, long before the Michael Brown controversy, I wrote about the desire for fame being likely to bring unhappiness to Goldsmith, and that unhappiness seems to have come to pass, at least for the moment.

But I'm not writing to weigh in on the controversy about race and Conceptualism. I'm writing to point out something that most people interested in the controversy will think of as a very minor point indeed: a point of apparent agreement between Cathy Park Hong and Kenneth Goldsmith.  They seem to agree, in a broad way, about the dynamics of literary history. That is: each is willing to present claims about the end of one era and the beginning of another—a view that implies a clear progression in literary history.

Here, for example, is a passage from Kenneth Goldsmith's essay "Flarf is Dionysus, Conceptual Writing is Apollo":
Disjunction is dead. The fragment, which ruled poetry for the past one hundred years, has left the building. Subjectivity, emotion, the body, and desire, as expressed in whole units of plain English with normative syntax, has returned. But not in ways you would imagine. This new poetry wears its sincerity on its sleeve . . . yet no one means a word of it. Come to think of it, no one’s really written a word of it. It’s been grabbed, cut, pasted, processed, machined, honed, flattened, repurposed, regurgitated, and reframed from the great mass of free-floating language out there just begging to be turned into poetry.
He's declaring the death of the Language movement and Elliptical poetry, and the birth of a new, Conceptual era. Co-existence and overlap? Forget about it. Your game is over, Charles Bernstein. Step aside, C.D. Wright.  It's all about Kenneth Goldsmith and Vanessa Place now—or so we are meant to believe.

And here's the ending of Cathy Park Hong's essay in The New Republic:
The era of Conceptual Poetry’s ahistorical nihilism is over and we have entered a new era, the poetry of social engagement.
However vast the gulf may be between the two poets on a variety of issues, they both seem quite sanguine about the rhetoric of historical division, about obsolescence and relevance, about the beginning and ending of eras. As rhetoric, it's stirring stuff. It certainly got Goldsmith a lot of attention—although one wonders if some small portion of the criticism he's been subjected to has been reinforced by schadenfreude from those whose work he so cavalierly dismissed.

If Cathy Park Hong's closing words draw attention to the BreakBeat poets and the people published by Action Books (to name just a few of the groups she mentions), I'll be grateful for the result.  But as literary history, I can't get behind the concept of clearly demarcated eras, no matter where it comes from. I'm with Theodor Adorno when he says "the concept of progress is less directly applicable to art than it is to technical forces of production." Which, unlike the declaration of a new era, isn't a particularly rousing way to end an essay.


  1. the same thing applies to the concept of "progress"--even in terms of technical productions...

  2. Obviously, of course, poetry as a form of social engagement has a long history, one that's ongoing, and the poetry of aesthetic innovation has a long history, one that's ongoing, and poetry that explores a relation between aesthetic innovation and social engagement has a long history, one that's ongoing.

    I suppose a hidden question here is, what kind of work is next in line to get a higher social profile than other kinds of work? The moment of peaking leads directly to the moment of being replaced.

    1. Sure, the struggle for the social profile—that's clearly one of the many things at stake here. But even there, it's hard to speak of a single context in which to raise a profile. There are so many different communities in poetry, where the big names in one circle don't carry at all to other circles.

  3. Goldsmith and Hong are making statements that really express two points in two separate (opposed?) manifestoes, whether in fact or spirit. Such pronouncements may clear the way for something new to emerge in the art, or for something new to be recognized; but they do not make good literary history, and they don't mean to--they mean to make good on the literary moment, as it's happening. It was impossible to describe comprehensively what was happening in poetry 100 years ago--that didn't stop anyone who wanted to try, but it was never convincing. How much more impossible now, with the practice totally decentralized geographically and no particular way of writing dominating.

    But who reads poems in order to perform taxonomies?

    1. I agree: stirring as rhetoric, lousy as history. I don't think history written in the moment is without value. As for taxonomies: Goldsmith and Hong are both seeing them.

  4. Anonymous2:02 PM

    One other qualification to offer Cathy Park Hong's terms would be that some of the most radical poetry of "social engagement" of the past half century has been decidedly conceptual and effectively subversive in the wager. Samizdat Moscow Conceptualism had a far-reaching impact in the human rights struggle of the late-Soviet period, and the heroic, sometimes near-suicidal interventions of the Chilean CADA electrified the anti-Pinochet movement, even providing it with some of its central slogans. The Situationist International, some years before, was another case of conceptual poetics in action. These movements arguably did much more to inspire revolutionary aspirations than any conventional poetry-on-the-page of the time was able to (be it traditionally lyric or experimental).

    If a poetry of social engagement rejects conceptual strategies out of hand because they're perceived as "elitist," or "abstract," or "Western," or whatever, the range of options available to cultural resistance is unnecessarily cut-short. Granted, the aesthetic politics of U.S. ConPo had little to do with cultural resistance (institutional pandering, really, was more its spirit and drive), but it's not conceptual poetry in principle that should be rejected. Conceptual poetry, the deep kind, knows no race or nation.