Surrealist Doodle

Surrealist Doodle
This was used as the cover of Karawane in 2006 and I have included it in on a number of bags and postcards over the years. Someone on the subway asked me if it was a Miro. I was very flattered!

Sunday, August 04, 2013

The Debate Over Conceptual Poetics

So lately I have found myself talking a fair amount about conceptual poetics, which I had also blogged about in 2008 when I went to the Conceptual Poetics conference at the University of Arizona Poetry Center. I was talking with a friend of mine about Conceptual Poetics and Kenneth Goldsmith's appearance at the White House and on The Colbert Report.

Then, lo and behold, my friend Arthur Durkee writes about Goldsmith and Conceptual Poetics at his blog, Dragon Cave in response to an article written by Robert Archambeau on the Poetry Foundation website.

So, I am adding my two cents to the conversation.


I was at the Conceptual Poetics conference held at the U of Arizona poetry center in 2008. Craig Dworkin talked about a desire to link a literary movement to an artistic one, which hadn't been done I think, since Dada/Surrealism. Of course, it's a self-conscious, rather than an organic linking. But I think the desire behind it is a good one.

I agree that much of the techniques employed are very similar to ready-mades and to cut-up poetry, Flarf, etc. I doubt that most of the conference participants would identify exclusively as conceptual poets, except maybe for Dworkin and Goldsmith, although hearing Goldmsith's work at the White House, it was a bit more "artful" than what Goldsmith usually practices and advocates.

I think of conceptual poetics as trying to update and expand on Dadaist and post/modernist poetry practices. I think it is useful for discussion of what poetry is and is not. I use some of Goldsmith's writings in my community education classes, which generates a lot of heated debates because ultimately, people DO want poetry to be charming or beautiful or to help people make connections between seemingly unrelated objects and situations. Ironically, I find Goldsmith himself, in his writings, on television,and in person, to be quite charming and very thoughtful about what it is that he does. He just wrote a very thoughtful blog on the Poetry Foundation's blog, for example, on coming across some of Jackson Mac Low's book collection at a book dealer that was very poignant and thoughtful, despite the glibness of the title, The Burden of Artists' Crap.

Like Surrealist techniques, I find Conceptualist Poetics to be very good for maintaining a writing practice, which can lead to creativity just by forcing one to sit down and write anything. (Keep in mind that visual artists learn to copy as they are learning and developing their own style.) It is very useful for stimulating thought (since Goldsmith would be against the idea of stimulating "creativity."). It can be helpful getting people to believe that everyone can write poetry. (I used to have this debate with people at open mics who would claim everyone is a poet. Not everyone is a poet, anymore than everyone is a plumber, a doctor, an accountant, or a dancer. But everyone should write poetry, dance, be able to do math, and take care of their health.)

There is much that can be borrowed and learned from previous art and literary movements rather than treating them as if they are merely dead relics to be crammed into museums and looked at, rather than a living practice. There is value in updating our venerated avant-gardes then, which, if they have any value to offer, can and should be updated. It is a tenet of modernism to declare what came before you as dead and to proclaim yourself the new hot thing. This, ironically, is both what conceptual poetics is out to deny by denying any idea of creativity in process, and a stance which conceptual visual artists frequently embrace.

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