conceptual poetry

Daniel Cowper

The following piece appears as part of the month-long series “Conscientious Conceptualism and Poetic Practice” on the blog, curated by guest editor Andy Verboom.

Art is the process of pulling objects out of your self, looking at them hard, and trying to explain them to others. In this account, given by playwright John Patrick Shanley in The Dreamer Examines His Pillow, art is a communiqué from artist to audience. Sending art’s messages carries an ethical charge, a mandate to vindicate the reality and value of communion between minds.

But leading advocates of conceptual poetry (composed through reproduction and algorithmic processes) forcibly disagree with the notion of literature as the explanation of oneself to others. Craig Dworkin, for example, advertises conceptual poetry as “a non-expressive poetry,” one that is liberated from the “self-regard of the poet’s ego.” Kenneth Goldsmith, in his essay “Why Conceptual Writing? Why Now?” advocates composition through computation. “The computer encourages us to mimic its workings,” Goldsmith writes with relish, and promises, “the new writing will have an electronic gleam in its eyes.”

But computation, as John Searle points out in his seminal paper “Minds, Brains and Programs,” operates on a purely syntactical level without regard to the meaning of the data being manipulated. Computers only simulate understanding by following step-by-step, defined operations on marks whose meanings (if any) are irrelevant and inaccessible to their algorithms. Goldsmith picks up on this qualitative difference between minds and machines, and endorses the computers’ semantic-free approach by urging us to treat texts as “written not to be read but rather to be shared, moved, manipulated.”

Distancing the poet’s subjective mind from the process of poetic composition means the production of poems that are no longer communiqués from writer to reader. The only possible relationship of mind to mechanically-generated text is that of observer, or, to put it less romantically, of consumer.

Nor have promoters of conceptual poetry failed to notice how mechanically produced texts problematize the position of the reader. Dadaist Tristan Tzara observed in “To Make A Dadaist Poem” that random patterns create the false impression of communication: readers, seeing themselves in the poem by means of pareidolia, are tricked into assuming the text to be the expression of an “infinitely original writer with a charming sensitivity.” That is, randomly generated poems function as linguistic inkblots, reflecting readers’ minds like a Rorschach test. Pranks like that denigrate the value of human communication, and are of limited poetic interest. It isn’t as if misunderstandings are difficult to engineer.

When algorithms are employed by poets to broaden their compositional options, those approaches become a more sophisticated (and possibly more efficient) form of old tools: thesaurus, rhyming dictionary, or anthology kept ready to hand.

Goldsmith celebrates how conceptual poetry “doesn’t need to be read” and says that the best approach is to just grasp its compositional algorithms. Dworkin suggests contemplating these compositional algorithms will please the intellect instead of the emotions, but I can’t imagine anyone’s intellect is particularly stimulated by knowing someone has compiled “a year’s worth of weather reports” or “every word [he] spoke for a week.” Paradoxically, the internet age Goldsmith cites as inspiration for new conceptual processes has made such compilations commonplace and banal.

But I would argue for throwing out the bathwater and keeping the baby. My contention is this: conceptual processes don’t need to eliminate either writer or reader.

Conceptual tactics can serve self-expression instead of replacing it. Aside from the production of linguistic Rorschach tests, conceptual processes in composition can augment traditional composition by redirecting attention serendipitously. When algorithms are employed by poets to broaden their compositional options, those approaches become a more sophisticated (and possibly more efficient) form of old tools: thesaurus, rhyming dictionary, or anthology kept ready to hand.

The early Oulipo N+7 algorithm, for example, is systematically dipping into a dictionary. Algorithmic operations are not entirely alien to the I Ching chance operations adopted by John Cage, either, or to the European tradition of answering questions by opening the Bible to random verses. Search engine-dependent strategies such as Flarf poetry remind me strongly of the practice of flipping through a heterogeneous anthology for inspiration.

conceptual poetry

“… randomly generated poems function as linguistic inkblots, reflecting readers’ minds like a Rorschach test.”

And Goldsmith is right to observe that the unoriginal aspects of our minds have been ignored by poets as a result of poetry’s historical worship of originality. Appropriative tactics may offer new means of expressing the imitative or obeisant qualities of human nature. In conversation, we often quote or imitate our favourite movies, TV series, and books. We wade daily through rivers of information. What stops poets from invoking cultural landmarks or experiences of social media except a taboo on appropriation that Goldsmith rightly derides?

As John Cage shows in Themes & Variations (a book of manipulated quotations), a selfless echoing of one’s idols can be as self-expressive (and self-aggrandizing) as anything by Robert Lowell. Nor is there much in principle to distinguish T.S. Eliot’s collages of pastiche and fragment, or John Milton pillaging Phineas Fletcher for good lines, from the appropriation that Goldsmith urges.

Viewed as tools to facilitate rather than replace self-expression, conceptual processes function as interesting developments on past techniques—and some conceptual tools may knock down historical barriers to self-expression. But any technique can stifle, especially if it is weaponized in service of a dehumanizing agenda.

Daniel Cowper is from Bowen Island, BC. After studying medieval literature, philosophy, and law in Vancouver, Manhattan, and Toronto, Daniel has returned to Bowen Island, where he is finishing his cabin with an eye to his wife’s comfort. Daniel’s poetry has appeared in various literary reviews and is forthcoming in Noise Anthology; his poetry chapbook, The God of Doors, was co-winner of Frog Hollow Press’s Second Chapbook Contest. He serves as poetry editor of Pulp Literature and practices commercial litigation in Vancouver.

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