The Argotist Online
Share is editor of Poetry and the author, editor, or translator of a
Q: In the late 1960s and early 1970s, a conceptual art group called Art & Language specialised in producing art works utilising texts and lexical elements, whilst endorsing the theories of Marcel Duchamp, and holding the view that the practice of art should be methodically theoretical and separated from matters related to craft or aesthetics. These beliefs and procedures are echoed by practitioners of conceptual poetry, the most celebrated being Kenneth Goldsmith, who has spoken of Duchampís influence on his practice and that of other conceptual poets. Given these theoretical and procedural similarities between the Art & Language group and conceptual poets, in what sense is the work produced by conceptual poets significantly different from that produced by the Art & Language group, and, indeed, other conceptual artists working in the same area?
Any time somebody talks about influence, Iím interested. Yet I find it hard to generalize about conceptual poets, or
any poets. Iím not an expert on,
practictioner of, conceptual art, but it seems to me that the similarities you
describe are primarily foundational--influential:
there are, in other words, sources of inspiration, to use a non-conceptual term,
precedents and analogues. No surprise there, I guess. Itís important, though,
not to conflate what Kennyís doing with the whole of conceptual poetry or to
assume that he is somehow completely emblematic of it. I realize that heís
become, for various reasons (some of which are quite amusing and also telling)
the poster boy of conceptual poetry, but letís be careful not to let that
obscure the work of others. Anyway,
the view that the practice of art, etc., should be separated from matters of
craft or aesthetics, etc., is as old as the hills, and as picturesque; if poets
can make that view new again, Iím all for it. But if the practice remains
stale, no theory will come to its rescue.
In ĎKenneth Goldsmith, or The Art of Being Talked Aboutí Robert Archambeau
says that he thinks that Kenneth Goldsmith Ďoften seems to believe in a
linear, progressive version of artistic and literary history, a view that many
people in the art world feel has been discreditedí. Would you agree with this
I donít agree, no. What makes Goldsmithís work valuable and interesting is
that it fucks up the linear, and troubles ideas of the progressive. I like that
he does this with wit, energy, fearlessness, panache--and a healthy sense of
humor. Every time he riles someone
up, a conceputal angel earns its wings.
Given conceptualismís radical self-positioning of itself, do you think it is
ironic that conceptualism has been championed and embraced by the academy?
No. Why shouldnít people in the academy champion or embrace whatever excites
or interests them? But who are we
talking about here? There are some academic folks who are widely known, but
there are also the many who teach, as it were, in the trenches. In any case, I
donít see much sign of a monolithic acceptance of conceptualism--far from it.
I get around a lot in my line of work, and most of the students I run into would
flunk a test on the subject conceptual poetry. How many conceptual poets or
artists can a typical student name? Not
many, Iíll wager. If academics teach conceptual poetry, write about it,
express opinions about it, that seems well within their purview. Hell, Iíd
take a course in it myself! A more
interesting question is how effective the championing of a particular kind of
work by the academic world really is.
Is conceptualismís claim that it rejects what it sees as the ďnarcissistic
selfhoodĒ of much lyric poetry incompatible with its practices, given that so
many of these practices revolve around the personality and showmanship of the
poets involved, Kenneth Goldsmith being perhaps the most prominent example?
Itís not incompatible with it, and thatís what gives it its polemical energy
and charm. But again, I caution that the focus solely on Kenny both proves and
distorts the point embedded in that question.
Conceptual poets tend to be reluctant to engage directly with their critics,
preferring instead to rehearse the theories regarding their practice in
self-penned essays in various sympathetic publications etc. Why do you think
I actually see lots of engagement of conceptual poets with their critics, but
thatís because I spend too much time on the internet, which is where most of
this takes place.
To what extent do you think conceptualism sees itself as a serious poetic art
I donít know, and my not knowing seems somehow to the point.
How do you explain conceptualismís rapid ascendancy within the academy?
Ascendancy? Most college and university literature courses teach the same kinds
of things they always and traditionally have, with the occasional novel twist,
seminar, or sideline. There are specialized courses that take on such things as
conceptualism, no doubt; but most students will get survey courses and a
smattering of other subjects large and small. Probably, it should be taught
What are the possible ramifications for the reception of lyrical and other sorts
of non-conceptual poetry within the academy, now that conceptualism has been
accepted as poetry by the academy?
I donít know the answer to that, and canít wait to find out. The idea, though, of an academy with a capacious sense of what can be accepted as poetry sounds salubrious to me.
Is this true? Donít Goldsmithís recasting of American disasters in his most
recent book and his compilations of September 11th newspaper writing
have a political dimension? These
seem to me to have obvious political resonance. Vanessa Placeís work directly
addresses the way our legal system and economy operate; again, this seems quite
pointedly political to me. As I
write this, sheís also engaging race relations, and that, too, is explicitly
political. As to whether or not
itís radical, well, thatís another question altogether. Maybe itís radical
Iím not, in all the foregoing, attempting either to defend or critique what conceptual poets are up to. I just donít see why people can get so aggravated about what these poets do. Is the spectrum of contemporary poetry not broad enough to accommodate their work? If not, why not? A century ago, people were scandalized by Prufrock, The Rite of Spring, Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, and countless other modernist works. Are people today really so shocked or annoyed by conceptual poetry? If so, these poets are onto something. If not, then we havenít learned from our own literary history; and worse, have arguably become inured to that which is truly shocking: the things that go on in this world. Though not without its foibles like all else in poetry, conceptual work is a legitimate and probably inevitable response to ďlyric narcissicm,Ē text-fettered writing, dullness, complacency, boredom, and much else besides. If it didnít exist, it would have to be invented.
copyright © Don Share