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What’s in a Name?: The Art & Language Group and Conceptual Poetry






Jeffrey Side



In his essay, Charmless and Interesting: What Conceptual Poetry Lacks and What It’s Got’ Robert Archambeau asks: ‘In what sense is pure conceptualism poetry, beyond the institutional sense of being distributed and considered through the channels by which poetry is distributed and considered?’ The answer to this question would clarify the relationship between conceptual poetry, conceptual art and the generally accepted definition of poetry as being specifically a literary art whereby language is utilised aesthetically and evocatively.


That some of the concerns and practices of conceptual poetry are not new in the world of conceptual art needs no extensive repetition here. However, it is interesting to note that in relation to conceptual poetry’s use of texts and lexical elements to comprise its works, a fairly recent historical precedent already exists. This can be seen in the theories, practices and works of 1960s conceptual artists such as Lawrence Weiner, Edward Ruscha and Robert Barry; and also in the theories, practices and works of the conceptual art group known as Art & Language, which was formed by Terry Atkinson, Michael Baldwin, Harold Hurrell and David Bainbridge in 1968. Others affiliated with this group, included Ian Burn, Michael Corris, Preston Heller, Graham Howard, Joseph Kosuth, Andrew Menard, Terry Smith, Philip Pilkington and David Rushton. These artists were among the first to produce art from textual and lexical sources.


The notable similarity between the theories of this group and those of conceptual poetry’s is that the group developed, extended and championed the conceptual theories that were initiated by artists such as Marcel Duchamp. The group also held the view that the practice of art should be systematically theoretical and entirely separated from concerns relating to craft or aesthetics. These and other ideas appeared in the group’s journal, Art-Language, the first issue of which appeared in 1969.


A direct parallel with the works of these artists and those produced by conceptual poets is not my intention here. There will be differences in scale (both physical and theoretical) and presentation between them; suffice to say, that the common element they share is that of a conceptual approach to their works, and as such, this leads us back to Archambeau’s question (‘In what sense is pure conceptualism poetry, beyond the institutional sense of being distributed and considered through the channels by which poetry is distributed and considered?’), and also one that I would like to ask. If it is at all possible to agree that both the Art & Language group and conceptual poetry share similar theoretical stances and working practices, then in what sense is the work produced by conceptual poetry more suited to be called poetry than that of the Art & Language group?


In one of the two Facebook discussions I took part in recently about Archambeau’s question, it was mentioned by someone that the term “poetry” was merely an honorific one, conferred by the academy on what it deemed was poetry: the logical extension of this being that if the academy should deem, for instance, a text-book to be poetry then it would have to be accepted that a text-book was, indeed, poetry. In response to this, someone else mentioned that the approach of the literary theorist Roman Jakobson was more reasonable, in that Jakobson saw poetry as marked by specific functions in language rather than by an arbitrary redesignation by the academy of general texts. I agreed with the latter.


In light of this, it seems to me that given that there is no significant difference between the work of the Art & Language group and that of conceptual poetry, for the work of the latter to be designated as poetry whilst that of the former is not, seems a peculiarly inconsistent and whimsical act on the part of the academy. It seems to me, that neither the Art & Language group nor conceptual poetry can accurately be described as producing works of poetry, given that they are both operating from within a conceptual art aesthetic and theoretical stance.



copyright © Jeffrey Side


Jeffrey Side has had poetry published in various magazines such as Poetry Salzburg Review, and on poetry web sites such as Underground Window, A Little Poetry, Poethia, Nthposition, Eratio, Pirene’s Fountain, Fieralingue, Moria, Ancient Heart, Blazevox, Lily, Big Bridge, Jacket, Textimagepoem, Apochryphaltext, 9th St. Laboratories, P. F. S. Post, Great Works, Hutt, The Dande Review, Poetry Bay and Dusie.


He has reviewed poetry for Jacket, Eyewear, The Colorado Review, New Hope International, Stride, Acumen and Shearsman. From 1996 to 2000 he was the deputy editor of The Argotist magazine.


His publications include, Carrier of the Seed, Distorted Reflections, Slimvol, Collected Poetry Reviews 2004-2013, Cyclones in High Northern Latitudes (with Jake Berry) and Outside Voices: An Email Correspondence (with Jake Berry), available as a free ebook here.