I AM VERY GRATEFUL to Matvei Yankelevich, a poet-critic I admire very much and an editor at the Ugly Duckling Presse, whose verbally and visually innovative books I collect assiduously, for responding to my essay, “Poetry on the Brink.” His commentary gives me a welcome opportunity to clear up what have evidently been some widespread misconceptions.
First, some background. The essay in question was originally commissioned by the Virginia Quarterly Review, which was running a feature on “The State of Poetry Today.” I accepted the invitation gladly because I thought it would give me a chance to have my say on what I took (and take) to be the rather sad state of poetry being published by the mainstream press in the U.S. in the 2010s. But, in the end, although the editors were very pleased with my piece and it was already in proof, I withdrew it — for reasons too complicated to go into here — and sent it to the Boston Review instead. The shift in context created a problem I didn’t originally anticipate: rather than being part of a discussion I would otherwise have had with such critics as William Logan, Willard Spiegelman, and Robert Archambeau — critics whose stances on poetry are very different from my own — my essay appeared all by itself, thus taking on an air of isolated polemic.
Still, I was not prepared for the vehement response the essay provoked, especially after the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Arts and Letters Daily website linked to it, which has a huge readership. I didn’t think my essay was all that controversial, but I suppose it struck a nerve for the simple reason that, in today’s poetry press, there is almost no real debate or argument. Few poetry books get reviewed at all and when they do, they are almost always given unqualified praise.
Matvei Yankelevich understands this situation very well but, I think, mistakes my essay’s intended audience, as well as some of its terminology. From his own perspective, as publisher on the downtown New York poetry scene, where a congeries of young experimental poets are producing a great variety of texts — visual poetry, performance texts, serial poems, documentary — that can’t be pigeonholed, he objects to what he takes to be the binary opposition between Conservatism and Conceptualism in my essay. Both conservatives and conceptualists, he argues, fail to take the material text seriously enough; the Conceptualists do not respect “the word as such,” as I claim they do, and hence the appeal of their work is limited. Indeed, says Yankelevich, the irony is that at both poles — the Conservative and the Conceptual — writing is treated as merely transparent. It has none of the complexity and “difficulty” of the good poetry written in the “gray area” between the two poles.
But this binary is Yankelevich’s, not mine. The term “Conservatism” does not really fit the younger poets featured, say, in Rita Dove’s anthology, many of whom are certainly on the Left politically and have fought hard for minority rights. I prefer merely to speak of the Establishment: the big-name poets who win the prizes, the Guggenheims and MacArthur fellowships. Indeed, Natasha Trethewey, whose little poem was my Exhibit A of the dominant lyric form, has just been named Poet Laureate of the U.S. I’m sure Trethewey doesn’t think of herself as a Conservative, and neither does Rita Dove. Moreover, these poets do not write at all “transparently,” as Yankelevich seems to think. Transparency, even a feigned transparency, can be associated with the Beats and the New York poets: Eileen Myles would be a contemporary case in point. But most of the academic mainstream poets use calculated indirection, “subtle” metaphor and imagery, allusion to historical events, and so on. Certainly, they avoid simply telling it “like it is.”
In any case, Yankelevich’s real interest is not in the “Conservatives,” of whom he is even more dismissive than I am, but in the Conceptualists. And here our disagreement is largely semantic. “Conceptualism, in its pure form,” he writes, “must be … by definition anti-lyrical, or at least a-lyrical.” This is a simplification. For me, the first — and probably still the greatest — conceptualist was Marcel Duchamp, who claimed to reject the “work of art” completely in favor of its originating idea or conception. The urinal that became “Fountain by R. Mutt” was just an ordinary urinal; indeed, we know it chiefly from replicas that seem to lack all “aesthetic” interest. But then why did Duchamp insist on having Stieglitz photograph it in front of Mardsen Hartley’s painting, thus turning it into a “beautiful” object? And what about his reframing of the urinal by turning it upside-down and inscribing it? Or again, the ugly French window called Fresh Widow surely depends for its effect on the complex punning of its title and the many possibilities inherent in the idea of a “fresh” widow. Then, too, the black leather panes used instead of window glass are impenetrable, as is the widow herself. There is literally and figuratively nothing transparent about this window/widow. So although the effect of the readymade is based on a prior conception or idea not directly visible in the work, its material embodiment also matters, even when we are dealing with the many replicas of Fresh Widow.
Just as Duchamp pretended to be “indifferent” to art so as to provoke his viewer/listeners and force them to rethink what art is, so Kenneth Goldsmith has repeatedly insisted that his books are not meant to be read at all and that, in any case, they are merely “boring.” But, as in Duchamp’s declarations, this is merely a kind of Dada gesture, put forward to shake up the audience a bit and defy its expectations. In my book Unoriginal Genius, I try to show that when one actually reads the set of radio reports called Traffic, one finds that Goldsmith has artfully arranged its parts so as to have a particular structure: there is nothing random about this series of traffic updates. To make such a case, Yankelevich objects, “is to divest the Conceptualist work of its most radical feature, that of the dematerialization of the art object.” But if dematerialization were a Conceptualist requisite, why do Sol Lewitt’s and Donald Judd’s non-works, not to mention Duchamp’s own, prompt such reverential attention, not to mention such high prices? Why do people travel to Beacon, NY or to remote Marfa, Texas to see Conceptualist “sculpture?”
Recently, the critic Brian Reed has shown that Goldsmith’s Day (2003), his “copying” of one day’s entire New York Times, is by no means a faithful transcription; that it takes all sorts of intentional liberties with its chosen text so as to create particular effects. The same is true for Craig Dworkin’s pseudo-grammar book Parse, which curiously unravels its own rules and becomes something quite other. And although I agree with Yankelevich that Vanessa Place’s Statement of Facts is not properly a “poem” — on the back jacket I call it “conceptual writing” — I must take issue with the notion that Place’s book “offers no position, no critique.” Again, this is to mistake simulation for actual truth. What the “flat” surface of Statement of Fact achieves critically is to force its reader to wonder whether we can trust any of the “factual” statements we are given in police reports and court testimony. Is fact equivalent to truth? Place may not be putting forward any of her own emotions or opinions, but she does force the reader to revaluate the meaning of seemingly simple propositions. There is nothing transparent about it.
Yankelevich rightly notes that the examples in my essay (in which, incidentally, I say nothing at all about Goldsmith or Place) are poems by no means fully conceptual — a Charles Bernstein ballad, for example, that is nothing if not “lyrical,” even though very different from the lyrics included in Rita Dove’s anthology. Why, Yankelevich wonders, don’t I differentiate between Bernstein’s or Gizzi’s brand of lyric and the anti-lyrical impulses of Conceptual poetry? I would answer that it’s a question of audience. For the audience for which I was (and am) writing, Bernstein’s affinity with such “conceptual” poets as Goldsmith and Christian Bök is surely much greater than his affinity to Larry Levis or Natasha Trethewey. More important, since I believe that poetry can be poetry without being lyric — a point I have made repeatedly — I wanted to present the reader with alternatives, as in the case of Srikranth Reddy’s parodic writing through Kurt Waldheim’s memoir called Voyager, which I would classify as satire, a time-honored non-lyrical mode. Indeed, my choices were designed to be ironic, primarily to show that “writing-through” and citationality are by no means new or unique to the “new” Conceptualists as such. John Cage was already doing it in the 1960s.
Do I believe that Conceptualism is the only game in town? Not for long. As with any movement — Dada, for example, or the Language movement that preceded Conceptualism and also shades into it — the likelihood is that the moment of Conceptualism, which is now prominent enough to boast two recent large anthologies and many university courses dedicated to it, will soon be over. As I suggested in a discussion of Craig Dworkin’s Motes in “Towards a Conceptual Lyric” (Jacket2, Spring 2011), the lyric is certainly back, even if not in its confessional or oh-I’m-so-sensitive personal form. Found poems can certainly be “lyric:” it all depends on what source texts are used and on how the poet uses them. Conceptualism in what Yankelevich calls its “pure” form (which has never quite existed) could not, in any case, last any longer than did Dada. But the example of Dada is instructive because, like the poetry of the Cabaret Voltaire in 1916, Conceptualist poetics has been a necessary intervention in our current poetic discourse, designed as it is to make people sit up and remember Pound’s dictum: “Do not retell in mediocre verse what has already been done in good prose.”
Why, Yankelevich asks, don’t I cast my scrutiny on the “complexly lyrical but conceptually minded work of the younger poets doing interesting in-between work today, poets not fully conceptualist and certainly not conservatively lyrical?” This would certainly be the subject for another essay, but you can’t very well oppose the Penguin canon by bringing up the names of what are, outside the world of small-press and chapbook publishing, wholly unknown poets. Then, too, I am not convinced that the “ever-growing margin on the sidelines of mainstream poetry” is as rich and fruitful as Yankelevich suggests. “New Surrealisms, new Confessionalisms entwined with new Feminisms:” these may be important to a publisher of new poetry like Ugly Duckling, but as someone who didn’t even like the old Surrealisms, the prospect of a fresh batch is less than exhilarating. (At the same time, I agree with Yankelevich’s advocacy of Russian poets, especially Vsevolod Nekrasov.)
“In fact,” Yankelevich remarks, “the poets that are critically engaged and/or antagonized in serious ways by Conceptualism seem to be elsewhere [outside the two anthologies]: they are more likely to be the colleagues or students of Gizzi, Bernstein, and other authors of the more or less Modernist-inflected, disjunctive, materially-oriented poetry that you have championed.” Touché! Isn’t that just my point? According to my more capacious definition of Conceptualism, poets from Howe and Bernstein on down still need to be presented seriously and sympathetically to a larger public. The Boston Review, after all, recently ran a piece that compared Bernstein’s poetics to the rhetoric of the Tea Party and Glenn Beck, and argued that Bernstein’s was a poetry that undermined “serious” discourse on the political and the horrors of war. Against this backdrop, perhaps it’s time to forget about movements and isms and read carefully particular poets — poets who, in Yankelevich’s words about Nekrasov, “complicate the relationships of appropriation and transparency, context and concept, politics and aesthetics,” insisting on a “heightened materiality of language.” Whether we call such work Conceptualist or Post-Conceptualist really doesn’t matter. The point is to come out openly against the self-regarding sludge that passes for poetry in the commercial and media world, and to look closely at the alternatives. And here I agree with Yankelevich that “we have a lot more work to do.”