Charmless and Interesting: Robert Archambeau on Conceptual Poetry

by Mark McGuinness on 3 August, 2013

There’s a thought-provoking article article on the Poetry Foundation’s Harriet blog, by Robert Archambeau: What Conceptual Poetry Lacks And What It’s Got.

In case you, like me, were wondering what he means by conceptual poetry, it turns out to be very similar to the more familiar (ahem) concept of conceptual art, i.e. work in which the idea is the most important part, and the execution (and attendant skills such as craft and technique) is of relatively minor interest.

When it comes to art this means that, to put it bluntly, it doesn’t really matter whether you can draw, as long as you come up with daring and original concepts; in fact it’s perfectly acceptable to delegate the actual manufacture of the work to hired hands. So logically it follows that in conceptual poetry, the words themselves are almost incidental compared to the idea behind them. As Archambeau puts it:

There’s a great reversal, in pure conceptualism, of Mallarmé’s point in his famous exchange with Degas, in which the painter, saying he had many ideas for poems, was rebuked by the poet, who said “ce n’est point avec des idées que l’on fait des vers. . . . C’est avec des mots” (“you can’t make a poem with ideas… you make them with words”). Pure conceptualism sides with Degas.

This reminds me of Auden’s comment that a young man who says “I have great things to say” is not going to be a poet; it’s the young man who enjoys hanging around words, playing with them and seeing what happens, who may turn out to be a poet. But the conceptualists would probably have a better chance of recruiting the first young man.

Responding to some recent criticisms of conceptual poetry, Archambeau identifies charmlessness and interest as two of its salient characteristics. He is at pains to point out that charmlessness is “not a criticicism, but an observation”, based on the absence of a specific quality from Kantian aesthetics:

In Kantian thinking about aesthetics, charm is the appeal made by the matter, or the medium, of the work of art: the tone in music, the color in painting, the words themselves in poetry. The matter appeals to the senses, and is agreeable to them. The appeal is also pre-conscious: “we linger on charm,” writes Kant, “the mind all the while remaining passive.” Charm, for Kant, is minor stuff, and doesn’t play a part in what he takes to be a true judgment of beauty, which has much more to do with structure, form, and pattern than with materials – indeed, Kant refers to taste that depends to any degree on charm as “barbaric.” There’s a real downplaying of the value of the senses in this view, with charm being a “merely empirical delight.”

Archambeau also has some interesting things to say about interest, which I can’t really do justice to by quoting.

When I started his article, I was hesitant to form an opinion, since I haven’t knowingly read any conceptual poetry. But it turns out this is no handicap at all:

The best thing about conceptual poetry is that it doesn’t need to be read. You don’t have to read it. As a matter of fact, you can write books, and you don’t even have to read them. My books, for example, are unreadable. All you need to know is the concept behind them. Here’s every word I spoke for a week. Here’s a year’s worth of weather reports… and without ever having to read these things, you understand them.

So, in a weird way, if you get the concept – which should be put out in front of the book – then you get the book, and you don’t even have to read it. They’re better to talk about than they are to read.

(Kenneth Goldsmith, quoted by Archambeau from an interview titled ‘Against Expression’)

Obviously, this is madness. Or a pretty feeble joke. Or a philosophical game. But I’m going to side with Mallarmé and Auden and say it’s not poetry. Poetry is born of the love of words, the games they play, and the patterns and meanings that emerge from them, or it is not born at all.

On the other hand … there’s a small part of me that can’t help piping up: “But I guess it’s interesting that someone is doing this stuff.” Which suggests Archambeau’s description is precisely accurate: charmless but interesting.

I guess I’m tickled by the idea of conceptual poetry, but the reality sounds pretty tedious. Maybe that’s the desired effect.


Do you love/hate the idea of conceptual poetry?

Do you actually read or write conceptual poetry? If so, what’s the attraction? Serious question.

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{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Shazea Quraishi October 4, 2013 at 8:29 am

Hi Mark,

How interesting – a poetry book that doesn’t need to be read. It’s easy on the wallet as you’d only need to read the blurb on the back to get the concept. In fact there’s no need to even pick up the book if you can listen to someone summarise the concept in 2 sentences. All that time and money saved.
Which begs the question, why was it written in the first place? Vanity? A joke?

I can imagine the reactions to Marcel Duchamp’s urinal, ‘Fountain’, almost 100 years ago (yikes! that long?). At least with conceptual art you only need to look at it, and you feel something: delight, disgust, disorientation. There’s a chance it will provoke thought.
Would I buy conceptual art? Would I support an artist who most probably didn’t even paint those dots on himself? The mind boggles.

Thanks for sharing. Another book I don’t need to read – with the time I’ve saved I can take a long bath.

p.s. nice to find you here. enjoying your blogs


Mark McGuinness October 11, 2013 at 5:47 pm

Thanks Shazea, lovely to see you here.

Which begs the question, why was it written in the first place? Vanity? A joke?

That’s precisely the question that intrigues me. I’d love to hear from conceptual poetry enthusiasts about what attracts them to this kind of writing.


Anthony Howell October 31, 2013 at 9:05 am

Carl Andre said of conceptual art it resembled Soviet Realism – there was a new statue of Lenin erected in Kersk, and you knew by definition it was art, so you didn’t need to go to Kersk to see it. All very well, but Carl Andre’s bricks are definitely worth seeing, as they have presence – in that they occupy space with confidence, they generate texture and colour in that space, and they also charm with the simplicity of their concept.

I think the trouble with this piece is that a conceptual poet has been quoted, saying you don’t need to see the work (as does Andre), but no representative example of conceptual poetry is offered us, in order for us to decide whether it is worth reading or not.

My guess is that the best of conceptual poetry would (ironically) be well worth reading – just as the best conceptual art is well worth seeing. Archambeau’s piece sounds deliberately uninformed, and exactly like much of the dull and misjudged criticism of conceptual visual art – based on ignoring the work of those who are being dismissed.

Besides, concepts are nothing new, Thomas Tusser’s Five Hundred Points of Good Husbandry introduces conceptual poetry to the 16th century. The concept of loco-descriptive poetry generated interesting poetry – perhaps culminating in Wordsworth and Thomson. Raymond Roussel’s work depends on strict conceptual set ups – to begin a piece of writing with a sentence which rhymes (all the way through) with the last sentence of the piece – for example.

What one asks, surely, when reading a conceptual piece, is, has the concept generated interesting writing?

And after all, there is plenty of tedious writing with no concept whatsoever.


Mark McGuinness November 1, 2013 at 11:19 am

Thanks Anthony, it’s great to get your informed perspective from the art and poetry worlds.

Re Archambeau, his piece didn’t strike me as unsympathetic to conceptual poetry, but I agree that it might be better not to take Goldsmith’s words at face value, and actually look at some conceptual poetry before making a judgment.

Thomas Tusser is a great find! Must admit I’d never heard of him. Love these ten characteristics of the perfect cheese, from ‘Five Hundred Points…’ :

Not like Gehazi, i.e., dead white, like a leper
Not like Lot’s wife, all salt
Not like Argus, full of eyes
Not like Tom Piper, “hoven and puffed”
Not like Crispin, leathery
Not like Lazarus, poor
Not like Esau, hairy
Not like Mary Magdalene, full of whey or maudlin
Not like the Gentiles, full of maggots
Not like a Bishop, made of burnt milk


Hugh Smith December 7, 2013 at 8:07 am

I don’t think the point here is that art shouldn’t have a concept (as in Anthony’s comment); obviously all is informed by theory at a certain remove; the point of conceptual art is to flip the equation; theory is not the background of art, but art is the background of theory. (What is the difference between theory and concept, by the way? Is a concept a materialization of theory?). The political importance of this change is obvious; technique, in poetry, is essentially a product of leisure – which only makes working class poets more exceptional, and this true even more today. If you don’t have time, you aren’t a poet. Conceptual poetry short-circuits the question of technique, but encounters a new problem, given that “theoretical” responses to the world tend to be fairly alien to those who are practically immersed in the world, and work is nothing more than this very practical immersion. Marx is relevant here; if our involvement with the world is only practical, we are always mystified; conceptual poetry – because it is really the action of pure theory on language – gives us a vantage point, a distance from the world. In contrast, “normal” poetry tends to press us close to the world; feeling, or sentiment – “charm” in Kant – is one of the ways in which art immerses us in the world, and we lose that distance, which means we lose critique – critique depends on distance (we can never see clearly what is right in front of us, except in sensory – “charming” ways). I think conceptual poetry is immensely powerful in terms of “looking at things in new ways” – and looking at things, rather than words – if it does look at words, it looks at words as things. It is way out of language, which seems especially desireable given the “linguistic turn” which has dominated critical theory and philosophy for the past 130 years (ish?). Think of Wittgenstein: “language is the limit of the world”. By objectifying language, which is what conceptual poetry does, we step outside of that limit, and see language as a part of the world which were are not always involved in. This has little to do with pleasure, and lots to do with understanding the world around you, and something to do with surprise.


Mark McGuinness December 7, 2013 at 9:05 am

Thanks Hugh, you’ve practised what you preach by giving me a new way of looking at conceptual poetry. I still find it more interesting than enjoyable, but I can see the fun in this kind of reframing. And I guess there’s more to life than pleasure. 😉

If you don’t have time, you aren’t a poet.

True. And could be the subject for a whole other post and discussion…


john arnold November 18, 2014 at 4:14 am

I find the idea of conceptual poetry interesting, but I also want it executed. For example, the one about “all the words I spoke in a week.” Good idea, and I would also like to see it written out. Or try it on myself (though it would be difficult without a recorder, plus you would have the factor of self-consciousness, making the content less natural). But the results could be entertaining to read. Or a book with several different people doing this exercise. You skim it quickly, and linger longer on the parts that capture your interest.


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