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.
If you liked this piece you can sign up to have more of Mark McGuinness’ thoughts on classic and contemporary poetry delivered for free.