Beauty and the Beastly Po-Biz, Part 2

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You can read Part 1 here.

Speaking of clothes, one standout opportunity for the heralded “blockage” or disruption of capital that seems to have been missed occurred at the site of capitalism’s convergence: the White House. Kenneth Goldsmith was invited to read poetry and accepted. Both Goldsmith and Place report the specifics online at length. Though he notes an opportunity to read unfettered at one point, he chose to stick to the pre-approved script and read poems by Walt Whitman and Hart Crane as well as from one of his own books; Goldsmith obediently performed his role within the institution. But the standout portion that Goldsmith focuses on is the reception of his suit by the president. His suit was the same brand that the president wears but with an exaggerated paisley pattern. The president quipped that he liked Goldsmith’s suit but wouldn’t be permitted to wear it. Goldsmith determines that this was his disruptive or subversive moment, “. . . to take something familiar and recontextualize it to the point of it being ‘wrong,’ which is exactly what I aimed to do with my performance, straddling tradition and radicality, being both and, at the same, being neither; embracing contradiction, keeping them guessing.”

Kenneth-Goldsmith_White-House_2011_HiResGoldsmith goes on, vis-à-vis a Derrida quote, to align his presentation with the Occupy Wall Street protests and then claims, “What happened in the White House was that radicality was clothed in the nearly identical linguistic garments of normative discourse familiar to the institution.” (Does the radicality of the Occupy movement rub off by invocation alone? When I ask a poet-friend, he replies, “Whether you’re an American President or an avant-garde poet, Brooks Brothers has a suit for you.”) Goldsmith further notes that his so-called radicality went “unnoticed.” Who did he keep in a state of guessing then? Despite attaching himself to an avant-garde that is supposed to destabilize or block capital, it seems Goldsmith merely performed the “eccentric poet” pop culture stereotype for the capitalist media machine, earning the cultural capital of visibility, which is later confirmed as clown-like on the Jon Stewart show. Was there no other option in the Conceptualist box of devices that could have had an impact that registered? Even the two couples that snuck into and attended a White House state dinner in 2009 raised more questions and caused more disruptions than Goldsmith’s suit.

So I look to the premier critic and champion of poetries of the avant-garde, Marjorie Perloff, for clarification. In “A Response to Matvei Yankelevich,” Perloff claims to only “speak of the Establishment: the big-name poets who win the prizes . . . ” in her critical takedown of said Establishment. She advances poetries she believes are capable of dismantling it. Her champions as of late are, of course, the Conceptualists. “Do I believe the Conceptualists are the only game in town? Not for long.” But we can infer that, for now, yes, they are. All other poets are complicit participants in the Establishment, incidental or irrelevant to it. Conceptualism though “is now prominent enough to boast two recent large anthologies and many university courses dedicated to it…” thus Perloff echoes Goldsmith’s signposts of acceptance. So we are, on the one hand, critically advised to be aware of the machinery and techniques that perpetuate and sustain an “Establishment order” poetry while being told another group, the Conceptualists, are also part of the Establishment, upwardly mobile via the same machinery. The prizes and university appointments Goldsmith touts are of the same ilk as the ones Perloff dismisses as the making of the Establishment, signposts required for the machinations of capitalism to proceed with business-as-usual. In other words, the canonization system is on track, and with Perloff’s official endorsement (via reviews and her “Avant-Garde” entry in the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics), the Conceptualists will hopefully soon oust and replace “official verse culture.” The hierarchical pecking order of capitalism remains intact.

Further, one group will trump another in Perloff’s equation, thanks to its cover story of a liberatory intervention, “…the lyric is certainly back, even if not in its confessional or oh-I’m-so-sensitive personal form” (“Response”). The Conceptualist group has now schooled those who write these derided “lyrics” on how to use techniques the group itself appropriated from other poets and Conceptual artists, at the cost of reifying the system of capitalism. The “avant-garde” claim to disruption appears to be a front for the competitive advancement of this group in the reductive capitalist embrace. Or as Eileen Myles points out in “Painted Clear, Painted Black,” “But all of it gets compacted in Perloff’s aesthetic … as identity politics or the politically correct. Which is stunning language for a scholar to use. It’s media speak. It’s transparent speech.” The “Other” poetries are, again, reinforced as not liberatory, even while her own champions are not only not disrupting the institution from within or without, they are enacting it while boasting of the rewards it bestows. The only sting apparent is that which requires the denigration of poetries to sustain an intentional group in the service of the business of a poetics in capitalist mode.

Perloff, once again, hierarchically frames and dismisses the poets Matvei Yankelevich suggests might be part of the avant-garde, “… you can’t very well oppose the Penguin canon by bringing up the names of what are, outside of the world of small-press and chapbook publishing, wholly unknown poets.” I wonder if the poetry of the “small press” poet Walt Whitman challenged or opened up the Penguin canon of his day (see Evie Shockley’s “Shifting the Imbalance” for a more nuanced look at the Penguin anthology debate). This sweeping dismissal of all poets-not-Conceptual, not published by big name presses and from outside the institution is as myopic as it is insulting. Perloff’s proclamation speaks more about her own choices as a critic than about the availability of poetries that are disrupting or blocking capitalism. It seems easier to advance and assimilate into the canon a “readymade” marketable group that utilizes the mechanisms of capitalism like sensationalism and appropriation (in this case, imitative applications famous artists have previously used which are recognizable, easy to cite and therefore publically validate your group – i.e. the Surrealists, Andy Warhol, various Conceptual artists, etc.) than to do the more difficult work of locating and identifying disparate poetic practices and engagements, often overlapping and intersecting, that haven’t been neatly packaged for market.

While there seems to be a broad range of often contradictory claims made by the primary Conceptual writers, it’s worth taking a closer at those made most frequently by these two primary proponents, Perloff and Goldsmith, to ascertain exactly what this avant-garde is doing. As mentioned, one way the Conceptualist writers unify is, most tellingly, to define themselves in opposition to two amorphous masses: Perloff has dubbed the first as poets of “Establishment verse,” also known as mainstream or populist verse, and the other group is typified as a kind of failed or weak experimental verse. These two groups are then linked as having fallen prey to replicating the Romantic lyric of “selfhood” or of a narcissistic self, who attempts to express thoughts and feelings. Through these broad strokes premised on an arbitrary split, Conceptual writers imply that they are the ones working to “desubjectify” poetry through procedural writing practices.

This latest vanguard is also defined as undermining the “author function” by unseating claims to “originality” and, presumably, rendering the author unimportant. In Unoriginal Genius, Marjorie Perloff quotes Kenneth Goldsmith at length:

Conceptual writing … employs intentionally self and ego effacing tactics using uncreativity, unoriginality, illegibility, appropriation, plagiarism, fraud, theft, and falsification as its precepts; information management, word processing, databasing, and extreme process as its methodologies … Conceptual writing is more interested in a thinkership rather than a readership. Readability is the last thing on this poetry’s mind. Conceptual writing is good only when the idea is good; often, the idea is much more interesting than the resultant texts. (147)

However, Perloff is compelled to go against Goldsmith’s claim to thinkership, determining to “read Traffic as a book about traffic.” She notes the indeterminate sources of Goldsmith’s selections in his book and is intrigued by such mystery, “From what sources could these disparate and fantastic items have been ‘collected’?” (151).

From there Perloff works through many clues about what holiday weekend the traffic excerpts are referring to, wondering how Goldsmith managed to omit identifying signposts through the use of procedural practices alone, with their ‘sly implications’ and “something surreal about this seemingly ordinary sequence of traffic reports.” At this juncture, I can’t help but think of Gertrude Stein’s own excitement for detective fiction, which certainly has value but was not hailed as avant-garde writing of the day. For several pages, Perloff works to unravel the mystery until she shifts into associative leaps, aligning Traffic with important cultural artifacts such as Jean-Luc Godard’s film, “Weekend,” explaining how the film was a weighty critique of “consumerism in a heartlesss society,” concluding that “here Goldsmith’s Traffic is apposite” (155). Transferring the weight of Godard’s film, via the underscoring of his traffic scene, to Goldsmith’s selection of excerpts from traffic reports rings hollow at best, but Perloff’s associative alignments don’t end there.

Perloff further imbues Traffic with cultural heft by conjuring avant-garde theater, “This radio bulletin, as Goldsmith transcribes it, makes for theater of the absurd” (157). He “has produced a vivid representation of contemporary urban life in all its ritual boredom, nervousness, frustration, fear, apathy–and also its pleasure.” While I know many poets have also explored and represented these aspects of contemporary urban life in a variety of ways, it is the “colorful phrases” that Perloff cites that reminds me that other poets have done so in equally enticing and challenging fashion or more so. She offers evidence, “Traffic is both an existential and linguistic challenge …. by using colorful phrases like ‘what a doozy,’ ‘snail’s pace,’ ‘absolutely crawling,’ ‘stacked up,’ ‘getting clobbered,’ ‘the makings of a rough ride’” (156). I presume Perloff is excited by these “vivid” and “colorful phases,” not just for the “linguistic challenge” they pose, but specifically because they originated in daily detritus, excised from the “bulk of language” already available, whereas she assumes most other poets pretend to make this stuff up. In other words, perhaps these phrases are exciting because Goldsmith didn’t originate them; they are someone else’s words. According to Goldsmith, I’m supposed to be wowed by the idea itself, as part of his thinkership. However you spin it, this idea is not unique or even novel; numerous poets consciously mine high and low sites of culture regularly. Goldsmith’s use of appropriation, even with Perloff’s associations, have not rendered Traffic uniquely or exceptionally avant-garde yet.

But we encounter the split again. Perloff continues her chapter on Goldsmith by researching the traffic anchor he appropriates, discovering twin passions in his biographical sketch, and asserts yet again the reductive ‘Conceptual writers versus everyone else’ dichotomy, “Twin passions: ‘radio and beautiful bridges.’ What makes this little vignette so amusing is its element of genuine surprise–a surprise too often absent in the pages of so-called original writing.” That “genuinely surprised’ response over the anchor’s passion for bridges gives way, again, to Perloff reifying this notion of dumb poets who think they’re executing “original writing.” In the same paragraph, Perloff defines Goldsmith in opposition to “the experimental feminist poet Sina Queyras” (158). She compares Traffic to Queyras’ Expressway by quoting eight lines from her book. Perloff does not explicate Queyras’ poem but, having positioned her as the representative of the experimental group, dismisses the lines in just three words as a means to explain why Goldsmith’s book is “more” worthy, “Perhaps too familiar. The ‘real’ action, when we turn to the minute-by-minute transcriptions in Traffic, is much more variable and surprising” (159). This is a belittling and unnecessary move, executed only to position Goldsmith’s book as valuable somehow in contrast, and it does nothing to acknowledge or explore the girth of poetries written today employing similar techniques to different ends.

great_gatsbyOne final aligning move of note. Perloff cites the anchor’s declaration that the bridges are clear, giving drivers “One big green light” in Traffic, in order to conjure and explicate the symbolic meanings and implied cultural critique of F.Scott Fitzgerald’s repetitive use of the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock in The Great Gatsby. These attempts to transfer the cultural critiques of prosodic works to Traffic disappoint, but moreover, I am left wondering where the avant-garde elements are that landed him prominence in Perloff’s Princeton Encyclopedia entry. Perloff concludes the chapter by clumping the two groups together again, the “experimental to traditional,” to state that “it must have seemed to Goldsmith … that as in Duchamp’s case, the time had come to do something else. Ergo, poetry that doesn’t look like any poetry we’ve seen, presented as ‘unreadable’ so as to challenge us to read it” (164). Essentially, Perloff points out throughout the chapter that Goldsmith has used repetition, strategic omission, and appropriation in ways that challenge us to read, build suspense and make us ask questions: techniques that even “Establishment poets” use. It’s worth reiterating that these techniques have already been used far more widely than is acknowledged and continue to be available and employed by many poets. Heralding Goldsmith’s work as the avant-garde, premised on the dualistic split of Conceptual writers versus the now-derided poets of “subjective expression” and “too familiar” experimentalists, is reductively misleading. Perloff’s word carries considerable weight of career-building worth. Even in the business world, fair practice is supposed to trump collusion.

Like many poets, I continue to use a number of techniques over which these groups have become proprietary. The techniques themselves are neutral; how one employs them is where poetics begins. Attempting to trademark these techniques (i.e. “Conceptualism,” “Flarf”) is precisely a form of capitalist reification. I’m not out to deny anyone institutional participation or access to resources; rather, I want to call attention to the claim these groups purport to block capitalism while intentionally employing capitalist techniques (i.e. media-style sensationalism to garner notice, sound-bite saturation, prolific self-referencing, reducing all other modes of subjective expression to exchangeable equivalences, etc.) to achieve and secure status within the capitalist structure. That structure rewards for adherence and perpetuation, regardless of proclaimed critique.

One way to achieve such perpetuation is through the divide-and-conquer tact. The reiteration of a ‘Conceptual writers versus everyone else’ mentality is a groove Kenneth Goldsmith also quickly retreats to when faced with substantial criticism, especially as the rewards are immediate in their systematized reductions. He turns critical challenge of his practices into capitalist publicity, in the form of sensational headlines that are easy to remember and dependent on our own elementary fears of not fitting in. Witness Goldsmith’s repeat “tweet” performances when faced with Alan Davies’ “Notes on Conceptualism” and Keston Sutherland’s “Theses on Antisubjectivist Dogma.” On May 2, 2012, Kenneth Goldsmith tweeted, “Alan Davies hates conceptual poetry” and “Keston Sutherland hates conceptual poetry.” In the capitalist scheme, it’s much more desirable to reframe and funnel out a “headline” akin to a reality TV fight, prompting us to choose sides and in the process derail any engagement beyond the superficial, rather than address specifics directly. Apparently, it’s fun to theorize but only in a sanitized, one-sided fashion.

For the most part, Place is also reluctant to enter into such conversation, often citing, “Never apologize, never explain” (“Hanne Darboven”), though she does respond publicly to Johanna Drucker in “Poetry is dead, I killed it.” Declaring both the “author” and “poetry” dead via her appropriative practice, Place capitalizes on the institution in the name of both. In fact despite avoiding most substantive critical engagement directly, the Conceptual writers explicate their practices a good deal in their own essays, through insular referencing of each other, and, to some degree, in friendly interviews – but to meet the queries that might expose the failure of their claims to “block capital” would also be to symbolically take a step down by engaging with the “Other” they have deemed incapable of making up a working avant-garde and therefore in need of the Conceptual writers’ intervention. It would require actually exploring vast poetries in much more informed ways, while resisting the urge to characterize those poetries in pop culture reality TV fashion as so much failed experimentation of a narcissistic selfhood. But to spend time in such engagement can only slow and upset rather than aide and maintain their scheduled ascent. To figure “hate” (as Goldsmith’s tweets do), on the other hand, is to diffuse complex challenges while perpetuating the position of an Other in favor of easier-to-ignore “reactionary hype.” Goldsmith is banking on our sound bite-conditioned minds to forego considering what writers like Johanna Drucker in “Beyond Conceptualisms: Poetics after Critique and the End of the Individual Voice” have pointed out: “As an intellectual product, conceptual writing is as indicative of our thought-forms. In our time as any other-provided the repeated ‘our’ in that statement refers to some higher order, emergent form of culture, rather than a self-selected community of elite practitioners whose careers are bound to its promotion.” No one group owns the various techniques and processes that numerous poets continue to utilize, and even less, the right to lay claim to these — using capitalistic maneuvers — for one’s own career gain. The grab by any self-proclaimed group to own those techniques is a telling one that should raise a red flag for many poets.

Ultimately, these groups are unabashedly vying for central positions of power in order to enjoy the accompanying accesses, attentions and rewards – as the now-christened official verse culture’s “avant-garde” in a supposed attempt to destabilize that system by selling poetic techniques as their trademarked products. What do we call this alleged progress when its advancement requires the denigration of other poetries? Surely there is a plurality of poetries working right now in multiple ways to throw capital off-course –conceptually and materially. Why not acknowledge and explore the intersectionality of those diverse efforts? What purpose is served in trumpeting one intentional group’s position as the heroic liberator over all others? While the primary practitioners increasingly benefit from institutional gain, it might be easy to overlook the denigration and dismissal of whole swaths of poets, but at what cost? A first step to blocking capitalism must be to seek to identify how we are complicit participants in the fragmenting and isolating effects of groups that territorially define poetic practices in opposition to one another and, in the process, repeat the capitalist hierarchy with such defining moves. If every poet were to choose a privatized camp to seek membership in, each clamoring to be the proprietor over practices “owned” by that camp, then we might as well trade in our Brooks Brothers suits now – or refuse to buy them to begin with.


Of her most recent book from Litmus Press, I Want to Make You Safe, John Ashbery described Amy King's poems as bringing “abstractions to brilliant, jagged life, emerging into rather than out of the busyness of living.” Safe was one of the Boston Globe’s Best Poetry Books of 2011. The Missing Museum is forthcoming in 2014 from Kore Press. King also teaches English & Creative Writing at SUNY Nassau Community College, co-edits Poets for Living Waters, and works with VIDA: Women in Literary Arts. More from this author →