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Sunday, September 14, 2014

Poem-like things & Conceptual Art

One way of looking at a poem is to see what poem-like things are going on therein. People don't agree completely about what poems are better than others, but I think they do agree about what poem-like things might look like, in general terms. These are things like rhythmic structures, figurative language. A poem doesn't have to have irony but irony is a poem-like thing, because we expect someone adept in poetry to understand it and how it works.

Language has poem-like things in it already. A given language, for example, has a linguistic prosody. Irony and other tropes exist outside of poetry. We might think of dance. Ordinary body-movements are not wholly separate from dancing. Dancers walk, jump, move their bodies in ways that other people do too. Music is sound, and sound already exists outside of music. We still expect music to be organized in music-like ways.

John Cage had a brilliant idea: why not listen to sound as though it were already music?

People don't agree about how much and what kind of poem-like things they want in a poem. You might think putting in a lot of everything would be good. That's what Keats might have meant about loading "every rift with ore." But it is not a quantitative thing. Not everyone wants to write like Keats, even if they had the talent.

In the North Carolina poet-laureate controversy, the poetic community could not accept the poetry of a woman because of a kind of credentialism: she didn't have degrees in writing and didn't teach writing in a university, her books were self-pubished, she wasn't part of the community, she was probably Republican. Yet her poems are ok, in my book. They have stuff going on. The professional poets, with their credentials, who had been laureates before, are often just as amateurish in their actual poems.


Back to Cage. Well, he is one of the founders of conceptualism. What is this? Conceptual art makes a point about the status of art itself, often by playing with the frame that separates the ordinary activity (walking, moving about) from the specialized artistic version of the activity (dancing). Once you do that then you can draw a frame around anything and call it art, or poetry. After a while, people started doing conceptual things that did not even problematize the distinction between art and non-art, but simply called attention to some political point. I could film myself shaving every morning for a year, for example. If I came up with a proper narrative to explain that, then it would be art. In essence, the artist's statement replaces the art itself, because I wouldn't have to actually do this. Having the idea to do it and explaining why is the creative act. That's why it's "conceptual." This is a pretty shopworn artistic endeavor, though popularized more recently in poetry by Goldsmith. You might want to think about Duchamp, Warhol, and Cage; about the late great poetic movement called "flarf."


Thomas said...

I think I was had by Flarf. For years I refused to "get it", i.e., the conceptual point, i.e., the joke. I insisted on reading the poems as poems. I read them for what was actually happening on the page. And I praised it as a new way of getting new things to happen with language.

But the more I think about "Chicks Dig War", the more I think you're right. It's conceptual art, not realised poetry. (After all, it's basically a large copy-paste with a few words replaced.) I still think there are genuinely moving things in Sharon Mesmer's Annoying Diabetic Bitch and Katie Degentesh's Anger Scale, but maybe they're not part of the intention.

Tony Tost's "I Am Not the Pilot" had a profound effect on me, but I may, in the end, have to admit that this effect was "conceptual". It was the idea of making a poem that way, not the poem itself, that moved me.

Jonathan said...

I disagree about flarf. The reason why it is not merely conceptual is because those poetic effects are indeed intended. That's how it differs from Kenny Goldsmith's weather and traffic reports. The fact that you could read flarf as poetry at one time demonstrates that fact, even if you now have a change of heart.

You should read Umberto Eco on the recuperation of aesthetic value. He says that even in conceptual art there is something that happens in the way the art is actually done.

I will read Tost's poem again.

Vance Maverick said...

"why not listen to sound as though it were already music?"

I wish I had written that! It's a nicely concise description of the gambit.

Thomas said...

I'll have a look at Flarf again, too. I understood your last sentence as grouping it in with conceptual art, and it's a suspicion that I've of course nurtured all along. Even when I believed firmly in the actual poetics of Flarf, I sensed that suspecting it to be a joke was part of the aesthetic.

It's a bit like Borges' point in the "False Problem of Ugolino": "Dante did not want us to believe [that Ugolino ate his children], but he wanted us to suspect it. Uncertainty is part of his design."