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Conceptual writing: a modernist issue.

(Peter Nicholls interviewed Marjorie Perloff on Conceptual Writing. Professor Nicholls focused his questions on the idea of unoriginal genius in modernist writings.)


P.N.: Your new book, Unoriginal Genius, is likely to annoy some readers of poetry by its enthusiastic embrace of writing which is "citational and often constraint-based" and which quite candidly takes as its primary material "other people's words". What's really at stake in the claim to "unoriginality"? We may recall Eliot's dictum that "The poem which is absolutely original is absolutely bad", but he would never have thought of a poem as straightforwardly a transcription of another text....

M. P.: A few days ago, on the McNeill-Lehrer News Hour, a poet was featured (I can't remember his name but had never heard of him), who was trained in Creative Writing Programs and then found one fine day that he had "no words" of his own, but, next thing you know, he began circling items in newspapers and assembling these words and phrases, rather like Tom Phillips in A Humument, and now he is considered an "interesting" new poet and on national TV. This is a kind of reductio ad absurdum, but it points to the problem poets are experiencing in the early 21st Century. The media world has created an atmosphere where everything one wants to say has already been said, where the display of unique private emotions seems gratuitous, and originality of utterance hence all but impossible. But it is also the case that no work of art is "pure" transcription: current poetry, as I describe it, is no more than the logical fulfillment of Duchamp's decision to purchase a urinal from the JL Mott plumbing fixtures store and then to turn it upside down and give it the name Fountain by R. Mutt. As the "anonymous" commentator in The Blind Man remarked, "He [the artist] chose it." Such choice is very difficult and ever since 1917, when Fountain was rejected by the Society of Independents and then photographed (and hence aestheticized) by Stieglitz in front of the Mardsen Hartley painting, artists and poets have been trying to match Duchamp. So "unoriginal genius" was already a Modernist issue, but it has taken the better part of the century for a Duchampian aesthetic to come fully into its own.

P.N.: And, of course, we've started by talking about "poems" though many of the key texts of what's now called "conceptual writing" are actually exercises in prose.

M. P.: Touche! This is a tricky issue. Many of the works in question certainly don't look like "poems" in the usual sense. But if you define the poet in Aristotelian terms, as a maker, POETES, then the long "prose" or hybrid works in question are certainly poems in that they are highly structured and rely on repetition in ways not found in, say, prose fiction. The word verse comes, of course, from versus, and refers to the return that characterizes lineated poetry. A long conceptual poem like Craig Dworkin's Dure is certainly structured around points of return in this sense.

P.N.: In an early chapter of the book you give a wonderful quotation from Walter Benjamin: "Only the copied text commands the soul of him who is occupied with it, whereas the mere reader never discovers the new aspects of his inner self that are opened up by the text." Why is copying such a vital process? Kenneth Goldsmith has spoken about his own work in rather similar ways, but what's involved is something quite different from, say, eighteenth-century "imitation" or modernist "translation".

M. P.: When you copy a text you really come to know it in a unique way. You can't just focus on one word or sentence but take in the whole thing. You become someone else. But it's also the case, and I'll take this up in my next answer, that all the talk of "pure" copying is itself a performance; there is always some element of transformation; if a given work is really just copied wholesale, it's not going to be very interesting.

P.N.: You give a fascinating, quite gripping account of Goldsmith's Traffic, though aren'tyou actually animating, making readable, a text which seems to prize its own inertness and unreadability? Goldsmith, after all, claims that "Readability is the last thing on this poetry's mind."

M. P.: Goldsmith's claim for unreadability must be taken with a large grain of salt. It's comparable to Cage claiming that his music is just a matter of "opening one's ears" to what sounds are out there and not interfering with them at all. Yet no one was more controlling than Cage: every detail has been planned and executed with the greatest care. The resulting work is supposed to look improvisatory and arbitrary and hence to raise issues about the nature of art, but of course that doesn't mean it really is arbitrary. In the same light, Goldsmith keeps insisting one can't "read" his work, thus throwing a challenge to the reader, and many readers have now discovered that he has arranged his citations with great care. I was trying to show this in Traffic. As in the case of Duchamp, "he chose it." You don't know how many weather forecasts or traffic reports he did NOT include or which ones he spliced together.

P.N.: I've personally found the idea of "conceptual writing" quite confusing, with, say, Goldsmith arguing that the original "idea"--"origin" returns!--is much more important than the resulting text, and Vanessa Place and Rob Fitterman labeling such work as "allegorical" for pretty much the same reason (Notes on Conceptualisms). The sense you give of Traffic is, however, much more clearly text-based, perhaps because there isn't really much to be said after all about the instantiating "idea"?

M. P.: My own view here is that Vanessa Place and Rob Fitterman are misusing the term allegory. I don't know why they use it, since allegory implies that there are two levels of meaning. I suppose they mean that, in, say, Fitterman's repetitions of the name K-Mart, there is really a second level of meaning--perhaps the venality of Capitalism or some such. I don't accept the term, and indeed in Goldsmith's case, it doesn't come up at all. What Goldsmith wants us to see is what the world we live in is actually like. Poets have always done this, haven't they? Just yesterday, the Huffington Post had a headline, "One out of 7 Americans lives in poverty," and right beneath this article, was a report that after her victory for the Republican senate nomination in Delaware, Christine McConnell raised a million dollars in one day. Some one out there is giving all this money for an ignorant and inexperienced Tea Party candidate even as the poverty rate climbs. Now, one could write a poem generalizing from such frightening realities but it would probably be quite tendentious. Compare Rita Dove's treatment of the Trujillo massacre of the Haitians to Caroline Bergvall's "Say Parsley" in my fifth chapter. Bergvall treats the material very obliquely and gives a devastating picture of a linguistic shibboleth; Dove just recounts the "story" and tries to get into the mind of the general and it is quite unconvincing. In all fairness, her poem was written in the early 80s. But even then, I don't think one could write meaningful historical poetry or drama in a realistic way. Charles Bernstein's Shadowtime is a great example of this: one witnesses history being reenacted, but not by talking about it; Bernstein uses Benjamin's own words which is much more poignant.

P.N.: I recently included a brief discussion of "conceptual writing" in a piece I'd written on poetry and rhetoric. A friend who is both a poet and critic suggested that I excise this passage since it had nothing at all to do with poetry. I wonder how this body of writing will settle down in the larger historical frame of things. Shall we, do you think, be reading a text like Craig Dworkin's Parse twenty years from now, or is "conceptual writing" and its commitment to unoriginality simply a fashionable fad we're working through?

M. P.: I certainly don't think the best conceptual writing today is a fashionable fad! For one thing, it's hardly fashionable; Poetry goes on its merry way: just read the TLS or LRB or New Yorker and you'll see that the Establishment criteria haven't changed since 1940 or so: short little lyric poems in (mostly flat) free verse detailing some little insight or response to X or Y. And I think you have to understand the new conceptualism in that context. Never in my own lifetime, I feel, has "poetry" been quite as badly written as it is today; never have there been so many "poets" who are literally talentless and yet win all sorts of prizes and awards and get professorships in good universities. The poetry that interests me to do represents a mise en question of this state of affairs. IT MUST CHANGE, so to speak. Will Parse be read twenty years from now? I think it's likelier than that John Hollander's or Edward Hirsch's poetry will be read twenty years from now. And here an anecdote may be apposite.

I currently have a student in my graduate seminar on the avant-garde who received his MFA at your university, NYU, where his teachers were Charles Simic, Sharon Olds, etc. He came to my office to ask whether he could write his term paper on David Antin's Talking at the Boundaries (not on our syllabus this term). Now you know that I don't write about Antin in Unoriginal Genius: he is certainly NOT a citational poet. And yet almost 40 years after he devised his talk poems, which, as you know, I've written about a number of times, here is a student, brought up on conventional lyric, longing to learn more about Antin. And come to think of it, the talk model does look ahead to Goldsmith's model in, say, Soliloquy.

But I don't want to end on a Pollyannaish note. Do I think the poets I discuss in Unoriginal Genius can match the great Modernists--say, Yeats and Eliot, Pound and and Stein? Certainly not--not even Ashbery, I'd say, can match them. I've been teaching Baudelaire and he surpasses them all. Perhaps Benjamin was right when he said lyric poetry can no longer play the same role in the culture after Baudelaire. So I make no claim for the poets in Unoriginal Genius being "great" in that sense. The first decades of the 20th century were simply unique. On the other hand, compared to their peers, yes, the "language" poets like Bernstein or Howe (or Hejinian or Armantrout) and their "conceptual" successors are the interesting ones. Teaching Baudelaire's prose poems, whose depictions of urban life display a viciousness that takes my breath away, I felt that Vanessa Place's new Statement of Fact, with her "documentary" police and court reports of rape cases, recalls this tradition in a surprising way: it is a portrait of contemporary abjection that is certainly more compelling than the comparable elegiac poems about "victims" that are being produced by mainstream poets like so much confetti.
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Author:Nicholls, Peter
Publication:Journal of Philosophy: A Cross Disciplinary Inquiry
Article Type:Interview
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 22, 2010
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