Thursday, February 13, 2014

Robert Sheppard The Trace of Poetry: Notes on Conceptual Writing and Form

 Vanessa Place says: ‘Form doesn’t matter.’ I am writing a critical book that suggests that form does matter, that poetry (including the best of conceptual writing) is the investigation of complex contemporary realities through the means (meanings) of form. The pun upon ‘means’ is intended to enact the supposition that if poetry does anything it does it chiefly through its formal power and less through its content, though it also carries the further suggestion that form is a form of meaning in its own right, that form is matter. But then ‘Content doesn’t matter,’ she says (missing the pun she could have used: ‘subject matter doesn’t matter’, or, even better, ‘matter doesn’t matter’). Perhaps form and content shouldn’t complain too much because she also says, ironically speaking for herself: ‘Authorship doesn’t matter,’ a specialised truism (by which I mean this is true in a specialised sense) ever since Roland Barthes and the theory of the death of the author. Just to complete, she adds: ‘meter doesn’t matter’. (This would logically follow from the dismissal of form.) The statement has form itself, of course, but that doesn’t matter; form is disavowed in a formal litany: ‘Authorship doesn’t matter. Content doesn’t matter. Form doesn’t matter. Meter doesn’t matter.’ She adds: ‘All that matters is the trace of poetry.’ It is interesting to see the word ‘poetry’. (Goldsmith makes the same point about Christian Bök continuing to use the word ‘poem’ for quite unusual ‘writings’ when, as I’ve noted elsewhere, Caroline Bergvall shies away from both words, although she allows herself to think of her scriptural practice as ‘poetic’.)
What, from my point of view, could the ‘trace’ of poetry be but its formal (and therefore material) markings?  
‘Put another way, I am a mouthpiece,’ says Place, thus bringing the statement back to her opening gambit about authorship. This is a description of Roland Barthes’ ‘scriptor’, assembling texts from fragments of other writings, a situation literalized by recent conceptual writing, but here adapted to an oral/aural metaphor, in a way that is also reminiscent of centuries-long theories of inspiration (like the ones analysed in Jed Rasula’s marvellous Modernism and Poetic Inspiration (2009)) : ‘I am a mouthpiece.’ To re-cap, and to re-form (and to prove, as Veronica Forrest-Thomson did years ago in Poetic Artifice, that ‘mere’ poetic lineation effects a formal transformation of prose content, even when that content attempts to un-ironically say ‘Form doesn’t matter’):

Authorship doesn’t matter.
Content doesn’t matter.
Form doesn’t matter.
Meter doesn’t matter.

All that matters is
The trace of poetry.

Put another way,
I am a mouthpiece.

‘From the Greek Muse to modern cybernetics – from divine infusion and mediumistic spell to noise-free channels and optimal bandwidth – poets have identified strategies to gain access to some enabling prompter,’ Rasula argues, that will render the poet a ‘mouthpiece’, somewhat lacking in agency but full of awe. (Rasula 2009: 2) It is possible to see the self-confessed ‘cyberutopianism’ of Kenneth Goldsmith in this light. (Goldsmith 2011: 226-27) So can his assertion that perspiration replaces inspiration in recipe-art, and the insistence of conceptual writing on ‘appropriation’. ‘Appropriation’ is what I take being a ‘mouthpiece’ implies (despite the switch from active perspiring agent to open conduit), specifically in Place’s usage: her Statement of Facts consists of appropriated statements of the ‘facts’ of sexual assaults, collected unedited from her work as an appellate criminal defence attorney. (See a video of her reading this work here.) Conceptual writing and appropriation, Goldsmith argues, are the cures for writer’s block or, more positively, they are the supreme ‘enabling prompter’, the postmodern Muse. Taking a lead from the seminal conceptual art practice of Sol LeWitt and Yoko Ono, he instructs us: ‘There’s a well-honed tradition of adopting mechanical, process-based methods that help make the decisions… Scores of artists swapped perspiration for procedure, thus expiating the struggle to create.’ (Goldsmith 2011: 128) Uncreative writing, quite precisely. Similarly, ‘In a time when the amount of language is rising exponentially, combined with greater access to the tools with which to manage, manipulate, and massage those words, appropriation is bound to become just another tool in the writers’ toolbox, an acceptable – and accepted – way of constructing a work of literature, even for more traditionally oriented writers.’ (Goldsmith 2011: 124) (Surely many of us have done that for years?) This is an interesting remark about conceptual writing because it implies that it is not an avant-garde, that it is already assimilated into the mainstream (can you imagine Bruce Andrews reading at The White House?) and is popular, populist and democratic. Goldsmith says as much: he calls Robert Fitterman’s inventory of trade marks, the list poem ‘Directory’, one of the ‘truly populist expressions: what could be easier to understand than a list of mall stores, reflecting most American’s daily commutes past and common interactions with our endless malls’. (Goldsmith 2011; 100)
‘Unoriginal geniuses’ (Perloff’s term and book title) write ‘uncreative writing’ (Goldsmith’s term for conceptual writing and book title). Goldsmith, the most flamboyant member of this grouping, is involved in pedagogy, the teaching of these forms, which are antagonistic to the emphasis upon good form, pattern, meaning and convention in straight ‘creative writing’, with its supposed emphasis upon originality and craft. These New Critical terms are prevalent in Creative Writing teaching, but by no means as widely-distributed as he assumes (certainly not in my teaching). Such values do not matter to Goldsmith: instead of asking his students to write a story in the style of Jack Kerouac he instructs them to write out (word for word) a Kerouac piece and to ask them to describe the effects of the process (from cramp in the hand to noticing certain patterns in the language). Obligingly, one British writer, Simon Morris, has blogged the book page by page (which, of course, appears in reverse order in blog formatting at but Goldsmith’s prime exemplar of book-based conceptual writing is his own Day, a 700 page writing out of an edition of the New York Times, with no images and no change of type-size for headlines or adverts. The result feels like a weighty masterpiece and is weirdly fascinating in parts (the forgotten main news or human interest stories) as well as deeply and deliberately boring in others (pages of stock exchange statistics). The pagination often dissects stories and fragments the reading experience in ways we do not notice reading a newspaper, either passing on to a contiguous story (if uninterested) or turning to the continuation page (if motivated enough). In its mechanical way, it is not unlike Joyce’s Ulysses, a detailed panoramic presentation of one day, a much better analogy I think than the common one of Benjamin’s Arcades project. Goldsmith says the reader does not have to read his books because the concept in conceptual writing is often more important than the result, though it has to be a good concept. Garbage in: garbage out, as early computer engineers used to say (a phrase oddly Goldsmith never uses). Against Expression: An Anthology of Conceptual Writing, which he edited with Craig Dworkin, operates like a textbook for new writers and its formal experiments include re-writing texts (last night’s TV or The Bible) from memory; taking the first page/sentence/word of one text and joining it to the first of another, and so on; taking a text and re-arranging all the sentences (or the words, or even all the letters) alphabetically or through some other arbitrary formal principle; listing every book/possession/trade-mark you own or see; recording every word you (or somebody else) utters for a set period of time; amassing every document about you (official and private) to compose a re-formed self-portrait.
The readership of such a work becomes a ‘thinkership’, admiring the work’s conceptual acuity, conceptual forms, rather than literary skills. The ultimate in appropriative text is straight plagiarism or self-quotation. Plundertextualities of various kinds underwrite most of these patchwriting experiments. However, the irony for me is how quickly conceptual writing has taken hold of the avant-garde imagination and then infiltrated the mainstream (when Goldsmith read at the White House he wowed the audience with his rendition of appropriated traffic news broadcasts), in other words: how rapidly forms of uncreative writing have become exercises in creative writing (although Goldsmith allows for that, as I show above).
              Is it true that we do not need to read these works (although Goldsmith only speaks of his own)? Perloff knows that we should not necessarily trust poetics as a speculative writerly discourse, partly because it is speculative and partly because it can be obfuscating, deliberately so, for the author, necessary to keep him or her active. She writes boldly: ‘Nothing but an actual reading of the text can clarify the questions of choice and chance that arise here and elsewhere’ as a preface to a detailed close reading of Traffic. She ‘puts aside … Goldsmith’s insistence that his books are “unreadable”’. (Perloff 2010: 149) This is one model to follow in the reading of this work.1      
‘Questions of choice and chance’ must, at some level, be formal issues, but much of the poetics of conceptual writing deals with its content (even though Place, who perhaps should be overruled in the same fashion Perloff overruled Goldsmith, says ‘content doesn’t matter’). Call it data, information, verbiage, it is still the materiality of its offering forth. Goldsmith writes of ‘younger writers … boldly appropriating the works of others without citation, disposing of the artful and seamless integrating of … patchwriting. For them, the act of writing is literally moving language from one place to another, boldly proclaiming that context is the new content.’ (Goldsmith 2011: 3) Even the most New Historicist-baiting formalist would not deny the role of context in determining the reception and thus the meaning of a statement, but if context is the new content, what is the new form? I do not think the answer lies simply in technology. Goldsmith continues: ‘While pastiche and collage have long been part and parcel of writing, with the rise of the Internet, plagiaristic intensity has been raised to extreme levels.’ (Goldsmith 2011: 3) This is true but is merely expressed in terms of appropriating content more rapidly.
            The transformative potentiality of technology might be more important; in other words, its formal implications. When Goldsmith notes, ‘The Flarf Collective has been intentionally scouring Google for the worst results and reframing it as poetry’ the results may not be important (‘Content doesn’t matter’) but the reframing, the formal re-functioning of the content, whether by ‘choice or chance’, whether by using a robotic ‘data-mining program that combs social networking sites’ like Darren Wershler’s and Bill Kennedy’s Status Update, or by more consciously Google-sculpting (as the recent Flarf term has it), transformation is the issue for me, my study, and my writing, creative or other-wise. (Goldsmith 2011: 185) Importantly, for Goldsmith, it is reframed ‘as poetry’. Formal concerns are central to conceptual works (though that may be its ‘repressed’ that has yet to ‘return’). I am tempted to say that ‘All that matters is the trace of poetry,’ so long as we realise that the trace of poetry is formal (and recognise the interinanimation of form and content, perhaps even more pronounced with technological sophistication at the heart of much, though not all, of this poesis).
            Once the role of transformation is established, questions can be asked of conceptual writing that are formal in nature but also pertain to its literary value (I’m daring to use that unfashionable phrase). ‘An actual reading of the text can clarify the questions of choice and chance that arise here and elsewhere,’ as Perloff says, one that might ascertain whether the text transforms its materials (which it can achieve by simply re-framing, by simple presentation, as well as by sophisticated formal manipulations). ‘What could be easier to understand than a list of mall stores, reflecting most American’s daily commutes past and common interactions with our endless malls,’ asks Goldsmith. But – and this is an open question of Fitterman’s work, which I have only seen in excerpt in Goldsmith’s book – can it transform itself formally (it’s formally a list), perhaps even to the point where it might be able to pose non-formal questions (form is cognitive after all, not just a container): why there are endless malls, why are the American people on their daily commutes? It must offer resistance through its form. As Adorno said: ‘Form that has become reified with regard to its other is no longer form.’ (Adorno 1997: 220) And forms tend to be difficult, not easy, to understand.
One section of my recent (poetics journal-sculpted) ‘Eight Notes’ (a part of Unfinish, a work in progress) runs:

‘While the conceptualists plagiarise other people’s content, I plagiarise their forms,’ he said again, quoting his allegedly fictional poet. The interruption of abstractions and their real violence. ‘Something has to be formed and transformed or a concept stays the same,’ he said, for himself.

That’s the thought (and the irony) I’m aiming for here. It’s interesting that it’s better said in poetics.  But it must be proven (elsewhere) as analysis. By the way, the allegedly fictional poet was called Plunderhead.

Kenneth Goldsmith reads Traffic at The White House here

1. It is also a resistance to its poetics which threatens, in the ultimate triumph of poetics as a discourse, and its limit case, to be more important than the art works themselves. This is an obvious success for poetics because it elevates a supplementary or at least complementary discourse to primary position. It elevates the concept over the performance, of course, as in Sol LeWitt’s famous: ‘Ideas can be works of art… All ideas need not be made physical.’ (Goldsmith 2011: 132) In a sense poetics becomes the work of art, but poetics may lose its potential as a speculative discourse, which is what I value it for. By becoming the work, it is its own poetics, reified, fixed, unchanging. However, this is not the main thrust of what I am saying here but an important aspect of conceptual writing, one I would pursue if were (still) writing a book about poetics. See chapters concerning poetics in my When Bad Times Made for Good Poetry; my Poetics as Conjecture and Provocation: an inaugural lecture delivered on 13 March 2007 at Edge Hill University’, New Writing. Vol 5: 1 (2008): 3-26; and my blogzine Pages (, which carries a serial catalogue of poetics under the title ‘The History of Poetics’, posted August- November 2009. Self-expression would be another issue. But form is my theme.

There is a continuation of this post here.

There is also a long footnote to this piece about the function of self-expression in conceptual writing here. Only a few of the hundreds of people who read this piece find that one.

And here you can see all the links to my posts relating to my The Meaning of Form project.

You can read about my own recent poetry here and here, and follow the links to points of online purchase.

I also offer advice on 'How to Produce Conceptual Writing' here.

And now here's Kenny G in Playboy. 'When I'm bored,' he says, 'I tickle the social media machine in order to make it wiggle.'

Works Cited

Eds. Dworkin, Craig, and Goldsmith, Kenneth. Against Expression: An Anthology of Conceptual Writing. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2011.
Goldsmith, K. Uncreative Writing. New York: Columbia University Press, 2011.
Perloff, Marjorie. Unoriginal Genius: Poetry by Other Means in the New Century. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2010.
Place, Vanessa: (accessed 31st January 2014)

Update September 2016: For those who can buy The Meaning of Form in Contemporary Innovative Poetry, or order it for libraries, here are the places