Wednesday, August 07, 2013

On Conceptualism and stuff

I'm not, I'll freely admit, the world's biggest fan of conceptual poetry; but I've recently been rather amused by the hoo-ha about in American literary magazines and blogs of late. It's accused of being all concept and no affect: all head and no heart if you like. Which strikes me as odd because those poets conceptual poets I do like, Caroline Bergvall and Christian Bok, don't strike me that way at all. I haven't read much of Kenneth Goldsmith either, but he strikes me as a profoundly comic writer as much as he's anything else.

The thing about comic writing, though, is that it isn't supposed to be 'affecting'; it's supposed to provoke a reaction. Hopefully to make you laugh. The idea of printing out the whole internet is not a serious idea; it's ridiculous, silly, absurd; and if it provokes you to squeal in protest, "but how is that poetry?", then it's achieved its effect. It affects you by making you angry or amused, or possibly even both.

Now I personally learned how to write by carrying Frank O'Hara around in the pocket of a leather jacket I affected to wear at the time. Humour and seriousness go together like Laurel and Hardy in my mind. The idea that one should be grimly serious all the time in this ridiculous world of ours strikes me as one of the funniest jokes around. I like some flarf too though being British, I don't keep up with it very much. There's also the whole alt lit schtick which I've barely scratched the surface of.

I've fortunate to live in a city with its own conceptualist writers. In a bid for literary infamy, I'm going to refer to them as the Manchester Conceptualists, who use Oulipean and permutational methods to create poetry that is often funny and serious at the same time. Tom Jenks created a wonderfully funny text from chat-room comments about Putin that was read to support Pussy Riot. Phil Davenport, for my money, is one of the best poets in Manchester; his use of the techniques of visual poetry, his juxtaposition of his own diaries with found material, and his work as writer in the community often create texts that are both very conceptual and profoundly moving.

The problem with a lot of people is that they want poetry to be one set of things; but not another set of things. They want poetry to be about feeling; fine. But all poetry involves concepts, ideas, forms into which the feelings are put. Free verse is one form; sonnets are another, visual poetry yet another. Sometimes the feelings are on the surface and we can all go "aaah"; but sometimes they are deeper underground. Laughter is an emotion too, remember.

Anyway, I'm off next week on my annual jaunt to the island of Arran. I may well come back and report on it. Or I may not, I'll see how I feel.

No comments: