Conceptual Poetry

The rubric “conceptual poetry” encompasses works written using a variety of techniques: sampling, appropriation, documentation, and constraint, among others. By far the most prominent—and controversial—is appropriation: A work such as Kenneth Goldsmith’s Day (2003), a word-for-word transcription of one day’s New York Times, extends Marcel Duchamp’s ready-made practice into the literary realm. In the 2004 essay “Being Boring,” Goldsmith writes, “You really don’t need to read my books to get the idea of what they’re like; you just need to know the general concept.” This coy sentiment, delivered in a deadpan voice, suggests an advantage to a conceptual-poetry syllabus: You really don’t need to read the books. However, while skipping the following books (and instead merely contemplating their conceits) may be in the conceptual spirit, careful reading of each offers many distinctive pleasures.

Notes on Conceptualisms by Vanessa Place and Robert Fitterman

The ars poetica of the conceptual school, this slim, aphoristic volume describes a theoretical framework for the movement—indeed, creates the movement, by drawing a diverse group of writers and writing practices under its umbrella. The taxonomy of conceptualisms found in the book’s appendix provides a handy survey of the movement’s terrain.

Soliloquy by Kenneth Goldsmith

This bulky tome, a transcript of every word Goldsmith said for a week, totals nearly five hundred pages. There is a voyeuristic pleasure in hearing Goldsmith gossip about friends, walk his dog, take phone calls, and have sex, along with his more substantive and provocative statements on art (like the theory that “the canon is created by who’s sleeping with who”). In addition, Soliloquy shows how unnatural so-called natural speech is in literature: The way we really talk is full of stammers, repetitions, dead ends, and phatic filler. For weeks after reading the book, I walked through the world with a delightfully heightened awareness of my own speech patterns.

Dies: A Sentence by Vanessa Place

Dies is an absurd and moving war story told as a tour de force 120-page-long run-on sentence, replete with puns, allusions, mixed metaphors, digressions, philosophical speculations, and similes both epic and mundane. This rollicking form, possessed of a heedless forward motion, enacts a poetics of the comma, refusing to come to a full stop lest the text undergo a metaphoric death. Place demonstrates the comma to be a punctuation mark afraid of grammatical cessation and the war story to be a form similarly concerned with staving off imminent expiration.

Rob the Plagiarist by Robert Fitterman

Fitterman has a great ear for the madcap lyricism of Internet pabulum, and this collection provides a representative sample of his appropriative poetic practice. The final selection, an excerpt from his poem “This Window Makes Me Feel,” consists of various expressions of feeling culled from the Web. The conceit itself (to write a subjective poem using other people’s subjectivity) is a fascinating challenge to the tradition of lyric poetry, and the result, intended as a response to 9/11—even though none of the borrowed language directly speaks of that event— is a remarkably poignant snapshot of our collective anxieties and elations.

Eunoia by Christian Bök

A bravura feat of constraint, Eunoia consists of five univocalic lipograms (texts in which only one vowel can be used, e.g., “A law as harsh as a fatwa bans all paragraphs that lack an A as a standard hallmark”). Though Bök claims in “Chapter I” that “thinking within strict limits is stifling,” the book demonstrates the ways literary constraint can, paradoxically, be liberating—and produce electric poetic effects.

Louis Bury is an English Ph.D. candidate at the CUNY Graduate Center, at work on a constraint-based dissertation about constraint-based writing; he teaches literature at New York University.