You are…conceptual poetry

March 31, 2010 at 10:08 am (Digital Lit)

In reading the introduction to Charles Hartman’s “Virtual Muse” one of the things that caught my eye was this: “Poetry is something we do with language. Or rather its a lot of different kinds of things we do with language. It’s a place where we can attend to language.” This very vague statement was somehow mysteriously appealing to me, and it very much seems to describe what is happening in both conceptual and computer generated poetry. We’re “doing something” whether we know what that something is or what it will accomplish, we’re keeping poetry alive and moving it forward, refusing to let it be Marinetti’s dead, decaying museum of culture. One example of poetry doing something is Kennedy and Wershler’s “Apostrophe (ninety-four).” Although on the surface it is simply a series of “you are” statements, I found it captivating and engaging my mind, and in the way that the best poems do, inspiring original and creative ideas in my mind. Some of these statements are legitimately funny, “you are having a paranoid delusion that a figure much like Henri Matisse’s Blue Nude is following you around trying to get you to join the Jehovah’s Witnesses,” in particular, made me laugh out loud, but when one stops and starts to deconstruct the web of references that are necessary for this joke, one starts to realize how complicated this poem really is. One must be aware of popular or at least pop culture representations of schizophrenia, know who Matisse is and what his Blue Nude looks like, and who the Jehovah’s Witnesses are, and that they typically try to recruit door to door. One definition of art that I was taught as an undergrad studio arts major is that “art is making connections that other people don’t make.” This one example from Kennedy and Werschler’s work makes all sorts of connections that other people don’t make, and it does something with language to make me think about the juxtaposition of those things, and the large amount of referential material that I’m familiar with that I find this example really funny.  And then there are all of the other examples in this poem. Some of them are beyond me, they involve mathematical or scientific language and examples that I haven’t thought about in years, if ever. Still this poem, as simple as the form and concept are caught and held my attention through pages and pages of “you are” statements, and it made me think and make connections. It made me do something with language, and even as simple as it seems, this makes this poem succeed for me.



  1. Becky Jewell said,

    “Art is making connections that other people don’t make” …. I like that! A lot of this blog though reminds me though of this one time I was watching a Family Guy commentary where Seth MacFarlane said “You have to know a lot of information to get that joke” . I think that often …. strangely enough MacFarlane was an art major (in animation).

    Maybe the same thing could be said of poetry – it is a work with words that makes something happen or occur in the brain that wouldn’t normally occur. Poetry kind of happens like a joke or a painting …

  2. Michele Battiste said,

    The list poem format that Kennedy and Werschler are using is a strategy that I see in a lot of conceptualist work, but I think it important to note that the list harkens back to the Surrealists, to Andre Breton’s “Free Union,” which tropes his wife in all these beautiful ways and pushes associative boundaries.

    That’s the point, I think, of the list poem, specifically make those connections that others don’t make and stretch the connective tissue of those connections. To exhaust connections. I love it as a form, but my contention is that I expect (my expectations! after reading a few essays and works! how legitimate) of conceptual poetry is that it does something not done before OR uses pre-existing strategies in a way that is new or self-reflexive. I’m not sure that Kennedy and Werschler move beyond Breton.

    • katienrichards said,

      Michelle, I would argue that the list poem is older than Breton even, if maybe not in that exact form. To quote a painfully obvious, and maybe just painful example, Barrett Browning’s “How Do I Love Thee,” and then she proceeds to “count the ways” a list poem, although in a more poetic form than Breton of Kennedy and Werschler. I think you’re right that this may not be really succeeding as conceptual poetry, because the concept isn’t new, but it was still amusing enough to keep me reading for pages and pages, something I’m not sure is true of Breton, and that ought to count for something too.

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