Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Idea Eater: The Conceptual Lyric as an Emergent Literary Form

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Idea Eater: The Conceptual Lyric as an Emergent Literary Form

Article excerpt

Approaching the conceptual lyric as an emergent literary form that adapts the conventional post-Romantic lyric to suit an age in which digital technologies are part of everyday life, this essay focuses on Chris Alexander's Panda and Donato Mancini's "Ligature."

Since the turn of the millennium, conceptual writing has gained a reputation as one of the most controversial and influential developments in Anglophone poetics. (1) It began as a transnational coterie--including Christian Bok, Craig Dworkin, Robert Fitterman, Kenneth Goldsmith, and Darren Wershler--that presented itself as an avant-garde literary movement. These authors differentiated themselves from their immediate precursors, the North American Language Poets, by eschewing "fragmentation [...] disruption, disjunction, agrammatical syntax," and the other estranging devices that late-twentieth-century poets had devised in an effort to subvert meaning-making at the level of the sentence (Spahr 61). Taking inspiration from, among other sources, 1960s conceptual art and the French OuLiPo circle, they challenged their readers by adhering to compositional principles that dictated lengthy, tedious labour, often the sorting and arranging of large amounts of information.

This coterie has received increasing recognition over time. Marjorie Perloff, perhaps the premier American critic of experimental literature, has promoted Bok, Dworkin, and Goldsmith since the mid-1990s. (2) After Bok's Eunoia--a book in which each chapter is restricted to the use of a single vowel--won the Griffin Prize, the movement suddenly gained greater visibility and credibility. A few years later, a special issue of Open Letter titled "Kenneth Goldsmith and Conceptual Poetics" (3) inaugurated what has since become a steady stream of scholarly efforts to define and evaluate conceptualism. There have been conference papers, essays, reviews, polemics, anthologies, and monographs; online debate has proved especially lively. (4)

During these discussions, the meaning of conceptual writing has shifted. Some poets outside the original clique, most prominently Vanessa Place, have adopted the label as a self-description; academics have applied the term to others, such as Caroline Bergvall, Judith Goldman, and Tan Lin; and many early-career poets--including Holly Melgard, Ara Shirinyan, Divya Victor, and Steven Zultanski--have begun actively imitating and extending the compositional practices associated with conceptualism's early days. Groups and movements from other parts of the world, too, have nominated themselves (or been identified) as analogues and influences. (5) One consequence of these developments has been a growing tendency to use conceptual as a short-hand way to designate not a handful of provocateurs but an array of contemporary authors and works that share a proclivity for the large-scale appropriation, reclassification, and remediation of found language.

To date, scholarly attention has focused primarily on conceptual writing's book- length projects. One will, for example, find studies devoted to analyzing such works as Goldsmith's Day, Fidget, Soliloquy, and The Weather as well as Dworkin's Parse, Fitterman's Sprawl: Metropolis 30A, and Lin's BlipSoakOl. (6) The recent publication of two anthologies, Against Expression: An Anthology of Conceptual Writing (Dworkin and Goldsmith) and I'll Drown My Book: Conceptual Writing By Women (Bergvall, Brown, Carmody, and Place), has, however, exposed to wider view the diversity of poetry being composed under the rubric of conceptual writing, including short pieces that position themselves within or against the tradition of the lyric. Indeed, in "Towards a Conceptual Lyric: From Content to Context," Perloff has drawn particular attention to this body of work, arguing that the "congerie of conceptual lyrics" being published by "younger poets" testifies to the desire of an up-and-coming generation of writers to transform the lyric as a genre to make it relevant for the twenty-first century. …

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