Framing and Identity in Conceptual Poetics

Framing and Identity in Conceptual Poetics

At the recent Conceptual Poetics Symposium at the Poetry Center of the University of Arizona the key word seemed to be “framing.” The idea that words could be objectified to erase the identity of the writer–or to redefine what writing is–was explored through the notion of arrangement. This aesthetic sees words as objects to be placed in various structures through “language games” and distinguishes itself from an aesthetic in which the writer arranges the words as they represent his or her experience. In Conceptual Poetics, its practitioners argue, writing is freed from the limitations of one subjective viewpoint–the “lyric I” of confessional or romantic writers. Words are out there for anyone to place into “formal constraints.” What I found most interesting was the idea of subjectivities–the notion of replacing the “Lyric I” with several points of views or eyes looking out through various frames. The tools of technology allow poets to release the poem from the printed page and create hybrids with art, music, video games–whatever suits the “eye’s” fancy. To paraphrase one of the poets as he framed his chin and top of his head with his hand, what do we do with this space? The gesture conveyed visually that “this space” is a place from which to look out, not to look within.

Craig Dworkin’s presentation on Sophie Calle and David Bucks illustrated this notion of the voyeur–of objectifying the subject by having the subject deliberately place him or her self under surveillance. Within these structures, the reader is exposed to a number of subjectivities. Cole Swensen’s presentation on art conveyed a similar idea by looking at how painters create a visual pattern on canvas as a way to similarly arrange words. The attention to subject matter is minimized as one looks at the “framing” of the subject and then transfers that technique to writing. There is an attempt to bring poetry into 3-dimensional space, to give a body to something as abstract as words. This notion reminded me of some work I have done with dancers both in terms of my own poetry as well as with collaborations between my poetry students and dance students. When poetry is performed on the stage in correspondence to a choreography, it is given a kind of body as it exists in time and space. It does become three dimensional for those moments.

In addressing conceptual poetics versus “subjective poetry” written from the point of view of the lyric I, my primary argument is with the insistence that such a clear division exists between the two. Christian Bok set up a diagram in which he compared what he called “cognitive writing” with “aleatoric writing.“ He framed them in such a way that these words they were in boxes diagonal to each other. In the “cognitive writing” square he placed the following terms: “+ intentional, + expressive” followed by “mimicry.” In the “aleatoric writing” square he wrote “ – intentional, – expressive” followed by “chance.” Therefore, these terms corresponded to each other through the plus and minus signs. I am aware that this diagram was simply meant to illustrate his notion that cognitive writing and aleatoric writing, out of which he argues conceptual poetics arise, were not connected at all. However, because of the nature of the diagram, I saw a magnetic relationship between the two types of writing or rather between his qualifications of those types as either mimicry or chance. From my observations, chance and mimicry were really quite closely related, especially in light of some of the performances presented. For example, Kenneth Goldsmith’s recitation of a story from the New York Times as well as his technique of requiring his students to retype a work by another artist. Even if Bok’s idea of mimicry really refers to self-reflective rather than copying, there exists an inverse relationship between mimicry and chance, between the desire to use words to represent the self and to use words to move beyond the self to see what is found out there. In Bok’s diagram, these two kinds of writing appeared to want to cancel each other out even if they were connected at the point where the corners of the boxes met so that they existed on opposite ends of magnetic poles. One question I have is can either one really exist without the other? The most interesting poems are those that occupy the connecting point between these two “poles.” I see this intersection in Goldsmith’s “The Day” from an article published in the New York Times on Sept. 11, 2001, Cole Swensen’s garden poems from her book Ours, and Tracie Morris’ “It all started in Africa.”

In “The Day” there is a play between mimicry and chance. That issue of the New York Times was like all others that preceded it–it is a copy in terms of form if not in content. But even much of the content would be a continuation of previous stories. However, as Goldsmith points out, that issue contains events that by chance never took place–they were advertised and anticipated, but by the day’s end they were only words and concepts. Does Goldsmith really disguise or erase his identity in the process of re-typing New York Times articles word for word or in reciting the transcripts between Senator Craig and the police officer? I would argue no–the comparisons that Charles Bernstein made to Woody Allen’s character Zelig were apt; the viewer never forgets that Woody Allen is the chameleon–that is part of the humor in the movie. One does not forget that Kenneth Goldsmith is the performer; instead, one is very aware of him from the tone of his voice to his body language, even the purple tie. In fact, the enigma of his “self” makes it more present; we see the arrangement of the writing and hear the voice that intones the arrangement of words. We see the puppeteer’s hands moving the strings, but not the marionettes themselves. Conceptual Poetics rises out of these gestures, but does it escape the notion of subjectivity? In her poem “The Garden as Letter” Swensen seems to be aware of the liminal space between subjectivity and objectivity in her lines “and so you open it, step by step, defined as that intermediary point between darkness and diction.” The point is that “space” framed by the poet’s hands–What do we do with this space that is the border between subject and object? The following lines continue to allude to that border: “I will see you walking down a long alley of overhanging trees. I will see you from the back.” The “eye” is defined by how she frames the object.

The most intriguing and ironic relationship between framing and identity was portrayed in Tracie Morris’ work. Her poem “It All Started in Africa” was a recitation of a line from Dr. Doolittle; however, her framing of that line through her voice presented a blending of the internal perspective and the external “found” language. This poem serendipitously set up the notion of framing and identity as the symposium preceded. The notion of “self-erasure” or the ability to blend in, to be a chameleon, was presented in a very dramatic way through her portrayal of song and poetry in slavery. African slaves used coded language in their songs in order to communicate survival techniques. Because they had no selves that were recognized in the colonies, they were compelled to either mask or reinvent who they really were. The “language games” they played through their songs would have been a variety of mimicry and chance. The example Morris used was that of the song composed to warn one of the men away from the smokehouse because the boss was going to discover him. The song intentionally mimicks the language of the bosses, but it is also chance poetry, songs in which the words are chosen based on the danger seen by several eyes at that moment. In this situation, the notion of surveillance becomes troublesome. When did slaves not feel the “eye” of the master upon them? The former had to work outside of the frame of the latter in order to survive. The poem by Etheridge Knight shows how dangerous it is to be the object of surveillance for an African American man–his beauty, his sexuality, his mere presence is a threat so that he finally he is castrated. Morris’ presentation created an ironic contrast between an unwilling yet necessary camouflaging of self and the desire to escape the self out of boredom or ennui.

And yet, Kenneth Goldsmith’s recitation of the transcript between Senator Craig and the police officer provides a similar pattern regarding the danger of surveillance. As Marjorie Perloff pointed out, it is disturbing that one can be arrested for having the wrong hand gesture. This leads me to a final observation regarding the “Others” There seemed to be in some of the work a recoiling away from the Other in order to enclose the self. Charles Bernstein addressed this notion through the term bachelor machine. The answers to the psychology test as recited by Craig Dworkin was a coy way of keeping the self very hidden so that it would not be defined by the invisible other–the questions. Even the term manifesto as a way to frame a piece implies that there is no room for dialogue, for the other. Thus, is there any interest in acknowledging an other? And yet, the self does exist in conceptual poetics through the other. In conceptual poetics, the self is finally “framed” by how he or she sees and frames the other; ultimately that obscured self is revealed by the object of its surveillance.
Dr. Danielle Beazer Dubrasky

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