Bad Ideas: Poetry, Authenticity, and Power

"Conceptions are artificial. Perceptions are essential."
-Wallace Stevens

Conceptual poetry is not about people; it is about ideas. Partly for this reason, and up until recently, conceptual poets have been largely able to define the terms of conversation about their work within academia. However, the virality of recent socially-transgressive works by poets like Kenneth Goldsmith and Vanessa Place has tipped the spotlight of the outraged internet in their direction.

Confronting such works in this way has left many outside the illumined circle believing them to be overtly and bizarrely racist. This has no doubt further estranged many of those who read poetry at all from reading (or otherwise experiencing) this type of poetry in particular.

Assuming that poetry is created to be experienced, what went wrong? Simply put, you can't have it both ways. You can't monopolize the terms of the debate and also reach a wider audience --except perhaps to incense and alienate them by being out of touch with the power dynamics at play in their lives.

Writing can be an act of defiance or an act of conformity. Either way, it is an act of power. In any power system, there is the question of authority, and in writing, the question of authority is often one of authenticity. Are you writing from experience? Or from the "truth of imagination" (as Keats put it)? Or, conversely, are you writing someone else's experience?

Plagiarism is an act of overt theft. But borrowing implies that you are going to give something back, ideally with interest. That is, the source work is a starting point and the journey becomes worth taking because of what the writer does from there. Many recently-discovered-to-be-plagiarized poems have failed to take up Ezra Pound's cry to, "Make it new!", and of course have failed to attribute the source.

The conceptual poetry of Goldsmith and Place both makes attribution and takes things in a new direction. But borrowing the real and visceral experience of marginalized groups in service to an intellectual concept has felt to many like a different kind of power move: violation. Take fantasy and make fantasy. Take your own authentic experience and make art. But take "our" experience of hardship, and appropriate it for your idea of art, and you have crossed a line.

It is a line that conceptual poetics may have a hard time recognizing, because it is about feelings, not ideas. There is a place for both -- in poetry and human experience -- but one without the other usually makes for bad poetry (and a narrow life). The poetry of concepts does not attribute authority, except to the idea's conceiver, relegating the emotional content of the source material (and its originator and very subject matter) to that of a base material. It is a move that mirrors racial subjugation, and hence the outcry.

Such feelings exist outside the circle that these conceptual poets have drawn around themselves. They exist in the real world, and affect real people. Some of us make art to flee from the real world, while others to try to reconcile our experiences into a different kind of sense, in which ideas play just one part.

In the end, we can't escape the world -- how it affects us, and how we affect it by what we write. No matter how small the circle or high the walls, writing is a human matter, and will be confronted on human terms -- for the good it does, for the damage it does, the brilliance and the nonsense.