An affective response

On canon, Kenneth Goldsmith, and reading

Photo by Gina DeCagna.


I pitched this piece before Kenneth Goldsmith’s March 2015 performance at Brown University, and I wrote the interlinking reflections that follow the first section right after Goldsmith’s performance, so the progression of my thinking within this reflection is contorted and strange, especially now that I’m writing this preface months later. My piece feels a bit out of time, and while the intention of its content holds true, the reference points and ongoing discourse around the politics of Conceptualism (for example, reactions and performances made in spring and summer 2015 by Vanessa Place, Ron Silliman, and other poets and thinkers) make portions of it feel a bit outdated. From the outset, even before issues of race and appropriation set afire the poetry community, my intention was to discuss how canons are framed in deeply exclusionary ways, even within some of the portions of the canon that seem settled. I tend to think such exclusionary practices are just reinscribed across spaces — people seem to prefer there to be a telos in which a handful of contemporary writers “descend” from another handful of writers, all of whom look, and think, and sex, relatively the same. To be blunt: it is a bad way of looking at the world.

Deep exclusion

My initial intention with this reflection was to approach a transhistorical and transnational reading of a handful of canonical poets as a subversively amateur practice in order to intimate how the same structures of exclusion that reify a handful of white, heterosexual poets to privileged positions within Conceptual poetry are extant across temporal and national borders even within some of the more seemingly formed and settled historical sites of canonicity, sites that themselves can often be expanded via comparative lenses and contemporary theory. The aesthetic preferences that prop up a blank, white, able-bodied, heterosexual version of Conceptual poetry overlap, for instance, with the aesthetic preferences that exclude Richard Crashaw from the canon for being too femme, too excessive, too foreign. T. S. Eliot described Crashaw’s poetry: “Subtract from Donne the powerful intellect, substitute a feminine for a strongly masculine nature, posit a devotional temperament rather than a theological mind, and add the influence of Italian and Spanish literature … and you have Crashaw.”[1] Given the dominant Anglo-American aesthetic, it’s no surprise that until 2013 there hadn’t been a critical edition of Crashaw’s poetry published in over forty years.[2] Aesthetically queer, femme, excessive, foreign: erased.

To turn this toward the personal (because maybe the personal is still political): while a young, tender, and impressionable student in MFA school, I included an epigraph from a Rilke poem at the top of one of my own poems, and a doctoral student there looked at my poem and said, “Rilke, really? That’s sentimental rubbish.” A dull, offhand comment, but I respected this person, and his comment became a kind of strange, worm-like thing in my brain that bothered me for months. I deleted the epigraph. I read Rilke with more critical-tinted glasses. I pushed Rilke away from me. Why? Why did I listen to this person? How strange that while thinking about Conceptual poetry now I stumbled across a scholar who described the contemporary critical discourse surrounding Rilke in these terms:

One can remark that the critical discourse on Rilke runs to the homophobic without oneself attributing homosexuality to the poet. Instead, the point is that the professional stricture that readers should not get too personally stimulated by the caress of this seductive voice is structurally like, and probably is, prophylaxis against too-great intimacy with the sissy poet.[3]

What is implied in intimacy? What should we be intimate with? Within such structures as the ones that exclude Crashaw and contain Rilke, to be called serious, to be allowed rigor easily, is to be bound inside an immunological border that elevates a handful of poets who are easily incorporated into white, cis, heterosexual, privileged, and able-bodied positions. Even these poets so seemingly canonical get cut out, excised. Other bodies need not apply — or, rather, there is no application process: there is a self-reproducing canonicity-machine reinforced by certain aesthetic proclivities and institutions written into those aesthetic proclivities. There are efforts at tokenistic inclusion, but the center rarely shifts; the world, the body of literature framed as being important to being in the world, rarely refigures itself deeply and inextricably. The question is: how can one change disciplinary and institutional spaces in order to make them more inclusive? What is being included on syllabuses? What theory is being read? How are you talking about the object in front of you? These spaces and canons are not going to disappear in a puff of smoke, but we can question what we’re including, and how we’re looking at it. In a way, this feels like a regressive suggestion of a return to warring over what should be included and excluded from the canon — but it feels clear to me from my everyday interactions within graduate school and within the wider poetry community, that we need to keep returning to these discussions within the institutional spaces we occupy. We need to look again at syllabi, at reading series, at journals, at conferences, at hiring practices, at the very lenses we use to approach texts in order to ask: “what is being left out?” Why has the center of this discourse settled here? What can I do as a student, teacher, writer, person, activist in order to make this better, to make it more inclusive? Such work is inescapable even when one sits down with metaphysical poets to pray to some dirty and erotic version of the religious, even as one is abstractly trying to navigate the relationship between the spiritual and the profane.

Against Conceptualism as a center

My initial intention was to provide a space strangely out-of-time and out-of-contemporary-poetry to think about how pervasive all of this is, but my initial intention was framed before Kenneth Goldsmith’s performance “The Body of Michael Brown,” before what some people considered the center of contemporary “Conceptual poetry” collapsed on itself, became nothing more than an echo that I hardly remember as much more than an empty space, an opening to be left for a multiplicity of poets.[4] I take a bit of joy in this breakdown, and I want to caution against an attempt to recuperate certain writing practices under the singular banner of Conceptual poetry. I don’t think, nor do I think anyone should think, intertextuality, erasure, pastiche, performance, docupoetics, neobaroque poetics, ecopoetics, ethnopoetics, experimental lyricism, and so on, are practices that need to be included explicitly under the banner of “Conceptual poetry.” At best, Conceptual poetry is just one practice amid these other practices, and that’s fine, and that shouldn’t even be the center of our concerns because there are structures of exclusion that are much more insidious, of much greater import, than the mode or style a text was made in. And I ask quite simply to Conceptual poetry: what are you really adding to Warhol, and why won’t you let him have his femme shoes, male bodies, blowjobs, and erotics? Better yet, why are you even trying to add to Warhol? What do you have to say about systemic violence, systemic death? What do you wonder about as bodies around you are dying and you are surviving? I hope, for all our sakes, it’s not just the reproduction and representation of text.

Tentative closing thoughts

Proximally and for the most part, unless explicitly poked, poked the way I felt poked by Kenneth Goldsmith’s performance, I’m not a polemical person.[5] I’m too bad at my own life, at being in the world myself, at coping with my three courses and teaching and my desire to be engaged in local politics. So, instead of giving you an epiphany, I just want to ask you, reader, to pressure your reading practices and the reading practices of the communities you occupy, because reading is a demanding practice that can help you find a way to be in our shared, complex, violent, political given. Seek out books that can provide you with an ethics in this sea of carnophallologocentric violence that is bound into all of the light bouncing off of all of the material that is entering your wounds, your eyes. And maybe your reading practices are even better than mine; in fact, I hope they are, and I hope you’re asking others to read different things too as an act of love, and that you’re loving those people so much that you help them push that reading into change at the site of politics, and at the site of the institution, and at the site of all that is dying outside of the text. This world, this world and the things we read within it, will be all the better for it; it will let us see how we might survive.

1. T. S. Eliot, The Varieties of Metaphysical Poetry, ed. Ronald Schuchard (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1993), 162.

2. For a detailed description of the critical reception of Crashaw’s poetry see the introduction to Richard Crashaw, The English Poems of Richard Crashaw,ed. Richard Rambuss (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013).

3. William Waters, “Rilke’s Imperatives,” Poetics Today 25, no. 4 (2004): 728.

4. Kenneth Goldsmith, “The Body of Michael Brown” (reading, Interrupt3: A Discussion Forum and Studio for New Forms of Language Art, The Granoff Center for the Creative Arts, Brown University, Providence, RI, March 13, 2015).

5. I was asked to respond to Goldsmith’s performance “The Body of Michael Brown” on the last day of Interrupt3. A version of this response titled “The (Dis)Embodied Voice” is available online at The Offing with an introduction by Michael D. Snediker. The short response was originally performed using a feminine electronic voice in a form of drag.