I am not the sort of iconoclast who believes that everyone should write poetry as I write it, or think about poetry as I think about it, or define poetry as I define it. But of course, on a personal level, I have my likes and dislikes--thematically, stylistically, morally--and am perfectly willing to admit that this predilection circumscribes me. I'm not attracted to language poetry; I'm not in love with imagism and its descendants. I'm drawn to the sinuous power of the sentence rather than its fractures, and my greatest influences are poets who have worked the ancient vein of story and song.
Which brings me to the current giant poetry-network kerfuffle over the work of conceptualist poets Kenneth Goldsmith and Vanessa Place. In March, at a conference at Brown University, Goldsmith (a white man) read a poem, "The Body of Michael Brown," that was essentially a remix of Michael Brown's autopsy report and ended with a focus on his genitals. (Brown, as you'll recall, was the black teenager who was shot last summer by police in Ferguson, Missouri.) Meanwhile, Place (a white woman) has been tweeting Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind, verbatim. Though she calls her project "provocative" and sees it as art, others have seen it as "racially insensitive, if not downright racist."
Being out of the loop as I am, I didn't have many preconceptions about these poets. So when I decided to look into what they were doing, I was open to complications and ambiguities. But what I found was something more basic. What I learned is that conceptualism is boring.
You can do your own googling and come to your own conclusions. But in my opinion, basing an entire career on copying other people's writing is a dull approach to art. And when cries of "racism" become the most exciting thing about that art, then something has really gone wrong.
I, too, have written poems that borrow from primary sources. I am in no way denying the power of reworking and recontextualizing the words of others. But it seems to me that, to push that borrowing into art, the poet must be engaged in the creative exploration of drama, character, lyric, theme, morality.
Perhaps I am overlooking something in the productions of these conceptualists. Perhaps I am too provincial. But their work reminds of me of the stream of tedious undergraduate art shows I attended in the 90s, when my husband was getting his BFA at the Rhode Island School of Design. I was 25 years old, and those shows, swathed in deconstructionist black, made me feel like the most unhip person on the planet.
Today I'm 50, and I've never gotten any more hip. However, I also no longer care. If the emperor doesn't want to wear clothes, that's fine with me, but I'm not going to stand around admiring the fabric. Free speech is an inalienable right, yet it seems to me that an artist should have a powerful reason for hurting other people on purpose. Cynical indifference doesn't count as a powerful reason.