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A Brief Guide to Conceptual Poetry


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Conceptual poetry is an early twenty-first century literary movement, self-described by its practitioners as an act of "uncreative writing." In conceptual poetry, appropriation is often used as a means to create new work, focused more on the initial concept rather than the final product of the poem.

In its extreme form, such works are process-oriented and non-expressive. Some of these works include large amounts of information and are not intended to be read in their entirety. One canonical conceptual text that displays these qualities is Kenneth Goldsmiths Day, in which he reworks the September 1, 2000 issue of The New York Times, reprinting it as an 836-page book. Other writers associated with conceptual poetry include Caroline Bergvall, Christian Bök, Robert Fitterman, and Vanessa Place, among others.

One direct predecessor of contemporary conceptual writing is Oulipo (l'Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle), a writers' group interested in experimenting with different forms of literary constraint, represented by writers like Italo Calvino, Georges Perec, and Raymound Queneau. One example of an Oulipean constraint is the N + 7 procedure, in which each word in an original text is replaced with the word which appears seven entries below it in a dictionary. Other key influences cited include John Cage's and Jackson Mac Low's chance operations, as well as the Brazilian concrete poetry movement.

Fitterman and Place outline the movement and its goals rigorously in their Notes on Conceptualisms. One basic tenet put forth in their essay is that "pure conceptualism negates the need for reading in the traditional textual sense—one does not need to 'read' the work as much as think about the idea of the work." As the critic Marjorie Perloff writes in the introduction to Unoriginal Genius: "Nothing quite prepared the poetry world for the claim, now being made by conceptual poets...that it is possible to write 'poetry' that is entirely 'unoriginal' and nevertheless qualifies as poetry."

Other important conceptual texts include Bök's Eunoia, a book in which each chapter is written using words limited to a single vowel; Bergvall's Via, in which she compiles the opening lines of forty-eight different translations of Dante's Inferno; and Flarf poets like Nada Gordon, K. Silem Mohammad, and Gary Sullivan, who often use Google search engine results as a primary text to create poems that are intentionally "bad" or "inappropriate."

For more information on conceptual poetry, visit www.ubu.com or read Against Expression: An Anthology of Conceptual Writing, edited by Craig Dworkin and Goldsmith.