CONCEPTUALISM AND THE ART OF OUTRAGE

Michael Brown: immortalized by Kenny Goldsmith?

Edgar Poe’s “effect”-as-the-basis-of-fiction is the seed of Conceptualism and the avant-garde as we know it.

That poetry should be beautiful was a necessary caveat in Poe’s mind: effect-science needs genres and reasons and exactitude as it moves literature towards self-consciousness and away from “This happened in my town yesterday. Let me tell you about it.”

The poetry world is currently befuddled and outraged because the Conceptual poet Kenny Goldsmith—who read (in a paisley suit) plain traffic reports as “poetry” at the White House (yea, where Barry lives) a couple of years ago—recently gave a “poetry reading” in academia in which the actual, detailed autopsy report of Ferguson’s Michael Brown was the sole text.

Poe would say, first: Goldsmith’s effort is the very opposite of the poem; the poet does not surrender to the news of the day (Ferguson, etc) but finds, first, a precise effect, and then works on bringing about that precise effect in the reader. Poe’s notion has nothing to do with suppressing discussion of “the news;” it merely says: give the news of the day to the news of the day and reserve poetry for poetry—both in practice and in theory.

To know what poetry is, we think, is very useful to the poet, who is doing something a bit more complex than going to the store and picking up an item:

“What did you want me to buy, again?” “I dunno.”

If we don’t know what to get at the store—and this destroys every reason for the visit, we imagine it might be slightly important to know what the poem is—as one sets about writing one.

Just an idea.

So we find an effect.

The artist thinks: First, what effect shall I pick? Second, how shall I bring about this effect in the audience?

Immediately we are aware of conflation, the type which occurs when avant-garde Conceptualism brings together as one, painting and poetry—the two disappear in the outrageous effect produced by the Duchamp jest. The art, all of it, dies into idea. Michael Brown’s autopsy becomes a pure thing subordinated to pure effect.

The conflation in Poe’s effect-method is artist/audience: to test the effect, the artist stands in for his audience: simple, even simpler than going to the store for an item; the item (effect) is had immediately, because the artist immediately becomes his own audience as the effect is tested.

Kenny Goldsmith does not have to visit the store to purchase a particular effect—any item at the Outrage Store will do.

We know of no one who has really thought through to the end what Poe meant when, in “The Philosophy of Composition,” Poe spoke of choosing some “effect” to use—Poe has been accused, in every quarter, of starting with the “The Raven” already written, and working backwards in a synthetic fashion; in other words, he cheated. And no one really writes that way, ever, say the sneering Poe-critics. Life and art are open and random; talk of “grand design” in this day is highly suspect (“what are you, a religious nut?”) even when talking of poetry.

But we know what Poe means, and we can easily demonstrate what he means.

Let’s say the effect chosen is: happiness—you choose to make the audience happy.

A good effect, but too general, so we narrow the definition to make it more effective. “Making the audience happy by removing the fear of death.” This is sufficiently unique, and this is precisely what John Donne did when he penned his famous “Death Be Not Proud.”

It matters not if death be not proud came into Donne’s thoughts “randomly,” (many poets will tell you a poem begins with a single phrase that just pops into their head) and it matters not that Donne wrote the sonnet without any fussing over “which effect shall I choose?” The fact remains that “I am Soothed by Learning Death is not as Fearful as Supposed” is the design “Death Be Not Proud” has on us: it has this effect on any lay person who reads it; it has an argument, one that can be paraphrased (yes, the New Critics were wrong) and all of Donne’s sonnet’s parts line up behind its effect.

Donne went to the store (even if subconsciously) looking for a specific, singular, item (effect and execution) and, to our pleasure, found it.

Goldsmith’s success (notoriety, attention) arose from the same process:

What shall I do to my audience?

Outrage them.

How shall I do so?

I shall pick a contemporary news item which already bespeaks outrage, and I shall choose some manifestation of this outrage and present it as my “poem.”

Now do we see who “cheats?”

It is not the author of “The Philosophy of Composition.”

It is the avant-garde “poet,” Kenny Goldsmith.

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In other news:

John Crowe Ransom advanced past Elizabeth Bishop 61-60 in the Wild Card Round. Ransom’s “it is so frail” was finally too much for Bishop’s “the art of losing is hard to master” in the final minutes of the extremely close contest: both teams were brilliant, but the edge went to Ransom’s tender and emotional plea, which seemed finally less conscious, if that nuance can be at all understood.  It is very hard to say goodbye to the Bishop, as Ransom moves on.

Bishop’s loss put the VIDA count for Scarriet’s 2015 March Madness at 25%—which we think is pretty high, considering the tournament reflects the canon throughout history.

 

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