Reading Conceptually



I’m wondering today about how language has changed, from the 20th century to the 21st.  And I’m wondering about how certain threads connect the poems of, say, Stevens, to the poems of Ashbery, even while the language of these poems has undergone a somewhat radical shift, a kind of speeding up, an even more harmoniously anarchic broadening, a more pungent democratic widening to include new modes – fracturing, mending, presenting.

When in history did poets start to realize that they were presenting language to us, more than they were “expressing themselves through language”?  If the whole notion of “expressing ourselves through language” is a fallacy, according to Richard Rorty and Donald Davidson; and if we do not “express ourselves through language” so much as we are constituted by language, I wonder when in the history of poetry these recognitions started to dawn, and then how, in poetry, these recognitions began to be shaped and played with.  Was the fracturing of language by, say, Eliot, intended to divorce us from this notion of the self expressing itself through language?

(Perhaps this is why narrative poetry feels so outdated to me – it is poetry wed to the notion of representation, poetry that has not taken into account the developments in visual art that included the motherfucking motherload of Cubism, Surrealism, Pop Art and Conceptual art.  It is poetry that ignores these developments in its sister art.  For that reason, it is poetry that feels often tired, lame, and antiquated.  It takes for granted that there is a speaker, or form, that “expresses content,” when this binary is hopelessly unhelpful and does not take into account the messy ways in which form and content combust and mingle, the unstable nature of these categories.)

For example, look at this sentence from Wallace Stevens:

“The lilacs wither in the Carolinas.”

What is more important – that we read this sentence representationally, as flowers falling apart in North and/or South Carolina, or does Stevens mean his words differently?  If he does not intend us to read them representationally, then how are we supposed to read them? 

I’m proposing that we read this sentence metaphorically and conceptually.  Stevens is simultaneously saying through this sentence, “there are strange, beautiful and lovely things that happen, and we need to pay attention to them,” and he presents this sentiment to us through his sentence.  His sentence is therefore a presentation of language, in which we are asked to look at it and think about it conceptually.  We realize that his sentence is not intended to be parsed exclusively literally; that the least interesting thing about the sentence is its representational quality.

For these reasons, we might read “The Domination of Black” as Ur-Conceptual poetry, because of its awareness that power comes from the sheer repetition of certain words, and that certain combinations of words brings out different modes of feeling, different timbres, different possibilities.   



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