Tuesday, April 14, 2009


“All conceptual writing is allegorical writing” argue Rob Fitterman & Vanessa Place in Notes on Conceptualisms, a fascinating little book with painfully small type. At the core of Cole Swensen’s Ours, published last year by the University of California Press, is the allegory of the garden, French gardens to be exact, and especially the work of André Le Nôtre (1613-1700), the “father,” to use Swensen’s term for it, “of the French formal garden.” Le Nôtre’s work most famously includes Versailles, as well as Chantilly, Saint-Cloud, Sceaux, Vaux-le-Vicomte & the Tuileries, where he himself was born, the son & grandson of royal gardeners. Le Nôtre, of course, means ours in French, but this isn’t the most important dimension of the pun tucked into the book’s title. Rather it is the logic of the garden, or of a certain type of garden, & the logic of the poem, our art. Or of a certain type of poem, the sort that Cole Swensen might be called upon to write. And beyond that, possession (or at least possessiveness) of the earth itself, such as royalty might imagine to be their “divine right.”

But if all conceptual writing is allegorical, does it then follow that the reverse is also true? If Ours represents a booklength allegory, does this mean that it is a form of conceptual writing? And is Cole Swensen a conceptual poet? As the co-editor of American Hybrid, an anthology that seeks to define a middle path between post-avant & quietist poetics, one might think Swensen exists outside of the flarf vs. conceptual debate, or that her work & vision of poetry in some way precedes it. It’s difficult to imagine the precision of her writing alongside the loud (and knowing) nonsense of Kenneth Goldsmith typing up (or, more likely, scanning in) The New York Times, or the Hugo Ball-meets-Daffy Duck aural pyrotechnics of Christian Bök’s Eunoia, the thinking man’s Mel Blanc.

Like Goldsmith’s work, which makes extraordinary use of facts even as it problematizes that category, Swensen’s poem is obsessed with external detail:

The first orangerie in France was built by Amboise at the end of the 15th century,

but the form reached its height in the 17th

coinciding with what’s called “The Little Ice Age,”

a series of exceptionally cold winters

But where Goldsmith’s work – and to a lesser degree that of Bök & the other poets who are normally (or normatively) implied by the rubric conceptual – strives to demonstrate form without ever being at all “literary,” Swensen is writerly as all get out. Its demonstration of “the literary” is its claim to form. One could write a book about how Swensen uses the line in Ours, and of the balance between prose & verse evident in so many of its sections. That book would be much larger than Ours, and would never be completely equal to its subject. Consider the second of these three lines: The circle of philosophers / in stone; riven by voices, they stand at crossroads; they incite fountains. The voices / grow louder whenever someone lives. A line with not one but four hard stops – Swensen offers the most complex verse line since Olson, but never does so with the wheezing lunge that propels the bard of Gloucester forward like a lemur through a forest’s canopy. The essence of her line is balance, just as his is imbalance. Yet her line here, not unlike so many of his, begins and ends in the middle – there is nothing contained or complete.

Allegorical writing is necessarily inconsistent, containing elaborations, recursions, sub-metaphors, fictive conceits, projections, and guisings that combine and recombine both to create the allegorical whole, and to discursively threaten this wholeness. In this sense, allegory implicates Gödel’s First Incompleteness Theorem: if it is consistent, it is incomplete; if complete, inconsistent.

At which moment Place & Fitterman insert their claim that heads up this note.

All of this is true – in spades – of Swensen’s Ours. Is she therefore a conceptual poet? One might think so, and yet

One might as well argue her role in the history of flarf on the grounds that, long ago & far away, she was Nada Gordon’s junior high school teacher.

Flarf & conceptual poetics have been treated as antitheticals, except where they’re not. In five years (or minutes) no one will remember that they were once imagined to be oppositional, rather than as flavors of a larger investigative poetics. Flarf will discover that conceptualism expands the terrain of writing by valuing the extra-(and anti-) literary, conceptualism will discover that flarf’s ruling framework – “badness” – is an inherently conceptual move.

Hybrid poetry, by definition, brings alternative paths together: Pound’s Mauberly not perceived as satire. The first hybrid poet, almost by design, was Marianne Moore, old friend of Pound, advocate of Williams, but working a day job as editor of The Dial, the magazine that invented “dull” long before Paris Review, Granta or Narrative. Yet there was nothing dull about Moore, just as there is nothing dull about Swensen, C.D. Wright, Ann Lauterbach, Robert Hass, Donna Stonecipher, Forrest Gander or any of the other poets one might today imagine as “hybrids.”

If allegory assumes context, conceptual writing assumes all context. (This may be in the form of an open invitation, such as Dworkin’s Parse, or a closed index, such as Goldsmith’s Day, or a baroque articulation, such as Place’s Dies.) Thus, unlike traditional allegorical writing, conceptual writing must be capable of including unintended pre- or post-textual associations. This abrogates allegory’s (false) simulation of mastery, while remaining faithful to allegory’s (profound) interruption of correspondences. Allegory breaks mimesis via its constellatory features – what scattershot this is. Conceptualism’s mimesis absorbs what Benjamin called “the adorable detail.”

This suggests instead good vs. bad allegory. On the one side are a series of texts that might be called instances of mastery (Ours would be a case in point), on the other a series of texts that approach (indeed seek) unreadability in the name of breaking mimesis. A literature of works that one might have no particular desire to read, not unlike the idea that not everyone will want a urinal in their living room, even if it is signed “R. Mutt.”

Swensen reminds us that the old fashioned approach to extraneous (non-lyrical) data invading the text is called research. Ours sits like an ice flow atop a surface beneath which lies all of her reading & thinking on the subject of gardens. If, in fact, there are “adorable details,” they arrive via selection, precisely what the conceptualist counter-examples listed above seem to call into question.

What is the role of selection in poetry?

When I moved to Pennsylvania in 1995, one of the local phenomena that I had not anticipated was the presence of numerous formal gardens open to the public: Longwood Gardens, Chanticleer, Winterthur down in Delaware. The first & last of these had been homes for the DuPont family, who very much sought to replicate the best of French noble living in the new world (the founder of the American business empire had in fact defended Louis XVI & Marie Antoinette from a mob at the Tuileries in 1792, an act that led to the family’s move to North America). Gardens such as these remind one very much just how close culturally this part of the nation is  to its European roots, a far cry from either the drought resistant gardens that are the rage these days in the American west or the consciously socialist landscape architecture of a Fredrick Law Olmsted. That Swensen would pick Le Nôtre, rather than Olmsted, as the source for her work is, as a poker player might put it, a fascinating tell. She is, after all, one of our leading translators of poetry from the French. But if the logic of Olmsted’s gardens, with their sensitivity to landscape & imbalance, might lead one inexorably to the poetics, say, of a Charles Olson, the gardens of Le Nôtre seem obsessive in their symmetries.

As an aesthetic dynamic, symmetry is inherently stable, even static. Asymmetry by definition is unstable, it tends to lurch about. La Bayadère vs., say, Sally Silvers, Simone Forti or even Twyla Tharp. Symmetry is the driving principle of all closed works of art, indeed of closure itself.

One might argue that the conceptualist works figured above are themselves obsessively symmetrical – completeness is a value in & of itself (it’s not enough to do just a page of the New York Times). Just as one might argue that they are nothing but catalogs of adorable detail.

And one might argue that Swensen is no less obsessive than, say, Goldsmith, in the projects she takes on – Ours is not a poem about a garden, but a book, and one that leaves unspoken what is surely its largest single claim – that writing poetry is essentially (I mean this adverb literally) a process of gardening. From the forest of language to arrive at a garden of text, a poem.

Is Cole Swensen a conceptualist or the disproof of conceptualism? Or is conceptualism the proof or disproof of Cole Swensen?