Stephen Collis: Towards a Dialectical Poetry

Towards a Dialectical Poetry[1]

1. The Problem of Names

In trying to make some distinctions within radical poetries, I want to begin with the problem of names—what we mean when we call poetry “innovative,” “avant-garde,” or “experimental.”

INNOVATIVE. Perhaps currently the most common word to designate the poetry lying outside the supposed “mainstream,” “innovative” as a term has been attached to conferences, presses, and schools, as well as the work of individual poets. And who wouldn’t want this moniker: to be innovative is to look not to the past, but to the future. To innovate is to change (forms / discourses / structures), and as such would appear to be inherently political, progressive, and forward looking.

The problem I have is that “innovation” has become capital’s word—a code word in fact not only for productivity, but more pointedly, for profitability. Every company wants to tell us that its products are “innovative”—that is, better than the competition, and, if you are an investor, a better return on your investment. Innovation is the royal road to surplus value. I would suggest that “innovation” now occupies the ideological space that the word “improvement” occupied in the 18th and 19th centuries, when it was nascent capitalism’s code-word for productivity and profitability, as well as its main cudgel against such “recidivistic” pre-capitalist structures as common lands and the whole system of common property. To buy into the idea of being “innovative” is to buy into the notion that newer is always better, and better is always that which is more profitable.

But innovation has an upside I’m not yet willing to completely dismiss. Innovation is not the creation of something ex nihilo, but rather, assumes a pre-existing fund of forms and discourses upon which one innovates. Thus innovation can be read as dependent upon access to a commons whose very existence is dependent upon past innovation. In this way one might be able to distinguish capital’s innovation as an expropriation of the common from culture’s innovation as a resistance to enclosure, or the expropriation of the expropriators. But such an opposition is not ultimately tenable, as culture’s production of the common and capital’s enclosure of that commons are two parts of the same (apparently interdependent) process[2].

What we might need is a return, past capital’s enclosure of the concept of innovation, to an earlier definition of the word, when “innovation” was equated with “revolution.” Thus we find in Shakespeare’s Henry IV part 1, “Poore Discontents, Which gape, and rub the Elbow at the newes Of hurly burly Innouation,” or again in Robert Johnson’s 1603 Relations of the most famous Kingdoms and Commonwealths, “Neither doth he willingly arme them for feare of sedition and innovations.”[3] It would be a rare occasion in today’s world to find poetic innovation seditious or revolutionary, but I would suggest that it is indeed in these directions that we need to think if we are going to be able to recuperate a term like “innovative poetry” from the ideological mechanisms of capitalism in which it is currently ensnared. What might a “revolutionary” poetry look like, now? What might it “revolt” against? What might it hold up as its utopian ideal?

AVANT-GARDE. The main issue with this term (and its more recent offspring, “post-avant”) is that it is difficult to divorce it from its historically particular context—the “historical avant-garde” as a reference to movements and procedures at work in the first decades of the 20th century, more or less co-terminus with that broader term “modernism.” The “historical avant-garde” is a response to particular conditions—arguably, it was the attempt to remind bourgeois aestheticism (“art for art’s sake,” the complete detaching of “art” from “life”) that “culture” was indeed embedded in capitalism’s broader structure—as Peter Bürger famously argued:

At the moment it has shed all that is alien to it, art necessarily becomes problematic for itself. As institution and content coincide, social ineffectuality stands revealed as the essence of art in bourgeois society, and thus provokes the self-criticism of art. It is to the credit of the historical avant-garde movements that they supplied this self-criticism.[4]

The historical avant-garde is the “self-criticism” of art as an institution. The problem is, however, that such focus on art in isolation, while originating as a critique of art in bourgeois society, quickly lost any sense of the wider social context for art or its conditions of possibility, as the supposedly critical gesture became reified through decades of repetition.

[I]t could be argued…that the institutional critique in conceptual art, even when the institution is figured as an ideological state apparatus, turned conceptual art too inward, resulting in an art that has merely opened the market to conceptual art.[5]

If postmodernism has done anything, it has confirmed art’s embeddedness in the broader field of capitalist production (often by taking up commodification as its very subject matter—Warhol, for instance). Some literary movements today do indeed seem to practice an institutional “self-critique” of poetry, but where they remain so exclusively focused, they are limited by a kind of anachronism, embodying the “old-new,” and indeed, old news.

Nevertheless, what I am not willing to completely let go of yet in this term is its sense of movement, of collective effort and shared social values (a shared valuation of the social, ultimately). If we accept that the poetry we are variously calling “innovative,” “avant-garde,” and “experimental” is essentially a cluster of practices and movements oriented towards change, then we may indeed need a sense of vanguardism as a key structure of feeling, if nothing else. It poses the idea of change—the possibility of or potential for radical change—before we know how to effect change or what we might change things into. An avant-garde is, if nothing else, the pre-emergence of social agency, and a claim upon a directionality for social change—towards a communist horizon.[6]

EXPERIMENTAL. To call poetry “experimental” is in part to focus on the means by which poetry is made—procedures and techniques. Such a focus on “means” (think “means of production”) is part and parcel of Bürger’s definition of the historical avant-garde, in which “the totality of artistic means becomes available as means” only when the notions of a “period style” and the “existing canon of permissible procedures” has been dispensed with.[7] The ability to “experiment” with all and any available “means” goes hand in hand with a “shift” in the “form-content dialectic” towards form: “means become available as the category ‘content’ withers.”[8]

This is all well and good, but it does set the “experimental” up for the problem discussed above under “avant-garde”—that it becomes too self-referential, too disconnected from its various overdetermining social and material contexts.

What is invaluable in the notion of the “experimental” is the emphasis here on unknown outcomes, on the open and the potential. In an experiment, one is not sure what the outcome will be, but one tries it anyway. Poetry has been engaging with “experiments” at least since Wordsworth described his (and Coleridge’s) project in the Lyrical Ballads as “experiments…written chiefly with a view to ascertain how far the language of conversation in the middle and lower classes of society is adapted to the purposes of poetic pleasure.”[9] This is as good a definition of the “experimental” in poetry as we are going to find: it is a matter of testing the potential of making poetry out of seemingly “unpoetic” discourses and discursive formations, of finding poetry, democratically, at all levels of social stratification, in all discursive situations, of dissolving class in the acid of linguistic “experiments,” of bringing the entire social field into the aesthetic (and of seeing the aesthetic everywhere in the social).

All three terms—innovative, avant-garde, and experimental—get used more or less interchangeably, or are employed to mutually define each other. We probably need this multiplicity, or indeterminacy, of names, just as much as we need the (however problematic and overlapping) specificity of each of these terms—the poetic field, especially in its radical enclave, is that diverse. I find myself wanting to approach these terms the way Frederic Jameson does the words “socialism” and “democracy,” as “tainted words” which present a “contradiction in which not to use the word is inevitably to fail politically, while to use the word is to preclude success in advance”—“There is, however, a third possibility,” Jameson continues, “and that is to deploy a language whose inner logic is precisely the suspension of the name and the holding open of the place of possibility, and that is the language of utopia.”[10] I want to “hold open” the space we variously name “innovative” “avant-garde” or “experimental” in contemporary poetry as a “place of possibility.” These poetries could, following Jameson, be called “utopian poetries,” a term I will sometimes use, though the term I will move towards here, as a “holding open” (that nevertheless fills in a bit of detail) is “dialectical poetry.”

However, the point is not to dismiss or privilege certain strands or formations within the avant-garde or innovative (though in proposing a “dialectical poetry” I will press certain distinctions), but rather, to see the plurality of these avant-gardes as a “dissensus” (to borrow Jacques Rancière’s term[11])—rather than an undialectical consensus.


2. Cage Match

Why the need to be dialectical here? Jameson notes that “the binary opposition is the paradigmatic form of all ideology,” and further, that “One has not succeeded in neutralizing an opposition aesthetically unless one continues to keep that opposition and that tension alive.”[12] If one of the tasks of a utopian poetry is to reveal and resist the workings of ideology, then it can do so by no better means than dialectically—the dialectic being none other than this process of keeping “tension alive” or, as Jameson writes, “an imperative to hold the opposites together, and, as it were, to abolish the autonomy of both terms in favor of a … tension one must necessarily preserve.”[13]

We could also cut to the chase, and go to Marx’s “Postface to the Second Edition” of Capital: the dialectic is crucial because “it regards every historically developed form as being in a fluid state, in motion, and therefore grasps its transient aspect as well; and because it does not let itself be impressed by anything, being in its very essence critical and revolutionary.”[14]

In the apparent opposition of lyric and innovative poetries, both poles on the surface at least seek an autonomy from the opposite sphere. Indeed, they constitute themselves in the very act of rejecting and excluding their supposed opposite. An archetypal manifestation of this performed oppositionality can be seen in the 2009 “cage match” between Carmine Starnino (as standard bearer for Canada’s lyric conventionality) and Christian Bök (the don of the Canadian avant-garde) (or so they are portrayed, and happily take up their scripted roles, in this staged production).[15] Significantly, the two never really speak directly to each other, but rather, take polite turns at dismissing one another’s aesthetics. Bök likens his camp’s aesthetic to “carving a Lamborghini out of titanium with a laser,” and Starnino’s to fashioning “lace doilies.” Starnino, barely able to counter Bök’s rhetoric and wit, mumbles something about the timelessness of “good poetry.”

This “debate” is hardly worth taking seriously, except for the fact that it plays out, in pathetic, Punch and Judy fashion, exactly what many poets seem to feel to be true: if they identify as avant-garde, they indeed see themselves as the party of the future, in the process of sweeping aside the relics of a by-gone era. If they identify as lyric poets, they stand for “timeless” values against the substanceless rhetoric of avant-garde hucksters hell-bent on bilking a gullible poetic “public.” Both views, sadly, seem to be fairly accurate. Bök is entertaining, but his rhetoric tends to be saturated with commodification, poetry’s goal seemingly being to expand its market share—nothing more, nothing less. Starnino has a difficult time saying anything articulate at all, but he makes one significant point when he notes that avant-garde poets rarely critique one another’s work. I’m not sure that the same can’t also be said of lyric poets (it’s always easier to critique what your self-definition has already, in constituting itself, rejected), but the point is that the divide is structuring the field in significant ways, both in terms of writing and reading practices, and that the avant-garde, especially, may feel itself to be a fragile niche that cannot bear “dissention within the ranks.”[16]

I want to leave this false binary behind, and address a poetry that, while not seeking some sort of pluralistic “hybrid” of these two cartoonish extremes, seems to me to be written with anything but this petty debate in mind. But let me be clear, I am not talking about some sort of “third way,” forced synthesis, or Canadian “hybrid.” While I find much of the work in Cole Swensen and David St. John’s recent American Hybrid anthology “interesting” or “compelling” or even “good” poetry, I do not agree with their suggestion that poets, like all consumers, have now stumbled upon the good fortune and “freedom” of simply being able to “choose” from the buffet of possible poetic techniques, some “conventional” and some “experimental” (if you are in the mood), irrespective of any other contexts or determinants. Neither do I support Swensen and St. John’s triumphalism served up, in Andrea Actis’s critique, for “an American public already receptive to narratives of the so-called ‘end of history’—to narratives of a synthesis of History’s ‘fundamental internal contradictions.’”[17] Actis cites Heriberto Yepez’s condemnation of hybridity as the expression of “postmodernism’s quackery” in terms that spell out the distinction I want to make here: “Through the illusion of hybridism contradiction is obscured, turned commodity.”[18] Synthesis and hybridity obscure contradiction, producing the neatly smoothed surface of the commodified object. The utopian poetry I want to append the adjective “dialectical” to (as a descriptor of specific, active practices), while it may display “attributes of previous ‘camps’ in diverse and unprecedented ways,” is in no way the result of an attempt to create a cafeteria-style poetry “draw[n] from a vast and wildly varied reservoir of sources,” nor is it in any way an attempt to obscure contradiction.[19]

Neither cage match nor hybrid will do. And yet, the avant-garde seems to remain tied to an oppositional purity and a concomitant fear of aesthetic miscegenation. Before approaching dialectical poetry, however, I want to take up Starnino’s challenge and offer a critique of an avant-garde formation from within the avant-garde.


3. Conceptualist Fundamentalism

The undialectical “consensus” masking the “dissensus” of today’s avant-garde is conceptualism. In many respects the perception now is that conceptualism is the avant-garde, and the avant-garde, conceptualism.[20] This in part has to do with the volume of its marketing; indeed, I would suggest that conceptual writing has appropriated a whole range of literary practices, rebranding them as markers of the unassailable “newness” (“innovation”) of the latest literary craze that, as Christian Bök proclaims, eliding the issue of his own agency, “critics have seen fit to dub ‘conceptualism.’”[21]

Bök’s own characteristic work (I’m referring here to Eunoia) is constraint based, procedural.[22] The fact that he is Canada’s leading advocate for conceptualism (while the work of poets such as derek beulieu and Darren Wershler is more unambiguously conceptual, to my mind) indicates a particular problem with conceptualism’s concept: it re-names, in hindsight, techniques that have been actively employed by the avant-garde for, in some instances, 100 years now. As Robert Fitterman and Vanessa Place write in Notes on Conceptualisms, “Collage, pastiche, procedure, constraint, performance, citation, documentation and appropriation (part or whole) may be techniques used in conceptual writing.”[23]

I want to be clear: I have no problem with any of these techniques, and in fact use most of them in my own work. What I have a problem with is 1) conceptualism’s framing and marketing of itself (in its re-deployment of these techniques) as the newest-of-the-new, state-of-the-art—thus reducing the avant-garde to a petty game of one-upmanship and, in Amy King’s words, the status of a “capitalist pop culture tool of sensationalism,”[24]

—and 2) its apparent de-politicization and ahistorical re-deployment of these techniques.[25] In the first case, my point is that much of what we are now being instructed to call “conceptual” writing we were a short time ago calling “procedural” writing, “conceptualism” being a sexier brand to promote a body of work under. In the second case, I would point to Fitterman and Place’s contention that “capitalism has a knack for devouring and absorbing everything in its path”—“capitalism is a medium” and “the medium is the message.”[26] I do not think that Fitterman and Place are wrong here, but I do question the use of such statements to potentially celebrate or legitimate the social “failure” and complicity of radical poetics[27]. Call it naivety or idealism, but I’m not ready to give up the ghost and plug into the machine conceptualism celebrates.

With appropriation somewhere near the centre of conceptualism’s procedural arsenal, this is as good an entry point as any to address its (absent) politics. Appropriation, for conceptualism, seems primarily to be a means of resisting lyric poetry’s “intentionality” and “expressiveness”[28]—a means of resisting the myth of the creative and emotive individual genius with an “uncreative” writing that mirrors the “banality” of much of contemporary culture. There is the possibility of a politics in this gesture of rubbing-our-culture’s-nose-in-its-own-vacuousness, but it has had limited efficacy over its long history. Another, I think more radical way of conceiving appropriation is through the discourse of the commons: appropriating language as resisting its private ownership, as declaring it a common property and shared use value. It is a gesture of returning the “private” to the “common” for purposes of further production and creative, collaborative social reproduction. In this regard, Goldsmith’s UbuWeb project is perhaps his greatest, and certainly his most political, “conceptual” work.

When it comes to conceptualism, what we primarily see celebrated is not the material/social status of the source or its appropriation, but the individual and subjective effort—the superhuman endurance of the copyist—Kenny Goldsmith’s exhausting practice of data entry drudgery, or Simon Morris’s re-typing of Kerouac’s On the Road—what (barely) hides behind the celebration of “concept” and “procedure” in these instances is the fetishization of the heroic individual enduring the daily “uncreative” demands of “immaterial” labour.[29] Source texts are not private intellectual properties being re-appropriated for further, collective production, but rather, vehicles that re-instate an individual subjectivity, emptied of its potentially humanizing creativity and affect and yet, like neoliberal capitalism itself, “dead but still dominant.”[30]

One might speak of a “heroic” conceptualism in these instances. Fitterman and Place call this “heroic” strain “pure conceptualism,” distinguishing it from various “impure” conceptualisms, which “might invite more interventionist editing of appropriated source material and more direct treatment of the self in relation to the ‘object.’”[31] Again, they could be accused of subsuming a whole history of diverse interventionist tactics under the new brand here, and, once again, I would see many of my own practices—as well as those practices I would describe as “dialectical”—as indeed occupying a space somewhere between an editorial “self” and its appropriated “objects.” “Pure” conceptualism is by its very purity non-dialectical—a frozen and reified object with which, ultimately, one can’t do much of anything (certainly, as the conceptualists themselves declare, one wouldn’t go so far as to read it). Pure conceptualism is a fundamentalism (dualistic, not dialectical), and as such it is not surprising that it has arisen in the past decade. Pure, heroic conceptualism is a celebration of “method” as, in Jameson’s terms, “an instrumental and non-dialectical idea”: “Perhaps…the very effort to remain vigilantly formalistic and to abstract the dialectic from the impurities of content and context was itself a mistake, from which only ‘method’ as such could reemerge.”[32]

What I have been critical of here is largely the discourse around and about conceptualism—and the dominance of this discourse by a few voices. The main “concept” in conceptualism in fact seems to be the discourse around conceptualism.  This discourse—caught up in questions of, alternately, fame and notoriety on the one hand (conceptualism is about its own improbable success), and dumbness and uncreativity on the other—is to my mind decidedly lacking and perhaps unsurprisingly vacuous. By turning the discussion of conceptualism into a discussion about the discussion about conceptualism (with its attendant cage matches and “pop culture sensationalism”), conceptualism’s leading lights situate the work within a well-worn tradition of institutional critique: conceptualism reveals, not so much the poverty of poetry or art, but the poverty of criticism and the culture industry. More importantly, it also reveals the poverty of conceptualism’s notion of what a radical poetry might be and do.

One problem probably has to do with the perceived audience for these commentaries: it would seem that they are addressed not to other practitioners of radical poetries, however construed, but to a hypothetical and decidedly straw-manish poetic “mainstream” or “official verse culture” which can still occasionally be baited, provoked, and in some cases outraged.[33] Thus conceptualism attempts to perform the age-old role of “outraging the bourgeoisie,” striking directly at its cherished icons—genius, originality, feeling, and individuality. The politics here—and I do want to acknowledge how and where conceptualism does proffer a politics, however attenuated—is dystopian at best, a sort of futurist wallowing in a post-human wasteland of machines, excess data, and slavish file-copying where the bacteria that outlive us will go on composing odes to our annihilation. In this way conceptualism might be read as a cautionary tale—here’s what total alienation and subsumption actually looks like—the aim of which might be that we are “sacred straight.”

One of conceptualism’s crucial limitations is its positioning of itself “against expression.” This connects, obviously, to its attempts to “outrage the bourgeoisie,” but the gesture has been with us a long time now, and “expression” is a good deal more complex, and interesting, than such a gesture lets on. Expression, for one thing, may relate to political agency in important ways, and it is certainly not limited to (as conceptualism seems fixated on) self-expression: there are of course important social and collective forms of expression in which poetry participates. Indeed, expression is often productively deployed in a dialectical relationship to more constructivist practices that a fundamentalist conceptualism apparently disallows. As the work of Jeff Derksen and Lisa Robertson suggests, in markedly different ways, we are not yet done with sincerity as a social, and potentially radical, mode.


4. Towards a Dialectical Poetry

When we approach definition, that which we would define—spirits away.

A dialectical poetry—as opposed to the “pure” “method” of a monocultural conceptualism—dives straight into the impure space where the “matter of capital” (to borrow Chris Nealon’s phrase) is both method and “topics, topoi”—contents and contexts which “stage confrontations between poetry and capital.”[34] The question Nealon takes up is “what poetry is, or would have to be, in order to be opposed to capital: equally substantial, or equally insubstantial? Fleet and circulatory, like money, or defiantly valueless, money’s opposite? Imitative of the movements that produce crisis and rushing headlong into it, or built to survive crisis and live on into a postcapitalist future?”[35] The point is that there is no simple answer; a dialectical poetry “stages” these contradictions—and pursues all possibilities—as Jameson writes, “Art’s function is to produce contradictions, and to make them visible.”[36]

Dialectical poetry is a provisional name for something I’d rather not name and which will never coalesce into a marketable literary movement but which nonetheless gestures towards a real body of work heretofore not named with any clarity or specificity. I don’t want to spoil that, but I also want this work to be—visible.

Following Nealon, I argue that keeping the different modes by which we see avant-garde art forms to “oppose” capitalism, as an active dialectic, if not a full-blown dissensus, is crucial to the maintenance of a viable avant-garde. What we need is a “poetic front” of practices arrayed against capital, and towards the future. Purity kills—whether at the level of practice or critique—it puts an end to potentiality by enacting closure. Conceptualism, whether conceived as institutional critique or methodological “culpability” (capitalism as “medium” and thus “message”), proffers its critique from the “inside” only—in Fitterman and Place’s words, it “does not aim to critique the culture industry from afar, but to mirror it directly”—a critique that is “inseparable from the replication of the error under critique.”[37] In a dialectical poetry, we see both such a critique from within as well as a criticism that stubbornly holds to the idea (and practice) of an outside—an inescapable mirroring of capitalism’s structures and at the same time an iconoclastic smashing of that mirror.

To name a few names—I think the following poets (the list is brief and incomplete) have produced poetry I would want to call dialectical: in Canada—Jeff Derksen, Kevin Davies, Colin Smith, Lisa Robertson, Roger Farr, Cecily Nicholson, Donato Mancini, Rachel Zolf, Oana Avisilichieoia, Kate Eichhorn, Jordan Scott—and in the US—Jules Boykoff, Kaia Sand, Jane Sprague, Juliana Spahr, Joshua Clover, Rob Halpern, Mark Nowak, Rodrigo Toscano, Laura Elrick, Thom Donovan—I could go on.

Sven Lütticken argues for such a dialectic of “critique” and “criticism” (the distinction I’m using is his), inside and outside, in Idols of the Market. Criticism, Lütticken notes, works from “an external, perhaps ‘transcendental’ vantage point,” while critique “is that discourse which seeks to inhabit the experience of the subject from the inside.”[38] “[C]ritical projects,” Lütticken concludes, “must be pushed to the point where they become full-blown dissent—an actual contestation of the existing order. To achieve this, to think beyond the idols of the market, critique must preserve some of the force of the criticism of idolatry.”[39] This is an argument for impurity, for a dialectical art that approaches the “matter of capital,” inhabiting it and rejecting it, from a variety of positions.

I am talking about practices, not movements. As with any critical category or term, I may be naming nothing that exists. I may merely be naming my desire. What I write towards. Maybe none of the poets I name would want to have their work described as “dialectical.” Maybe describing them this way doesn’t actually highlight anything—beyond the fact that I read them, together, and in solidarity.

Vancouver poet Roger Farr offers another version of this dialectic. Imagining a situation similar to the one conceptualism addresses, Farr asks, “what happens when…capital reaches a stage where it emancipates itself from human agency, in order to achieve the form not merely of universal economy, but rather that of a ‘mechanistic utopia where human beings become simple accessories of an automated system’?”[40] In such a situation Farr recommends “weakening the command of the capitalist information field through the re-presentation of the empty volume of its own social facts”[41]—something we might indeed see in conceptualism’s “direct mirroring” of the culture industry. But for Farr, this is not enough, as such critique from within must be joined by a criticism from without: “poetry’s role remains primarily affective: to joyfully render the present even more intolerable than it already is, while gesturing toward new forms of affinity, agency, and association.”[42] Thus while Farr would feed capital’s “empty volume” back to it, he does so to make “the present even more intolerable than it already is,” in order to arrive at that moment when, in Marx’s famous terms, “the conditions themselves cry out” and radical and sweeping social change becomes, more than the only option—emphatically unavoidable. At the same time, Farr invokes an outside to this “intolerable” extension of the present—a future where “new forms of affinity, agency and association” not conceived under capitalism not only become possible, but provide a platform from which to launch new criticisms of capital.

By naming something “dialectical,” am I ceasing being dialectical? Perhaps…but I do not oppose a “dialectical poetry” to, say, conceptual poetry—it is not an alternative. Conceptualism names a would-be literary movement; “dialectical” poetry is a descriptor of practice. Conceptual poetry can itself be dialectical.

A dialectical poetry offers a doubling of critique and criticism—an extension of “conditions” from the inside as well as the projection of “affects” into new outsides. A dialectical poetry is interested in the complex and often overdetermined interface of form and content (to revive some very old terms)—in method and topics, topoi. At times, what I call a dialectical poetry will even allow “expressiveness” to co-exist with “constructivist” modes of textual appropriation, releasing “lyric” voices into a maze of codes and data-mined informations.

Form and content as one of our primordial socio-aesthetic dialectics. A dialectical poetry puts them (if I can be permitted to speak this way) into a space where their contradictions, their continuities and discontinuities, can emerge and contend. Form is never more than a dialectical relationship with content. Duncan: “a scale of resemblance and disresemblance.”[43]

Dialectical poetry often employs various “research” practices and methods to assess the social and material world it would address—in Derksen’s words, “a poetry understood (in its writing and reception) as research, and research as a public act,” “nonconformist productions of knowledge … equally as rigorous as any other form, but with a … methodology that is more process-based than generative of ‘outcomes.’”[44] A “research” question posed in Derksen’s own poetry might run as follows: “If capitalism kills you, who do you complain to?”[45] The answer to this question presumes (or perhaps demands) an outside: who indeed, if capitalism is assumed to be everywhere and everything. From where does one ask this question? Of whom? Dialectical poetry is poetry which creates a space for this sort of “complaint”—while not denying its complicities and contradictions—as well as a space for research into possible answers to this question.

Dialectical poetry is often site-specific. It occurs in space. Much of the more interesting ecopoetry—the work of Mark Truscott in Canada, or Jonathan Skinner is the US—is dialectical. “Nature,” of course, is in dialectical tension with “culture” at every turn.

If the avant-garde, loosely conceived, can be described as the production of change-oriented works of art, I think we have to ask whether formal innovation alone is enough of a change. If we have had something of an avant-garde for some 200 years (at least since Wordsworth’s “Preface” to the Lyrical Ballads), this tradition has evolved, step by step, alongside its evil twin brother, capitalism—two phenomena that have both valued formal innovation, but which have not always valued the same contents.

“What makes art works socially significant is content that articulates itself in formal structures.”[46]

I am by no means arguing for an evolutionary “progress” towards a dialectical poetry from the battle field wreckage of failed avant-garde and lyric traditions, neither am I arguing for some sort of “Canadian hybrid,” nor am I in any way suggesting that the work I have pointed towards in this paper is the “best” poetry now being written, or the most “characteristic” or whatever. I read the poetic field as a dissensus where many divergent strategies (and aesthetics) are necessarily at play. I only wish to direct attention to this particular node in that dissensus—in part, to counter the perception of a consensus around conceptualism’s centrality and exemplarity, but also to note the particularly provocative ways that some poetry is responding (symptomatically, perhaps, but also critically) to the conditions of early 21st century global capitalism.

Contemporary poetic avant-gardes merely recycle the gestures of past avant-gardes because, the first times, they didn’t take.[47]

If one response to capitalism’s seemingly inexhaustible ability to absorb ANYTHING—however originally framed AGAINST IT—is to go back into the past history of these now-appropriated gestures because they “didn’t take” the first time—and I’m not against this—I would just add that we also need to go even deeper still, into the context out of which aesthetic avant-gardes formed: the context of revolutionary social movements—which similarly “didn’t take” the first time round. Such “going back” is one mode of reaction to capitalism’s appropriation of—appropriation. Another—equally important—is rejecting and continuing to resist this appropriation outright—of claiming the ground of “honest indignation” (Blake)—and iconoclastically smashing the “idols of the market” yet again.


[1] A shorter version of this paper was first delivered as a talk at “North of Invention: A Festival of Canadian Poetry,” at Kelly Writers House, UPENN, on January 20 2011. Special thanks to organizers Sarah Dowling and Charles Bernstein. I have made only minor updates to the original, despite its many shortfalls. A current rendition of my views on this subject can be found in “Notes on the Death of the Avant-Garde,” in the first issue of Zone (September 2013).

[2] See, for instance, George Caffentzis, “A Tale of Two Conferences: Globalization, the Crisis of Neoliberalism, and the Question of the Commons,” available at

[3] Both references taken from the OED.

[4] Peter Bürger, Theory of the Avant-Garde, trans. Michael Shaw. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984: 27.

[5] Jeff Derksen, “Inside/Outside the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Site: Nation, Avant-Garde, Globalization,” in Annihilated Time: Poetry and Other Politics. Vancouver: Talon Books, 2009: 124.

[6] As I argue in the first issue of Zone.

[7] Bürger, Theory of the Avant-Garde, 18.

[8] Ibid., 20.

[9] William Wordsworth, “Preface to the Lyrical Ballads” (1802). William Wordsworth: The Major Works. Ed. Stephen Gill. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984: 595.

[10] Frederic Jameson, Valences of the Dialectic. London: Verso, 2009: 12.

[11] See Jacques Rancière, Dissensus: On Politics and Aesthetics. Ed and Trans. Steven Corcoran. London: Continuum, 2010.

[12] Jameson, Valences of the Dialectic, 18; 35.

[13] Ibid., 65.

[14] Karl Marx, Capital, Vol. I. Trans. Ben Fowkes. London: Penguin Books, 1976: 103.

[15] Video of the “Cage Match of Canadian Poetry,” which took place in Calgary at Mount Royal University, is available here: Subsequent citations in this paragraph taken from the video.

[16] The reviews of Donato Mancini’s recent You Must Work Harder to Write Poetry of Excellence (BookThug 2012)—a book which in part tracks the demarcation of poetic “camps” through the reviewing process—are instructive here, as they ironically once again impose the narrative of oppositional camps (something Mancini both critiques and, admittedly, participates in himself).

[17] Andrea Actis, “Exquisite Hybridizations and the Gentrification of Forms,” in The Poetic Front, Vol.3 (2010): 3.

[18] Ibid., 1-2.

[19] “Introduction,” American Hybrid, Ed. Cole Swenson and David St. John, New York: W. W. Norton, 2009: xvii; xxviii.

[20] It should be noted from the outset here that not all conceptualisms fall under the microscope here. I am in fact concerned primarily with the discourse unfolding around conceptualism, as will become clear in due course, as well as the dominance of a few voices—those of the movement’s “marketers”—within this discourse.

[21] “Two Dots over a Vowel,” in Boundary 2 36:3 (2009): 11. The disingenuousness here is revealed by Bök’s pleasure in retelling the “founding” of conceptualism by himself, Kenneth Goldsmith, and Darren Werschler one night in a Buffalo bar. For a version of this origin myth see Bök’s interview with Stephen Ross in Wave Composition (June 5 2011).

[22] I will not discuss Bök’s “Xenotext” project as it has yet to appear in print, however, it may be worth noting that this project too—in which a poem ciphered into genetic coding will be implanted in a bacterium—is primarily about its procedure. None of this, however, is meant to dismiss the quality of Bök’s work, which I find intellectually challenging in ways his own critical comments undercut and overly simplify. Bök’s work is also markedly different than his friend Goldsmith’s, where the former work to my mind falls within a tradition of intellectually investigative poetry, whereas the latter is more the realm of pure meta-performance.

[23] Robert Fitterman and Vanessa Place, Notes on Conceptualisms, Berkeley CA: Ugly Duckling Press, 2009: 43.

[24] See King’s “Beauty and the Beastly Po-Biz,” The Rumpus (July 15 2013).

[25] King again: “[Conceptualism’s] ‘avant-garde’ claim to disruption appears to be a front for the competitive advancement of this group in the reductive capitalist embrace.” See also Kent Johnson’s “Notes on Safe Conceptualisms” in Lana Turner. Johnson likens the conceptualist gesture to “openly wallowing in” the “exhaustion” of our current culture, and concludes: “Welcome to the new right-wing of the poetic ‘avant-garde.’”


[26] Ibid., 30.

[27] See, for instance, King’s discussion of Place’s “VanessaPlace, Inc,” and its claim that “Poetry is a kind of money,” or consider what is to my mind one of Goldsmith’s most telling phrases, in his introduction to Against Expression: “blue chip artists.”

[28] These are the terms Bök uses in “Two Dots over a Vowel.”

[29] There is much more to be said about conceptualism’s deployment of a discourse of labour. All I would point out here is that it is a celebration of a decidedly individual (rather than social) form of labour, comparable to just the sort of craft-based “genius” conceptualism is supposed to be rejecting—only the “genius” now stands revealed as a “dumb” copyist, with nothing left but his individual brand. No art, just artless artists, seems to be the motto here. When Goldsmith proclaims “My books are … unreadable. All you need to know is the concept behind them” (, what is privileged here is exchange over use value, and the exchange value, the fetish hiding in the commodity of conceptualism with its “phantom-like objectivity,” is the discourse about conceptualism—the outrage and disgust it provokes, the battle lines it draws, the pranks it is able to pull off, the cache it wins by being read in the White House or at MOMA, all the while revealing its own spectral insubstantiality. In this way a poet like Goldsmith gets to say “isn’t the art market ridiculous?” all the while he reaps the benefits of his institutional success in the same market.

[30] This phrase comes from Neil Smith, “”Neoliberalism is dead, dominant, defeatable—then what?” Human Geography 1(2): 1-3.

[31] Fitterman and Place, Notes on Conceptualisms, 22.

[32] Jameson, Valences of the Dialectic, 49.

[33] One of the more recent takers of the bait—a willing participant in the dualistic (and non-dialectical) game—is Calvin Bedient. See his Boston Review essay “Against Conceptualism: Defending the Poetry of Affect” (July 24 2013).

[34] Christopher Nealon, The Matter of Capital: Poetry and Crisis in the American Century. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011: 3.

[35] Ibid., 30.

[36] Jameson, Valences of the Dialectic, 531.

[37] Fitterman and Place, Notes on Conceptualisms, 20.

[38] Sven Lütticken, Idols of the Market: Modern Iconoclasm and the Fundamentalist Spectacle. Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2009: 18.

[39] Ibid., 20.

[40] Roger Farr, “Postscript: Poetry and Anti-Politics,” The Poetic Front Vol. 3 (2010): 2.

[41] Ibid., 3.

[42] Ibid., 4. Note Farr’s focus here on “affect.” He is decidedly not taking up a position “against expression.”

[43] Robert Duncan, “Structure of Rime II.” The Opening Of The Field. New York: Grove, 1960: 13.

[44] Jeff Derksen, “6 Minutes for CanLit (and I was prepared to give a lifetime!): Poetry as Research /Rescaling Poetry,” unpublished talk courtesy of the author.

[45] Transnational Muscle Cars. Vancouver: Talon Books, 2003: 110.

[46] Theodore Adorno, Aesthetic Theory. Trans. Robert Hullot-Kentor. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997: 327.

[47] K. Silem Mohammad, “Flarf and Conceptual Poetry,” talk delivered at the AWP, Denver CO., April 10 2010. Accessed at


stephencollisStephen Collis is the author of four books of poetry, Mine (New Star 2001), Anarchive (New Star 2005), which was nominated for the Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize, The Commons (Talonbooks 2008)—the latter two form parts of the on-going “Barricades Project”—and On the Material(Talonbooks 2010). He is also the author of two book-length studies, Phyllis Webb and the Common Good (Talonbooks 2007) and Through Words of Others: Susan Howe and Anarcho-Scholasticism (ELS Editions 2006). He is currently editing a collection of essays, Reading Duncan Reading, organizing the Charles Olson Centenary Conference (June 4-6 2010), and continuing to work on “The Barricades Project.” A member of the Kootenay School of Writing, he teaches American literature, poetry, and poetics at Simon Fraser University.