As it is described in an interview published last year in Jacket2poet Steven Zultanski’s version of conceptual poetry has less to do with rules and concepts than it does with transgression and creativity:

It’s not so much about blending as about testing what counts as poetry […] The worst thing that could happen is that “Conceptualism” just becomes the name for anything weird, or un-poetic in certain ways, or unconcerned with the preciousness (or allusiveness) of the individual line or sentence. The best thing that could happen is that it functions as a spring-board for things we can’t imagine yet.

Zultanski anticipates the possibilities conceptualism might open for other writers, but since I’m not much of a conceptual writer, I want to use his remarks to reconsider the position of the reader of conceptual poetry. Can conceptualism actually be a springboard for a certain way, or certain ways, of reading poetry? I think it can.

Technically speaking, the conceptual reader is not supposed to exist. Kenneth Goldsmith earnestly recasts “readership” as “thinkership,” and so if I’ve forgotten to think about the conceptual work’s concept and started reading in my “old” way, either the work has failed or I have regressed into a sort of conservative readerly dinosaur. (In fact there is actually a rift between conceptualists such as Zultanski, Vanessa Place and Robert Fitterman, who acknowledge conceptual failure—the moments at which the concept ceases to control the work, becoming again invisible behind its language—as part of conceptual writing, and those like Goldsmith, for whom this failure can and should be avoided.) 

Can conceptualism be a springboard for ways of reading poetry?

But “failure” of the concept is not necessarily failure of the poem if there is still the reader. I suppose there is a certain naïveté in the way I want to think about conceptual reading: the nervous partygoer gets caught trying to eat the plastic sugared grapes or smell the fake orchid. Or perhaps I’m trying to have my plastic grapes and eat them too: of course what separates a conceptual book from, say, the phone book is that to some degree it does tacitly create the conditions for the emergence of a certain kind of reader, or it anticipates her intrusion. And it might be argued that of course we are meant to “read” conceptual works in the traditional sense, to parse and unpack them, as Marjorie Perloff does with Goldsmith’s Traffic in her book Unoriginal Genius. But my point is that compositional method doesn’t dictate the reader’s way of reading any more than authorial intention or academic code. Habit no longer, reading becomes autonomous, a choice among multiple ways of reading.

For instance: Vanessa Place’s Statement of Facts—in which Place, a criminal appellate attorney, self-appropriates her own legal writings from cases involving rape and sexual violence—works out an ethical drama of reading “as poetry.” How does a reader faced with a mass of such material confront her own reading?  What kind of habit would drive a reader—me—to underline the sentence, “Appellant did not recall buying or giving Kendra the objectionable Valentine’s Day card, although he did sign it […] The card’s cover had a hippopotamus with hearts”? Is it ok for a reader—for me—to pause over a serial rapist’s request, during interrogation, for “a glass of water and some gummy bears”? To imagine the narrative of the request’s fulfillment, to note not only its strange childishness but even the assonance permitted by the (non-essential) word “some” and the stresses that fall in perfect pentameter (but to what possible end?) on “some,” “gum,” and “bears”? And yet—would it be any better not to read like this?

No matter how you read, Statement of Facts is hard to face, impossible to stomach—and above all I don’t mean to take the atrocity of its subject matter lightly in any way. But for Place, poetry is in part about setting up these uncomfortable situations; poetry depends on not renouncing itself before what seems like non-poetry. “All I know of poetry,” she writes, “is my transgression of poetry. Through a-poetry, radically evil poetry, poetry that cannot be poetry as poetry has previously been conceived, poetry that takes the execution of poetry quite literally and quite stupidly, there is poetry.” The affective power of some conceptual works has similarly to do with persistence and transgression. For a reader stubborn enough to keep reading poetry as poetry, the conceptual work forbidding reading still makes reading possible—thoughtful reading, emotional reading. Not herself a concept, the conceptual reader is right here where she shouldn’t be: ready to be moved by language, angry about the way language is used, really feeling the sound of words. Reading doesn’t always feel so transgressive, but I like when it does.

A longer example. The poems in Zultanski’s book Agony run on the logic and structure of calculations, cranking along in a sort of algorithmic exploration in which the input variables evoke, loosely, the set of elements common to “confessional” poetry—tears, lovers, childhood, windows, breasts, dead pets, etc.:

Say that I cry 28 times a year, which seems like an arbitrary number but which is my age. And which seems like a lot but also seems about right. Though perhaps I cry less if I have no lover that year.
So, given that the life expectancy of a U.S. male is 74.37 years, we can assume that I cry about 56.028 cubic inches of tears a year.
In a year with a lover or lovers.
And that I shed 2.001 cubic inches of tears every time I cry.
[. . .]
So then. Each year I shed only 1.844% of my body’s water.

—and so on, ad nauseam (and Agony’s 154 pages are only, apparently, the first third of a projected trilogy). Zultanski’s strictly logical measurements move erratically and illogically; there is no “point” to be “proven,” no bottom line to underscore. Instead, the confessional self to which all calculations are inevitably keyed proves both tyrannical and comforting: Agony is a critique of that self—our relation to it constantly distanced by the poems’ relentless mathematics—and a start towards a new way of writing it.

So what happens to this reader in the gears of Agony’s cranking computations?  The poem “Rooms” takes up poetry’s relationship to sense experience, as the exploring poet “lick[s] things in [his] childhood bedroom and describe[s] the taste and texture of these things”:

The rusty screen tastes breezy, as if my damp breath were fresh air coming back though the window. I can’t taste the corrosion, as far as I know; nor do I know if and how it filters the temperature of my exhalations.

The rules, or someone’s version of them, probably say that I’m supposed to be thinking about methodology behind this licking stunt, considering the sort of data provided by sense experience rather than numbers—and I can do that. (Readers of Zultanski’s Pad, in which the poet’s obsessive catalog of objects in his apartment includes whether or not he can lift them with his penis, will find this sort of exploration familiar.) But the funny thing is that each time I read them, these lines give me a start: at some point in my suburban childhood I must’ve licked a window-screen, because I remember it tasting pretty much exactly like that

And since I’m already here, I might as well engage in another act of reading: strangely enough, Agony’s prolonged investment in a formally determined interrogative mode reminds me of the “Ithaca” section of Joyce’s Ulysses. If my own sense of surprise homecoming contributes to the connection, so too does surprise itself—surprise generated by the moments where concept falters and language comes back into presence, as if for me, the reader:

For what creature was the door of egress a door of ingress?
For a cat.
What spectacle confronted them when they, first the host, then the guest, emerged silently, doubly dark, from obscurity by a passage from the rere of the house into the penumbra of the garden?
The heaventree of stars hung with humid nightblue fruit.