When fear of lyric subjectivity goes too far
You’re left with a purely linguistic shell, a work of methodology, rather than craft, as Cal Bedient persuasively puts it in his essay, “Against Conceptualism”:
Melancholy and militancy, those contrary but subtly related elements of the poetry of affect, cannot be excised from literature, in favor of methodology, without both emotional and political consequences: misery in the first instance, cultural conformity in the second.
I’m of the mind, too, that transcription–one of a few different methodologies of conceptual poetry–does not actually avoid subjectivity as much as one may think. There is no moment when I read Kenneth Goldsmith’s “Day” where I am not completely aware that he made this, that he chose this title to append to this newspaper article in order to say something about 9/11, the news, the shock of the mundane, etc. There is no “I” in “Day,” but the concept is what’s subjective in a poem like this. And it’s rather neoliberal in the way it earns the poet cultural capital (and a nice position at UPenn).
Of course, Goldsmith is perfectly aware of this, and discusses it openly in an interview in BOMB Magazine:
Marcus Boon: Do you think you can get rid of subjectivity? What you’re talking about downplays the importance of the subject’s intention, the subject’s intentional relationship to language as an intimate or personal experience, but subjectivity is really interesting, right?
Kenneth Goldsmith: You can’t avoid it. What I choose to appropriate and reframe and distribute all expresses my own subjectivity as much as anything I could possibly write. How could it be otherwise? You go back to Duchamp: every object he chose to appropriate expressed his own sensibility, subjectivity, and taste, hence the success of his approach. It’s both deeply personal and deeply impersonal at the same time. I strive for the same balance.
My purpose here is not to implicate Goldsmith, or any particular conceptual poet, but rather to note how pervasive subjectivity really is. To mistake an absent pronoun for an absent subjectivity is politically problematic, as it feeds into, rather than dispelling, arguments about poetic privilege and the cult of the self.
As Bedient notes above, fear of subjectivity does not necessarily lead to a politically better poem.