Conceptual Poetry

The discipline of decoding the world’s replies to our questions is basically a poetic discipline.

Experimental. Abstract. Or misunderstood?
Conceptual Poetry is an art form as unique as it’s controversial. It’s a world where white space takes precedence, bringing a concept to life.
Beware, this form of writing asks a lot from you, dear reader, and all I can do is to advise: Don’t give up. Twist and turn your perspective, and engage with the piece. It’ll reward you in so many ways, much more than the concrete settings of Victorian verse could do.

It’s the essence in thought.

What is Conceptual Poetry?

Conceptual poetry is not just one form of specific writing but the term covers a range of poetry, from visual poetry within the ideas of Concrete poetry to Oulipo (which is based on the idea of restraints in writing).

Conceptual poetry (ConPo), also often referred to as conceptual writing, focuses on the material essence of language and this style of writing is often quite complex and well organized.

Conceptual poem in Ipseity
Conceptual poem in my book Ipseity

While there are also other concept art forms out there, when it comes to conceptual poetry, we talk about concept poems.

A concept poem is essentially either a single poem or a series of poems that are linked by a central thought, character or subject. These poems are usually read as a series, and even if they stretch across several pages or an entire book, it’s important to see each page as part of the whole.

My own art emerged out of Concrete poetry and slowly shifted into more visual forms of writing, together with photography and other collage elements. As an artist, conceptual writing has one big advantage: it allows you to blur the lines between different art forms, and integrate the word with the visual.

Blurring genres also means that artists can use different techniques and technology to create some fascinating results.

As it covers a number of experimental pieces, conceptual poetry is part of conceptual art where the concept or overall idea takes precedence over the individual text, photography or other visuals.

But conceptual writing does not just combine other genres to bring across an overall message. It also questions the meaning and essence of poetry itself, and therefore also the artist’s self.

Some critics even say that this way of drawing attention to the meaning of art itself also fundamentally questions the role of the audience in art. Conceptual poetry challenges how both the artist and the reader relate to the artwork.

Where does the term “Conceptual Poetry” come from?

The term conceptual poetry was first mentioned in The UbuWeb Anthology of Conceptual Writing by Craig Dworkin and Kenneth Goldsmith in 2003.

Five years later, famous poet and writer Marjorie Perloff organized a lecture called Conceptual Poetry and Its Others. Since then, a number of other writers and poets, including Robert Fitterman, Derek Beaulieu and Vanessa Place, have also used conceptual poetics to describe this art form.

One thing to note about the conceptual poetry movement is that it emerged mostly out of the American academic scene. While some writers followed other avant-garde movements, the majority of conceptual writers had a traditional academic background.

Specifically, a lot of Language poets, such as Ron Silliman and David Antin, who were originally focused on writing poems that had the reader at their core meaning, also chose to try their hands on conceptual writing. This is not surprising because Language poetry asks the reader to analyse the text and create its meaning, which fundamentally is an idea at the heart of conceptual writing.

The main principles of Conceptual Poetry and Conceptual Art

There are three main principles that describe conceptual poetry very well, and you can also apply some of them to conceptual art generally.

Everything is word (or not)

Although conceptual poets are moving away from text and words as the focus point, they use some techniques to make sure that text steps into the background distorting our normal way of reading.

For example, artists might erase or copy words. It’s also very popular to replace and repeat words to create a certain “stuttering” effect. You can see this done very subtly in some of my favourite poet’s works, Susan Howe.

The writing process revealed

conceptual poem from ipseity
Conceptual poem from my book Ipseity

Even Freud could not quite figure out the exact working processes of the mind when we create but one thing is definitely clear: we are always affected by our culture and what tools we have available for the creation process. This has never been more true than in the time with the rise of the internet, computers and smart devices.

Artists make use of all kinds of digital text, available photographic methods and visual image programs to manipulate photos and words bending them to their will and to match with the concept. This development has led to a much greater variety of text-based artwork.

Many artists have made the move towards digitalizing their art. This is one major reason why conceptual art has seen a new revival. There is a lot more possible today, without expensive equipment and it’s also less time-consuming. Saying this, digital text can give the work a more machine-like look which isn’t popular with every artist.

After all, there is something to be said for the authentic look of a typewriter font which simply cannot be so easily recreated with Adobe Photoshop or InDesign.

Authenticity is a big thing in art, so some artists have consciously decided to resist the digital evolution and chose to stick to more traditional writing methods, making their pieces look more handmade and spontaneous.

A challenged reading process

Much of what we artists create is really about ourselves, and how it makes us feel but that takes a lot of power away from the reader. The audience becomes anxious, wondering what the artist feels, instead of what they feel themselves.

Conceptual poem "Europa" from Lady of Poetry
Conceptual poem “Europa” © Lady of Poetry

Conceptual poetry tries to negate any of these emotional conflicts by focusing on the mind. How does the piece disrupt the normal reading process? And how does this disruption change what the reader is seeing in the artwork?

In this sense, conceptual poetry is one of the most difficult texts for readers to understand because these pieces cannot be just read like you would read a book of fiction. The reader is asked to think about the concept/idea of the work, and often this takes a lot more time than normal reading.

Whenever I talk about my conceptual poetry with readers, I often get the feedback that they read the book for a few minutes and then they have to put it away for some time to think about what they read. This always reminds me of how disruptive my artwork is to the normal way we read, and I begin to understand how important it is to “prepare” the reader for this process.

We often perceive a fluent reading experience as part of a positive moment, meaning that the book we read must be really good. But just because we can quickly read through a text, does that mean it also gives us what we want? I am sure you will agree with me here that we do not always read a text for pleasure.

Now, I am not suggesting that conceptual writing or art is not enjoyable but it certainly does require a lot more effort, for a greater gain to understand poetry, our own mind and its workings.

Influences on Conceptual Poetry

The influences on conceptual writing and poetry originate from its history which has developed as a part of avant-garde poetry, together with concrete poetry, Dada, Oulipo and Surrealism. All these forms of art show that conceptual art has emerged from a tradition of visual artists, who also chose to explore the use of words.

Just think of famous creators like Andy Warhol and Marcel Duchamp who are best known for their paintings and visual pieces but they often managed to add text and typography to their art.

What is the aim of conceptual poetry?

So, now that you know what conceptual poetry is and the principles it is based on, what is conceptual writing trying to achieve?

Broadly speaking, conceptual writing aims to engage the mind of its audience.

In traditional poetry, which is often based on recitals, the reader is focused on the sound and the emotions that are brought up with the text.

Conceptual poetry tries to break with this tradition in different ways, for example, some conceptual art combines visuals and words disrupting the natural flow of text, and at the same time making the piece feel like a physical thing (such as a photograph) that we want to engage with.

But this engagement doesn’t happen on an emotional basis. The concept poet does not want the reader to conjure up emotions, instead he should concentrate on how the individual parts of the artwork interact with each other, and how the reader sees his place in this interactive play.

Examples of Conceptual Poetry

The below conceptual poetry examples cover a wide range of topics and forms. Some also use a mix of English, Latin and other languages to express a core idea and thought.

Death in depth

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Death in depth
Conceptual Poetry © Lady of Poetry

Final Thoughts

Many critics already talk about a second wave of conceptual poets that fall into the category of post-conceptual poetry.

Conceptual poetry, conceptual writing and conceptual art are flexible enough to adapt to the way artists work, and I hope that many more readers will discover this type of writing as their favourite way of daydreaming.