Writing in the New Inquiry, critic and poet Daniel Penny speculates about why more and more poetry has filtered into contemporary over the past few years. He suggests that it has something to do with poetry’s veneer of “anticommercial credibility,” which of course makes it ripe for art-market exploitation. Here’s an excerpt:
To my mind, the most interesting convergences of contemporary art and poetry do not occur when the art world dips into poetry but when poets like Lin, Bernstein, Low, Mackey, and others take up the techniques of artists, making work that succeeds as poetry and that can be disseminated as text rather than as rare art object. Publishing initiatives like Primary Information are reviving Fluxist strategies by putting out facsimiles of rare and hard to find artist books, eschewing “collectors who are dominating so many other parts of the art world,” as co-publisher Miriam Katz explains in an interview with Bomb. Their model corrects the art world’s fetishized scarcity. “I don’t think that books are meant to sit on somebody’s coffee table and never be read,” says Katz. “I think that they’re meant to be consumed and lent to other people.”
It’s unclear to me how much longer the art world will care about poetry. It may soon go the way of performance or dance and fade into the shadows of the contemporary art scene, only to be rediscovered in twenty years. If this relationship is to continue, I hope poets will keep a few things in mind.
“There is now a vast amount of artistic production that is temporal, discursive and post-object centered,” writes John Roberts in Revolutionary Time and the Avant-Garde. And this immaterial work is “identified explicitly with a whole range of non-artistic skills and activities (scientist, ethnographer, anthropologist archivist, teacher, engineer, activist).” If we agree with Roberts’s assertion that the avant-garde is moving toward practices that don’t look much like art, then poets are uniquely positioned to participate. If avant-garde artists are trying to dematerialize their work, then poets have already done it. If the avant-garde artists want to disseminate their work freely or cheaply and outside the gallery system, poets have been doing this with self-publishing and small presses for a very long time.
The question becomes: What kind of poetry will these fine art institutions embrace? Will poetry just act as a mask for fuzzy curatorial logic? Will the poetry presented in contemporary art institutions have to be contemporary itself, and will its inclusion canonize only those poets with art-world access?