The Unicorn Paradox: An Epistolary Essay on Lyric Poetry

by on Aug.09, 2013

August 7, 2013 


Last night I spent a long time in a hammock in the foothills of some mountains beneath the Perseid meteor shower. I was thinking about lyric poetry and I was thinking about technology; I had let my phone die and then I did not look for a charger. There was no cell service or internet regardless, and I wanted to have an unimpeded closeness with the natural. Back on the internet, where this text will ultimately reside, there has been a lot of talk about Lyric versus Conceptual Poetry. Because I have no internet I can not directly address any of the specific things that have been said, and I am glad.

For a few months now I’ve been trying to think theoretically about unicorns. I was not at the bar when the friend of a friend said that unicorns must be a little suicidal, but since then I have been thinking about the relationship between suicide and immortality. As an immortal the death drive is a luxury, a tantrum. There is only the slope from the top of the hill; futility.

Perhaps all acts of art-making are gestures in the direction of the death drive. The Lyric is trying to kill something. The assertion of an “I” is a violence. The violence is done to language and the page and the addressee as well as the writing self — no victims are spared, no trauma is unreasonable. The assault is accepted because the stakes are so high: what’s offered as reward is some iteration of the divine. The act of writing lyric poetry, of manipulating the fabric (language) of subjectivity, is an enormous assumption. It requires a rakishness or recklessness, particularly with regard to the emotions of others. Because the deliberate articulation which is characteristic of the lyric is so manipulated, it becomes manipulative. What passes through language is desire; emotion and desire are, at their closest meeting point, the same.

Conceptual Poetry does not set out with this same intention. Rather than straining something through a mesh it creates a faux-solid, a facade. Notions of interiority are irrelevant because apathy is fundamental; there’s nothing inside, there’s not supposed to be anything inside.

Death and apathy are close, barely a border between them. Conceptualism as a movement in art is a response to the deadness of Art. It is urban, it is reactionary. Its relationship to natural form takes a step towards the uncanny. It is the purged and the purgative. Art post-death is an existential edge.

There is pleasure in an empty box in that it can be a vehicle for the creation of furthermore elaborate imaginary boxes, until they become not boxes at all anymore — this is the lyric impulse. The conceptual impulse is to dwell upon the object’s qualities of box-ness and emptiness. This is a purity. But we cannot confuse it with the mantra of “no ideas but in things.” Where Williams sought to abstract from the object, conceptualism strives to prohibit abstraction. There is nothing going on here other than exactly what is going on; not what you see, what is.

The conceptual posits an always-already dead, squaring off against the reluctant vivacity of the lyric. In both instances we see examples of the Unicorn Paradox: the conceptual can’t kill itself because it is already dead, the lyric cannot kill itself because it is immortal.


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