Tag Archives: kenneth goldsmith

Reading poetry and writing about it

This blog started at the end of March last year primarily as a means to think out loud and because I enjoy writing. I wasn’t that bothered about other people reading it but felt that it would do me good to air my thoughts in a more presentable way than jotting them down in a notebook. I’ve decided that it might be useful (for me) to put together the results of this process particularly with regard to how my thinking has changed over this period.
The first thing to note is that I enjoy writing about poetry and that my encounters with poets that were new to me have been especially rewarding. Before starting this blog I was entrenched in Spenser, Milton, Marvell, Celan and Geoffrey Hill and was reasonably content to spend the rest of my life delving further into their work. I had a view that poetry was somehow important but didn’t want to work out why- I was content with the pleasure that it gave me.
I then decided to pick up my Bloodaxe edition of J H Prynne and try to re-evaluate what he’s trying to do. Early in the blog I’d written about the difference between difficulty and what I described as ‘wilful obscurity’- placing Prynne firmly in the latter camp.
Having read a couple of the poems I decided that I might need some help and was appalled to discover that most of the critical stuff on Prynne was more obscure than the work with the one exception of Keston Sutherland. I also discovered that Prynne is a great admirer of Charles Olson.
Looking back, I can now see that I wouldn’t have pursued this any further were it not for the fact that there was enough in Prynne’s work to keep me interested- his left wing stance, his commitment to collide head on with the unwitty circus, his ability to subvert convention in a consistent manner were sufficient to encourage further exploration.
I bought ‘The Maximus Letters’ and was immediately impressed, I read it twice straight through but couldn’t see any obvious influence on Prynne.
During this time I was reading and re-reading a couple of Prynne poems and became interested in what they were doing to my thought processes, the shifts in time, the use of ordinary speech, the various commands all combined to challenge the way that I thought about poetry. I also spent a lot of time with the OED.
One feature of the poetry scene that I found difficult is the factional in-fighting that goes on between the numerous camps. I didn’t consider this to be productive and decided not to write about those poets that I don’t like.
I then wrote something about an essay on Hill by Tom Day that drew a lengthy response from Day who wasn’t pleased. The exchange became more productive but I did become aware of my tendency to write gratuitous one-liners and resolved to try and be a bit more considered in the blog.
At about this time I was alternating between brief bouts of severe depression and feeling okay (rapid cycling) which I found to be very disturbing and frightening. I found that by reading complex verse I could get some distance from the helter skelter ride that was going on in my head. I’m not saying that I found solace or comfort in reading poetry but that it did enable me to focus more on other things and reduce the level of fear.
I’d had a fairly long-held view that all forms of creative expression should by useful and interesting. This hasn’t changed but I’ve now thrown ‘challenging’ into the mix. I’ve found that I’m not that interested in stuff that simply confirms my view of things and am increasingly drawn to work that presents a different perspective. In short, I find I really enjoy arguing with poetry. I’ve also come to be more aware of technical skill.
I also write poetry and read poems with one eye on what I can make use of. There are some poets whose ideas and methods I can probably play around with but there others whose level of skill is simply beyond my reach – I want to write like Charles Olson and John Matthias but any attempt would be a very poor imitation.
Last December I purchased the most recent Prynne poems and most of Keston Sutherland’s output. I then threw myself into ‘Streak~~Willing~~Entourage~~Artesian’ with some gusto and that process continues to this day. What I like about this sequence is its austerity and the fact that it deals with complex issues. I’ve also found the reading process to be quite exhausting so I’m now limiting myself to a few hours per week which is still like having your brain turned inside out.
At the same time I started with Sutherland and was immediately drawn to ‘Stress Position’ which I’ve written about at length. It’s certainly the most inventive work that I’ve read in years and has made/forced me to re-consider my view about political poetry. Until reading Sutherland I was of the view that politics isn’t a fit subject for poetry, that it comes across as preaching and that poets make poor ideologues. I think ‘Stress Position’ has demonstrated that political poetry doesn’t have to be agit-prop and it can be interesting. Whether it makes a blind bit of difference is another question.
I also looked at ‘Preferences’ by Neil Pattison and this is a collection that has stayed by my side along with ‘Streak Willing’ and ‘Stress Position’. As with Prynne I’m still trying to construct the threads but I find Pattison’s voice both unique and compelling.
Early in the year I ‘discovered’ the work of John Matthias and was immediately attracted to his skill and inventiveness. He has a very broad range and has produced a formidable body of excellent work over the past forty years. I wrote about one of his poems and he responded- prodding me gently in the direction of David Jones who has been a complete revelation. Matthias has been very supportive of the Arduity project for which I’m grateful.
In April I sold the business that I was involved in and found myself with more time on my hands. I decided to start Arduity because I felt that there needed to be some non-academic point of access to difficult work and because I hoped to encourage other readers to make their own contributions. I applied for an Arts Council grant which has recently been turned down (on the grounds of financial viability) but that hasn’t stopped me adding more content and trying to build up more of a web presence. The project has also enabled me to think more clearly about how best to share my enthusiasm for difficult material.
I must also mention the work of Kenneth Goldsmith who has almost made me change my mind about conceptualist verse. I recall the astonishment when I opened ‘Traffic’ and it (and his other stuff) continues to make me think although not in the way that he probably intended.
I’ve read a few critics in the last twelve months and have been pleased to discover that some write very well. Sutherland is very good on Prynne, as is Derrida on Celan. Prynne’s ‘Field Notes’ is a remarkable document and I’m still absorbing his recent work on poetry. I’m beginning to get my brain around Hugh Kenner, Maurice Blanchot and having another attempt at Heidegger on poetry.
I’m also a bit conscious of becoming an elitist reader. Most of my poetry reading friends view this tussle with difficulty as overly intellectual and a bit snobbish, as if I’ve entered some esoteric coterie. I try to balance this charge in my head by continuing to read less difficult stuff (Bishop, Stevenson, Muldoon etc.) but it still lingers.
So, I no longer think that Prynne is wilfully obscure, I’m more tolerant of political poetry, I continue to despair about the state of poetry and its perception in the wider world, I’m more appreciative of technical skill and of the power of poetry to change people’s lives. I’m also very grateful to those who’ve made a valuable contribution to this blog.
The other aspect of writing this blog is that I feel a kind of responsibility to the work that I describe. It would be easy to do the undiluted enthusiasm thing but that would be dishonest. However, by expressing reservations (as with ‘Stress Position’ and ‘Preferences’) do I put readers off looking at what I consider to be important work?

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Kenneth Goldsmith and the words problem

A few months ago I wrote in praise of Goldsmith’s transcriptions of weather reports, traffic bulletins and sports reports. At the time, being ignorant, I hadn’t heard of Goldsmith but now I’ve discovered that he’s a regular contributor to the ‘Harriet’ blog on the Poetry Foundation website. Scrolling through his posts, I came across one entitled “Provisional Language” which seems to combine a bit of a rant with a manifesto for his work.

“Where once the craft of writing suggested the coming together — possibly forever — of words and thoughts, it is now a transient coupling, waiting to be undone; a temporary embrace with a high probability of separation. The industrialization of language: because it is so intensely consumed, words are fanatically produced and just as fervently maintained and stored. Words never sleep; torrents and spiders are hoovering language 24-7.”

Goldsmith’s thesis starts from the fact that anyone connected to the net has access to an ever-increasing amount of words and the capacity to store enormous amounts of information. He points out that this has resulted in language itself becoming ‘provisional’ and debased, ready to be randomly discarded.

I’m not entirely sure that Goldsmith considers this development to be a Bad Thing, he points out that we are daily confronted by a blizzard of text and that many contemporary writers are engaged in activity requiring the ‘expertise of a secretary with the attitude of a pirate’. I particularly like his observation that “an electronic Post-It universe imbues the new writing”.

Much of this struck a personal note with me, I’ve worked commercially with the internet for the last ten years and have noticed in the last year or so that the net has come of age- at long last academic and research organisations have learned how to properly store and index material so that it is genuinely available to all of us, sites like aaaarg.org have provided me with enough reading to occupy me for the next twenty years and social networking enables me to make connections across the globe. My latest creative project on the BSE and Bloody Sunday inquiries has also involved me in mining the archives for material that can be used in different ways.

I’m also of the view that the ‘too much information’ complaint isn’t particularly new. Newspapers have always created similar anxieties about masses of information which is then discarded so I don’t think the issue is as tied to new media as Goldsmith makes out. Whilst there is a huge amount of language on the web, there’s nothing to prevent us from exercising some discrimination in what we read.

Goldsmith’s creative work may be seen as a way of throwing language back at itself- of accumulating blocks of banal information that must of us don’t give a second thought to and repackaging it as ‘literary’ text for people like me to smile at and think about.  I don’t however think that this should be the only way to appropriate text. Whilst considering the feasibility of my project I sifted through many hundreds of pdfs I came across piece of information that was new to me (mainly about the behaviour of bullets and how proteins fold) which led me in a fairly disciplined way to understand how make the points I’m trying to get across. I would not have been able to do this five years ago without access to university libraries.

So, I don’t see that there’s anything new about the words problem but I do admire Goldsmith’s creative response. New technology is opening up information and knowledge in ways that we don’t yet understand and, with better indexing, the net will provide material for both the ‘new’ writing and greater context for the old.

Why didn’t anybody tell me about Kenneth Goldsmith?

Some time in November the essential Wood s Lot pointed me in the direction of UbuWebb which I’d visited before but never really looked at the content. Whilst looking around I came across a number of Goldsmith’s texts and suddenly the lights went on. By this I mean that the idea behind these pieces became immediately clear to me and the work seemed entirely appropriate to these complex and difficult times. I’m particularly struck by ‘Traffic’, ‘Weather’ and ‘Sports’ which are verbatim reproductions of radio reports in chronological sequence.

I’ve never been a fan of conceptual poetry (or art) but this combination of artlessness and plagiarism is strikingly different from most other conceptual stuff in that it isn’t trying to do anything clever or cute but to reflect and re-frame central aspects of the information age. Whilst this kind of appropriation isn’t at all new (Sloterdjik quoted a German who was making the same kind of point in 1927) but nobody has done with the same kind of relentless determination as Goldsmith.

Before ‘writing’ the above trilogy, Goldsmith transcribed everything he said for a week and published this as ‘Soliloquy’ and also noted every movement his body made for a day for ‘Fidget’.

I referred earlier to these texts as being artless, by this I mean that they aren’t invested with any kind of aesthetic value by Goldsmith but there is a longish tradition of this kind of thing in the art world. Goldsmith trained as a sculptor and is clearly influenced by Warhol and probably by Jasper John’s ‘Flag’ series. Both of these invited us to consider the mundane or the obvious in different ways by presenting them as art. Goldsmith invites the reader to think again about what is often aural wallpaper in our everyday lives.

Boredom is also an important element in Goldsmith’s work, as if the intention is to jolt us out of the twelve second attention span that mass media currently caters to. This is not to say that nothing happens, the weather changes, traffic jams move around, teams win and lose (even the the terms used in American sports are incomprehensible to us Europeans). Following these changes through is involving and I have found myself trying to visualise the effects of what is being reported. ‘Weather’ is taken from a New York radio station and consists of all the bulletins that were broadcast in 2003. In March of that year the US and its cronies invaded Iraq and the  station broadcast forecasts for the battle zone as well as New York. These lasted for three weeks and are included in Goldsmith’s text.

Several critics have fallen over themselves to draw comparisons between Goldsmith and Oulipo. This is an error in my view, Oulipo was a distinctly French and overly arch attempt to be clever that didn’t quite work- except for Perec’s ‘Life, a user’s guide’. I don’t see Goldsmith as having the same motivation.

To conclude, everyone must download all the Goldsmith texts from Ubuweb and play the audio files of him reading his work which are on Pennsound.  You won’t be disappointed.