I was most upset to miss the screening of the documentary on Kenneth Goldsmith, “Sucking on Words” at the British Library a couple of weeks ago. I meant to keep an eye out for the DVD, being as I am a huge fan of procedural, constraint-based, or ‘conceptual’ writing of which Goldsmith is a pioneer. Thankfully, the whole documentary has been made available for download on UbuWeb (350MB shocker – make sure you’ve got some tea to make, y’all).
The documentary itself is an exceptional insight into Goldsmith’s practice (several readings of short excerpts feature – arguably enough for most, as Goldsmith would attest) and a provocative discussion of the concept behind conceptual writing without ever becoming overly analytical. Goldsmith’s poetics shares the traits of other procedural poets in that it uses the ‘language of the everyday’ and places it into a formal box which allows it to stand out opaquely. Jena Osman, in her essay on Tina Darragh in Telling It Slant, explains the methods used by Darragh for opening up language from paradigms which render it transparent:
[... M]any of Darragh’s poems create liberating environments for words, places where “they can move / more than one way” (“Scale Sliding”). The liberation of these words does not negate their historical ties, however. Instead, the “freeing” activity dramatizes the way methods of transparency hide the social import of their vocabularies.1
Darragh’s, as with Goldsmith’s vocabularies, maintain the social contextual origin of their sources. Then, by taking this language which has been treated with an ordering system to be most efficiently filtered for use value, and placing it in new forms, or new systems, the language once again becomes stark, perhaps absurd, and foregrounds the previous system which was designed to be transparent. In some ways like Darragh, Goldsmith’s presentations of language do not fragment the semantic coincidences of the word / phrase, but present the flow of language in a way which disrupts such transparency. “I’m interested in the defamiliarisation of normative structures in language,”2 says Goldsmith in the documentary.
“This is what we do every day, all day long. Some of us call it writing, shifting material from one form into another [...] I believe that information management is the way we are writing now, and will continue to write in the future.”3
seems to echo the newly-defined role of the poet in an information society responsible for its own edited representation of history as discussed by Kristen Prevallet:
The poet is a researcher, investigator, interpreter, singer, and prophet who engages in an active relationship with the political, social, and cultural forces around him or her. [...] The poet is busy creating verse grids out of whatever materials are present before him or her at the time; the poet is an appropriator of sources, a thief of facts, a collage–creating scoundrel in a hyper state of awareness and inspiration. Flowcharts, newspaper articles, photographs, etymology, and ethnography become the raw materials for the poet’s unique assemblage.4
It is perhaps, therefore, unsurprising that these sources – which are used by Goldsmith in his practice, are themselves forms of editing, defined by what they don’t document. A photograph is conspicuous by its absence of temporal totality – literally a snapshot in time which not only asks what is either side of the time unit but also what are the reasons, circumstances for the taking of the picture in the first place – both of which are heavily socially weighted. Other textual documents represent a similarly edited–out culling of information for the sake of clarity. This, as Goldsmith recognises, often involves an objectively absurd simplification and realignment of information which is anything but the whole picture:
The absurdity of reducing meteorological occurrences to a one-minute reduction is the most useless and ridiculous thing in the world; this is the most complex system happens to be the weather system, the atmosphere which we breathe, and it’s reduced down to something that either aids or abets our commute.5
The cataloguing of such information, bringing it forward in new assemblages, presents not only a ‘punctum’ for the familiar soundbytes, but, subsequently, an often surprisingly entertaining poem.
Except of course, when it’s boring.
- Jena Osman, ““Multiple” Functioning: Procedural Actions in the Poetry of Tina Darragh,” from Telling It Slant, pp. 265-6 [↩]
- Goldsmith, “Sucking on Words [↩]
- Ibid [↩]
- Kristen Prevallet, “Investigating the Procedure: Poetry and the Source,” from Telling It Slant, pp. 115-6 [↩]
- Goldsmith, “Sucking on Words” [↩]